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Sunday, September 23, 2018

Review of STILL MINE by Amy Stuart

2.5 Stars
Clare O’Dey, an abused wife fleeing her husband, ends up investigating the disappearance of Shayna in a remote mountain community.  Blackmore is slowly becoming a ghost town after a tragedy shut down the local mine.  Clare insinuates herself into the town and becomes acquainted with people connected to Shayna, most of whom are nasty or untrustworthy or both. 

There is so much that is unbelievable about the book.  There is no ongoing police investigation even though Shayna’s disappearance is fairly recent?  Clare’s abusive husband hired Malcolm to find her, but, instead, Malcolm hires her to look for Shayna even though Clare has no experience as an investigator and knows of her history with drugs?  And she agrees to work for this cloak-and-dagger mystery man about whom she knows nothing?  Then Clare becomes strangely intimate with Charlie, the local drug dealer, even though she has a history of drug abuse and he resembles her abusive husband?  Despite the fact that no one really believes her cover as a nature photographer, she seamlessly blends herself into the life of the town?  And what’s with all the similarities between Clare and Shayna?  They look alike and have a similar history of substance abuse and a volatile marriage.  Clare’s mother was ill for a long time; Shayna’s mother is suffering with dementia. 

Clare is not a likeable character and it’s impossible to relate to her.  She keeps taking such stupid actions.  Her mother told her, “You don’t think of the consequences . . . You just dive headfirst.  Reckless.”  That trait is supposed to explain everything?  What is her motivation?  Are her similarities to Shayna supposed to be her reasons for insisting on staying in Blackmore even when her situation becomes more dangerous?  When she’s in danger, rather than stay clear-headed, she drinks and takes drugs? 

Because the protagonist is unsympathetic and the other characters are equally distasteful, I found myself not caring about what happened.  It was obvious that Clare would uncover what happened to Shayna.  Many people have commented about the shock of the ending but that means they totally ignored the oh-so-obvious clue of the title!

There is a sequel to this book:  Still Water.  I had difficulty convincing myself to finish Still Mine so I certainly won’t be checking out its follow-up. Anyone looking for a psychological thriller should look elsewhere.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Review of THE BOOKSHOP by Penelope Fitzgerald

4 Stars 
In one of my reviews, I mentioned that I’m a sucker for novels about books and bookstores, so a friend recommended this gem.  Thank you, Allison!

In 1959 in a Suffolk village, Florence Green, a kind-hearted widow, decides to buy a run-down building that has stood vacant for years and open a bookshop on the premises.  Unfortunately, a local high society matron has appointed herself the village’s cultural doyenne and has plans to convert the building into an arts centre.  Florence proceeds with her bookshop, not fully understanding the forces aligned against her.

The book is an indictment of those with clout and connections who abuse their power for their own selfish purposes.  Violet Gamart is the best example of the me-first attitude of the entitled who are “un-used to discipline.” She has a pet project and uses no end of machinations to undermine Florence.  She threatens a lawsuit when Florence’s customers obstruct the flow of traffic; she sends educational officials to question the young girl Florence hires as an assistant; and she influences her nephew, a member of Parliament, to put forth a Private Bill with implications for the bookshop.  Of course, in each case, “It was impossible to say who was responsible for this detail and that.”

Shown is life in an insular village resistant to change.  That village is aptly named Hardborough.  Local businesses feel threatened and resent her success.  Many of the villagers are indifferent; the banker, from whom Florence must acquire a loan, typifies the mentality of many:  “’Don’t misunderstand me . . . I find a good book at my bedside of incalculable value.  When I eventually retire I’ve no sooner read a few pages than I’m overwhelmed with sleep.’”  The poltergeist that inhabits the bookstore can be interpreted as a manifestation of the resistance to change that pervades. 

Of course Florence does have her supporters.  Christine is a delightful character:  unpretentious and loyal.  Unfortunately, she is also bested by the system.  One cannot but wonder whether a failed exam is really the reason for her not being promoted to the grammar school.   Florence also has an ally in Mr. Brundish, a descendant of one of the most ancient Suffolk families, and he certainly tries to help her in a scene that has the reader cheering him on. 

Naturally, the reader becomes one of Florence’s supporters too.  Who cannot admire her courage and determination in the face of the many challenges she faces?  Her ability to put people in their place is also admirable.  Her one-word letter to her duplicitous attorney is perfect!  Her downfall is that she is reactive rather than proactive because “She blinded herself, in short, by pretending for a while that human beings are not divided into exterminators and exterminates, with the former, at any given moment, predominating.”  She is happy with herself because “she always acted in the way she felt to be right” but “She did not know that morality is seldom a safe guide for human conduct.”

It is the last sentence that stays with me.  Though so sad, it is the perfect sentence to end this book.  Of course, there are few imperfect sentences in this book about the imperfections of human nature.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Review of CIRCE by Madeline Miller

4 Stars
Readers of Greek mythology know Circe as the sorceress who waylaid Odysseus as he sailed home to Ithaca after the Trojan War.  Odysseus came to rescue his men whom she had transformed into pigs and ended up staying with her for a year.  This book is a modern feminist retelling and embellishment of Circe’s life. 

Circe’s childhood is detailed.  She is the daughter of Helios who has no time for his daughter whom he describes dismissively when she is born:  “’Her hair is streaked like a lynx.  And her chin.  There is a sharpness to it that is less than pleasing.’”  She tries desperately to get her father’s love and acceptance but Helios has no time for her and neither do her mother or siblings who bully her, so her life is full of “dull miseries.”  She falls in love with a mortal and thoughtlessly lashes out at a rival:  “I did it for pride and vain delusion.”  This impulsive act leads to her being exiled on an island, though she does not live in total isolation because she encounters several famous figures from mythology:  the Minotaur, Daedalus, Medea, Jason, Odysseus and others, both mortal and immortal.

In this telling, Circe is neither an irresistible seductress nor an evil sorceress.  She is a neglected and emotionally abused minor immortal who initially behaves like her childhood role models, Titans and Olympians, who “find their fame by proving what they can mar:  destroying cities, starting wars, breeding plagues and monsters.”  Once sent into exile, she has time to reflect on her actions and their consequences, especially for mortals who have always fascinated her.  Gradually she learns to stand up for herself, and once she becomes a mother, she learns to fight to protect her family.  She tries to atone for the impulsive act that had such dire consequences for so many.  As she matures, she becomes more and more sympathetic to the reader. 

It is not just in its portrayal of Circe that this book excels.  Other mythological figures emerge as full-fledged characters, Odysseus being one of the most noteworthy.  There is much of Tennyson’s “Ulysses” in the portrayal:  “But back home in Ithaca, there would be no such fractious heroes, no councils, no midnight raids, no desperate stratagems that he must devise or men would die.  And how would such a man go home again, to his fireside and his olives?”  Miller develops Odysseus in such depth that he emerges as totally realistic.  Even monsters are shown to be victims, so though their savagery may not be forgivable, it at least has a context. 

The book uses the gods to show how power can be abused.  Circe’s mother, like most immortals, sees humans “like savage bags of rotten flesh”, and “Olympians spend their days [thinking] of ways of making men miserable” because miserable men give better offerings.  Humans are at the total mercy of the gods; even Circe, an immortal, realizes she is a pawn:  “Every moment of my peace was a lie, for it came only at the gods’ pleasure.  No matter what I did, how long I lived, at a whim they would be able to reach down and do with me what they wished.” 

Despite their disadvantages, mortals, Circe decides, are admirable; they find fame “Through practice and diligence, tending their skills like gardens until they glowed beneath the sun.”  Unfortunately, “No matter how vivid they were in life, no matter how brilliant, no matter the wonders they made, they came to dust and smoke.  Meanwhile every petty and useless god would go on sucking down the bright air until the stars went dark.”  In the end, she concludes that gods are actually dead:  “I thought once that gods are the opposite of death, but I see now they are more dead than anything, for they are unchanging, and can hold nothing in their hands.”

Though the book tells an ancient tale, it is relevant to our time with its #MeToo Movement.  Circe observes that daughters are often disciplined but “Sons were not punished.”  When a nymph is raped, she thinks, “I am only a nymph after all, for nothing is more common among us than this.”  Circe describes the behaviour of men towards her as she grew up:  “My uncles’ eyes used to crawl over me as I poured their wine.  Their hands found their way to my flesh.  A pinch, a stroke, a hand slipping under the sleeve of my dress.  They all had wives, it was not marriage they thought of.  One of them would have come for me in the end and paid my father well.  Honor on all sides.”  She also comments, “Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets.  As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.”  By finding her voice and strength, Circe becomes empowered. 

This is a thoroughly enjoyable read.  Perhaps Circe’s final spell is successful because she emerges humanized.   

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Review of THE EXES' REVENGE by Jo Jakeman (New Release)

2.5 Stars
This tale of female revenge begins with the funeral of Phillip Rochester; among the attendees are his ex-wife Ruby, his second wife Imogen, and his girlfriend Naomi.  Imogen, the narrator, then takes readers into the past, to 22 days before the funeral.  We learn that Phillip gave her an ultimatum:  move out of the house or he would sue for sole custody of their son.  Desperate to protect her son from her abusive not-yet-ex-husband, she makes an ill-conceived move to take control of the situation.  Then Naomi and Ruby become involved and the trio of unlikely allies sets out to take revenge on Phillip and to protect their interests.  Since the opening reveals the ending, the book’s interest lies in discovering how Phillip meets his end and how the three women escape criminal charges. 
                                                                                                                              
The book has an interesting premise but it soon deteriorates into the realm of the ridiculous.  The friendship the women develop is bizarre; they have to overcome antipathy and have only Phillip in common.  Then they continue to make poor decisions even when they have some time to think rationally.  Some editing is definitely required:  at one point, Imogen “watched [Ruby’s] back disappear up the stairs” but then a minute later Naomi “looked at me and Ruby”?  The “riding off into the sunset” ending had me shaking my head in astonishment.

It is not just the plot that is unbelievable.   Phillip is a soap opera villain with no redeeming qualities.  He is manipulative and self-centered yet manages to con three women into enduring emotional and physical abuse.  As his crimes multiply, he emerges as totally evil.  That one woman continues to believe his lies for years and years makes no logical sense.  Conveniently, he is a policeman and the police force is stereotypically portrayed as being more interested in protecting one of its own.

Imogen is not a convincing character either.  She is so stupid at times.  She doesn’t check why Phillip is not at work though she knows his job is his raison d’être?!  She is so gullible for so long that her transformation into a strong, confident woman is just not credible.

The pace is uneven.  The novel starts slowly but then picks up speed once Imogen takes action.  Unfortunately, some of the events are just so preposterous that I found myself looking to see how much more I had to read to reach the end.  The supposed plot twists are predictable; I just kept hoping the author wouldn’t go in that direction, especially considering Iris, but she surely did.  Then, the ending, when it does arrive, leaves much unexplained.   For instance, the fire at the house is never investigated? 

The novel deals with the important topic of domestic abuse and shows how controlling men can manipulate vulnerable women.  The problem is that the absurd plot makes it difficult to focus on the sober elements.  The suggestion of romance – not just for one but two women – undermines any message about women being strong and independent. 

Readers will find themselves rooting for the women and taking satisfaction in Phillip’s comeuppance.  Unfortunately, so much suspension of disbelief is required that any emotional satisfaction is short-lived.  I like my psychological thrillers to be less far-fetched. 

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

Friday, September 7, 2018

Review of THE CHILBURY LADIES' CHOIR by Jennifer Ryan

3.5 Stars
Readers who enjoyed The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer or The Summer before the War by Helen Simonson should pick up this novel.

Set in 5 months in 1940 in a small village in Kent, this book captures the war from the perspective of those left on the home front.  After virtually all the men have left for the battlefields, a woman decides to form a female-only singing ensemble.  Though some are initially scandalized, villagers gradually become more accepting of the group whose goal is to use music to help people cope with grief and loss.  However, besides providing emotional support, the choir ends up supporting the personal development of its members. 

This is an epistolary novel.  The letters and diary entries of four major characters structure the narrative:  Mrs. Tilling is a timid widow who spends her time caring for others; Venetia Winthrop is a shallow flirt who sets out to seduce a newcomer to town; 13-year-old Kitty Winthrop has a life full of teenage melodrama; and Edwina Paltry is a greedy, conniving midwife.  Occasionally, the writing of a minor character is inserted:  the diary of a 10-year-old Jewish evacuee; letters between a maid and the philanderer who seduced her; a letter from the man billeted with Mrs. Tilling to his sister, etc.  The only problem with the epistles is that they often quote entire conversations verbatim and this technique is not very realistic. 

The main characters are well-developed; the letters and diaries reveal personality traits as the writers share their interests, desires, and feelings.  Several of the characters prove to be dynamic.  Venetia and Kitty both mature.  Mrs. Tilling expands her world view and loses her timidity:  “she holds herself more upright now, none of the slouching shoulders and moping face” as if “she’s discovered there’s more inside her.” 

The book focuses on the effect of the war on women:  traditional norms were challenged.  Mrs. Tilling observes, “Perhaps there is something good that has come from this war:  everything has been turned around, all the unfairness made grimly plain.  It has given us everyday women a voice – dared us to stand up for ourselves, and to stand up for others.”  If there are real villains in the book, they are two upper-class tyrants:  the Brigadier (“a bigwig, an overpowering presence, officious and rude and unlikable, yet powerful and ruthless”) and the Viscount (“very proud and traditional”) who represent the old patriarchy which fears the erosion of its power.  Mrs. Tilling directly challenges both men:  “The malevolence and pride of these people is ruthless, clinging to their advantage in the face of our total annihilation.”  She concludes that women have let themselves be cowed by men too often:  “A sense of responsibility – or was it guilt? – hung over me, that I was in some way at fault because of cowering to all these pompous men all these years, when I should have had the bravery to reclaim my own mind.  That if we women had done this years ago, before the last war, before this one, we’d be in a very different world.”

Despite the book’s serious events, when people deal with “overwhelming, inexorable, deafening” loss, there are also touches of humour.  Kitty, for instance, has misunderstood the attentions of a young man and totally ignores information contrary to her assumptions.  When Silvie tries to tell her that the man’s interest lays elsewhere, Kitty comments, “Sometimes Silvie seems to completely understand what’s going on.”  Mrs. B’s obtuseness and power manipulations also provide comic relief. 

This is one of those charming, cozy reads that is so delightfully refreshing; it, like the choir’s music, “takes us out of ourselves, away from our worries and tragedies.” 

Monday, September 3, 2018

Review of SISTER OF MINE by Laurie Petrou

3 Stars
Penny and Hattie are two sisters living in a small Canadian town.  They share a deep dark secret:  they were involved in the fire that led to the death of Buddy, Penny’s abusive husband.  Will they be able to keep the secret when other people enter their lives and complicate their already complex relationship?

Penny is the narrator.  She lives with the constant fear that Hattie will divulge what happened in the fire so she lives with her sister and watches her carefully.  Having to live like this causes her to resent her sister.  Then Jameson, a charming man, becomes a regular visitor to their home, and both women are attracted to him.  Will jealousy sever the sisters’ bond of loyalty?  And then there are the external threats (Buddy’s best friend and a police officer who keeps dropping by) whose intrusions add to the tension.  Will the secret be uncovered and destroy their lives? 

Though there is a mystery included in the book, its focus is very much the bond between sisters.  The two love each other very much, as evidenced in their actions at the beginning and end of the book, but theirs is not a simple relationship.  As with many siblings, there is some rivalry.  Hattie is the prettier one and everyone is drawn to her outgoing personality:  “I had been here before.  I had seen the eyes of someone I loved shift towards my sister.  I recognized the boiling hate that would start as a simmer but become a fire.”  As the older one, Penny feels an obligation to look after her younger sister:  “She was a magnet to me and I to her; I hated that I couldn’t help but love her, hated that this love made me feel obligated to protect her.  Sometimes wishing I was an only child.”  At one point, upset with Hattie’s behaviour, Penny imagines her sister dead:  “I lay and wished away my darling girl.  I even saw myself, grief-stricken at her funeral, genuinely heartsick about her death.  I love her, I loved her, I hate her, I hated her.”

Neither of the two girls is particularly likeable.  Though their mother is dead, Penny yearns for her mother’s approval, feeling that Hattie was the favoured child.  And Penny even blames Hattie’s “self-absorption” for their mother’s death and for an earlier family tragedy.  As an adult, Penny seriously betrays her sister (leading to another big secret to be kept) and even pushes Hattie out of their childhood home:  “I stood, hands on hips, and surveyed the room.  I had won.  I was back where I belonged, and all was good.  Fortune had smiled on me because I knew, truly in my heart, what was right, what was my right, and I took it.”

Though we know Hattie only from Penny’s perspective and so have to be aware of bias, Hattie is not a sympathetic character either.  Hattie obviously feels a great deal of guilt for her role in the fire that killed Buddy, but she also feels that Penny owes her.  When she asks Penny for a major favour, this feeling comes to the fore:  “’Penny, come on! . . . Everything I’ve done has been for you! . . . Don’t you feel like you owe a little back to me? . . . I need this, Penny.  This is what I want.  What I deserve.’”  Hattie’s choices involving Elliot also make it difficult to like her. 

I do not have a sister but the intricate relationship between sisters described in the book rings true.  Most siblings may not have such a dark secret, but love, envy, and long-held resentments are part of many sibling relationships.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Review of WOMEN TALKING by Miriam Toews

4.5 Stars 
About a decade ago, over 100 women in an ultraconservative Mennonite colony in Bolivia were secretly sedated and raped by male members of their community.  Some attributed the attacks to ghosts and demons; some argued the women were being punished by God for their sins; and others said that the women, with their wild, female imaginations, invented stories.  Miriam Toews used this event and her imagination to craft this novel from the perspective of women in such a colony, a novel that is heartbreaking but also uplifting. 

Eight women gather secretly in a hayloft after eight men have been arrested for the assaults.  The men will be out on bail and returning to the community in two days so the women have a short time to decide how to move forward:  do nothing, stay and fight, or leave.  What follows is a Socratic dialogue in which the women debate how to proceed and touch on subjects like faith, forgiveness, and love.  There is no evidence of female hysteria; the women debate using logic. 

The narrator is August Epp who was asked by the women to record the minutes of their meeting “because the women are illiterate and unable to do it themselves” (1).  The women speak only Plautdietsch, “an unwritten medieval language” (8) so he must also serve as their translator.  August is the community’s teacher, though he and his family were once excommunicated so he spent years living in the outside world.  He is the most educated man in the colony but is considered effeminate and ineffectual by many community members because he has no farming skills.  In some ways, his position in the colony is like that of the women who are useful but lack independent voice and agency. 

The novel is light in plot but heavy in substance; one of the women even says, “’there’s no plot, we’re only women talking’” (179).  That word “only” perfectly reflects the attitude of many of the men who see women as inferior beings who endlessly engage in meaningless chatter.   Of course, their talking is anything but that.  Though they shy away from words like revolutionary and manifesto, that is precisely what they are composing.  One of the women summarizes the principles most important to them:  “As I understand it, what we women have determined is that we want, and believe we are entitled to, three things. . . . We want our children to be safe. . . . We want to be steadfast in our faith.  We want to think” (153). 

The women’s choices are curtailed by the type of lives they have led and by their religion.  They are uneducated and know almost nothing of the world outside the Molotschna Colony.  One of the women lists the obstacles:  “We girls and women are considering leaving the colony, but has it been determined among us what we will do, how we will live, how we will support ourselves, when and if we leave?  We’re unable to read, we’re unable to write, we’re unable to speak the language of our country, we have only domestic skills that may or may not be required of us elsewhere in the world, and speaking of the world – we have no world map –“ (80).  Even if they could find a map, how could they read it?  They have also been told that they must forgive the men or they will be denied entry into heaven.  If they leave, they are disobeying their husbands and such obedience is a major tenet of their faith.  If they stay and fight, they would also not be allowed into heaven:  “By staying in Molotschna . . . we women would be betraying the central tenet of the Mennonite faith, which is pacifism, because by staying we would knowingly be placing ourselves in a direct collision course with violence, perpetrated by us or against us.  We would be inviting harm. . . . We would be sinners, according to our faith, and we would be denied entry to heaven” (103 – 104). 

The novel examines the plight of women in patriarchal, authoritarian societies.  One woman points out that women are not real members of the colony:  “We’re not members!  . . . We are the women of Molotschna.  The entire colony of Molotschna is built on the foundation of patriarchy . . . where the women live out their days as mute, submissive and obedient servants.  Animals.  Fourteen-year-old boys are expected to give us orders, to determine our fates, to vote on our excommunication, to speak at the burials of our own babies while we remain silent, to interpret the Bible for us, to lead us in worship, to punish us!  We are not members, . . . we are commodities. . . . When our men have used us up so that we look sixty when we’re thirty and our wombs have literally dropped out of our bodies onto our spotless kitchen floors, finished, they turn to our daughters.  And if they could sell us at auction afterwards they would” (120 – 121). 

Though there are eight women and it is initially difficult to remember who is who, gradually distinct personalities emerge.  As the women reclaim their independent thought and find their voices, the portrait of each woman becomes clearer.  Salome, for example, is the hot-tempered, impatient one.  The development of the two youngest, sixteen-year-old Autje and Neitje, is interesting.  At the beginning, they are bored and pay no attention but gradually become interested, contribute to the discussion, and even undertake independent action. 

The novel does not focus on what happened to the women but there are occasional glimpses which are horrifying:  Miep “was violated by the men on two or possibly three different occasions, but Peters [the bishop of Molotschna] denied medical treatment for Miep, who is three years of age, on the grounds that the doctor would gossip about the colony and that people would become aware of the attacks and the whole incident would be blown out of proportion” (41).  Then there’s the case of Nettie who “was attacked , possibly by her brother, and gave birth prematurely to a baby boy so tiny he fit into her shoe.  He died hours after being born and Nettie smeared her bedroom walls with blood.  She has stopped talking, except to the children of the colony, . . . [and has] changed her name to Melvin . . . because she no longer wants to be a woman” (45 – 46). 

Considering the seriousness of the discussion, humour might not be expected, but there are some humourous sections.  Salome has a number of heated exchanges with Mariche about precision in word usage:  “Mariche shakes her head at this, indignant.  She apologizes sarcastically for using the incorrect word, a sin so outrageous that Salome with her Olympian airs and almighty mind must take it upon herself to rectify for the sake of humanity” (41).  And some of the observations made cannot but bring a smile; for instance, Salome says, “by leaving, we are not necessarily disobeying the men according to the Bible, because we, the women, do not know exactly what is in the Bible, being unable to read it.  Furthermore, the only reason why we feel we need to submit to our husbands is because our husbands have told us that the Bible decrees it” (157).

This novel is a must-read.  Because of its subject matter, it invites comparison to The Handmaid’s Tale.  It also invites a re-reading.