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Monday, October 29, 2018

Review of LETHAL WHITE by Robert Galbraith

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Review of A MAN CALLED OVE by Fredrik Backman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Review of THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS by Michael Robotham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Review of AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE by Tayari Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Review of THE WIFE by Meg Wolitzer

3.5 Stars
This book was written 15 years ago, but a film adaptation was released this summer, so I decided to read the book before seeing the movie.

Joan and Joe Castleman are enroute to Helsinki where Joe is to receive a prestigious literary award.  Joan has decided to leave her husband and plans to inform him of her decision at an opportune time.  In the meantime, she tells the story of her marriage beginning with their first encounter in 1956.  A promising writer, she abandons a career when she falls in love with her creative writing professor.  Joe becomes a successful writer but their marriage is not always happy:  Joe is a serial philanderer who ignores his children and obsesses about his reputation as a writer instead.  Joe and Joan share a major secret which the reader learns at the end. 

The secret is not really a surprise because there are so many clues.  Besides the obvious hints, what is not said also serves as a clue.  Joan speaks little about herself and so the reader starts to fill in gaps.  Her personality, however, is developed in detail.  She is intelligent but self-effacing.  She lets Joe take the limelight he so enjoys while she stays in the background and takes on the role of the supportive wife. 

Of course, Joe’s personality is also revealed.  He is self-centered and vain.  His fame has only bolstered his ego and he constantly yearns for recognition in the form of literary awards and the adulation of fans.  We see Joe primarily through Joan’s eyes so there may be some bias in her portrayal, but when he appears, his words and actions confirm her observations.  Though he is “one of those men who own the world” (10), he is a petulant boy “who had no idea of how to take care of himself or anyone else” (11). 

Naturally, Joan’s role is to take care of him and the family.  As she points out, “Everyone needs a wife; even wives need wives.  Wives tend, they hover.  Their ears are twin sensitive instruments, satellites picking up the slightest scrape of dissatisfaction.  Wives bring broth, we bring paper clips, we bring ourselves and our pliant, warm bodies.  We know just what to say to the men who for some reason have a great deal of trouble taking consistent care of themselves or anyone else.  ‘Listen,’ we say.  ‘Everything will be okay.’  And then, as if our lives depend on it, we make sure it is” (184). 

This is not the role she initially envisions for herself when she attaches herself to Joe “in an early fit of girlish optimism” (160) believing that Joe “was the important one, and I was unfinished.  He could finish me . . . he could provide the things I needed to actually become a whole person” (63).  When she is young and imagines becoming a writer, she is warned about the sad future for women writers; she is told emphatically that she won’t be able to get the attention of the men:  “’The men who write the reviews, who run the publishing houses, who edit the papers, the magazines, who decide who gets to be taken seriously, who gets put up on a pedestal for the rest of their lives. . . . I guess you could call it a conspiracy to keep the women’s voices hushed and tiny and the men’s voices loud. . . . There’s only a handful of women who get anywhere.  Short story writers, mostly, as if maybe women are somehow more acceptable in miniature. . . . But the men with their big canvases, their big books that try to include everything in them, their big suits, their big voices, are always rewarded more.  They’re the important ones.  And you want to know why? . . . Because they say so’” (53 – 54). 

Joan is given this advice in the 1950s when men did indeed own the world.  Things have changed and female writers are now as common as male writers, but the book provides a look at the recent past and shows that change has come slowly.  It is not just the fewer opportunities for a career that were a problem.  One of the Castleman daughters wonders why Joan doesn’t leave the marriage if she’s miserable and Joan responds with, “She knew nothing about this subculture of women who stayed, women who couldn’t logically explain their allegiances, who held tight because it was the thing they felt most comfortable doing . . . She didn’t understand the luxury of the familiar, the known” (82). 

This is an engaging read.  I loved Joan’s acerbic wit.  Her final statement about her husband may surprise some readers but I interpret it as a way of her taking control of her narrative.  Now I’m off to see how the film interprets the book. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Review of GIRLS BURN BRIGHTER by Shobha Rao

3.5 Stars
The novel begins in India in 2001.  Poornima and Savitha, two teenage girls living in abject poverty, meet and, quickly, each becomes the other’s confidante and solace.  This friendship, in many ways their only positive, sustaining relationship, shapes their entire lives.  When Poornima’s father sets out to arrange his daughter’s marriage, the two girls worry that she will marry “a man who lived too far away for Savitha to visit.”  It is not marriage but an act of brutal violence that tears the girls apart.  Savitha ends up running away and eventually Poornima also flees from an intolerable situation.  The novel details Savitha and Poornima’s separate journeys; Savitha seeks freedom and Poornima is determined to find her friend. 

The book is very much about the unbreakable bond of a true friendship.  Poornima is named after the moon and Savitha, after the sun, and each brings light into the life of the other.  Poornima’s mother is dead and her father admits to wishing he had let Poornima drown when she was a child, so Savitha gives her the love she has missed.  Savitha, whose family scours the garbage dump, thinks of the few real treasures she has; the first one she lists is “her love for Poornima,” and when Savitha runs away, the only thing she takes with her is an unfinished sari she was making for Poornima.   This piece of cloth Savitha desperately clings to throughout her tortuous ordeals.  Meanwhile, Poornima makes it her sole ambition to find her friend.   

Another theme is the lack of value girls and women have in the world:  “You are nothing.  You are a girl.”    Neither of the girls knows her birthdate because “Only the birthdates of the boys were recorded in the village.”  If Poornima’s father demands a second helping of curry, Poornima and Savitha are left “with only a spoonful to share” and have to fill up on rice.  Poornima realizes early on that her life is expected to be like her mother’s:  “That’s all she could recall her mother ever doing:  something for someone else. . . . never for herself.”  During her wedding ceremony, Poornima notices her husband looking at her in a way she recognizes is not peculiar or unfamiliar:  “It was, in fact, the most familiar look of all.  It was the look of a man:  undressing her, teasing off her clothes, her innocence, ripping it with his teeth, biting at the tender heart of it, and then laughing and cruel, savoring the completeness of his incursion, its terror and its desire.”  Poornima encounters a young girl who admits being afraid of a woman whose face was burned with oil, and Poornima comments, “We girls.  Afraid of the wrong things, at the wrong times.  Afraid of a burned face, when outside, outside waiting for you are fires you cannot imagine.  Men, holding matches up to your gasoline eyes.  Flames, flames all around you, licking at your just-born breasts, your just-bled body.  And infernos.  Infernos as wide as the world.  Waiting to impoverish you, make you ash, and even the wind, even the wind.  Even the wind . . . watching you burn, willing it, passing over you, and through you.  Scattering you, because you are a girl, and because you are ash.”

Savitha learns the same lessons.  She realizes “that’s all she’d ever been in the eyes of men:  a thing to enter, to inhabit for a time, and then to leave.”   Later, she concludes that “girls . . . was just another word for profit” and “Every moment in a woman’s life was a deal, a deal for her body:  first for its blooming and then for its wilting; first for her bleeding and then for her virginity and then for her bearing (counting only the sons) and then for her widowing.” 

The book is often a harrowing read.  It depicts rape, prostitution, physical and psychological abuse, and human trafficking.  Poornima and Savitha encounter relentless abuse and very few good people.  Men, in particular, are evil.  Any man who has redeeming traits seems to be weak.  The spirits of the two protagonists, however, despite their experiences, continue to burn brightly.  Poornima mentions “How little time it takes to sever the spirit . . . if the spirit is disposed to severing.”  But the strength and resilience of the two is almost unbelievable. 

The last part of the book is also unbelievable because there are just too many convenient coincidences towards the end.  And then there’s the ending itself, one which provides fodder for book club discussions:  is it the perfect ending which allows readers to imagine the next step, or did the author cheat readers? 

I agree that we still live in a patriarchal world full of misogyny but I have more hope than is offered by this book which suggests that women “were never safe . . . not against anything” and to believe that  standing together would protect them, as if “two bodies – the bodies of two girls – were greater than one” was foolish.  At times, the message about the difficult journey of being female is delivered in rather a heavy-handed manner.