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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.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Review of EDUCATED by Tara Westover

3.5 Stars
I do not often read memoirs but this one kept being mentioned by people as a must-read.

Tara is the youngest child of fundamentalist Mormon survivalists in Idaho.  Her father, whose word was law in the household, mistrusted formal education and western medicine and stockpiled food, fuel and guns in preparation for the Days of Abomination.  Her mother, a homeopathic healer and midwife, did little to ameliorate her husband’s tyrannical rule and the sadistic attacks of an elder child; in her subservience to her husband, she was complicit in what happened in the home. 

Though she never attended school, Tara managed to get herself into Brigham Young University.  As she studied to overcome her very limited knowledge of the outside world, she struggled to form her identity outside the shadow of her family and upbringing.  Eventually she achieved extraordinary academic success at some of the world’s most prestigious educational institutions, but her desire to break free from her family’s limiting influences had a high cost. 

Parts of the book are harrowing.  Gene Westover had an almost total disregard for his family’s safety.  As the children worked in his scrapyard, they suffered terrible accidents which could have been prevented and then were denied proper medical treatment because Gene believed that “Everything that happened to our family, every injury, every near death, was because we had been chosen, we were special.  God had orchestrated all of it so we could denounce the Medical Establishment and testify of His power.”  Tara was subjected to physical attacks and emotional abuse by an older brother yet she was accused of lying about what happened.  But it is the mother’s betrayal of her daughter that struck me as most horrific. 

I found Tara’s struggle to create her own identity apart from her family to be very interesting.  As a child, she learned that “My future was motherhood” so she came to think of her dreams for something more as aberrations:  “my yearning was unnatural.”  Eventually, she admitted that “My life was narrated for me by others.  Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute.  It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.”  She then sought to have positive liberty, “to take control of one’s mind; to be liberated from irrational fears and beliefs, from addictions, superstitions.”  In the end, she describes herself as a changed person, a new self:  “You could call this selfhood many things.  Transformation.  Metamorphosis.  Falsity.  Betrayal.  I call it an education.” 

I was amazed at Tara’s willingness to forgive her parents and some of her siblings.  Were I faced with such betrayals, I’d be much less understanding.  Her love for her family is obvious and she seems to still hope for reconciliation with the estranged family members.   

An aspect that troubled me is the father’s seeming willingness to adapt beliefs to suit his purposes.  Though he continued to rail against education and medicine, he changed some of his other views.  He didn’t want a phone but allowed one when his wife needed one for her midwifery duties.  He didn’t object when she started experimenting with other methods of healing, like “energy work” which involved “diagrams of chakras and pressure points.”  These didn’t clash with Mormon doctrine? 

I understand why this book has such positive reviews.  It tells an inspiring story of a remarkable young woman.  And it offers hope to others who find themselves in restricted situations.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Review of THE MARS ROOM by Rachel Kushner

3.5 Stars 
I kept coming across this title on lists of recommended reads and then found it on the longlist for the 2018 Booker Prize, so I opted to read it though I’m not a fan of Orange is the New Black or prison novels in general.

Set in a women’s correctional facility in central California, the book focuses on one of the inmates, Romy Hall, who is serving two consecutive life sentences for killing a man who stalked her.  Through flashbacks, we learn about her neglectful childhood, the sexual and physical abuse she suffered, her job as a sex worker, and her drug addiction.  We also meet some of her fellow inmates:  a woman who killed her own child, a wisecracking trans woman, a former panty hose model on death row.  Two male characters receive some attention:  Gordon Hauser, a teacher who takes an interest in Romy, and Doc, a sociopathic “dirty cop”. 

There is no traditional plot.  The book is a series of vignettes which shift in focus and point of view to tell the stories of various women:  their early lives and their lives in prison.  The realities of life in prison include punitive rules, inedible food, squabbles between cliques, and unrelenting boredom.  Everyone engages in smuggling and manipulation to try and make life more bearable. 

The author emphasizes that socioeconomic factors directly affect the probability of incarceration.  Each of the women had limited options from birth and almost all were victims of poverty, rape, abuse, and exploitation; Gordon realizes that a person born in poor districts “might be trained from birth practically to represent your block, your gang, to rep hard, to have pride, to be hard.  Maybe you had a lot of siblings to watch and possibly you knew almost nobody who had finished school, or worked a stable job.  People from your family were in prison, whole swaths of your community, and it was part of life to eventually go there.  So, you were born fucked.”   Romy makes much the same point addressing the reader directly:  “You would not have been wandering lost at midnight at age eleven.  You would have been safe and dry and asleep, at home with your mother and your father who cared about you and had rules, curfews, expectations.  Everything for you would have been different.  But if you were me, you would have done what I did.”  The women committed crimes of violence but Gordon points out that “there were more abstract forms [of violence], depriving people of jobs, safe housing, adequate schools.” 

Once arrested, the women become victims of the justice system.  Incompetent and overworked public defenders fail them.  In Romy’s case, for example, the extenuating circumstances of her crime are never mentioned in court.  Once in prison, they are provided counselors:  “Counselor doesn’t mean someone who counsels.  Your prison counselor determines your security classification and when and if you get mainlined to general population.  Your counselor keeps tabs on you and reports to the parole board, if you are headed for parole.”    Romy’s counselor doesn’t help her find out what has happened to her son; instead, she says “’Ms. Hall, I know it’s tough, but your situation is due one hundred percent to choices you made and actions you took.’”  What purpose does learning “excellent on-the job training skills, which would translate into employment upon release” have when a prisoner has no release date?  And serving long-term sentences seems useless, as Gordon observes:  “Gordon could not see that making them suffer lifelong would accrue to justice.  It added new harm to old.” 

The book is not really an enjoyable read.  It tends to be unfailingly bleak since the women had few choices early in their lives and now have little hope.  The disjointed structure makes it difficult to connect with the characters though surely the author wants the reader to do so since her point is that though their existence is such that one may think of them as aliens on Mars, the women are very much products of our world.  The didactic tone is also annoying; Gordon, for instance, often seems not much more than a mouthpiece for the author. 

The book is a strong indictment of the American justice and penal systems and of society as a whole.  It is not, however, worthy of the Booker Prize for fiction because it often reads more like a work of non-fiction.  Apparently, the author did extensive research for the book and it shows, but I prefer my novels to be both thought-provoking and entertaining. 

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Review of GONE WITHOUT A TRACE by Mary Torjussen

2 Stars
One evening Hannah Monroe returns to her home in Liverpool to discover that her live-in boyfriend, Matt Stone, has left with all his possessions.  There is no record of his presence in her life; photos, emails and all social media have been erased.  Devastated, Hannah is determined to find Matt.  Then she starts receiving cryptic messages and she begins to suspect that someone has been in her home. 

Hannah is a difficult person to like.  At the beginning, I had sympathy for her but as she becomes more and more obsessed with finding Matt, I became impatient with her.  She comes across as immature and self-absorbed.  She always sees herself as the victim, even blaming a friend for dying in such a way that she has bad memories:  “What had she done to me, leaving me with that memory of her?”  Her behaviour is unrealistic as well.  At the beginning, she is so focused on her career but then she sacrifices that career, friendships, and hygiene just to find someone who obviously does not want to be found?

There is a Gone Girl twist which, unfortunately, doesn’t work.  After the great reveal, the reader should want to re-read the first part of the novel to see what he/she missed.  I felt no such compulsion because it is obvious that the author cheated by withholding too much information.  The one positive thing about the twist is that it touches on a subject seldom discussed in reality, much less in fiction.  I just wish that it had been portrayed more realistically.

The premise is interesting, but the execution is weak.  My interest was piqued but then the pace became so slow that my interest lagged.  So much attention is paid to the steps Hannah takes, every little step she takes in her search.  The reader suspects that something is wrong and may even form theories as to the truth but ceases to care when Hannah proves to be such a drama queen and when so much time is spent on her shallow, competitive relationship with her best friend Katie.  The pace around the reveal picks up but then the book drags again as the author takes great pains to explain everything.  On the other hand, what should have been portrayed in more detail (Hannah’s relationship with her parents) is glossed over. 

The editor of this book did not do a good job.  If the novel had been better structured, it would have maintained the reader’s interest and shed light on a topic that deserves more attention.  As is, this book will leave my memory without a trace.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Review of UP FROM FREEDOM by Wayne Grady (New Release)

4 Stars 
Virgil Moody “vowed he would never own slaves, never be like his father” but when he left home “he’d taken Annie [a house slave] from his father’s plantation.”  Moody discovered that Annie was pregnant but he comes to think of her and her son Lucas as his family.  This family is broken apart when Lucas falls in love with a slave belonging to their neighbour and flees with her.  Virgil sets out to find him, enroute encountering people with differing attitudes to slavery.  Eventually, he finds himself in Freedom, Indiana, where he meets Tamsey and her family who are trying to escape the reach of the Fugitive Slave Act.

Though Virgil is searching for Lucas, his journey is very much a journey of self-discovery.   At the beginning he fails to understand that his actions make him complicit in slavery.  He claims to abhor slavery, but he fights on the side of Texas in the Mexican-American War knowing that “Texans were fighting for slavery.”  He convinces himself that he saved Annie from his father’s cruelty but he never asked her if she wanted to come with him.  He claims that he knows Annie stayed with him because she wanted to “’because she didn’t leave’.”  Virgil thinks “of Annie as his wife and Lucas as their son” but “Annie hadn’t been as comfortable with that as he was [because] the consequences for her were far greater than they were for him.”  Virgil tells Lucas, “’I always raised you like a son’” but Lucas points out, “’Did you?  Wouldn’t you have sent your son to school?’”  At one point, Annie asks Virgil to talk to Lucas but Virgil replies, “’He’s your son’” and she responds with “’But he your slave!’”  And Virgil never actually frees them! 

Gradually, Virgil comes to realize that he could have done more.  When Annie and Lucas have to stay in steerage, “suffocated below on straw mats and were fed gruel,” aboard a steamer while he “slept comfortably in his cabin, on clean sheets and in fresh air,” he counts himself “virtuous for having noticed [Annie’s] anger, thinking she would appreciate the difference between his concern and the other passengers’ lack of it.  Annie and Lucas were more to him than slaves:  wasn’t he a fine chap? . . . But what could he have done?  More.”   Virgil comes to see his selfishness, to see that he had blindly assumed “that doing what was good for him was good for everyone else concerned.”  He admits “He was only generous when it suited him.  He transported fugitives only because he thought they might help him find Lucas.  And he didn’t even want to find Lucas for Lucas’s sake, but for his own.  For forgiveness.” 

It is Tamsey who forces Virgil “to admit to himself what he was.  A white man in a world that was increasingly determined by the consequences of slavery.  It was time for him to stop acting surprised and indignant whenever anyone suggested to him that the reason he hadn’t freed Annie or Lucas was that he had liked it that their relationship was based on ownership, that that was the way he’d been raised, and, hate it though he professed he did, it was the relationship he understood and felt most comfortable with.”  Then, when given an opportunity, he sets out to redeem himself.

The concept of freedom is examined in the novel.  Virgil tells Lucas, “’You [and your mother] always been free here” but obviously Anne and Lucas don’t feel that way.  A man Virgil encounters tells him “’our Northern states are proud of the fact that their constitutions do not allow slavery.  No, the workers on these industrious projects are free blacks – a designation that usually signifies a man is free from slavery, but that here has come to mean also a man who works for free.  Or for wages so low that he can’t afford to do anything about his situation.”  Even freed slaves with “free papers” fear fugitive catchers, especially with the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act:  “’I show our papers to catchers, you think they leave us alone?’”  And Virgil can never be truly free of his past.
Set between May 1848 and November 1850, the novel examines racial turmoil in the United States at that time, a turmoil that erupted in the American Civil War a decade later.  But the novel is relevant to today.  Virgil’s father taught him that “’Nothing is forgiven . . . Some things are forgotten, but damn few.  And nothing is every forgiven’” and Virgil realizes that “his father had been right, that forgiveness meant wiping the record clean and that could never happen.”  Slavery cannot be wiped clean and so not truly forgiven but perhaps, as one character says, “’It not too late to seek a better world’”? 

There is a trial towards the end of the novel that has a twist I never expected but is apparently based on an actual case involving the author’s great-great-grandparents.  It emphasizes that the terms “black” and “white” are in many ways meaningless and only labels which can be used/misused to serve one’s purposes.  Can any of us really call ourselves one or the other?

This is an excellent novel which I highly recommend.  It has a compelling plot and a complex character who learns much about the world and himself.  The book will leave readers asking questions about their own behaviour. 

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

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Review of THE BOOKSHOP OF YESTERDAYS by Amy Meyerson

2.5 Stars
I’m a sucker for novels about books and bookstores so when I chanced upon this one, I couldn’t resist.  Unfortunately, my money was not particularly well-spent.

When she was young, Miranda was close to her only uncle, Billy Brooks, a man who created riddles to send her on scavenger hunts.  When Billy and Miranda’s mother had a falling-out, Miranda lost contact with him.  Sixteen years later, she receives word that he has died and left her his bookstore, Prospero Books.  He also left her a literary clue which takes her on one last scavenger hunt; this one leads her to people from Billy’s past and to hidden family secrets. 

The plot is so predictable.  Early on, Miranda’s mother makes a loaded comment:  “’Loving something and being responsible for it are two very different things’” (67).  Two pages later, we learn that she was named for a character from The Tempest, the favourite play of her mother’s best friend (69).  Who names a daughter after a friend’s favourite drama?!  From that point on, I knew what Miranda would learn.  This predictability means that the scavenger hunt goes on for much too long.  The outcome of the romance plot is also totally foreseeable. 

The clues in the form of quotations from and allusions to a variety of literature (The Tempest, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Jane Eyre, The Grapes of Wrath) are obscure and lead to an elaborate, convoluted quest which seems largely unnecessary.  Why wouldn’t Billy have written a letter explaining everything?

Characterization is not a strong element in the novel.  Miranda is not a likeable character.  She is so self-absorbed that she creates unnecessary drama.  If people don’t give her what she wants, she lashes out – as if she were a teenager rather than a 28-year-old woman who should be able to take into account other people’s feelings.  She is irate when people aren’t open with her, yet she shuts out her boyfriend?  

The bookshop is failing and Miranda keeps expressing concern about its future.  She supposedly wants to revive it but she takes little constructive action. What she actually does in the shop is unclear and obviously her contribution is minimal since she flits in and out on a whim.  She cares more about the scavenger hunt than the bookstore and the effects of its closing on the employees. 

Of course, she is not the only self-centred character.  Miranda’s mother was jealous and insecure when Billy had a relationship with her best friend?  And this same woman doesn’t even go to her brother’s funeral!  The minor characters are underdeveloped and remain flat.  The bookstore employees, for example, are quirky, but that is all that is really known about them. 

Miranda’s questions are answered; the reader figures them out long before she does.  There are, however, some things that are mentioned and then dropped.  Whatever happened to those emerald earrings if they were so important?  What was in the letter that Elijah sent Miranda (96)? 

If you enjoy a book whose ending you will know after reading less than 20% of it, pick up this book; otherwise, don’t allow yourself to be lured by its title as I was.