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Sunday, July 21, 2019

Review of THE ISLAND OF SEA WOMEN by Lisa See

4 Stars
This is a fascinating novel which introduced me to the haenyeo, female divers on the South Korean island of Jeju.  These women breath-hold dive to great depths in frigid waters to harvest seafood like oysters, abalone, octopus, squid, and sea urchins, slugs and cucumbers.

The duration of the novel is 70 years, from 1938 to 2008.  Young-sook, an 85-year-old woman living in Jeju, is approached by an American woman who has a picture of her grandmother Mi-ja who was also from the island.  Young-sook denies knowing Mi-ja and flees from the family.  The narrative then flashes back to the past where Young-sook and Mi-ja, girls from very different backgrounds, become inseparable friends and diving partners.  They even travel to Vladivostok to dive there before marriages are arranged for them and they begin families on Jeju.  Much of the interest in the book lies in the reader wanting to find out what caused the break in such a close friendship, a break so drastic that Young-sook doesn’t even want to talk to Mi-ja’s descendants.   

Though I knew about free-divers, I had never heard of haenyeo.  This book describes their work in great detail:  their beliefs, rituals, and skills.  Researchers have studied them and discovered that “’the cold-water stress that the haenyeo endure is greater than for any other human group in the world.’”  Their work is dangerous, so much so that the leader of a haenyeo collective reminds the women that “’Every woman who enters the sea carries a coffin on her back . . . We are crossing between life and death every day.’” 

I also found Jeju’s matrifocal culture interesting:  “’not a matriarchy.  Rather, it’s a society focused on women’” where men “’live in a household that depends on the tail of a skirt.’”  The women are the breadwinners, supporting their families by diving.  “’Given the dominance on Jeju of volcanic cones, which are concave at the  top like a woman’s private parts, it is only natural that on our island females call and males follow.’”  The husband’s “only responsibilities are to take care of babies and do a little cooking.”  Besides harvesting the wet fields of the ocean, the women also maintain gardens, dry fields:  “it’s a well-known fact that men’s knees are too stiff for this work, and they are shy around sickles and hoes.”  The women work hard but have independence because their husbands have no say in “what a woman could or could not do, say or not say.”

There is humour in the women’s descriptions of their husbands as lazy and weak:  “No man was built to shoulder the full weight of feeding and caring for his family.  That was why he had a wife and daughters.”  They mock “man’s sensitive ears’ and “the sentimentality of a man.”  Haenyeo talk about what they don’t want in a husband:  “’I don’t want a husband with puny thoughts.  I won’t tolerate a husband who needs scolding - Or requires constant attention to know I care for him.’”

Characterization is outstanding, especially that of Young-sook who emerges as a memorable character.  Being a haenyeo requires her to be physically strong (“it typically took two [men] to carry what a haenyeo brought ashore”) but also mentally strong, independent, determined, and brave.  Young-sook is all of these but her stubbornness proves to be both a positive and negative quality.  She finds forgiveness difficult and chooses to remain angry and bitter.  Nonetheless, given what losses she suffers, her behaviour is realistic and understandable. 

The novel examines friendship, betrayal, and forgiveness.  It also looks at how political conflicts led by men impact the lives of women and children and their closest relationships.  Readers should be warned that the depths of human cruelty are detailed, especially in descriptions of the Jeju Uprising, what Young-sook calls the 4.3 Incident.   This is surely one of history’s least-known massacres; for almost fifty years after the uprising, it was a crime punishable by beatings, torture and a lengthy prison sentence if any South Korean even mentioned the events of the Jeju Uprising in which tens of thousands were killed.  Only this past April did South Korean police and defense ministry apologize for the massacres.

This is historical fiction at its best.  The author did extensive research and provides the reader with information about little-known cultures and historical events.  In addition, the book has a compelling plot, memorable characters, and thematic depth.  Like a haenyeo, take a deep breath and dive in!

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Review of THE GONE DEAD by Chanelle Benz

2.5 Stars
This book was a disappointment.  I was expecting a mystery with some focus on serious issues, but there is no real mystery, just people not wanting to discuss the past and confront racial injustice.

After an absence of three decades, Billie James returns to the Mississippi Delta.  She has inherited the house where her father Clifton, a well-known black poet, died in 1972, 30 years earlier.  During her time in Glendale, she finds out that some people suspect Clifton’s death may not have been the result of an accidental fall as determined by the police.  She decides to stay and try to learn the truth, though there are people who keep warning her not to ask too many questions.  As she persists, she finds herself in increasing danger.

The novel focuses on Billie’s perspective, but the viewpoints of eight others are interspersed.  The most interesting one is that of Avalon, “an old juke joint” frequented by Clifton.  After describing all it has seen in its life, which has included “too much weeping too damn much of the time,” it addresses Billie:  “Listen, girl, everything you want to know is near, telling itself over again, the song is on repeat.”

This statement really indicates the theme of the novel:  racism still exists.  People who know what happened to Clifton do not want to address the issue of unjust treatment of blacks in the past.  Even her Uncle Dee does not want her investigating his brother’s death.  In the present, Billie becomes friends with a white man but their relationship does not receive the community’s approval.  Given the high incarceration rate for blacks, Billie does not think she can trust the police.

The pace of the narrative is slow so I found my interest waning.  There is considerable extraneous information that seems to serve little purpose.  For instance, Uncle Dee brings Billie to talk to one of Clifton’s former girlfriends who says, “’Dee tells me you have been asking questions about your daddy’s death.’”  The following paragraph follows that statement:  “Her uncle is still hovering.  Her mother had a print of the Röttgen Pietà, a fourteenth-century German sculpture.  In it, a mutilated Christ lies emaciated in Mary’s lap, ribs showing, mouth fallen open, tiny compared to the mass of his mother.  But it is Mary’s stony expression that is so disturbing:  the wooden, embittered agony.  ‘She got the police report,’ her uncle says.”  What does a German sculpture have to do with the discussion of the police report of Clifton’s death?  What’s with the fixation with deodorant which is mentioned three times?  Her uncle comes to take her to a bar and Billie responds with “’What bar?  I don’t have deodorant on’”??  And how about this disjointed conversation:  “’My mother was an academic.  She specialized in Christian medieval theology.  So I know me some King James.’ She inspects her raw elbow.  ‘My cousin is in jail.  I hate thinking of him in there.  He was such a sweetheart’”??

The ending is disappointing.  There is no real closure since many questions are left unanswered.  One character, Dr. Melvin Hurley, an academic writing Clifton’s biography, is just dropped; he is present at the climax but then is never mentioned again.  The rushed climax and abrupt ending – with no dramatic revelations – are not in keeping with the pace of the rest of the novel. 

The most positive element of the novel is its rich sense of place.  There is no doubt that the author is familiar with the Mississippi Delta.  Unfortunately, I didn’t find much else to recommend the book.  There is no real mystery because the manner of Clifton’s death is totally predictable.  The theme is worth developing but its impact is lessened by an uneven, disjointed narrative.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Review of MAN OF THE YEAR by Caroline Louise Walker

4 Stars
I loved this book which is the interior monologue of a man whose public and private personas are entirely different.  It brought to mind the oft-quoted lines from Walter Scott’s poem Marmion:  “Oh, what a tangled web we weave / When first we practise to deceive!”

Dr. Robert Hart has been chosen as Citizen of Year in his home community of Sag Harbor, NY, but his happiness at receiving the award is tainted.  He suspects that his wife Elizabeth is having an affair with Nick Carpenter, their son Jonah’s best friend, who is staying in their guest house for the summer.  Though he has no real evidence, he devises a convoluted, highly questionable plan to keep Nick away from Elizabeth, a plan that if discovered would put Robert’s medical career in jeopardy.  Of course things go awry, and he has to take desperate measures to keep his life and reputation intact. 

Robert is the first person narrator throughout, though there are chapters interspersed that present the viewpoints of other characters connected to Robert:  his best friend’s wife, his office manager, his son. These latter sections clarify how others perceive Robert so that the reader is not left with only Robert’s perspective which is certainly skewed.  He is definitely not a reliable narrator. 

Though the novel begins slowly, once initial relationships were established my interest was maintained.  There is considerable suspense:  how will Robert put a stop to Elizabeth and Nick’s alleged affair?  Then when things go wrong, how will he “whack-a-mole [his] next risk”?  There is more than one surprise twist to keep the reader on his/her toes.

The book is really a character study of one man.  Dr. Hart is successful and seems not to lack confidence, but it becomes apparent that much of that self-assurance is a façade.  Being very insecure, he lets his imagination run wild and he jumps to conclusions.  I was reminded of Othello when Desdemona’s father tells him, “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see. / She has deceived her father, and may thee.”  Elizabeth was unfaithful to her first husband so Robert easily suspects she could be unfaithful to him.

What stands out is Robert’s narcissism and supreme arrogance.  He describes Elizabeth as being “worthy” of him and when he thinks his wife is attracted to someone else, he assumes that attraction lies in the fact that the man has features similar to his.  Even when Robert knows he is wrong, he refuses to admit it:  “Backtracking shows weakness.”  He takes enjoyment in manipulating people to do as he wants. 

There are actually no likeable characters.  Robert and his family are acquainted with many people, but Robert knows that he can confide in no one:  “There’s not a soul in Sag Harbor I can call – not one good friend or mild acquaintance who could lend an ear without clanging the gossip chain.”  By the time the ending is reached, Robert is not the only character who proves to be morally bankrupt.  This lack of sympathetic characters is not a problem; in fact, it seems appropriate that Robert is surrounded by such despicable people. 

This book reminded me of Herman Koch’s novels Summer House with Swimming Pool and The Dinner.  Anyone who liked either of these should pick up Man of the Year.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019


3.5 Stars
The novel begins in 1826 in London.  Frannie Langton, aka the Mulatta Murderess, is awaiting trial on charges of killing her employers, George and Marguerite Benham.  Her lawyer asks her to help him defend her so she decides to write her life story.

Frannie was born a slave on a sugar cane plantation in Jamaica.  Her master, John Langdon, is a pseudo-scientist, a Josef Mengele character; determined to prove that blacks are a separate species, he performs gruesome experiments.  Having been taught to read and write, Frannie is forced to be his assistant.  Later she is brought to London where she becomes a maid in the Benham household.  George is a renowned scientist interested in studies similar to John’s and so keeps questioning Frannie about his experiments in Jamaica.  Marguerite also takes an especial interest in Frannie but for different reasons.  Then the two are found dead in their home, and Frannie is charged with their murders. 

Interspersed with Frannie’s story are excerpts from the testimonies of trial witnesses and the journals of George Benham.  These third-person perspectives often clash with Frannie’s version of events so the reader is left wondering about her reliability as a narrator.  There are certain topics she refuses to discuss in detail (eg. the exact nature of the experiments Langton performed on both the living and the dead) and she claims to have memory lapses, so what else is she hiding?  Frannie also has a habit “which often weighted my limbs in those days, and made everything thick and slow, including my thoughts” that affects her credibility. 

Of course, it is Frannie who is the most interesting character.  She is a fully developed character with dreams and desires.  It is her intelligence that stands out most.  Her observations are often witty and astute.  For example, she comments “The white man is the measure of all things, and of all things the measure is the white man” and “newspapers . . . travel some distance to the rear of truth” and “Why is it that every white you’ll ever meet either wants to tame you or rescue you?  What no one will admit about the anti-slavers is that they’ve all got a slaver’s appetite for misery, even if they want to do different things with it.”

Frannie is not always a good person.  Understandably, she has been scarred by her experiences in Jamaica.  For instance, she doesn’t believe that “’there’s any such thing as an honest man.’”  She knows she has a great deal of potential but she is black and female and not given opportunities to meet that potential.  She certainly suffers from anger and jealousy. 

The book has echoes of various other novels; Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad come to mind.  Readers may even think of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.  There are several literary allusions in the book since Frannie is an avid reader.

The pace of the book is uneven.  I found the section in London to be slow.  Certainly, Frannie’s relationship with the Benhams must be developed but there is needless repetition.  The author also wanted to add suspense to the mystery (Did Frannie kill two people?) but there’s a fine line between arousing suspense (by extending the rising action) and creating boredom.

Readers should be warned that the novel touches on a number of topics they may find uncomfortable:  slavery, incest, addiction, sexual deviance.  The perspective of an educated black woman living in the early 19th century does, however, make for interesting reading. 

Friday, July 5, 2019

Review of DreadfulWater by Thomas King

3.5 Stars
I loved the Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour when it was on CBC Radio about 20 years ago.  That radio comedy show was written by Thomas King so I shouldn’t have been surprised that he also wrote a mystery series with comedic elements.

Thumps DreadfulWater is a Cherokee ex-cop turned photographer who ends up becoming a detective.  A casino/condo complex is about to be opened when the body of a computer programmer is found on the premises.  Stick Merchant, a young activist opposed to the development, is the prime suspect so his mother Diane, the band chief and Thumps’ sometimes lover, asks Thumps to investigate.  As is expected, Thumps solves the case, though not before more murders occur. 

This is the first book of the series so there is considerable background given about Thumps.  He left the police force in Eureka, California, because of a tragedy after which “being a cop was something he could no longer do.”  He is now a photographer but considers himself “self-unemployed.”  One friend calls him lazy – “’the laziest man I’ve ever known’” – and napping does seem to be his favourite past-time.  That same friend also tells him that he is “’good at what you do’” and it does not come as a surprise that he is better at detective work than the sheriff, Duke Hockney. 

The touches of humour make the book an entertaining read.  There really isn’t the biting social and political satire I expected; chuckles are a more typical reaction to the light-hearted humour.  There are comments like “Trouble . . . was like a man, never in short supply, never too far away” and descriptions like a man having “no more romance than a Kleenex.”  Another character is introduced as “a skinny reed of a man who enjoyed complaining the way some people enjoy chocolate.  He was an uncomplicated, unrepentant mix of bigotry, sexism, and general vulgarity, a social garbage can on legs.”  About the most pointed comment is the reference to one man’s hatred of Native-Americans:  “That was the nice thing about hate . . . You didn’t have to be right.  You just had to be committed.”

The one element that had me puzzled was setting.  When Thumps left California, he moved east and he seems to be living somewhere in the northwest in a town named Chinook.  I think of King as a Canadian writer (though I know he is American by birth), but it becomes clear that the fictional Chinook is in the U.S. because the F.B.I. comes to investigate.  So what’s with the Tim Horton’s reference?  It and the mention of Calgary are an appeasement to Canadian readers?

This is a fast, non-taxing read.  The mystery is fairly straightforward and identifying the villain is not too difficult.  It is the sharp dialogue and witty exposition combined with the indigenous view of the world that make this book more than ordinary. 


Monday, July 1, 2019

Review of SEA OF BONES by Deborah O'Donoghue (New Release)

3.5 Stars
Juliet MacGillivray is haunted by the death of her beloved niece, Beth Winters.  The police deemed it a suicide but Juliet has difficulty accepting this conclusion.  She sets out to investigate while visiting her summerhouse in northeast Scotland where Beth was living while studying Fine Art Textiles in a nearby art school.  As she begins asking questions, Juliet realizes there are people who do not appreciate her meddling.  When her partner Declan becomes involved, he too comes to realize there are those who do not want the truth exposed.

Several subjects are examined in the novel, one of them being mental illness.  Erica, Juliet’s twin sister and Beth’s mother, suffers with bipolar disorder and that diagnosis is always mentioned by the media when discussing Juliet’s position as chief of staff of a political party, as if Juliet is somehow tainted by having a twin with mental health issues.  Juliet also believes that the police’s determination that Beth committed suicide because of depression was influenced by her mother having a manic-depressive illness. 

The sexual exploitation of minors is another subject that receives attention.  There are scenes which may make readers feel uncomfortable.  Immigration, political corruption, and manipulation by the wealthy also come to the fore during Juliet’s investigation. 

There is quite a bit of suspense in the book.  Juliet, Declan and others who become involved in investigating Beth’s death and those who might know something about it face increasing danger.  Threats are made and people are hurt.  The sense of danger will keep readers reading. 

An issue I have with the book is that Juliet is not a really likeable character.  For all her professed love for her niece, they did not seem particularly close.  If Juliet really knew her niece, Juliet should have known when Beth phoned and said, “’There’s some wee things I really need to talk to you about’” that Beth had something important to discuss.  If she did know her niece’s tendency to understate, her not calling Beth for three weeks indicates nothing positive about her character.  At one point, Juliet realizes people think of her as “somewhat pathetic and controlling and superior all at once” and those adjectives describe her perfectly.  She does not seem to be a particularly warm person.  It seems that at least a couple of people think of her as a “very strong lady” but she doesn’t come across as that to me. 

What also bothers me is that characters often behave unrealistically.  For example, would a mother really bring her 13-year-old daughter to a party where drugs are openly used and where she is in danger of being sexually molested?  Would a man who helps recruit a minor for the purpose of sexual exploitation and who viciously kills a man be so shocked when he comes “face to face with his paymasters’ depravity” that he disobeys orders and behaves as he does at the end?

The ending has weaknesses.  The last few events seem largely unnecessary because there is focus on a character who doesn’t deserve attention.  There is too much falling action after the climax.  On the other hand, another character, one who played a pivotal role in the investigation, is just dropped; she is last mentioned as sitting in silence and shaking in shock.  (Other minor characters who are introduced in some depth seem unnecessary because they never appear again.)

The book is not perfect but it is still an enjoyable escapist read.  It touches on a number of important topics, and the plot, though uneven, has considerable suspense. 

Note:  I received an ARC from the publisher, Legend Press.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Review of CITY OF THE LOST by Kelley Armstrong

3 Stars
Casey Duncan is a police detective who wants to help her friend Diana escape an abusive ex-husband.  They apply to be accepted into Rockton, a remote settlement in the Yukon.  Described as “a commune of lost souls” (117), Rockton has a population of 200 people seeking a safe haven.  Diana is accepted on the condition that Casey agree to serve as detective.  In Rockton, Casey assists the local sheriff, Eric Dalton, to solve some gruesome killings. 

The idea of a totally-off-the-grid village in an isolated part of the world is intriguing, but not very realistic.  There is no running water, electricity, cell phones, radios, or television.  Casey is told that “’Structural camouflage hides the town from the rare bush plane passing overhead.  Tech covers the rest’” (56).  When Casey flies over the town, she mentions, “The buildings . . . it’s hard to explain, but I don’t see most of the buildings, just a clearing with a few wooden structures” (76).  No kidding, that would be difficult to explain, as would the “blocking system that keeps passing planes from picking up the town’s footprint” (76).  When Casey first hears about Rockton, she dismisses it as an urban legend:  “’Think about it.  An invisible town?  In today’s world, you’re never really off the grid’” (34).  That’s exactly the problem, and the information given about Rockton does little to help me accept its existence except as “’fantasy bullshit’” (34).  There is some discussion of the economy and security but how about medical emergencies?  All Rockton has is “’a damn fine doctor’” (70)?  Also, considering the number of people who know about the town, keeping its existence a secret is implausible. 

Kelley Armstrong is probably best known for her contemporary fantasies with supernatural characters, and there is an almost supernatural eeriness in the setting of this novel.  The residents of Rockton are told not to venture into the surrounding woods without an armed escort because those woods have many dangers, including the hostiles, “’Those who lost something when they left Rockton – lost their humanity and ultimately reverted to something animalistic’” (117).  Unfortunately, such horror elements have little appeal for me.

Characterization is a problem because of inconsistencies.  Casey supposedly has an impressive record as a homicide detective (70) yet she makes so many mistakes that she herself wonders “Is it possible to screw up more than I have in the last few days” (47)?  There is nothing that she does during the investigations that shows her to be particularly astute.  In fact, her investigating is described very vaguely; there are statements like “I continue interviewing people all day, but I don’t get much farther” (396) and “I have three interviews scheduled and two additional people show up, not with anything significant to add” (421). 

Casey is not the only problem character.  It is difficult to see Dalton as the romantic hero.  What’s with him?  He tells Casey he jumped at the opportunity to have a homicide detective with her record of success (70) though when he first meets her he says, “’I need a detective, but I don’t want you.  End of discussion’” (55).  Dalton usually speaks only in grunts; his favourite word, when he actually speaks, is “Fuck”!?  This sheriff, who is not beyond using rough tactics, starts behaving like a love-sick teenager? 

The romance, of course, is expected.  It is very formulaic.  When they first meet, they argue, but then it becomes obvious that they are attracted to each other.  Inevitably, they can’t control their emotions and desires and have very satisfying sex. 

On the other hand, the solution to the murders is unexpected because there have been insufficient clues.  When there are clues, like the discussion of the Salem witch trials (418), they are rather contrived. The reader is not made privy to Casey’s thinking about the case so at the end there is a big information dump where she explains to the killer what the killer did!  How did Casey learn about the killer’s movements (454)?  Considering the nature and number of killings, the motivation of the killer seems rather weak.  The explanation that “In some part of us, there is absolute darkness, as much as we wish otherwise” (262) seems an attempt to strengthen the justification for the murderer. 

I appreciated the Canadian setting, but it seems that it was used only to emphasize remoteness.  For an American audience the Yukon might seem even more remote than Alaska.    There are other Americanizations which bother me.  For example, Canada does not have sheriffs the way that the U.S. does.  Likewise, the three-strike law (30) does not exist per se in Canada, except for sexual predators. 

This novel is escapist literature and can be enjoyed if it is approached as such.  Head for the beach and turn off rational thinking.  Unfortunately, I find it difficult to enjoy a book when I have to gloss over so many weaknesses. 

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Review of CASE HISTORIES by Kate Atkinson

3.5 Stars
I recently heard that the latest book in the Jackson Brodie series is about to be released.  Two of Kate Atkinson’s books (Life After Life and A God in Ruins) are among my favourite novels so I thought I’d check out her mystery series, starting with Case Histories, the book that introduces the detective.

Jackson Brodie is asked to investigate three cases.  Amelia and Julia Land ask him to look into the disappearance of their 3-year-old sister Olivia 34 years earlier; Theo Wyre asks him to look into the murder of his much beloved 18-year-old daughter Laura 10 years earlier; and Shirley Morrison asks him to find her niece Tanya, the daughter of her sister Michelle who was found guilty of murdering her husband Keith 25 years earlier. 

The novel has shifting points of view.  Obviously, Jackson’s viewpoint dominates, but we also get the perspective of Amelia whose sister went missing, Theo whose daughter was killed, and Caroline who in the past lived another life “one she could hardly remember sometimes.  And at other times remember only too well” (136). 

Though the cases of the missing/lost girls are interesting, the focus of the book is less about the solving of the cases and more on examining sadness and loss and examining relationships between siblings and between parents and children.  The disappearance of Olivia has had a profound impact on Amelia as has the death of Laura on Theo.  Jackson has experienced loss in his life as well.  The relationships between/among the Land sisters are discussed, as is Jackson’s relationship with his sister.  Theo’s relationship with his two daughters and Mr. Land’s relationship with his four daughters are detailed.  Jackson has an 8-year-old daughter Marlee so that father-daughter bond is also developed. 

The cases of the missing girls are not too difficult to solve.  There are clues and, perhaps too obviously, Jackson thinks about Tanya’s age (300).  There is not always a happy ending, however:  “it was simply so rare that when you went searching for something precious that had been lost you actually found it” (361).  People involved in the three cases end up overlapping and it seems rather coincidental that they all connect. 

As previously mentioned, this is the first book of the series with this detective, so considerable background information is given.  Jackson was formerly a police officer but is now a private investigator.  His childhood and his marriage are described in considerable detail.  He is a decent, likeable person who believes “that his job was to help people be good rather than punish them for being bad” (79).  He has an especial interest in helping women.  There are many digressions in the novel where the reader is given Jackson’s opinions on a variety of subjects; these rants serve to develop his personality.

There are wonderful touches of humour.  Observations like “Well, that was the end then, she was Americanizing words.  Civilization would fall” (176) and “madness was endemic in Cambridge” (156) lighten the mood. 

I don’t think this is Atkinson’s best novel, but it is certainly enjoyable, so I can see myself returning to pick up another book in her Jackson Brodie series.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Review of 11.22.63 by Stephen King

3 Stars
This is my first Stephen King novel.  I didn’t actually read it; I listened to it on my iPod during my evening walks. 

I chose this one because of its intriguing premise.  We’ve all probably debated whether we would kill Hitler if we could go back in time.  In his book, King has a time traveller attempt to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 11, 1963.

Jake Epping is a high school English teacher who is convinced by his friend Al Templeton to use the time portal that exists at the back of his diner.  Al has used the portal and has learned the rules.  Stepping through, the traveller will always arrive on Sept. 9, 1958.  Regardless of how long he stays in the past, only two minutes will have passed in the present (2011).  A subsequent trip through the portal resets anything that might have been changed on the previous trip. 

Al persuades Jake to try and stop Lee Harvey Oswald from killing JFK in Dallas.  When he arrives in 1958, he becomes George Amberson.  He has five years to fill so he slowly makes his way to Texas - with a few detours along the way.  Once in Texas, he starts following Oswald to determine if he is the person who plans to assassinate the president.  Jake/George also takes a job at a high school and falls in love with Sadie Dunhill. 

At over 800 pages, the novel is very lengthy.  Much of the plot has nothing to do with the JFK assassination.  Even Jake/George’s spying on Oswald is not central.  Instead, the focus is on Jake/George’s life in Jodie, Texas, and his relationship with Sadie who has an ex-husband lurking in the background.  I’m not certain why so much time is devoted to this subplot.  In many ways, the book is almost romance more than speculative fiction.  I kept wanting to get to how the assassination would be foiled and what the consequences would be. 

The theme seems to be that the past is obdurate.  Jake/George repeats this numerous times.  When he tries to make a change to the past, obstacles are thrown his way.  These obstacles are directly proportional to the magnitude of the change being attempted.  There is also discussion of the butterfly effect which is best outlined in Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” – a story that is actually mentioned in the novel. 

I had problems with characterization, especially that of the protagonist.  Jake/George is just too good to be convincing.  Virtually everyone likes him.  He’s an amazing teacher who earns the respect of all his students.  People make allowances for him that just don’t seem realistic; for example, he has fake teaching credentials in the past yet he is able to get and keep a teaching position.  He never has difficulty getting people to trust him, even when he behaves strangely. 

I’ve always had reservations about reading Stephen King.  He is often described as the “King of Horror” and that is not a genre in which I have any interest.  For this reason, I chose to read a book which would probably be classified as speculative fiction.  I can’t say that I was overly impressed.  I know King’s books have sold over 350 million copies so I am among the minority.  At the risk of sounding like a literary snob, on the basis of this one book I can't say that King is an extraordinary writer. 

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Review of BEAUTIFUL BAD by Annie Ward

2 Stars
I can’t say this book is really bad but I can’t say it’s beautiful either.

The book opens on the “Day of the Killing” when a 911 call is made; we know someone is dead but we don’t know who the victim is or who the killer is, though we know a child is present.  Soon it becomes obvious that the house has three occupants:  Maddie and Ian Wilson and their son Charlie. 

The story has three perspectives, that of Maddie, that of Ian, and that of Diane, a policewoman who is first on the scene.  By far, Maddie’s point of view dominates.  Through flashbacks she describes meeting Ian in 2001 while visiting her friend Joanna.  They have little contact for over a decade but eventually reconnect and marry in 2012.  They live in Kansas with their son Charlie, though Ian is often away because he provides security for people in dangerous parts of the world like Iraq and Rwanda.  Because Maddie suffered a head injury after a fall, she has become very anxious and fearful; to help with her anxiety, she sees a psychologist who specializes in writing therapy.  In those sessions, we learn of her concerns about Ian who seems to be suffering from PTSD; he is increasingly paranoid and drinks excessively. 

One of my issues with the book is that none of the characters is likeable.  When we first meet Maddie, Joanna and Ian, they are interested in nothing but partying and drinking.  Maddie becomes a dutiful mother to Charlie but her behaviour is erratic and she seems to enjoy manipulating people.  Ian is equally unsympathetic.  Ian has a girlfriend when he first meets Joanna and Maddie and his behaviour towards all three women is questionable.  Joanna just seems volatile and erratic.  Even the policewoman behaves strangely; her boss allows her to drink a beer while working but “she was not allowed much jewelry on the job”? 

The relationships between characters are also unconvincing.  Joanna and Maddie are supposed to be best friends but we see little that shows them behaving as best friends would; most of the time they are angry with each other.  The relationship between Maddie and Ian is even more problematic.  She is immediately attracted to him, but there seems little to explain the appeal.  Nothing really happens between them so it is difficult to understand why Maddie becomes so obsessed with Ian, even after they have almost no communication for over a decade.   

As a reader I kept feeling manipulated.  The narrative moves back and forth in time so it is obvious that things are being left out to keep the reader perplexed.  The description of the murder scene in the opening is intentionally scattered and that foreshadows the disorganization of the rest of the narrative.  I object to thrillers that rely on inept police investigators.  And it does not take a genius to quickly determine that Maddie is the unreliable female narrator that is found so often in contemporary suspense fiction. 

Actually, there is not a great deal of suspense.  The pace is slow and there is a great deal of unnecessary information in the middle.  The book offers little that is different from other books of the same genre.  Some might be surprised at the twists at the end, but I found them predictable. 

The style also has little to commend itself.  I got tired of having everything described as “crap” or “crappy” (10 times) and reading awkward sentences like “Dr. Roberts turns out to be a very thin, beautiful and gentle African man in loose taupe trousers with an accent” and “his bunker made of misery and anger under dirt” and “moving to an underground metal box with an oxygen generator in Montana”.  Surely an editor should have caught the awkward placement of prepositional phrases.

Like the characters, the book is shallow and superficial. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Review of MRS. EVERYTHING by Jennifer Weiner (New Release)

3 Stars
This lengthy novel tells the story of two sisters, Jo and Bethie Kaufman, from the 1950s to 2016. Growing up in Detroit, Jo is the tomboy who dreams of being a writer while Bethie is pretty and popular and believes her destiny is to be a star.  Of course, their lives take unexpected turns.  The book is actually a journey through American social history, focusing on the role/status of women in society during this period, so the names of the protagonists are surely an allusion to Little Women.

The book references many historical events including the civil rights movement, Woodstock, the Vietnam War, the women’s rights movement, and even the #MeToo movement.  The assassination of JFK, the moon landing, and the 2016 Democratic National Convention are mentioned.  Cultural allusions to music and film abound. 

The emphasis is on the experience of women in a male-dominated society, and the major characters or their female family members experience virtually everything:  rape, sexual harassment in the workplace, sexual assault, abortion, romantic heartbreak, eating disorders, body image issues, traditional marriage, commune living, same-sex relationship, bi-racial relationship, motherhood, unwanted pregnancy, single parenthood, unfaithful spouse, promiscuity, divorce, widowhood, stay-at-home parenting, balancing of career and family obligations, conflicts with parents and siblings, economic hardship, career success and failure, drug use, cancer. 

My problem with the book is that the writer tried too hard to touch on all possible experiences a woman might have.  At one point, Jo wonders “whether [women] would ever not try to have it all and do it all” and this is the feeling I had about the author:  while bemoaning women being Mrs. Everything, the author becomes Mrs. Everything Writer.  It’s as if she had a list of female trials, traumas and tragedies which she had to check off one by one. 

The theme is that things for women have changed but they haven’t changed enough.  In the mid-20th-century, women were told that the most important role for a woman was to be married and to be a mother so a woman who did not marry or a married woman who did not have children was regarded with suspicion.  On the other hand, a woman living in the 21st century is expected to have a career so any woman who wants only to be a mother is considered unambitious:  “’You can say you want to be a mom and something else.  Or you can be a mom after you’ve done something else.  But that, just by itself, that’s not enough.’”  Appropriately, the book ends with Hillary Clinton’s nomination as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate but we know how that election turned out.  Perhaps, the author suggests, stories “about brave little girls and happy endings [can only begin with] ‘Once upon a time’.”

The message for women is that “women should forgive themselves . . . [and] take care of themselves with kindness.  The world was hard enough, would beat them up enough without them adding to the pain.”  In other words, they should not try to be everything to everyone and should focus on finding happiness by being true to themselves. 

The pace is slow at times so that the book felt overly long.  I also had issues with virtually all the men being portrayed as either weak or bad.  At the beginning, the author addresses her readers and acknowledges that this book is her longest and “the most ambitious work I’ve ever attempted.”  I applaud her efforts but think that perhaps a less-ambitious novel might have been more compelling.

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

Friday, June 7, 2019

Review of PIECES OF HER by Karin Slaughter

3 Stars
While out with her daughter Andrea (Andy) on her 31st birthday, Laura Oliver confronts a gunman in a diner and kills him.  Andy witnesses the actions of a woman she cannot believe is her mother:  “None of it made sense.  Her mother was a fifty-five-year-old speech therapist.  She played bridge, for chrissakes.  She didn’t kill people and smoke cigarettes and rail against the pigs.”  Circumstances soon have Andy taking a road trip which becomes a quest to learn who her mother was.  Interspersed with Andy’s search into Laura’s past are flashbacks to 1986 which detail Laura’s activities as a young woman.

The book has its fair share of blood and gore as well as emotional and physical abuse.  There are also several family secrets and hidden identities and motives.  Andy has to untangle Laura’s web of lies but it soon becomes clear that Laura was also caught in a web of deceit spun by another. 

Laura’s backstory I found was a little too farfetched.  Her motivation for her involvement in activities does not ring true.  People can be very emotionally vulnerable and open to manipulation, but Laura’s inability to see the truth is unconvincing.  She continues to obsessively love one abuser though she willingly helped kill another abuser?  She claims to have a “tiny piece of herself that . . . could always [be nudged] into insanity”?  Considering her volunteer experience, she cannot see the truth of her brother’s condition? 

There are also issues with Andy’s characterization.  Though she is 31, she behaves like a teenager, an immature one at that.  She is drifting through life and seems incapable of making a decision.  She is insecure and naïve and lacks common sense.  As one character points out, she can barely complete a sentence.  Such a person would work as a 911 dispatcher?  And the reader is to accept that in a matter of days, Andy gains so much confidence?  Perhaps Andy is supposed to be a copy of her younger mother and so explain Laura’s naivety and poor choices?

Other characters are also unconvincing.  Andrew supposedly loves his sister but he doesn’t tell his sister what he knows about Nick?  Nick is supposed to be charming but we are only told that and never really shown his charm so his charismatic appeal is not convincing.  A marshal can be so good at following someone and yet be so inept as well? 

The book is entertaining enough so makes for a passable escapist read.  The reader would be advised not to analyze too much. 

Monday, June 3, 2019

Review of LIVING LIES by Natalie Walters (New Release)

2.5 Stars
Lane Kent is a young widow who struggles with depression and harbours a secret about the death of her husband, the circumstances of which have left her with guilt and shame.  She stumbles across the body of a young girl and so is drawn into a murder investigation led by Charlie Lynch, the handsome new deputy in the small town of Walton, Georgia.  What follows is a mystery and a romance.

The novel examines depression and its impact not just on the sufferer but also on loved ones.  The focus is on showing people’s misunderstanding of the illness and those who suffer with it.  The problem with Lane is that she has these abrupt mood swings.  Virtually all her dramatic shifts in mood are related to her feelings for Charlie.  For example, she sees Charlie talking to a glamorous woman and immediately “Lane’s mood turned as dark as the sky.  Who was she trying to fool?  She could pretend a lot of things.  Put on a smile for a camera.  Pretend like she was fine.  But believing she deserved someone like Charlie – that he could love someone like her – was just another lie she wasn’t willing to live.”  Her reaction seems more like insecurity and jealousy than a sign of clinical depression.  The reader is supposed to sympathize with Lane but at times she comes across as just whiny and full of self-pity.

Charlie is the ever-so-good-looking deputy who has just arrived in town.  He sets aflutter the hearts of all women.  He is just too good to be true.  Not only is he handsome, but he is also intelligent and patient and understanding and compassionate.  He wins not only Lane’s heart but that of her son Noah.  More than once he is like the knight in shining armour who charges in to rescue Lane.  There is not a single character flaw to be seen. 

Often the romance element takes precedence over the mystery.  Lane and Charlie keep bumping into each other (literally), and they both spend an inordinate amount of time wondering how the other person feels.  And the electricity that flows whenever they accidentally touch – oh please!  I believe in love but I find little enjoyment in formulaic romances.

Much is left unexplained.  Was something added to Lane’s glass of champagne at her parents’ barbecue?  Why did the killer become involved in the various nefarious activities described?  Certainly, more character development is needed to explain motivations.  Lane and Charlie’s problematic relationships with their fathers are resolved so quickly and conveniently.

Apparently this is the first book of a series entitled Harbored Secrets.  This first book is not so exemplary that I will seek out the next one.

Note:  I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers programme.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Review of THE LAST NEANDERTHAL by Claire Cameron

3 Stars
This book just didn’t resonate with me. 

There are two parallel stories.  Girl is a Neanderthal, presumably the last one.  Her story focuses on her struggles to survive, especially as the members of her family become fewer and fewer.  Rose is an archaeologist who discovers Girl’s skeleton, along with that of a male homo sapien.  Rose’s goal is to prove that Neanderthals were not inferior in terms of intelligence and physical abilities and that Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens mated since modern humans have Neanderthal DNA.

There are similarities between Girl and Rose.  Girl must contend with the power dynamics within her family; Rose must manoeuvre the power dynamics at the archaeological dig and the museum that is providing her funding.  The most obvious commonality is that both women are pregnant.  Obviously, this book is intended as a tale of common humanity, but the similarities seem awkwardly inserted into the narrative.

Girl’s section has passages which I found difficult to accept.  For example, we are told that “When one [member of the family] had a dream, the others saw the same pictures in their heads, whether they remembered in the morning or not” (10).  Also, Girl’s “mind held the memories of all the hunts [her mother] had been on too, and her mother before as well.  And Girl also had the stories that came to her in dreams from the other members of the family” (40).  The Neanderthals are shown to communicate with animals; they have a “truce with the bears” (179) at the annual spring fish run, a “long-standing peace” (175).  Girl is so in tune with nature that she can read messages in leaves:  “Meat that is alive sends pulses of heat into the air.  This comes from the fire inside the chest of a body.  When this warmth hits the air, it moves in patterns around the trees.  It pushes and pulls at the leaves in particular ways. . . . The trees that line the valley take up and exaggerate the movement.  They pass the message down.  If Girl watched and felt the patterns in the leaves, she could read them” (119).  The impression is that the author tried too hard to portray Neanderthals as deserving of our respect.

Rose’s narrative has problems too, the most significant being that Rose is unlikeable.  She is obsessed with work and when she discovers she is pregnant, her main concern is not for her child but for her inability to oversee the dig.  Her focus is on how the pregnancy will affect her career; she expresses no love for the child she is carrying and gives no thought to his/her welfare, not even insuring that he/she will have access to adequate health care.  Often, women must sacrifice their careers to have children but it is difficult to have any sympathy for a woman who is so self-centred.  The reader is to believe Rose is intelligent, but her naivety suggests otherwise.  What woman would promise her partner that she would deliver the baby on a particular weekend (225)?   Is Rose’s ineptitude supposed to emphasize Girl’s intuitive understanding of pregnancy and motherhood? 

This novel was a finalist for the 2017 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, but I can’t understand why.  The jury described the book as “engrossing” but I didn’t find it compelling.  The novel was also commended for its “great sophistication” but I found it clunky; the author’s attempts to shake up “the classic Neanderthal tropes in science fiction and fantasy” are stiff and mechanical. 

The author had a purpose (which she outlines in the prologue):  to emphasize similarities between modern humans and Neanderthals.  Unfortunately, her theme is not conveyed with the finesse of great fiction. 

Note:  On the same topic, this exhibition might be interesting: