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Thursday, September 27, 2018

Review of ONE BROTHER SHY by Terry Fallis

3.5 Stars 
This book is the 2018 SD&G Reads selection and I read it in preparation for the Meet the Author Event on October 18.

Alex MacAskill is an intelligent but extremely socially awkward software engineer in Ottawa.  When his mother dies leaving him a cryptic clue, he discovers he has an identical twin brother somewhere in the world.  He sets out to find him.  His journey takes him to London and Moscow but also becomes a journey of self-discovery so he ends up finding himself as much as a family.    

Alex is a very likeable character.  He is devoted to his ailing mother and excels at his job.  He has a wicked sense of humour, though it tends not to be expressed because he is very shy and finds social interaction painful.  He experienced a very traumatic event a decade earlier and this caused him to retreat from life “physically, emotionally, socially, and psychologically.”  He is a damaged soul but certainly a good guy for whom the reader will cheer. 

Fallis is known for his humourous writings, having won two Stephen Leacock Medals for Humour.  This book is not hilariously funny but I enjoyed Alex’s wicked wit which is demonstrated in his internal monologues.  The difference between what he is thinking and what he actually says provides a humourous contrast and has the reader wishing that Alex had the courage to speak without censoring himself.  The novel does examine the long-term impact of cyber bullying so it is understandable that the tone is more serious in sections. 

I appreciated that the book is unabashedly Canadian.  Since I lived in Ottawa for four years and still reside in the area, I’m familiar with the locations he mentions.  And there is no shortage of Canadiana, including the famous 1972 Summit Series. 

There are some issues I have with the book.  There is no real conflict; Alex faces few obstacles in his search and everything goes just so smoothly.  Occasionally, there is too much explaining:  the repeated discussions of social license, for example, are unnecessary.  The ending is predictable and certainly a feel-good ending with all plot lines nicely tied up and the good being rewarded and the bad being punished.  This seems just too tidy.  Some of the characters are just too far on one end or the other of the good-evil spectrum.  The characterization of Simone, a super-diva like the boss in The Devil Wears Prada, is just over-the-top.  And then there are the so many super nice people.

There are some things that are just not credible.  Alex never asked his mother about his father?  He dropped drama in Grade 10 but is able to use “the acting side of [his] experience” to coach Matt “on his energy, inflection, gesturing, pacing, body language, movement, and eye contact” – this latter element from someone who cannot maintain eye contact with a stranger?  He suffers from debilitating shyness yet is offered a leadership position which requires interaction with many people?  Alex never wanted those responsible for his humiliation to be punished or to suffer in the least?  I understand the power of forgiveness but Alex forgives someone who is utterly unrepentant.  He is so obsessed with a girl in a red dress that the reader expects something dramatic to occur; what happens, or doesn’t happen, just feels like a let-down. 

Despite these flaws, the book is amusing.  It is brisk, undemanding, and entertaining – perfect for a summer read. 

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.