Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Finding Buoyancy

My So-Called Ruined Life by Melanie Bishop


Tate McCoy is sweet 16, and her life is just beginning. Unfortunately, she's got far too much to deal with, even for the child of divorced parents. That's because her estranged mother - who was an alcoholic - was murdered and her father is on trial for the crime. Thankfully, Tate seems to be on the way to figuring out how to handle it all and still have fun - well, at least partially.

Bishop opens her novel with the following compelling paragraph that sets the whole story up perfectly:

It’s one thing to lose your mom shortly before your sixteenth birthday. It’s another thing to know she was murdered. When they decide it’s your dad who did the murdering, nobody cares that you disagree. He is hauled off; you are farmed out. If you are wondering about how this could get any worse, try living with this fact: you and your mother had not been getting along—barely speaking—for almost two years.

Already we can see that this is going to be a rich, character-driven story, with an exciting plot. We also feel Tate's intelligence, and this fluid writing style lends itself perfectly with both her age and situation. Bishop follows this opening with a beautifully written journey of discovery. What makes it even more special is that it perfectly mixes Tate's love of life and her instinct to enjoy her youth together with the tribulations of coping with the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that have been thrown at her.

This makes Tate McCoy an amazing young woman who is also adorable, mainly because she doesn't have the slightest idea how remarkable she is. Sure, things go wrong for her. Sure, she stumbles trying to make sense of things. Sure, things distract her and carry her away, but throughout it all, she keeps her wits and her humor about her, even when this reduces her to tears. How could you not love and admire a girl like that?

What really impressed me here was Bishop's inclusion of tough subjects like divorce, murder and alcoholism. These bring this novel to a level of literature that most YA books wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole. Then she takes all that and injects the friendships and romance parts into this story, giving us something that is so realistic and natural, that we can almost smell and taste it all.

I should mention that I've recently had the privilege of reading some excellent YA novels. Two of note were "The Universe verses Alex Woods" by Gavin Extence, and "Ostrich" by Matt Greene. Like this one, neither of these stories shied away from real-life difficult subjects. Then it struck me that both these books had male protagonists. So I went for a little search of YA books for girls. Unfortunately, from the many blurbs I read, a large amount of what's on offer are female protagonists whose biggest problems are finding, keeping or losing boyfriends or something else that's equally vapid like being popular. Finding a book with this depth of reality and with a young female protagonist with such admirable qualities is truly a rare gem. Tate McCoy is precisely the type of young, female role-model character to whom any mother would want their daughters exposed.

All this also made me think of the Harry Potter books. With all due respect to their success and popularity, many people will agree with me that those books weren't all that well written. Part of the problem I had with was their third person point of view, which tends to be less intimate than a first person narrative. I personally believe that young adults will be more encouraged to keep reading a book if they can quickly connect to their protagonist. That's why I was pleased to see Bishop writing Tate McCoy's story in first person, so the reader has an immediate connection with her.

With all this praise, I should confess that one element near the ending of this book was a bit too easy and convenient for my tastes. However, I don't think it was overly distracting to the story, and this was the only drawback I could find. While I'm not sure where Bishop will take this for the next book in the series, I truly look forward to reading about what the world has in store for Tate McCoy, and how she'll handle it. With all this praise, I can only conclude by strongly recommending this book to mothers and daughters alike, and I'm giving it a full five out of five stars. 


"My So-Called Ruined Life" by Melanie Bishop, published on January 14, 2014 by Torrey House Press, is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes (iBook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, Better World Books or from an IndieBound store near you. I want to thank the author for sending me a review copy of this book. (This is a revised version of my review which originally appeared on my Times of Israel Blog and {the now defunct} Yahoo Contributor Network.)

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A Novel that Sweeps in like the Tide

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki


We’ve all read books where the first thing we’ve wanted to do when we finished reading the last page was to start over again from the beginning. Ruth Ozeki’s latest novel “A Tale for the Time Being” is certainly one of those books; but it also isn’t one of those books. The reason for this is, while it is almost certain you will be enchanted by this novel, you might get the feeling that a second reading could change the way you were initially affected by the story. This is partially because you won’t be the same person you were when you first started reading. It may also be because the story itself will be different – either for you or that story itself will change. This might not make a whole lot of sense – at least not until you’ve read this book!

The back cover of this book says, “Within the pages of this book lies the diary of a girl called Nao. Riding the waves of a tsunami, it is making its way across the ocean. It will change the life of the person who finds it. It might just change yours, too.” That sounds almost bombastic, and yet at the same time, it is an awesome teaser. Especially because its publication date coincides with the second anniversary of the disastrous earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011 – the one that no one seems to remember. However, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

What we have here is an incredible melding of fiction and reality. On the one hand, we have Nao’s diary – the pages written by a 16-year-old Japanese girl who grew up in the USA, and is living a tortured life in Tokyo. Her father – a computer programmer – became unemployed and bankrupt when the dot-com bubble burst, forcing their family to return to Japan. Nao doesn’t fit into her new school and becomes the brunt of their ridicule and a scapegoat for their torture. On the other hand, you have Ruth – a real-life novelist, filmmaker and Buddhist Priest – who has placed herself in the story. This is a partial fictionalization of Ozeki's own life here, including living on a small island in British Colombia, Canada. It is on the shores of this island that she finds a washed-up package that contains a Hello Kitty lunchbox, carefully wrapped in plastic and covered in barnacles from its travels. That pink box contains Nao’s diary (in English, hidden inside the cover of Marcel Proust’s “À la recherche du temps perdu” aka “In Search of Lost Time”), a wristwatch, some letters (in Japanese) and a notebook (in French). This book recounts everything Ruth has found, while in parallel Ruth attempts to unravel the mysteries behind all of these items.

There are other characters, as well. There is Jiko – Nao’s 104-year-old great-grandmother who is a Buddhist nun, and the reason why Nao is writing the diary – to tell Jiko’s stories. We also get Oliver, Ruth’s husband, whose stalwart rationalism as a scientist tempers his enormous heart as he listens to Ruth read the contents of Nao’s lunchbox. Then we have Haruki #1 – Nao’s great uncle who died during WW2 as a kamikaze pilot, along with Haruki #2 – Nao’s father. Sneaking around in the background is Ruth’s mother, and the painfully unfinished book Ruth wants to write about her after she died from Alzheimer’s, together with Ruth and Oliver’s cat – Schrödinger, who they refer to as Pesto – a loving morphing of the word “pest”.

Location also comes into this novel, with parts of the story that take place in Japan with Nao, as compared to those sections that take place on Ruth’s storm swept Canadian island. All of this comes with smatterings of both ancient and modern colloquial Japanese, all generously translated in the footnotes, together with any slightly obscure references, explained in five appendixes. This last addition heightens the feeling of this book’s mixing of fiction with reality.

In all honesty, to critique this novel by its characters, settings or technical aspects, would do this book a huge injustice. This is because of the Zen included here; the yin and yang of the various aspects of these stories, and how they form a whole. But even more than that, this novel asks the reader to carefully take a look – not only at the many parts included, or the whole that these different components make, but equally at that very thin line where everything connects and comes together – and then go on to investigate that line.

Both Ruth and Nao take us through their personal journeys through this investigation, and we, the readers travel with them. This happens both as individuals and in how they relate to each other. You might ask how it is possible for two people, who never meet, and are living in different times, can have a relationship. One way is through the author’s ability of to make the reader empathize with her characters – which Ozeki does with superb mastery. Another is through how Ozeki presents these two women’s voices. Ruth speaks to the reader as a sort of narrator of the story, showing her living her life and how that connects to the diary. Nao’s diary, on the other hand, is a letter to the unknown stranger of the future who she hopes will find it. This draws us further into their stories, while asking us to become students of the essence of what is time, and what is being.

This may sound like it could be a heavy philosophical tome, but the ethereal quality of the writing keeps this novel from ever feeling the least bit weighty. Ozeki’s style might seem like off-handed metaphors whose meanings are both subtle and vivid, that you might think you’re watching this on film. The rice-paper thinness of the prose belies its hidden depths, and makes reading this into something experiential. It’s as if the story washes over you like a lightly perfumed mist or dances on your thoughts like the whisper of a sweet, fresh breeze of spring on the air. In short, “A Tale for the Time Being” is a totally unique novel and one that will probably create its own sort of earthquake and tsunami – and rightly so, because it is just that marvelous. That's why this novel deserves far more than only five stars out of five, and isn’t just highly recommended, it should be mandatory reading! If you read only one book this year, make it this one.


"A Tale for the Time Being" by Ruth Ozeki Published by Canongate, March 2013 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes (in iBook or audiobook form), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publisher for sending a review copy via Curious Book Fans. This is a version of my review on Curious Book Fans and Dooyoo (under my username TheChocolateLady), which previously appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

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