Archive for February, 2014

Readers’ Advisory: Deafening, by Frances Itani

Saturday, February 22nd, 2014

Readers’ Advisory: Deafening, by Frances Itani (2003)

Synopsis: It is the eve of World War I. Set in a small Ontario town, Deafening focuses on Grania O’Neil, a young girl who lost her hearing at the age of five, thanks to scarlet fever. With the help of her grandmother, Grania attends the nearby School for the Deaf, and learns how to open up to the world. Eventually, she falls in love with Jim, a hearing man, and together they try to live with each other.

Then the war hits, and Jim is sent overseas as a stretcher bearer. Here the book veers between Grania and Jim, drawing a poignant comparison between Grania’s struggle to hear and Jim’s struggle to survive in the harsh world of the Western Front.

Deafening received critical acclaim, and for good reason: it presents a very vivid story, not just for Grania, who presents a unique point of view, but for Jim as well. Itani describes the war in vivid detail, with an emphasis on the dehumanizing effects of it. Set among such an unusual backdrop, the love story is definitely compelling for those who enjoy historical fiction or Canadian fiction. There is a wide variety of Canadian authors and Canadian fiction out there, and highlighting a Canadian work like this is a way to introduce people to literature they might not know about.

If you liked this book, you might also like…

The Cartographer of No Man’s Land, P.S. Duffy: Set both in a Nova Scotian fishing village and the front lines of World War I, this book explores the effects of the war on both fronts: through Angus, who signed up to find his brother-in-law, and through his sin Simon back home. This dual exploration of the war at home and overseas bares much similarity to the format of Deafening. If you liked the war aspect of Deafening, you might like this too.

The Way the Crow Flies, Ann-Marie MacDonald:  The story of eight year old Madeleine, living in an Air Force base near the border, and eventually, her adult search for a killer. Set in the sixties during the Cold War, this book is also historical fiction, though with a different bent. Based on the Steven Truscott case, the violence within may not be for everyone. MacDonald describes everything very vividly and elegantly, so if you’re interested in Canadian historical fiction, this might be worth checking out.


Goodreads: The Cartographer of No Man’s Land
Goodreads: The Way the Crow Flies


Readers’ Advisory: Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden

Sunday, February 16th, 2014

Memoirs of a Geisha, 1997

Synopsis: Chiyo Sakamoto is taken from her small fishing village at a young age, and sold to an okiya, a geisha boarding house. Her sister Satsu, however, is separated from her and sold elsewhere. Chiyo is trained from an early age to become a geisha herself, but the resident geisha, Hatsumomo, tries to thwart Chiyo, fearing she would overtake her as head geisha. Eventually, due to a series of mishaps, the head of the geisha house refuses to invest any further in Chiyo, forcing her to pay off her debt via working for the okiya.

This changes one day when Mameha, a rival geisha, pushes the head of the geisha house to reinvest in Chiyo, and takes her on as her apprentice. From there, Chiyo changes her name to Sayuri and begins working as a geisha, while the threat of World War II grows ever closer.

Rich and atmospheric, Golden goes into exhaustive detail about the life of a geisha and the culture of Japan, cleverly done by having an elderly Chiyo/Sayuri be dictating the events of her life to the reader as a memoir (it begins with a ‘translator’s note’ that establishes this premise.) So those who are unfamiliar with the culture of Japan, and geisha in general, should be able to follow along without much confusion. Golden also writes with very evocative language, painting a clear picture of Kyoto and the surrounding areas.

At times very introspective, this novel is more a look at Sayuri’s life than anything else, and would be well appreciated by readers who have a love of historical fiction, the history of Japan, or even stories about forbidden love.


If you liked this book, you might also like…

The Teahouse Fire, Ellis Avery: The story of a young American orphan adopted by a Japanese family during the Meiji Restoration, taken in by a family known for teaching the art of the tea ceremony. A detailed look at the culture of Japan, and particularly the massive changes underwent by Japanese society at the time. Like Memoirs of a Geisha, it delivers a vivid, atmospheric picture of Japan.

The Commoner, John Burnham Schwartz: A story of a young woman who marries into the restricted Japanese Imperial Family, and finds herself at the whims of the Empress. She must change herself to try and survive such a bureaucratic household, and the novel details her life. Much as Memoirs of a Geisha explored the lives of geisha through one, The Commoner also examines a mysterious and little-known topic, the Chrysanthemum Throne, and provides a fictionalized glimpse into this life.

The Valley of Amazement, Amy Tan: Dealing with courtesans in turn of the century Shanghai and San Francisco, this novel outlines the connections between three generations of women. Though this does not deal with Japan, Tan offers a very atmospheric novel documenting how ancient practices are being threatened by a modernizing society, in a similar manner of Memoirs of a Geisha.

Geisha, A Life, Mineko Iwasaki with Rande Brown: Though this is not fiction, the author having worked as an actual geisha, this biography does certainly provide another detailed look at the world of geisha. Golden used Iwasaki as a reference when writing Memoirs of a Geisha, but apparently misrepresented certain aspects of the culture, so Iwasaki wrote Geisha, A Life in response. Very detailed, vivid, and certainly authentic; thanks to its close ties with Golden’s book, fans of one may well appreciate the other.


Goodreads: The Teahouse Fire

Goodreads: The Commoner

Goodreads: The Valley of Amazement

Goodreads: Geisha, A Life


Readers’ Advisory: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Saturday, February 8th, 2014

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins (2008)

Synopsis: Katniss Everdeen lives in the poverty-stricken District 12 of Panem, a futuristic North America. Every year, a male and a female Tribute are picked from each District to compete in the titular Hunger Games. When Katniss’ younger sister Primrose is selected as that year’s District 12 Tribute, Katniss volunteers to take her place in the Games.

Finding herself pitted against twenty-three other Tributes, in a hellish arena designed to mimic both natural and unnatural weather conditions, Katniss struggles with both the difficulties of the arena and her own emotions.

The Hunger Games is a popular series right now, and it’s not hard to see why. Though Collins’ novel is set in a dystopia world, she blends action sequences with more romantic subplots. For those who like critical analysis, the plot itself provides plenty to think about, particularly with the concept of the Hunger Games themselves – a fight to the death for the Tributes, but entertainment for the wealthy citizens of the Capitol.

The novel does not shy away from violence, which may not be to every reader’s tastes. But for those who don’t mind, the novel offers a fast-paced plot, with plenty of action and drama. Told through Katniss’ point of view, the reader is offered an intimate glimpse into the workings of her mind. Overall an entertaining book.

If you liked this book, you might also like…

Divergent by Veronica Roth: in a dystopian Chicago, 16 year old Beatrice Prior must choose which segment of society to join for he rest of her life, with the choice being between staying with her family, or being who she really is. It has a similar theme of competition, action mixed with drama, and a dystopian world.

Girl in the Arena by Lise Haines: Lyn is a gladiator’s daughter whose family is deeply involved in the world of televised blood sports. But when her father is killed in the arena, Lyn must fight back, possibly to the death. The concept has similarities to the televised Hunger Games, and the idea of one girl fighting to the death.

Blood Red Road by Moira Young: a young girl, Saba, sets to free her kidnapped brother in a ruined world. Throughout her trials, she discovers she is a fierce and cunning fighter with the potential to bring down her corrupt world. The dystopian element is also present, and the main character is a fierce fighter embroiled in a society wide battle, similar to Katniss.

Goodreads: Divergent
Goodreads: Girl in the Arena
Goodreads: Blood Red Road

Readers’ Advisory: Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman (1996)

One night, while Richard Mayhew and his fiancée are travelling to dinner with her boss, they come across a strange young woman, named Door, bleeding on the pavement. Taking her back to his apartment to recuperate, he quickly finds himself disconnected from the London he knows: people don’t notice him, ATMs refuse to read his debit card, and his apartment is even rented out while he’s in the bath! It soon comes to light that Door is a part of London Below, a strange world co-existing with Richard’s London, where people tend to ‘fall through the cracks’. By helping Door, Richard has made himself part of London Below too.

The problem is, Door is searching for information on who ordered her family to be killed while still on the run from their assassins. But with no other recourse, Richard is forced to join Door and her companions, the Marquis de Caraberas and the bodyguard Hunter. They only have one clue leading them, left by Door’s late father: Find the angel Islington.

Neverwhere is Neil Gaiman’s first foray into novel writing, having previously been known for the graphic novel series Sandman, and it is a story rich with details. Gaiman’s propensity for dark humour is in full force here, as there are places such as Earl’s Court, a subway car where a medieval Earl does indeed hold court; a monastery of Black Friars exists; and Night’s Bridge is a mysterious and slightly feared bridge. For those without extensive knowledge of the London subway system, those names might not have the impact they would to a native Londoner, as they are all based off of subway station names. The book provides a map of the London Underground in that case.

Though this is not the typical high fantasy most might think of when they hear the genre, Neverwhere is an excellent example of urban fantasy – where fantastical elements and mundane collide. Gaiman’s writing is relatively fast-paced, with a layer of whodunit mystery on top of it all. It is a skilful blend of genres, and might be enjoyed by those who enjoy urban fantasy.

If you liked this book, you might also like…

King Rat, by China Miéville: a fantastical book set in modern-day London, it blends many magical, mythological, and modern elements in the same way Neverwhere does.

Un Lun Dun by China Miéville: though this book is young adult, it contains many themes similar to Neverwhere, replete with an alternate London. With an engaging world and lively prose, this would also be recommended even if the genre isn’t the exact same.

Winter’s Tale, by Mark Helprin: set in a fantastical New York, it has the same urban fantasy elements as Neverwhere. Tonally it is similar to Neverwhere.

A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin: fantasy in the modern day, it follows an “urban sorceror” around an alternate London. Has many of the same fantastical-meets-modern elements that permeate Neverwhere.


Goodreads: A Madness of Angels

Goodreads: King Rat

Goodreads: Un Lun Dun

Goodreads: Winter’s Tale


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