A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin


3/5 stars.
Paperback, 936 pages.
Read from January 19 to February 07, 2015.

I consumed most of this novel while lounging on a beach of white sands and blue water so I’m pretty sure my environment added to the likability of this book as, let’s be honest, it doesn’t really have much going on for it plot-wise and isn’t what we’ve come to expect from George R.R. Martin.  I know that Martin would have preferred that this book and A Dance With Dragons be one book but it would have been waaaaaaay too long. This book ultimately felt like a filler for the next novel and contained all the politic nuances that would have be intriguing had it been balanced with some action plot pieces. All of the characters that you desperately wanted to know about based on the craziness of the last book are not even mentioned in this book, such as Tyrion and Dany. I can only imagine how frustrating that would have been for a reader when this book first came out as they wouldn’t have the same luxury of just picking up the next book in the series as it wouldn’t have been available yet.

I suppose the most interesting part of this novel was the developments with Cersei, which, if you’re not a huge fan of the woman, is kind of annoying. However the ‘big twist’, and I say that sarcastically because it’s quite minimal compared to the previous book in the series, involves Cersei and it is fairly rewarding to read. Jamie develops more as a character and is continuing to become one of my favourites. While I love Brienne, her chapters were pretty boring but the final scene with her in this book is pretty disheartening.

The information in this book is necessary for the series, but the book, as it stands by itself is a pretty big let down. It’s hard to summarize the details of this novel as the essential things that happened in this book are the spoilers. Ultimately, Brienne is looking for Sansa on an oath she made to Jamie, Cersei is still grieving for Joffery and is going mad trying to determine who are her friends and her enemies are, while being overly protective of Tommen. Jaime is figuring out who he is as a person now that he hand is gone, Sansa is developing into smart and wise young woman while pretending to be Littlefinger’s bastard daughter Alayne, while Arya finds herself in Bravvos in a religious temple. There are a few new characters introduced as well, such as the Martell family, who are outraged at the death of Oberyn. You get some small insights into the life of Myrcella since she was shipped off to Dorne by Tyrion to be married in these chapters as well.  The book is one of character transitions as they all take on new identities and for some of them, even new names.

Overall, this is my least favourite book in the series so far but I can at least recognize it’s necessity.

Ru by Kim Thuy


3/5 stars.
Paperback, 160 pages.
Read February 18, 2015.

The is the first book from the Canada Reads 2015 shortlist that I’ve managed to get through so far. Ru is a poetic, beautiful and tragic examination of a young girl’s move from a war-stricken Vietnam to Canada. Partially auto-biographical, the title of the book is symbolic and significant as in Vietnamese, the author’s native language, it means lullaby or to lull, and in French, her adoptive language and the original language that the book was published in, it means small stream or the flow and release of tears, blood or money.

Each page  of the book almost looks like a letter, in that some of them are written in a block format and the paragraphs are indented so that the content is in the middle of the page. This style adds a poetic feel to the novel and each of these sections are a string of memories that fit together to create the novel. In my opinion the style was carried out successfully and added a lot to the feel of the novel. The book does not have a straight forward timeline but you gather the information as it comes. You learn that the young girl was born into a fairly wealthy and intelligent Vietnamese family but it that meant nothing when communism started to spread. The nice home that her family had built was quickly bombarded with communist soldiers and her father made the difficult, but necessary, decision to abandon their home and flee their country for their own safety. Many families shipped their children away during this time if they could not manage to all go themselves and the young narrator reflects on how she never understood how families could separate themselves that way, even if it was for their own safety,  but it wasn’t until she had had children of her own that this made sense to her.  The narrator’s grown perspective on her memories, are what create the most intriguing and dynamic parts of the book.

Once in Canada, the narrator reflects at her families resilience to make a life for themselves, especially her mother. In Vietnam, her mother did not work, yet in Canada, without batting an eye, she picked up work in areas that she had never performed before. Her mother was especially hard on her to get her to interact with this new world, even if that meant moments of embarrassment or shame. Through her mother’s persistence, the shy narrator was able to get through some extremely trying moments as she learned the languages of her new country and eventually, adapted as well as her mother.

There is one moment in the book that really sticks out for me, in which the narrator remembers taking a compliment when she was working  in Vietnam. Someone had told her that she was pretty enough to be the bosses escort, which, she found very flattering at the time. That was until, in another memory recalls looking upon four naked Vietnamese escorts who were having money thrown at them as if they were dogs. It was a powerful moment of transition and realization for the narrator as she made a comparison between the two memories.

What struck me most about this book was the realization of my own privilege and how I will never truly comprehend what life could be like for an immigrant. It puts matters into perspective when you realize the trivial things that you consider real problems. I’ve never had to forcibly leave my home, learn another language and suffer in true poverty.  I can’t imagine how lonely it might feel when the people you are surrounded by in your new country have no real concept of what you left behind, what you’re trying to accomplish now and the many hurdles that you’ll be presented with. As someone born into a place like Canada, I will not likely ever see those hurdles or have to deal with them myself and for that I am grateful. However, there is a blissful ignorance that comes into being born into a place like Canada, in that a person’s world and perspective can be so very small if they do not choose to look outside of it or experience something different. There is a reason that many people who come from suffering or from nothing persist and succeed and while it can be attributed to ambition and motivation, I also think that their unique experiences with suffering and change create a life perspective that cannot be taught.

I believe that Ru is the story of many immigrants, the ones with happier endings anyway. The book really does fit the theme of this years Canada Reads, which is books that break barriers. These are the stories that make Canada what it is and shape the people that live here. Our nation is one of strong and resilient people, many of whom come here looking for something better than what they had. I would recommend this book to any Canadian or for anyone looking for inspiration.

Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto


3/5 stars.
Paperback, 224 pages.
Read on January 19, 2015

This book was recommended to me and I was able finish reading it in one sitting as I was on a flight to Cuba. Admittedly this was the first time that I had even heard of the author, Jerry Pinto, who has published numerous books. This particular novel is Pinto’s first and, based on some quick research, is a story about his own family and the experiences that they went through in terms of his mother’s mental illness. Pinto really embodies what it can be like living with someone who is severely mentally ill.

The setting of the novel takes place in India and revolves around a family of four. Imelda, or as she is more often called, Em, is the mother and is unfortunately prone to bouts of bi-polar and schizophrenic like behavior and is frequently hospitalized for suicide attempts. The story details how Em met Austine, or The Big Hoom, as she often calls him and how the courtship shortly changed when Em started to exhibit some strange behaviors. As Em struggles through her madness, her son puts together their family’s story. Em’s children are sadly exposed to situations that no one should ever have to deal with. They are constantly worrying about her mental state, if she is manic or depressive and if they need to worry about her attempting to take her own life. In one passage, Pinto perfectly sums up what is is like to have someone you love be effected so severely by mental illness:

“Madness is enough. It is complete, sufficient unto itself. You can only stand outside it, as a woman might stand outside a prison in which her lover is locked up. From time to time, a well-loved face will peer out and love floods back. A scrap of cloth flutters and it becomes a sign and a code and a message and all that you want it to be. Then it vanishes, and you are outside the dark tower again.”

Mental illness is heartbreaking, especially for the loved ones as it turns everyone’s world upside down. The support isn’t the same either, it’s not like a family member has cancer and everyone can understand the situation and can sympathize with it, so often loved ones will feel alienated and alone as mental illness is so unique and still not fully understood. While Em’s situation scars her family, it also ultimately brings them together as well. The ending of the story brings some solace for Em, for her loved ones, and is heart warming for the reader.

My one complaint with this novel was the constant use and ever changing nicknames of the characters. I imagine that because this book is somewhat autobiographical the nicknames come from Pinto’s own experiences, but in terms of this novel, it was a bit jarring and unnecessary. If you removed the nicknames, the story would have still been just as effective.

Overall an eye-opening novel into the life and times of a family dealing with a loved ones mental illness, a story, that is not told often enough.