The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk

Picture the Victorian Era but with magic and even more social taboos…

4/5 stars.
ebook, 384 pages.
Read from February 24, 2021 to March 1, 2021

I don’t even know how many reviews I’m behind on now. A lot. Working full-time while doing schooling full-time isn’t conducive to spare writing time.

This book was the fourth book I read out of the five Canada Reads 2021 contenders. While I was able to read all the books before the debates I wasn’t able to get them all reviewed in time. You can read how I ranked this year’s contenders here and check out how the debates went and its winner here.

When I saw that this book was selected as one of the finalists for the debates this year I will admit, I was less than thrilled, and wasn’t looking forward to reading it. At first glance, this book looked like a tacky YA novel that had no place within a literary debate (I will admit a bit of book snobbery here). I will happily admit that I was wrong about this book and will do my best to stop judging a book by its description. This book was an enjoyable and easy read that I think would speak to a lot of young women. The best way I can describe this book is to picture the Victorian Era but with magic and even more social taboos or to think of Jane Austen but on LSD.

Beatrice is coming to an age of marriage as she enters her first bargaining season but Beatrice has no plans for marriage, in fact, she is actively looking for the one way she can find her independence and that’s through magic. Women are not allowed to become magus’, in fact, married women who can bear children are forced to wear a collar that restricts any magic so that their children are not inhabited spirits before their born and any child born this way is executed. So it’s understandable that Beatrice is obsessed with finding a specific grimoire book that will help become a magus to escape the repressive fate of so many women in her society. Unfortunately, she is so involved in escaping marriage that she hasn’t noticed that her family is in serious financial disrepair and that if she isn’t successfully married her family will lose everything. In her search for the grimoire, she encounters the Lavan siblings, the handsome Ianthe and the beautiful Ysbeta. Ysbeta manages to con the grimoire from Beatrice right when it was within her grasp so she invokes a minor spirit of luck, named Nadi, to help her retrieve it. Spirits like Nadi are anxious to embody physical forms and experience the living world. Beatrice slowly builds a friendship with Nadi as well as the Lavan siblings. Beatrice soon learns that Ysbeta, like her, is even more desperate to escape the fate of marriage.

As Beatrice attempts to avoid the entrapment of marriage things become more complicated for her as she begins to develop feelings for Ianthe, who also happens to be the most wanted bachelor of the bargaining season. It also becomes complicated with Ysbeta with the struggle to keep their ongoings secretive and as Ysbeta becomes more frantic and inpatient to avoid her marriage fate, despite her not being ready to perform the magic required. As time runs out, the friends find themselves in more than a few predicaments that will tear the fragments of their society apart and leave Beatrice with an immensely difficult decision to make.

I expected to hate every aspect of this book but I found myself happily transported in a fun world that made for a nice getaway from daily life. I especially loved the aspects and relationship that Beatrice had with Nadi, I don’t think the book would have been the same without this relationship. Further, the book offers a feminist-leaning that’s accessible to everyone. The ending is especially satisfying in this sense.

This book was exactly what I needed to read during a stressful time. A comfortable read that transported me to a different world, unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to keep it in the Canada Reads debate standings. I actually predicted that this book would win Canada Reads just because it met the theme so well, One Book to Transport Us, and especially with the way the last few debates have gone, but this year was exceptional and it was nice to see a return to a respectful debate.

I would recommend this book to YA lovers, girls, or for those who would be interested in a Jane Austen setting with a fun twist, or just want something easy and enjoyable to read.

Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica J. Lee

“The gaps that bind us span more than the distances between words.”

2/5 stars.
ebook, 271 pages.
Read from February 4, 2021 to February 9, 2021.

My second of five of the Canada Reads 2021 selection that will be championed by Canadian singer-songwriter Scott Helman in the debates that take place in March.

I know, I’m behind but I’ve been up to my ears in essays. I was really looking forward to reading this memoir and learning a bit more about Taiwan. I really wanted to love this book but it fell flat for me.

The author is a first-generation Canadian and after finding a partial memoir from her grandfather she decides to embark on a journey to Taiwan to explore her family connections and history. The story floats between gorgeous and descriptive nature scenes as the author hikes through different parts of Taiwan, all while intermingling the details of her family’s personal history throughout. Her grandparents were originally from China but when the cultural revolution happened they relocated to Taiwan where her grandfather took up work as a pilot. The family then moved to Canada where the author was born. After her grandfather left, in his old age and on his own, to return to Taiwan no one really knew what he did with his final years as his health failed him. The author makes efforts to reconnect with her language and Chinese heritage to get a full understanding and appreciation of her family’s past and to place her own identity.

While the writing of this book was descriptive and engaging at points, the story’s timeline was all over the place, jumping from the past to her current excursions in Taiwan. The descriptions of Taiwan were sometimes enthralling and made you feel like you were in Taiwan but I felt that they went on too long as I was more interested in the family history which, I didn’t feel had enough of a presence. The book left me feeling like I had an incomplete picture of her family and I wanted to know more. Ultimately, this story is about the author’s journey but it reads and feels more like a journal than a novel. I wanted to like this novel more but I found it a bit boring if I’m honest. It’s not a terrible read, it’s just not as engaging as I was hoping it would be.

In terms of the theme for Canada Reads this year, One Book To Transport Us, this book does seem an appropriate fit with the way it makes you feel like you’re on a hike in Taiwan as well as transporting back to a time in Chinese history. We will see what the other contenders bring to the table.

The debates will take place March 8-11, 2021, hosted by Ali Hassan and will be broadcast on CBC Radio OneCBC TVCBC Gem and on CBC Books

The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen

“And here you are, safe in your asylum, one of the committed. The question is: Committed to what?”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 368 pages
Read from January 26, 2021 to February 2, 2021.

I was so excited to find this anticipated sequel to The Sympathizer on Netgalley and was even more thrilled that I’ve had a chance to read and review it before its publication. This story is a immediate continuation of The Sympathizer and won’t make much sense if you have not read it.

We were the unwanted, the unneeded, and the unseen, invisible to all but ourselves. Less than nothing, we also saw nothing as we crouched blindly in the unlit belly of our ark. . . Even among the unwanted there were unwanted, and at that some of us could only laugh.

Arriving in Paris as a refugee, the Sympathizer is still reeling from the trauma of his communist reeducation camp experiences in Vietnam. He was a communist spy working in America, a double-agent, though he always classified himself as a sympathizer to either cause, not that his blood brother Bon, an anti-communist, knows that. After a horrendous journey he and Bon arrive in Paris to stay with his French-Vietnamese ‘Aunt’, the communist woman who was his correspondence while he was in America. Between mingling with her snooty left-wing intellectual friends, the Sympathizer throws himself into capitalism through drug dealing. Bon is as immensely traumatized as the Sympathizer especially as he made it out of Vietnam alive but his wife and child did not. The Sympathizer knows that Bon will kill him if he ever finds out that he isn’t the die-hard communist hater that he is and that he was once a double agent but Bon is the closest thing to family that he has had since his mother. Unable to resolve his moral and political dilemma and unsure of where his personal beliefs stand he verges on the fence of nihilism and self-destruction.

And here you are, safe in your asylum, one of the committed. The question is: Committed to what? You have had two years …to confess to the crimes you have committed, to acknowledge that after everything you have been through, everything you have done, you are still committed to revolution, which must mean you’re crazy.

The book has a completely different tone and approach than the previous book. The Sympathizer was deliberately written as a spy or adventure type of novel. Wanting to take a different approach, the author stated in an interview that,

“I wanted to write a dialectical novel with The Sympathizer and to write a novel deeply influenced by Marxism and Marxist theory.” and to explore ideas such as “what does [a] disillusioned former revolutionary do with himself?”

Viet Thanh Nguyen,“On Writing Memory and Identity: An Interview with Viet Thanh Nguyen

This novel is by far more philosophical and theoretical than The Sympathizer which, at times is refreshing, but if you were hoping for more of the same spy action you might be disappointed. It’s not that this plot isn’t without action it’s that the author’s state is distressing and even while filling his head with rhetoric from people he would have gone on with previously, he see flaws in their beliefs and their racist personas and can’t come to terms with the indifferent person he is now. This story is one of trauma, love, friendship, sexism, rhetoric, and racism. The writing quality is still of immense quality and you still feel committed to this sad character and how his story is going end, it just didn’t pack the same punch as The Sympathizer. However, that book is definitely a tough act to follow. The narrator’s inner thoughts are still the best parts of the story and how he manages his trauma, decisions, and realisations. I really enjoyed reading this conclusion of his story and would highly recommend reading this novel to any that enjoyed The Sympathizer.

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