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Sunday, February 25, 2018

Review of THE BIRD TRIBUNAL by Agnes Ravatn

4 Stars
I kept coming across rave reviews for this book after it was translated from Norwegian so I decided to check it out.  I am not sorry to have read it.

Allis Hagtorn takes a job as a live-in cook and gardener for Sigurd Bagge.  Wanting to escape her life which involved some type of public scandal, she is happy to retreat to an isolated house (“liberated from the watchful gaze of others, free from their idle chit-chat”) where she has virtually no interaction with anyone other than her employer.  And initially, there is even very little communication with him; he is a taciturn man who barely acknowledges her existence.  Slowly, however, an awkward relationship develops between them, but though they make revelations, both keep secrets.  The mysteries surrounding her boss fascinate Allis but they also leave her discomfited.

There is a mounting, pervasive sense of dread throughout.  Allis is largely cut off from the world; other than Sigurd, she speaks only to a surly shopkeeper who makes cryptic and sneering comments that unsettle Allis.  Sigurd’s wife is away but no explanation is given for her extended absence.  There’s a locked room.  And there’s the brooding, mercurial Sigurd whose abrupt mood swings create a sense of danger.  Even nature (a silent forest, dead grass and shrubbery, malevolent gulls, invading mice, a sky the colour of blood) seems menacing. 

The two characters are complex.  Sigurd is obviously enigmatic and volatile, but he also seems manipulative.  He pulls Allis closer by engaging her in conversation but then pushes her away, as if trying to keep her confused and unsettled:  “His expression . . . always scrutinizing, as if to demonstrate that I was his, that he could decide where I could and couldn’t go.”  And some of his behaviour and statements can easily be interpreted as threatening:  “There’s no guarantee of anything” and “She won’t be troubling you anymore.”  Why does he say that there were “quite a few” responses to his job posting and later suggest Allis was the only applicant?  Though Allis becomes obsessed with him, there is little that makes Sigurd an attractive person. 

Allis, however, is also not an admirable person.  She describes herself as some who “always started with the same unbridled enthusiasm before swiftly giving up.  I possessed no sense of perseverance, no will to accomplish anything in full.”  She believes she has something within her “that prevented me from being faithful.”  She mentions, “my irrational pride prevented me from ever taking the initiative when it came to reconciliation, ever.”  When she learns that a man is a manual labourer, his lower status matters to her; she even admits her shallowness:  “Did he realize just how superficial I was?”  She acknowledges that she was “willing to reduce to rubble” the life of someone “who had never been anything but good to me.”  Like Sigurd, she also seems manipulative.  She is desperate for male attention and does what she can to entice Sigurd.  Furthermore, she sees the job as a chance at a new life; she wants to transform herself:  “There was salvation to be found, I could create a sense of self, mould a congruous identity in which none of the old parts of me could be found.”  She is not beyond using the situation for her own ulterior motives. 

Allis is the narrator but she is hardly reliable.  She claims that Sigurd doesn’t make eye contact:  “He didn’t look me in the eye but instead stared past me” and “He didn’t seem particularly bothered about making eye contact with me as he spoke.”  Later, however, he says to her, “You’ve never looked me in the eye. . . . You don’t look me in the eye, you just gaze straight past me.”  So who doesn’t make eye contact?  Is Sigurd strange or is she?  At one point, Sigurd says, “If I were as strange as you are . . . You’re not normal.”  Then there’s the discussion about swimming.  Early on, Allis insists, “I can swim” but on two other occasions, she repeats, “I don’t swim.” 

Then there are some thoughts that she mentions that are downright strange:  “I could play any role, it was my greatest talent” and “Did [Sigurd’s wife] have to come back?  She did, of course.  But no, she couldn’t” and “As long as I thought of her as no more than a shopkeeper – not as an individual, but as part of some vague, hostile force – then it would be easier to kill her, I thought” and “[mundane tasks] anchor the stream of thoughts that otherwise drifted so easily to darker places.”

I enjoyed the references to Norse mythology which unify the novel and clarify the ending.  When Allis first meets Sigurd, she is reminded of Balder, but it seems she sees herself as this Norse god who “brings about the destruction of the world, but that allows for a newer, better world to emerge.”  She seems to see Sigurd as Loki “who has no one” and she says, like Loki’s wife, she would help Sigurd atone if he were somehow being punished.  In a third discussion of the legend, she mentions that “Old guilt is destroyed by fire and swallowed by the sea. . . . Perhaps . . . guilt requires atonement, perhaps it needs to be wiped out if a new world is to emerge.”  It is not coincidental that the phrase “corpses nestled among its feathers” is repeated at the end with its implication that “Maybe . . . even in the new world there is potential for evil.”  (And surely it is not by chance that a dress of “shimmering, blue-green material almost the colour of a mallard’s head” fits Allis perfectly and reminds the reader of Sigurd’s dream of a tribunal which featured a woman with a mallard’s head of “astonishingly beautiful shimmering green”?)

This is not your average run-of-the-mill psychological thriller.  Its layers actually invite a second reading. 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Review of DOWN THE RIVER UNTO THE SEA by Walter Mosley (New Release)

3 Stars
Though Mosley has written over 30 novels, I’ve read only The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, a book I loved.  His Easy Rawlins series has devoted followers so when the opportunity arose to read a new sample of Mosley’s detective fiction, I thought I’d take it.  Though not unenjoyable, I found it unexceptional. 

When Joe King Oliver was a New York police detective, he was framed for a sexual assault.  While in Rikers, he experienced brutality and solitary confinement and emerged a damaged man.  Eleven years later, he is a private investigator.  After receiving a letter from a woman who admits to having been forced to entrap him, he decides to try and find out who betrayed him.  As he seeks justice for himself, he also sets out to help A Free Man, a Black radical journalist, whom he sees as a victim of injustice like himself. 

Oliver is an interesting enough character.  His time in prison affected him dramatically; he was released with both physical and mental scars.  He asserts that “It was in that stink that I became a murderer-in-waiting.”  At different times he describes himself as a “creature formed by my imprisonment” and a “madman created by Rikers.”  He wants to be exonerated and maybe even reinstated and he wants to remain on the right side of the law in his quest for justice, but that becomes increasingly difficult as his investigations progress.  He realizes he needs help and ends up hiring a sociopath as a sidekick:  “walking down those chilly autumn streets with a man so evil that no crime deterred him meant that I had taken the first steps on a different path.”

Oliver is a dynamic character capable of introspection and self-examination.  The book opens with his identifying a major weakness; he speaks of his desire for women:  “It didn’t take but a smile and wink for me . . . to walk away from duties and promises, vows and common sense.”  He goes as far as to compare himself to a dog in his “fang-baring hunt lust.”  Throughout the book he has a number of enlightening moments.  For example, “I realized that I felt alone most of the time . . . I was alone because no one else seemed to know what was in my heart.”  Later, when “propelled by forces [he] could not control,” he has another epiphany:  “It occurred to me that my whole life had been organized around the guiding principle of being completely in charge of whatever I did. . . . The problem was that no man is an island; no man can control his fate.  No woman either, or gnat or redwood tree.” 

There is a large cast of secondary characters, some of whom come and go quickly, so it becomes difficult not to be confused.  One character who is memorable is Melquarth Frost, Oliver’s sociopathic partner, who believes that “’People should break the law if it doesn’t suit them’” and that beating a person is a form of communication because “’Anything one man does that another man understands can be defined as language.’”  The other character who made an impression on me is Aja-Denise, Oliver’s 17-year-old daughter, who works part-time as her father’s receptionist.  Oliver’s love for his daughter is unquestionable (“If I had to spend the rest of my life in a moldy coffin buried under ten feet of concrete, with only polka music to listen to, I would have done that for her.”) and his interactions with her are highlights of the book.

The book examines the themes of corruption and justice.  Corruption is so pervasive that one wonders if there is anyone who is innocent of its taint.  The book emphasizes the extent to which people’s lives can be affected by corruption; Oliver was “beaten, scarred, disgraced, imprisoned, and had [his] marriage torn apart” but Burns and Miranda stand out as victims of corruption.  Justice does not seem to exist much in the world Oliver exposes, but he decides to do what he can:  “[A Free Man and I] would never receive justice from law enforcement or the courts and so the only thing that could be done was to take the law into our own hands.”

The novel is fast-paced and keeps the reader’s interest, though the identity of one of the individuals involved in framing Oliver is rather obvious.  What becomes irritating is Oliver’s constantly keeping information from the reader.  For example, he mentions enlisting someone’s aid in a plan he has formulated, but it is not until later that the nature of that aid is clarified.  This is obviously a technique to create suspense but its repeated use becomes annoying.  At one point, Oliver observes that “in order to truly be with somebody you have to be in their mind,” but he keeps the reader at a distance, revealing only some of what he is thinking.  Perhaps this distance is the reason why I didn’t ever really feel connected with the protagonist. 

I would certainly recommend this book but I wouldn’t describe it using superlatives.  

Note:  I received an eARC of the book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Review of ELMET by Fiona Mozley

3.5 Stars 
This title came to my attention because it was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize and because it appeared on a number of “best of 2017” lists.

Fourteen-year-old Daniel and his fifteen-year-old sister Cathy live with their father John in rural Yorkshire in a house which he built for them.  Daddy, as both of his children call him, is a bare-knuckle fighter of massive size but he is the proverbial gentle giant with his children.  They live in a “strange, sylvan otherworld” where he teaches them to be self-sufficient:  “He wanted to keep us separate, in ourselves, apart from the world” (48).  They have an almost idyllic life until the arrival of Mr. Price, a man who claims to own the land on which their home is situated. 

Throughout the book, there is a feeling that their peaceful existence will not last.  Daniel understands that “Everything [Daddy] did now was to toughen us up against something unseen.  He wanted to strengthen us against the dark things in the world” (82 – 83).  The author excels at creating tension.  When Mr. Price first visits the family, he says to John, “’Your children must be lonely away from school and anybody of their own age. . . . I’ll bring my boys up one time so they can make some friends’” (81).  His two sons have just been described as “two handsome, slick lads” (76, 77) so that innocuous statement is full of threat. 

Characterization is a bit problematic.  Cathy is fierce, resourceful and fearless.  Though she is pretty, she is very much a tomboy who wants to be like her father.  She takes Daddy’s lessons about self-sufficiency to an extreme; when Daniel asks her why she didn’t speak to her father when young men were bothering her, she says, “’Because it were my thing.  It were my problem to deal with.  I can’t always go to Daddy whenever anything happens.  I have to be able to deal with things by myself. . . . And Daddy won’t always be around.  And even if he is, it is my life and my body and I can’t stand the thought of going out into the world and being terrified’” (272).  There is a dark side to her personality; Daniel mentions that “a pretty face might not be closed around pretty thoughts” (7) and she tells her brother that she is angry all the time (149).  The problem is that she seems too mature; at one point she tells Daniel, “’No matter what they do to me, what happens to me.  I’ll be fine.  In my self, I mean.  They can do their worst and I promise you I’ll go somewhere else in my mind’s eye, for as long as I need to, and I’ll be fine.  An experience is what you make of it.  If you tell yourself that it means nothing, then that’s exactly what it means. . . . But if something happens to my body.  Well, I am able to put myself in such a position that it’s like it’s not really happening.  And if it’s like it’s not really happening that means it’s not really happening’” (278 – 279).  This does not sound like a teenaged girl to me.  And don’t get me started on her almost superhuman power in the climactic scene. 

Price, the landowner, is portrayed as pure evil.  He lacks compassion, exploits the poor, and takes revenge on anyone who opposes him.  He feels he is above the law; John tells a man that in a dispute with Price, he would never involve the police:  “’And I wouldt involve police anyway.  They belong to Price around here too.  Big ones anyway.  Police chiefs and councilors that I’ve seen driving up to manor’” (131).   There is one scene that shows he prefers his enemies to have a slow death (294).  He seems to have no redeeming qualities so he comes across as an almost cartoonish villain with no real depth. 

Daniel is the narrator and in his case, it is the lack of consistency that is an issue.  When he speaks, he does so in plain and simple language, usually in Yorkshire dialect:  “’She wandt very welcoming. . . . I mean, she was and she wandt.  She was polite and helpful.  As much as you’d expect’” (61).  When he describes nature, however, he uses lyrical language that differs so much from his conversational diction:  “The soil was alive with ruptured stories that cascaded and rotted then found form once more and pushed through the undergrowth and back into our lives.  Tales of green men peering from thickets with foliate faces and legs of gnarled timber.  The calls of half-starved hounds rushing and panting as they snatched at charging quarry.  Robyn Hode and his pack of scrawny vagrants, whistling and wrestling and feasting as freely as the birds whose plumes they stole.  An ancient forest ran in a grand strip from north to south” (5 – 6).  This is not the language of a boy who has had only sporadic schooling. 

The book is in many ways about class conflict, rich versus poor, landowners versus tenants.  Daddy, for example, claims moral right to the land:  “’Means nothing to me. . . . It’s idea a person can write summat on a bit of paper about a piece of land that lives and breathes, and changes and quakes and floods and dries, and that that person can use it as he will, or not at all, and that he can keep others off it, all because of a piece of paper.  That’s part which means nowt to me’” (202).  Daniel even says, “I could not help but feel that [my father and his friends] were dancing in the old style and appealing to the kind of morality that had not truly existed since those tall [Anglo-Saxon] stone crosses were placed in the ground, and even then only in dreams, fables and sagas” (143).  John may be a strong man who can defeat all opponents in a physical confrontation but otherwise he is really powerless because he is a member of the poor class.

The climax, when it comes, is over-the-top in terms of violence.  It reminded me of violent scenes in the Coen brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel No Country for Old Men.  The book could use a warning sticker about excessive brutality. 

The book is bleak.  It keeps the reader in suspense but leaves much unexplained.  Though this debut novel has the weaknesses of a debut, Mozley is a writer with potential whose future work I will read.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Review of A DANGEROUS CROSSING by Ausma Zehanat Khan (New Release)

3.5 Stars 
This is the fourth book in the series featuring Inspector Esa Khattak and Sgt. Rachel Getty.  This time the two go to Greece to look for Audrey Clare, the sister of Esa’s friend Nathan Clare, who has gone missing while helping to resettle Syrian refugees.  Two bodies were found in the offices of her NGO so did Audrey go into hiding in fear for her life or did she run after murdering two people or was she abducted? 

The mystery of Audrey’s disappearance is sufficiently interesting, but it is not difficult to guess the ultimate outcome of the investigation.  Often the ongoing humanitarian crisis takes the spotlight of the narrative.  There is a great deal of information about Assad’s brutality against Syrians, the plight of the refugees, and the reaction and inaction of various countries to the crisis.  There is no doubt that the author has done her research; a list of books and websites is recommended at the end.  I recently read The Lightless Sky by Gulwali Passarlay, a book which recounts the year-long journey of a 12-year-old Afghani refugee; A Dangerous Crossing touches on many of the issues found in the non-fiction book.  For example, Passarlay concludes that human smuggling has “a highly organized infrastructure” and Khan echoes with the statement that “The point is, all of this is a very big operation, a wellcoordinated operation.” 

The problem is that the book is sometimes bogged down by lengthy passages of exposition that would be more appropriate in an essay:  “Assad was engaged in a wholesale slaughter of his people.  Set aside for the moment the destruction of Syria’s cities:  their colleges, hospitals, and schools, their mosques and ancient souks.  Even if that wasn’t totted up in a column of unthinkable loss, there was the question of Syria’s people.  Syria had been a nation of twenty-two million.  Fully half that population was displaced; seven million internally, while five million had fled Assad’s incalculable violence.  The abject misery of Syria’s prison system needed to be weighed on a separate scale of horrors.”

Though this book can be read as a standalone, I would strongly recommend that it be read in the proper sequence.  The relationships among the characters will be much better understood if the previous three books in the series have been read.  All the investigations of these prior installments are mentioned.  For instance, the Drayton inquiry is alluded to at least four times; that is the case in the first book, The Unquiet Dead.  There are seven references to Algonquin, a setting which features prominently in the second book, The Language of Secrets.  There are at least a dozen references to the case in Iran; this case is the focus of the third book, Among the Ruins.  In A Dangerous Crossing, characters like Hassan and Laine are discussed with virtually no explanation; these references will mean nothing to readers who have not read the other novels. 

And these personal relationships are important.  They certainly get in the way in this investigation.  Nathan doesn’t want Rachel to read some of his emails with Audrey, and Esa’s sister doesn’t want her brother to read her correspondence with Audrey.  Readers who have not followed the series may be left mystified by Nathan and Ruksh’s reluctance.  Actually, the lack of trust among several characters complicates the search for Audrey; this wariness is understandable in refugees but not so much in other investigators. 

The many romantic tensions, most often the result of misunderstandings, are becoming tedious.  How many times must Esa and Sehr misinterpret each other’s actions?  How often does Rachel’s insecurity have to affect her relationship with Nathan?  There are reasons why Rachel lacks confidence when it comes to romance, but after a while, her diffidence becomes annoying.  We are to see her as a dynamic character who has learned from past experiences (“She couldn’t bear to be the reminder of someone’s tragedy again” and “To deny her importance to someone else wasn’t a pattern she intended to repeat”), but she still comes across as immature.  Audrey describes her brother as a “Bumbling Lamb” but that descriptor could also apply to Rachel. 

A Muslim police investigator as a protagonist is a welcome addition to the mystery/crime genre, and the character of Esa continues to provide insight into the tenets of Islam and the mind of a devout but moderate Muslim.  He and Rachel are an odd partnership but their working relationship is based on mutual understanding, respect, and affection.  I will continue to follow the series though I hope the romantic entanglements take a back seat.  My bet is that the next case will see the return of Laine:  Nathan says, “’There’s something wrong with Laine, something different about her.  I have to admit I’m worried, I wish I could say otherwise.’  Esa had noticed it too . . . and he wondered if this was ground they were going to tread again.”

Note:  I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Review of TENCH by Inge Schilperoord (New Release)

4 Stars
This is an uncomfortable, disturbing read but compelling at the same time.

Jonathan, a thirty-year-old man, is released from prison after being acquitted on appeal due to insufficient forensic evidence and inconsistencies in the victim’s story.  The offence with which he was charged is not directly named but it soon becomes clear that it was of a sexual nature and involved a girl with developmental challenges.  Jonathan returns to live with his mother in their soon-to-be demolished house in a rundown neighbourhood.  Determined to control his urges, he adopts a strict daily routine.  All is well until nine-year-old Elke befriends him and the two bond over caring for an injured tench, a fish which Jonathan keeps in his aquarium. 

The protagonist is a lonely man who seems to have no friends.  He interacts only with his mother and Elke; though he has a job, “he kept aloof from everyone, like always.  According to the psychologist, secluding himself was a ‘survival mechanism’.”  He desperately wants to be a good person; when he returns home, he sets a rigid schedule for himself because he understands that controlling his environment and activities helps him control his behaviour, and he diligently does the exercises in his therapy workbook and tries to implement what he learned from his prison psychologist.  He considers one of his strengths to be “looking after other people . . . he’d considered this one of his best qualities.  Caring for others.”  He certainly tries to look after his mother and feels guilty that he was responsible for her being alone during his imprisonment.  So when a lonely young girl, who has no playmates in the largely deserted neighbourhood and whose parents are mostly absent, appears in his life, he feels he needs to take care of her.

To complicate the situation, Jonathan has no one to help him.  His mother never discusses his offense with him; her approach seems to be to forget about it.  Though she sees Elke in the house, she seems to think that by pretending nothing is happening, nothing will really happen.  Jonathan knows that his mother doesn’t understand him; he finds some Bible verses she’d copied out:  “Something about life being beyond your understanding and having to submit to the wisdom of God, and never being able to know another person completely.  .  . . that bit about others being unknowable had stayed with him.  Somehow he knew it was about him and it hurt.”  His mother’s only attempt to help him is to suggest he go to Bible study.  He lies about having attending a Bible meeting but “He didn’t need to turn around to see the expression on her face, to know that she knew he was lying.  But also that she wouldn’t say anything about it.”

Once he is released from prison, Jonathan also loses the help of his psychologist; his acquittal “cancelled out everything:  the prison sentence, the therapy, the psychiatric hospital.”  If he had remained in prison, he would have been placed “under a hospital order” which “could last a long time . . .  and the treatment could be extended every year, theoretically forever, until the psychiatrists and psychologists at the hospital judged him to be cured.”  In prison, Jonathan had received only “pre-therapy, as they called it.  Or ‘individual offender therapy’ therapy that started in prison and was meant to prepare him for treatment in the hospital.”  Though the prison psychologist estimates “a high likelihood of a repeat offence with crimes like [Jonathan’s],” all he has to help him are exercises from his pre-therapy workbook.  He admits, “As horrible as that hospital order had seemed, he would have liked to have carried on longer with the pre-therapy with the prison psychologist.  But that was all cancelled once he was acquitted.  Now he could only sign up voluntarily.  There was a centre in the city.  The psychologist had given him the telephone number, but he knew it was a step he would never dare take.”

Symbolism is used very effectively.  The injured tench symbolizes Jonathan.  He believes that “with good care he’d make it healthy again” just as he believes that by doing his therapy exercises he too will be well again.  Just as he has a daily schedule for his activities, he develops a daily schedule for taking care of the tench:  feeding times, water temperature checks, etc.  When he describes the fish, Jonathan could be describing himself:  “’it’s a shy, gentle fish. . . . It likes peace and quiet.  If there’s too much noise or if other animals get too close, it hides in the mud.  It gets scared easily.’”  Jonathan emphasizes that the fish needs cold water because hot water is dangerous for its health.  During the entire duration of the novel, there is a heat wave; there are at least two dozen references to it being unrelentingly, oppressively hot.  The fish has more and more difficulty coping with its environment and takes to hiding in the mud and Jonathan starts feel overwhelmed and finds it more and more difficult to control his thoughts when Elke increasingly imposes herself on his environment.  A description of the fish “floating on its back on the surface, pale belly up as if praying for help from on high, help that would never come” is ominous because Jonathan believes “his fate was linked to the fish.”

Reading Tench is like watching a film in which two trains on the same track are heading towards each other.  We are horrified and fascinated at the same time.  We hope that something can be done to divert the trains and prevent a collision, but a wreck seems inevitable.  Throughout the novel, as we see the direction of Jonathan’s thoughts, there is a growing sense of tension, but it becomes impossible to turn away.

The author, a Dutch criminal psychologist, manages to create a protagonist whose behaviour will repulse readers but for whom they will also have some compassion.  Schilperoord implies that society bears some responsibility in not insuring that Jonathan receives the help he needs.  The book is not lengthy but it is unsettling.  Because it is so thought-provoking, it will remain with me for some time.  

Note:  I  received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Review of SEVENTEEN by Hideo Yokoyama (New Release)

3.5 Stars
Since I read and really enjoyed Yokoyama’s novel Six Four, I really looked forward to this one.  I can’t say this book is as good as Six Four, but it is certainly worth picking up.  As I began reading, I was confused because the book is described as an “investigative thriller”.  This is certainly an inaccurate label because it is a slow-paced, complex and thoughtful examination of the inner workings of a newspaper organization as it struggles to cover a major news story. 

Part of the novel is set in 2003 as the protagonist, Kazumasa Yuuki, is climbing the Tsuitate rock face of Mount Tanigawa.  As he does so, he thinks back to a week seventeen years earlier when the crash of a plane interrupted his planned first attempt to scale it.  In 1985, Yuuki is a seasoned reporter for a regional newspaper when a Japan Airlines jet crashes into a mountain, killing 520.  Yuuki, a career reporter, is made JAL desk chief “in charge of seeing this story through to the end.”  As he works to have staff write “detailed, informative articles,” he finds himself caught in the middle of power struggles between different factions of the organization. 

Though not a thriller, there is suspense.  Yuuki’s experience is as a reporter who has shown no interest in a managerial position, so will he be able to fulfill the requirements of this new role when faced with perhaps the biggest story the newspaper would ever cover?  His job is complicated by the fact that Yuuki feels “with his lack of self-control, he should never be put in a position where he could exercise control over others.”  Will he be able to successfully navigate his way around the “internal machinations at the paper” where it seems that all his superiors have conflicting hidden agendas?  As a 57-year-old, will he be able to scale a 330-metre vertical cliff on a mountain where 779 climbers had lost their lives?  In addition, will Yuuki be able to repair his strained relationship with his son?

The book certainly shows how news stories are covered.  Since the author was himself an investigative reporter with a regional Japanese newspaper for a dozen years, he certainly knows the rivalries that can develop among various departments who each have their own goals.  Yokoyama actually covered the JAL Flight 123 tragedy so the details of that actual event are realistic.  Sometimes it is difficult to remember the functions of the many characters, but titles and roles are usually mentioned when a character appears.  This repetition is somewhat tedious but necessary, especially for a non-Japanese reader who may have difficulty with the Japanese names.  There is a detailed character glossary at the end of the book, but constant reference to it would be aggravating. 

Yuuki is a fully developed character.  As he faces setbacks and makes decisions, some wrong and some right, his personality emerges.   Through flashbacks, we learn that he feels great guilt for some actions in his past and that he has his “own dark storage shed of memories.”   He does know himself to some degree:   “Yuuki had suspected for a while that he was only able to love people who loved him.  And even when he was sure he had their love, he couldn’t forgive them if they were ever cool or indifferent towards him.  He expected absolute, unconditional love, and when he realized how elusive that was, he would fall into utter despair.  So, instead, he kept his distance from people.  He was wary of anyone who showed him kindness and never let anyone see his private side.  He was afraid of being hurt.”  In that week in 1985 and in the intervening seventeen years, Yuuki has learned more about himself and life:  “As long as you kept running from birth until death, falling down, getting hurt, no matter how many times you suffered defeat, you got up and started running again.  Personal happiness came from all the things and people you came across, ran into by chance along the way. . . . Climbing with all your might, concentrating completely on moving up, never being distracted by the meaningless stuff around you.  He’d begun to think it was a fine way to lead a life.”  Like Yoshinobu Mikami in Six Four, Yuuki has a career crisis and must tread carefully to avoid some pitfalls at work.  He also has family difficulties which he needs to address. 

This is a dense novel, but it has rewards for readers who persevere.

Note:  I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Review of ANNA by Niccolò Ammaniti (New Release)

3 Stars
This novel is set in 2020 in Sicily.  Four years earlier, a virus killed all adults; only children survived but they die as well once they reach puberty.  Thirteen-year-old Anna Salemi and her nine-year-old brother Astor survive as best they can.  Anna does the foraging for food and tries to protect her brother from the world with its feral dogs and children.  Along with a dog and their friend Pietro, they end up taking a journey across a post-apocalyptic landscape.

There are detailed descriptions of that landscape.  This is Palermo, the capital city:  “They entered the silent city.  Nothing had been spared by the fury of destruction.  Not a shop, not a building, not a flat.  All the locks on the doors had been forced.  All the kitchens had been emptied.  All the cupboard doors opened.  Pictures thrown on the floor, windowpanes broken, crockery smashed to smithereens.  Some areas appeared to have been bombed.  Sections of wall were still standing, like sea stacks among heaps of rubble which filled the streets and buried cars.”  The harbour in Palermo is also in ruins:  “The sea front . . . was an unbroken layer of plastic, canvas and stiff cardboard.  It no longer held any interest even for seagulls and rats.  There were heaps of bodies in the piazzas and lime-covered corpses lay in mass graves.  The harbour had been consumed by a fire so fierce it had twisted the iron railings and reduced the quays to blackened expanses.  The only things still standing were cranes and stacks of rusty containers.  Two ships lay on their sides like beached whales.”

Since there are no adults, the children have become wild.  Some have formed gangs for safety.  All are frightened and desperate and so cling to fantastical theories of what could save them.  Anna has an advantage in that her mother left her a book she wrote before she died; “The Important Things” is a survival guide outlining such things as how to dispose of her body, what to do once there is no more electricity, what to do in case of illness, etc.  This book helps Anna make sensible decisions for herself and her brother. 

It is the characterization of Anna that is the strongest element of the novel.  She is a complex character who has both negative and positive qualities.  What stands out is her love and protectiveness for her sibling.  At the same time, she is easily angered and can be cruel.  She is surprisingly mature in some respects:  she is responsible, resourceful, and brave.  On the other hand, as befits her age, she has childish characteristics.  For example, she is afraid of the dark, foolishly headstrong, and naïve about romantic relationships.  The trek she takes becomes a sort of coming-of-age journey during which she comes to a number of realizations. 

She learns about the universal will to survive:  “she sensed that life is stronger than everything else.  Life doesn’t belong to us, it passes through us. . . . [She] sensed that all the creatures on this planet, from snails to swallows, and including human beings, must live.  That is our mission; it has been written on our flesh.  We must go on, without looking back, for the energy that pervades us is beyond our control, and even when despairing, maimed or blind, we continue to eat, sleep and swim, struggling against the whirlpool that sucks us down.”  In one life-and-death situation, she refuses to give up:  “something tough prevented her from giving up, an indomitable will to live took hold of her limbs.”  She also learns from a friend about the value of living well; Pietro tells her, “’In the end, what’s important is not how long your life is, but how you live it.  If you live it well – to the full – a short life is just as good as a long one.’” 

There are some elements which bothered me.  Since there is no adult supervision, it is not a surprise that the children drink alcohol and use drugs.  What is frustrating is the way the author used their imbibing to obscure what happens.  This is the case with the Spa Hotel episode that is muddled and just becomes weird.  The pace of that section is slow and it just seems to ramble.  There are some inconsistencies:  one of Pietro’s aunts was believed to be a lesbian and the other, asexual, but “the dream of living in a harem and sharing [the consummate ladies’ man’s] favours stimulated their libido”?  The repeated, miraculous survival of the dog is incredible. Is his determination to be seen as confirmation of the universal will to live?

I felt obligated to finish the book, but I can’t say that I really enjoyed it.  It does not add anything fresh to the genre of dystopian, post-apocalyptic fiction.  As has been pointed out by others, the book is certainly reminiscent of Lord of the Flies and several other books.  I appreciate the use of a female heroine but that too is not original.  

Note:  I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. 

To read an excerpt, go to

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Review of THE MARROW THIEVES by Cherie Dimaline

3.5 Stars
I don’t normally read Young Adult fiction but this book won the Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature and the 2017 Kirkus Prize for young readers' literature.

Non-indigenous people have lost the ability to dream whereas Indigenous People carry dreams in webs woven into their bone marrow.  As a result, the latter are being captured and taken to marrow-harvesting facilities modelled after residential schools.  Frenchie, a young Métis, finds himself alone and on the run.  He ends up joining a group of eight others heading north to escape the reaches of the Recruiters. 

This is a coming-of-age novel so Frenchie is a dynamic character.  Frenchie spends over five years with his new family, and between the ages of 11 and 16, he matures.  He becomes more resourceful and confident.  As a child he was not able to protect members of his family; as an adolescent, he shows great determination to protect the members of the family unit he has become a part of.  He develops a fighting spirit, becoming determined to destroy the marrow-harvesting “schools”.  As would be expected in this genre, he also learns about love; there is a requisite romance with a feisty girl who joins the group. 

This is also a novel cautioning against environmental negligence.  The earth has been ravaged by climate change:  “The Melt put most of the northlands under water” (25).  Man is also responsible for the devastation.  The “industry-plundered Great Lakes” are poisoned (11) with their waters “grey and thick like porridge” (24); as they walk, the group notices “the trees tilted to the north towards what was left of the natural landscape beyond the clear-cuts stripped of topsoil” (20).  There is a description that reminded me of The Chrysalids by John Wyndham:  “In this time, in this place, the world had gone mad with lush and green, throwing vines over old electrical poles and belching up rotten pipelines from the ground.  Animals were making their way back, but they were different.  Too much pollution and too much change” (91).   

Of course, the book is also an adventure tale of survival.  The group must hunt for food and clean drinking water while avoiding being captured by Recruiters.  Danger lurks everywhere.  Sometimes, this is the weakest aspect of the novel; the novel is a bit slow-paced so suspense is missing.  Foreshadowing is used to maintain suspense, but it is clumsy.  Chapters end with statements like, “If I had honestly known what was in store for us . . . (107) and “Neither of us could imagine that everything would change in just a few hours” (220).

I appreciate how the book celebrates Indigenous oral story-telling tradition.  Interspersed throughout the narrative are “Coming-to” stories in which characters share the circumstances that brought them to the group.  The group also has a weekly ritual of Story during which Miigwans, the group leader, passes on Indigenous history. 

I think this would be a good book to use in classrooms.  It clarifies Indigenous history and shows what Indigenous culture has to teach everyone.  Certainly the references to life-draining “schools” emphasize the impact of residential schools.  Some might argue that whites are portrayed rather harshly but there is justification for turning the tables on the typical “cowboys and Indians” narrative.  I love the irony:  whites who have been so dismissive of Indigenous history and culture end up needing it to survive.  Many issues of interest and concern to young people are raised in the novel so interesting discussions could ensue.  

There is also food for thought for the adult reader.  Miigwans introduces a major theme when he asks his group, his family, “’What would you do to save us?’” (54).  Are “Anything” and “Everything” (55, 231) acceptable answers to that question?  Frenchie wonders, “What would I have done to save my parents or [brother], given the chance?  Would I have been able to trap a child, to do what, cut them into pieces?  To boil them alive?  I shuddered.  I didn’t want to know what they did.  And I didn’t really want to know if I’d be capable of doing it” (48).  Is Miigwans’ argument acceptable when he says, “’sometimes you do things you wouldn’t do in another time and place. . . . As long as the intent is good, nothing else matters’” (145)?

The book is not flawless but its qualities outnumber its weaknesses.