Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Silent Wife

The Silent Wife / A.S.A. Harrison
Toronto: Penguin, c2013.
326 p.

More silence! This time from a very patient wife whose patience is at an end...

Jodie and Todd have a relationship with certain parameters; she overlooks his lapses in monogamy as long as he is discreet and her calm professional world is not affected. As this book opens, however, Todd has fallen into an affair deeper than ever before -- his very young girlfriend (daughter of his old friend, who is also pretty PO'd when he finds out about it) is insisting he leave Jodie and start a life with her.

Before the story ends, everything that Jodie believed about herself has shifted -- she has become someone she wouldn't have recognized in the opening pages.

I'm not going to cover the plot, because the twists and turns are part of the pleasure of reading this novel. I thought it was a great read, intellectual and clever and emotionally twisted. There's a fair bit of suspense, some wonderful character development (I was ready to punch Todd in the nose myself), and lots of drama to keep you reading. I was actually surprised when I re-checked the page count while writing this review because it didn't feel like it was a very long book when I was reading's a fantastic choice for a summer read. Much tighter structure than Gone Girl but some of the same marital drama, if you like this kind of thing ;)

Anyhow, you might have already read this one by now -- it's been so immensely popular around here -- but if you haven't and you'd like a suspenseful, well-written psychological thriller, this is the one to pick up.

Sadly, the author died before she could appreciate the success of her first crime novel. She led a colourful life, as detailed in her obituary in the Globe & Mail. This book, and that obit, are so worth your time to read.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Silence for the Dead

Silence for the Dead / Simone St James
New York: NAL Trade, c2014.
374 p.

St James' third novel is an immensely satisfying ghost story, with a lonely, crumbling mansion on an isolated sea shore, complete with a dark secret; a house full of "madmen" -- really shell shocked soldiers; antagonistic coworkers; a possible love interest; a heroine who isn't quite what she says she is; and of course, a terrifying ghost.

It's 1919. Kitty Weekes has applied and been accepted as a nurse at Portis House, an asylum for soldiers who can't cope with returning to society post-WWI. Despite the fact that she's not a nurse, she falsifies her credentials to get the job, as she is desperate for a situation that will get her away from her violent father's reach.

But at Portis House, she realizes that something more than simple shell shock is traumatizing the men she's caring for. Why, for instance, are they all having the same terrifying nightmare? Her persistence and curiosity uncover some shocking truths about the family who built Portis House and then mysteriously disappeared years ago.

Kitty is an engaging heroine, intrepid and tough, even in the face of chilling danger. She observes and acts in equal measure, using her own experiences to analyze this current situation. I loved the creepiness of the story, and the romance element (Jack, a patient, reminded me very, very strongly of Captain Jack Harkness from Dr Who, and he's all I could picture...which isn't a bad thing...) As in her other two novels, St. James is able to create an elaborate story both around the heroine and the ghost/supernatural presences that the heroine encounters; both storylines mesh and work beautifully.

I thought the ending was bit inconclusive with this novel, though, and would have liked a more definite tying-up-of-loose-ends. Still, this was a spooky, entertaining, utterly convincing read. I really enjoyed reading it, as I have her first two books, The Haunting of Maddy Clare, and An Inquiry Into Love and Death. All three novels are set in England and follow romantic suspense genre expectations as set out by the greats like Mary Stewart or Victoria Holt. St James modernizes her approach though, and the heroines are strong and capable, making you want to cheer them on.

I like this kind of ghostly romantic tale, but even though I've read a lot of them, I found this one particularly chilling -- I had to stop reading it pre-bedtime as I was spooking myself with it! I guess that is a testament to the psychological power of the set-up in this novel. It's very well done, and I'd recommend it highly.

(* her last novel, Inquiry Into Love and Death, is on the OLA's Evergreen Award shortlist this year, so local Ontario readers, do pick it up if you can -- if you like it as much as I did you can always vote for it in October!)

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Ever After of Ashwin Rao

The Ever After of Ashwin Rao / Padma Viswanathan
Toronto: Penguin, c2014.
384 p.

This book is centred around the Air India attack of 1985, in which an Air India flight travelling from Vancouver to London was bombed and all 329 people aboard were killed. The plane was leaving from a Canadian airport, with most of the passengers being Canadian. Yet the Canadian government considered it an Indian issue and never responded in the way that many people now think they should have.

This political incident is the core of Viswanathan's novel. Ashwin Rao, a Canadian trained psychologist, returns to Canada from India in 2004, now that 2 suspects are finally on trial for the Air India bombing.

He is purportedly doing a study of grief among the survivors of this tragedy, but neglects to mention to his subjects that his own family members had been on the plane too. As he reaches Vancouver (having moved cross-country from Montreal, doing interviews) he becomes enmeshed in the lives of 2 families who were both affected by the event as well.

Ashwin ponders the effects of this kind of trauma on families and on a larger cultural community, and he also becomes involved in the lives of the younger family members, who were children when Air India happened. At least half the book deals with these two families, their actions and relationships, and the individual responses to grief -- fanaticism, religion, turning to more secular practices, and so on. There were details upon details about each of these people, their pasts, their present troubles, their remaining ties to India, and so forth. Although it did build a complex picture of the ways in which individual lives interlock and are never free from the influence of others, I did feel that there was a tendency to include a little too much, and to go on a bit in this regard.

I liked Ashwin, and his stated purpose at the beginning of the book. I thought the situation around the Air India bombing was well presented  and powerful. Viswanathan also enlarges upon the political background in India, shared through Ashwin's eyes. There were many wonderful moments of family interaction, of beautiful descriptions of the landscapes and of a character's love of place, whether India or Canada.

Eventually though, I began to feel like this book was just too long. There was a fair bit in the last half of the book that I skimmed rather than felt engrossed by, and the political facts overwhelmed the appeal of the characters. While I think that this novel provides a very strong view on this particular political incident, and I was glad to learn more, as a novel it wasn't as deeply satisfying. I thought the focus drifted between the Air India crisis, Ashwin's personal life, and the domestic dramas of the two main families he encounters, and this diluted the power of the story for me. It is a book that is tackling a massive topic, one which started strong but lost momentum as it went on.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Confabulist

The Confabulist / Steven Galloway
Toronto: Knopf, c2014.
304 p.

The Confabulist takes on the life of Houdini, re-imagines it, and places it into the context of the confused memories of Martin Strauss, a man who is convinced that he killed Houdini...twice.

Martin is telling us the story of his own life, in brief interludes between longer chapters which follow Ehrich Weiss as he becomes Houdini. It's not quite clear how they will mesh at the beginning, but I was willing to wait to see how they'd be drawn together as the book progressed.

As the story continues, though, it becomes both more predictable and less convincing. Galloway turns Houdini's career into a speculative spying operation, placing Houdini within the circle of many world leaders, and having him play a role in Secret Service operations. I'm not certain if this was supposed to be a reimagining of Houdini by Galloway, or an increasingly strange confabulation of Martin's as he is telling his story of Houdini to a young woman identified, by Martin, as Houdini's illegitimate daughter Alice (but who is obviously someone else, someone easily guessed by the reader, making the ultimate reveal not very enlightening or surprising).

Ultimately, I was disappointed in the read, and bored in the last sections. I should know by now that I am definitely not the market for books featuring real people as primary characters -- it always irritates and bothers me. If I want to know about someone, I'll read a biography. While there is of course no absolute certainty as to the truth of biographies either, at least they are attempting to tell a true story; fiction using real people always feels to me like stealing someone's soul.

Galloway has clearly read a lot about Houdini. He's able to paint a lively picture of the world of vaudeville and stage magicians, an area I really love and have read a fair bit about myself. But the structure and the framing device ultimately didn't work for me. Martin Strauss is a vague character with not enough to him to compel interest; the conclusion is telegraphed too far ahead, and sadly, feels banal to me. I thought that this novel started strong, and was moving along quickly at first, but I got bogged down in the "what is true and what is made up" confusion that overtakes these kind of novels. Not the read for me.

Friday, May 23, 2014

I Was There the Night He Died

I Was There the Night he Died / Ray Robertson
Toronto: Biblioasis, c2014.
232 p.

I'll start back into my streak of reviewing with an unexpected pleasure: this is a book I didn't think I'd really like, but ended up enjoying a lot.

It's about Sam Samson, a middle-aged man going through a life crisis -- he's a widower, his father has Alzheimer's, and he's back in his dumpy hometown of Chatham, Ontario to try to deal with his father's house and belongings. He's a music critic and a writer, and he is currently trying to process his experiences by writing a novel about the last days of various musicians, entitled (of course) I Was There the Night He Died. 

In his loneliness and grief, he takes to smoking a bit of pot in the park next door under cover of darkness. And is greatly surprised by the presence of a teenage girl also named Sam, already in the park and already smoking her own joint, who becomes an important figure in the story.

None of these factors made this seem like a must-read for me, but it was strongly recommended so I gave it a try. The first attempt lasted only a page or two before I put it down, but fortunately a few days later I was relaxing outside and picked it up again. And this time I didn't put it down until I'd finished. It is a great book -- serious, sad, and yet really funny too. Our narrator Sam has a great sense of the ironic and deflates his own seriousness constantly, with pointed observations about his past in this small town, many of which are at his own expense.

Sam and his wife, who died 17 months ago, had a deeply satisfying relationship, focusing on themselves as a unit; they had no children and spent their time reading and thinking and being together. Part of Sam's grief is tied to the loss of that dual self-sufficiency; he has no close friends now, as he hadn't needed any during his 20 years with his wife. I found this relationship, and Sam's reaction to his loss, to be very moving without being mawkish in the least. It's honest and raw and heart-wrenching.

But there is also a full complement of characters outside of Sam's own interior focus, and these characters are complex and wonderfully drawn. Samantha, the teenage neighbour, is tough and disaffected, and makes her own path in the end. Sam's Uncle Donny, his only remaining relative, is a man so realistic that I felt I'd run into him before. There are also the high school friends that never left town, who Sam is drawn into reconnecting with as he stays in Chatham longer than he'd planned. His journey through loss and relationship is clearly told, with an openness that reflects the back-and-forth of real life. The narrative voice has a strong energy that moves the story along quickly.

I liked that there was a sense of change in the story; at the end of the book Sam has a vision of the future -- he seems to have reached a crisis point in which he will be able to carry on with life despite his losses. There is a hopefulness to the conclusion that ties together the rest of the book for me, and in succeeding in his telling of this story that is complex, sad, funny, bleak, and hopeful all in one, Robertson has converted me into a fan. I'll be checking out his other work now.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Return of the Reader

I've had a unscheduled, unplanned and unintended blog absence lately...I'm not sure why. I've still been reading but haven't been reviewing or even book chatting! I have a large backlog of titles I want to talk about now.

But, the longer you don't do it, the harder it gets to return. Should I catch up on everything, return to where I left off, or just jump in and start again?

I have this same problem with my journaling practice. If I let it go, I feel overwhelmed by starting up again -- there's so much to process before I can begin again! But I'll tell myself the same thing I tell my journaling students -- you don't have to catch up. Just start where are you are. Or 'catch up' with a brief, point form overview so that you feel ready to go deep again. That works when I am thinking and working with journaling so I'm going to do the same with this blog.

I never usually pressure myself to read and review here; if I want to, I do, if not, I don't. However, I've never had such a long period of "don't", and I want to get back to it.

It's not even a real blogging slump -- I'm still interested, I'm still reading other blogs, and I'm certainly still reading novels! Perhaps it's simply because my life has been really busy lately with a reorganization at work (say hello to your new Public Service Librarian!) or because I have been obsessed with sewing! I should learn to embrace audiobooks....

Anyhow, I'm back and I hope that I still have some readers :) Stay tuned for some rapid updates coming soon...

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Postal Reading Challenge: May Link Ups

Please add links to any of your May Postal Reading or images of outgoing mail here!