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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Review of THE BOAT PEOPLE by Sharon Bala

4 Stars 
This story is narrated from three perspectives.  Mahindan, a Tamil, arrives in Vancouver aboard a rusted cargo ship (along with 500 other refugees) seeking asylum for himself and his six-year-old son, Sellian.  Priya, a second-generation Sri-Lankan-Canadian, is an articling student who wants to specialize in corporate law but is reluctantly coerced into helping the firm’s immigration lawyer who has Mahindan as one of his clients.  Grace, a third-generation Japanese-Canadian, is a political appointee who is charged with adjudicating refugee cases and will determine Mahindan’s ultimate fate.

The theme of the book is that, except for Indigenous Peoples, all Canadians are the descendants of immigrants who came to the country seeking refuge and hoping for a better life. The epigraph is a Martin Luther King quotation:  “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”  All the major characters are refugees or the children of immigrants.  Grace, for example, tells her daughters, “If your great-grandfather hadn’t gotten on that ship a century ago, none of us would be here” (106).  The problem is that people forget that their ancestors were like Mahindan; Grace’s mother points out that Grace is in danger of repeating racist actions of the past:  “Certain people felt too rooted, too comfortable.  They took it for granted that they deserved to be here more than us.  Entitlement closed their hearts” (275). 

Mahindan is a very nuanced character.  He, like all the refugees on the ship, is considered the enemy until he can prove that he is innocent and so worthy of protection.  The problem is that he did work for the Tamil Tigers whom the Canadian government has designated a terrorist group.  As a mechanic, he worked on vehicles for the Tigers because he had no choice:  “If I had refused, [the Tiger cadre] would have beaten me.  If I had refused again, he would have killed me. . . . My wife was pregnant at the time. . . . With my son.  The cadre would have set fire to our house, allowed my wife to burn inside” (198).  To get himself and his son to safety, he had to do things that went against his morals, but he was desperate. 

Mahindan may not be innocent, but Priya’s situation emphasizes that no one is.  She ends up learning about some hidden family history which shows that members of her own family had made choices like Mahindan’s.  Priya’s uncle says, “Priya, what do you think happens when you terrorize a people, force them to flee, take away their options, then put them in a cage all together?  Will they not try and break down the bars? . . . It is very convenient, no?  These labels.  Terrorist” (230).

Grace is the weakest character because she is used by the author, rather heavy-handedly, to make a political statement.  Grace is appointed by Blair, a cabinet minister, and is ill-equipped for her position.  An immigration lawyer describes people like Grace:  “Half those adjudicators are patronage appointments.  Do you think they’ve studied the Act?  Done their due diligence?  Or do you think they just let Blair drip his poison in their ears?  Illegals.  Snakeheads.  Terrorists.  You scare people stupid and then you pull their strings” (119).  At the beginning, Grace comes across as very unfeeling.  When Mahindan is separated from his son, Grace thinks, “of all the times she had spent working late or away at conferences when the girls were small.  These little absences were only short chapters in long parent-child histories” (90).  Blair, her boss, seems as clueless:  “We have to encourage people to go through the proper channels and not just jump on the first boat that sails into the harbour” (339).  Initially, Grace seems to have difficulty seeing connections between her actions and those of government officials who during World War II designated her family as enemy aliens.  Fortunately, later she questions her superior so there is hope that Mahindan’s admissibility hearing might have a positive outcome.

The book really does show the complex situation in which refugees find themselves.  They flee horrific situations and are often take desperate measures to find a safe haven.  Even if they do make it to supposedly safe shores, they face a long process of reviews and hearings.  Though the book was quickly eliminated from Canada Reads 2018, I do think that the book is one that can open people’s eyes.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Review of RAGGED LAKE by Ron Corbett (Frank Yakabuski Mystery #1)

3 Stars
I was checking out the 2018 Edgar Awards winners and nominees and came across this title.  What really caught my attention is the name of the protagonist, Detective Frank Yakabuski , since Yakabuski is my surname.   It is not a common name, especially with this anglicized spelling, except in the Madawaska Valley northwest of Ottawa. 

Detective Frank Yakabuski is sent to investigate the triple murder of a secretive family living on the Northern Divide where they built a ramshackle cabin near the almost-deserted community of Ragged Lake.  Yakabuski sequesters the locals at the local lodge while he conducts his investigation.  He quickly comes to suspect that a motorcycle gang with which he is familiar has moved into the area and may have been responsible for the murders. 

Readers should be forewarned that that this is a violent story.  The book begins with the gruesome murder of three people, including a child, and by the end, the body count is well into double digits.  Both the innocent and the guilty are killed. 
                                                                                                                  
The pace is uneven.  Early in the investigation, Yakabuski finds the journal of Lucy Whiteduck, the murdered woman.  From the journal, we learn about Lucy’s childhood, her time in the big city of Springfield, and her return to the Northern Divide.  The journal is necessary for important background information which impacts the present but its inclusion slows down the pace.  Then there is a protracted face-off scene where things happen at a frenetic speed. 

Apparently, this is the first in a series of books featuring Det. Yakabuski.  Considerable background information, therefore, is given about the man.  He is an army veteran who served with distinction in several of the world’s trouble spots.  As a police officer, he has earned the respect of colleagues.  He is definitely a leader who can think logically even in very tense situations.  It also becomes obvious that he is willing to bend the rules if he thinks doing so will cause the least harm. 

Some of the secondary characters emerge as interesting people since some effort was made to portray them in some depth.  The villains, however, are stereotypes; they tend to be totally evil with no redeeming qualities.  Yakabuski thinks of the inhabitants of Ragged Lake as “living cheek-to-jowl with true evil” and one character even says, “’There is someone in Ragged Lake who is nothing but evil.’”   And then a villain tells Yakabuski there awaits a new sort of evil, “some new sort of whacked-out freak.  Something truly fuckin’evil” which Yakabuski has “never seen before.”  Is this the prelude to another blood-soaked investigation?

It is the geography of this book which is frustrating.  In an author’s note at the beginning, Corbett mentions that since this is a work of fiction, all places are imagined and “there are no literal depictions of any city or town on the Divide.”  Springfield, “a northern city of nearly a million people” is supposedly the creation of the author’s imagination, yet he refers to Britannia Heights, Sandy Hill (which has the main campus of the University of Springfield), and Buckham’s Bay, all neighbourhoods of Ottawa.  Lucy even applies for a job in “a kids’ store in the Springfield shopping mall called Tiggy Winkles.”  I’ve visited Mrs. Tiggy Winkles in the Rideau Centre in Ottawa!  I attended the University of Ottawa in the Sandy Hill neighbourhood of Ottawa; on the eastern edge of that neighbourhood likes Strathcona Park.  Why does Corbett make it Strathconna?  Why bother disguising Ottawa as Springfield?  Why mention real village names like Cobden and then make up fake ones like Grimsly?  And why change John Rudolphus Booth, lumber tycoon and railroad baron of the Ottawa Valley, to James Rundle Bath? 

The Northern Divide is indeed “about four hundred miles” from Ottawa.  (I know this because for five years I lived in northern Ontario, not far from the Quebec border; about 25 kms away was a watershed sign which indicates that all waters north of this point flow into the Arctic and all waters south of this point flow into the Atlantic.)  Yet Corbett chose to name his Northern Divide town after an actual lake in the southern part of Algonquin Park? 

Det. Yakabuski is from High River, “the oldest Polish settlement in Canada . . . in the Upper Springfield Valley.”  Why not have him come from Wilno, located in the Upper Ottawa Valley, which is the actual first and oldest Polish settlement in Canada?  The surname Yakabuski is very common in the village of Barry’s Bay (10 kms from Wilno), the village where I was born.  I’d be willing to bet that is where the author saw the name on his travels between his hometown of Ottawa and Algonquin Park.  In Barry’s Bay, he might even have met a Frank Yakabuski!

Perhaps I have an unusual perspective on this book because of my name and where I’ve lived, but I found Corbett’s imagination to be strangely unimaginative.  He is almost insulting to the reader; it is as if Corbett expects his readers to be stupid.  Two characters in the novel have a conversation about an Englishman who claimed to be an Apache chief.  The reader is not to have heard of Archibald Belaney who called himself Grey Owl?

I was hoping to really like this book, but I’m afraid I found it only mediocre.  I am not surprised that it did not win an Edgar Award.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Review of MARY CYR by David Adams Richards

4 Stars
David Adams Richards has long been one of my favourite Canadian authors.  His Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul I have designated as one of the books all Canadians should read (https://schatjesshelves.blogspot.ca/2015/07/from-schatjes-reviews-archive-incidents.html).  His latest novel, Mary Cyr, focuses on a minor character from Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul; also appearing is John Delano who is the protagonist of Principles to Live By (https://schatjesshelves.blogspot.ca/2016/06/review-of-principles-to-live-by-by.html).  Neither of the previous books has to be read in order to understand Mary Cyr.

Mary Cyr, the 45-year-old heiress of a multi-million-dollar fortune is charged with the murder of a young boy while she is in Mexico.  Though she is innocent, she becomes a scapegoat because the Cyr family, through its Tarsco Mining Company, invested in a coal mine where 13 men recently died after it collapsed.  Amigo, the Mexican company which owns the mine, was given $14 million by the Cyrs for safety upgrades but Amigo executives misappropriated all the funds.  It is, however, easier to blame the Cyr family, rich foreigners, than investigate the corruption of the local officials.  Mary is seen as a representative of the family, “a woman who on paper was partial owner of this mine” (8) and so the locals transfer all their anger onto her. 

There is little credible evidence against Mary and “Tallagonga [the prosecutor] had no intention of prosecuting until she found out who Mary Cyr was.  Then they filed the charge, called her guilty and looked for a lifelong prison sentence because she was on the board of Tarsco Mining” (82).  And Mary is a perfect scapegoat because her behaviour in the past leaves her compromised.  For example, she was implicated in the deaths of two people.  And then there are the rumours about her seducing engaged men and her son being fathered by Mary’s beloved grandfather.

The focus of the book is revealing the truth behind the exaggerated rumours and sensationalized gossip.  Through flashbacks and entries in Mary’s diary, the image of a deeply wounded woman emerges.  From a young age, she was largely misunderstood; she was also bullied and abused and betrayed.  “She was always alone – or nearly always alone” (63).  This does not mean she is innocent; she often seeks revenge for injustices committed against her or those she cared about.  For instance, she does indeed seduce an engaged man but she does so to take revenge on Marianne, the man’s fiancĂ©e, “the girl from long ago who had teased Denise Albert [Mary’s childhood friend] to distraction because Denise had wanted to dance one dance with Marianne’s beau” (361).  It is emphasized, however, that though Mary “was a good hater, . . . in her compassion she could hate no one at all.  No one at all!” (119) and “In fact at the end, she could not hate a soul” (269).  She takes revenge on three girls who tormented her, her cousin, and a friend, but afterwards, “she sat in a corner, tears in her eyes.  She knew it was a terrible thing to do – in fact she wrote in her diary it was the worst victory she had ever had” (280). 

The book examines the process of scapegoating.  In the end, it is suggested that Mary “had lived to show the falseness and tragedy of scapegoats.”  Eventually, those guilty of using her as a scapegoat would “as they had with so many through the ages, from Joan of Arc to Anne Frank, and with so many in camps and prisons and dark places of the soul, and with so many of our prophets to whom they would wail and beg forgiveness and forget they had ever played a part in their fate” (369).  Mary herself says, “’I saw more and much deeper than other people, so I was often accused of their crimes’” (352).  Sometimes, like in the Joan of Arc parallel at the end, the imagery is a little heavy-handed.  It is also mentioned that Mary stuffs newspapers in her clothes so “her whole life of scandal [is] stapled to her chest” (417) but “Underneath all of it her naked body was shiny white” (418).  

As in his other books, the author lashes out at those he disdains.  Mary rails against people “using today’s wiles to draw and quarter those poor sons of bitches who lived in another time and bourn us” (192).  There are comments about Canada:  “As always in Canada, one is not caught between two worlds but between three or four – not between two competing interests but a multitude” (66).  The author even dares to compare French language concerns in Quebec to pre-occupation with Aryan purity in Germany:  “’they are after French purity like others cherished certain Germanic qualities.  Oh, they won’t say that, but their politicians will demonstrate it.  Someday I bet they will have laws in Quebec against having English on signs – and call it progress’” (68).  David Adams Richards, who writes about the Miramichi, even indicates how he feels as a writer:  “Years ago the Miramichi writer who she liked but who she could never read told her that they both were the kind of people who did not belong” (379). 

There are some coincidences that are troubling.  A guest at the Mexican resort where Mary is staying turns out to have a connection to Mary from her childhood.  Perhaps Mary had kept track of this person, as she was wont to do of others, or perhaps the coincidence of meeting her years later “’is the will of God’” (372)?  And then there’s the incident with “that bottle” (363); how often does a bottle with a message find its target across an ocean?!

David Adams Richards has a deep understanding of the human condition and human behaviour.  This is evident in this novel as in his others.  Mary Cyr is not perfect but it is worth reading; in some ways it is like a detective story in which the goal is to reveal the real Mary Cyr.  And it warns us against judging others on the basis of superficialities or stereotypes or fake news and against singling out people for unmerited blame. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Review of WHISTLE IN THE DARK by Emma Healey (New Release)

4 Stars 
I loved Healey’s first novel, Elizabeth is Missing (https://schatjesshelves.blogspot.ca/search?q=Elizabeth+is+Missing), so I jumped at the chance to read her second one.  I was not disappointed.

Lana Maddox, fifteen, goes missing for four days.  When found, largely unharmed, she claims not to remember what happened.  Jen, Lana’s mother, is desperate to find out where her daughter had been and takes increasingly desperate measures to get to the truth. 

The focus of the book is a difficult mother-daughter relationship.  Lana and Jen had not communicated well before Lana’s disappearance.  Worried about what may have happened to Lana, Jen is desperate to make a connection with her daughter, especially since Lana suffers from depression and has engaged in self-harming activities and even made a suicide attempt in the past.  Jen questions Lana constantly but as her daughter continues to shut her out, Jen takes to stalking her, trolling her social media accounts, listening to private conversations, and questioning her friends.  None of these actions, of course, are appreciated by Lana so their relationship becomes even more emotionally fraught.

Characterization is a definite strength.  Both Lana and Jen are realistic, flawed characters.  Lana is a typical teenager who both loves and hates her mother.  At times she shows outright contempt for Jen:  “’You’re always walking into people.  Get some spatial awareness.’” and “’You look ridiculous.’” and “’Can you not breathe like that, though?  It’s superdistracting.’”  Meg, Lana’s older sister, claims Lana manipulates her mother and objects to “’the way she affects your mood, the way she has you tiptoeing around.’”  At other times, Lana shows consideration for her mother; when Jen worries about looking old, Lana says, “’You never look like you can’t apply your make-up properly . . .  And you don’t have lines around your mouth.’”

Jen loves her daughter and wants to understand and help her daughter.  She just doesn’t know how to get Lana to open up. It is so irritating to her that Lana talks to the world through her social media accounts but won’t talk to her mother.   Jen’s clumsy efforts only result in further alienating Lana.  Jen worries so much that her job performance is affected and she is unable to fully enjoy Meg’s wonderful news.  The relentless stress of not knowing what happened to Lana causes Jen to become paranoid.  She sees danger everywhere and even fears her daughter is trying to physically injure her.

There is a suspenseful atmosphere throughout.  Since events are seen through Jen’s perspective, it becomes difficult to determine what is real and what is the result of Jen’s over-active imagination or paranoia, “the hole of suspicion and desperate anxiety.”  Is there a cat in the house?  Is Lana really trying to hurt her mother?  Statements like “Lack of sleep had made her see things before” and “People had a habit of accusing Jen of imagining things” make the reader doubt what Jen sees.  Jen’s mother comments, “’you do have a tendency to worry unduly, don’t you?’”  And Jen often daydreams and finds herself “startled out of her reverie.”  When things happen, she is sometimes not even certain they happened:  “she had become so used to second-guessing herself that she wondered if she hadn’t dreamed the incident.” 

This book is not full of action and adventure; it is a character study and an examination of a complex mother-daughter relationship written in lucid prose.  It is definitely recommended to readers who appreciated Healey’s first novel or Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton. 

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

Review of THE LONELY WITNESS by William Boyle (New Release)

2.5 Stars
Amy Falconetti, a thirty-something New Yorker, has abandoned her life as a bartender and partier.  She volunteers for a church, bringing communion to elderly shut-ins.    One day she follows a man who has discomfited one of her elderly neighbours and witnesses his murder.  Instead of calling the police, she picks up the murder weapon and leaves; in the following days, she starts to worry that the killer is following her.  Her routine life suddenly becomes chaotic, complicated even further when two people from her past make unexpected returns. 

This book just didn’t do anything for me.  Amy’s behaviour from the beginning is just unbelievable.  After her former lover abandoned her, she explains, “’I started going to church, and I just felt like I could hide out and maybe help people.’”  She does not seem to be religious or spiritual and as a gay person would probably have some difficulties with the teachings of the Catholic faith, but she chooses to deliver communion?  She witnesses a murder yet does nothing to help the victim?  Instead she takes the murder weapon and hides it in her home?  Especially after the childhood incident involving Bob Tully, an incident which she describes as having “shaped her life,” she chooses to behave as she does?  When Amy says, “’I don’t know why I do what I do,’” the reader can only echo with “I don’t know why you do what you do!”  And when she thinks, “this was definitely the wrong road to go down.  Beyond the pale.  Epic as fuck, in terms of how stupid she’s being,” the reader can only agree! 

It seems that Amy is trying to find her true identity:  “’I’ve been searching for an identity my whole life, trying all these different lives.’”   For years she lived an entirely different life drinking and partying:  “She thinks about what she would’ve done when she was twenty-five or twenty-eight.  She would’ve gone out.  She would’ve headed straight to the bar.  Shots.  Beer.  Music.  She wouldn’t have felt intimidated or regretful.  High school had taught her that . . . no way was it wrong to chase a feeling, to be unhinged, to act out of fear and fascination.  How did she lose that knowledge?  Whatever she’d gained had led to so much lost.”  Now she feels she has become “so boring.”  She even toys with reclaiming her old life by dressing in her old clothes and revisiting old haunts and friends.  She decides she does not want to grow old, living in “fear of a toxic future.  Lives get smaller, ruled by paranoia and isolation, and there’s nothing left to do but stay in retreat, stay hidden.  Collect things, shield yourself, keep out of the sun.” 

When Amy makes some questionable choices, she justifies them to herself as a desire to escape her boring existence:  You do things because you have to be near the beating heart of terror.”  Perhaps my inability to identify with Amy stems from the fact that I don’t want to live “near the beating heart of terror.”  I don’t need to stalk potentially violent people or contemplate carrying out a criminal act in order “to fill the void.”  Amy is in her mid-thirties and says she is “starting to feel old” but she behaves like someone half her age.  As a teenager, she found “Catholic school was boring.  The nuns were boring.  Her grandparents were boring.  Smoking was boring.”  Twenty years later, she has the same complaint that she has become “so boring”?!  Not living in an inner city, perhaps my life is too safe so I have difficulty understanding the lives of people who witness murders on a regular basis; three major characters witness four murders.

In the end, Amy comments, “Maybe she’ll feel new for a while, this most recent wreck a movie she never wants to watch again.”  Her comments reflected my feelings as I finished the novel:  I wanted to move on to something new because I felt like I had watched a bad movie (with an especially bad climactic scene with ever so not subtle symbolism) which I do not want to watch again.

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

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Review of THE ENCHANTED by Rene Denfeld

3 Stars
Earlier this year, I read The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld (https://schatjesshelves.blogspot.ca/2018/01/review-of-child-finder-by-rene-denfeld.html) and I found it only average in quality, so it was with some misgivings that I sat down to read The Enchanted, Denfeld’s debut novel, because it was chosen by my book club.  After reading The Enchanted, my opinion of The Child Finder is even less positive because it repeats so much of what is found in the author’s first fiction. 

The Enchanted is set in an old prison.  One major character is identified only as the lady; she is a death penalty investigator hired by attorneys to work on trying to commute the sentence of an inmate named York from death to life in prison.  She delves into York’s past and finds that her own and his had many similarities.  The reader also learns about others who work or live in the prison:  a priest who offers spiritual counsel to inmates but needs forgiveness himself; the warden facing a crisis at home; a corrupt guard; a new female guard; a mute man who uses his imagination to transcend the bleakness of life on death row, etc. 

The book emphasizes the human need to be heard, to be seen, and to be understood.  The lady’s skill is in listening; York, for example, during the lady’s first meeting with him, thinks, “She hears me . . . she hears me” (11).  She listens and learns the pasts of the inmates so she comes to understand why they committed the horrific crimes of which they have been convicted.  The inmates are not innocent; they are perpetrators but they often are/were victims too.  The lady may be so good at her job because she herself wants to be seen and understood.

There are actual inmates but there are also characters who have built walls around themselves because of fear or guilt.  The lady, for example, has a past that weighs heavily on her:  “The few attempts she made at telling men ended in disaster.  She got wounded watching the disgust in their eyes, the recoil from her truth.  She told herself this was the way it would be, that she was destined to live alone” (174).  When she finally admits her shame, “she knows a door in her heart has opened” (175).  The priest also has a story to tell; when he finally brings himself to speak it honestly, the lady “sees a bloom in his pallid skin, as if he is coming back to life.  The poison is leaving him” (170). 

The novel describes prison culture very realistically.  Drug usage, rape, and corruption abound.  The story of a new inmate, a sixteen-year-old white-haired boy with “a mouth like Cupid” (73), is especially devastating.  It is not just the physical violence but the psychological damage that resonates.  Striker, one of the death-row inmates, never touches the mute inmate but he still manages to inflict pain in a brutal way. 

This mute prisoner is a great lover of books and also copes by creating a magic, enchanted world in which golden horses live underground and miniature men with miniature hammers hide in the walls:  “a magic world away from the pain and terror of his life. . . . a safe place he could take himself, a place to shelter the tender nugget of life within” (48).  Though I appreciate the message, I am not a fan of magic realism so the fantastical images had no appeal for me. 

This brings me back to The Child Finder where Naomi, the protagonist, states that the abducted children “who did the best in the long run made a safe place inside their very own minds.  Sometimes they even pretended they were someone else.  Naomi didn’t believe in resilience.  She believed in imagination.”  This echoes an idea found in The Enchanted:  the mute prisoner copes using his imagination and the lady mentions “her own childhood taught her how to pretend . . . just to survive, all the while protecting her pure, untouched core” (53).  In The Child Finder, Denfeld manages to show compassion for Mr. B., a child abductor.  As details of his past are revealed, the reader cannot but feel some sympathy and understanding for a damaged person.  The same is true in The Enchanted because the reader cannot but feel some sympathy for York and the mute inmate when the extent of their victimization is revealed.  The Enchanted also includes a theme found in The Child Finder:  there is hope because “No matter how far you have run, no matter how long you have been lost, it is never too late to be found.”  Furthermore, in both novels, the investigator has much in common with her clients. 

If I had read The Enchanted without having read The Child Finder, I might have been more impressed.  Perhaps I should say that The Enchanted is more original and The Child Finder is derivative?

Monday, April 23, 2018

2018 Women's Prize for Fiction Shortlist


The shortlist for the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced today.  There are 6 finalists:

The Idiot by Elif Batuman
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar
Sight by Jessie Greengrass
When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy


The winner will be announced on June 6.