Thirteen Reasons Why – #JNGReads

I want to start this review by stating that the reason behind my critiques and average rating of Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why is the writing style, and has nothing at all to do with the subject matter. I am a firm believer that suicide is absolutely something that must be discussed with and among young adults, and although I know the Netflix adaptation of the novel has received some criticism from parents and teachers for sensationalizing suicide, I feel strongly that this topic must be addressed and not avoided or feared. Young adults deserve for their anxieties and sources of depression to be acknowledged, and we also owe it to the young adult generation to encourage them to read texts and watch films and television shows that will draw their attention to the dangers of bullying, ridicule and prejudice, and that will encourage them to be mindful of their own actions and behaviours. These aren’t issues to shy away from, especially in our current age of social media, and I for one am very happy that there are authors like Asher out there who are eager to push the envelope and get people talking about tough and scary subject matter. For its unvarnished and unafraid portrayal of teenage depression, Thirteen Reasons Why gets a lot of respect from me.

Having said that, I could not give Thirteen Reasons Why a four-star rating, and that is mainly because I found it very hard to follow and felt myself constantly comparing it to another, very similar young adult novel that I read this year, Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver. Before I Fall deals with the topics of bullying and teen suicide and investigates them in just as much depth as Thirteen Reasons Why, but, in my opinion, it was a better book and the narrator Samantha Kingston’s voice was more unique and clear. I found myself becoming very emotionally and viscerally attached to Sam and her story, and, unfortunately, that profound connection was missing from my reading experience of Thirteen Reasons Why.

I think this is mostly down to the fact that Clay’s first-person narration of listening to Hannah’s tapes is inter-spliced with Hannah’s narration on the tapes themselves. I know that Asher was probably intending for this style to come across as a conversation between the two main characters, a way of meshing their voices, blending them, and offering a stream of consciousness sort of perspective to the reader, but I felt that the style just missed the mark here. Rather than building a bond between Clay and Hannah that I found devastating and tragic (which I believe was the intention), the constant oscillation between Clay’s thoughts and Hannah’s was incredibly jarring and took me right out of the narration on the tapes. I kept feeling as though my understanding of Hannah and the stories she related was being interrupted, almost as if I was reading along and then literally had a family member or friend or random person sitting beside me at Starbucks come bursting up and start talking to me of unrelated topics. It quite literally felt like having my reading distracted by external forces at times, and I found myself thinking that I wished Clay’s narration was omitted entirely. Although I found Clay to be a sweet and endearing character, most of that I gleaned from Hannah’s description of him on the tape devoted to him, and I think the entire novel could’ve offered a more seamless and moving experience if all that had been presented to the reader was a transcript of Hannah’s tapes and nothing more. I just never had a chance to connect to Hannah, to get to know her or live inside her skin, because every time I came close to empathizing with her, my attention was snatched away by Clay’s internal monologue and his own preoccupations, frustrations and sadness. I feel that Clay’s narration wholly and utterly diluted Hannah’s, and that is why I preferred Before I Fall, which was told in a truly emotional but concise and clear first-person style that encouraged and helped me to live in Sam’s shoes, to effectively reside in her head.

I don’t know how much of that made sense and how much of it merely verged on disgruntled rants and ramblings, but I have to say that I am disappointed by the writing style in Thirteen Reasons Why because it prevented me from feeling for and with Hannah. I guess that is the best way to sum up my feelings toward the novel: the subject matter was important and poignant, but the articulation of it was frustrating, confusing and disjointed, in my opinion.

The thing is, what’s tricky about critiquing Thirteen Reasons Why is that I almost feel bad or guilty for giving it an average rating because, like I said, the subject matter is anything but average. By saying that I didn’t like the way the novel was written, I fear that I may discourage some readers from picking it up, and I sincerely hope that is not the case. Thirteen Reasons Why is absolutely the sort of book I would encourage my teenage daughter or son to read, and I do believe that encountering this subject matter in written form is probably preferable to watching a TV show about it because the novel does at least provide more depth and intricacy than a visual medium would. Having said that, I would equally encourage my daughter or son to read Before I Fall, which I feel is a stronger novel – in either case, though, I would be willing and eager to enter this sort of conversation with my child and remind him or her that actions have consequences, that words and decisions affect and can hurt other people. That is the strongest lesson I took from Thirteen Reasons Why: none of us live in a bubble, what we do and say matters and has an impact on others. Even Hannah, who we may be inclined to view as a victim at first, chooses to release tapes that are damning and complicated and dark, and so she is also a contributor to the complex world of rumours and gossip and unreliable perspectives. Nothing is black and white or straightforward in Thirteen Reasons Why, and even the victims are guilty in many ways of their own (I’m thinking of the two tragedies that happen during the party Hannah describes at the end of her tape collection, and in which Hannah is at least somewhat complicit), and I believe this focus is what makes the novel so hard-hitting in the end.

One other criticism I’d like to address is something I read in some other reviews on Goodreads. I noticed that a few people have criticized Hannah for ending her life for reasons that these readers feel aren’t serious or valid enough. I find that sort of critique to be quite callous and unnecessary. The crucial thing to remember about anxiety and depression is that they follow no specific formula and are drastically different for each individual person who struggles with them. Speaking as someone who has dealt for many years with anxiety, I know that it is often “illogical” in the sense that there are few people who would understand or sympathize with why certain things give me anxiety, particularly when my mind is fixated on things that are so subtle and seemingly minor that they’d hardly concern anyone else at all. But that’s the thing, my mind works differently from everyone else’s simply because everyone has their own mind and their own way of seeing things, and I would never judge someone else for being nervous or worried about something that I myself could deal with or overcome. Mental health is so personal, and I think that the beauty of Thirteen Reasons Why is that it explores the fact that even the littlest and apparently most insignificant words and actions can have much more weight than we can imagine. So, if Hannah felt compelled to end her life because of her experiences with the people she mentions on her tapes, that is so sad and unfortunate and heartbreaking, but it is not for anyone to judge or justify. That’s just my feeling on that particular critique.

Overall, I encourage people to read Thirteen Reasons Why and to not be afraid to put it in the hands of their children. As long as the dialogue about it is open and honest, I feel there are more lessons to be learned from this novel than risks resulting from reading it.

❥❥❥ (out of 5)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

Before I Fall – #JNGReads

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver is probably one of the best young adult novels I have ever read.

I should qualify this statement by saying that I am very versed in the young adult genre. I’ve enjoyed reading young adult novels since high school, and even though I am really no longer a young adult by any standards, I still find novels geared at teenagers to be quick and enjoyable reads. For the most part, I’ve mainly encountered young adult novels that are light, airy and fun, but there have been those novels every now and then that blew me out of the water with how provocative they were (How To Love by Katie Cotugno, OCD Love Story by Corey Ann Haydu and Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld immediately come to mind, but there are many others of course).

Before I Fall has to be one of the hardest hitting young adult novels I’ve ever read, if not the hardest. One thing I have to say is that I was supremely lucky in that I was never bullied in high school. I wasn’t exactly popular and didn’t go to all the crazy parties, mainly because I was studious and more academically inclined, but I had a lot of acquaintances and many friends, several of whom I’ve held onto in my adulthood. I was also most certainly not a “mean girl”, and I never bullied anyone else, so I knew that Before I Fall would fascinate me because it would allow me to get into the head of the type of girl I never was in high school. And, I have to say, what I liked best about the novel was how vivid Sam’s first-person narration was. I truly felt as though I was inhabiting her mind and watching it process everything she was going through in real-time, and I think Oliver mastered Sam’s voice and made it very distinct and unique.

What was most breathtaking (and mostly in the sense of leaving the reader shocked) was how detailed Oliver’s descriptions of the actions of Sam and her friends was. Oliver picks apart every nuance of their “mean girl” personalities, and she provides the reader with just enough of a backstory for each of them to pull at the reader’s heartstrings. These characters left me very conflicted, and that was mainly because I knew so much about their troubled family and home lives, and could see firsthand how insecure and uncertain each of them were. Although it would’ve been easy, as a reader observing from an outside perspective, to hate Ally, Elody and especially Lindsay, it was hard to do so because I was so absorbed in Sam’s mind and her feelings for her three best friends seemed to stem from such a genuine place. I should explain – while I am absolutely not the type of person who could be best friends with a girl like Lindsay who would spread rumours about other students and ridicule them to the point of dangerous consequences, I somewhat began to understand why Sam was so close to her and loved her so dearly. Many of Lindsay’s actions are disgusting and reprehensible, but we are also given these wonderful descriptions of the moments when her and Sam are bonding like two average 17 year old girls, and it’s almost heartbreaking because it’s impossible to blame Sam for loving her best friend. She has grown up with her, and although she realizes throughout her journey in the novel that Lindsay is flawed beyond measure, she still can’t shake this connection to her. It’s sad in so many ways, but it’s also uplifting to watch Sam try to help Lindsay become a better person. I wish Sam had done more of that in the novel, but I also enjoyed watching Sam rediscover herself, and I don’t think I would change the moments of Sam’s internal healing for more moments of her with her friends in the end.

The main reason I picked up Before I Fall is that I saw the trailer for the soon to be released movie adaptation. It reminded me in many ways, probably due to the premise, of the film If I Stay, based on the novel of the same name. I didn’t get a chance to read If I Stay before seeing the movie, which I enjoyed very much, and I didn’t want to miss out on reading Before I Fall. When I found the book in the 40% Off Bestsellers section at my local supermarket, I mean, I couldn’t resist. I am very happy that I picked it up because I believe it is a book that undoubtedly needs to be read by as many young adults as possible. Hopefully more people who have read it, and those who see the movie, will spread the word because the approach Oliver takes to tackling the subject of bullying is extremely valuable in our day and age. There are far too many teenagers out there who are lost and crippled by self-consciousness and anxiety, and Oliver’s novel not only offers glimpses into the lives of these individuals, but also delves deeply into the thought process of the people who ostracize them. It really made me sick in many parts to read what Sam and her friends do to their fellow students, and it quite frankly shocked me to think that these are things that happen in schools everywhere. It’s simply revolting and it needs to stop, and I think that literature has the capacity to change society if enough people pay attention to and learn from it. There is much to be learned from Before I Fall and I would maybe even go so far as to say that it should be included as mandatory reading in grade 9 English classes.

The best word to describe Before I Fall, I think, would be haunting. It really does get under your skin, and you start to feel for the characters in ways you never expected. I highly recommend it to any young adults, and to parents of young adults, for that matter – there is so much to learn from the story!

❥❥❥❥ (out of 5)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

my green heart

Always – #JNGReads

I won’t be uploading a full post this week, for several reasons, but I did finish a book today and wanted to let you all quickly know what I thought of it. Here is the mini-review I wrote for Always by Sarah Jio on Goodreads

I was originally intending on writing a detailed review of this book, but I’m honestly a little confused by it (particularly the incredibly rushed ending), and I didn’t want to put something needlessly negative into the world. It just wasn’t my cup of tea, and although I had high hopes for it, it didn’t become a favourite. Rather than going into detail about why that’s the case though, I thought I’d focus on the positive, and leave my one favourite passage from the novel here instead…

“And then you meet someone who is different than your ex in almost every way, and you wonder if you can do it. You wonder if you can love the way you did so long ago. You’re not sure, but you try, and when you do, when you force yourself to go through the motions, you realize that your heart – asleep for so long – is groggily waking up, like a bear fresh out of hibernation. You’re alternately hungry and grumpy, disoriented, a bit lost. It surprises you when you feel the spark again. And though it might not burn as hot as it did so many years ago, as it did with the man who loved you when you were wide-eyed and twenty-five, it burns steadily now. It keeps you warm. And one day you start seeing rainbows again. One shines out your window at work. Another when you emerge from the grocery store. A double one fills up the entire sky when you’re having a glass of wine after a long day at the office. And that’s when you realize that your heart, beleaguered, weighed down with baggage of all kinds, is ready to try again. And so you do.”

Although the ending of the novel seemed to contradict and belittle this passage entirely, this one particular idea was very moving to me.

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

my green heart

Gillespie and I ~ Close Readings — #JNGReads

As I mentioned in both of my blog posts from last weekend (you can read them here and here), the end of 2016 sort of got away from me.  Although I spent the week before Christmas curled up at home or at the Starbucks across the street from my house, reading my current novel with ardor and interest, once Christmas hit, I was absorbed in family activities and spending time with SS, and I didn’t have much time to devote to my book.  I’m back at work now, though, and while that is depressing in many ways, it means that I will be getting back to my daily lunch breaks spent with my current read in the Starbucks just steps away from my office building.  (Needless to say, green tea is becoming a bit of an obsession for me!)

What is that current read? you may wonder.  Well, if you follow along with me on Goodreads, you’ll know that after reading a fun but surprisingly poignant novel Christmas at Tiffany’s, I delved right into a darker and more complex dramatic narrative.  I picked up the novel Gillespie and I by Jane Harris at the exact same time that I bought Christmas at Tiffany’s and I have been eager to read it ever since.  The synopsis on the back cover of the book was what intrigued me: it is clear from just the short description that the novel will be a mysterious, psychological thriller set in the Victorian era.  I had no idea just how interesting and engrossing the story would be, however, and I have been thoroughly taken in by the tale, and more specifically by the surprising narrator, Harriet Baxter.  Harriet is a surprising character because I thought I had her all figured out, only to realise that she is perhaps a bit more sinister and less innocent than I expected.

Some context is required, I suppose, to explain what this blog post is going to be all about.  In Gillespie and I, Harriet Baxter tells the story of her relationship with the Gillespie family, specifically with the artist Ned Gillespie, his wife Annie and their two daughters, Sibyl and Rose.  For the first half of the novel, things are relatively pleasant and simple enough, as the reader hears about Harriet’s interactions with the family, told from her vantage point years later, as an old woman.  Then, almost all of a sudden, little hints are dropped by Harriet that there is a greater purpose to the telling of her tale, and when Rose goes missing, it becomes clear that Harriet is recounting the story in order to get out her version of the events that transpired.  Here, the plot becomes very interesting, as the reader begins to suspect, for reasons both stated and implied, that Harriet may’ve had a hand in the kidnapping of young Rose.  When Harriet is arrested and put on trial, she continues to assert her innocence, but the reader is still nagged by the sense that something is just not right.

I am currently at the part in the novel when Harriet is on trial for Rose’s abduction.  Although she is adamant that she was wrongfully accused, I don’t know what the actual conclusion or verdict is just yet, so I feel like I have put on my own detective hat and am trying to piece together what role Harriet might’ve had in the crime.  For that reason, I am on high alert, and my reading of her narrative has become quite suspicious.  She is the very definition of an unreliable narrator, and what is most fascinating about an otherwise mundane story is that there is this added layer of unease and uncertainty.  As a result, I’ve decided to provide you with a few choice passages from the novel in today’s post.  I will do a short close reading of each of these passages to portray to you exactly the sense of mystery and skepticism that surrounds Harriet as a narrator.  I’ve missed doing close readings since my university days, and Gillespie and I is a perfect source of inspiration for this sort of literary investigation.  So, here we go…

1) “Under normal circumstances, [Annie] might have left the girls in the care of her maid, but, unfortunately, the Gillespies had been obliged to dismiss Jessie, the previous week.  It so happened that Annie’s Christmas gift from Ned — her silver bar-brooch, with the baroque pearl — had gone amissing.  Annie wore that particular piece of jewellery only on special occasions, and its disappearance might not even have been noticed for a while had I not, one evening, requested another look at it.”

This passage is one that first elicited suspicion and curiosity in me.  It seemed very strange that Harriet should have been the one to draw attention, albeit in an allegedly coincidental manner, to the fact that Annie’s brooch was missing.  Considering that the fact that Jessie no longer works for the Gillespies means that Sibyl and Rose were left to attend to themselves at the time when Rose was kidnapped, it seems far too strange that Harriet would’ve played a part in this whole drama.  Did Harriet ask after the brooch on purpose, knowing that Jessie would be blamed and fired, in order to set the whole crime in motion?  Who knows…but there is at least evidence to suggest that this may be the case.  It is also unsettling just how much Harriet has noted about Annie’s habits, particularly that she only wears the brooch on special occasions, and this gives the sense that Harriet is always hovering, watching and taking stock of the Gillespie family’s routines and activities.  Her descriptions of the family are far too specific to be nonchalant.

2) “One can only imagine how wretched the old lady must have felt: the pangs of dread, churning her stomach; the actual physical ache, in the region of her heart; a tremble in the hands; the bitter taste at the back of her throat; and the ever-present sensation of nausea.  These are the kind of symptoms, I suppose, that must have plagued her.”

How is Harriet able to describe guilt with so much detail?  The very physical, tangible manifestation of this complicated emotion is something Harriet seems to know well.  Although she is not placing herself in the role of the person who should feel guilty, in this instance, she describes the sensations as though she has felt them several times and in such a vivid manner.  Is that not, then, suspicious, considering that she still feigns innocence?  It is especially notable that Harriet uses the phrase “I suppose”, as if to divert the reader from her trail and reassert herself in an innocent light.  Is this believable, though, or is the reader put even more on their guard by Harriet’s anxiety about being guilt-free?

3) “Back in early February, when I had first seen the list of witnesses for the Crown, there were one or two names that I had recognised as persons who might hold slight grudges against me.”

Okay, so what is going on here?!  This woman who we have basically been encouraged to believe, as readers of her personal narrative, has a spotless character, now appears to have a hidden past of some kind.  It is obviously possible that Harriet is entirely innocent in everything and people just wrongfully judge her, but isn’t it hard to believe that sort of thing, given the other hints and clues we’ve collected (for example, in the passages above)?  I should say that these three points in the novel are mere samples of the strange, unsettling moments in this story…and now that I’m looking for them, I seem to find suspicious statements on every page.  Perhaps I am overthinking things, but I feel that this novel is remarkable in that it forces the reader to question absolutely everything.  This is not a comfortable reading experience, by any standards, but it certainly is a compelling one.

So far, I would highly recommend Gillespie and I to those readers who like a jarring and complicated psychological thriller.  I’ll let you all know what I think as I reach the conclusion.

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

my green heart

A Different Kind of Bride

havisham

“But, as every girl growing up understood, her wedding day was the most significant she would know: a woman’s crowning glory.”

Havisham, Ronald Frame

A little while ago, I finished Ronald Frame’s novel Havisham, a prequel to Dickens’ much loved masterpiece Great Expectations and a book that I picked up on serious sale at my local Chapters.  I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this story, and I was particularly fascinated by Frame’s portrayal of the young Catherine Havisham.  It is a novel that I would absolutely recommend to fans of Great Expectations because it offers just that little extra bit of history about a character whose background is shrouded in much mystery.

In that same line of thought, I believe that the one defining and extraordinary feature of Havisham is the narrative voice that Frame creates for the young Miss Havisham.  Allowing Catherine to speak in first person was a masterful choice on Frame’s part, as it gives her an opportunity to speak distinctly, to take ownership of her personal story and the decisions she makes.  Rather than being an intriguing character in a larger work, Catherine Havisham becomes the centre of her own world, the focal point of a plot that is replete with its own mysteries and misunderstandings.  Miss Havisham is undoubtedly a character that is complex enough to warrant this sort of exploration, and I think that allowing Catherine to speak for herself adds many more layers to her already impressive personality.  Catherine Havisham is an educated, strong and defiant woman with a mind for business and a steely resolve, and although as readers we know that her story has a heartbreaking ending, we are also offered a glimpse into her powerful mind, which is a lot healthier and more robust than we probably would’ve expected.

What is also wonderful about Catherine’s voice is that it is clearly her own; it is a narrative voice unlike any I’ve encountered in a contemporary novel in a very long time.  Frame artfully mixes Victorian-style speech with references to classic poetry and imagery that are unique and vivid.  His descriptions, through Catherine, of physical surroundings, other characters and feelings and emotions are detailed (in homage to Dickens, no doubt) and quite beautifully crafted.

“Did the trees droop by nature’s will, or because I told them what my feelings were?”

“I floated through the day, never so light or carefree, hopeful to the very tips of my fingers and toes.”

Catherine’s narration is also wonderfully cadenced: her lines, both spoken and internally narrated, take on a very poetic quality, which aligns well with her haunting and spectral quality.  She is a narrator whose voice is at once bewitching and relaxing.

“But I was afraid every time he left me, not just unhappy.”

“My imagination threw a caul of gentle thoughts around him, to protect him…”

The one criticism of the novel I remember reading on Goodreads is that one reader said she could not connect fully with Catherine because she never found herself even remotely liking Catherine’s love interest, Charles Compeyson.  Well, with that I must agree.  However, unlike this reader, I think the fact that I disliked and was extremely suspicious of Charles from the start increased my sympathy with Catherine and my overall connection to her.  I have been reading novels (such as Jack Caldwell’s The Three Colonels: Jane Austen’s Fighting Men) and watching television shows (such as ITV’s new series Victoria) recently that have presented me with models of wives and domestic life.  As someone who is engaged and will be married next year, I must admit that the image of Miss Havisham, a not-quite-bride forever suspended in the moment of 9:20am on her wedding day, was not the model of bridal bliss I was eager to encounter.  Having said that, I grew to love Catherine Havisham because I felt her heartache, I was outraged on her behalf, and I understood that the loss of the sort of love that leads to marriage (even if I didn’t like the man she had chosen) would be utterly devastating.  I was wary of Charles from day one because I’ve read Great Expectations and I knew things weren’t going to end well on the romantic front for Miss Havisham, but I could still identify with Catherine’s loneliness, with her desire to find a partner, to have a bit of her burden unloaded on someone she could trust and feel close to.  I didn’t believe that Charles ever properly respected or appreciated her, but I felt how solitary her existence was, and I knew that she craved support and attention, so I didn’t fault her naivety whatsoever.  On the contrary, I felt closer to her because I wanted to protect her from the outcome that I knew was inevitable.  I couldn’t do that, and so I found Frame’s novel so much more emotional and meaningful for the predictable ending it was required to provide.  I would say that the fact that Charles was despicable only made me adore Catherine more.

“He evaded me now because, I realized, he always had.  I had been in love with someone I had half-imagined to life, half-invented myself.”

And come to adore Catherine, I did.  I didn’t expect to become so close to someone like Miss Havisham, who is portrayed as so cold and calculated in Dickens’ original text.  I was drawn to the humanity in Catherine Havisham though, and I think that is testament to Frame’s remarkable knack for writing and mastering his narrator’s voice.

“I sometimes thought that I disappointed him.  He would have liked me to be more of a ‘Miss Havisham’ than I was.  Had he been directing me in a play, he would have heightened the effects.”

I was originally going to say that my one qualm with Frame’s novel is that it extended into the storyline of Great Expectations.  Originally, I wasn’t pleased that Frame chose to explore the famous Miss Havisham of Dickens’ novel in the final hundred pages of his own.  I wished, at first, that he had finished the story after Catherine’s fall into depression, after she remade herself into the ghost-like and miserable Miss Havisham of Great Expectations, before she invited Estella to her home.  I felt that delving into the world of Great Expectations made Dickens’ spectre of a character too human, and this bothered me as I have always appreciated the mystique around Miss Havisham’s character.  Now that I’ve had a chance to think about this more, though, I do like that I now have a new perspective on Miss Havisham.  I know that there is humanity in there, that there is a woman inside the figure who walks endlessly around her breakfast table.  There is feeling there, even if Miss Havisham tries to portray herself, especially to Pip, as frozen.  She has sentiments and regrets and yearnings, and I believe that Frame is very respectful of Dickens’ invention by exploring what lies within Miss Havisham’s soul.

As I said, I am very happy that I stumbled upon this novel and gave it a read.  It added yet another layer to my appreciation of a literary classic, and further informed my understanding of a character I thought I would never have answers about.

❥ ❥ ❥ ❥ (out of 5)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

my green heart

Alias Grace – #JNGReads

If you watched my Instagram story from the beginning of this week (I don’t have Snapchat, so I actually found it kind of fun to use the new Instagram story feature!), you’ll know that I finally finished Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. I recently wrote a blog post about the difficulties I was having getting into the story and acclimatizing to Atwood’s often tricky narrative voice, but I am happy to say that I grew to really enjoy the novel and I am quite happy that I stuck it out and read all the way to the end. According to Goodreads, I started reading the novel on July 19th, so it took me just under a month to finish it, which is not bad for a 550+ page novel, especially considering the fact that I work full-time.

Here’s a more comprehensive review of my thoughts on Alias Grace

Alias Grace is a very interesting and thought-provoking novel, and I would probably say that it is my favourite Atwood work that I have read to date. Although I struggled in the beginning, for about the first 100 pages, with the writing style (for example, the lack of quotations and proper punctuation during Grace’s narration) and with all the details that seemed arduous and much too wordy, I really developed a feel for the story as I delved further into it, and I became accustomed to Grace’s manner of speaking and to the various narrative voices that Atwood employs. I also started to become more invested in the plot, and I put on my own detective hat for a while, trying to piece together the information about the murders of Nancy Montgomery and Thomas Kinnear. As I reached the point in the novel when Dr. Jordan listens to Grace’s narrative about her life and the events surrounding the murder, I was able to start to investigate my own feelings about Grace and speculate about her degree of guilt. I haven’t reached any definitive conclusions, even after finishing the entire story and allowing myself to consider each point of view, but I will say that I don’t think Grace’s involvement in the murders is clear cut and I don’t know that I think she is entirely guilty or innocent there is certainly some grey area in between, and I believe Grace inhabits that space.

Probably my favourite aspects of the novel were the portrayal of Grace’s complex personality and psyche, as well as the description of the setting…

Grace Marks is a remarkable and fascinating woman. I know that Atwood based as much of the novel as possible on fact, and I do understand why 19th century individuals would have been intrigued by Grace’s story and would have lined up to see her. I am very conflicted about my feelings toward Grace – as I said above, I don’t know if I believe her to be solidly guilty or innocent, and I do think she made several very poor decisions during her time working for Thomas Kinnear. There were undeniably moments when she could have revealed James McDermott’s plan and saved herself from becoming an accomplice to murder (if that was in fact her only role in the crime). However, even despite the ambiguities surrounding her involvement, I found myself empathizing with Grace and feeling sorry for her. She had a rough, uncomfortable childhood, especially during her immigration to Toronto, and she was forced to become an adult at a very early age and learn to provide for herself. This ultimately led to her employment at Kinnear’s home, and I think she felt reluctant to leave her position, even when there was suspicious activity, because she felt as though she didn’t have a home to call her own. She was a woman, or a girl rather, trapped in unfortunate circumstances… And I do mean trapped. I don’t think Grace had any other choice but to be in the position she was in, as her options were very limited, and I cannot imagine being a girl of the age of 15 or 16 who has no family, friends or even acquaintances to rely on or receive advice from. It’s my opinion that Grace got mixed up in a bad situation because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time…but I also believe that Grace had no other option and that she would have ended up in dangerous circumstances regardless of whose house she worked at. Having said all that, I can understand why Atwood was haunted by Grace because I feel that she must’ve been severely misunderstood in her time, and I think it is a testament to Atwood’s immense skill as a writer that she took the time to thoroughly research Grace’s life and document its details with impressive accuracy.

As far as Dr. Jordan goes, in terms of other main characters, I found him to be a complex character mainly because he was often very hypocritical and ended up totally surprising me with his actions toward his landlady Mrs. Humphrey. I thought I had Dr. Jordan’s identity pegged at the beginning of the novel, as a studious and lonely doctor, but many other layers of his personality were revealed, and it turns out that I didn’t really know him at all. He had a much more sinister side than I ever could’ve expected, and while this caused me to respect him less, I found him to be a more interesting character because of it.

The greatest source of interest, for me, in the novel was the treatment and description of Toronto and its surrounding areas, including Richmond Hill (where Thomas Kinnear lived). I found it fascinating to read about my own city and imagine what it was like in the 19th century. Although this novel is not at all written in the Victorian style, it does describe the 19th century in vivid detail, and I often lost myself in imagining the streets of Toronto in a completely different light. I also felt the urge, after finishing my reading, to visit some of the sites mentioned in the novel. I wonder if Thomas Kinnear’s house still stands in Richmond Hill and if his and Nancy’s graves can still be found at the Presbyterian Church. I wonder if the streets I walk on my way to work or during daytrips downtown are the same ones that Grace Marks walked. And if I ever visit the Kingston Penitentiary, will I see the very spot where James McDermott was hanged? There’s nothing quite like reading about a familiar setting and experiencing this discomfort when it becomes unfamiliar and unrecognizable to you. I think it informed my understanding of Toronto’s history to get a glimpse into what it was like to live here 200 years ago.

I have heard that Alias Grace is being made into a TV series, and I think that is a great idea. 550+ pages is a lot to get through, especially when the writing is so dense, and I wouldn’t blame anyone for not being able to undertake the challenge. But Grace’s story, and particularly Atwood’s treatment of it, is very unique, and I think many people would find the plot interesting and intriguing. I’ll definitely be giving the show a try.

Finally, I should mention my least favourite aspect of the novel… Any and all reference to Susanna Moodie. Her text Roughing it in the Bush was the bane of my existence in university, and I cannot shake this sense that she was an incredibly annoying woman!

❥❥❥ (out of 5)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

my green heart

My Mother’s Secret

I recently finished another very short novel that I received from my fiancé’s father about a month ago. My Mother’s Secret by J.L. Witterick is a novel that I had seen advertised many times on public transit and that looked quite intriguing to me. It chronicles, in a fictitious manner, the true story of a woman named Franciszka Halamajowa and her daughter Helena who hid and saved two Jewish families and one German soldier during WWII. They lived in Sokal, Poland at the time and the novel uses the narration of Helena as well as three of the hidden men to document the trials and tribulations of this small makeshift “family”.

The subject matter of this very short (only 188 pages) story is very interesting and poignant. It is fascinating to learn of the strength and bravery of these women. I have read many accounts of the Second World War, especially in high school, but I had never heard of these two women, and so I was gratified to learn their story. I believe this would be an excellent novel to teach in late elementary school (around grade 7 or 8) or in high school history classes as it really does give an important and memorable insight into the lives of those who were directly affected by the horrors of WWII. It could easily be taught alongside The Diary of Anne Frank.

Having said that, the only objection I have to this novel is how simplistically it is written. The prose is extremely straightforward and simple, and it really does feel as though the story is told for a younger audience. While the novel does explain many details of the subjects’ daily lives, it is told in such a generic manner and absolutely no real internal monologue is provided. Events are documented in almost journalistic fashion, and even when Helena discusses her love for her eventual husband Casmir and her devastation over the death of her brother Damian, there is a noticeable void of emotion and sentimentality. The facts are reported and stated, but there is no opportunity to delve into how any of the narrators feel.

I am conflicted about this story. I felt that I learned a great deal throughout my reading, but the writing style was not at all memorable to me. It was choppy and too bland at times, although the events that occurred were very significant.  If I compare this to other stories I’ve read about the war, such as Night by Elie Wiesel, I find that this story will leave a bit less of an impact on me, but only because there was no emotional content that really tugged at my heart.

I would definitely recommend that people read this book to gain greater knowledge about the events of WWII, but they should approach it as they would a newspaper article or documentary, with little expectation of character development.

❥❥ (out of 5)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

my green heart

Awakened

I have finally finished Wake by Anna Hope.  This novel is absolutely exquisite, right down to the last (half) sentence.

I spoke about my first impressions of this story earlier on the blog, and I was becoming so infatuated and intoxicated by the plot and characters that I read faster and faster after writing that post, and finished the small but profound novel rather quickly.  It left me with so many feelings, with both a melancholy sadness and a sense of hope and optimism, and I can say without hesitation that it is the best book I’ve read recently.
As I mentioned previously, the writing style is lovely, detailed but also soft and flowing, and the story is told with such tender care and attention to all the little bits and pieces that are necessary to create and inhabit a world of such complex characters.  The three main female protagonists, Hettie, Evelyn and Ada, are vastly different in their preoccupations and circumstances, but they are each subtly and intricately connected in ways that surprised and astonished me.  Hope describes each narrative so vividly and with such feeling that it is easy to see how the three women are joined and how their lives are intertwined.  It is also fascinating to witness how similar they are in their feelings and sentiments, though, and this is the true strength of the novel for me – it explores mourning, the aftermath of war and loss, with grace and beauty.  I learned a great deal about World War I in terms of history and logistics, but I was also made aware of the emotional toll it took on so many people, on entire nations.  Hope captured the setting and time period so expertly, and I was more than a little impressed and totally sucked in.
There were several profound moments in the novel as well, that have stayed with me and that I continue to return to in my mind.  For example, the scene when Ada visits the mysterious woman who can speak to the dead is heartbreaking and somewhat frightening, but it is also strangely comforting when the woman suggests that Ada return her attentions to her living husband, to the love that still exists around her.  This advice encourages Ada to let go of her heartache, open her heart once again and move forward and mend her relationship with a man she can truly depend on.  Another example of a moving and powerful scene is when Evelyn confronts her brother Ed about some of his dishonourable actions during the war, and he explains to her that war always wins, that no side is truly victorious because war always takes something from its participants and irrevocably changes and damages them beyond repair.  This was a depressing realization but an important idea to note and be conscious of.  Finally, the conclusion of the novel is breathtaking in its simplicity, as Hettie watches a man she is momentarily infatuated with walk toward the woman he is in love with.  This is a woman the reader has grown attached to and begun to root for, but we are also partial toward Hettie and want her happiness and freedom, so it is a moment of conflict for the reader, who must acknowledge the trickiness of life, the difficulty of picking sides.  The whole story, from beginning to end, is simple yet memorable, and I won’t soon forget it.
I am so very happy that I finally picked up Wake by Anna Hope.  It is a masterpiece – just the right length, just the right amount of detail and intricacy, just the right focus on and development of each character.  It is a wonderful example of the real art of storytelling and Hope is an incredible author who I hope to encounter again in my literary future!
❥❥❥❥ (out of 5)
JNG
Girl with a Green Heart

my green heart

A Complex Mourning – #JNGReads

“Wake

  1. Emerge or cause to emerge from sleep.
  2. Ritual for the dead.
  3. Consequence or aftermath.”

Wake, Anna Hope

I’ve finally finished First Comes Love by Emily Giffin, and I’m on to my next read of the summer. You’ll notice that I didn’t write a detailed review of First Comes Love after finishing it – the reason for that is twofold: I felt that I had already discussed my feelings about it adequately here on the blog a few times, and, more significantly, I didn’t have anything profound to say about it upon closing its cover. I just wasn’t touched at all by it – I didn’t feel inspired, moved or affected – I simply didn’t have much to say. I was quite disappointed by the novel, unfortunately, and I believe that has come across already in the two posts (you can read them here and here) where I mentioned Giffin’s latest work. So, that’s enough of that, on to the next, hopefully exciting and intriguing read…

I’ve been wanting to read Anna Hope’s novel Wake for quite some time now. I was first attracted by the cover, which I believe is simplistically beautiful and heartbreaking.

Wake

There’s something about this desperate embrace that tugged at my heart and made me eager to pick up the novel and figure out what it was all about. The title also spoke to me – its juxtaposition beside such a poignant image immediately made me think of a funeral wake. It called to mind images of mourning, heartbreak and depression, and those were emotions I thought it would be interesting to explore in fictional form.

What’s most intriguing about the novel, though, when you first open its pages, is that Hope very quickly plays with and challenges this assumed meaning of her title. She right away presents three varying definitions of the word “wake”, and although I’m only about halfway through the novel, I can see that her intention is to interrogate and explore each one in detail. From the definitions she provides, it is easy to see that the word “wake” has many positive connotations as well, such as emerging from a dream or comfortable slumber. The word can also be interpreted more ambiguously too, in that the implication of “consequence or aftermath” can be both positive and negative, depending on the circumstances. Hope is very smart to begin with these definitions, as I was instantly compelled to consider how each of the main characters (three women who are at once similar and vastly different) might be experiencing all three definitions at once. I am still deciphering this and working out how each woman tackles the notion of “wake” uniquely.

I have to say, I am thoroughly enjoying this novel so far. It is short, just shy of 300 pages, and it moves slowly and methodically, but it is told with quite a lot of attention to detail. Portraits of spaces and characters are painted painstakingly, and I am finding, as I’ve read in reviews of the novel, that the three seemingly separate stories are evolving gently, that facts and characteristics are being added one by one, being pieced together a bit at a time. This style of writing is making me very eager to continue reading, and although I am uncertain where this novel will take me at the moment, I am very much enjoying the ride.

The novel is also very well-written. Hope’s style is simplistic, as I said, but she also presents ideas (some as common as loneliness and restlessness) in words that are unique and unexpected, that add something not previously considered to the reader’s understanding of these emotions. This is something that was sorely missing from the last novel I read, and I am excited to have my preconceived ideas about certain sentiments challenged.

“Ever since she can remember, she has felt it, this hunger for something more.”

Wake, Anna Hope

There’s not much more for me to say about this little novel right now – I’m going to keep barreling through it and then I will be able to speak about how these threads fit together.

Happy Sunday to you all!

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

my green heart

No Inspo

I have to admit, I wasn’t planning on writing a blog post today at all. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll have noticed that I didn’t tweet any specific #JNGReads or #JNGListens quotes this week. This is the second week that I haven’t consistently tweeted a meaningful quote or line every single day, and the fact is bothering me more than a little. I hadn’t intended to draw attention to this today – instead I thought it might be best just to skip my weekly blog post and hopefully find a collection of quotes beautiful enough to warrant sharing this week. But, then I remembered that the point of this blog is to update you all on what I’m reading at the moment, and more importantly on what I’m feeling about what I’m reading at that same moment. The whole point of my #JNGReads/#JNGListens initiative was to take you into my mind, to give you a glimpse of the passages and scenes from the books I was reading that stuck with me and left an imprint on my heart. So, it stands to reason then that if I’m not posting any quotes, it’s because nothing is standing out to me in the literature I’m encountering at this time. I’m reading, but nothing I’m reading is that incredible, groundbreaking or memorable to me.

I’m currently about halfway through Emily Giffin’s forthcoming novel First Comes Love. While I enjoyed Something Borrowed, Something Blue and Love The One You’re With, I haven’t read a work by Giffin in a very long time. I was gifted this book by a friend of mine, and so I decided that I certainly couldn’t pass up the opportunity to delve into Giffin’s fiction once again, especially since the book was so conveniently in front of me.

The story and characters are pleasant enough, but nothing about the plot has really made an impact or impression on me, and this is most definitely why I haven’t had any quotes to share on my Twitter recently. The writing style is enjoyable and flows well, but none of the lines say anything unique or describe emotions and ideas uniquely enough to warrant a mention. Perhaps I should start quoting lines from the novel this week to give you an idea of how ordinary they are – this isn’t meant to be critical or condemnatory necessarily, as I am having a good time reading the book, but I just want to defend my lack of inspiration and excitement at the moment.

I think what I mostly want to represent in this post is the fact that not all books are earth shattering or monumental. Sometimes you’ll come across a book that’s just fun and light and refreshing, but that doesn’t really stick with you all that much. I find that incredibly discouraging, but at the same time, I think I need to start coming to terms with this fact. Otherwise, the act of reading becomes less relaxed, more pressure is put on every single work to be a favourite – and since that isn’t realistic, it’s best not to feel such anxiety to love and adore and rave about every single book one reads.

I will review First Comes Love thoroughly when I do happen to finish it – but for now just know that, silent though I am right now, I am reading.

(And, if you’re at all interested, I have been sharing passages and lines from my own writing and works of fiction on Twitter every now and then – so follow along if you want to get a sense of what #JNGWrites!)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

my green heart