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Monday, November 18, 2019

Review of END OF WATCH by Stephen King

2 Stars
Sometimes I wish I were less of a Type A personality.  Because I had listened to the first two books in the Bill Hodges trilogy, I just had to listen to the last instalment, even though I was not particularly impressed with Stephen King’s foray into detective fiction.  I wish I had walked away.

The book begins with Bill and Holly being told about a suspicious murder-suicide case linked to Brady Hartsfield, the Mercedes killer.  The woman who was murdered was one of Hartsfield’s victims in Mr. Mercedes; she was supposedly killed by her own mother who then committed suicide.  Brady had a fascination with suicide and in the past encouraged others to end their lives, so Holly thinks of him as a suicide architect and wonders whether Brady might have a connection to this case. 

The problem is that Brady suffered a traumatic brain injury and is unable to leave the hospital where he has been for years.  Since this is a Stephen King novel, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Brady has acquired supernatural abilities; telekinesis and mind control.  He is so adept that he can hijack the bodies of others to do his bidding and even destroy someone’s consciousness and replace it with his own.  Brady is also able to convert a child’s game on a cheap game console into a brainwashing program that hypnotizes people into committing suicide.

Can Bill and Holly and Jerome figure out what is happening and put a stop to Brady’s dastardly plan?  Yikes!  It’s as if King gave up on writing a detective thriller and returned to the supernatural/horror genre he is best known for. 

Besides requiring readers to accept paranormal abilities, King also expects readers to ignore so many other flaws.  As in the previous books, Bill, though he is a retired police detective, continues to hide critical evidence for law enforcement.  Then he and Holly set off to a remote location in a snowstorm for what can only be called a suicidal confrontation.  The climactic scene is over the top in terms of gore and in terms of how much physical injury people are able to survive.  It’s like watching a Rambo movie.

A friend had suggested I give Stephen King’s detective fiction a try since I was not impressed by his other fiction.  Well, I read all three of King’s crime novels and am now going to walk away.  I would not recommend them and certainly hope that King, considering the end of this trilogy, won’t attempt a Pete Huntley trilogy. 

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Review of RABBITS FOR FOOD by Binnie Kirshenbaum (New Release)

4 Stars
Forty-three year old Bunny has suffered from depression virtually her entire life.  During a New Year’s Eve dinner with friends, she has a serious psychotic episode and is hospitalized.  The novel focuses on her time on a psychiatric ward where she encounters others suffering with mental illness.  Bunny (and, to some extent, her husband Albie) must make decisions concerning her treatment.


The book has a third-person narrator, but there are also first-person sections where Bunny writes short pieces based on writing prompts like “a shoebox” and “a business meeting” and “a pair” and “a hat”.  Bunny often uses these creative writing prompts to describe events from her past so they help to develop her character.  It is in one of these 300-word pieces that we learn about what happened to Bunny’s best friend, an event that has had a major impact on Bunny. 

This is not an action-packed narrative; it is a sensitive portrayal of chronic depression.  Bunny has tried different therapists and various drugs and drug combinations to little effect.  She feels misunderstood because few people know what it’s like to be her and “what it’s like not to be taken seriously, having no idea how it is to feel ashamed of who you are.”

Some suggestions as to contributing causes of depression are mentioned, though it is repeated that “Despair can’t be monitored like blood pressure or measured in centimeters like a tumor”:  “It’s often genetic, this disposition of melancholy” and “It is all too apparent:  wounds never heal, but rather, in a torpid state deep inside the medial temporal lobe of the brain, grief waits for fresh release” and “a lack of attention that might well have been a contributing factor.  A contributing factor.  One.  One of many.  Because it’s never just one thing.”

Bunny describes herself as “a headache of a person who is not easy to like.” Living with a depressive would not be easy, but I found myself growing to like her.  I loved her insightful and sarcastic comments.  When an extended family member has a child and everyone carries on “as if the parents had actually done something extraordinary,” Bunny only says, “’The earthworm is impressive because it impregnates itself.’”  When people are excited that a child has begun to walk, Bunny comments “’I’d be excited if he were flying.  But walking? No.’”  When friends are “engaged in passionate discourse about balsamic vinegar,” she comments, “’Excuse me . . . but do any of you really give a shit?  I mean, you’re going on about balsamic vinegar like it matters.  Does it? . . . Does it really matter?’”  This is a perfect response to such a vapid conversation.  Even if one does not like Bunny, it is important to remember what she mentions at the end of the book:  People who are not easy to like, they have feelings just like nice people do.”

I found myself feeling a great deal of sympathy for Bunny.  Her family does nothing to help her; her sisters want an explanation for her depression:  “Whatever the reason, they want to be assured that it was her own damn fault.”  She has experienced loss in her life.  She is in pain:  “Bunny’s pain has no place.  She hurts everywhere.  She hurts nowhere.  Everywhere and nowhere, hers is a ghostly pain, like that of a phantom limb.  Where there is nothing, there can be no relief.”  She engages in self-harm because “Only when she hits herself or pulls her hair or bends her finger back or bites the inside of her mouth can she experience the pleasure of pain found and pain released.  It is the only way to be rid of the pain that is Bunny.  She is the point of pain.”

The author has bravely written about the complex topic of mental illness.  Her protagonist may make people uncomfortable, but her pain is heart-wrenching.  This is a novel well worth reading for its insight into depression. 

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

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Review of THE FAMILY UPSTAIRS by Lisa Jewell (New Release)

3 Stars
The story is narrated from multiple perspectives and alternating timelines.  In the present, Libby Jones turns 25 and learns she has inherited the mansion in which her parents were found dead when she was an infant.  Also in the present, we are given the viewpoint of Lucy, a homeless woman with two children, living in France.  When she realizes that Baby has turned 25, she decides she must return to London.  The final narrator is Henry who explains the past - what happened in the mansion when people moved in with his family.


On the plus side, the book is a quick read.  The short chapters make it easy for the reader to put down the book and later pick up the narrative.

On the negative side, there is very little suspense.  There is mystery, a lot of unanswered questions, but an experienced reader will have no great difficulty figuring out what happened and who is who.  For me, the first real instance of suspense occurs in Chapter 39, well past the midway point of the book.  Obviously, I didn’t read the same book as the many people who have described the book as twisty.

What is annoying is the purposely vague narration.  Why does Lucy refer to the child found in the mansion as Baby?  Lucy of all people would know the child’s name.  Why does Lucy say “her name is fake” when it’s not?  Henry is obviously an unreliable narrator but his constant withholding of information becomes annoying after a while.  Even the title is misleading because though people do move into the mansion, they do not live separately from the household.  If they did, the plot would not develop as it does.

A major element that is missing is an explanation for Henry’s parents allowing six people to move into their home and take over their lives.  Because we do not have the perspective of the parents, I found their behaviour difficult to accept.  Can people be so na├»ve and blind?  A teenaged boy understands what is happening but adults don’t?

There is much that is unrealistic.  For years, people cannot be found and then they are all easily found?  How inept can police investigators be?  At least four deaths are never thoroughly investigated.  The ending is somewhat unbelievable and rather gimmicky.

The book is entertaining, but it’s not a thriller.  The mysteries unravel predictably and too conveniently. 

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

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Review of BROKEN MAN ON A HALIFAX PIER by Lesley Choyce (New Release)

3.5 Stars
I knew I’d like this novel from its title.  I just had to play my Stan Rogers CDs as I read. 

Charles Howard, 55, has lost virtually everything, including his job and savings, and is basically destitute with no prospects.  One foggy morning in Halifax, he meets Ramona Danforth, a retired actress with a generous trust fund.  They end up taking a drive to Stewart Harbour on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore, a fishing village to which Charles has not returned since his high school graduation.  During this visit, Charles makes discoveries which complicate his life.   

In many ways this is a love story between two middle-aged people.  Such a romance is inevitably more complex than a relationship between young people because each partner comes with baggage.  What is not always clear is why Charles and Ramona continue to stay together when very serious complications arise.  From the beginning they choose to stay and support each other.  Charles, for instance, has always had commitment issues:  “It fit the story of my life.  Get involved.  Make a commitment.  Then walk away.”  Ramona has also had difficulty committing to another:  “’Like I said, over and over, I would get close to someone and then suddenly just walk away.  It would always be that easy for me.’”  We are to believe that these people fall in love immediately and, despite their previous unwillingness to commit to another, they are now commit to the other even when very serious complications arise?

There are some sections of the novel that are humourous.  Rolf, who lives in a fishing shack next to the one Charles has inherited from his father, is the source of much of the humour.  The snappy banter between Charles and Ramona when they first meet also adds a light-hearted tone. 

I like books where the protagonist is dynamic.  That is definitely the case with Charles.  He sees himself as a “work in progress, a project undergoing repair.”  He learns about himself:  “I had cultivated a powerful ability to shut off my emotions.  A handy trick, I suppose, but I wondered now at what cost.”  He also realizes that “there was no such thing as a life without consequences.  Every little thing – or big thing – you do in life sends out ripples in the pond that keep getting wider and wider.”  Ramona is also dynamic; she learns to forgive. 

For me, the setting of the novel is part of its charm.  I’ve visited Nova Scotia several times and it remains one of my favourite places in Canada.  It is obvious that the author is very familiar with the province.  His descriptions left me tasting the salt of the Atlantic. 

The novel is very easy to read because of the writing style.  Though the book touches on some serious topics, it never bogs down.  Some events just seem inevitable; Brody’s story, for example, ends in the only way it could. 

I’ve learned that Lesley Choyce has written over 90 books.  Why have I not read him before?  I will certainly be checking out some of his other fiction. 

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

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Review of THE TESTAMENTS by Margaret Atwood

4 Stars
Narrated by three women, this novel is set 15 years after the end of The Handmaid’s Tale. 

Aunt Lydia, a villain in The Handmaid’s Tale, secretly writes her memoirs explaining how she became a founder of the Gilead regime.  Agnes is a young woman who has grown up in Gilead and is being groomed to marry a Commander.  Daisy is a 16-year-old living in Canada with her very protective parents.  Of course, there are connections among the three, but these are known only to Aunt Lydia and eventually revealed to the reader – though many may guess their identities fairly early in the narrative.

It is Aunt Lydia’s voice that is compelling.  She is revealed to be more than the one-dimensional villain she seems in The Handmaid’s Tale.  Her backstory explains why she became an early collaborator with the Gilead regime.  As a founder, she has a statue which she sees as representing “my idealism, my unflinching commitment to duty, my determination to move forward despite all obstacles” (3).  This is the woman we recognize, but we also hear about her regret at having to use physical force:  “This weapon, [a Taser], reminds me of my failings:  had I been more effective, I would not have needed such an implement” (4).  She and three other women become founders, creating the “laws, uniforms, slogans, hymns, names” (177) that govern women’s lives in Gilead society; she helps create a system that exploits and violates women.  Aunt Lydia’s feelings about her role are mixed:  “Did I hate the structure we were concocting?  On some level, yes:  it was a betrayal of everything we’d been taught in our former lives, and of all that we’d achieved.  Was I proud of what we managed to accomplish, despite the limitations?  Also, on some level, yes.  Things are never simple” (178).

Aunt Lydia is certainly a complex figure.  Her intelligence and cunning are obvious.  She knows that even she is not totally safe because Gilead is rotten at its core, so she works at solidifying her power by appeasing male egos and devising subtle plots to punish enemies and gain allies.  The extent of her vengeful nature is foreshadowed:  I will get you back for this.  I don’t care how long it takes or how much shit I have to eat in the meantime, but I will do it” (149).  Yet in the end, she asks the reader, “Try not to think too badly of me, or no more badly than I think of myself” (404). 

Aunt Lydia’s voice is so compelling, Daisy and Agnes pale in comparison.  They seem like typical YA protagonists.  Agnes even has the wicked stepmother who makes her life miserable.  What is interesting is how their very different upbringings have formed their personalities and attitudes.  Daisy, raised in Canada, is feisty and rebellious whereas Agnes, raised in Gilead, is meek and obedient.  Being able to wear jeans and a T-shirt makes Daisy “feel more like myself” (364) while the same attire makes Agnes uncomfortable:  “I found the clothing provided for us disagreeable in the extreme.  The underwear was very different from the plain, sturdy variety . . . it felt slippery and depraved.  Over that were male garments.  It was disturbing to feel that rough cloth touching the skin of my legs, with no intervening petticoat.  Wearing such clothing was gender treachery and against God’s law” (365). 

The commentary about Gilead society –  which so often reflects contemporary society – is interesting.  For instance, “The doctors, the dentists, the lawyers, the accountants:  in the new world of Gilead, as in the old, their sins are frequently forgiven them” (252) and “The ability to concoct plausible lies is a talent not to be underestimated” (387).  Parallels are often emphasized.  For example, one cannot but think of the current migrant crisis when reading, “people were risking their lives walking north to the Canadian border in winter” (51) and “I hadn’t considered what it was like to leave a place you knew, and lose everything, and travel into the unknown.  How hollow and dark that must feel, except for maybe the little glimmer of hope that had allowed you to take such a chance” (271). 

The ending of the novel is more positive than that of The Handmaid’s Tale.  Resistance has grown and the regime seems to be crumbling.  The Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale indicates that Gilead does fall; The Testaments explains how that fall comes about.  The adventure story at the end that helps to bring about Gilead’s downfall is not the most enjoyable part of the novel; I found myself having to suspend disbelief. 

The Testaments is an enjoyable read.  Of course, it is not as impactful as The Handmaid’s Tale, but it would have been foolish to expect otherwise. 

Sunday, October 27, 2019

THE HANDMAID'S TALE by Margaret Atwood


Before reading The Testaments, the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale which has just been released, I decided to re-read the latter first.  I’ve watched the first two seasons of the television series adaptation and wanted to get back to the book, back to the original.  I first read The Handmaid’s Tale over 30 years ago, shortly after it was published, so my memory certainly needs refreshing.

Rather than write a typical book review of The Handmaid’s Tale, I thought I’d focus on the differences between the book and the first season of the television version.  (Subsequent seasons are totally outside the parameters of the book.)

In the book, the narrator is Offred.  We are never told her real name.  In the tv show, the protagonist is named June, a name mentioned only once in the novel (14).  The two Offreds are different too.  The book’s Offred is quite passive; survival seems to be her priority.  Even as a young woman, she didn’t take part in protests before she became a handmaid:  “I didn’t go on any of the marches’ (189).  In the book, it is Offred’s mother who is the activist.  When approached by Ofglen to become a spy for the Mayday resistance, Offred declines.  June in the television version is much more active and rebellious.  She and her friend Moira took part in protest marches; in the third episode, the two women run and hide in a cafe when law enforcement officials open fire on the crowd.  June also collects a secret package of letters for Mayday.  In the book, Offred does not take part in the Salvaging, whereas in the tv version, she is among the first to participate. 

Fred and Serena Joy Waterford are developed more in the television series.  The book doesn’t even conclusively identify a surname.  Both are younger on the screen; in the book, for instance, Serena uses a cane.  Through flashbacks we see the relationship between husband and wife when they first met.  The show also emphasizes the pivotal role Serena played in the creation of Gilead. 

Other characters are also given more prominence in the adaptation.  In the book, Nick remains a much more mysterious character because we have access only to Offred’s thoughts.  In the television show, flashback scenes offer some insight into his life pre-Gilead and his motivations are clearer.  Two other handmaids are given substantial stories in the adaptation that are not mentioned in the book.  Ofglen has a role in the resistance, but we don't know many details about her.  In the tv show, she is given a backstory and we witness her genital mutilation.  Janine is another handmaid whose story differs though she is psychologically frail in both; in the television version, she is a much more sympathetic character.  In the latter, she is punished with blindness in one eye (not maiming of the feet) and then gives birth to a girl who dies.  In the television version, she gives birth to a healthy baby girl.  After being separated from Angela, Janine suffers a psychological breakdown, kidnaps Angela, and threatens to jump off a bridge with the baby in her arms.  The show also adds a particicution involving Janine which never appears in the book.  Aunt Lydia is a much more prominent character on the show; in the book, she is mentioned only in flashbacks.  When Offred sees her at the salvaging, she comments, “It’s Aunt Lydia.  How many years since I’ve seen her?  I’d begun to think she existed only in my head” (286). 

What happens to some characters is explained more in the adaptation.  For example, the book suggests that Luke is dead, but the television series shows Luke living in Canada.  The latter also offers more of the backstory of Luke and June’s relationship.  In the novel, Moira just disappears; Offred sees her at Jezebel’s and then, “I don’t know how she ended, or even if she did, because I never saw her again” (262).  In the adaptation, Moira manages to escape to Canada where she reunites with Luke.  In the book, Offred is shown a photo of her daughter (who is never named); in the tv version, June actually sees Hannah.  Most significantly, Offred’s pregnancy is not confirmed in the book.  She tells Nick that she is but she admits, “This I know is wishful thinking” (283).  In the series finale, Serena gives June a pregnancy test which proves to be positive.

There are other minor differences too.  Cora, the maid in the Commander’s house, is supportive of Offred but there is no such character in the adaptation.  Offred’s mother was a major influence on her daughter, but she is just a shadow in the tv version.  In the book, Offred’s daughter is abducted in a grocery store, not a maternity ward as in the adaptation.  Handmaids no longer have an identifying tattoo; in the updated tv series, they have a tracker attached to an ear.  In the book, people of colour have been resettled elsewhere; in the other, there are a number of characters of colour:  Luke and Moira are black and Hannah is biracial.  A major addition to the adaptation is the Mexican trade delegation which is the means of bringing June information about her husband. 

Now that I’ve separated the television show from the novel, I’m ready to read The Testaments.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Review of THE TRAVELLING CAT CHRONICLES by Hiro Arikawa

3 Stars
I’m more a dog person than a cat person, but my husband and I had cats in the past, so I picked up this book because I was looking for something different to read.

Satoru, a man in his thirties, rescues an injured stray cat which he names Nana.  They live together happily for five years.  Then they set out on trips across Japan to visit friends because Satoru is looking to rehome Nana; “’unavoidable circumstances’ were preventing him from keeping [his precious cat] any longer.”  Nana wants to stay with Satoru and sets out to sabotage the visits so Satoru has to keep him. 

Much of the story is narrated in the first person by Nana, but there is also a third person narrator who gives the backstory of Satoru’s growing up and how he came to become friends with the people they visit. 

Satoru’s character is developed through his interactions with people and Nana.  He comes across as a truly good person – kind and loving towards animals and humans.  Despite hardships, he doesn’t wallow in self-pity and tries to be optimistic. 

Nana’s character is also developed.  He is a proud cat who sees himself as “a rare, wise cat” and “a high-spirited, adventurous cat that will never be intimidated.”  What differentiates him is that he is a cat capable of loyalty and gratitude, the perfect cat for a good man like Satoru.  Of course, it is Nana’s observations about humans and the world that stand out.  For instance, “Humans always underestimate our language skills.  Just ‘cause they can read and write, there’s no need to act all high and mighty.”  Anyone who has ever had a cat will recognize the truth in comments on feline behaviour:  “Cats the world over prefer to discover things they like on their own and rarely go for anything that’s been provided for them.”

In some ways, the book is a self-improvement book offering advice on how to live.  For example, Kosuke, the first friend they visit, learns that it is important to be independent from one’s parents.   Another man’s “sense of inferiority and jealousy diminish” after Satoru and Nana’s visit.  Optimism is emphasized:  “it would be better to keep a smile on your face till the end.  And then I’m sure you’ll be happier.”

The novel is an easy read.  There is little mystery as to why Satoru is looking for a new home for Nana; however, though there is sadness, the overall tone is optimistic.  We are encouraged to think of life as a journey during which we can “see all kinds of amazing things.  Let’s spend our time taking in as many wonderful sights as we can.”