They Called Us Enemy – George Takei

Readers of a certain age will recognize George Takei from his stint on Star Trek (1966-69), where he played Lt. Sulu. He’s had a long show biz career beginning back in 1955. At 83 he’s still working, but is probably best known (currently) for his provocative and political Tweets. I am one of his 3.1 million Twitter followers. He is also an outspoken advocate for gay rights.

Takei, along with Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott, wrote the words and Harmony Becker has illustrated the story of Takei’s young life in graphic form. They Called Us Enemy introduces readers to George, who lives with his brother, Henry, and baby sister, Nancy, with their parents in Los Angeles.

My father, Takekuma Norman Takei, was born in Yamanashi, Japan. He came to America as a teenager and was educated in the Bay area. He later pursued a lucrative dry cleaning business in Los Angeles’ Wilshire corridor.

My mother, Fumiko Emily Nakamura, was born in Florin. California, but was raised traditionally Japanese. Her father had sent her to Japan to avoid school segregation in Sacramento.

Life was pretty awesome until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour and the government decided to round up anyone of Japanese descent and place them in camps. These people could take only what they could carry. Their homes and businesses were confiscated; their rights as American citizens null and void.

First stop for George and his family was the Santa Anita Racetrack where they were “assigned to a horse stall still pungent with the stink of manure.” George’s reminiscences are seen through a child’s eyes and all his experiences are tempered by his father, who somehow managed to make the best of the situation in which they found themselves.

Through my child’s eyes, Daddy always seemed in command of any given situation. It was my father who bore the pain, the anguish…and the torturous experiences the most in our family.

Takei’s story is one of resilience and it is no wonder that he is such a force of nature when it comes to activism of all sorts. They Called Us Enemy methodically, and almost without emotion, recounts his story, and the story of thousands of other Japanese who were wrongly imprisoned. I think it’s also a love letter to his father, who Takei claims “taught me the power of American democracy – the people’s democracy.” That’s saying something given the circumstances.

Canada did no better post- Pearl Harbour. Our government rounded up 21,000 Japanese Canadians without charge or due process, exiling them to remote areas of British Columbia and elsewhere. It’s a shameful part of our history and the only way to atone is to make sure it never happens again. Sadly, the world seems to be getting crazier by the moment.

They Called Us Enemy is a chilling and sobering look at what happens when we become afraid of people who don’t look like us. It’s yet another skeleton in our historical closet, and is well worth your reading time.

Hotel for the Lost – Suzanne Young

Audrey has had a tough go. Her mother recently died; her older brother, Daniel, is barely speaking to her, and her father is so fed up he’s shipping her off to spend the summer with her maternal grandmother. This is how Audrey and her family ends up at Hotel Ruby, the creepy setting in Suzanne Young’s gothic romance Hotel for the Lost.

There’s a pathway into the trees, a road covered in debris of broken branches. I’m about to ask my father where the hell he’s going when a set of open iron gates appear in front of us. They’re ornate and oversize. Beautiful. Golden lights wrap their way up the tree trunks and illuminate the drive, now cleared.

Here, in the middle of nowhere, is a grand building – lit up at 3 a.m. like it’s New Year’s Eve. A white stone front, huge archway with ivy crawling up the walls.

Hotel Ruby is not like other hotels. For one thing, their stay there mellows Audrey’s dad out and one night turns into three. For another, there’s a massive party held in the ballroom nightly, but it’s by invitation only and Audrey is not invited. And then there’s Elias, the hot, strangely old-fashioned guy whose “smile is absolutely disarming in the most wonderful way.”

Audrey’s stay at Hotel Ruby gives her an opportunity to reflect on her mother’s death (something she has struggled to come to terms with). It also gives her the chance to see her father in a new light and to attempt to work through her complicated feelings for Ryan, the boy she recently dumped. Mostly, though, she wanders the strangely labyrinthine halls of the hotel, snogging Elias and trying to figure out why the place feels so strange.

Part of that strangeness has to do with Kenneth, the hotel’s uber-creepy concierge. And then there’s Audrey’s hallucinations, which become more pronounced the longer she’s at the hotel.

I think Hotel for the Lost had a lot of (often unrealized) potential, and the novel definitely picked up steam in the latter half. I think readers who enjoy a little bit of “what the heck is going on” will enjoy the story’s twists and turns, and anyone who enjoys romance will be rooting for Eli and Audrey.

Darius the Great Is Not Okay – Adib Khorram

It is impossible to count all the accolades Adib Khorram’s debut novel Darius the Great is Not Okay accumulated, but let’s just say if there is a “best” list, this YA book is likely on it.

In this compelling coming-of -age story, seventeen-year-old Darius Kellner feels like an outsider. Even in his own family he feels “other”. His mother is from Iran and his father is, as Darius calls him, an “Ubermensch.”

I did not inherit any of Dad’s good looks.

Well, people said I had his “strong jawline,” whatever that meant. But really, I mostly looked like Mom, with black, loosely curled hair and and brown eyes.

Standard Persian.

His looks aren’t the only thing that sets him apart from the other kids at his school. Darius is a bit of a geek, too. He loves Star Trek – it’s the one thing he and his father have in common and they rewatch an episode together every night – and Tolkien. He’s a tea aficionado. He also has a special relationship with his younger sister, Laleh.

…guys are not supposed to love their little sisters. We can look out for them. We can intimidate whatever dates they bring home, although I hoped that was still a few years away for Laleh. But we can’t say we love them. We can’t admit to having tea parties or playing dolls with them, because that’s unmanly.

And, the most damning thing of all: Darius suffers from clinical depression.

When Mrs. Kellner learns that her father back home in Iran is terminally ill, the family decides to visit. She hasn’t been home in seventeen years, and Darius and Laleh haven’t ever seen their grandparents except via a computer screen. It is to be a life-changing trip.

As much of an outsider as Darius is at home, he feels just as much on the outside in Iran. Unlike his sister, he doesn’t speak Farsi. He is a “Fractional Persian” at best, and the customs and culture are almost as alien to him as they might be for someone without any ties to the country. Luckily, he meets Sohrab almost as soon as he arrives, and this new friendship teaches him not only about his heritage, but about himself as a person. Their unfolding friendship is truly a thing of beauty to behold.

There is a real sense of place in Khorram’s novel. What I know about Iran would likely fill a teaspoon, and most of that is likely negative. Not sure why. This novel is full of history and culture and food and family. It is brimming with life, even with the shadow of political and religious unrest simmering beneath the surface. But that is not what this book is about. This book is about finding your place, accepting your perceived flaws, belonging.

Darius is a complex character, a teen you want to hug. As he taps into all the things that make him who he is, his notion of who he might be shifts, too. And that is a joy to behold.

Highly recommended.

Island of Lost Girls – Jennifer McMahon

Rhonda Farr, the protagonist of Jennifer McMahon’s second novel Island of Lost Girls, has stopped at the Mini Mart for gas when she sees something that sends her reeling back through her past. A gold VW Beetle pulls up next to her, a car she recognizes, but instead of being driven by the eccentric Laura Lee, it’s being driven by a large, white rabbit.

…when the rabbit got out of the car, there in the Pat’s Mini Mart parking lot at quarter to three on a Monday afternoon, it didn’t occur to Rhonda that there might be a person inside. He hopped like a bunny, moved quickly, nervously, jerking his white head one way, then the other. He turned toward Rhonda, and for an instant he seemed to stare at her with his blind plastic eyes.

While Rhonda watches, the rabbit knocks on the door of another car parked in the lot and leads little Ernestine Florucci, whose mother is inside the store, away. It is from this absurd beginning that Jennifer McMahon (Promise Not to Tell, Dismantled, The Winter People) spins the tale of not one missing girl, but two.

Rhonda, perhaps out of guilt, decides to help with the search effort and to do a little investigating of her own. She’s aided by Warren, Pat’s nephew. Pike’s Crossing is a small place, and Rhonda knows everyone. Trying to help find Ernestine also brings back a wave of memories about Lizzy, Rhonda’s childhood best friend who also went missing many years ago. It also brings to mind the summer they spent together launching a production of Peter Pan with Lizzie’s older brother, Peter, who is the object of Rhonda’s unrequited affection and also her dearest friend. As she searches for clues, Rhonda comes to suspect that Peter might have something to do with Ernestine’s disappearance.

There is a mystery, well two mysteries, at the centre of McMahon’s novel and I think she successfully pushes the plot of both along, switching between the past and present with ease. (I read the book in pretty much one sitting, which is about a good a recommendation as I can offer, really.)

This is also a book about the loss of innocence. Rhonda loses hers when she discovers family secrets, and when she realizes her feelings towards Peter are not returned. It also ruminates on the end of childhood. Rhonda recalls her role as Wendy in Peter Pan and remembers saying her lines and having “a sudden vision of herself as an adult,saying that line quietly on some far-off night as she stared up at the sky, like it might help bring her back.”

I haven’t always liked everything McMahon has written, but I did enjoy this book.

The Wildling Sisters – Eve Chase

The four Wilde sisters (Flora, Pam, Margot and Dot) are spending the summer at Applecote, a manor house in the Cotswolds. They have many happy memories of time spent here, but this summer is different. For one thing, their cousin, Audrey, is gone – having disappeared without a trace five years earlier – and their aunt and uncle haven’t quite recovered from the loss. For another, there’s Tom and Harry, the boys from the estate across the river. Their arrival upsets the easy camaraderie between the three oldest sisters as they vie for the boys’ attention.

Eve Chase’s novel The Wildling Sisters is a slow burn gothic novel that slips back and forth between that summer in 1959 and the present day when Jessie and her husband Will, (and their young daughter Romy, and Will’s teenage daughter from his first marriage, Bella) buy Applecote in an effort to escape London’s madness and settle into a quieter life. There’s also that thing that happened at Bella’s school. Fresh start and all that.

Crime. Crowds. The way a big city forces girls to grow up too fast, strips them of their innocence. It’s time for the family to leave London, move somewhere gentler, more benign.

Jessie also hopes that this will be a new beginning for her and Bella. Being a step mother is hard enough without the shadow of Bella’s mom, the perfect and tragically-killed-in-a-car accident super mom, Mandy, hanging over their heads. The idyllic notion Jessie has of what Applecote might do for her family doesn’t quite come to fruition, though. Will spends a great deal of time in the city dealing with a work crisis, and Jessie begins to feel more and more isolated. Plus, there are all sorts of rumours about Applecote and what happened there 50 years ago.

Fifteen-year-old Margot is our narrator in 1959. The middle sister, she is aware of her shortcomings. She doesn’t “turn heads like Flora” or “command attention in a room like Pam through sheer, unembarrassable life force.” She was closest to Audrey, and so she is the most apprehensive about returning to Applecote.

…the sky is as I remember it: blue, warm as a bath, the air transparent. not washing-up-water-tinged as it is in London, alive with butterflies and birds, so many birds. So much is the same that it highlights the one crushing, unbelievable thing that is not: Audrey isn’t about to come belting out of the house, running down the path, excitedly calling my name.

This is a slow burn sort of novel. It’s a mystery: what happened to Audrey? It also begins with the image of the girls dragging a body across the lawn of Applecote. That can’t be good, right? It takes a long time to get anywhere, which isn’t a criticism because the book is well-written and does evoke a specific time and place. It also plumbs the depths of family relationships, not just between the Wilde sisters, but also the longings of daughters for mothers and mothers for daughters.

Definitely worth a read.

Wonder When You’ll Miss Me – Amanda Davis

In the Afterward of Amanda Davis’s novel Wonder When You’ll Miss Me, Michael Chabon laments the fact that Davis died in a tragic airplane accident at just 32. “It is unfair, as well as cruel, to try to assess the overall literary merit, not to mention the prospects of future greatness, of a young woman who managed to produce…a single short-story collection, the remarkable Circling the Drain, and a lone novel,” he says. According to Chabon, Davis was the real deal, someone who likely could have written just about anything due to her “sharp, sharp mind, her omnivorous interests, and her understanding of human emotion.”

Wonder When You’ll Miss Me is Faith Duckle’s story. She’s returned to school after several months in hospital after a suicide attempt.

I did it on a clear day, just before Christmas. I had thought about it constantly and planned a little, but when it came right down to it, I didn’t wake up that morning with an idea of what would happen or when I would know. I just knew. The light inside me had flickered and gone out.

The impetus for Faith’s suicide attempt is a horrific assault which had taken place under the bleachers at school during homecoming. A group of junior boys had plied Faith with “red punch that tasted like popsicles” and made her feel “normal.” Now, seven months later, she is back at school, forty-eight pounds lighter, but it seemed like “no one had even noticed I was gone.”

Friendless, except for the fat girl who follows her in the hall and sits behind her in class, offering unsolicited commentary, Faith struggles to regain equilibrium. Eventually, as memories of the event start to resurface, and with the fat girl’s constant prodding, Faith commits an act of violence and then hits the road in search of Charlie, the brother of her friend from the psych ward.

She ends up with a traveling circus, shoveling elephant shit and dreaming of becoming an aerial artist. Seeing Mina perform for the first time is revelatory for Faith, who must learn how to live in a body that has been changed by trauma. Mina “flew lightly, gracefully, as though it were perfectly natural to trust her entire body to this single thread.”

Wonder When You’ll Miss Me is a beautiful book about misfits, kindness, and our ability to heal. I loved Faith’s time with the circus-folk and I was rooting for her success the whole time.

Sweet Sorrow – David Nicholls

Because I have such a backlog of books on my tbr shelf, I rarely make impulse purchases these days. If I buy a new book, it’s usually because I’ve heard of it somehow and even if I do buy it, that doesn’t necessarily mean I will read it straight away. David Nicholls’ (One Day) new book, Sweet Sorrow, was irresistible, though. I bought it and read it immediately.

Charlie Lewis, our narrator, is recounting his post GCSE summer. His life is kind of a mess. His parents have recently split; his mother and younger sister, Billie, have gone off to live with his mom’s new man and Charlie has been left to look after his father, who spends his days in the gloom, listening to jazz albums and drinking or sleeping on the sofa. Of his three best mates from school, Harper, Fox and Lloyd, only Harper seems to understand what a grim time this is for Charlie. When he’s not working his part-time job at a local petrol station, Charlie spends most of his time riding his bike around. That’s how he comes across Fran Fisher.

Fran is part of the theatre troupe Full Fathom Five. They’re rehearsing Romeo and Juliet at Fawley Manor, a country estate owned by senior thespians, Polly and Bernard. The troupe is in desperate need of more males, and so Fran agrees to have coffee with Charlie if he comes back on Monday and participates.

I did go back, because it was inconceivable that I would not see that face again, and if doing so meant a half day of Theatre Sports, then that was the price I’d pay.

Thus begins a summer of Shakespeare and first love for Charlie. “When these stories – love stories – are told, it’s hard not to ascribe meaning and inevitability to entirely innocuous chance events,” Charlie says. But the truth is that Charlie thinks Fran is “lovely” and despite their differences (Fran attended the much posher Chatsborne Academy and is clearly destined for great things; Charlie lives on a council estate with streets named after famous writers and is pretty sure flunked his GCSEs so won’t be going on to college), they fall in love.

The ache of that love – and, trust me, it aches – is heightened because the pair are rehearsing literature’s most famous tragedy, a play Charlie comes to understand and appreciate because he and Fran spend endless lunch hours talking about it, and because Charlie is telling this story twenty years in the future. C’mon – who doesn’t look back at their first love with a certain degree of nostalgia? Y’know, “misty water-coloured memories” and all that.

Not gonna lie, I love Romeo and Juliet. I know what you’re going to say, but I don’t care. I love the language and the heightened emotions and when I first encountered the play, 40 odd years ago, I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Do I believe in love at first sight? Kinda.

Nicholls has written a book that is both laugh-out-loud funny and also deeply moving. How we ever survive those fraught teen years, I’ll never know, but somehow we do. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the book to mature teens in my class, but this is not a YA novel. The tears I shed at the end of the book came from understanding something I could never really know at sixteen: that first love doesn’t last, but it stays with you forever anyway.

Highly recommended.

Daisy Jones & The Six – Taylor Jenkins Reid

I feel like I am probably the last person on the planet to succumb to Daisy Jones & The Six‘s considerable charms, but fall I did. And hard. Taylor Jenkins Reid’s novel about the rise and fall of Daisy Jones and Billy Dunne, two uber-talented musicians in the 1970s, is the PERFECT book for a summer afternoon. I read it straight through, start to finish; I couldn’t have put it down, even if I wanted to.

Told in the style of an oral history, (so basically there’s no real exposition, it’s just people talking, as if they were being recorded and their words then transcribed,) the story follows Jones and Dunne’s separate journeys up until they meet and their musical fortunes become entwined.

This novel is so nostalgic – especially if you were around in the 70s, which I was. I graduated from high school in 1979 and while Billy and Daisy’s experiences certainly bear no resemblance to mine, I nevertheless appreciated some of the allusions. For instance, Daisy is introduced to the hedonistic and drug-fuelled club scene when she is just fourteen by flirting with a roadie at Whiskey a Go Go. The concierge of the Continental Hyatt House (preferred hotel of touring rock bands) remembers that some of the girls who hung around hoping to meet band members were young “but they tried to seem older. Daisy just was, though. Didn’t seem like she was trying to be anything. Except herself.”

Then there’s Billy Dunne. Gifted with a guitar for his fifteenth birthday, Billy and his younger brother Graham start a band while they are still in their teens. Billy is everything a lead singer should be: charismatic, sexy, beautiful and talented. The band’s manager says “Billy Dunne was a rock star. You could just see it. He was very cocksure, knew who to play to in the crowd. There was an emotion that he brought to his stuff.”

Both Billy and Daisy have their demons. In many ways, they are loners and they depend on a variety of substances to get them through the days and nights. Billy, though, has a wife, Camila, and a vested interest in getting his shit together. When Daisy and Billy meet, it catapults the two of them to super-fame. Their chemistry is off-the-charts. They record a song together that leads to a more permanent collaboration.

This novel is the bomb. I don’t claim to be an aficionado, but I do love music. Billy and Daisy start writing songs together and their creative partnership is both a blessing and a curse. Every song is fraught (Jenkins Reid has written all these songs and they are found at the back of the novel) and reminds us how incredibly powerful music (and art in general) can be in tapping into our souls.

…what we all want from art…When someone pins down something that feels like it lives inside us? Takes a piece of your heart out and shows it to you? It’s like they are introducing you to a part of yourself.

The creative partnership between Daisy and Billy cannot be sustained, for reasons that will be readily apparent. The push-pull between these two damaged, yet wholly likeable characters is so full of longing and angst, I just couldn’t bear it. (Truthfully, the angst is off the charts and I loved every wretched minute of it.)

Daisy Jones & The Six is pure entertainment. It’s beautiful, funny, human, nostalgic, heart-breaking awesomeness. I can’t WAIT for Reese Witherspoon’s adaptation.

Highly recommended.

The Vanishing – Wendy Webb

The Shining is the scariest ‘haunted house’ novel I’ve ever read. King knows how to make things go bump in the night. Wendy Webb, not so much.

The Vanishing is the story of Julia Bishop. Her husband, Jeremy, has recently blown his brains out after being caught with his hand in other people’s cookie jars. Julia tells us several times that Jeremy is Chicago’s version of Bernie Madoff. Anyway, after her husband’s suicide, Julia is left penniless, friendless and possibly on her way to jail.

Enter Adrian Sinclair. He has a too-good-to-be-true offer. Come to Havenwood, an estate deep in the Wisconsin forest and be a companion to his mother, Amaris Sinclair, world-famous horror writer, who has been presumed dead for the past decade. If the gig doesn’t suit, Adrian will help Julia create a new identity and give her enough cash to start over.

Havenwood was massive, with turrets and parapets and stained glass windows and balconies and chimneys. The house was surrounded by outbuildings and delicately manicured gardens through which a river flowed. Not far from the house, I noticed a lake – not Lake Superior, but a smaller inland lake.

Desperate to escape her circumstances, Julia accepts Adrian’s offer and heads to the middle of nowhere, where things start to get immediately creepy. (Without the actually creepy part.)

Havenwood is so massive, Julia is constantly getting lost. Mrs. Sinclair, who often sports velour tracksuits and calls people “piglet”, hardly seems in need of a companion. Although her day is structured, Julia has a lot of free time. Then there’s Drew McCullough, handsome Scottish, I don’t know, ranch hand? In-house vet? The house is also host to a variety of ghosts because, you know, isolated mansion in the middle of the woods.

There’s a reason Julia has been selected for this cushy gig, but I won’t spoil it for you. Some might call this a slow burn; I’d just call it a bore.

How To Be a Good Wife – Emma Chapman

In 1955, Housekeeping Monthly published an article called “The Good Wife’s Guide.” The article detailed all the ways a wife could keep her husband happy, including such gems as “Be a little gay and a little more interesting for him. His boring day may need a lift and one of your duties is to provide it” and “Listen to him. You may have a dozen important things to tell him, but the moment of his arrival is not the time. Let him talk first – remember, his topics of conversation are more important than yours.”

These are the tenets by which Marta Bjornstad, the narrator of Emma Chapman’s debut novel How to Be a Good Wife, lives. Married for many years to the much older, Hector, a school teacher, and mother of one adult son, Kylan, Marta’s life somewhere in a remote Scandinavian village is structured and isolated.

Twelve fifteen. By this time, I am usually working on something in the kitchen. I must prepare supper for this evening, the recipe book propped open on the stand that Hector bought me for an early wedding anniversary. I must make bread: mix the ingredients in a large bowl, knead it on the cold wooden worktop, watch it rise in the oven. Hector likes to have fresh bread in the mornings. Make your home a place of peace and order.

Things in Marta’s life are starting to unravel, though. For one thing, Marta has stopped taking the pills she has been taking for years. The last time she stopped, Kylan was twelve and Marta “wanted something to happen.” Back then, without the medication came “the heavy darkness”; this time is different. Marta starts seeing someone: a little blonde girl.

She stares without blinking, her grey eyes wide and glossy. Her hair is very messy: dirty, almost grey, though the broken ends are blonde. She is wearing grimy white pyjamas, her thin arms wrapped loosely around her bony knees.

There’s no question that something is off in the Bjornstad house and Chapman does a terrific job of unsettling the reader. Marta makes a compelling narrator because although she might seem unreliable, (is she a woman suffering from empty-nest syndrome, menopause, a mental break-down? These are all plausible scenarios.) as the mist lifts things take a decided turn in a horrifying direction.

I read How to Be a Good Wife in one sitting and thoroughly enjoyed it.