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Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Review of THE SUSPECT by Fiona Barton

3 Stars
Two English 18-year-old girls, Alexandra O’Connor and Rosie Shaw, go missing while backpacking in Thailand.  A veteran reporter, Kate Waters, becomes interested in their story and gets to know the parents.  When bodies are discovered after a fire in a guesthouse, Kate flies to Thailand to get the full story while at the same time looking for her son Jake who went to Thailand two years earlier and has had only sporadic contact with his family since.  She discovers that Jake lived in that same guesthouse and may know something about the fire. 

The novel is narrated from alternating points of view; most often, it is Kate and Alex’s mother Lesley who are the focus, but the viewpoint of DI Bob Sparkes, a police officer facing the impending death of his wife, is also given as he takes charge of the investigation on the British end.  Alex’s voice is also heard in the emails she writes to her best friend.

The book touches on several topics.  For instance, it addresses the way people edit their public lives on social media.  Alex’s postings suggest that she is having a wonderful time but her private emails to her friend tell the truth:  things are not going well between her and Rosie who is not really interested in exploring the country.  It also examines what it is like to be on the receiving end of media attention; when Kate’s son becomes a person of interest, Kate, the newspaper reporter, says, “We’re taught that the truth is all that matters. . . . Everyone wants to know the truth.  Except those who don’t.  Those who stand to lose by it.  I know that now.”  The question of how well parents know their children is also asked; Kate starts to wonder about how well she knows Jake, and Rosie’s mother seems very much unaware of her daughter’s behaviour. 

Alex and Rosie are foil characters; the former is the good girl and the latter is the bad girl.  Alex is the responsible one who is interested in seeing Thailand while Rose is the partier who is really interested only in boys.  There are other stereotypes too.  There’s one young man who feels his parents have pressured him too much and another who is the product of the foster care system.  The incompetence of the Thai police is unbelievable. 

There are subplots that are unnecessary.  For example, the terminal illness of Sparkes’ wife serves little purpose except to arouse sympathy for the policeman.  The tensions between Rosie’s divorced parents are irrelevant. 

Some elements leave the reader mystified.  What parents would let their young daughters go unsupervised to Thailand?  Alex is supposedly the mature girl who is aware of possible dangers for young travelers yet she is so naïve?  Why do the girls continue to stay in a rooming house which is certainly substandard? 

This is an easy, undemanding read.  The chapters are short and the clues so obvious that the villains are easily identifiable.  It might be a good book to take on a plane, though perhaps not on a flight headed to Thailand.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Review of THE GEOGRAPHY OF FRIENDSHIP by Sally Piper

4.5 Stars
Three women (Samantha, Lisa, and Nicole) in their forties re-enact a 5-day hike on an isolated coastal  trail.  When they began this hike 24 years earlier, they had a confrontation with an aggressive man in the parking lot at the trailhead. Thereafter he watched them and deliberately instilled fear by making silent but threatening gestures.  It is obvious that something happened before the end of the trip; whatever transpired changed the three and destroyed their friendship because they have not spoken to each other in over 20 years. 

Lisa convinces the other two women to take the hike again.  She suggests they can reshape the memories of the original experience, thereby healing the wounds that were inflicted.  Perhaps too their fractured friendship can be mended; she hopes “to have the qualities of their friendship returned to her and all the goodness that might come with it if it can be.”  There is certainly no doubt that the experience had a major impact on their lives.  Lisa thinks of how the landscape and what happened “Damaged them.  How much of what happened here has been carried with them into the everyday, washed up in their lives like those fragments of stone.”  Samantha thinks of how “their friendship had unraveled and Samantha doesn’t think she’s felt good about herself since.”  Nicole thinks about how “She didn’t believe or trust in herself to succeed [because everything] . . . that was strong and good about her was taken away . . . [and] She lost her faith in humanity that day.”

It is not until the end that the reader learns exactly what happened on that fateful hike, so there is a great deal of suspense in the book.  As the women walk the trail in the present, there are flashbacks to what occurred along the same sections of trail.  There was a pervasive air of menace and even the rugged landscape seemed threatening.  Though the timeframe has changed, the locale is the same so the women are anxious, and because of their 20-year estrangement, there’s tension among them.  All of these emotions are passed on to the reader.

Each of the women emerges as a distinct individual with clearly identifiable traits.  For instance, one is motivated by anger, another is the peacekeeper, and the third distrusts people.  This differentiation is achieved by the novel’s structure.  Each woman is the focus of an equal number of chapters.  We hear her inner dialogue as she remembers the past, thinks about the choices she made then, and considers how subsequent decisions in her life were influenced by the past:  “Who or what might she have been if these things hadn’t happened to her?” 

Each of the women is dynamic.  Mostly each learns about herself.  Lisa, for instance, acknowledges that when they drifted apart, “they weren’t running from each other.  They were running from themselves.”  At the beginning, it is easy for them to blame each other for what happened:  “Trying to make her say Yep, all my fault, so she can have a clear conscience.”  Eventually, however, each must acknowledge her role in what happened during the hike and the dissolution of their friendship:  “Memory might try and serve it differently, that one person instigated . . . more than another, but in truth they were all complicit . . . ”. 

The book examines the dynamics of friendships.  Samantha describes their friendship:  “They were tight.  Inseparable.  Individual slights led to collective umbrage.  Heart scars were shared.”  Nicole agrees:  “They only had to be themselves.  That’s what made their friendship strong.”  On the first hike, the friendship was tested; as they faced increasing fear, their stress caused them to turn on each other.  And after the first hike, “It only took two weeks to undo eight years [of friendship].”  Each mourns the loss of the friendships.  One of them acknowledges “She still feels the loss of what they had.  She registers it as an irretrievable absence inside her” and another thinks her friends would have helped her, that maybe “they’d have looked out for her and steered her away from a man they would have recognized as good at manipulation.”  Can the women repair their relationships if they realize that a friendship has “to be nurtured and cared for, like a garden” and that if one lightens the burden of another, “She doesn’t notice the extra weight after a while.  It soon becomes a part of her own”? 

As soon as I started reading this book, I was totally absorbed.  It is so emotionally immersive and thought-provoking that I will not soon forget it.  I keep asking myself how I would have reacted in similar circumstances. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Review of A DEADLY DIVIDE by Ausma Zehanat Khan (New Release)

3.5 Stars 
I’ve read all the Rachel Getty/Esa Khattak books so was interested in this one, the fifth in the series. 

This time Rachel and Esa are called to Saint-Isidore-du-Lac in Quebec after a massacre at a mosque.  Twelve people are killed.  Christian Lemaire, the officer in charge, has a young Muslim man, Amadou Duchon, taken into custody though he was helping the wounded.  On the other hand, Etienne Roy, the local Catholic priest, is found at the scene with a gun in his hands but he is not apprehended and never seriously considered a suspect.  As the investigation continues, Esa and Rachel are convinced that the Wolf Allegiance, an ultra-nationalist group, and a right-wing radio host are connected to the mass shooting.

The mystery is interesting with several suspects with possible motives.  The identity of the murderer is not easy to guess, though looking back there are sufficient clues.  I understand the murderer’s initial motivation but there are subsequent actions that are less strongly motivated and so less convincing. 

The novel tackles relevant issues in Quebec and Canadian society.  It explores anti-immigration sentiments, Islamophobia, and white nationalism.  Rather than focusing on the radicalization of young Muslim men, it examines the radicalization of young white men.  The book mentions topics which have been in headlines in Quebec:  biker gangs, discrimination in the Sûreté du Québec, Hérouxville’s Code of Conduct, Quebec’s Charter of Values.  Some online chats and blogs which promote hate are included in the narrative; they are unquestionably realistic though disturbing to read.

In my review of the fourth novel in this series, I mentioned that the constant romantic tensions became tedious.  In this novel, the romance element is also over-emphasized.  Every woman who meets Esa seems to fall in love with him?!  He is unmoved by such amorous yearnings, but the love of one person has a dramatic impact on his mood and attitude.  Rachel, on the other hand, is attracted to someone with whom she has to work closely though she doesn’t know if he can be trusted.  These romantic concerns serve only as an unnecessary distraction, especially over-the-top passages like this:  “She struggled to regain her composure, blinking several times rapidly and running a dry tongue over her lips.”

Another aspect which is tedious and annoying is the many references to eyes:  “Their eyes met and held, eloquent with fear” and “the answering flame in her eyes” and “that still-banked fury in his eyes” and “her eyes were locked on his” and “The priest’s eyes slid to his” and “something dark and nameless in her eyes” and on and on.  Everyone communicates so expressively with their eyes?!  Dialogue and actions should be used more to convey thoughts and feelings.

As with the previous book in the series, this one is also sometimes bogged down by lengthy passages of exposition that would be more appropriate in an essay:  “But in effect, that’s what the Code of Conduct – and the succeeding legislation – stood for.  It was dressed up in language about religious neutrality and the values of Québec – it resisted encroachment; it spoke of erasure – but at heart it was a repudiation, of what was considered different . . . other . . . barbaric.  Debates about the Muslim veil had created the specter of a foreign invasion – an intolerable usurpation delivered by the hands of a community who sought religious freedom.  The language of Bill 62 . . . suggested it applied to all communities equally.  But its neutrality was a veneer.  Its practical application was to exclude those in religious dress from joining in public life.  In starker, more specific terms, the proposed legislation stripped a Muslim woman of her dignity and her choice.”
There is a lot of focus on the difficulties women face in a male-dominated workforce:  “Unwanted, unwelcome attention that hindered a woman’s performance of her job” and “What do you think it’s like for me?  For any woman who tried to slog her way to the top?” and “He’d heard it from many of his female colleagues, frustrated by unnecessary obstacles or by the difficulty they’d faced being treated with respect by the men who stood in their way.”  The reader does not need to be reminded over and over again about this problem. 

I had problems with a few things in the novel.  First, there’s the portrayal of the fictitious town, Sainte-Isidore-du-Lac.  It is a “small town on the fringes of Gatineau Park” about “an hour and a half from Ottawa.”  This small town has a mosque, a synagogue, and a university.  What small town, especially one so close to a city that has two, would have a university?  Then a character who works as a spokesperson for the premier of the province is summoned to Montreal?  The provincial capital is Quebec City so it is more likely she would have to go there.  A Muslim man speaks of the type of woman he would like to marry:  “A girl I can take to the mosque who will stand by my side in prayer.”  Perhaps I’m being too nit-picky but in a mosque, women pray separately from men!

This is not really a standalone novel.  I would strongly recommend that it be read in the proper sequence.  The relationships among the characters will be much better understood if the previous four books in the series have been read.  In addition, all the investigations of these prior installments are mentioned.  The next book in the series is foreshadowed at the beginning and the end with the appearance of a shadowy figure who follows and threatens Esa.  The identity of this person undoubtedly lies in the previous novels. 

This book examines the consequences of hate, and considering events in both Canada and the U.S., it is very relevant.  A Muslim police investigator as a protagonist is a welcome addition to the mystery/crime genre, and the character of Esa continues to provide insight into the tenets of Islam and the mind of a devout but moderate Muslim.  He and Rachel are an odd partnership but their working relationship is based on mutual understanding, respect, and affection.  Though the book is not flawless, it is of sufficient quality that I will continue to follow the series.

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

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Review of THE SEVEN DEATHS OF EVELYN HARDCASTLE by Stuart Turton

3 Stars 
Last year the Costa First Novel Award went to Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine; this year, it went to The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle.  These two books are so very different that about the only thing they have in common is the use of a woman’s name in the title.

This is a time-travel detective story with a locked room mystery.  The narrator, later identified as Aiden Bishop, is attending a masquerade party at Blackheath House; the Hardcastles’ youngest son was murdered 19 years earlier and for some reason they “have decided to mark the occasion by reopening the house where it happened and invite back the very same guests who were here that day” (48).  At this party, another murder takes place and Bishop must identify the killer in order to escape from Blackheath.

Of course, Bishop cannot solve the murder in the usual way.  A masked figure, the Plague Doctor, tells Bishop that he will relive the same day 8 times; each morning he will wake up in the body of a different person present at the party.  In other words, his 8 hosts allow him to see the same event from 8 different perspectives.  If he doesn’t succeed in identifying the killer, his memory will be wiped clean and he’ll have to start the process all over again, as he apparently already has perhaps hundreds of times.  Two other people at the party are also trying to unmask the murderer.  Since only one person can be freed from the time loop, Bishop is motivated to succeed, especially because a knife-wielding footman is hunting down Bishop’s hosts and killing them. 

Though the events occur in the 1920s, the book often feels like a Victorian Gothic novel.  It certainly has many elements of Gothic literature.  There’s a remote, crumbling manor house with dark, creepy corridors and gloomy chambers; it’s surrounded by mysterious forests and has an old graveyard nearby.  There are touches of the supernatural and more than one damsel in distress.  Torture, murder, suicide and insanity all make an appearance. 

In many ways, the book is an intellectual puzzle.  The reader must be willing to invest time and become actively involved while reading this book.  A passive reader will give up in frustration, especially because almost everyone is unreliable and untrustworthy.  At one point, Bishop thinks, “Too little information and you’re blind, too much and you’re blinded” (378).  The reader will find him/herself in the latter position because the number of details becomes almost overwhelming.  The author has stated that he used a wall of Post-it Notes and an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of all the plot pieces, characters, and perspectives, and the reader must almost resort to similar tactics to avoid total bafflement. 

Characterization is interesting.  We never see Bishop outside of a host’s body, and he has no memory of the type of person he was:  “I have no idea who I am beyond Blackheath, or how I think when I’m not wedged inside somebody else’s mind” (236).  We get only snippets of his personality as traits emerge while he occupies a host’s body.  The problem is that Bishop finds he is losing any sense of self as the personalities of his hosts intrude and often overwhelm him.  The Plague Doctor tells him that he is allowed only eight hosts because, “Any more than that and your personality wouldn’t be able to rise above theirs.”  Bishop agrees, “My hosts are getting stronger, and I’m getting weaker” (269).  At first Bishop tends to be very judgmental and his constant deriding of one man’s obesity and another man’s cowardice do not initially endear him to the reader.  Later, however, he acknowledges the coward’s compassion and the fat man’s intelligence.  A positive trait is his desire to prevent the murder because if it does not happen, he cannot gain his freedom which has been promised only if he identifies the murderer.  For me, much of the interest was in trying to determine what kind of person Aiden Bishop really is.

This novel is very intricately crafted and the writer has justifiably earned praise for his cleverness.  Of course, I couldn’t be bothered to determine if there were any plot holes!  I appreciate the cleverness, but I think a great book is more than just an intellectual puzzle, and for me, this book is not much more than that. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Review of MISS MADEIRA by Austin Gary

3 Stars
This book was published over 7 years ago and I had never heard of it until a former student sent it to me as a gift.  She had highlighted several passages: 
“Many students admitted to fearing her; others were put off by her high standards”
“You’ll never know the influence you’ve had on your students.”
“Most of her former pupils could come forward and tell you how she changed their lives for the better.”
“commanded respect and engendered fear”
“no one cares more for her students, no one demands more of them than you.  And, no teacher I’ve ever known has asked more of herself or given more of herself.”
The student, whom I taught many years ago, wrote that those passages described how she thought of me.  She suggested I might enjoy the book because she thought that as a teacher I was much like the protagonist. 

The novel tells the story of Amelia Irmelinda Madeira who begins teaching in the fall of 1917 in Prospect, Missouri.  Her career as an English teacher and librarian continues until 1952.  She is a gifted teacher who stands up to the narrow-mindedness she encounters in the small town.  Her comments against sexism, homophobia, and bigotry make her an unconventional, somewhat controversial figure but her reputation as a caring teacher wins over most people.    

It is not just her teaching, however, that is the focus.  Though she separates her professional and personal life and maintains a “stern façade” in the classroom, her personal life is full of struggles and loneliness.  Her father and brother make her life difficult, and her life-long love is not openly reciprocated.  Her happiness lies in sharing knowledge and exposing her students to literature. 

This book would definitely appeal to teachers.  It highlights how the personal struggles of teachers are often unknown to students.  At one point Miss Madeira tells a colleague, “Great teaching requires great acting.”  I used to say the same to my students at the end of a semester by which time they had usually realized there was more to me than a “stern façade.” 

There’s a great comparison of teaching and parenting:  “good teachers are like ideal parents.  We give children the skills to make better, informed choices.  We try to instill a desire to expand their horizons, to live a better life . . . hopefully an authentic one.  And in the end, we prepare them to leave us.  That’s the one thing I can state categorically.  No matter what void we fill or what bonds we form . . . they will all leave us.”  But my students laughed when I spoke of their being my adopted children!

The literary quality of this novel is not exceptional.  There are expository passages that go on and on:  “In the daylight, the view from overlooking Forest Park was spectacular, the crest of the hill, twelve hundred and seventy two acres, nearly two square miles, strewn with nine hundred distinct buildings; fifteen gargantuan neo-classic palaces festooned with electric lights and covering a tenth of the total acreage; towering colonnades reaching fifty-feet in the air, and massive fountains; the wide expanse of the Plaza of St Louis; the Grand Basin, a giant manmade lake dotted with gondolas; and a virtual sea of humanity.  In all, twenty-two countries and forty-four states had erected exhibition halls at a total cost of $45 million, an expenditure of over fifty cents for every man, woman and child living in the United States.”

Though I enjoyed the book because I could certainly see myself in some aspects of Miss Madeira and because the observations about teachers are accurate, I think the book requires revision and editing.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Review of MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER by Oyinkan Braithwaite

4 Stars
The title of this book kept me from reading it, but seeing so many rave reviews finally convinced me to put aside my reservations.

Koreda and her sister Ayoola live with their mother in Lagos, Nigeria.  Koreda, the responsible one, is a nurse; Ayoola, the beautiful, favourite child, has killed three men she dated.  Koreda always comes to her sister’s rescue by cleaning up the crime scene and helping dispose of the body.  Koreda is infatuated with Tade, a handsome doctor in the hospital where they both work, but her love is unrequited.  Then when Tade meets Ayoola, he falls in love with her, and Koreda is left wondering what she should do to prevent Tade from becoming Ayoola’s next victim.

In many ways, the sisters are foil characters.  Koreda describes herself as resembling a “voodoo figurine” while her sister is curvaceous and flawlessly beautiful.  Koreda has no real friends; her only confidant is Muhtar, a comatose patient, and the man whose attention she craves has no romantic interest in her.  People, especially men, are immediately attracted to Ayoola.  Whereas Koreda is the responsible sibling, working diligently at her job and both literally and figuratively cleaning up Ayoola’s messes, Ayoola is lazy and self-absorbed, expecting others to do her bidding.  As her obsession with cleanliness suggests, Koreda always wants to be in total control of her environment; Ayoola is untidy and careless, a risk-taker. 

Koreda is well aware of her sister’s moral failings.  She describes Ayoola as being “completely oblivious to all but her own needs” and “inconsiderate and selfish and reckless” and as living “in a world where things must always go her way.”  Koreda even questions “how much feeling Ayoola is even capable of” since she is totally remorseless.  In fact, when Koreda chastises Ayoola for not using social media to express sorrow about a boyfriend’s death, Ayoola accuses Koreda of “victim shaming”.  Though she sees her differences between her and Ayoola, Koreda does worry that the violence Ayoola has demonstrated was inherited.  There are flashbacks to their life with an abusive father:  “He could do a bad thing and behave like a model citizen right after.  As though the bad thing had never happened.  Is it in the blood?  But his blood is my blood and my blood is hers.”

The novel examines sibling relationships.  Koreda claims that Ayoola’s “welfare is and always has been my responsibility”:  “I am the older sister – I am responsible for Ayoola.  That’s how it has always been.  Ayoola would break a glass, and I would receive the blame for giving her the drink.  Ayoola would fail a class, and I would be blamed for not coaching her.  Ayoola would take an apple and leave the store without paying for it, and I would be blamed for letting her get hungry.”  The question is whether Koreda can continue remaining loyal to her sister.  Can the bond with her sister survive? 

The book also examines the privilege of beauty.  Because Ayoola is such an exotic beauty, she always gets what she wants:  “It’s a law as certain as the law of gravity.”  Her beauty is equated with goodness so she is not held accountable for her actions.  The shallowness of men is also emphasized.  Koreda sees Tade as kind and sensitive, but Ayoola disagrees:  “’He isn’t deep.  All he wants is a pretty face.  That’s all they ever want.”  And rich men use their money to seduce youth and beauty:  “When you have  money, university girls are to men what plankton is to a whale.”

A very positive element is characterization.  All the major characters (Koreda, Ayoola, their mother, Tade) are shown in both a positive and negative light.  All receive the reader’s sympathy at some time, though they also have flaws that make them less than admirable.  Achieving such complexity in a succinct style is an accomplishment.

What is also noteworthy is the humour, usually found in Koreda’s observations.  She meets a man with “teeth so white he had to have kept his dentist on speed dial.”  A woman meets Tade and is awe-struck by his handsomeness so Koreda considers “passing her a tissue to catch the drool that threatens to spill from her mouth.”  Koreda’s father has been dead for ten years and an anniversary party in honour of his life is expected, so the family, though they do not mourn his passing, plan a grand celebration because “we are nothing if not thorough in our deception of others.”

The book is a quick read.  It is fast-paced with short chapters.  Those chapters often consist of one brief scene.  Put together, however, these scenes reveal a great deal.  Koreda, for example, is mystified by her sister’s motives in the killings, but the flashbacks to life with father suggest a possible motivation and even explain Koreda’s protectiveness. 

This is an entertaining book, both funny and suspenseful, but it is not just escapist fiction.  There is some thematic depth, and the ending is downright chilling.