Category Archives: book reviews

The Silent Wife by A.S.A Harrison

silentGone Girl by Gillian Flynn was a quick read for me this past spring. I enjoyed it yet, Flynn’s magic lay not in writing a psychological mystery of amazing literary prowess, or even much thoughtfulness, but in making a book that rippled with suspense. Gone Girl was addictive. Gone Girl was a good book, but The Silent Wife is better. A.S.A Harrison wrote The Silent Wife last year but she died before she could see it published.

Jodi and Todd, married for more than twenty years,  have survived because they were willing to see each others’ strengths and ignore their weaknesses.  It is a rattling account of a familiar story, a stalwart woman and a cheating husband living in relative peace until something sets it off.

Todd’s most recent girlfriend tells him she’s pregnant. He leaves Jodi, even evicting her out of their condo. Because the two had never married, Jodi, the one with a low-income, finds out she has no claim on her home. Jodi feels threatened, and entitled to more after putting up with Todd and his infidelity for twenty years. Todd’s actions erode Jodi’s sanity, and she falls apart until she murders him.

The book’s strength is sheer interest in the characters. From the get go (first page) the reader knows Jodi will kill Todd, so the reader is interested in the set up, not the how.  I particularly enjoyed the scenes where Jodi, a trained psychotherapist, recounts therapy she has attended in the past.  Attending therapy was for her own professional development, but these flash backs revealed not only Jodi’s family history, but also theory about human behaviour.  It ultimately shows the reader why Jodi, someone so sane and grounded, could murder her ex-husband.  The book is heavy with description, particularly the scenes of Jodi slipping into depression, but the frill of the writing is how the reader becomes a type of therapist to Jodi.

Unfortunately, this will be A.S.A Harrison’s only fiction book as she passed away. You can read about the fascinating story of her life as an artist in Toronto in this article.

A.S.A Harrison
A.S.A Harrison

The Last Hiccup- by Christopher Meades

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Tiny-Syn: lasthiccup

Vladimir lives in a small town in Russia where it’s winter most of the time. It is the 1930s and he is a small boy who wakes up one day and has hiccups that won’t go away.

After many sleepless nights (because of the hiccups) his mother brings him to a hospital in Moscow to be cured by the best doctor in the city. Thus taken from his home and mother, Vladimir is the recipient of many life experiences where eventually he comes to terms with his curse.

Larger Synopsis:

This is a wild and strangely exciting book about a boy named Vladimir who develops a serious case of the hiccups. Vladimir’s hiccups are so extreme that they keep him up at night. After three straight days, his impoverished mother brings him into Moscow to be cured by the best doctors in the Soviet Union.

The next few years for Vladimir are ones of medical intervention and trauma. This included a nightly routine of morphine to help him fall asleep at night. Through a strange rivalry between two doctors in the hospital, Vladimir is eventually ousted from Moscow and spends the rest of his childhood in an Mongolian Buddhist temple.

His hiccups remain with him until he travels back home, first to Moscow and then to see his mother.  The story ends with the good Vladimir sacrificing himself for the betterment of someone he loves, and dies a gruesome death while coming to terms with his hiccups.

Meades creates a bizarre and satirical world for Vladimir. The back cover of this novel calls The Last Hiccup a HumCanLit (a genre in which I’d been ignorant of all these years!). It is a strange tale, but not so strange as to be fantastical. The character of Vladimir lacked a bit of depth, but the premise was compelling enough that Meades pulled it off.  I don’t enjoy a lot of satirical novels, but this one I finished right to the very end!

I’m still struggling to piece my thoughts together on this one. I think the point of the book (and of the hiccups) is that as humans we struggle with the need to be recognized and appreciated. Vlady developed hiccups just at a time when he was developing a sense of self-hood. When a person’s place in the world is tentative, such as during adolescence, the desire for significance becomes important. Vladimir, in order to survive must come to term with his curse and learn to rely on his hiccups as a touchstone of who he is and ultimately how he will be defined.

And so, I recommend The Last Hiccup wholeheartedly. Unless of course, you dislike allegory. Some of the facts were a bit under-developed and puzzling, but for the most part I found the book intriguing and humorous.

Cheers!lasthiccup

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The Blondes by Emily Schultz

It’s been fun trying to describe the premise of this book to people.

The gist: there is a virus that affects blonde women (mostly) and causes them to become violent and kill people. It grows to epidemic proportions in Canada and the US, making people paranoid and take drastic measures to protect themselves and their families.

The more in depth description is that in The Blondes, Emily Schultz creates a world only a few months in the future. Hazel Hayes, a redhead, is in her late 20s and finishing her PhD in Aesthetology which is (I think) the study of the way we are attracted to beauty and how beauty affects relationships and connections.  Hazel is a Canadian, staying in New York to work with a professor on her thesis. While there, she witnesses a violent and spontaneous attack perpetrated by a blonde woman.

This is the first in an “epidemic” of attacks. Soon, thousands of people have been violently killed, all by women who are blonde. Scientists soon start attributing the attacks to a rabies-like virus called SHR. It is a virus that is more easily carried and caught by people with little melanin in their skin and hair (blond and fair-haired people).

So, Hazel is stuck in New York with all the attacks, but she wants to get back to Canada and can’t get past the border. The issue is timely because before she left for New York, she had a brief affair with Karl, her thesis adviser. She needs to get back to Canada for an abortion.

Hazel is stopped at the border and forced into quarantine (in Hamilton, yeah for literary mentions!) because of her red hair which means she could be a carrier of the virus. Hazel has no money and no communication with the outside world. After two months she is let out, and travels to find Karl at his cottage in Wasaga beach.  Unfortunately, Karl was killed by SHR and the only person at the cottage is Grace, Karl’s blonde and bitter wife.

Eventually, Grace helps Hazel because she feels bad for and for Karl’s future progeny.

There are so many reasons why I enjoyed this book. It was funny, and the premise was outrageous, but still strangely believable. The character of Hazel is memorable and endearing. She is over weight, considers herself frumpy and unattractive. She is also honest with the reader about her motivations for sleeping with Karl, and also for deciding to keep her baby in the end.Cover The Blondes

I thought The Blondes had interesting reflections on beauty and the sorts of things we do for beauty. Women are often motivated to act a certain way because they believe they aren’t beautiful. The need to look a certain way in order to be valuable and desirable is prominent in our society. Schultz brought it out in a relevant and poignant way. Women know that being valued for appearance is shallow, and false, but we still half-believe or half-buy into it.

Blonde people in the novel become murderers because of physical appearance. Life is easier for people who are considered conventionally attractive, and I think that’s what Schultz was bringing out in The Blondes.  This is explored further through the character of Hazel who has, instead an atypical sort of beauty and doesn’t seem to care about appearance in a “normal” and feminine way. Even though she knows her value doesn’t entirely come from affirmation from others, she still has an affair with Karl because she admittedly wanted to be valued as beautiful.

This was a fun but still quite literary novel. You can read more about Emily Schultz here, and also about the literary magazine Joyland that she runs here.

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The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers

If you liked Children of Men, by PD James, (book or movie) or Never Let Me Go (2010) you will enjoy this sci-fi apocalyptic-y novel. Jessie Lamb is an idealistic sixteen year old who is living in a grim world.

It is the near future. Women are unable to have children. A virus, called MDS has infected all women in the world leaving them unable to have children. Women are able to conceive, but shortly into the pregnancy, the virus kicks in and the woman dies.

Jessie’s father works in a reproductive tech lab, where they have found a way to vaccinate stored, frozen embryos against the virus MDS, offering the only hope for  the future of humanity. These vaccinated babies will be able to reproduce and populate the earth. However, they need young women to incubate the babies. These women are impregnated and then put into comas before MDS can kill them. After the baby is born, they die.

In order for there to ever be new babies, young women need to sacrifice their own lives.

Jessie volunteers as an incubator.  Her parents refuse to support her, arguing that scientists will find a cure for MDS in the future. Jessie wants to use her life for the betterment of the future, but her friends and family see her self-sacrifice as a type of suicide and a cry for help.

The ethics around reproductive technologies interest me a great deal. I also really enjoyed thinking about the dichotomy of self-sacrifice and selfishness. Jane Rogers created an extreme foil where a life must be given for humanity to continue. Especially in light of our depleting resources and the increasing ozone hole. We are still not willing to sacrifice our lifestyles. If you need some more proof that this is true of humanity, read my interview with a friend of mine about climate justiceJessieLamb

I also enjoyed the idealism (or stupidity) of Jessie. Our culture does not have examples of this type of sacrifice. We are not used to any form of sacrifice. Jessie’s gift to humanity seems unnatural.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed this book, I was not entirely sold on the main character. Jessie was a bit flat, and too resolved in her decision. I found her unconvincing. But otherwise the story was interesting enough that I’d recommend this novel.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers was shortlisted for the 2012 Booker Prize.  Cheers!

Giddy for the Giller #3: 419 by Will Ferguson

Alright- here’s the first Giddy for the Giller confession:

I did NOT finish this one, and after 4 overdue days at my library, I was disheartened and GAVE UP. It is a bit discouraging because this one is “favoured” to win the grand prize.  Hmmmm… Well, you win some an you lose some (plots that is!)

Dear Mr. Ferguson, I’ve not previously heard of you before. You aren’t really in my genre. So, maybe my opinion doesn’t matter. In my defense, I consider myself a very well rounded reader who enjoys the odd thriller, particularly ones about international issues.  Something about your book made me put it down, unable to finish it.

419 is about global consequences and the thin way in which survival loops together exploitation. A retired school teacher in Calgary commits suicide. His family soon learns that he was suffering financial ruin at the hands of a Nigerian 419 internet scam. His daughter, Laura, wants retribution for his death. The Canadian police have no ability to enact justice in Nigeria. Laura travels to Nigeria herself, putting herself in great danger because the 419 scammers are linked to crime lords who are accountable to no one.

One narrative follows Laura, the teacher’s daughter. Another narrative follows Winston, the man in Nigeria who makes a living frauding people of money. There is also a narrative about a pregnant African woman that I don’t know much about, but she is starving and traveling through Africa and looking for someone. That’s as far as I got.

The premise of 419 was interesting and the characters were decent. Dialogue was on par with any decent author. But the 340 pages of 419 were not compelling enough to keep reading. There was this lengthy diatribe about the “Shell Man”  and the oil exploitation that “white man” has imposed on the Nigerians in recent history.

As legitimate as the story of the death of a culture, and the exploitation of a vulnerable people, these chapters did not seem credible. Or perhaps they seemed to simple. But I found it bulky and boring.

Not every book is for me, and someone else might like this. It may make an interesting gift idea for a person who reads lots of National Geographic (ie my Dad).  It almost reads like investigative journalism, or maybe like a Robert Ludlum novel, but with less suspense.

The long and short of this is, it’s been an interesting Giller shortlist. This one was surprising for me.
Cheers!

Giddy for the Giller #2:The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler

The Imposter Bride is a decent read.

Ruth, the main character, is a Jewish woman growing up in Montreal in the 50s.  Ruth was abandoned by her mother as a newborn, leaving her husband and daughter and a mystery. Her mother immigrated from Russia right after the war, and leaves a past there that is hard for Ruth to reconcile. Identity seems irrelevant, and family ties loose.

Ruth is loved by her family and community, but spends her “growing up” years trying to let the people who loved and raised her, fill the void that was left by her mother.

The message of this book is compelling, especially about the immigrants after WWII who were missing people and their former lives. Immigrants coming into Canada were struggling to carry on and rebuild. I immediately pondered the relevance of a society built up on these issues. In the late 1940s, and during the 1950s, Canada received 1.5 million immigrants from Europe.  Among these numbers were all four of my grandparents.

The characters were a bit flat. I enjoyed the flashbacks in the story about Europe, but not the 1990s Montreal stuff because it felt forced and cliched. The interest for me in the story was the Jewish immigrants fleeing to Canada, or a place where they were meant to settle and rebuild halved lives.

There were a few circumstantial and non-relevant things that struck me as weird about this book: one, that it was set in Montreal (again, so was Inside by Alix Ohlin); also, Nancy Richler writes about Montreal, and so did Mordecai Richler, maybe they are related.

But the story wasn’t profound or new. It felt like a novel that could have been published thirty years ago. It detailed life in an older style of writing. One where the reader sees the character grow up and become someone. These are traditional Canadian novels, but I still finished it and felt enriched by it.

Cheers!