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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Review of DOWN THE RIVER UNTO THE SEA by Walter Mosley (New Release)

3 Stars
Though Mosley has written over 30 novels, I’ve read only The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, a book I loved.  His Easy Rawlins series has devoted followers so when the opportunity arose to read a new sample of Mosley’s detective fiction, I thought I’d take it.  Though not unenjoyable, I found it unexceptional. 

When Joe King Oliver was a New York police detective, he was framed for a sexual assault.  While in Rikers, he experienced brutality and solitary confinement and emerged a damaged man.  Eleven years later, he is a private investigator.  After receiving a letter from a woman who admits to having been forced to entrap him, he decides to try and find out who betrayed him.  As he seeks justice for himself, he also sets out to help A Free Man, a Black radical journalist, whom he sees as a victim of injustice like himself. 

Oliver is an interesting enough character.  His time in prison affected him dramatically; he was released with both physical and mental scars.  He asserts that “It was in that stink that I became a murderer-in-waiting.”  At different times he describes himself as a “creature formed by my imprisonment” and a “madman created by Rikers.”  He wants to be exonerated and maybe even reinstated and he wants to remain on the right side of the law in his quest for justice, but that becomes increasingly difficult as his investigations progress.  He realizes he needs help and ends up hiring a sociopath as a sidekick:  “walking down those chilly autumn streets with a man so evil that no crime deterred him meant that I had taken the first steps on a different path.”

Oliver is a dynamic character capable of introspection and self-examination.  The book opens with his identifying a major weakness; he speaks of his desire for women:  “It didn’t take but a smile and wink for me . . . to walk away from duties and promises, vows and common sense.”  He goes as far as to compare himself to a dog in his “fang-baring hunt lust.”  Throughout the book he has a number of enlightening moments.  For example, “I realized that I felt alone most of the time . . . I was alone because no one else seemed to know what was in my heart.”  Later, when “propelled by forces [he] could not control,” he has another epiphany:  “It occurred to me that my whole life had been organized around the guiding principle of being completely in charge of whatever I did. . . . The problem was that no man is an island; no man can control his fate.  No woman either, or gnat or redwood tree.” 

There is a large cast of secondary characters, some of whom come and go quickly, so it becomes difficult not to be confused.  One character who is memorable is Melquarth Frost, Oliver’s sociopathic partner, who believes that “’People should break the law if it doesn’t suit them’” and that beating a person is a form of communication because “’Anything one man does that another man understands can be defined as language.’”  The other character who made an impression on me is Aja-Denise, Oliver’s 17-year-old daughter, who works part-time as her father’s receptionist.  Oliver’s love for his daughter is unquestionable (“If I had to spend the rest of my life in a moldy coffin buried under ten feet of concrete, with only polka music to listen to, I would have done that for her.”) and his interactions with her are highlights of the book.

The book examines the themes of corruption and justice.  Corruption is so pervasive that one wonders if there is anyone who is innocent of its taint.  The book emphasizes the extent to which people’s lives can be affected by corruption; Oliver was “beaten, scarred, disgraced, imprisoned, and had [his] marriage torn apart” but Burns and Miranda stand out as victims of corruption.  Justice does not seem to exist much in the world Oliver exposes, but he decides to do what he can:  “[A Free Man and I] would never receive justice from law enforcement or the courts and so the only thing that could be done was to take the law into our own hands.”

The novel is fast-paced and keeps the reader’s interest, though the identity of one of the individuals involved in framing Oliver is rather obvious.  What becomes irritating is Oliver’s constantly keeping information from the reader.  For example, he mentions enlisting someone’s aid in a plan he has formulated, but it is not until later that the nature of that aid is clarified.  This is obviously a technique to create suspense but its repeated use becomes annoying.  At one point, Oliver observes that “in order to truly be with somebody you have to be in their mind,” but he keeps the reader at a distance, revealing only some of what he is thinking.  Perhaps this distance is the reason why I didn’t ever really feel connected with the protagonist. 

I would certainly recommend this book but I wouldn’t describe it using superlatives.  

Note:  I received an eARC of the book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Review of ELMET by Fiona Mozley

3.5 Stars 
This title came to my attention because it was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize and because it appeared on a number of “best of 2017” lists.

Fourteen-year-old Daniel and his fifteen-year-old sister Cathy live with their father John in rural Yorkshire in a house which he built for them.  Daddy, as both of his children call him, is a bare-knuckle fighter of massive size but he is the proverbial gentle giant with his children.  They live in a “strange, sylvan otherworld” where he teaches them to be self-sufficient:  “He wanted to keep us separate, in ourselves, apart from the world” (48).  They have an almost idyllic life until the arrival of Mr. Price, a man who claims to own the land on which their home is situated. 

Throughout the book, there is a feeling that their peaceful existence will not last.  Daniel understands that “Everything [Daddy] did now was to toughen us up against something unseen.  He wanted to strengthen us against the dark things in the world” (82 – 83).  The author excels at creating tension.  When Mr. Price first visits the family, he says to John, “’Your children must be lonely away from school and anybody of their own age. . . . I’ll bring my boys up one time so they can make some friends’” (81).  His two sons have just been described as “two handsome, slick lads” (76, 77) so that innocuous statement is full of threat. 

Characterization is a bit problematic.  Cathy is fierce, resourceful and fearless.  Though she is pretty, she is very much a tomboy who wants to be like her father.  She takes Daddy’s lessons about self-sufficiency to an extreme; when Daniel asks her why she didn’t speak to her father when young men were bothering her, she says, “’Because it were my thing.  It were my problem to deal with.  I can’t always go to Daddy whenever anything happens.  I have to be able to deal with things by myself. . . . And Daddy won’t always be around.  And even if he is, it is my life and my body and I can’t stand the thought of going out into the world and being terrified’” (272).  There is a dark side to her personality; Daniel mentions that “a pretty face might not be closed around pretty thoughts” (7) and she tells her brother that she is angry all the time (149).  The problem is that she seems too mature; at one point she tells Daniel, “’No matter what they do to me, what happens to me.  I’ll be fine.  In my self, I mean.  They can do their worst and I promise you I’ll go somewhere else in my mind’s eye, for as long as I need to, and I’ll be fine.  An experience is what you make of it.  If you tell yourself that it means nothing, then that’s exactly what it means. . . . But if something happens to my body.  Well, I am able to put myself in such a position that it’s like it’s not really happening.  And if it’s like it’s not really happening that means it’s not really happening’” (278 – 279).  This does not sound like a teenaged girl to me.  And don’t get me started on her almost superhuman power in the climactic scene. 

Price, the landowner, is portrayed as pure evil.  He lacks compassion, exploits the poor, and takes revenge on anyone who opposes him.  He feels he is above the law; John tells a man that in a dispute with Price, he would never involve the police:  “’And I wouldt involve police anyway.  They belong to Price around here too.  Big ones anyway.  Police chiefs and councilors that I’ve seen driving up to manor’” (131).   There is one scene that shows he prefers his enemies to have a slow death (294).  He seems to have no redeeming qualities so he comes across as an almost cartoonish villain with no real depth. 

Daniel is the narrator and in his case, it is the lack of consistency that is an issue.  When he speaks, he does so in plain and simple language, usually in Yorkshire dialect:  “’She wandt very welcoming. . . . I mean, she was and she wandt.  She was polite and helpful.  As much as you’d expect’” (61).  When he describes nature, however, he uses lyrical language that differs so much from his conversational diction:  “The soil was alive with ruptured stories that cascaded and rotted then found form once more and pushed through the undergrowth and back into our lives.  Tales of green men peering from thickets with foliate faces and legs of gnarled timber.  The calls of half-starved hounds rushing and panting as they snatched at charging quarry.  Robyn Hode and his pack of scrawny vagrants, whistling and wrestling and feasting as freely as the birds whose plumes they stole.  An ancient forest ran in a grand strip from north to south” (5 – 6).  This is not the language of a boy who has had only sporadic schooling. 

The book is in many ways about class conflict, rich versus poor, landowners versus tenants.  Daddy, for example, claims moral right to the land:  “’Means nothing to me. . . . It’s idea a person can write summat on a bit of paper about a piece of land that lives and breathes, and changes and quakes and floods and dries, and that that person can use it as he will, or not at all, and that he can keep others off it, all because of a piece of paper.  That’s part which means nowt to me’” (202).  Daniel even says, “I could not help but feel that [my father and his friends] were dancing in the old style and appealing to the kind of morality that had not truly existed since those tall [Anglo-Saxon] stone crosses were placed in the ground, and even then only in dreams, fables and sagas” (143).  John may be a strong man who can defeat all opponents in a physical confrontation but otherwise he is really powerless because he is a member of the poor class.

The climax, when it comes, is over-the-top in terms of violence.  It reminded me of violent scenes in the Coen brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel No Country for Old Men.  The book could use a warning sticker about excessive brutality. 

The book is bleak.  It keeps the reader in suspense but leaves much unexplained.  Though this debut novel has the weaknesses of a debut, Mozley is a writer with potential whose future work I will read.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Review of A DANGEROUS CROSSING by Ausma Zehanat Khan (New Release)

3.5 Stars 
This is the fourth book in the series featuring Inspector Esa Khattak and Sgt. Rachel Getty.  This time the two go to Greece to look for Audrey Clare, the sister of Esa’s friend Nathan Clare, who has gone missing while helping to resettle Syrian refugees.  Two bodies were found in the offices of her NGO so did Audrey go into hiding in fear for her life or did she run after murdering two people or was she abducted? 

The mystery of Audrey’s disappearance is sufficiently interesting, but it is not difficult to guess the ultimate outcome of the investigation.  Often the ongoing humanitarian crisis takes the spotlight of the narrative.  There is a great deal of information about Assad’s brutality against Syrians, the plight of the refugees, and the reaction and inaction of various countries to the crisis.  There is no doubt that the author has done her research; a list of books and websites is recommended at the end.  I recently read The Lightless Sky by Gulwali Passarlay, a book which recounts the year-long journey of a 12-year-old Afghani refugee; A Dangerous Crossing touches on many of the issues found in the non-fiction book.  For example, Passarlay concludes that human smuggling has “a highly organized infrastructure” and Khan echoes with the statement that “The point is, all of this is a very big operation, a wellcoordinated operation.” 

The problem is that the book is sometimes bogged down by lengthy passages of exposition that would be more appropriate in an essay:  “Assad was engaged in a wholesale slaughter of his people.  Set aside for the moment the destruction of Syria’s cities:  their colleges, hospitals, and schools, their mosques and ancient souks.  Even if that wasn’t totted up in a column of unthinkable loss, there was the question of Syria’s people.  Syria had been a nation of twenty-two million.  Fully half that population was displaced; seven million internally, while five million had fled Assad’s incalculable violence.  The abject misery of Syria’s prison system needed to be weighed on a separate scale of horrors.”

Though this book can be read as a standalone, 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 three books in the series have been read.  All the investigations of these prior installments are mentioned.  For instance, the Drayton inquiry is alluded to at least four times; that is the case in the first book, The Unquiet Dead.  There are seven references to Algonquin, a setting which features prominently in the second book, The Language of Secrets.  There are at least a dozen references to the case in Iran; this case is the focus of the third book, Among the Ruins.  In A Dangerous Crossing, characters like Hassan and Laine are discussed with virtually no explanation; these references will mean nothing to readers who have not read the other novels. 

And these personal relationships are important.  They certainly get in the way in this investigation.  Nathan doesn’t want Rachel to read some of his emails with Audrey, and Esa’s sister doesn’t want her brother to read her correspondence with Audrey.  Readers who have not followed the series may be left mystified by Nathan and Ruksh’s reluctance.  Actually, the lack of trust among several characters complicates the search for Audrey; this wariness is understandable in refugees but not so much in other investigators. 

The many romantic tensions, most often the result of misunderstandings, are becoming tedious.  How many times must Esa and Sehr misinterpret each other’s actions?  How often does Rachel’s insecurity have to affect her relationship with Nathan?  There are reasons why Rachel lacks confidence when it comes to romance, but after a while, her diffidence becomes annoying.  We are to see her as a dynamic character who has learned from past experiences (“She couldn’t bear to be the reminder of someone’s tragedy again” and “To deny her importance to someone else wasn’t a pattern she intended to repeat”), but she still comes across as immature.  Audrey describes her brother as a “Bumbling Lamb” but that descriptor could also apply to Rachel. 

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.  I will continue to follow the series though I hope the romantic entanglements take a back seat.  My bet is that the next case will see the return of Laine:  Nathan says, “’There’s something wrong with Laine, something different about her.  I have to admit I’m worried, I wish I could say otherwise.’  Esa had noticed it too . . . and he wondered if this was ground they were going to tread again.”

Note:  I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Review of TENCH by Inge Schilperoord (New Release)

4 Stars
This is an uncomfortable, disturbing read but compelling at the same time.

Jonathan, a thirty-year-old man, is released from prison after being acquitted on appeal due to insufficient forensic evidence and inconsistencies in the victim’s story.  The offence with which he was charged is not directly named but it soon becomes clear that it was of a sexual nature and involved a girl with developmental challenges.  Jonathan returns to live with his mother in their soon-to-be demolished house in a rundown neighbourhood.  Determined to control his urges, he adopts a strict daily routine.  All is well until nine-year-old Elke befriends him and the two bond over caring for an injured tench, a fish which Jonathan keeps in his aquarium. 

The protagonist is a lonely man who seems to have no friends.  He interacts only with his mother and Elke; though he has a job, “he kept aloof from everyone, like always.  According to the psychologist, secluding himself was a ‘survival mechanism’.”  He desperately wants to be a good person; when he returns home, he sets a rigid schedule for himself because he understands that controlling his environment and activities helps him control his behaviour, and he diligently does the exercises in his therapy workbook and tries to implement what he learned from his prison psychologist.  He considers one of his strengths to be “looking after other people . . . he’d considered this one of his best qualities.  Caring for others.”  He certainly tries to look after his mother and feels guilty that he was responsible for her being alone during his imprisonment.  So when a lonely young girl, who has no playmates in the largely deserted neighbourhood and whose parents are mostly absent, appears in his life, he feels he needs to take care of her.

To complicate the situation, Jonathan has no one to help him.  His mother never discusses his offense with him; her approach seems to be to forget about it.  Though she sees Elke in the house, she seems to think that by pretending nothing is happening, nothing will really happen.  Jonathan knows that his mother doesn’t understand him; he finds some Bible verses she’d copied out:  “Something about life being beyond your understanding and having to submit to the wisdom of God, and never being able to know another person completely.  .  . . that bit about others being unknowable had stayed with him.  Somehow he knew it was about him and it hurt.”  His mother’s only attempt to help him is to suggest he go to Bible study.  He lies about having attending a Bible meeting but “He didn’t need to turn around to see the expression on her face, to know that she knew he was lying.  But also that she wouldn’t say anything about it.”

Once he is released from prison, Jonathan also loses the help of his psychologist; his acquittal “cancelled out everything:  the prison sentence, the therapy, the psychiatric hospital.”  If he had remained in prison, he would have been placed “under a hospital order” which “could last a long time . . .  and the treatment could be extended every year, theoretically forever, until the psychiatrists and psychologists at the hospital judged him to be cured.”  In prison, Jonathan had received only “pre-therapy, as they called it.  Or ‘individual offender therapy’ therapy that started in prison and was meant to prepare him for treatment in the hospital.”  Though the prison psychologist estimates “a high likelihood of a repeat offence with crimes like [Jonathan’s],” all he has to help him are exercises from his pre-therapy workbook.  He admits, “As horrible as that hospital order had seemed, he would have liked to have carried on longer with the pre-therapy with the prison psychologist.  But that was all cancelled once he was acquitted.  Now he could only sign up voluntarily.  There was a centre in the city.  The psychologist had given him the telephone number, but he knew it was a step he would never dare take.”

Symbolism is used very effectively.  The injured tench symbolizes Jonathan.  He believes that “with good care he’d make it healthy again” just as he believes that by doing his therapy exercises he too will be well again.  Just as he has a daily schedule for his activities, he develops a daily schedule for taking care of the tench:  feeding times, water temperature checks, etc.  When he describes the fish, Jonathan could be describing himself:  “’it’s a shy, gentle fish. . . . It likes peace and quiet.  If there’s too much noise or if other animals get too close, it hides in the mud.  It gets scared easily.’”  Jonathan emphasizes that the fish needs cold water because hot water is dangerous for its health.  During the entire duration of the novel, there is a heat wave; there are at least two dozen references to it being unrelentingly, oppressively hot.  The fish has more and more difficulty coping with its environment and takes to hiding in the mud and Jonathan starts feel overwhelmed and finds it more and more difficult to control his thoughts when Elke increasingly imposes herself on his environment.  A description of the fish “floating on its back on the surface, pale belly up as if praying for help from on high, help that would never come” is ominous because Jonathan believes “his fate was linked to the fish.”

Reading Tench is like watching a film in which two trains on the same track are heading towards each other.  We are horrified and fascinated at the same time.  We hope that something can be done to divert the trains and prevent a collision, but a wreck seems inevitable.  Throughout the novel, as we see the direction of Jonathan’s thoughts, there is a growing sense of tension, but it becomes impossible to turn away.

The author, a Dutch criminal psychologist, manages to create a protagonist whose behaviour will repulse readers but for whom they will also have some compassion.  Schilperoord implies that society bears some responsibility in not insuring that Jonathan receives the help he needs.  The book is not lengthy but it is unsettling.  Because it is so thought-provoking, it will remain with me for some time.  

Note:  I  received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Review of SEVENTEEN by Hideo Yokoyama (New Release)

3.5 Stars
Since I read and really enjoyed Yokoyama’s novel Six Four, I really looked forward to this one.  I can’t say this book is as good as Six Four, but it is certainly worth picking up.  As I began reading, I was confused because the book is described as an “investigative thriller”.  This is certainly an inaccurate label because it is a slow-paced, complex and thoughtful examination of the inner workings of a newspaper organization as it struggles to cover a major news story. 

Part of the novel is set in 2003 as the protagonist, Kazumasa Yuuki, is climbing the Tsuitate rock face of Mount Tanigawa.  As he does so, he thinks back to a week seventeen years earlier when the crash of a plane interrupted his planned first attempt to scale it.  In 1985, Yuuki is a seasoned reporter for a regional newspaper when a Japan Airlines jet crashes into a mountain, killing 520.  Yuuki, a career reporter, is made JAL desk chief “in charge of seeing this story through to the end.”  As he works to have staff write “detailed, informative articles,” he finds himself caught in the middle of power struggles between different factions of the organization. 

Though not a thriller, there is suspense.  Yuuki’s experience is as a reporter who has shown no interest in a managerial position, so will he be able to fulfill the requirements of this new role when faced with perhaps the biggest story the newspaper would ever cover?  His job is complicated by the fact that Yuuki feels “with his lack of self-control, he should never be put in a position where he could exercise control over others.”  Will he be able to successfully navigate his way around the “internal machinations at the paper” where it seems that all his superiors have conflicting hidden agendas?  As a 57-year-old, will he be able to scale a 330-metre vertical cliff on a mountain where 779 climbers had lost their lives?  In addition, will Yuuki be able to repair his strained relationship with his son?

The book certainly shows how news stories are covered.  Since the author was himself an investigative reporter with a regional Japanese newspaper for a dozen years, he certainly knows the rivalries that can develop among various departments who each have their own goals.  Yokoyama actually covered the JAL Flight 123 tragedy so the details of that actual event are realistic.  Sometimes it is difficult to remember the functions of the many characters, but titles and roles are usually mentioned when a character appears.  This repetition is somewhat tedious but necessary, especially for a non-Japanese reader who may have difficulty with the Japanese names.  There is a detailed character glossary at the end of the book, but constant reference to it would be aggravating. 

Yuuki is a fully developed character.  As he faces setbacks and makes decisions, some wrong and some right, his personality emerges.   Through flashbacks, we learn that he feels great guilt for some actions in his past and that he has his “own dark storage shed of memories.”   He does know himself to some degree:   “Yuuki had suspected for a while that he was only able to love people who loved him.  And even when he was sure he had their love, he couldn’t forgive them if they were ever cool or indifferent towards him.  He expected absolute, unconditional love, and when he realized how elusive that was, he would fall into utter despair.  So, instead, he kept his distance from people.  He was wary of anyone who showed him kindness and never let anyone see his private side.  He was afraid of being hurt.”  In that week in 1985 and in the intervening seventeen years, Yuuki has learned more about himself and life:  “As long as you kept running from birth until death, falling down, getting hurt, no matter how many times you suffered defeat, you got up and started running again.  Personal happiness came from all the things and people you came across, ran into by chance along the way. . . . Climbing with all your might, concentrating completely on moving up, never being distracted by the meaningless stuff around you.  He’d begun to think it was a fine way to lead a life.”  Like Yoshinobu Mikami in Six Four, Yuuki has a career crisis and must tread carefully to avoid some pitfalls at work.  He also has family difficulties which he needs to address. 

This is a dense novel, but it has rewards for readers who persevere.

Note:  I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Review of ANNA by Niccolò Ammaniti (New Release)

3 Stars
This novel is set in 2020 in Sicily.  Four years earlier, a virus killed all adults; only children survived but they die as well once they reach puberty.  Thirteen-year-old Anna Salemi and her nine-year-old brother Astor survive as best they can.  Anna does the foraging for food and tries to protect her brother from the world with its feral dogs and children.  Along with a dog and their friend Pietro, they end up taking a journey across a post-apocalyptic landscape.

There are detailed descriptions of that landscape.  This is Palermo, the capital city:  “They entered the silent city.  Nothing had been spared by the fury of destruction.  Not a shop, not a building, not a flat.  All the locks on the doors had been forced.  All the kitchens had been emptied.  All the cupboard doors opened.  Pictures thrown on the floor, windowpanes broken, crockery smashed to smithereens.  Some areas appeared to have been bombed.  Sections of wall were still standing, like sea stacks among heaps of rubble which filled the streets and buried cars.”  The harbour in Palermo is also in ruins:  “The sea front . . . was an unbroken layer of plastic, canvas and stiff cardboard.  It no longer held any interest even for seagulls and rats.  There were heaps of bodies in the piazzas and lime-covered corpses lay in mass graves.  The harbour had been consumed by a fire so fierce it had twisted the iron railings and reduced the quays to blackened expanses.  The only things still standing were cranes and stacks of rusty containers.  Two ships lay on their sides like beached whales.”

Since there are no adults, the children have become wild.  Some have formed gangs for safety.  All are frightened and desperate and so cling to fantastical theories of what could save them.  Anna has an advantage in that her mother left her a book she wrote before she died; “The Important Things” is a survival guide outlining such things as how to dispose of her body, what to do once there is no more electricity, what to do in case of illness, etc.  This book helps Anna make sensible decisions for herself and her brother. 

It is the characterization of Anna that is the strongest element of the novel.  She is a complex character who has both negative and positive qualities.  What stands out is her love and protectiveness for her sibling.  At the same time, she is easily angered and can be cruel.  She is surprisingly mature in some respects:  she is responsible, resourceful, and brave.  On the other hand, as befits her age, she has childish characteristics.  For example, she is afraid of the dark, foolishly headstrong, and naïve about romantic relationships.  The trek she takes becomes a sort of coming-of-age journey during which she comes to a number of realizations. 

She learns about the universal will to survive:  “she sensed that life is stronger than everything else.  Life doesn’t belong to us, it passes through us. . . . [She] sensed that all the creatures on this planet, from snails to swallows, and including human beings, must live.  That is our mission; it has been written on our flesh.  We must go on, without looking back, for the energy that pervades us is beyond our control, and even when despairing, maimed or blind, we continue to eat, sleep and swim, struggling against the whirlpool that sucks us down.”  In one life-and-death situation, she refuses to give up:  “something tough prevented her from giving up, an indomitable will to live took hold of her limbs.”  She also learns from a friend about the value of living well; Pietro tells her, “’In the end, what’s important is not how long your life is, but how you live it.  If you live it well – to the full – a short life is just as good as a long one.’” 

There are some elements which bothered me.  Since there is no adult supervision, it is not a surprise that the children drink alcohol and use drugs.  What is frustrating is the way the author used their imbibing to obscure what happens.  This is the case with the Spa Hotel episode that is muddled and just becomes weird.  The pace of that section is slow and it just seems to ramble.  There are some inconsistencies:  one of Pietro’s aunts was believed to be a lesbian and the other, asexual, but “the dream of living in a harem and sharing [the consummate ladies’ man’s] favours stimulated their libido”?  The repeated, miraculous survival of the dog is incredible. Is his determination to be seen as confirmation of the universal will to live?

I felt obligated to finish the book, but I can’t say that I really enjoyed it.  It does not add anything fresh to the genre of dystopian, post-apocalyptic fiction.  As has been pointed out by others, the book is certainly reminiscent of Lord of the Flies and several other books.  I appreciate the use of a female heroine but that too is not original.  

Note:  I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. 

To read an excerpt, go to https://www.guernicamag.com/anna/.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Review of THE MARROW THIEVES by Cherie Dimaline

3.5 Stars
I don’t normally read Young Adult fiction but this book won the Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature and the 2017 Kirkus Prize for young readers' literature.

Non-indigenous people have lost the ability to dream whereas Indigenous People carry dreams in webs woven into their bone marrow.  As a result, the latter are being captured and taken to marrow-harvesting facilities modelled after residential schools.  Frenchie, a young Métis, finds himself alone and on the run.  He ends up joining a group of eight others heading north to escape the reaches of the Recruiters. 

This is a coming-of-age novel so Frenchie is a dynamic character.  Frenchie spends over five years with his new family, and between the ages of 11 and 16, he matures.  He becomes more resourceful and confident.  As a child he was not able to protect members of his family; as an adolescent, he shows great determination to protect the members of the family unit he has become a part of.  He develops a fighting spirit, becoming determined to destroy the marrow-harvesting “schools”.  As would be expected in this genre, he also learns about love; there is a requisite romance with a feisty girl who joins the group. 

This is also a novel cautioning against environmental negligence.  The earth has been ravaged by climate change:  “The Melt put most of the northlands under water” (25).  Man is also responsible for the devastation.  The “industry-plundered Great Lakes” are poisoned (11) with their waters “grey and thick like porridge” (24); as they walk, the group notices “the trees tilted to the north towards what was left of the natural landscape beyond the clear-cuts stripped of topsoil” (20).  There is a description that reminded me of The Chrysalids by John Wyndham:  “In this time, in this place, the world had gone mad with lush and green, throwing vines over old electrical poles and belching up rotten pipelines from the ground.  Animals were making their way back, but they were different.  Too much pollution and too much change” (91).   

Of course, the book is also an adventure tale of survival.  The group must hunt for food and clean drinking water while avoiding being captured by Recruiters.  Danger lurks everywhere.  Sometimes, this is the weakest aspect of the novel; the novel is a bit slow-paced so suspense is missing.  Foreshadowing is used to maintain suspense, but it is clumsy.  Chapters end with statements like, “If I had honestly known what was in store for us . . . (107) and “Neither of us could imagine that everything would change in just a few hours” (220).

I appreciate how the book celebrates Indigenous oral story-telling tradition.  Interspersed throughout the narrative are “Coming-to” stories in which characters share the circumstances that brought them to the group.  The group also has a weekly ritual of Story during which Miigwans, the group leader, passes on Indigenous history. 

I think this would be a good book to use in classrooms.  It clarifies Indigenous history and shows what Indigenous culture has to teach everyone.  Certainly the references to life-draining “schools” emphasize the impact of residential schools.  Some might argue that whites are portrayed rather harshly but there is justification for turning the tables on the typical “cowboys and Indians” narrative.  I love the irony:  whites who have been so dismissive of Indigenous history and culture end up needing it to survive.  Many issues of interest and concern to young people are raised in the novel so interesting discussions could ensue.  

There is also food for thought for the adult reader.  Miigwans introduces a major theme when he asks his group, his family, “’What would you do to save us?’” (54).  Are “Anything” and “Everything” (55, 231) acceptable answers to that question?  Frenchie wonders, “What would I have done to save my parents or [brother], given the chance?  Would I have been able to trap a child, to do what, cut them into pieces?  To boil them alive?  I shuddered.  I didn’t want to know what they did.  And I didn’t really want to know if I’d be capable of doing it” (48).  Is Miigwans’ argument acceptable when he says, “’sometimes you do things you wouldn’t do in another time and place. . . . As long as the intent is good, nothing else matters’” (145)?

The book is not flawless but its qualities outnumber its weaknesses.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Canada Reads 2018 - Finalists

The finalists for Canada Reads 2018 have been announced.  The five titles are as follows:

The Boat People by Sharon Bala
When the rusty cargo ship carrying Mahindan and five hundred fellow refugees reaches the shores of British Columbia, the young father is overcome with relief: he and his six-year-old son can finally put Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war behind them and begin new lives. Instead, the group is thrown into prison, with government officials and news headlines speculating that hidden among the “boat people” are members of a terrorist militia. As suspicion swirls and interrogation mounts, Mahindan fears the desperate actions he took to survive and escape Sri Lanka now jeopardize his and his son’s chances for asylum.

Precious Cargo by Craig Davidson
One morning in 2008, desperate and impoverished while trying unsuccessfully to write, Davidson plucked a flyer out of his mailbox that read, "Bus Drivers Wanted." That was the first step towards an unlikely new career: driving a school bus full of special-needs kids for a year. Armed only with a sense of humour akin to that of his charges, a creative approach to the challenge of driving a large, awkward vehicle while corralling a rowdy gang of kids, and unexpected reserves of empathy, Davidson takes us along for the ride. He shows us how his evolving relationship with the kids on that bus, each of them struggling physically as well as emotionally and socially, slowly but surely changed his life along with the lives of the "precious cargo" in his care.

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline
Humanity has nearly destroyed its world through global warming, but now an even greater evil lurks.
The indigenous people of North America are being hunted and harvested for their bone marrow, which carries the key to recovering something the rest of the population has lost: the ability to dream. In this dark world, Frenchie and his companions struggle to survive as they make their way up north to the old lands.

American War by Omar El Akkad
Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the Second American Civil War breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, that Louisiana is half underwater, that unmanned drones fill the sky. And when her father is killed and her family is forced into Camp Patience for displaced persons, she quickly begins to be shaped by her particular time and place until, finally, through the influence of a mysterious functionary, she is turned into a deadly instrument of war. Telling her story is her nephew, Benjamin Chestnut, born during war as one of the Miraculous Generation and now an old man confronting the dark secret of his past -- his family's role in the conflict and, in particular, that of his aunt, a woman who saved his life while destroying untold others.

Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto
When the Second World War broke out, Ralph MacLean traded his quiet yet troubled life on the Magdalen Islands in eastern Canada for the ravages of war overseas. On the other side of the country, Mitsue Sakamoto and her family felt their pleasant life in Vancouver starting to fade away after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

This year’s theme is One Book to Open Your Eyes.  The debates take place March 26-29, 2018.

Review of THE NIGHT CHILD by Anna Quinn (New Release)

2.5 Stars 
Nora, a high school English teacher, starts having visions of a small child.  After the figure speaks to her, she decides to go for therapy and ends up uncovering memories of traumatic childhood experiences. 

The plot is very predictable.  With the introduction of dissociative identity disorder, the reader knows what Nora will learn since the disorder most often forms after certain kinds of trauma.  There have been any number of novels and films which have followed the same narrative line.  The plotting is clunky; characters are introduced only to be useful to Nora in uncovering her lost memories.  Elizabeth, Nora’s student, is a prime example, as is John, the school principal.  Both are mentioned only at specific times and, otherwise, are totally absent. 

Characterization is a definite weakness.  For some reason, I found it very difficult to connect with Nora.  Having been a high school English teacher myself, I was initially interested in Nora’s teaching but her career is soon put on hold.  Nora’s relationships which one would expect to be developed aren’t.  Specifically, her relationship with her husband is only touched on.  We are told that Paul is pre-occupied with his career, but then there are outbursts like, “’God, this place is a shit hole!’” and “’Christ, you look terrible.’”  His behaviour during Nora’s hospitalization is not realistic.

There are other relationships too that need development.  From flashbacks, we learn that Nora had a difficult relationship with her mother.  Her mother is physically abusive since Nora refers to bruises, but there are puzzling comments like, “Her mother never uses the Lord’s name in vain when her father plays with James [Nora’s brother].”  Is this supposed to indicate that Nora’s mother knows or suspects something and reacts by being harsher with her daughter?  Does she become an alcoholic because of her suspicions? 

Characters remain two-dimensional.  No one is really fully developed.  David, the therapist, is just too good to be true.  He spends entire days at her bedside?  The psychiatrist never visits her again?  John appears only to be a contrast to Paul.  In the end, I will not remember any of the characters; none are memorable.

There are some things that had me puzzled.  When Nora is in the hospital, she is told she had a concussion.  A concussion is treated with morphine?  Not being able to talk “’happens sometimes after a concussion’”?    Chapter 22 is set on “the afternoon of February 6” yet the nurse “brings her breakfast” and encourages her to enjoy her “morning coffee”?  A person who has dementia in February, living “in a nursing home with locked doors” and who “can barely leave his chair” was capable of a complicated Christmas surprise weeks earlier?  It seems that Nora has an eating disorder (bulimia) but that is never addressed by the therapist? 

I can only describe this novel as mediocre.  It really needs more revision and editing.  It is not a long book so characters and relationships could be developed further.  As is, the book succeeds only in being unremarkable and forgettable. 

Note:  I received an eARC of the book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Readings for Holocaust Remembrance Day


The Zookeeper's Wife - Diane Ackerman
This is the true story about the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo who saved hundreds of people from Nazi hands.

Katerina - Aharon Appelfeld
This is the story of Katerina, a Polish housekeeper who works for a succession of Jewish families in the years before WW II.  Raised in a culture permeated with virulent anti-Semitism, she must constantly try to overcome the prejudice instilled by her bitter mother, who beat her, and her callous father, who attempted to rape her.

A Time to Choose  - Martha Attema
Sixteen-year-old Johannes van der Meer’s homeland of Holland has been occupied by the Nazis for four years.  While enduring food shortages and nightly air raids, the people of the Netherlands wait patiently for liberation, but for Johannes the struggle to endure is full of bitterness.  The fact that his father is a Nazi collaborator has made outcasts of the entire family.

The Nazi Officer's Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust - Edith Hahn Beer
Edith Hahn was an outspoken young woman in Vienna when the Gestapo forced her into a slave labour camp. When she returned home months later, she went underground and then emerged in Munich as Grete Denner. There she met Werner Vetter, a Nazi Party member who fell in love with her and married her though he knew she was Jewish. Edith recalls a life of constant fear.  She created a remarkable record of survival, saving every document, as well as photographs she took inside labour camps - now part of the permanent collection at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

The Seamstress - Sara Tuval Bernstein
She was born into a large family in rural Romania and grew up feisty and willing to fight back physically against anti-Semitism from other schoolchildren. She defied her father' s orders to turn down a scholarship that took her to Bucharest, and got herself expelled from that school when she responded to a priest/teacher' s vicious diatribe against the Jews by hurling a bottle of ink at him.  After a series of incidents that ranged from dramatic escapes to a year in a forced labor detachment, Sara ended up in Ravensbruck, a women' s concentration camp.

The Hiding Place - Corrie Ten Boom
Corrie ten Boom was a leader in the Dutch Underground during WWII. With the aid of her family, she hid scores of Jews from the Nazi invaders. She was arrested along with every member of her family, spending the remaining war years in concentration camps.

This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen - Tadeusz Borowski
Tadeusz Borowski’s concentration camp stories were based on his own experiences surviving Auschwitz and Dachau. He describes a world where the will to survive overrides compassion and prisoners eat, work and sleep a few yards from where others are murdered; where the difference between human beings is reduced to a second bowl of soup, an extra blanket or the luxury of a pair of shoes with thick soles; and where the line between normality and abnormality vanishes.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas - John Boyne
Bruno is a nine-year-old German boy whose family moves to Out-With where everyone calls his father Commandant.  Bruno hates his new home which is near a high-wired compound inhabited by sad looking people in striped pajamas.

Daniel Half Human - David Chotjewitz
At the dawn of Hitler's rise to power in Germany in 1933, Daniel and Armin swear eternal brotherhood by slitting their wrists and mingling their blood.  Then, with the scar on his wrist still healing, Daniel receives some life-altering news: he is half-Jewish and, as such, half-hated by a growing number of neighbours, teachers, and friends. Quickly, he decides to keep his identity a secret, conspiring with Armin to join the Hitler Youth.

The German Girl - Armando Lucas Correa
This book visits historical events including the sailing of the SS St. Louis with its refugees who were denied entry into several countries and died as a result.

The Diary of a Young Girl - Anne Frank
This is the diary of Dutch Jewish teenager, Anne Frank, written in an Amsterdam warehouse where for two years she hid from the Nazis with her family and friends.

Rena's Promise: A Story of Sisters in Auschwitz - Rena Kornreich Gelissen
Sent to Auschwitz on the first Jewish transport, Rena Kornreich survived the Nazi death camps for over three years. While there she was reunited with her sister Danka. Each day became a struggle to fulfill the promise Rena made to her mother when the family was forced to split apart, a promise to take care of her sister.

Prisoner B-3087 - Alan Gratz
Yanek Gruener, a Jewish boy in 1930s Poland, is at the mercy of the Nazis who have taken over. Everything he has and everyone he loves have been snatched brutally from him.  And then Yanek himself is taken prisoner and forced from one concentration camp to another, as World War II rages all around him. He encounters evil he could have never imagined.

Holocaust - Gerald Green
This book tells the story of the experience of two German families whose lives intersect at certain points. The Dorfs are "good" Germans, loyal to the new Nazi regime. The Weiss family is Jewish, also seemingly "good" Germans, but doomed under the new regime and its determination to exterminate the Jewish population.

Stones from the River - Ursula Hegi
The protagonist is a woman named Trudi Montag who has dwarfism. The book chronicles her life in a village in Germany in the years before, during, and after World War II.

Mischling – Affinity Konar
Two sisters, identical twins, try to survive Mengele’s experiments in Auschwitz. 

Schindler’s List - Thomas Keneally
This novel is based on the true story of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist who saved more than 1000 Jews from the Nazis at enormous financial and emotional expense.

The Thought of High Windows - Lynne Kositsky
Young, Jewish and on the run from the Nazis, Esther is one of a group of children who manage to flee Germany for Belgium and then France at the beginning of World War II. Since she is from a more traditionally Jewish family, Esther is an outcast among the youngsters in her group, many of whom consider themselves to be "modern Jews." They also tease her about being overweight.

Child of the Holocaust - Jack Kuper
This childhood memoir of the Holocaust follows the travels of eight-year-old Jacob Kuperblum, who comes home one day to find his family and friends gone, rounded up by the Germans only hours earlier

The Kindly Ones - Jonathan Littell
The book is narrated by its fictional protagonist Maximilien Aue, a former SS officer of French and German ancestry who helped to carry out the Holocaust and was present during several major events of World War II.

Number the Stars - Lois Lowry
Set in Denmark in 1939, this novel gives an account of the fears and anxieties of the Danish people, both Jewish and non-Jewish, during the German occupation.

Daniel’s Story - Carol Matas
Daniel, 14 in 1941, describes his family's sense of belonging in Germany and their refusal to flee their country despite the initial instances of anti-Semitism they experience.

We are Witnesses: Five Diaries of Teenagers Who Died in the Holocaust - Patricia McKissack
Diary entries written by five Holocaust victims document the ordeals suffered in Nazi-occupied Lithuania, Hungary, Belgium, and Holland.

Friedrich - Hans Peter Richter
This is the story of a Jewish boy in Germany during the 1930s.  The book tells about the Holocaust in Germany and the racism against the Jewish people.

Sarah’s Key - Tatiana de Rosnay
In Paris in July of 1942, Sarah, a ten year-old girl, is arrested with her family by the French police in the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup, but not before she locks her younger brother in a cupboard in the family's apartment, thinking that she will be back within a few hours.

Mottele - Gertrude Samuels
This true-life story tells of Ukrainian-born Mottele-Mordechai Shlayan--who at age 12 left his childhood behind when his family was murdered by German soldiers. The young violinist joined the Jewish partisans--resistance fighters-- to take revenge on their enemies.

The Reader - Bernhard Schlink
In postwar Germany, fifteen-year-old Michael Berg becomes the lover of Hanna, a woman twice his age. Then she inexplicably disappears. When Michael next sees her, he is a young law student, and she is on trial for a hideous crime. As he watches her refuse to defend her innocence, Michael gradually realizes that Hanna may be guarding a secret she considers more shameful than murder.

Maus  - Art Spiegelman
This graphic novel tells the story of Vladek Spiegelman, a Jewish survivor of Hitler’s Europe, and his son, a cartoonist coming to terms with his father’s story. Maus, by portraying the Nazis as cats and the Jews as mice, approaches the unspeakable horror of the Holocaust.

Sophie’s Choice - William Styron
This book concerns the relationships among three people sharing a boarding house in Brooklyn:  Stingo, a young aspiring writer from the South who befriends the Jewish Nathan Landau and his lover Sophie, a Polish, Catholic survivor of the German Nazi concentration camps.  The plot ultimately centers on a tragic decision that Sophie was forced to make on her entry, with her children, into Auschwitz

The Pianist - Wladyslaw Szpilman
On September 23, 1939, Wladyslaw Szpilman played Chopin's Nocturne in C-sharp minor live on the radio as shells exploded outside.  It was the last live music broadcast from Warsaw: That day, a German bomb hit the station, and Polish Radio went off the air. Though he lost his entire family, Szpilman survived in hiding. In the end, his life was saved by a German officer who heard him play the same Chopin Nocturne on a piano found among the rubble.

Night - Elie Wiesel
This is Wiesel's best-selling memoir/novel of his year spent in four concentration camps as a 15-year-old during the Holocaust.

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak
It is 1939 in Nazi Germany.  Liesel Meminger is a foster girl living outside of Munich, who scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbours during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement.