Be Ready for the Lightning: a riveting sophomore novel

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What I read

Be Ready for the Lightning by Grace O’Connell

What it’s about

Veda has always been close with her brother, Conrad. Even when Conrad begins getting into fights–behaviour that is inexplicable even to him–Veda is by her brother’s side, taking care of him. But when one of Conrad’s fights results in Veda getting injured, she leaves her hometown of Vancouver and moves to New York for a fresh start. It’s here, in Manhattan, that Veda ends up taken hostage while travelling on a city bus.

But this isn’t a novel that just follows a series of events. It’s a story about a brother and sister, a group of lifelong friends, and a thirty-something woman who comes to recognize her own power and strength.

Why I picked it up

I read O’Connell’s debut novel, Magnified World, when it came out a few years ago. O’Connell has been on my radar since then. When I read the first page while browsing in Book City on the Danforth, I was sucked in, and so, of course, I bought the book.

What I liked about it

This novel grabbed me and didn’t let go. There are a lot of things that happen, and even though I was often surprised, the story remained believable.

The way O’Connell structured the novel was wise, too. The story weaves between time periods–from Veda’s life before the hostage situation to after–which played a part in keeping me hooked.

As far as the characters go, not only was I interested in the sibling relationship between Veda and Conrad, but I also liked how the story followed a group of friends and how their dynamic changed from childhood into adulthood.

You’ll want to read it if…

Be Ready for the Lightning is a quick read and a book you won’t want to put down until you get to the end. It’s a great summer read (and there’s still a bit of the season left). Fans of thrillers and suspense novels will enjoy this book. It’s full of dramatic moments, and the scenes on the bus are particularly cinematic. But it’s also a great choice if you’re interested in reading about sibling relationships and friendships and exploring those dynamics. And if you’re a supporter of CanLit, this is a novel you’ll be happy to pick up, too.

Recommended refreshments

Pancakes, like the ones Veda’s friend Al makes for her and his wife when Veda is staying with them in Manhattan. (And if you can have a friend make them for you, too, that’s even better.)

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The wonder of wandering in Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse

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What I read

Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin

What it’s about

Flâneuse is a non-fiction book that looks at women exploring cities by foot. The book follows historical figures such as Jean Rhys, George Sand and Virginia Woolf and examines how walking in cities affected their lives and their work. Elkin also describes her own experiences walking in cities. But, ultimately, the book is about finding your way and finding a place of your own.

Why I picked it up

It was several months ago when I first read something about Flâneuse online. As a woman who loves to walk in cities, I knew I had to read this book. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, but I’ve been wanting to branch out with the books I choose to read, and this one sounded like a good fit.

It wasn’t easy for me to find Flâneuse, though. I saw conflicting Canadian release dates for it, so I wasn’t totally sure when I’d be able to get it. I searched a couple of bookstores and the city’s library system before I recently came across a copy at Queen Books.

What I liked about it

I love how this book crosses genres–that it’s not entirely a cultural study nor a biography of famous women and yet it’s not entirely a memoir either. I love that it is all of these things and more. Flâneuse made me think about my own relationship to walking and about my own search for place.

Elkin’s writing style is a delight. The prose is lovelier than I expected it would be. (I suppose I thought the writing would be more journalistic.) In Flâneuse, there are certainly some well-written descriptions of cities and characters, but there are also wonderfully crafted passages describing the author’s own personal path.

You’ll want to read it if…

You don’t have to be a woman or a walker to enjoy Flâneuse, but I think identifying as both of these may have had some influence on just how much I absolutely adored this book. But any reader interested in literal and metaphorical journeys should pick up Flâneuse.

Recommended refreshments

Paris is featured prominently in this book, so it seems like I should recommend a French pastry of some sort (a good accompaniment for any book). But what I’m craving the most after reading Flâneuse is the food Elkin came to love while she was in Tokyo: katsudon and okonomiyaki. (I think I’ve convinced myself to get Japanese food for dinner tonight.)

The Nix: an engaging novel about the things that haunt us

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What I read

The Nix by Nathan Hill

What it’s about

University professor Samuel Andresen-Anderson hasn’t seen his mother, Faye, since she abandoned him as a child. But when Faye is arrested for attacking a politician, the media digs into Faye’s past, revealing details that contradict what Samuel remembers about her. It has been more than 20 years since she’s left her family, but now Faye needs Samuel’s help, and Samuel needs to find out which version of his mother is real.

The narrative alternates between 2011, 1988 and 1968, and, while primarily dealing with Samuel’s perspective, it also switches to the point of view of others in Samuel’s and Faye’s lives.

It’s a story about a mother-son relationship, but it’s also about understanding other people’s stories in order to understand our own. It’s also about how our past can haunt us, and how our pain can be passed on to others in our lives.

Why I picked it up

I’d heard about The Nix, but it wasn’t until a fellow book club member nominated it that I really considered reading it. The Nix wasn’t selected for our book club, but I became curious enough to read it anyway. At the time, I was also craving a longer contemporary novel to immerse myself in, and it seemed like this one would fit the bill.

What I liked about it

Reading this book was quite an enjoyable experience. For one thing, it’s entertaining. I was impressed with Hill’s ability to write humour so well, and also with his ability to balance the humour with some more serious content.

Hill also did an amazing job of capturing the different voices of the characters. I especially enjoyed the voice of Laura, one of Samuel’s university students, and Pwnage, a master gamer who plays the same computer game as Samuel.

One warning: There are a lot of characters in this book, and I wanted to hear more from a lot of them. The one disappointment was feeling like the story ended before I got enough from some of them.

You’ll want to read it if…

At certain points while reading The Nix, I thought of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. This was largely because each book explores a childhood friendship between two boys that is central to the narrative, and because both stories involve a childhood crush that remains important to the protagonist in adulthood. Regardless of whether or not you liked The GoldfinchThe Nix is a great choice if you’re looking for a longer novel that’s easy to read.

Recommended refreshments

The green tea that Samuel orders at the airport coffee shop where he meets Guy Periwinkle, his editor and publisher. Or the cappuccino that Periwinkle orders. (As you can see from the photo above, I went with the cappuccino.)

Iain Reid’s debut novel is suspenseful and smart

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I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid

What it’s about

An unnamed narrator and her boyfriend, Jake, have been dating for a short time, but things are going well. They are driving out to Jake’s parents’ farm for dinner and to make introductions. From the very beginning, the woman tells us she’s having doubts, that she’s thinking of ending things. But she’ll at least make this trip and see if it changes how she feels.

The story takes place over one night, covering the drive to the farm, the dinner, and the beginning of the ride back. But when they take a detour on their way home, the road trip takes a terrifying turn.

This novel explores themes of individuality and connection with others. It asks questions about how relationships may change us and the benefits and harm that come with solitude. Are we our best selves when we connect with other people? Or can we only truly understand ourselves when we are alone?

Why I picked it up

I read Iain Reid’s other two books–both are memoirs–before he published I’m Thinking of Ending Things. His first book, One Bird’s Choice, tells the story of Reid moving back in with his parents when he was in his 20s. I loved this book and lent it to both of my parents. They enjoyed the book, too.

When I heard that Reid had published his debut novel and that it was a thriller, I thought it might make a good birthday gift for my mom, as I know she enjoys a good thriller and because she liked Reid’s first book. She read it quickly, and lent it to me the next time I saw her.

What I liked about it

This book is filled with discussion and ideas, but it doesn’t feel heavy or weighed down. In fact, the pacing is rather quick. The narration and conversations reveal information about the woman’s past and her relationship with Jake. There was just enough detail provided to keep me hooked, to keep me wanting to know more. Eager to have it all revealed, I read the novel in one day (and I bet it would have been in one sitting if I hadn’t had to work that day).

You’ll want to read it if…

This book is perfect for fans of psychological thrillers or readers who want a suspenseful novel they can read in one sitting.

Recommended refreshments

A lemonade from Dairy Queen, just like the drinks Jake and his girlfriend pick up on their drive home.

Exit West: a book worthy of its buzz

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What I read

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

What it’s about

Saeed and Nadia meet and fall in love while living in an unnamed city, in an unnamed country, in the midst of civil war. The couple are opposites in many ways, with Saeed being more conservative and Nadia being fiercely independent, but their differences complement each other.

As the violence in their country increases, the couple escapes by passing through a magical door. They’ve heard about these doors and know that by going through one, they will end up in another part of the world, but they won’t know where until they’ve reached the other side.

The novel is interspersed with scenes of others who are fleeing conflict via these magical doors, arriving in places unknown to them, where there is no wartime violence.

This is a story of migration, both in a geographical and in an emotional sense, of the search for a place of belonging,  for a home. It’s about how people and places change, how people can change places and how places change people.

Why I picked it up

I’d heard a lot about Exit West before I read it. I saw several reviews and noticed the title popping up on many “best new books” lists.

When books get a lot of attention, I sometimes get wrapped up in the excitement and can be disappointed by a book that couldn’t possibly live up to my unreal expectations. I thought this might happen with Exit West, and so I hesitated to read it right away.

Then I went to see Hamid discuss the book at the Toronto Reference Library. Hearing the author talk about the concepts and themes solidified my interest in reading this book, and a friend kindly lent me her copy.

What I liked about it

Saeed and Nadia are interesting characters. They are clear individuals, with their own distinct personalities and voices, but together their bond makes them a strong unit. I liked that Hamid plays with gender expectations, with Nadia the independent one living on her own, who tries to convince Saeed to have sex with her, while Saeed lives with his parents and wants to wait.

But my favourite part of this book is the way that Hamid writes. The voice of the narrator has such wonderful rhythm and pacing. The prose is filled with long sentences which are punctuated perfectly so that they wind and flow but never lose the reader. And then there are descriptions of a life in a conflict zone, which I am grateful I do not have personal experience with, but the writing here touched me as if I were looking through a window into that world.

You’ll want to read it if…

One of the reasons this book is getting so much attention is because of its timeliness. Hamid didn’t plan this, of course, as the book was written before Trump and Brexit were dominating the headlines. But this well-written story about refugees and globalization makes it a book everyone would benefit from reading right now.

However, this is also a love story. It’s the story of the relationship between Saeed and Nadia. Readers who enjoy literary fiction about romantic relationships between two characters should read this book.

This is a great novel for a single sitting. If you have an afternoon to dive deep into a book–and perhaps also have the evening available to give the story some thought–Exit West is an excellent choice.

Recommended refreshments

Chinese food, just as Saeed and Nadia shared on their first real date.