Twitter Account

Follow me on Twitter (@DCYakabuski) and Instagram (@doreenyakabuski).

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Review of WASHINGTON BLACK by Esi Edugyan

4 Stars
Set in the 1830s, this novel, shortlisted for both the Man Booker Prize and the Giller Prize, covers about eight years in the life of its narrator, George Washington Black (Wash).

Wash was born into slavery on a sugar plantation in Barbados.  When he is 11, he is rescued from the brutality of field work when chosen by Christopher Wilde (Titch), a naturalist and inventor and the brother of the plantation owner, to be his manservant and to assist him in his scientific endeavours.  Wash’s intelligence and his aptitude for drawing pique Titch’s interest so he nurtures his talent and introduces him to the wonders of the natural world.  The death of a man leaves Wash with a bounty on his head so Titch and Wash flee the island.  This is the beginning of Wash’s travels as he eventually finds himself in far-flung locales as he tries to make his way in a world, “trying my best . . . to be my own free man” (231).

In some ways this is an adventure tale.  Wash travels the world:  Virginia, the Arctic, Nova Scotia, London, Amsterdam, and Morocco.  He gets to fly in a hydrogen balloon, sail the sea and dive into its depths, and see the high Arctic and the desert.  It is also a coming-of-age story showing Wash’s psychological growth from youth to adulthood.  Most importantly, it asks the question, What is true freedom?

As a child, Wash asks his surrogate mother, “’What it like, Kit? Free?’”  She tells him, “’When you free, you can do anything. . . . You go wherever it is you wanting.  You wake up any time you wanting.  When you free . . . someone ask you a question, you ain’t got to answer.  You ain’t got to finish no job you don’t want to finish’” (9).  As a slave, Wash has no freedom; his owner even takes measures to ensure that his slaves aren’t free to choose death by suicide.  So Wash dreams of freedom, though Titch warns him, “’Freedom, Wash, is a word with different meanings to different people’” (154).  

When Wash escapes the plantation and Titch offers him freedom in Upper Canada, Wash admits, “’I was terrified to my very core, and . . . the idea of embarking on a perilous journey without Titch filled me with a panic so savage it felt as if I were being asked to perform some brutal act upon myself, to sever my own throat” (182).  This reaction reveals that Wash remains a slave; he knows no life but being the property of someone else, though it upsets him when Titch, to avoid confrontation, tells someone, “’Indeed, the boy is my property’” (140).  In a telling comment, Titch laments, “’You will never leave me, Wash . . . Even when I am gone.  That is what breaks my heart’” (216).

Eventually, Wash must live on his own.  Once he is forced “to leave behind Titch’s coddled world,” he discovers he will never be free of “the brutality of white men.  To be called nigger and kicked at in disgust like a wharf rat” (231).  Though he is technically a free man in Nova Scotia, he hides from a bounty hunter he fears is looking for him.  Though he becomes an accomplished illustrator and a pioneering zoologist, he cannot get the recognition he has earned:  “in the end my name would be nowhere” (385).  At one point, Wash makes a conclusion that his time with Titch “had schooled me to believe I could leave all misery behind, I could cast off all violence, outrun a vicious death.  I had even begun thinking I’d been born for a higher purpose, to draw the earth’s bounty, and to invent; I had imagined my existence a true and rightful part of the natural order.  How wrong-headed it had all been.  I was a black boy, only – I had no future before me, and little grace or mercy behind me.  I was nothing, I would die nothing” (165).  

Just as Wash always carries physical scars of his slavery, he can never be truly free of the psychological trauma of his enslavement.  For example, he has difficulty trusting people; whenever he meets someone, he remains suspicious:  “Despite his general mildness, I feared him, of course” (80) and “no part of me did trust him” (177) and “But it is also true that there was something in him I did not fully trust” (234).  After he lives without Titch in his life, he feels he has no identity because he had one only in relation to Titch:  “I became a boy without an identity, a walking shadow” (230).  His sense of wonder at the natural world and his sketching of it cover his fear and loneliness because he remains a lost soul with a “sense of rootlessness” (400).

Of course, the concept of freedom is examined through other characters as well.  Does Titch’s father stay in the Arctic to be free of familial ties?  Titch is an abolitionist who believes “Slavery is a moral stain” which “will keep white men from their heaven” (105), but in order to do his research and create his inventions, he requires access to money made by the sugar cane plantation where slaves labour and are inhumanely treated so he can never be truly free of family duties.   Though Titch has more personal freedom than his family’s slaves, feelings of guilt haunt him, and he is like Wash who cannot be free of his past.  Wash recognizes that “wounds had arrested [Titch] in boyhood” (416) and because of Titch’s background, Wash even speculates that perhaps for Titch “any deep acceptance of equality was impossible” (322).

The cover of my copy has a sketch of an octopus which proves to be a symbol in the novel.  On a diving expedition, Wash finds an octopus that “swam directly into my hands” (274) and he wishes to keep it alive and protect it.  The octopus is, of course, an exotic creature, and Wash sees himself as an oddity:  “a creature . . . a disfigured black boy with a scientific turn of mind and a talent on canvas, running, always running, from the dimmest of shadows” (230-231).  When taken captive, the octopus becomes ill in her tank; “I looked at the octopus, and I saw not the miraculous animal but my own slow, relentless extinction” (337-338).

There are some elements in the novel that irritated me.  For instance, there are quite a few coincidences where people appear almost magically.  Wash’s narration also bothered me:  though he is obviously intelligent, he is an uneducated boy born into slavery who struggles with learning to read, yet he has such an extensive vocabulary?

Though not perfect, this is a book I can see myself re-reading.  It has a depth that invites a second look.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Review of A LIGHT OF HER OWN by Carrie Callaghan (New Release)

2 Stars
This novel is set during the Golden Age of Dutch painting.  In 1633, in Haarlem, Judith Leyster is a young woman striving to have her own artist’s workshop and to be the first woman admitted to the artists’ guild.  She struggles with money problems because the male-dominated art world seems to be conspiring against her.  Meanwhile, Judith’s friend Maria is a guilt-ridden Catholic, in a time when her religion is banned, always looking for ways to atone for her perceived sins.  

This book felt so flat to me.  It is full of historical detail about domestic life and the technical aspects of painting, so the author obviously did considerable research.  However, the novel’s style, inconsistencies in plot, and poor character development left me feeling that considerable revision is needed.

Let’s start with style.  The author has a tendency to overuse short, choppy sentences:  “The flash of wet paint suggested a few lines.  On the right sparkled a small star.  She gave a slight smile and used the back of her hand to wipe away another tear.  Her monogram now marked the building as her own.  She dabbed a bit . . .”  Then there’s the repetition of words.  For instance, some form of the word shiver is used 18 times, and cold appears 38 times!  And paragraphs are so disjointed.  For example, Judith and Maria go to visit a dying man:  “The green-striped coverlet stippled as Maria added her hand’s weight to the bed, and Judith thought of the fields of hay bending in the wind that she had seen once while traveling to a countryside tavern.  Someone had since harvested that hay, and what did the field look like now?”  Is this supposed to illustrate Judith’s obsession with painting?  Later, “She walked slowly along the canal and watched the ripples as well as the few remaining raindrops fracturing the reflected trees.  Why was it so complicated, she wondered, to have what so many others had?  A livelihood, a scrap of freedom to do as she pleased?”  She admires the beauty of nature, as an artist might, but then that beauty has her bemoaning her lack of independence?  Some transitions are definitely needed.  

Then there are the inconsistencies and gaps in logic.  Judith tells a man she has “urgent business in Den Haag” but that man later comments that she can go to Den Haag to help her friend.  How does he know her urgent business is to help a friend?  Judith asks a friend how long he apprenticed with the painter Frans Hals when that friend started at the same time as she did?  A young boy approaches Judith and says, “’I’m from the prison.  They sent me to find you, right?’”  Who is “they”?  Maria sees smoke coming out the window of a house but she is distracted by a bird cooing?

Maria describes a relic as “’Bone fragments.  In a silver reliquary, which was itself inside a gold reliquary’” though she was told the relic was “’An ornamental silver box holding sacred bone and a carved bronze reliquary’”!  Maria hopes that a priest “had not segmented the bone, [a relic], which was already small.”  So it’s not bone fragments but one “already small” bone?  And why would a priest lend part of an “already small” relic to a friend whose parish has “Not painters, but sculptors or some such trade”?  Why would sculptors need a bone fragment?

The problem with characterization is that characters behave inconsistently.  Judith is all over the place.  When a friend is so ill she could die, Judith doesn’t tell her friend’s father, a loving father who is very worried about his daughter?!   Then later she just blurts out the truth.  She promises, against all common sense and obligation, to keep a secret and does so for the longest time, but then breaks that promise?  

Oh but Maria is even more scattered.  She has a traumatic experience that leaves her afraid to walk in Haarlem but then shortly afterwards she convinces her father to let her travel alone to Leiden and to stay overnight in a city she has never visited.  She worries about “how she was going to find her way in a new city” but then “she declined the directional guidance of the older gentleman who had chatted with her during the ride [in the carriage to Leiden].”  She stupidly doesn’t find herself accommodation for the night before curfew, thereby placing herself “in danger.”  For someone so guilt-ridden about her “sins”, she lies in a letter to her father?   Maria is supposed to be about 25 years old, but she behaves as if she’s half that age:  “she needed to learn to sacrifice her pride.  Though perhaps Judith should sacrifice hers.  Maria had sacrificed so much already.”  She becomes upset with Judith for breaking a promise rather than being grateful for her saving her life?

I think there’s an interesting story to be told about Judith Leyster, a real person, but unfortunately, this novel does not do that.  

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

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Review of THE WITCH ELM by Tana French

3 Stars
I was planning on reading the first book in the Dublin Murder Squad series since I’ve read so many positive reviews of it, but then I noticed that a standalone novel by the author was released earlier this fall.  I don’t know how The Witch Elm compares to the series, but I’m afraid the book doesn’t motivate me to read another Tana French novel. 

Toby Hennessy, as he states in the opening sentence, is a lucky person.   He is good looking, smart, athletic, and popular.  He has a good job, supportive parents, a close-knit extended family, stalwart friends, and a devoted girlfriend.  He has no real financial worries: he seems to have considerable savings and his parents put down the deposit when he purchased his apartment.  Toby suspects his cousin Leon thinks of him as “some pampered prince who had never dealt with anything tougher than a hangover” because even as a boy, “[Toby] never worried about getting in trouble – [he] always talked [his] way out of it.”

Toby’s good fortune comes to an end when he is brutally beaten in a home invasion.  As a result of the attack, he walks with a limp, slurs his speech, and has gaps in his memory.  In many ways, he looks like a stroke victim.  He also loses his confidence:  “Me, six months ago, clear-eyed and clear-voiced, sitting up straight and smart, answering every question promptly and directly and with total unthinking confidence: every cell of me had carried a natural and absolute credibility . . . Me now, slurring, babbling, droopy-eyed and drag-footed, jumping and trembling . . . defective, unreliable, lacking any credibility or authority or weight.”  

Toby moves in with his Uncle Hugo who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer.  While Toby is living at Ivy House, a body is discovered on the property and a murder investigation begins.  Because of his memory lapses, Toby starts to wonder if he may have played a role in the death.  

One problem I had with the book is its glacial pacing.  For pages and pages and chapters and chapters, nothing happens.  The discovery of the body, for example, doesn’t occur until page 162!  The pace occasionally picks up but then the plot becomes static again.  There are no real twists and turns, no real surprises.  Much of the novel consists of Toby’s speculations as his paranoia mounts.  

Another problem is that Toby is not a likeable character.  Before his trauma, he is judgmental and dismissive of others’ concerns.  When discussing disadvantaged youth, whom Toby describes as “scuzzy youths with low-grade criminal records,” he has little sympathy:  “’The recession’s over; there’s no reason for anyone to be stuck in the muck unless they actually choose to be.’”  When a friend with a less-privileged background tells Toby, “’You haven’t got a clue’”, Toby thinks his friend “liked to play up the wrong-side-of-the-tracks angle, when he wanted an excuse to get chippy and self-righteous.”

Even after his trauma, Toby does not become much more likeable.  He devotes a lot of time to complaining about the effects of the beating but does nothing to help himself.  He has no physiotherapy, speech therapy, or occupational therapy appointments during his extended stay at Ivy House.  His brain injury becomes a convenient excuse for violent behaviour sparked by a bruised ego.  He speaks about having learned about luck but by the time he explains his epiphany at the end, I didn’t care.

My other issue with the novel is two characters.  Toby’s girlfriend Melissa and his uncle Hugo are just too good to be true.  Since Toby is the narrator, we see the characters only from his point of view, but there is no evidence to suggest that they are less than saints.  And why would Melissa be so slavishly devoted to a self-absorbed Toby who shows little concern for anything outside his bubble of privilege?

This was a disappointing introduction to Tana French.  I appreciate that she does shed light on the devastating effects of brain injury.  Unfortunately, the book’s negative qualities outweigh the positive.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Review of TRANSCRIPTION by Kate Atkinson

3.5 Stars
Life After Life and its companion A God in Ruins are among my favourite novels, so I was anxious to read Atkinson’s latest book.  Unfortunately, it proved not to be as masterly.

In 1940, 18-year-old Juliet Armstrong is recruited by the Secret Service.  Her job is to transcribe recordings of meetings between British Nazi sympathizers and Godfrey Toby, a British spy posing as a Gestapo agent.  Later, MI5 puts her out in the field, infiltrating another group of Hitler supporters.  The novel then switches to 1950 when Juliet is a BBC producer, but her work during the war comes back to haunt her.  She receives a note with a threat:  “’You will pay for what you did’” (186).  Who is threatening her and why does a former colleague refuse to admit knowing her?

The novel emphasizes how truth is lost in wartime.  Juliet believes “that appearances were invariably deceptive” (188) and this belief is reinforced when she is told that “’The mark of a good agent is when you have no idea which side they’re on’” (116).  Juliet lies easily when first interviewed for a position with Secret Security, but she is accepted anyway; her interviewer “knew everything about her – more than she knew herself – including every lie and half-truth she told him at the interview.  It didn’t seem to matter.  In fact, she suspected that it helped in a way” (37).  

When first sent into the field and given a false identity, she is advised, “’And remember, if you’re going to tell a lie, tell a good one. . . . It can be a difficult concept, fabricating a life – the falsehoods and so on.  Some people find it challenging to dissemble in this way.’”   Juliet’s reaction is telling:  “Not me, Juliet thought” (80).  Looking back at the war, Juliet comments, “The war had made the world weary of facts” (178) because “People always said they wanted the truth, but really they were perfectly content with a facsimile” (185).  

By the end of the war Juliet knows “she has moved away from [truth]” (19).  The problem is that, after adopting so many identities during the war, she seems to have lost herself:  “There had been other identities too, although she never owned up to them in public.  And then there was Juliet Armstrong, of course, who some days seemed like the most fictitious of them all, despite being the ‘real’ Juliet.  But then what constituted real?  Wasn’t everything, even this life itself, just a game of deception” (259)?  

One is left wondering how truthful Juliet is.  There’s an episode with earrings that shows her to be untrustworthy.  And ten years later, she continues to deceive.  She admits to lying in her BBC interview and she destroys incriminating evidence to protect herself and a colleague:  “It was not the first time she had destroyed evidence of wrong-doing and she supposed it wouldn’t be the last” (214).  At the BBC, she rewrites children’s radio histories to enliven them, often leaving out details, so one cannot help but wonder if she is leaving out details about her life.  Since her name is closely associated with a dramatic script, is Juliet playing a role?  Of course, Juliet is not the only enigma.  Juliet’s colleagues (Godfrey Toby, Peregrine Gibbons, Miles Merton) also remain largely unknown, as befits spies.

The problem is that it is difficult to emotionally connect with Juliet.  At the beginning, she is so naïve.  Her age explains her innocence, but surely she should have realized the truth about Perry much sooner.    And throughout her wartime activity, she makes frivolous comments.  She thinks of her role as an adventure, as she is told to do; though one incident makes her aware of the fatal consequences of her spying, her comments and interior dialogue suggest little true change in her attitude.  Would someone having to clean up after a killing actually quote Shakespeare:  “She would have to clean again.  And Again.  Out, damned spot” (284)?  Something seems missing, perhaps some warmth in her personality?  Juliet even refers to this:  “The unfathomable hollow inside her would never be filled” (171) and “She sometimes wondered if there was some emptiness inside that she was trying to fill” (205).

There are wonderful touches of humour.  Juliet’s thoughts during Perry’s courtship, for example, are hilarious.  What is missing is tension; for a spy thriller there is little danger except in a couple of episodes.  And because of the first chapter, the reader knows that Juliet survives.  The pacing is also uneven; for long stretches, nothing happens.  Though this shows spy work is often mundane, unlike what James Bond films might suggest, such plotting does little to maintain the reader’s interest.

The book has the literary allusions I love, quite a few surprises, and several layers:  “’There can be many layers to a thing.  Like the spectrum of light’” (312).  Unfortunately, the book just didn’t resonate with me; it didn’t have the emotional impact of Atkinson’s other World War II novels.  Juliet ends up feeling that people are often pawns in “someone else’s great game” (313) and in some ways I feel the reader is manipulated by how information is divulged and withheld.  I do think, however, that I might re-read the book because, like Juliet misses and misconstrues details, I might also have done so.  I guess I’d be a lousy spy!

Friday, November 2, 2018

Review of AN OCEAN OF MINUTES by Thea Lim

3.5 Stars
I chose to read this novel because it appeared on the 2018 Giller Prize shortlist and the brief plot outline intrigued me.

In 1981, the southern U.S. is hit by a deadly pandemic.  Polly Nader’s fiancé Frank contracts the disease so Polly agrees to travel to the future.  A company named TimeRaiser will give Frank the life-saving medicine developed in the future if Polly agrees to travel to 1993 and work for 32 months helping to rebuild a country devastated by the plague.  Frank and Polly agree to meet twelve years in the future and resume their lives.  Polly, however, ends up in 1998.  Frank does not meet her at the pre-arranged location on any of the agreed-upon days and she is unable to get information as to his whereabouts.  Is he still alive and, if he is, does he still love her?

The novel examines love’s ability to survive through time.  For Polly no time has passed when she arrives in 1998, but for Frank, if he has survived, 17 years have passed.  Being reunited with Frank becomes Polly’s hope through difficult times:  “From a completely objective standpoint, the odds [of Frank waiting for her] were poor.  But in that secret, covered place, between breastbone and sinew and pumping ventricle, Polly always knew he was coming” (119) because “All that love.  It can’t die.  It has to go somewhere” (178).  As time passes, however, she experiences periods of doubt:  “Polly was not sure of anything.  [She wonders if] love could neatly and unremarkably stop” though that thought “was more impossible and terrible than travelling through all of time” (185).  She takes solace by reminding herself of what she had once been told:  “No matter what happens, the past has a permanence.  The past is safe” (235).  Her mantra becomes, “Once something’s been done, it can’t be undone” (260) because Frank once told her, “Polly I can’t unlove you” (265). 

The author’s answer to the question of love’s durability through time may not satisfy everyone but I found the ending totally realistic.  Throughout the novel, there are flashbacks which show the development of the relationship between Polly and Frank so what happens at the end strikes me as exactly the way such a relationship would unfold, given the circumstances.    

The book is more than a love story.  It examines migration and displacement, issues very pertinent to our time with its widespread refugee crisis.  When Polly arrives in the future, she is a refugee from the past trying to navigate an unrecognizable world.  She has little status, few rights, and no money.  She is an indentured servant who has to work off her debt, but because she has to pay for almost everything, her debt to TimeRaiser keeps growing.  Working and living conditions are poor, and these only worsen for Polly when she is demoted from skilled worker to manual labourer.  To access information, journeymen like her face endless bureaucracy. 

The novel also sheds light on the economic divide and the disconnect between rich and poor.  Because of the plague, the U.S. becomes two countries, America in the south and the United States in the north.  The north is prosperous but the south was devastated by the pandemic and is trying to recover.  Polly is told that America is “’creating a vacation belt . . . attracting hundreds of vacationers . . . We have . . . a stream of cheap and willing workers . . . We have workers to build resorts, and workers to work in them’” (56-57).  I could not help but think of Mexico, especially when many of the workers Polly encounters speak Spanish. 

The movement of journeymen is curtailed; they cannot leave without permission.  Polly has a surreal experience when she goes on a walk looking for Frank.  She is arrested by Customs and Border Protection and questioned by an ICE agent:  “’Why did you charge our wall’” (97)?  And even with documentation to travel, people from the south going north must endure medical screening and “the threatening looks of the passport officials” (267). 

When Polly first arrives in the future, she joins hundreds of other workers pedaling on stationary bicycles; she is told, “’The air conditioning runs on clean energy, from pedal power, powered by people like you.  You get exercise and healthy living, the vacationers get lights and A/C’” (48).  Meanwhile, those cyclists live in shipping containers.  A journeyman may harvest “swamp cabbage, wading out in coagulated waters as snakes writhed around her knees” but “Up north, they bought the greens in capsules, two dollars a pill, as an immune-system booster” (182). 

Though it has insights, the book is not without its flaws.  Polly is dull and emotionless and makes some stupid decisions so it is difficult to connect with her.  The book becomes tedious at times when nothing happens.  I don’t think it will win the Giller Prize, but I have yet to read the other nominees - and I have been wrong in the past.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Review of LETHAL WHITE by Robert Galbraith

3.5 Stars
This is the fourth book in the Cormoran Strike series written by J. K. Rowling under a pseudonym.  Set amid the 2012 Olympics in London, the novel picks up from where the previous novel, Career of Evil, leaves off.

Strike is approached by Billy Knight, a troubled young man with mental health problems, who claims that as a child he witnessed the strangulation and burial of a young child.  Strike is also contacted by Jasper Chiswell, a Conservative M.P. who wants information about two blackmailers, one of whom is Billy’s brother Jimmy.  Robin, Strike’s partner, assists in the investigations which eventually also involve looking into a suspicious death. 

This is a lengthy book with lots of twists and turns and red herrings.  The plot is so complex with so many details that the reader will be at a loss to tie together all the information into a coherent whole.  Of course, Strike and Robin do manage to make connections and eventually find answers to the many puzzles.  To add to the reader’s enjoyment, the resolution makes perfect sense. 

There are some predictable elements.  For instance, Robin and Matthew continue to have disagreements over her job, Robin and Strike take a road trip, and the women with whom Strike has liaisons cause problems for Strike and confusion for Robin.  And there are the inevitable conversations where Strike and Robin talk at cross purposes and fail to understand each other.

Though this can be read as a standalone novel, it is best read as part of the series since the Strike and Robin relationship has developed over time.  This book, more than the others, focuses on the unacknowledged romantic tension between the two.  Though Robin is married to Matthew and Strike has another sexual partner, there is an attraction that is obvious.  Some readers will enjoy this romance element but I found it distracting and it certainly slows the pace so the book cannot be called a thriller.

This is not the best book of the series, though it is still entertaining.  I do hope that the protagonists finally become a couple so the focus of future books will be the cases they need to solve. 

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Review of A MAN CALLED OVE by Fredrik Backman

3 Stars
This book was somewhat ruined for me because I saw the film version before my book club chose it to read and discuss.

Ove is a 59-year-old widower who keeps trying and failing to commit suicide because he sees himself as “an old person with no purpose in the world.”  He is a grumpy man who despises his neighbours, and his feelings are only intensified when his attempts to kill himself are foiled by those neighbours.  A pregnant Iranian immigrant sees beyond Ove’s cantankerousness and she is instrumental in helping Ove re-engage with the outside world.

Ove reminds me very much of Walt Kowalski, the Clint Eastwood character in Gran Torino.  He constantly complains about everything and everyone; he seems to have little positive to say about anyone.  Gradually, however, his character becomes more developed:  “He believed so strongly in things:  justice and fair play and hard work and a world where right just had to be right.”  The reader  comes to understand why he is the way he is:  “To men like Ove and Rune dignity was simply that they’d had to manage on their own when they grew up, and therefore saw it as their right not to become reliant on others when they were adults.  There was a sense of pride in having control.  In being right. . . . Men like Ove and Rune were from a generation in which one was what one did, not what one talked about.” 

Ove has a particular hate for bureaucrats whom he calls the “men in white shirts.”  When his wife Sonja was injured in an accident, he received no help:  “They sat behind desks made of light-colored wood in various municipal offices and they apparently had endless amounts of time to instruct Ove in what documents had to be filled in for various purposes, but no time at all to discuss the measures that were needed for Sonja to get better. . . . But no one took responsibility.  No one cared.  They answered by reference to legal texts or other authorities.  Made excuses.” 

Even when one gets past Ove’s crusty exterior, he is not always a likeable character. He would actually have let the stray cat die were it not for Parvaneh’s intervention?  His obsession with the fact that Jimmy, one of his neighbours, is overweight becomes offensive.  Jimmy is repeatedly described as an “overweight young man” who is always asking people for something to eat.  Though the author is at pains to mention that it is “Not that Ove dislikes fat people.  Certainly not,” the descriptions of Jimmy as a “twin-size person” with “fat breasts” who “could attack a bowl of chips from all directions at one” and probably “tests bacon for a living” suggest otherwise.  Of course, Parvaneh’s husband is nicknamed “the Lanky One”, but it is his physical ineptness that Ove focuses on. 

Ove’s transformation does not ring true.  One of the three principles of convincing character change is that the character must indicate he/she is capable of changing.  When Sonja first starts dating Ove, her friends describe him as “a grumpy old man since he started elementary school” and throughout their marriage, he is indeed a curmudgeon.  Yet he becomes a man who becomes invested in the welfare of his neighbours?  Obviously, the author wanted a feel-good ending. 

I cannot say I didn’t enjoy the book.  There are wonderful touches of humour; for instance, I found the scene where Ove tries to buy an iPad hilarious.  The book, however, is rather too sentimental for my tastes and also too predictable.  But perhaps I’m just a grumpy old woman?!

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Review of THE RAIN WATCHER by Tatiana de Rosnay (New Release)

2 Stars
To state that this book is a disappointment is an understatement.  I really struggled to finish it; were it not for the fact that I felt obligated to review it because I received a digital galley, I would have abandoned it.

The Malegarde family meets in Paris in January of 2018 to celebrate the 70th birthday of the family patriarch Paul who is a world renowned arborist.  Paul and his wife Lauren arrive in Paris where their son Linden and their daughter Tilia are waiting.  The family reunion does not go as planned; much of Paris is experiencing flooding and Paul suffers a medical emergency that requires his hospitalization.  While they are together, various family secrets are divulged.

The narrator is Linden, a celebrated photographer who is gay but has never actually discussed his sexuality with his father.  Of course, communication seems not to be the métier of any of the family members.  Lauren keeps a secret from her husband; Tilia never speaks of an accident in which she was injured; and Paul has a secret which he has hidden “where it won’t be found.  No one knows.  No one will.”  It is Tilia’s secret that seems contrived.  Linden might not have heard personal details from his sister but there would have been information easily available online.

The book needs extensive editing.  Over and over again, there are detailed descriptions of the flooding and a comparison to the 1910 flood which is repeatedly mentioned.  Then there are the constant references to Paris streets and arrondissements.  Words referring to street (“rue” or “avenue” or “boulevard”) are used over 100 times! 

Even the style is tedious.  There is very little dialogue; instead, Linden just recounts conversations so there is no sense of immediacy.  So much telling, as opposed to showing, leaves the reader feeling detached.  What’s with the obsession with years?  Besides the 2 dozen references to the floods of 1910 and 2016, various years between 1997 and 2016 are specifically identified 58 times!  There is little variety in sentence structure.  So many of the sentences are short, choppy, simple sentences (“Tilia halts.  Her trembling hands cover her face like a mask.  Linden and Mistral do not move.  The only sound is the gush of rain . . . Suddenly the phone rings . . . Mistral answers it.  She nods, murmurs a few words, then hangs up.  Linden asks her who it was.  She whispers that it’s not important.”) as if the author cannot write a compound or complex sentence.  Then there are the long series of interrogative sentences:  “What does Paul know?  How long has it been going on? . . . Is this a recent affair?  Or one of those long-lasting clandestine ones, like Candice and J.G.’s? . . . Are his parents happy?  Have they always been happy?” and “Why her?  Why them, and not her?  Why had all her friends died?  Why had she been the one left behind?  The only one?”

The author often seems to toy with the reader.  At the beginning, she avoids using gender-specific pronouns to refer to Sasha as if to later shock the reader about Linden’s homosexuality.  The same is done with the opening passages of the chapters when it is not made clear who (Linden or Paul) is writing the flashbacks.

Symbolism usually adds depth to a novel.  In this case, however, the symbolism is clumsy and heavy-handed.  Paris is being flooded and the reader is to understand that the family is drowning in secrets and a storm is brewing as they gather for their reunion which arouses a flood of emotions.  As the Seine dredges up what has been buried, so are the family’s secrets dredged up.   It’s impossible to miss the metaphor:  “It seems his father’s life is slowly ebbing away, with the same stealthy pace as the rise of the Seine, as if the two events are intertwined and preordained.”  As Paris is deluged by water, Linden is inundated with memories of his time in the city.  After the waters recede, will the family emerge cleansed?

Much of the narrative is disjointed.  Much is made of Tilia’s speaking about the accident which left her with mental and physical scars, but then it is never mentioned again.  The backstories of characters are supplied but they serve little purpose.  Linden is placed in positions that make little sense.  Why does he go on the second boat trip since he is not allowed to take photos and his presence would serve only as a hindrance to rescuers?  Likewise, he is asked to be at an evacuation though he would become one more person for those in charge to worry about?  And what’s with unexpectedly dropping characters into the story?  Three different people arrive unannounced.

Sometimes things just seem thrown into the plot mix.  Linden leaves Tilia to get some medication for his mother:  “He leaves Lauren in Tilia’s care.  She’ll deal with getting the prescription.”  Then later we are told that “medication has been the subject to avoid with his sister ever since her accident.  She harbors profound skepticism about doctor’s prescriptions” and “It had been complicated enough getting her to approve of the treatment Lauren was receiving for her pneumonia.”  This complication was never mentioned!  And don’t get me started on that ending with its great reveal.  It’s anticlimactic and explains little.  Is it supposed to explain the reason for Paul’s preference for trees over people?  It does not connect to the rest of the storyline except to suggest that Paul decided he should share his secret. 

A repeated message is that people need to care more for each other.  One woman dies because of “the lack of caring.”  One character “hates this egocentric world where selfies rule, where no one bothers to find out if their neighbor is all right.”  We are told that in the 1910 flood, “people were kinder to one another . . . They watched out for their neighbors; they made sure everyone was dry and safe.  Solidarity ruled, and this, sadly, is no longer true in our modern selfish world.” 

Despite the many references to deep waters, I found the book rather shallow.  It does not flow; rather, it is disjointed.  Many scenes lack purpose.  I hate being so negative, but I honestly found little to admire in this book.  Reading it was like wading through the detritus of a flood.  

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

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Review of THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS by Michael Robotham

3.5 Stars
After some serious books, I thought I’d read a thriller.  This author has won several crime writing awards so I thought I’d give him a try.

Agatha is a part-time grocery shelf stocker.  She is pregnant, but her boyfriend Hayden is away at sea with the Royal Navy and is ignoring her messages.    Agatha has become obsessed with Meghan, a woman who seems to have the perfect life:  a handsome husband, two beautiful children, a nice home, a group of sophisticated friends.  Meghan is also pregnant so Agatha is able to use this shared experience to befriend her.  This friendship ends up changing the lives of both women because Agatha is planning to steal something from Meghan. 

The book is narrated by both Agatha and Meghan in alternating chapters so the reader becomes privy to their thoughts and feelings.  It soon becomes clear that both women have secrets.  Agatha does not like discussing her past and Meghan has a secret which she is desperate to keep hidden.  Agatha’s voyeurism is disturbing but then Meghan’s life is not as glamourous as Agatha thinks. 

There are some plot elements that are a bit far-fetched, especially when it comes to men (Hayden, Simon) having changes of heart at the end.  Agatha’s planning is also almost flawless; her psychological profile suggests she has “a high degree of intelligence” but even with her meticulous planning the wheel-along upright shopping trolley used for the crime would easily catch police attention even if the colour is changed. 

What impressed me is the author’s ability to arouse sympathy for both women.   I found myself wanting each woman to get what she wants, though this is not possible.  Meghan does some stupid things but she doesn’t deserve what happens to her.  Agatha’s behaviour is definitely criminal but I agree with the psychologist who describes her as “’a victim.  Something dreadful has happened that prompted her into making some terrible decisions. . . . She has suffered enormously, which is why we have to show her compassion and understanding.’”

There is a message:  be grateful for what you have and don’t take the good things in your life for granted because “sometimes even the most charmed existence can change in the blink of an eye, or turn on the length of an eyelash.  One moment of indecision.  A cancer cell.  A rogue gene.  A wrong turn.  A red light.  A drunk driver.  A cruel piece of misfortune.” 

This is one of the better psychological thrillers I’ve read in some time.  Perhaps people with children should be warned that this is an intense read which touches on a parent’s worst nightmare.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Review of AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE by Tayari Jones

4 Stars
Celestial and Roy are a young black couple with a promising future until Roy is wrongfully convicted of rape and sentenced to twelve years.  The book concentrates on their relationship during their separation.   Roy stays focused on his love for his wife while Celestial tries to move forward with her life, helped by her lifelong friend Andre.  When Roy is released, can he and Celestial regain what they lost, what was stolen from them?

The book examines marriage, “a peculiar institution.”  Celestial and Roy have been married for only a year before their lives are torn apart.  Celestial thinks of their marriage as “a fine-spun tapestry, fragile but fixable.  We tore it often and mended it, always with silken thread, lovely but sure to give way.”  Theirs is not like the marriages of their parents:  “Their marriages were cut from less refined but more durable cloth, something like cotton-sack burlap, bound with gray twine.”  Later, she writes to Roy that “our delicate cord . . . has been shredded by your incarceration.”  They are not like his parents who “lived under one roof for more than thirty years . . . grew together and grew up together . . . That’s what a marriage is.  What we have here isn’t a marriage.  A marriage is more than your heart, it’s your life.  And we are not sharing ours.”  Does marriage require togetherness to survive or is Celestial correct in suggesting that her and Roy’s marriage was “a sapling graft that didn’t have time to take”? 

Are modern marriages different because people don’t understand true commitment?  Celestial admits, when thinking or Roy’s parents, “I feel like I’ve been playing at marriage.  That I don’t know what it is to be committed.”   Andre mentions, when listening to some old songs, “Those old cats sang about a kind of devotion long since out of style.”  Is the “’Till death do us part” vow unreasonable, “a recipe for failure”?  How much loyalty can be expected in marriage?  Roy keeps focusing on the fact that Celestial is his wife and hasn’t divorced him, but Andre points out, “’The bottom line is that she doesn’t belong to you.  She never belonged to you.  She was your wife, yeah.  But she didn’t belong to you.’”  Is marriage a necessary institution when “you can’t trust the state to know anything about the truth of people’s lives”?  For Roy, a divorce would be just another decree from a state that wrongfully imprisoned him.  How does one even recognize love when “Human emotion is beyond comprehension, smooth and uninterrupted, like an orb made of blown glass” and when “convenience, habit, comfort, obligation – these are all things that wear the same clothing as love sometimes”? 

Of course, the book tells the story of a marriage that is damaged by the racial injustice that continues to haunt the United States.  While in college, Celestial heard a speech by a black man who had been wrongfully imprisoned for decades, but his story “felt like a lesson from the past, a phantom of Mississippi.  What did it have to do with us, college students . . . ?”  Yet Roy’s education and work ethic do not shield him from wrongful conviction:  he becomes engaged in “a battle older than his father and his father’s father.”  Celestial emphasizes, “’What did Roy do to deserve any of this?  He didn’t do anything but be a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time.  This is basic.’”  Roy’s father-in-law, who calls Roy “’a hostage of the state . . .  a victim of America,’” also argues that “’Accident of birth is the number one predictor of happiness.’”  Roy’s father agrees:  “’That’s your fate as a black man.  Carried by six or judged by twelve.’” 

And there is a warning.  Ray speaks of how prison has changed him:  “Innocent or not, prison changes you, makes you into a convict.”  And Andre realizes, “But someone was going to pay for what happened to Roy, just as Roy paid for what happened to that woman [who was raped].  Someone always pays.  Bullet don’t have nobody’s name on it, that’s what people say. . . . It’s out there, random and deadly, like a tornado.”  Given the incarceration rate of black men in America, these observations are ominous. 

The book is narrated by three characters:  Roy, Celestial and Andre.  Because we are privy to their thoughts, we come to understand their choices, though we might not necessarily agree with them.  Each of them makes mistakes but each is also wronged, so I found it impossible to pick sides.  At different times, I was angry with each one and sad for each. 

This is a very thought-provoking novel, one that is very relevant given how even the contemporary American justice system seems biased against blacks.  And should Canadians feel complacent, they need only replace black with indigenous.