Rated as a Top 25 Canadian Book Blog
Twitter: @DCYakabuski
Facebook: Doreen Yakabuski
Instagram: doreenyakabuski

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Review of HANG THE MOON by Jeannette Walls (New Release)

 3.5 Stars

This novel is set in the 1920s, the Prohibition Era, in East Appalachia, Virginia.  The protagonist is Sallie Kincaid who is born into a life of privilege as the daughter of Duke Kincaid, the wealthiest and most powerful man in Claiborne County.  After the death of Sallie’s mother, Duke remarries and they have a son Eddie.  After Sallie endangers Eddie in one of her escapades, she is sent to live with an aunt for nine years.  When she is allowed to return to the Big House, she insists on becoming involved in the Duke’s enterprises, the most profitable of which is bootlegging.  She also discovers many family secrets and scandals.

Readers who like strong female characters will like Sallie.  She is intelligent, resourceful, and determined.  She is also feisty and fearless, always pushing back on the limitations set because she is a woman.  She is not interested in marriage because she thinks it would restrict her.  What she does want is the approval of her father; she believes “Duke hung the moon and scattered the stars” and knows her father is impressed by “people who are fastest, strongest, first – and that’s what I’m going to be.”  Sallie has some of the Duke’s traits; a friend tells her that sometimes she is exactly like her father but adds, “’It’s not a compliment.’”   

Duke is the most influential character in Sallie’s life, but it’s obvious that she ignores or is willfully blind to his faults.  She sees a charismatic man who rules the county’s economy and politics.  Duke warns his daughter that his position requires him to be “’calculating, devious, treacherous, cruel, a real hard-ass, and, when it’s necessary, truly cold-blooded,’” yet it takes a while for Sallie to see her father for the man he really is.  In this way, the novel is really Sallie’s coming-of-age story. 

Men do not fare well in the book.  Except for a father and his son, men prove to be untrustworthy and undependable.  Since Duke is modeled on King Henry VIII, though with fewer wives, some of his behaviour is expected, but it seems that almost every woman is wronged by a man.  Even the most religious man proves faithless.  There are several illegitimate, unacknowledged children. 

The book examines the concept of family.  The Kincaids emphasize who does and does not belong, based on whether a person carries Kincaid blood.  There’s a family home, a family business, and family jewels.  Sallie, however, gradually realizes that her family has secrets which cannot be discussed.  For instance, she is told by her father, “’If you want to be a part of this family, you will never again mention your mother.’”  There are also people who have Kincaid genes but are not accepted for some reason.  She concludes, “There are two kinds of family, those you’re born into and those you put together from pieces that don’t go anywhere else.”

The novel’s examination of Prohibition is interesting.  Sallie understands that she is engaging in illegal activity:  “I don’t for one second forget that what we are doing is illegal, but legal and illegal and right and wrong don’t always line up.  Ask a former slave. . . . Sometimes the so-called law is nothing but the haves telling the have-nots to stay in their place.”  For the most part, lawmakers are described as “boneheads in Washington” and a “bunch of numbskulls in Richmond and Washington” who don’t understand rural poverty.  Sallie sees people struggling to survive and she believes she is helping people “who through no fault of their own are in an awful bind.  Obey the law and starve.  Or break the law and eat.”

At times the book reads like a soap opera.  There’s a large cast of characters who appear and then disappear in some dramatic way.  The disagreements between family factions, a long-standing feud with another family, and sexual dalliances are often elements in soap operas.  Some of the events feel over-the-top, though in the Acknowledgements, the author states that they are inspired by actual incidents.

The book is entertaining, and I definitely enjoyed noting all the parallels with the Tudor dynasty.  However, it just didn’t engage me the same way that the author’s previous books did.  Parts of it border on melodrama. 

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

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Review of COLD ENOUGH FOR SNOW by Jessica Au

 3 Stars

A reader looking for a plot should avoid this novella because virtually nothing happens.  The unnamed narrator and her mother visit Japan; they see some sights, share some meals, visit some art galleries, and go home.  We are given no direct conversation between the two.  What we are given is the narrator’s memories of her childhood, her time at university, and her work in a restaurant when she was a student.  Some information is given about her sister, uncle, and partner. 

The character who remains elusive is the mother.  At one point, the narrator states, “When my mother finally appeared, she might as well have been an apparition.”  The older woman seldom speaks and never explains her decisions or choices; most often she just smiles or nods.  The woman’s reticence is obvious; when asked what she thought of a work of art, “she looked up at me in a brief panic, as if called to give an answer to a question she did not understand.”

The purpose of the trip is not made clear; the daughter just feels “it was important, for reasons I could not yet name.”  It does seem, however, that she is looking for a way to connect with her mother.  She wants “to feel fluency running through me, to know someone and to have them know me.”  The two do not seem to be close; there’s always a formality between them.  She certainly knows little of her mother’s life.  At one point she speaks about pentimento, “an earlier layer of something that the artist had chosen to paint over.”  This suggests her wanting to know her mother, to find hidden traces of her behind her composed exterior. 

One of the daughter’s problems is that she struggles to see her mother as she is in the present because she remembers her as more youthful.  She looks at paintings and realizes “Each showed the world not as it was but some version of the world as it could be, suggestions and dreams, which were, like always, better than reality and thus unendingly fascinating.”  She has “the same image of her as [she] had throughout [her] childhood.”  The daughter planned the details of the trip and included activities that tire her mother, making her walk more than is comfortable. 

Of course she is her mother’s daughter.  Since “parents were their children’s fate,” the narrator realizes, “if I had a daughter, she would live partly because of the way I had lived . . . and she would have no choice in that matter.”  Like her mother, she is reticent to open up to others; she is more focused on wanting to please others and “living according to a certain strictness . . . to be contained and capable at all times. . . . I made a concerted effort to be efficient and elegant, conscious of my gestures, my voice, the expression on my face.”  That is exactly the opening description of the mother:  she is dressed in clothes “chosen with attention to cut and fit” and she carries herself with poise and elegance. 

At the end of the trip, the daughter feels, “We had said, it seemed, so little of substance to each other these past weeks.  The trip was nearly ending, and it had not done what I had wanted it to.”  Yet she realizes her mother is an old woman who may need her help and will someday die and perhaps what’s important is being in each other’s company “and to have no need for words.”

At times the novel is vague without specifics.  Where the mother and daughter live is unknown.  Why is there no mention of the husband/father?  At other times, things are described in meticulous detail:  “the path was like a corridor, surrounded by trees on either side, tall and spirit-like . . . The earth smelled cold and rich, like the bottom of a well, and the path wound steeply upward, wet and muddy in places. . . . The water as it poured down the rocks was bright and white, like salt.  . . . On a rock near my feet, there was a tiny frog, the same color as an autumn leaf.”   Reading the novel is like the daughter trying to read her mother:  some scenes are “strong and definite, while others bled and faded, giving the impression of vapor.” 

I’m glad this book is a novella.  I appreciate what the author was trying to do, but I found it tedious after a while.  Just as the two characters don’t quite connect, I didn’t quite connect with them.  As a reader, I always felt removed from them, and though that may be the point, it’s not an engaging approach.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Review of 48 CLUES INTO THE DISAPPEARANCE OF MY SISTER by Joyce Carol Oates (New Release)

 4 Stars

In April of 1991, 30-year-old Marguerite (M.) Fulmer disappears from her upper middle-class home in Aurora-on-Cayuga in the Finger Lakes region of New York State.  Twenty-two years later, her younger sister Georgene (G.), the narrator, reveals snippets of her sister’s life and the various theories developed by police, relatives, colleagues, and even a psychic:  was she abducted and murdered or did she run away for some reason?  Also revealed are G’s complicated feelings for her perfect, much-loved sister. 

The two sisters are foils.  M. was beautiful, talented, accomplished, and popular.  A sculptor, she received prestigious awards.  With her sense of style and designer clothes, hers seemed to be a glamorous life G. could never achieve.  G. is the exact opposite.  She lacks her sister’s beauty and accomplishments.  She works in a dead-end job as a postal clerk.  Because she tends to be brusque, rude, and dismissive of others, she has no friends or romantic relationships.

G.’s anger, jealousy, and resentment become increasingly obvious.  She wants what her sister had:  beauty, popularity, and success.  She feels unloved by her family and hopes for a romantic relationship.  Beneath her peevish and abrasive exterior lies a deeply unhappy, lonely, and insecure woman. 

What also becomes clear is that G. is an unreliable narrator.  For instance, at one point she says that she refused “to be envious of anyone, ever” but then later admits “All that was secret in my sister, I deeply envied, and resented.”  From the beginning she makes clear that she is not totally forthcoming:  “Note that much is hypothetical here.  Though G. may know exactly what has happened to M., G. is taking care to present ‘clues’ as they appear in sequence.”  The line between reality and imagination is often blurred.  For instance, there is one episode where G. describes taking a certain action only for the reader to learn later that she was fantasizing.  As a consequence, the reader must wonder about other scenes:  are they reality or hallucinations?

Readers should be warned that the ending is ambiguous.  Of course, this should not come as a surprise since G. states at the beginning, “So many maybes!  Yet (this is the tantalizing promise of clues!) one of these maybes however improbable and implausible is the Truth.”  G.’s last glimpse of M. is her face “in the bureau mirror reflected in the mirror on the closet door – that is, an image double mirrored.”  This suggests a distorted image and that’s really what the narration feels like:  not everything is clear. 

This is a mystery for those who like to read closely in order to figure out what happened.  I have my suspicions, but I think a second reading would be beneficial. 

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

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Review of DEVOTION by Hannah Kent

 3.5 Stars

I’ve read Hannah Kent’s two previous novels, Burial Rites (https://schatjesshelves.blogspot.com/2017/07/ristapar-and-burial-rites-by-hannah-kent.html) and The Good People (https://schatjesshelves.blogspot.com/2018/01/review-of-good-people-by-hannah-kent.html), and I loved them both.  Like the first two, the third also portrays women on the fringe, but it is less impressive.

The novel begins in 1836 in a Prussian Old Lutheran community.  Fourteen-year-old Hanne is the narrator.  She’s a bit of a misfit with no real friends until she meets Thea, the daughter of a family that moves to the village.  The two form a deep friendship that soon develops into love.  Facing religious persecution, members of the community immigrate to southern Australia where they establish a new settlement. 

Hanne describes herself as “nature’s child” who “loved to be outside, because that was where the world sang to me.”  She has synesthesia so she hears the natural world as music.  For instance, she listens to trees which sing to her and says, “the sound of snow falling was like chimes.”  It is this synesthesia and her rather obsessive love for Thea that define her.  She does not otherwise feel like a fully developed character.

I enjoyed the first part of the novel, but then there is an unexpected twist mid-way that upends the reader’s expectations.  The event is foreshadowed as a “great cataclysm” and it is indeed that.  Unfortunately, the supernatural turn of events just doesn’t work for me.  And towards the end, a scene involving Hanne, Thea, and Hans is not only ridiculous but cringe-worthy.  The use of the mystical Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses is problematic because it was first published in 1849 although Thea’s mother has an old copy. 

Many of the secondary characters tend to fall into categories like sympathetic, kindly outcasts (Hanne, Thea, Anna Maria), spiteful gossips (Magdalena and Christiana Radtke), and limited patriarchs (Pastor Flügel and Heinrich Nussbaum).  And no one changes or experiences any personal growth.  Everyone falls on the spectrum between religious and superstitious:  “how easily superstition creeps into the smallest of gestures.” 

The focus of the book is the relationship between Hanne and Thea.  Hanne never doubts her love for Thea and her descriptions verge on the rhapsodic.  After a while, her extravagant emotions seem excessive and become tedious.  I would have liked more explanation of why the two love each other; much of their attraction seems to just be the result that both are outsiders. 

The book skims over the racial issues once the persecuted Prussians become the colonizers in Australia.  Hanne does comment that her people “disfigured the land back into Prussia” and she mentions seeing “ugly shepherds of smallpox and violence force an unnatural migration upon these people, away from the country they belonged to.”  There are few encounters with the Aborigines, though one near the end is an ugly one.  Hanne witnesses this confrontation but turns away and reacts with a thought:  “Thea is not here.”  I think Hannah Kent missed an opportunity to more fully address the hypocrisy of the persecuted becoming the persecutors.

For me, this book was a disappointment.  I would have preferred a more straightforward historical novel without the supernatural and mystical elements.  Focusing on a homosexual relationship among members of a rigid religious group is daring, but the obsessive nature of the love left me conflicted. 

Thursday, March 9, 2023

Review of IN THE BELLY OF THE CONGO by Blaise Ndala (New Release)

 3.5 Stars

This novel has two timelines, though events in both are connected to the 1958 World’s Fair hosted by Belgium.  Trying to portray itself as a benevolent colonial power, the country, in its pavilion, included a mock village where Congolese people were put on daily display.  This became known as the world’s last human zoo.   

After her death in 1958, Princess Tshala Nyota, daughter of King Kena Kwete III of the Kuba people in Congo, recounts her life and the journey that brought her to Belgium after she fell in love with a white Belgian administrator and fled from her father’s rage.  Her story, addressed directly to her niece, comprises the first part of the novel. 

The second time period is 2005.  Nyota Kwete, the princess’s niece, has returned to the Congo and is visiting her grandfather in a hospital.  She spent the previous two years in Brussels where she had been sent for a university education and to discover what happened to her aunt who disappeared in 1958. In the second part of the novel, she speaks of her time in Belgium and how and what she learned about the fate of her namesake.   

My knowledge of Congolese history is very limited so I appreciated the chronological historical overview of the former Belgian Congo at the beginning of the novel.  Some of the historical figures mentioned in this introduction (e.g. Patrice Lumumba and Joseph-Désiré Mobutu) actually appear as characters in the novel.

I did not like the writing style.  There is much too much telling and not enough showing.  Then there are the unnecessary anecdotes and digressions.  Nyota in her conversation with her grandfather describes a walk to a theater and names streets but then ends with, “’okay, don’t worry about all those street names, they really don’t matter.’”  The same speaker says, “Versace is an Italian brand that some of our stars of the rumba scene have transformed into an urban totem.  But really, that’s got nothing to do with our story.  I should stop going off on tangents.”  Then she tells the friend whom she has brought with her “to speak simply, without any unnecessary detours”!?  Sometimes the dialogue just seems like an information dump:  “Unilever (the company to which the state ceded half of our sacred forests at the start of the 1970s).” 

The dialogue certainly doesn’t seem natural:  “We headed toward the Bois de la Cambre, the sporadic clicking of his bicycle spokes setting the pace for our steps along the sidewalk, now wet from a little shower that had quickly come and gone.  In the distance, towards Flagey, along the Ixelles Ponds where I would go every other Sunday or so to commune with a play by Maryse Condé or the poetry of the Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish, whose work my previous boyfriend had adored, the firefighters’ sirens wailed and their lights spun in a kaleidoscope of brilliant flashes.”  Who speaks like this?  Nyota stops to explain to her grandfather the meaning of words like stock market and psychologist but then makes geographic and literary references that would mean nothing to him?

There is little to differentiate the dialogue of aunt and niece.  This is an example of the princess’s narration:  “you lived in a city where a melody composed by an incorrigible seducer could make allies of men in cassocks and those with military decorations, each trying to determine the sex of the Angel of the Apocalypse.  And that if you were that dark-skinned angel, you could follow the river’s flow toward exile, never knowing if it would ever end, or even leave you a voice so that you might still pretend you were a Black god at an ungodly bacchanal.” 

The novel excels in depicting the human cost of colonialism.  I definitely found similarities between the cultural genocide experienced by the Congolese and Indigenous Peoples in Canada.  The princess is educated in a Christian school run by nuns and when she references a custom of her people, “The Belgian nun almost died laughing, stunned that I still held on to ‘those beliefs shared by Beelzebub’s children.’”  Attitudes of colonizers are obvious in the unmarked graves of children found in residential schools in Canada and the keeping of “more than two hundred fetuses, skulls, and other African skeletal remains” by Belgian institutions. 

And it is so sad that so much has not changed.  The villagers in the World’s Fair display are subjected to racist comments and gestures:  “some adolescents from a classical high school in Flemish Brabant tossed bananas over the fence around the village . . . [and] some visitors started to whoop like monkeys.”  And Nyota witnesses a Congolese soccer player being subjected to insults, “’Monkey!  Monkey!  Go back to your jungle!’”

The message is that Belgium must critically confront its colonial legacy.  A government minister in the novel states that “Belgium wasn’t yet ready to reopen that painful page from its past.”  And recent events indicate this is true:  In December 2022 there were plans for human remains, three skulls from the colonial era, to be exhibited and auctioned in Belgium (https://euromedmonitor.org/en/article/5466/Auction-house%E2%80%99s-offer-of-human-skulls-is-evidence-that-Belgium%E2%80%99s-colonial-past-is-also-its-present).

Despite the horrors depicted, the book does end on a positive note.  Nyota’s grandfather, a former king, says, “’It’s not the wounds they inflict upon each other that matter the most once time finally lifts the veil from our illusions.  What matters . . . is that the children who come after learn to build a less repugnant world than the one they inherited.’”  He even goes on to tell a Belgian visitor how Belgians can create a better future:  “’while you can do nothing more for my daughter, there in the land of your ancestors  where she rests, day and night, season after season, tens of thousands of others are arriving . . . ‘”  Another character earlier also mentions that immigration and “open borders were the solution and not the problem” for menopausal Europe where a declining birth rate may bring about a collapse of the workforce.

Its subject matter makes this book an essential read.  It informs about Belgian’s colonial past and its devastating impact and serves as a mirror for the colonial history of other countries.  Unfortunately, the writing style is not an asset.  Anyone considering reading the book might want to play some background music by Wendo Kolosoy, the father of Congolese rumba, who makes an appearance in the novel. 

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

Sunday, March 5, 2023

Review of BIRNAM WOOD by Eleanor Catton (New Release)

 3.5 Stars

The last Eleanor Catton novel I read was in 2013 when her The Luminaries won both the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction and the Man Booker Prize.  Birnam Wood is 400 pages shorter, but I think it could be even shorter.

Birnam Wood is an idealistic, anti-capitalist gardening collective which plants crops on unused or abandoned land, often without permission.  One of the founders, Mira Bunting, discovers a farm in Thorndike that has been temporarily abandoned and decides to check it out as a place to expand operations.  The farm, belonging to Owen and Jill Darvish, is in the process of being purchased by Robert Lemoine, an American billionaire who has chosen it as the site for his survivalist bunker.  Lemoine offers Mira money for Birnam Wood’s operations, claiming that his investment might expedite his application for New Zealand citizenship.  Tony Gallo, a wannabe journalist and former member of the collective, doesn’t trust Lemoine and argues that the arrangement goes against the collective’s ideals, so while some members begin planting on the farm, he sets out to investigate Lemoine to uncover his real motive. 

An uneven pace is an issue.  The novel begins very slowly.  The first third of the novel gives a lot of backstory on the various characters.  There’s a lot of telling, rather than showing, so it feels like an information dump.  This is not a way to grab the reader’s attention.  Tension does ramp up in the second third, and the last section is definitely suspenseful.  With a great deal happening, the ending feels rushed.  (In keeping with the Shakespearean reference, I’d expected the book to have five parts.)

None of the characters is particularly likeable.  Everyone has his/her motives and proves to be willing to manipulate and deceive others to advance personal agendas.  For instance, both Mira and Shelley, partners in Birnam Wood, are not above keeping information from each other.  Like Macbeth, each character is ambitious but blind or willfully ignorant because of a certain degree of hubris.  Jill Darvish certainly acknowledges that she and Owen courted a man’s business and approval even though they had always known that he was not a good person.  People try to appear to be ethical but will justify unethical behaviour if it’s in their self-interest.  Tony, for instance, accuses the collective of selling its soul, but he is desperately in search of an exclusive story that will bring him fame.  There is a definite villain who is absolutely amoral, but no one is guilt-free in how events unfold.

The plot is action-packed.  Besides unscrupulous manipulation, there are clandestine activities, surveillance drones, phone hacking, mercenaries, armed chases, obstruction of justice, and murder.  Greed and corruption abound.  The picture of society that is given is not a positive one:  wealth tends to guarantee safety from prosecution for wrongdoing; profit takes precedence over preventing global catastrophes like climate change; and even philanthropic groups have to bend their principles in order to survive. 

The style may not appeal to all readers.  Sentences of 200 words are not uncommon.  Tony is a mansplainer so we are subjected to his tirades.  Trying to follow the discussion at Birnam Wood’s hui is excruciating!

Readers approaching this novel must be prepared to move past its tedious opening section. 

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

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Review of THE STORY OF US by Catherine Hernandez (New Release)

4 Stars 

Recently, my husband and I have been enjoying the crime drama Almost Paradise which is filmed in the Philippines and offers a peek at Filipino culture.  This novel offers more of an in depth look.

MG (Mary Grace) Concepcion is an Overseas Filipino Worker.  She leaves her husband Ale to become a nanny in Hong Kong.  When she learns about a Canadian immigration program, which allows someone to apply for permanent residency in the country after two years of employment as a caregiver, she moves to Toronto.  Her goal is to become a permanent resident and then sponsor her husband so they can build a better life for themselves.  She works as a nanny but eventually takes a position as a personal support worker caring for Liz Cahill, an elderly trans woman suffering from Alzheimer’s.  This job challenges her conservative values, but slowly a friendship develops. 

The narrator is MG’s newborn baby speaking directly to Liz.  The baby tells Liz her mother’s story which she knows intimately because “I have lived for years as a seed in the ovaries of my mother while my mother gestated in the body of my [grandmother].”  But she also speaks of her own experiences as a Maybe Baby (an unfertilized egg) and as a fetus.  I was reminded of William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” which relies on the concept of pre-existence and suggests that children, as they mature, lose their connection with the divine.   MG’s child begins by stating that “The former me, the real me, is fading by the second and there are things I remember, at this very moment and never will again” and “the more I come into this new body of mine, the less I will remember.”

MG is a sympathetic character.  She sacrifices so much and works so hard in order to help her family in the Philippines.  When looking after challenging children, she is very patient.  Likewise, she is patient with Liz who can be difficult at times.  I love dynamic characters, and MG proves to be one.  She takes the job of caring for a bakla because she desperately needs employment and remembers a priest saying that homosexuals should not be judged.  She believes she will be fine “As long as this person didn’t force her into living this perverse lifestyle.”  Looking after Liz takes some adjustment:  “She made mistakes with you, Liz.  Lots of mistakes.  She treated you like a nuisance. . . . Your confusion frustrated her.  Maybe even angered her.  . . . [MG was] an efficient engine to meet your most basic needs [as if] you were like a houseplant.  Nothing more.”  A visit from Ash, one of Liz’s friends, begins MG’s transformation.  Ash says, "'I don’t truly know what life is like for you, but I imagine in your line of work, people don’t often see you as a human being with needs and feelings, am I right?  But you deserve to be treated with respect.  It’s the same with Liz.  She deserves to be seen as a person.’”  MG does get to know Liz and learns about her life and accomplishments.  Her attitude changes and she becomes Liz’s friend and protector who tries to shield her from anyone whom she fears might treat her with less than respect. 

The novel gives insights into the challenges faced by temporary foreign workers like MG.  They leave families behind, often not seeing them for years, so are lonely and isolated.  Ash is correct in describing them as largely invisible.  They are often exploited; for instance, one of MG’s employers offers to let MG look after another couple’s children as well as her own but then keeps the money intended to pay MG for this extra work.  “’Some families kick their nannies out on the weekend and they have to find a place to stay.  So the nannies pool their money to rent a place together.’”  Because they need these jobs, the caregivers cannot speak out.   Their options are limited to “’Either endure the work or go.’” 

This is a thought-provoking book, exposing the struggles of both foreign workers and members of the LGTBQ community.  (It reminded me of the news stories I read about how Filipino healthcare workers bore the brunt of the COVID pandemic:  in Quebec and Ontario, Filipino healthcare workers in hospitals, long-term care facilities, and private homes are believed to be the first such workers to die due to the pandemic.)

There is much to like about this book:  interesting plot, memorable characters, and thematic depth.  It addresses serious topics, but the unique narrator also adds touches of humour.  I will certainly be recommending it to people.

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