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Saturday, December 16, 2017

Review of EXTENSIONS by Myrna Dey



Advent Book Calendar – Day 16
Since I started by blog, I’ve done an annual Advent Book Calendar highlighting books I have enjoyed and authors I really like.  This year I thought I’d do an Advent Book Calendar with a twist; for each day leading up to Christmas, I’m going to post a review of a book to which I’ve given only one star (Throw a book at this one) or two stars (Don’t put this book in your book bag).  Though I would not recommend these books, others have disagreed with me.  Each book, on Goodreads, has received a 3 or 4 Star average rating.

Review of Extensions by Myrna Dey
1 Star
This book caught my attention because it was The Reader's Choice for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Arabella Dryvynsydes, an RCMP officer, feels adrift after the death of her mother and a romantic breakup. By chance she finds a photograph of her grandmother and her twin sister at a garage sale in rural Saskatchewan. Arabella sets out to discover how the photo, taken 100 years earlier on Vancouver Island, found its way there. She also acquires a few letters written by her great-grandmother to her siblings in Wales, letters in which she describes the poverty and loneliness of life in a Vancouver Island mining town. Gradually Arabella uncovers family secrets as she also solves crime cases.

A problem with the book is the many chance occurrences and coincidences. The plot seems less driven by character than by a plot graph developed by the author. All of Arabella's encounters and experiences connect somehow to her search for information about her maternal ancestors. For example, she takes a history course, although she had never previously shown much interest in academics, and, conveniently, she is able to use her great-grandmother's letters for a term paper and eventually to solve a historical mystery. One of the letters, to which she gains access only towards the end of the book, helps her to solve a murder she is investigating.

Many of the characters are sketched in broad strokes and are unconvincing. People keep secrets and fabricate lies with insufficient motivation to justify their actions. A couple of great-aunts are totally vindictive and malicious and seem to have no redeeming qualities, while another is too good to be true. Several relatives are so lacking in ordinary human curiosity that they don't read family documents bequeathed to them; that total lack of interest means secrets remain buried even longer, only to be uncovered by Arabella of course.

The theme is rather obvious: "we are never as far removed from one another as we like to think" (247). In case the reader fails to understand, an explanation is given: "And what was I but an extension, through Dad, of [my paternal grandmother]. Just as this elderly cousin coasted on what her mother had gone through and passed on, so were our comfortable lives determined by what [my grandmother] had borne, distilled, and set in motion . . ." (245).

I did enjoy reading about the history of mining on Vancouver Island; about this history I knew virtually nothing, and the book has inspired me to do some further research.

The mechanical construction of the plot and the flawed characterization leave no doubt that this is a debut novel. It may have won the Reader's Choice Award, but I suspect that win was more the result of an organized voting campaign than the literary merits of the book itself.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Review of THE NINTH HOUR by Alice McDermott

3.5 Stars
Set in early 20th-century Brooklyn, this novel focuses on the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor and a mother and her daughter whom the nuns have helped.  Annie, a young widow, is given work in the convent’s laundry and her daughter Sally is virtually raised there.  As a young woman, Sally considers joining the sisterhood but the reader knows she does not truly have a vocation because one of Sally’s children intermittently narrates the story. 

It is the characterization of the nuns which stands out for me.  They are seen as they work amongst the poor and wretched of the city; they are both nurses and social workers in the service of the indigent and sick.  It is their task “to enter the homes of strangers, mostly the sick and the elderly, to breeze into their apartments and to sail comfortably through their rooms, to open their linen closets or china cabinets or bureau drawers – to peer into their toilets or the soiled handkerchiefs clutched in their hands.”  They enter places “unprepared for visitors, arrested, as things so often were by crisis and tragedy, in the midst of what should have been a private hour.”  As they visit invalids and shut-ins, details of what they see are not spared; bodily fluids are abundant.  It is clear that these nuns are a dying breed:  “The call to sanctity and self-sacrifice, the delusion and superstition it required, fading from the world even then.”

Each of the nuns emerges as a strong individual with a distinct personality.  Though they perform numerous good deeds and are compassionate women, they are flawed human beings.  Sister St. Saviour turns a cold shoulder to God; “It was the way a bitter old wife might turn her back on a faithless husband.”  And she openly states, “’It would be a different Church if I were running it.’”  Sister Lucy “lived with a small, tight knot of fury at the center of her chest.”  And St. Jeanne claims, “’I lost heaven a long time ago’” because of a deed she performed out of love.  It is refreshing to see nuns be willing to flout the rules when they feel it is best.  One sister has little respect for the rules of church and society because she believes many of them “complicated the lives of women:  Catholic women in particular and poor women in general.”  The nuns are even willing to sin and face the consequences later.   One who bends the rules makes a bargain with God:  “Hold it against the good I’ve done, she prayed.  We’ll sort it out when I see You.” 

The book examines, in detail, the human condition.  Everyone faces hunger of some sort, whether it be physical hunger or “a hunger to be comforted.”  People want to be loved though it is repeated that for the world’s ills, “Love’s a tonic, . . . not a cure.”  People strive to live a good life in their chosen role; Sister Illuminata, for example, labours in the laundry day after day because she believes herself to have been called “to become, in a ghastly world, the pure, clean antidote to filth.”  Everyone faces death:  “A terrible stillness would overtake them all, come what may.  A terrible silence would stop their breaths, one way or another.” 

This book is not full of action and adventure, but those who appreciate realistic characterization and an examination of real life will find much to admire. 

Review of THE ACCIDENT by Linwood Barclay

Advent Book Calendar – Day 15
Since I started by blog, I’ve done an annual Advent Book Calendar highlighting books I have enjoyed and authors I really like.  This year I thought I’d do an Advent Book Calendar with a twist; for each day leading up to Christmas, I’m going to post a review of a book to which I’ve given only one star (Throw a book at this one) or two stars (Don’t put this book in your book bag).  Though I would not recommend these books, others have disagreed with me.  Each book, on Goodreads, has received a 3 or 4 Star average rating.

Review of The Accident by Linwood Barclay
2 Stars
Glen Barber's wife Sheila is killed in an accident in which there are two other fatalities. Indications are that she caused the accident by driving while impaired. Glen has difficulty believing that Sheila was responsible since she was not an irresponsible drinker. He decides, therefore, to investigate his wife's death.

Besides grieving for his wife, Glen has several other problems. He has to protect his 8-year-old daughter from bullies; he is being sued by the family of the two victims in his wife's accident; his mother-in-law is trying to take his daughter to live with her; his construction business is suffering because of the poor economy and a fire at one of his building sites; several of his employees have personal problems.

The book is certainly suspenseful. Murders pile up as the plot twists and turns. Suspense is also created by the author's switching from one plot line to another at crucial points.

The major problem with the book is that there is an excess of villains. Everyone connected to Glen seems involved in murder or some type of criminal activity. Who knew that so much evil existed in suburban Connecticut!

Another weakness is that the motivation of characters is sometimes insufficient to justify their actions. Not everyone faced with financial woes will naively become involved with organized crime. In particular, the ultimate explanation given for Sheila's death is unsatisfactory.

This is the first book I've read by Linwood Barclay; based on my impressions, I won't rush to read his other books, although I'll probably give him another try when I've exhausted my "Must Read" list.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Review of UNDER THE JEWELLED SKY by Alison McQueen

Advent Book Calendar – Day 14
Since I started by blog, I’ve done an annual Advent Book Calendar highlighting books I have enjoyed and authors I really like.  This year I thought I’d do an Advent Book Calendar with a twist; for each day leading up to Christmas, I’m going to post a review of a book to which I’ve given only one star (Throw a book at this one) or two stars (Don’t put this book in your book bag).  Though I would not recommend these books, others have disagreed with me.  Each book, on Goodreads, has received a 3 or 4 Star average rating.

Review of Under the Jewelled Sky by Alison McQueen
2 Stars
I will preface my review by stating that historical romance is not my preferred genre. When I requested this title, I found it classified under literary fiction.

Sophie Grainger arrives in India in 1957 with her diplomat husband. This is not her first time in the subcontinent since she lived there ten years earlier when her father was a maharaja’s physician. During her first stay in India, she had an unconventional relationship with Jag, the son of an Indian servant, and the repercussions of that relationship follow her during her second sojourn: “memories have a habit of storing themselves up, like shoving things into the back of a closet. They’ll live there for so long as you care to leave them, and then, many years from now, you might find yourself cleaning out that closet one day and out they will tumble, all your memories of yesteryear.”

Characters are problematic in this novel. Many tend to be either too good or too evil to be believable. Veronica Schofield, Sophie’s mother, is part of the latter group. She is shallow, hypocritical, and abusive; one is hard pressed to find a positive quality. Jag, on the other hand, is just the opposite. He may be the romantic hero but surely there must be something this man cannot do? How many times does he cross a large swath of India? Even minor characters are unbelievable. Jag’s aunt, for instance, is just so loving and accepting of everyone. These characters are just not realistic.

The number of coincidences is also an issue. In a country with “four hundred million people,” Jag’s uncle locates Joy? In the midst of the Partition which saw the displacement of millions, Jag is chosen to work in the same clinic as Dr. Schofield? The author tends to emphasize the star-crossed lovers element a bit too much. Sophie is the one to initiate a kiss and then she and Jag totally discard all the values of their upbringing? Jag’s behaviour while a guard at the residential enclave does not ring true. Why doesn’t he identify himself sooner when he surmises the state of Sophie and Lucien’s marriage?

The historical element, on the other hand, is not emphasized sufficiently. The upheaval of the Partition is not conveyed very strongly. There is an attempt to show some of this during Jag’s stay at the refugee camp, but general descriptions such as “this unimaginable scene of human tragedy” do little to give a real understanding of the suffering of the displaced.

This novel would probably appeal to those readers who enjoy historical romances. It has the exotic location and the everlasting love that knows no bounds of time and space.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Review of ICE FIRE by David Lyons

Advent Book Calendar – Day 13
Since I started by blog, I’ve done an annual Advent Book Calendar highlighting books I have enjoyed and authors I really like.  This year I thought I’d do an Advent Book Calendar with a twist; for each day leading up to Christmas, I’m going to post a review of a book to which I’ve given only one star (Throw a book at this one) or two stars (Don’t put this book in your book bag).  Though I would not recommend these books, others have disagreed with me.  Each book, on Goodreads, has received a 3 or 4 Star average rating.

Review of Ice Fire by David Lyons
1 Star

Reading and finishing this book was very frustrating. There were so many problems with it that I just couldn't get into it. The plot is very simple: A U.S. District Judge, Jock Boucher, becomes involved with Bob Palmetto, a scientist who claims that an energy company tried to steal his intellectual property, a way of mining methane hydrate. The two set out to prove Palmetto's claim against the company.

First of all, the book is poorly written. Phrases are repeated: "It looked to be about the size of a volleyball. . . . The clump was bigger than a volleyball" (131). When describing a woman's eyes, the author writes, "They were haunting, not unlike those of a wolf . . ." (199) and then, just a few pages later, two men are "holed up in Perry's office like wolves in a cave . . . " (207). Using the same animal imagery for two dissimilar situations suggests a lack of imagination. Characters often repeat the same thing for no reason. For example, Palmetto refuses to enter Judge Boucher's home and, for some reason, gives his refusal twice: "'No, sir, I'd rather not'" (12) and "'I don't want to go inside your house'" (13). Later, when describing his research concerning methane hydrate, he says, "'. . . I invented a way to exploit it safely'" (13) and then, after three short sentences, repeats, "'I invented a way to get the gas up to the surface safely'" (13). Like needless redundancies, cliches like "scratched his eyes out" (232, 233) and "needle in a haystack" (215) abound. When describing the consequences of improperly extracting the new energy source, vague phrases such as "cataclysmic consequences" (113) and "a cataclysm beyond our worst nightmare" (252) and "unbelievable damage" (261) keep being used.

The tone is often pedantic. The novel is set in New Orleans and environs, and the author often gives excessively detailed descriptions of architecture and antiques (180, 235). He's an expert on great bartenders (181), great restaurants (199), and owners of fine antiques (254).

The characters are unrealistic or stereotypical. Judge Boucher is supposed to be an admirable character: besides being a judge, he's an expert on New Orleans, antiques, and architecture, and a reader of "rare manuscripts" (244). He is also very physically fit, handily defeating anyone who confronts him. Ironically, he doesn't possess the most important abilities he should have: he says stupid things (21), is forgetful (259) and isn't able to decipher an obvious clue (229). Palmetto has an usual set of skills; he's a scientist who can pick locks expertly (264) and believes in spirits (270). Virtually all the police, the FBI, and the justices are corrupt. For instance, the FBI gives a report investigating a judge to that very judge (15)! One character claims, "'You guys in that Federal Building are one big fucking cabal'" (44) yet she trusts the information she acquires after calling the district court (43). If law enforcement members aren't corrupt, they're stupid; the police, for example, don't know enough to secure the perimeter of a building when providing security (245).

The greatest weakness in the novel is that characters do not behave logically and events are not realistic. An FBI agent was not involved in a twenty-year-old case but knows a great deal about it (29)? A man dies around 4 a.m. but, by the beginning of that work day, colleagues already know the exact cause of death (37)? A woman has information to prove corruption but declines to give it to the judge: "'You'll know when the time is right'" (47). Two hours later she has placed the information in his truck (48), although he conveniently forgets about it until the very end (255 - 256). And she's not the only person to say something so obviously contrived; another woman, later in the novel, says, "'There's something important I want to tell you, . . . Not now, but in my own time'" (207). Whether a person is right- or left-handed is determined by how he/she shakes hands (72, 209)? A murder victim is found in the judge's driveway, but how her body was discovered is never explained and neither is the placement of the body. A government agency has been letting someone visit for years, and "he'd never even been asked his name" ( 100)? A research vessel, a "'priceless scientific tool'" (113) complete with a mini-sub, is sent on a mission only if there is "'the strongest scientific justification'" (114) but Palmetto convinces a communications officer (?) to authorize an expedition using the argument that the Americans must "'Beat the Russians'" (114)! Then we learn that the vessel regularly takes passengers: "the passenger list frequently included guests from all walks of life" (125). A character infiltrates company headquarters (needlessly) and actually steals a file he knows to be empty (264, 267)? The judge and Palmetto concoct a bizarre scheme which includes getting John Perry, the owner of the energy company, to give the judge an office in his building (158). Only later does Perry realize, "'I don't want some damn judge hanging around here . . . '" (191)?! And don't get me started on the closing scene (274)! Let's not forget the almost magical tools which are sent to the judge. He receives, among other things, "a box with bits and pieces of plastic" (171), but they are never mentioned again until much later (241). It can't possibly be a surprise that these are used almost immediately afterwards (246)! He is also given an enhanced cell phone (171-172); at times, it works even when it shouldn't (184), but of course it doesn't work at crucial times (224). And these are just some of the examples of illogical, unrealistic incidents!

Then there are the errors, inconsistencies, and contradictions. A character with a physical disability is teased about being in training for the Special Olympics (102)? The judge meets a character on Thursday; Friday evening he says that he'd met her "'several evenings ago'" (68). A character tells the judge, "'I've put in a good word for you, and I have influence there'" (186) but shortly after suggests, "'I think my days at Rexcon are numbered'" (201).

This book is described as a thriller, but there is very little suspense and it is entirely predictable. A character's dying words (229) aren't understood until days later (262) even though there is absolutely nothing cryptic about those words, especially since they have been so carefully explained earlier, in a very contrived scene (202).

This book will appeal to people who like to read without thinking about what they're reading. Personally, I prefer my reading to meet basic requirements of logic and style. (I understand that I read an uncorrected proof, having received a free advance uncorrected proof of this book through Goodreads First Reads, but I can't imagine that all of these issues I've raised will be addressed.)

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Review of THE WILLOW TREE by Hubert Selby Jr.

Advent Book Calendar – Day 12
Since I started by blog, I’ve done an annual Advent Book Calendar highlighting books I have enjoyed and authors I really like.  This year I thought I’d do an Advent Book Calendar with a twist; for each day leading up to Christmas, I’m going to post a review of a book to which I’ve given only one star (Throw a book at this one) or two stars (Don’t put this book in your book bag).  Though I would not recommend these books, others have disagreed with me.  Each book, on Goodreads, has received a 3 or 4 Star average rating.

Review of The Willow Tree by Hubert Selby Jr.
2 Stars
In the South Bronx, Bobby, a thirteen-year-old Black, and Maria, his Hispanic girlfriend, are attacked and savagely beaten. Bobby is taken in by Moishe (a.k.a. Werner Schultz), a concentration camp survivor, and nursed back to health. Bobby plots his revenge while Moishe tries to teach him that hate will destroy him as well as his victims.

The use of run-on sentences with little punctuation may require some adjustment at the beginning. It does not impede the reader’s understanding, but reading it reminded me of reading a student’s initial attempts with the interior monologue style before he/she is completely comfortable with it.

Bobby has a limited vocabulary, but that is not surprising in a young teen; the problem is the author’s limited vocabulary indicated in the exposition. For example, emotions are always “flowing”: “a sense of gratitude flowing through him”; “feeling the joy flowing through him”; “affection flowing between them”; “happiness flowing through mind and body”; “a sense of being lost flowing from him”; “hatred flowing through and from him”; “a sense of strength and softness flowing through him and around him”; “love and gratitude flowing through him”; “a sense of freedom from everything flowing through him”; “a warmth flowing through him”; “the comfort and peace gently flowing through him”; “love, compassion and empathy flowing from him.” And then there are the tears that are flowing so often!

Tiresome repetition is found in other descriptions as well. For instance, there are 357 references to eyes, and at least 120 of those mention eyes either opening or closing or blinking. One is to believe that the relationship between Bobby and Moishe gradually becomes closer, but their relationship is often reduced to their laughing together and eating ice cream together. Several dozen times it is mentioned that Moishe and Bobby start laughing uncontrollably. And how many times must the reader be told that the two enjoy chocolate sauce with their ice cream?

There is a definite lack of realism. Moishe lives in a subterranean apartment, which made me think of the late 1980’s television show Beauty and the Beast, except that Moishe’s sanctuary has all the amenities. Why a concentration camp survivor would choose to live in such an environment is never explained. And Moishe has no friends? Not once in the months Bobby spends with him does Moishe interact with anyone other than Bobby. He seems to have limitless funds even though his only job is repairing appliances. Why does an old man have a rowing machine that he himself never uses?

The theme of the book, that hatred destroys those who hate, is not one which people will find objectionable. What I did find objectionable is the development of this theme. The pace of the book is painfully slow. Actions are repeated over and over again: each day is spent with Bobby planning his revenge and working out to get fit; Moishe preparing food and the two talking, Moishe revealing something about his concentration camp experiences; Bobby taking a tour of his old neighbourhood while Moishe worries until he returns; the two sharing ice cream with chocolate sauce before going to bed. All this leads to a predictable ending.

This was a disappointing read. Except for the opening, it lacks a plot; because of the limited diction, it makes for a tiresome read; it lacks realism when it could offer gritty details about life in the South Bronx; several times it lapses into melodrama. Give me West Side Story which addresses some of the same issues more effectively.

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

Monday, December 11, 2017

Review of THE HUSBAND'S SECRET by Liane Moriarty

Advent Book Calendar – Day 11
Since I started by blog, I’ve done an annual Advent Book Calendar highlighting books I have enjoyed and authors I really like.  This year I thought I’d do an Advent Book Calendar with a twist; for each day leading up to Christmas, I’m going to post a review of a book to which I’ve given only one star (Throw a book at this one) or two stars (Don’t put this book in your book bag).  Though I would not recommend these books, others have disagreed with me.  Each book, on Goodreads, has received a 3 or 4 Star average rating.

Review of The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
2 Stars
The novel deals with three women whose lives intersect after each learns something which changes their lives. Cecilia is a Tupperware salesperson par excellence and the mother of three daughters; people tend to label her the perfect wife and mother. She discovers a letter written by her husband, a letter which she is not to open until after his death. Like a modern-day Pandora, she opens it. She discovers a secret that tears apart her seemingly perfect life. Tess is a career woman whose husband decides he is in love with Tess’s cousin, their business partner. Rachel is a school secretary whose daughter was murdered two decades earlier; though no one has ever been charged with the crime, Rachel becomes convinced she knows the identity of her daughter’s killer. The women’s reactions to these pivotal “realizations” impact the lives of many others.

I chose this book to read during an 8-hour plane flight and, by sheer chance, I chose well. It is a light read that does require much thought. I could put it down and pick it up easily three weeks later when I was taking a return 8-hour flight. It maintained my interest sufficiently so I did actually finish it, but it is fluff.

None of the three women is particularly likeable because of the decisions they make. Though a reader may feel some sympathy for the situations in which the women find themselves, it is impossible not to see that the women also bear some responsibility for what befalls them – the murder of Rachel’s daughter being an obvious exception. And inaction, infidelity, and impulsiveness do not endear these women to this reader. The author made an attempt to portray them as dynamic characters who learn something about themselves, but what they learn would be evident to virtually everyone. One of the women, for example, realizes that love after years of marriage is “an entirely different feeling from the uncomplicated, unstinting adoration she’d felt as a young bride.” Really?!!

The epilogue left me shaking my head. In it the author reveals some secrets about the characters, secrets which, had they been known, would have changed people’s lives. She concludes with this paragraph: “None of us ever know all the possible courses our lives could have and maybe should have taken. It’s probably just as well. Some secrets are meant to stay secret forever. Just ask Pandora.” This suggests, again, that the author tried to write interpretive fiction, but missed the lesson about letting the work speak for itself.

This would be a perfect book to serialize in a women’s magazine, were such things still done.