Sunday, May 22, 2016

"Anne of Windy Poplars," by Lucy Maud Montgomery

The Protagonist: Anne Shirley. While Gilbert's away at medical school, she'll be starting as Summerside's newest school principal.
The Rub: Summerside's got some nice folks, but also a nasty "royal" family and a horde of Evil Old People to contend with.

The Secondary Characters:

Aunt Kate and Aunt Chatty: Two sweet but diametrically opposed elderly spinsters with whom Anne boards.

Rebecca Dew: Kate and Chatty's cantankerous servant.

Elizabeth: An emotionally-starved orphan raised by two unloving crones, whom Anne befriends.

Angst Checklist:

  • Old Ladies Be Trippin'
  • Rampant Emotional Abuse
  • Family politics
  • Being unmarried at 28 is worse than death, for reals
  • Crazy couples who really shouldn't get married
  • Cats You Love to Hate
  • Houses Full of Dead People

Anne of Green Gables is a beloved classic - it's certainly one of my favourite books - but not as many people read the later books in the series (such as Anne of Avonlea and Anne of the Island). It's easy to see why. Anne has far fewer flaws (most of her "scrapes" in this book are by accident), the drama is far milder, the storytelling rambling and unfocused.

For me, though, the Anne books remain my jam - the ultimate comfort read. With church socials and sponge cakes, saucy gossip, and lovingly-described scenery, it's a lilac-scented meandering walk down a summer lane with the occasional incisive scrap of social commentary.

Windy Poplars is mostly comprised of Anne's letters to her fiancĂ© Gilbert during the three years they are separated (Anne to teach in Summerside as a school principal, Gilbert to finish medical school).

Anne has a tough go of it at first. Summerside's prolific and close-knit ruling family, the Pringles, had their own candidate for principal, and they are determined to topple Anne from her perch by any polite means necessary.

On top of that, Summerside has a surfeit of Emotionally Abusive Old People. Anne spends a chunk of the book rescuing girls and young women from their manipulative, grasping crone relatives who are determined to suck all the happiness out of them like Bette Midler in Hocus Pocus. It happens so often I wondered if all these old biddies and coots had some sort of club to Ruin Young People's Lives.

Anne also saves a couple of Bitter Spinsters (both unhappily unmarried by 28! Gasp!) from future crone-hood.

Through it all, Anne maintains her sunny optimism - life is happier when one turns the other cheek, to admire the flowers or the sea or some other deliciously-described aspect of Prince Edward Island scenery. While she's much tamer than she was in her slate-bashing days, Anne has her spirited moments (in one chapter, she harbours delightfully violent fantasies against one of the worst Summerside crones).

And yes, as mentioned before, the drama is milder, but if there is any theme in Windy Poplars it is that people are often their own worst enemy. Yes, the Crones and the Pringles are nasty, but a lot of the characters Anne encounters perpetuate their own unhappiness - either through inaction or indecision, or because they've entrenched themselves in their own bitter outlook on life and need an outsider's perspective to adjust their attitude.

While I have yet to visit Prince Edward Island myself, I so love visiting the P.E.I. of Montgomery's novels.

A very sentimental, rose-coloured A+

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

"The Long Way To a Small Angry Planet," by Becky Chambers

I have Sam Maggs to thank for this fantastic read - she described this book on Twitter as a cross between Mass Effect and Firefly. That's one hell of a recommendation. This succinct and ultimately accurate review is what led me to give this book a try, and I am so glad I did.

The Long Way To a Small Angry Planet is the best book I've read all year, and probably the best hard sci-fi I've read ever. 

The book concerns the colourful and diverse crew of The Wayfarer, a tunnelling ship that builds transport pathways between stellar systems by literally cutting holes through space. They have enough work to get by, but not enough to get rich - until their captain, Ashby, secures a government commission to build a tunnel to a planet whose mysterious inhabitants have only recently agreed to an alliance. The job comes with a mind-boggling payday, but will take almost a year to complete, so the crew is in for a pretty long haul.

While the eponymous small, angry planet is the overarching plot, the novel unspools in an episodic format - quite a bit happens during the year it takes for The Wayfarer to reach the tunnelling point. Everyone on the ship will find themselves tested in different ways, and the aliens on the crew give Chambers a golden opportunity to explore some pretty bizarre and unique perspectives about the nature of humanity and its relevance to the rest of the universe.

And what a universe! Chambers crafts a fascinating galaxy populated by various cultures and species, and while Humans aren't exactly endangered, they have very little influence beyond their own territories. There are massive cities built to host multiple cultures, as well as isolated frontier planets where the locals have created their own. Best of all, the rich worldbuilding is all expressed through the characters and their organic interactions within the story. Apart from a few articles here and there, there is no info dumping. The reader is free to explore and discover everything along with the Wayfarer's crew.

The novel's strongest, most outstanding selling point is the characters. I loved everyone on this ship - from Rosemary (a shy Human clerk who's never been off Mars), to Sissix (a reptilian pilot), to Dr. Chef (the most lovable alien caterpillar SpaceDad ever). Here's where the Firefly influence kicks in - while there's plenty of drama, conflict, and cultural differences, these characters truly love and care about each other. While spending a whole year together on the ship might bring up issues and baggage, at the end of the day, they're family.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a brilliant, rare science fiction novel that successfully explores vast galaxies and alien themes without sacrificing the warmth and empathy of character-based storytelling. Put down what you're reading and read this instead.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

"After You," by Jojo Moyes

*Warning* This review containers spoilers for Me Before You. I highly recommend you read Me Before You first before reading this review. It's a great book. Trust me.

I really enjoyed After You - but I kind of wish it didn't exist.

Let me explain. After You is the sequel to Me Before You, a novel that emotionally capsized me when I first read it and will likely do so again when I see the movie version (can Mr. Bates from Downton Abbey just play everyone's dad forever?).

However, one of the things I loved the most about Me Before You was the ending, where Louisa finds the courage to embark upon an adventurous life thanks to her relationship with Will. It was hopeful yet bittersweet, the narrative unravelling into uncertainty instead of a neatly hemmed conclusion. I kind of thought it as the perfect ending.

After You ruins it. Louisa did go on that adventure, but before long her grief caught up with her and forced her home. Estranged from her family and hometown thanks to her involvement in Will's death, Louisa lives in London while working at a tacky Irish-themed pub at an airport. She knows she's not living the life Will wanted for her, and she almost loses that life when she drunkenly falls off her apartment building.

It's a little disappointing to know that Louisa's picture-perfect Paris ending didn't last, but After You does explore the very real consequences of grief and depression. Louisa wants to change her future but feels her new opportunities were bought with Will's life. Just when it looks like she might undo everything Will helped her accomplish - his sullen, impulsive long-lost daughter shows up.

The product of a college relationship that ended badly, Lily's home life is a mess and she's desperate to learn about the family she's never met. Louisa sees an opportunity to honour Will's memory and decides to take Lily in, not really understanding how teenagers work.

While it initially seems like her grief has knocked her back to square one, Louisa's so easy to relate to. In Me Before You, Will guided Louisa as she fought to overcome her limitations and bad habits and grab the life she wanted. Now, Louisa finds herself in a mentor position - to a prickly, unstable teenage girl who seems determined to destroy her own life.

There are a lot of good aspects to this book - the characterization is as strong as ever (especially with Louisa's adorable family), and Moyes has a flair for humorous situations (such as when Louisa is forced to conduct a job interview by Skype in a public bathroom), but throughout the book I couldn't help but feel - this story isn't necessary. Maybe I'm a little too attached to that "perfect ending" of Me Before You, but nothing about this story felt like it had to be told.

To be honest, it felt a bit like an emotional band-aid, as if Moyes regretted the last novel's open ending that left a few characters (Will's parents, for example) in pretty bad places, so she wrote in a Troubled Secret Daughter to give everyone a second chance at happiness before hammering down an unambiguously happy, triumphant ending.

After You wasn't a bad book, per se. It just wasn't a necessary one. It wasn't a sequel that celebrated and built on the first book - it felt almost like a correction for the first one. I enjoyed reading it, and it had some good things to say, but it doesn't outshine Me Before You.