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Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Review of CUT TO THE BONE by Ellison Cooper (New Release)

3 Stars
Agent Sayer Altair, an FBI field agent and neuroscientist, is placed in charge of a case which begins as a dual murder and ends up as a kidnapping of a busload of high school students.  She puts together a team of colleagues for whom the search becomes more desperate as false leads send them on wild goose chases and bodies multiply.  At the same time Altair is being followed and her life threatened more than once.

I requested a galley of this book because it sounded interesting and because it was described as a standalone novel.  As soon as I began reading, it became clear this is part of a series.  There are repeated references to earlier cases involving Altair.  Much backstory is missing.  For instance, we are told that Altair has adopted an adult daughter Adi, and that’s all we are told.  There’s obviously much more to the story.  The ending also indicates that there will be at least one more book in the series.  I detest such false advertising.

Altair has a coterie of very loyal colleagues who hold Altair in high esteem.  The problem is that, because the book does not show how her relationship with these people developed, their loyalty seems unfounded.  Why are they so unquestioningly trusting?  There is a similar issue with Subject 037, a non-criminal psychopath that was a subject in a research project.  All we know is that he is fixated on Altair for some reason.  Why?  What transpired during the research? 

Altair is the strong female lead, but sometimes her reactions are unbelievable.  Considering what she loses in a fire, she has so little reaction?  More than once, reference is made to her reputation but, again, we are only told about this reputation.  She has supposedly earned this reputation because of previous cases, but simply being told does not totally convince this reader.   Her continuing to work while injured is a tad much.

The book definitely reminded me of an episode of Criminal Minds with some elements of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.  But I hated the chapter titles which are just indications of location like “Tino’s Apartment, Alexandria, VA” and “Andrew Mellon Memorial Fountain, Washington, D.C.”   “Road to Hearing Voices Institute, Great Falls, VA” is followed by “Dr. Lilenhammer’s Office, The Hearing Voices Institute, Great Falls, VA.” 

The plot is rather far-fetched.  How many people can fake their deaths?  Charred bones left after an IED attack are “autopsied and found to be consistent with” those of the sole occupant of the vehicle?  Wouldn’t DNA be used to identify remains?  The military would give glowing reports about someone “who has a fairly gray line between right and wrong” and who causes “unexpected collateral damage”?  After one murder, Altair concludes that a serial killer is responsible:  “’The lack of sexual element, the lack of anger, and the clear preplanning of the body dump, coupled with the intensely ritualized aspect of the victim display suggest the possibility of a serial killer’”?  Altair is supposedly an expert but wouldn’t an expert be more cautious in drawing such a conclusion on the basis of one death?  Towards the end, a character somehow informs two people about the whereabouts of various other people when there is no time when he is alone to do so? 

There is a lot of suspense and the book, with its short chapters, is a quick read.  I would however strongly recommend that people read the first two books in the series.  Convincing development of character and relationships is missing.  The reader must also be prepared to suspend some disbelief.

Note:  I received a digital galley from the publisher via NetGalley.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Review of THE BOOK OF LONGINGS by Sue Monk Kidd

3.5 Stars
This book will undoubtedly be considered blasphemous by some people since it imagines that Jesus was married.

The novel focuses on Ana, the daughter of the counselor and chief scribe to the tetrarch Herod Antipas and stepsister of Judas.  Her father allows her a tutor so she learns to read and write, and her ambition is to write the stories of women.  On the day that she is betrothed to an older widower, she meets Jesus, though it is not until later that she marries him.  Because Jesus must travel for work as a stonemason/carpenter, he is often away from home, leaving Ana with his mother Mary and his siblings.  Their separation lengthens when Jesus begins his ministry and Ana has to flee to Egypt. 

From her first appearance, when Ana is 14, she is a headstrong young woman with dreams of her own.  She accurately describes herself as “willful, impulsive, composed of strange hopes and selfish rebellion.”  Once she can read the Scriptures for herself, she realizes there are women in it, but their stories are ignored and forgotten:  “I swore an oath to set down their accomplishments and praise their flourishings, no matter how small.”  She possesses what would be considered modern sensibilities about women’s roles. 

Fortunately, Ana meets a man who respects and admires and loves the feisty Ana.  Jesus supports her passions however he can.  Because the two are well-matched, their relationship seems plausible.  Ana is certainly intellectually and spiritually curious.  Like Ana, Jesus tries to figure out his path in life.  What is interesting is that Ana’s yearnings may have “intimations of divinity” so both she and Jesus may have a higher calling. 

Of course, the book focuses on Jesus as a human and de-emphasizes his divinity.  The Biblical miracles are totally absent.  For instance, reference is made a wedding in Cana but no mention of the miracle that occurred there.  Lazarus appears, but Jesus’ raising him from the dead is omitted.  Regardless, because we know what will happen to Jesus, there is always a feeling of impending doom.  When references are made to John the Baptist and the Garden of Gethsemane, dramatic irony works to create suspense. 

The novel is an imaginative, woman-centred retelling of the New Testament.  There are several strong female characters.  Besides Ana, there’s her aunt Yaltha and her friend Tabatha both of whom suffer greatly at the hands of men, their “lives and fates left to men.”   Though the book emphasizes the voiceless status of women, several women find a way to express themselves and tell their stories. 

I found this an interesting read.  It cannot but leave one questioning why, even though little is known of Jesus’ life as a young man, it was decided that he was unmarried.  Ana asks, “Did they believe making him celibate rendered him more spiritual?  I found no answers, only the sting of being erased.” 

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Review of THE DIAMOND HOUSE by Dianne Warren

3.5 Stars
I was pleased to discover that Dianne Warren, whose novel Cool Water won the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction and was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, had a new novel out.  Unfortunately, I didn’t find The Diamond House as engaging as her first novel.

The book focuses on Estella, the youngest daughter of Oliver and Beatrice Diamond.  When she is five years old, Estella finds some letters and learns that her father, a successful brick-factory owner, was once briefly married to Salina, an independent and unconventional woman who aspired to be a ceramics artist.  Raised by her mother Beatrice, a very traditional woman, Estella often wishes she had been raised by Salina.  She too longs to be independent, but her plans are always derailed by the needs of her family and, though she does have a career as a teacher, she always reverts to the role of a dutiful daughter. 

The novel begins in 1902 when Estella and Oliver first meet and ends in the present after “the Raptors had won the championship.”  It begins in the Ottawa Valley but soon moves to Regina and northern Saskatchewan. 

The contrast between Salina and Beatrice is striking.  Salina has an “independent manner” and does not want a “predictable life.”  She wonders how a young woman like herself can “become what she dreams of being.”  She runs away from home and sets off for Europe.  Beatrice, on the other hand, is anything but daring.  When she and Oliver move to western Canada, she is “unsettled by this wilderness, and she felt a longing for quiet, conventional Bryne Corners, Ontario, and the house she had grown up in.”  Whereas Salina was “a free spirit and a suffragist,” Beatrice “was determined to adapt as well as any woman to the role of wife and mother” and vows to offer Oliver “stability and a well-kept home.”

How could Oliver be attracted to two such very different women?  Would Oliver and Salina have been happy together when Salina was “not likely a woman who would have adapted well to being a homemaker”?  Certainly, Estella suspects that were Salina her mother, she would have encouraged her independent spirit. 

Certainly, Estella is not encouraged to pursue a career other than marriage.  Oliver proves to be a traditional man who expects his sons to work in the family business but makes no room for his daughter; “he’d not taken his daughter seriously, and that consequence was her career as a mathematics teacher – a perfectly good career, but not a dream career.”  He never really considers her dreams, though he did once write to Salina that he has separated from his family because they have no dreams “and without dreams there is no joy.”  Because she is female and because she is single, Estella is expected to put her family’s needs first, so at different times, she ends up a caregiver to a brother, her mother, and her father.  Advancing  into an administrative role at school is not possible “because her teaching record had too many interruptions when she’d taken leaves to care for her brother, and her mother and . . . ”  Eventually, Estella takes steps to assert herself in the family business but there are unforeseen consequences and in the end she asks “Had it been worth it?” 

This book reminded me of another I recently read:  The Dutch House by Ann Patchett.  Just as Cyril makes the decisions about the house he and Elna will have, Oliver does not ask Beatrice what she would like in a house:  “He seemed to believe he knew what a married woman would want.”  Estella and Maeve are in similar positions; they are educated but the possibility of advanced education is never considered by their fathers. 

Though Estella does not live a stellar life that would befit her name, she is the star of the book.  She emerges as a fully developed character.  At times I found myself cheering for her when she did something daring and at other times, I could have cried in frustration as she coasted through life.   Perhaps because I’m older, I really liked the older Estella.  Her questioning the meaning of her life and her legacy is something with which I can identify. 

The novel does not cover new ground.  Many other books have showcased the limited opportunities for women because of societal expectations.  The Diamond House begins well but the pace really slows down (like Estella’s life perhaps).  Momentum picks up towards the end, but the middle is a slog.  A bit of judicious revision/editing would have this book shining more like the diamond in its title.   

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Review of TO DARE by Jemma Wayne (New Release)

4 Stars
The novel is told from the perspective of three women.  Veronica and her husband George move into their newly remodelled home.  They are a successful couple who have everything they want, except a child.  Their dream home proves to be less than a total dream when they are assailed nightly by noise from their neighbours, Simone and Terry.  Simone is trapped in an emotionally and physically abusive relationship but cannot extricate herself and her two children from Terry’s control.  The third woman is Sarah who was friends with Veronica when they were young girls; however, Veronica’s memories of that friendship are much more positive than Sarah’s.

None of the three women is totally likeable.  Veronica is emotionally manipulative; she can feel good about herself only if she makes others feel worse.  Simone allows Terry to not only abuse her but her son as well and she does nothing to intervene.  Sarah suffers from low self-esteem and at one point sets out to take revenge on the person she holds responsible for her lack of confidence. 

What saves the book is that, despite their flaws, the women still earn some of our compassion.  They are all very much products of their upbringing.  Veronica, for instance, was neglected by her parents.  Feeling unloved and jealous of Sarah who has the love of a stable family, Veronica works at undermining Sarah.  Her behaviour is not commendable, but it is understandable. 

What is admirable about the women is that they show themselves capable of changing.  They recognize their demons and acknowledge their own mistakes.  Simone, for example, admits that she may not have tried to see things from her parents’ point of view:  “Perhaps her own parents had imagined that what they were doing was some kind of protection too.”  Now, as a parent, she realizes poor decisions she has made and dares to change things. 

The book begins slowly, but the pace does pick up and the suspense builds up.  Danger becomes a constant element.  Terry is an obvious threat to Simone but also to his neighbours, but then so is a woman who seeks vengeance for wrongs committed against her. 

This not a light-hearted read because it includes emotional manipulation, physical threats, rape, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, and alcohol and drug abuse.  It is the portrayal of the effects of Terry’s emotional and physical abuse on Simone that struck me as particularly realistic.  Interestingly, Terry and Veronica are very different, but they also employ the same basic techniques to feel powerful. 

This is an intense read which slowly draws in readers by developing complex characters and ramping up the tension.  It also inspires us to ask how our own presents are defined by our pasts.  What we must do is to dare to move beyond those pasts. 

Note:  I received a digital galley from the publisher.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Review of WINDFLOWER by Gabrielle Roy

3.5 Stars
I was introduced to Gabrielle Roy in high school when I read Rue Deschambault in French class; later in a Canadian literature class in university I read The Tin Flute and Where Rests the Water Hen.  Recently, I was browsing through my bookshelves and came across Windflower which I realized I had not read.  I decided to do so.

This short novel focuses on Elsa Kumachuk, an Inuit woman living in northern Quebec in the middle of the 20th century.  She is raped by an American serviceman stationed in the area and gives birth to a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy whom she names Jimmy.  Because of her son’s dual heritage, Elsa is torn between raising her son according to traditional Inuit ways and the ways of the whites.

The novel was published in 1970, and it is a bit dated.  Elsa and her people are called Eskimos rather than Inuit and what is called Fort Chimo is now known as Kuujjuaq.  In its portrayal of motherhood and a society in transition however, the book is timeless.

The Inuit "with their indulgent natures" have a very easygoing parenting style, letting the child explore the world, as evidenced when Jimmy starts to walk.  Having adopted the parenting style she sees at the home of Madame Beaulieu, Elsa buys a playpen to restrict Jimmy’s movements.  Elsa’s family is aghast:  “Never before had such an interference with liberty been seen in an Eskimo family.  . . . it was not right to restrict a little child who had just discovered the delight of being able to take himself wherever he wanted to go on his own two feet.”  Elsa dresses her son only in blue and gives him a bath at the exact same time every day:  “From the white men, it seemed to her, she had learned much that was excellent – for instance to get up early, to rush all day scarcely ever dawdling any more, to take up tasks by the clock and not by the inclination of the moment.”

Later, Elsa decides to entirely remove herself and Jimmy from the community with its “endless increase of constraints.”  She moves across the river to live with her uncle who has self-isolated and lives a traditional Inuit life; in fact, he considers anyone who lives in Fort Chimo as “’a slave living in captivity.’”  Unfortunately, though both Jimmy and Elsa are happier living simply, the laws of the white man curtail their freedom.

The idea of being held captive by materialism is emphasized.  The pastor warns Elsa that “one could not have everything one wanted in this life and freedom too” because he fears that she has “’embarked on that endless road of never quite enough possessions.’”  When she gets the luxury of electricity, it means she feels compelled to work “far into the evening.”  Eventually she agrees with the pastor:  “the less one owned the better.  Her princely hut and the luxury in which she had lived now seemed to her shackles.” 

From the beginning, the reader knows that the book will not have a happy ending.  Elsa’s love for her child is unquestionable but, like her mother, Elsa is caught “between the cruel blades of the times:  what to change, what to keep?”  Despite its pervasive sadness, this is a worthwhile read.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Summer Reading Suggestions

Here's my latest article for my hometown newspaper - some suggestions for summer reading: 

10 Books for Summer Reading

Some summer days are warm and sunny and others are cool and rainy, but all summer days are perfect for reading.  Here are some suggestions for books to take to your favourite reading spot. 

 A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles is a perfect read for our times when terms like ‘social distancing’ and ‘self-isolation’ are part of everyone’s vocabulary.  Count Alexander Rostov is given a life sentence of house arrest:  he will be killed if he ever leaves the confines of Moscow’s Metropol Hotel.  The novel spans 32 years during which Rostov makes his whole world out of the hotel and the people in it.  At the end, you’ll wish you could meet this gentleman.

To people whose books of choice are mysteries, I’d recommend How a Woman Becomes a Lake by Marjorie Celona, an American-Canadian writer who appropriately sets the story “in a small fishing town a stone’s throw from Canada.”  Leo Lucchi takes his sons for a walk in the woods where, shortly after calling the police about finding a young boy, Vera Gusev goes missing.  Do Leo and the boys know something about Vera’s disappearance or is her husband responsible?  For the reader, there’s a mystery to solve and a question to answer:  What would you do in a similar situation? 

Readers who prefer romances might consider Broken Man on a Halifax Pier by Lesley Choyce.  This is a love story about two middle-aged people, each of whom comes with baggage.  Though not entirely light-hearted, there is humour.   From the beginning, you’ll be humming Stan Rogers’ “Barrett’s Privateers” and tasting the salt of the Atlantic. 

If you like historical fiction, Days without End by Sebastian Barry is a must-read.  The famine in Ireland motivates Thomas McNulty to immigrate to the U.S. where he meets John Cole.  The two become saloon entertainers before fighting in the Indian Wars and the Civil War.  They also adopt a Sioux orphan whom they name Winona.  The novel is action-packed but is also a story about friendship and love.  Recently, a sequel was released:  A Thousand Moons.  Winona is the focus of this follow-up.  She lives on a hardscrabble farm with her makeshift family which includes Thomas, John, an army buddy, and two freed slaves.  Winona’s life changes dramatically when she is attacked.

If family sagas appeal to you, you can’t go wrong with The Dutch House by Ann Patchett.  It focuses on two siblings who cannot forget their childhoods in the grandiose mansion from which they are evicted by their evil stepmother.  The once-wealthy brother and sister are thrown into poverty and have only each other.  Their bond saves them but impedes their moving forward.  Another family saga worth reading is The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna by Juliet Grames.  An unnamed family member tells the story of two sisters before and after they emigrate from Italy to the U.S.  A rift develops between the two sisters who were once inseparable, and the family member sets out to unravel the reasons for their estrangement. 

Those who like books with thematic depth should try Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips.  It begins with the abduction of two young girls on Russia’s remote Kamchatka Peninsula.  In 12 interconnected stories, we learn how this abduction impacts the lives of other women and how so much attention is given to finding the girls, as opposed to the virtually non-existent search for an Indigenous girl who went missing four years earlier.   It brings to mind the plight of Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women.  Another serious book is The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead.  It is a timely read because it addresses the mistreatment blacks receive from police and the criminal justice system.  Two boys are sentenced to a juvenile reformatory where they are subjected to brutal punishments.  The book is based on documented occurrences in a real Florida reform school. 
One final recommendation:  Love by Roddy Doyle.  Just released (June 23), it can be summarized as a pub crawl by two middle-aged Irishmen.  Two friends reunite after 40 years and revisit old haunts and discuss their lives.  It’s a challenging read because of meandering dialogue with unconventional formatting, but it’s full of humour and (some rather drunken) meditations on love. 

Whether in the backyard, at the cottage, on the beach, or in a boat in the middle of a lake, may you have many hours of enjoyable reading. 

Complete reviews of all these books can be found on my blog:

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Review of LOVE by Roddy Doyle (New Release)

4 Stars
Two middle-aged Irishmen go into a pub and into another pub and . . .  
Davy, who has lived in England for virtually his entire adult life, has returned to Dublin to visit his elderly father and contacted Joe, a friend from his youth.  The two revisit old haunts and discuss their lives.  During their pub crawl, Joe reveals he has left his wife Trish for Jessica, a woman with whom he was infatuated almost 40 years earlier.  It is obvious that Davy also has something significant happening in his life as he keeps checking his cellphone for messages, but it is only at the end that he tells Joe what that is. 

The narrative is virtually all dialogue; think of Waiting for Godot or Night Boat to Tangier - also penned by Irish writers.  There is no doubt that Doyle has an ear for dialogue because the conversation of two inebriated Irishmen is spot-on.  It could be said that the dialogue flows like the beer they keep ordering and drinking.  They swear a lot and often use Irish slang; for example, I learned that the jacks means “toilet” and yoke means “thing”.  Davy and Joe alternate between serious discussions and hilarious banter and, the more they drink, the more their conversation becomes circular and incoherent.

Actually, reading the book often feels like being the sober non-drinker listening to the conversation of people becoming more and more intoxicated.  At times it becomes tiresome.  Causing some confusion is the lack of conventional punctuation.  Quotation marks are not used; only em dashes are used, and they indicate both dialogue and interrupted dialogue.  Perhaps it’s only because I read a galley, but both men often speak in the same line.  Dialogue tags are not always used, so I often had to re-check who was saying what. 

The topic which occupies most of their time is Joe’s decision to leave his wife, whom he claims he loves, for a woman he knew briefly when he was a young man.  He grasps for analogies to explain his decision both to Davy and to himself.  In his explanations, he contradicts himself so it is not always clear what parts of his story are true and which have been embellished for effect.  Certainly, when Joe speaks of his first meetings with Jessica, Davy’s memories differ.  For instance, Joe claims that Davy was also smitten with Jessica, but Davy says he liked another girl named Alice:  “And I remember, Alice didn’t like [Jessica].  I remember, it had helped me to like Alice, to reach for her hand.” 

As the title clearly indicates, the theme of the novel is love and its many forms we experience in our lives.  There’s obviously lust which seemed to be Joe and Davy’s focus when they were young men.  Via flashbacks, we witness their love for the women who became their wives; those relationships start with romance and passion but over time have shifted to companionship.  The two men discuss their love for their children, and Davy ponders his love for his father.  The book emphasizes the difficulty in expressing feelings:  “There is a reason why men don’t talk about their feelings.  It’s not just that it’s difficult, or embarrassing.  It’s almost impossible.  The words aren’t really there.”

Of course, it’s the love demonstrated in their friendship that takes centre stage.  The two men have not been very close for almost four decades, and throughout the evening, Davy finds himself feeling differently about Joe:  at times, he is contemptuous of Joe’s choices and so deliberately provokes him.  More than once, he thinks that he will never bother to meet with him again.  He alternates between being interested and being bored.  Joe often seems to resent Davy, but in the end is unquestionably supportive. 

Naturally, because this is a Roddy Doyle novel, there is humour.  The first meeting between Davy and Faye is hilarious because Faye is very outspoken.  Because the two friends are nearing their sixties, they discuss aging.  Joe offers “Advice for the agein’ man.  Never waste an erection, never trust a fart, never pass a jacks.”

This book will not be for everyone, certainly not for anyone who wants a novel with plot.  Despite my occasional frustration with the meandering dialogue with its unconventional formatting, I found myself intrigued with their meditations on love.  I wanted to know how their evening would end, and I’m glad I persevered because the ending is perfect, both emotionally and thematically. 

Note:  I received a digital galley from the publisher via NetGalley.