Simultaneously conspicuous and invisible: a review of The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez

Different motivations prompt immigration to the United States in Cristina Henríquez’s ambitious novel The Book of Unknown Americans.

Unknown Americans

“I couldn’t help but think of how in Pátzcuaro Arturo used to come home at midday and sit at the kitchen table, eating the lunch I had spent much of the morning preparing for him. Soft tortillas that I had ground from nixtamal, wrapped in a dish towel to keep them warm, a plate of shredded chicken or pork, bowls of cubed papaya and mango topped with coconut juice or cotija cheese. . . And now this? This was where I had brought him?

– The Book of Unknown Americans, Cristina Henríquez

Different motivations prompt immigration to the United States in Cristina Henríquez’s ambitious novel The Book of Unknown Americans. The Riveras arrive in Delaware from their comfortable, happy home in Mexico with the hope that their brain-damaged daughter Maribel will find help at a special school. The Toros emigrated years ago from Panama. They try to cope with alienation in their new and from their old ones, loss of identity and hope, while finding the profound importance of community.

Unknown Americans plays against the idea of America as the promised land for people running from social or political upheaval, or people running toward a shining dream of success in a different country. For the most part, the legal immigrants of the story have left loving homes, strong cultural and familial ties, and steady jobs, for an uncertain future. Henríquez alternates the point of view between Maribel’s mother Alma and the Riveras’ teenaged son Mayor to move the story forward, interspersing short interludes told from the points of view of other neighbours in the apartment complex.

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Audiobook review: Veronica Mars: The Thousand Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham

Veronica Mars

“’I thought you wanted information, Lamb. I thought you wanted to find these girls.’
He looked at the picture again, a conflicted expression flitting across his face. ‘Do you have any proof that this guy had any part in either disappearance?’
‘No, but he was seen with both girls just before they went missing. That’s enough to get him in for questioning.’
‘Is it? Suddenly you’re some kind of legal scholar?’
‘Uh, yeah.’ She smirked. ‘Suddenly I kind of am.’”

– Veronica Mars: The Thousand Dollar Tan Line, Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham

Veronica Mars might have spent the past ten years trying to escape her hometown of Neptune, California, but the irresistible pull of its seedy locals, its salacious scandals, and its deep, dark mysteries has drawn her back in. Veronica Mars began as a short-lived but beloved TV series, where the a plucky teenaged detective helped her single dad in the private eye biz, attempting to solve her best friend’s murder while working through her own deliciously melodramatic problems. Cancelled after three seasons, Veronica found new life as a feature film in 2014, which was funded by eager fans in the most lucrative Kickstarter campaign ever. But if you’re reading this, you probably already know all that.

Picking up shortly after the events of Veronica Mars the movie, The Thousand Dollar Tan Line kicks off a new book series and a new set of mysteries for Veronica to solve. Best of all, the first audiobook is narrated by Veronica herself, actress Kristen Bell. It’s spring break in Neptune, which means booze, bikinis, and 24-hour parties. When the disappearance of college freshman Hayley DeWalt is quickly followed by the disappearance of 16-year-old Aurora Scott, the corrupt and inept Sheriff Dan Lamb dismisses the case as out-of-town party girls who will eventually turn up. The Chamber of Commerce steps in to hire Mars Investigations, and the mystery takes Veronica on a twisty path and a confrontation from her past.

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All the hovering possibilities: a review of Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

Violent political realities in Sierra Leone and their lasting physical and psychological traumas form the backdrop of Michael Wuitchik’s gritty debut My Heart is not My Own. neck.

Frog Music

“By evening, the heat of the day has thickened like a smell. P’tit finally falls into a snuffling doze in her locked arms.
A tap at the door. . . Jenny Bonnet, the pool of purple around her eye faded to greenish yellow, the swelling gone down. It was only two days ago when the thug walloped her chez Durand, Blache calculates. That was in Blanche’s old life, before she brought P’tit home.”

– Frog Music, Emma Donoghue

San Francisco, 1876: During an unbearable heat wave and a dangerous outbreak of smallpox, Blanche Beunon bends over to unlace her boots and bullets fly over her head, killing her new friend Jenny Bonnet almost instantly. Blanche is sure her lover and his best friend are behind it, that the bullets were meant for her. Jenny, a prototypical coucher surfer who makes her living catching frogs for restaurants and has done jail time for her habit of wearing men’s clothing, was simply in the wrong place. But can it be more than that? From the notorious House of Mirrors where Blanche dances to Chinatown where she and her lover live, Frog Music draws a picture both bright and bleak of post–Gold Rush San Francsico and brings to life a real unsolved murder.

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Getting a callback: a review of Someday, Someday, Maybe by Lauren Graham

It’s the mid 90s, and Franny Banks is in New York City, trying to make it as an actor. She’s had a few successes–getting into a coveted acting class, working on a commercial, doing some theatre. But is it enough success to justify staying? Franny has given herself a three-year deadline.

Someday, Someday, Maybe

“I sit in the chair and do the monologue into the camera lens, my too-tight khakis split open in the back, my too-loose shirt gathered with an industrial-looking clamp sticking out from the middle of my back. From the front I look put together, but every other angle would reveal how false the front of me is, how much effort has gone into presenting a one-sided image of perfection.”

– Someday, Someday, Maybe, Lauren Graham

It’s the mid 90s, and Franny Banks is in New York City, trying to make it as an actor. She’s  had a few successes–getting into a coveted acting class, working on a commercial, doing some theatre. But is it enough success to justify staying? Franny has given herself a three-year deadline. If she can make it, really make it, as an actress in New York City by the end of those three years, she’ll keep at it. If she fails, she’ll go home and become a teacher like her dad. As the novel opens, Franny realizes she is six months away from her deadline and nowhere near fulfilling her dreams.

Debut author Lauren Graham is herself an actress who got her start in New York City. Beloved for her roles as Lorelai on Gilmore Girls and Sarah on Parenthood, it turns out Graham is no slouch at writing stories, too. Someday, Someday, Maybe is a light, charming novel, wonderfully witty and full of heart. Its setting allows for great moments of 90s nostalgia, from Franny’s dad asking her if she’s thought about “applying” to be on that Friends show everyone’s talking about to Franny’s religious use of her Filofax calendar. We get to see Franny’s actual calendar throughout the book, pages of her Filofax filled out in her handwriting and doodles (drawing of grass, note that said drawing is more interesting than her career at the moment; notes on meetings with agents, going for runs, grocery lists, doodled freakouts about possible dates). It’s a sweet way to put us directly in touch with Franny’s most private thoughts, and it’s also a cute nod to Bridget Jones’ Diary, an obvious influence.

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A few of her favourite things: a review of Mrs Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn

Sometimes, it’s not easy being the Queen of England. In William Kuhn’s Mrs Queen Takes the Train, set in the days before the latest jubilee and the 2012 Olympics, Her Majesty Elizabeth II finds herself growing a bit sad, fearing that she has grown obsolete.

Mrs Queen

“‘That’s only one hour and ten minutes from now,’ said The Queen, pointing at the figures with the pencil stub. ‘Tell the driver I shall be attending. Let him know, please.’

This was a bit too much, as far as the guard was concerned, but he gave her a nod of his head and relished what he’d tell the driver. . . . ‘Old lady in the last carriage keeping tabs on you. Gave her a timetable. Try and keep it on time, will you?'”

– Mrs Queen Takes the Train, William Kuhn

Sometimes, it’s not easy being the Queen of England. In William Kuhn’s Mrs Queen Takes the Train, set “several years ago,” Her Majesty Elizabeth II finds herself growing a bit sad. She fears that she has grown obsolete; she can’t quite get the knack of the computer and the Prime Minister is threatening to shut down the Royal Train because it’s an expensive relic. She wonders if she, too, is an expensive relic. Although she does find yoga quite relaxing, she is still vexed by how much her life is influenced by public opinion, which turned so bitter toward her after Diana’s death, and by the Government’s penny-pinching.

Feeling out of sorts she pops down to the Mews without a coat to check on her favourite horse, and while there a thoughtful stablehand lends her a hoodie to stay warm. The Queen discovers that with the hood up, she’s rather unrecognizable. And just like that, she decides to slip away from Buckingham Palace, first to pick up a bit of cheese and then to Scotland, where her decommissioned yacht Britannia is moored. Continue reading “A few of her favourite things: a review of Mrs Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn”

Prairie endings and beginnings: a review of Napi’s Dance by Alanda Greene

Snake Woman and Eleanor Donaldson live in two very different versions of the Canadian prairie in Alanda Greene’s debut novel Napi’s Dance. Snake Woman grows up at a time of upheaval. The palefaced people are making inroads into indigenous land, bringing with them weapons, alcohol, and values foreign to the Blackfoot people. Decades later, Eleanor falls in love with the wide open spaces and huge sky when her family moves from Aurora, Ontario, to a homestead in Medicine Hat, Alberta.

 “All this beauty given us, to move through across Napi’s great body to know the stories that guide us on a true path. We will fiercely fight to keep this.”

 Napi’s Dance, Alanda Greene 

Snake Woman and Eleanor Donaldson live in two very different versions of the Canadian prairie in Alanda Greene’s debut novel Napi’s Dance. Snake Woman, who begins the story as Snake Child, grows up in a time of upheaval. The palefaced people are making inroads into indigenous land, bringing with them weapons, alcohol, and values foreign to the Blackfoot people. As political strife and outside danger rips at the fabric of her world, Snake Child and her foster mother Mountain Horse are tasked by the mysterious Women’s Society with the honour and responsibility of hosting a Bundle Spirit in their lodge. Several decades later, Eleanor falls in love with the wide open spaces and huge sky when her family moves from Aurora, Ontario, to a homestead in Medicine Hat, Alberta. As the Donaldsons adjust to farming life in a sod house, they are visited by representatives of the Royal Ontario Museum who wish to bring Aboriginal artifacts back to Ontario, to preserve this dying way of life.

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The smell of chai and sadness: a review of Everything was Good-bye by Gurjinder Basran

The writing is lush and elegant. Basran really is “one to watch,” as she was proclaimed by the Vancouver Sun. Her characterization is superb, and her descriptions of smells are particularly evocative.

 “If only. Those two words have gathered like ghosts. If only my father hadn’t died, if only my mother had had sons, if only Harj had stayed, if only I hadn’t met Liam, if only he could have loved me…Once, when I was lamenting Harj’s departure, my mother told me that ‘if only’ was the beginning of new dreams made of old things and that only God could reincarnate our hopes into such a reality.”

 Everything was Good-bye, Gurjinder Basran 

I first heard about Everything Was Good-bye through an invitation to join Penguin Canada and the Chatelaine Book Club for an evening with author Gurjinder Basran. Having a chance to hang out in the Penguin offices, sipping wine, chatting with other bloggers, and listening to Gurjinder read from the book and then answer questions was a not-to-be-missed experience, and I suggest you read the great recaps on Nicole About Town’s  and Just a Lil Lost’s blogs.

I’ve since read Everything was Good-bye, and my reading was informed by Basran’s discussion of how she came to write the book and her own life experiences—almost like reading the book club guide and then reading the novel. Set in the 1990s, Everything Was Good-bye is the story of Meena, a first-generation Punjabi-Canadian struggling to find her place within her family, her cultural community, and Canadian society in general. While it grew out of a journalling project and was inspired by Basran’s life in many ways, the book is a work of fiction (one that was an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award finalist and that won Mother Tongue Publishing’s Search for the Great BC Novel Contest).

As a teenager and the youngest of six daughters, Meena’s life is overshadowed by the choices her older sisters have made. She’s something of an outcast, more interested in wearing jeans than salwar suits, in lining up to get a Simple Minds record autographed than going to yet another friend of a friend’s wedding party. And yet she’s also an outsider at school because she looks “different” and adheres to a different set of family and social customs. It angers her family that she spends time with Liam, a white boy and outsider in his own right, an artistic kid from a difficult home who feels just as lost as Meena does.

Spanning the time from Meena’s broken but beautiful romance with Liam in her late teens to her heartbreaking marriage in her thirties, the book offers gracefully drawn sketches of Meena’s life, moments of tragedy and sadness that are inescapable because of her upbringing. Continue reading “The smell of chai and sadness: a review of Everything was Good-bye by Gurjinder Basran”