Amanda Leduc

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  • Water for Elephants

    Mesmerising, impeccably detailed read

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    Water for Elephants is the story of Jacob Jankowski, a young man in 1930's America who, upon learning of his parents' death in a car accident, leaves his veterinary studies and joins a circus. The circus part is accidental -- he merely jumps a train to get away. But, this being a circus, his veterinary skills come in handy, and he soon finds himself a part of the entourage of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth -- an entourage that includes, among others, the charmingly cruel animal trainer, August, and his lovely wife Marlena. This book is peopled with characters (both human and animal) so rich and descriptions so vivid that at times I almost felt I could smell the horse manure. Gruen's research into circus life in the 1930's was staggering and meticulous, and it shows. The result, much like my earlier mention of Sarah Selecky's collection, is a researched novel that doesn't feel like a researched novel -- writing so effortless that it feels like nothing less ...Water for Elephants is the story of Jacob Jankowski, a young man in 1930's America who, upon learning of his parents' death in a car accident, leaves his veterinary studies and joins a circus. The circus part is accidental -- he merely jumps a train to get away. But, this being a circus, his veterinary skills come in handy, and he soon finds himself a part of the entourage of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth -- an entourage that includes, among others, the charmingly cruel animal trainer, August, and his lovely wife Marlena. This book is peopled with characters (both human and animal) so rich and descriptions so vivid that at times I almost felt I could smell the horse manure. Gruen's research into circus life in the 1930's was staggering and meticulous, and it shows. The result, much like my earlier mention of Sarah Selecky's collection, is a researched novel that doesn't feel like a researched novel -- writing so effortless that it feels like nothing less than the truth. My unease with the unpredictable August grew alongside that of Jacob, and my love for the circus animals -- particularly that wonderful, wonderful elephant -- grew by mounds with every page I read. The circus narrative is interspersed with present day scenes, where an elderly Jacob reflects back on his circus days. In the present day, he's in a nursing home, frustrated by his inability to get about, dogged by an insidious fear that he's slowly but surely losing his mind. It offers a most effective and heartbreaking contrast, to know what Jacob eventually becomes -- a reminder for us all, I suppose. And while I admit that I didn't find the present day scenes to be as captivating as the scenes in the past (can you blame me? We are, after all, talking about a circus!), the framing tool is one that Gruen uses quite effectively, particularly towards the end of the novel. I only have one minor quibble with the book, and in a sense it's not even a quibble. Strangely, I found Marlena, though endearing, to be rather less full than I'd expected. Even though Jacob gets to know Marlena over a period of a few months, I never really felt like I knew her, in the way that I knew (insofar as a reader can know anything) characters such as Jacob or Walter or even the volatile August. I found myself wishing that we'd been able to spend more time with her, wishing that Gruen had been able to fit a few more scenes in to flesh out Marlena's history. That's my only quibble -- a wish that the author had given me more to sink my teeth into. And so I suppose it's not a drawback so much as the ultimate compliment. This was a world I'd gladly have continued to read about. It enthralled and enchanted, and when I finished the last page of the book (bowled over by that lovely twist in the ending!), I came away from my read almost surprised to find myself alone, in Ontario, on my decidedly unexotic bedspread. You can't ask much more of a book, I would say. (more)

  • The Gargoyle

    A fun, entertaining read

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    Though I realize that I’m under no pressure to explain or justify my reading habits, I nonetheless feel pressured to explain something about them anyway – namely, the fact that I think of myself as a writer and reader and yet can quite happily watch the latest blockbuster fade away from the literary world entirely before I put my hands on it. My reasoning for this is quite simple, though you’re free to think that it isn’t a reason at all – when I’m in the midst of my writing, I find that I don’t have the energy to engage in other reading. (Though Gale Zöe Garnett would agree with me, it seems – writing is the enemy of reading.) Writing for me is an all-consuming business. When I enter into the latter half of a novel, all of my waking time (the time not devoted to the regular day job, that is) goes into the book. If I do read while in the midst of writing, it’s often in an entirely different genre. I’ll put away the Adult Fiction cap and enter the world of memoir, or YA, or poe...Though I realize that I’m under no pressure to explain or justify my reading habits, I nonetheless feel pressured to explain something about them anyway – namely, the fact that I think of myself as a writer and reader and yet can quite happily watch the latest blockbuster fade away from the literary world entirely before I put my hands on it. My reasoning for this is quite simple, though you’re free to think that it isn’t a reason at all – when I’m in the midst of my writing, I find that I don’t have the energy to engage in other reading. (Though Gale Zöe Garnett would agree with me, it seems – writing is the enemy of reading.) Writing for me is an all-consuming business. When I enter into the latter half of a novel, all of my waking time (the time not devoted to the regular day job, that is) goes into the book. If I do read while in the midst of writing, it’s often in an entirely different genre. I’ll put away the Adult Fiction cap and enter the world of memoir, or YA, or poetry, and then I’ll eventually go back to my book. One offers a welcome break from the other, and when you’re trying to eke out a living doing something that involves large amounts of inside time and staring at your computer and willfully refusing nights out with friends just so you can spend more time at your computer, you need all the escape you can get. All of which I offer as reasoning for why I did not pick up a copy of Andrew Davidson’s mega blockbuster, The Gargoyle, when it was published in 2008. I was writing my thesis at the time, and trying to figure out how exactly this new novel was supposed to show its face to the world, and I was also trying to figure out how on earth I was going to stay in Edinburgh and work, because at that moment in time, staying in Edinburgh was something I really, really, really wanted to do. So. Not a lot of time for reading, now, when I think back on it. When I moved back to Canada in November of last year, directionless and destitute, I discovered boxes of books in my sister’s old room. One of those books was The Gargoyle, which I resolved to read as soon as I finished the revisions on my novel. Those revisions were finished last Thursday, and I picked the book up on Friday afternoon and had it finished by Sunday night. Not bad, for a 465-page behemouth. Testament to Davidson’s writing skills, in a way. I also read really fast. You can take what you like from that. I should also say that, while I didn’t have chance to read the book prior to now, I had of course heard plenty of the buzz surrounding its publication, as well as the equally loud buzz around the less-than-stellar reviews. Maybe this had a part to play in how long I went without reading it – I am notoriously bad for being reluctant to approach a book when there’s any kind of buzz, be it positive or negative. It’s my inner ornery dog, barking away. Nonetheless, I paid a certain amount of attention to the reviews. I noted with interest the fact that a great many of the ‘literary’ reviews were less-than-happy, although they also made note of the book’s compulsive readability (that wonderful quality that keeps you turning pages regardless of how well the sentences are strung together). I also read one review, in particular, that touted the book as “the last one you’ll ever need to read”. As a writer, this both intrigues and terrifies me. Is it possible for a book to live up to this kind of hype? The short answer, of course is no. Objectively no, in the case of the wider world, and subjectively no, in the case of this book. And so she comes, finally, to the meat of the actual review. I liked The Gargoyle a great more than I thought I would, to tell you the truth. I found Davidson’s story richly compelling, and the growth of the main character over the course of the novel is at once believable and poignant. The story of an immensely unlikeable burn patient whose life is gradually transformed by a variety of characters he meets in the hospital, foremost of whom is a schizophrenic patient claiming that they've been in love for seven hundred years, The Gargoyle tackles a great many themes all at once -- redemption, love, and the dark nature of history. The character of Marianne Engel is seductive yet heartbreaking, and the visual detail of the book was stunning. Just stunning. The mystical elements of the book were, to my mind, very well done – an artful mix of excellent research and the ability to tell a tale, and tell it well. Yet I found it quite interesting that a great many of the negative reviews for this book focused on the overblown language characteristic of the narrator. One reviewer quoted the “mozzarella” passage from the book as yet another reason to throw the book away in disgust. Too much language, too much ridiculous posturing, etc. But – call me crazy, here – isn’t this part of the book’s point? The narrative is told in first person, and the narrator himself is a ridiculous, posturing fool who has “always written poetry” and whose central flaw is summed up by another character like so: “You think you’re smarter than everyone else.” Given this, I wasn’t at all surprised to find the language overblown. I think, as a good reader, you need to expect this from a narrator who has set themselves up in this way. Despite this character’s journey – both literal and figurative – into hell, and despite the progress that the narrator does make over the course of the book, this central flaw remains constant throughout the book. He's only slightly reformed by the book's end, despite his entreaty to have you think otherwise. I would argue that, far from detracting from the book, this tactic in fact enforces the plausibility of the book’s narrative. Having said that, however, I am a little more conflicted as to the book’s overall merit. (Vladimir Nabokov would disagree with me on this, I am sure, as he once argued that “[t]here exist few things more tedious than a discussion of general ideas inflicted by author or reader upon a work of fiction.”) It’s a lovely page-turner, sure. The world that it evokes is strong and lush, absolutely. But for all that, I found myself feeling curiously ambivalent about the book when it ended. The characters have not lingered with me (save to call them up again for this review), and even the story itself, as timeless as the quest-for-redemption is, is somewhat lacking. This is not the kind of story that lingers beyond the page, and I can’t help but wonder if this is due to the nature of the narrator as outlined above – namely, that he’s a self-important, selfish little lump of a human being whose story has not managed to transcend the narrative. We’re all self important and selfish to some degree, and this is why selfish narrators have traditionally worked well in great literature. Witness the pitiful giants of Charles Bukowski. Witness the wrenching beauty of Holden Caulfield. But for some reason, the nameless narrator of The Gargoyle remains locked in the pages of the book for me. Is it because the themes of the book – death, life, journeys into Hell both literal and figurative – are so large they eclipse the more meaningful moments of character interaction? I’m not sure. All I know is that I liked the book a great deal when I was reading it, despite the florid prose and some of the more prominent plot gaps. And then when I closed those last pages away the narrative practically vanished from my mind. This is tricky ground, here, because I’m essentially arguing that the author didn’t achieve what he was hoping to do. And how would I know what he was hoping to do in the first place? But my sense of the book is that it’s a story that Davidson was hoping would be able to speak to large themes of our time. A story that his publishers then packaged as a bestseller, a story that eventually made its way into the world in the garb of a beach read. It’s a novel that wants to be more than it is. In the end, The Gargoyle is a great piece of entertainment that wants simultaneously to be important. I don’t think it’s the last book you’ll ever want to read. I think it's better than many reviewers have made it out to be, but there are a great many stories out there of this type that have been told better, and will ring louder for future generations. It’s a great story that has had its fifteen minutes, but one hundred years from now, The Gargoyle isn’t going to be saying a whole heck of a lot about our society. And that’s okay. (more)

  • A Thousand Splendid Suns

    One of those books that bowls you over

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    Once in a while, as a reader, you come across a book that, quite simply, bowls you over. A book that holds a story so strong and so … so full of life, so fat with hope and despair and sadness that it makes you feel glad to be living, glad just to have come across it. I felt that way years ago, when I first read The God of Small Things. I felt that way when I first read The Time Traveler’s Wife. And I felt that way again just a few days ago, after I turned the last page of A Thousand Splendid Suns, the second novel from Khaled Hosseini. On the surface, A Thousand Splendid Suns is a very simple story, making use of several tried-and-true story archetypes. The two heroines of the novel, Mariam and Laila, are separated by class and years – Mariam is the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy man who marries her off to a much older husband when her mother dies, and Laila is the only daughter of a progressive intellectual who lives in Kabul. Both women encounter tragedy early in their...Once in a while, as a reader, you come across a book that, quite simply, bowls you over. A book that holds a story so strong and so … so full of life, so fat with hope and despair and sadness that it makes you feel glad to be living, glad just to have come across it. I felt that way years ago, when I first read The God of Small Things. I felt that way when I first read The Time Traveler’s Wife. And I felt that way again just a few days ago, after I turned the last page of A Thousand Splendid Suns, the second novel from Khaled Hosseini. On the surface, A Thousand Splendid Suns is a very simple story, making use of several tried-and-true story archetypes. The two heroines of the novel, Mariam and Laila, are separated by class and years – Mariam is the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy man who marries her off to a much older husband when her mother dies, and Laila is the only daughter of a progressive intellectual who lives in Kabul. Both women encounter tragedy early in their lives: for Mariam it comes in the form of her marriage to the cruel and pompous Rasheed; for Laila, tragedy strikes when her home is struck and her parents killed by a rocket, one of many that decimated countless lives in Afghanistan during the reign of the Taliban. The story is told in four parts, each part focusing on a separate woman – we learn first of Mariam’s story and then of Leila, so it isn’t until the death of Leila’s parents that we see how these women are brought together in an unlikely friendship, one that will blossom amidst the ruins of their city even as the cruel nature of their lives as women under oppressed rule becomes increasingly apparent. Hosseini’s prose is clean and deceptively simple – the strength of his storytelling is such that it manages to rise far above the stereotypes of characterization that the novel first presents. There isn’t much to redeem Rasheed, Mariam’s ogre of a husband, while Leila’s childhood sweetheart, Tariq, is sketched so flawlessly that it’s a wonder (to my mind, at least) why half the neighbourhood women aren’t also in love with him. But somehow these characters rise above these initial impressions, while simultaneously managing to convey the growing despair and hardship that everyone is experiencing under Taliban rule. By the end of the book, I was filled with awe for the way that Hosseini’s prose just seemed to fall into place. By the end of the book, he’d made the city of his novel come alive in a way that seldom affects me as a reader, and these so-called “stereotypical” characters have fleshed out into beings that continue to haunt and affect me days after closing the book. This is a wonderful, haunting story, testament to human survival and love even in the darkest of moments. I highly, highly recommend it. (That is, for those of you who, like me, haven’t yet read it, unlike the remaining 99.6% of the population who read the book four years ago, when it first came out.) (more)

  • The Glasgow Student Short Story Prize

    Of dark and beautiful words.

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    Warning: Potential spoiler alerts! This is a wonderfully hard anthology, each piece smooth and polished and complete. These stories are prime examples of flash fiction -- stories that offer a glimpse into another world while still staying soft around the edges, stories that allow the reader to become complicit in the creation of each world on offer. The winning piece, 'Taking Care of Joseph', manages to convey so much in such a short span of words: three people, one act, the heavy fall of dirt. My favourite piece in the collection, 'Guga', by John Jennet, also rotates on this ambiguity. A man and a broken white bird, the heavy smell of the sea, and the fate that all of this plays on the life of one small girl. It's masterful writing, absolutely. Two other stories that I also loved were 'Pobrecita', by Kirsty Logan, and 'This is Your Pebble' by Michele Waering. 'Pobrecita' plays with language and structure while still managing to get a brilliant set of images across...Warning: Potential spoiler alerts! This is a wonderfully hard anthology, each piece smooth and polished and complete. These stories are prime examples of flash fiction -- stories that offer a glimpse into another world while still staying soft around the edges, stories that allow the reader to become complicit in the creation of each world on offer. The winning piece, 'Taking Care of Joseph', manages to convey so much in such a short span of words: three people, one act, the heavy fall of dirt. My favourite piece in the collection, 'Guga', by John Jennet, also rotates on this ambiguity. A man and a broken white bird, the heavy smell of the sea, and the fate that all of this plays on the life of one small girl. It's masterful writing, absolutely. Two other stories that I also loved were 'Pobrecita', by Kirsty Logan, and 'This is Your Pebble' by Michele Waering. 'Pobrecita' plays with language and structure while still managing to get a brilliant set of images across. ('... Connor pulls off his t-shirt one-handed, an afterthought.' I love that image. I wish I'd written it!) And 'This is Your Pebble' feeds the reader a brilliantly vivid set of pictures -- white van, fall, the flop of an injured arm -- while still shrouding its narrator in mystery. Overall, a lovely collection. Take heed of these names -- I'm sure they'll soon be everywhere! (more)

  • Lighthousekeeping

    The difficulties of story

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    I was immediately pulled into this novel

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Find me at: www.completelynovel.com/amanda-leduc

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