Review: Bellevue Square – Michael Redhill

2017:84
4 of 5 stars
Published September 2017

Bellevue Square is one of the books on the shortlist for this year’s Scotiabank Giller prize and one of the ones I thought I would like to read in advance of the award. The CanadianContent Goodreads group also picked this for the November group read so I was pleased I’d bought it.

Jean Mason owns a bookstore in Toronto and discovers she has a doppelganger, an identical “twin” who frequents nearby Kensington Market. She starts spending time in the neighbourhood, hanging out in the park (Bellevue Square) and getting to know some of the locals in her quest to find the double. She, a married mother of two, becomes obsessed and pays some of the park regulars who mostly tend to be from the unfortunate side of life (drug addicts, people with mental illnesses) to help her search. Several people she’s come in contact with turn up dead or missing and Jean herself may end up being blamed. Who is the double and what does she want?

As she becomes more and more obsessed, we discover things in Jean’s past that start to make her an unreliable narrator. The story is an exploration of mental illness and brings you to the point where you’re not sure who or what’s real and who or what isn’t. By the end of the book, you might feel like your mind has really been messed with. I’m still not quite sure who was what but the book was so well woven together that I found myself somewhat horrified at what was going on and trying to figure out what was all in her head and was any of it true. But unlike a badly written book, this kind of confusion just makes me say “Whoah”.

It was different, I’ll give it that much!

 

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Review: The Thirst – Jo Nesbø

2017:78
4 of 5 stars
Published 2017

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson started me on a trail of books by mainly Norwegian and Swedish crime writers with a few other Scandinavian ones thrown in as I discovered them. Jo Nesbø is one probably my favourite. Most of his books have Detective Harry Hole (“Hooleh”) as the protagonist. Harry is deeply flawed, an addict and a brilliant cop, focussing particularly on serial killers.

Harry keeps trying to get out of the police business but keeps getting drawn back in to help his old colleagues. In this, the 11th in the series, Harry is lecturing at the Police College where his stepson is also attending classes. As always, there’s a murder and then another one and soon, Harry is coerced back in to help solve the crime.

Harry is married to his Rakel and is happy and almost second guesses it. He still dreams about the one that got away, the one killer he didn’t manage to catch, Valentin Geritsen. In the blurb for this book, they mention the new crimes as harkening back to Harry’s nemesis and that’s the name of one of the books. The new crimes are even more grisly and the serial killer is given the nickname  of Vampire Killer. Harry plays cat and mouse with him but even then, tries to pull away from the investigation due to Rackel having a health crisis but it’s in his blood. It’s not really a spoiler to say that the killer gets caught this time around but maybe there’s more to it than that. Harry certainly has a nagging doubt and sure enough, the twists just keep on turning.

Some familiar faces return. Followers of Harry will remember some of the details of their personal lives. There’s an exciting confrontation at the end, but which is becoming a somewhat regular occurrence in these stories. I wonder if this series is reaching it’s natural end and I’m sure the author is getting tired of trying to keep Harry’s world tense and exciting, trying to make the usually bloody endings with a fresh flavour of inventiveness and gore.

I wonder if Harry’s mixed feelings about staying away from the police force and getting dragged back in all the time are reflective of Nesbø’s with the character. Surely he must be to the point of wanting to write about someone different and I think it shows a little. I still very much enjoyed The Thirst. While I’d miss Harry, I’d also not want him to become a shadow of his former self so if at some point Nesbø gives Harry Hole a fitting ending, moving on to something else, I’ll go with him. He’s a talented writer and the translator seems to be spot on in keeping the book’s intended atmosphere alive.

Very much looking forward to the first American film made from a Nesbø novel this fall, The Snowman starring Michael Fassbender as Harry Hole.

Review: The Visitors – Catherine Burns

2017: 76
5 of 5 stars
Published 2017

This is a creepy, insidious story about a middle aged woman, Marion,  who has been controlled, disrespected, degraded, browbeaten and held down all her life. Her family made her feel like she was worthless, stupid and unimportant. She had no friends and was bullied in school and bullied at home even more by her mother and  older brother John with whom she still lives. John was and is a nasty piece of work who kept his mother and sister in check all their lives with his tantrums, violence, and self serving behaviour. Her father always condoned his son’s behaviour, perhaps sharing some of the same tendencies.

John keeps female “visitors” in the basement but Marion pretty much has herself convinced that either there’s nothing wrong with this or that it doesn’t exist at all. It seems like her brother has been doing this for years, whatever “this” is. She continually looks the other way, unwilling to face the horrors. Marion learned this behaviour from her mother who always and firmly looked the other way when her son or her husband was doing something untoward.  When John has a heart attack later in the book, she finally has to deal with the Visitors herself. We wonder if she’ll find the strength within herself to deal with it all.

Most of the book looks back at Marion’s life and the major dysfunction in that family and how it affected her, at  all the various incidences where you can see why she’s become what she is, why she spends most of her time daydreaming elaborate rose-coloured fantasies about perfect lives with perfect friends,  rather than face the difficult truths of Marion’s reality. We then find out what happens when she has to face those truths and it isn’t pretty.

It’s a rather sad book, really. Marion as a child so disregarded that she cannot stand up for herself in any way as she tries to handle the heavy weight of stress and anxiety and fear. You read, you wait, you think she’s going to snap and all hell is going to break loose. This book isn’t a thriller, or a mystery to be solved other than finding out who is in the cellar (you can guess why). This kind of thing does happen, you see it every now and then on the news and this story tells how this could happen quite well. I think , it’s kind of  a “coming of age” story, Marion finding herself late in life. It didn’t end quite like I expected, in utter disaster, but with an element of hope for Marion’s future despite the past.

I really liked it, it had a very realistic feel in many ways. Enjoyable, with an undertone of the creep factor and a dose of pity for Marion thrown in.  It might not suit everyone but if you like dark,  character based novels, I think you’ll like this one.

This is a Netgalley book for review.

Review: Holding Still for as Long as Possible – Zoe Whittall

2017:70
3.5 of 5 stars
Published 2009

This was selected by my Goodreads Canadian Content group as the monthly group read for August, in conjunction with our monthly challenge to read books about LGBTQ characters or written by LGBTQ authors. I was happy that my library hold came through in time to read it for the group read and challenge.

The story follows a group of twenty something friends in Toronto as they try to figure out what they’re going to do with their lives, something a lot of people that age struggle with.  Josh is a transgender male who is a paramedic and we get a lot of inside info on what kind of toll that can take on the EMTs who save lives on a daily, or, in Josh’s case, nightly basis. Amy is his girlfriend, bisexual and a filmmaker. Hillary, who now calls herself Billy, used to be a famous pop star but is now struggling with severe panic attacks. Roxy seems to be the glue that holds them all together, the mutual friend that they all met through. Josh and Amy’s relationship is falling apart and Billy’s just broken up with her long term girlfriend.

There are new crushes, old loves, and people are just trying to figure it all out. The sexuality of the characters is secondary to the story, really. It is what it is. It doesn’t seem like the lives of these gay/trans characters are any different than others in the same generation, all facing adulthood, still not really settled into responsibility for the most part, Josh aside, who has a very responsible job but still, his personal  life is in upheaval. The story, the friendships, the getting-on-with-things, and that last push to full on adulthood, that’s what it’s about.

I did like the book and the story told from mainly three points of view, Josh, Billy and Amy. From my point of view, someone old enough to be a parent of any of these characters, it was a little harder to relate to them. My twenties were a lot more stable though they did end in divorce. It was a quick read and the second of Zoe Whittall’s I have read. I will be reading more from her.

Review – Lost in September by Kathleen Winter

2017:68
4 of 5 stars
Published 2017

I read Annabel by Kathleen Winter and it was a beautiful, sad and pretty much awesome book so I was excited to see she had a new one coming out. I received an electronic copy from Netgalley and got stuck in. Lost in September is very, very different from Annabel. It’s about a young ex-soldier who just happens to be a dead ringer for General James Wolfe, who died in 1759 at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City. He also apparently has Wolfe’s memories. Somehow, he seems to be the same man or a reincarnation, perhaps. Or maybe he’s just a soldier with PTSD and has retreated into history to survive.

The original Wolfe, as a younger soldier, was about to have leave in Paris but in September of 1752, Britain dropped their calendar and joined the rest of Christian Europe, adopting the Gregorian calendar. It meant that everyone lost 12 days, jumping from September 2 to 14 overnight and Wolfe lost his leave. He’s resented that for, well, centuries and is in modern day Montreal trying to recoup those lost days. Through the modern day Jimmy, we relive Wolfe’s past, his relationships with his parents and friends and key events in his life. He returns to Montreal each year in September, the anniversary of both the missing leave days and the anniversary of Wolf’s death, camping out or living in a mens’ shelter. Montreal would seem to be the closest thing to Paris he can manage as he tries to get those lost days back. The present day Jimmy leans on the kindness of friends such as a historical researcher studying his old letters, someone whom he met in a library in Toronto. Little by little, Jimmy’s own past starts to permeate his “Wolfe” memories.

It all sounds a bit strange yet it’s compelling as well. The book is tagged as a “reimagining of history”. Winter has done a lot of research on Wolfe and added her own spin to the man and his private life, personal thoughts and “memories”.

Review: Summer of My Amazing Luck – Miriam Toews

2017: 66
3 of 5 stars
Published 1996

I’ve read two or three of Miriam Toews’ books and they’re fabulous so when I was looking around for a book to read for the Cross Canada reading challenge for the province of Manitoba, someone reminded me that Ms. Toews is from there and many of her books are situated in that province. Oh, yes! I had forgotten that. I looked at the descriptions for the ones I hadn’t read and decided on Summer of My Amazing Luck, which is her first novel, and borrowed it from the library’s digital site.

Lucy is an 18 year old single mum of an infant boy. She moves into a public housing block in Winnipeg known by the residents as “Half-a-Life” and meets Lish, a single mum of four girls. Lish’s two youngest, twins, were conceived on a one night stand with a busker, a man whose name she never got, a man she thinks might have been the love of her life. Years after their encounter, she gets a letter from him fondly remembering their night together and she and Lucy and the kids embark on a road trip to find him.

The novel is filled with great, quirky characters, mostly residents of the apartment building, mostly single women with children all trying to survive on welfare. But this isn’t a story about the grim realities of poverty that these women are enduring. It’s a lighthearted look at friendship and endurance as Lucy tells us about Life at Half-a-Life. The women struggle but they are strong and there’s always hope. There are lots of references to Canadian pop culture, Manitoba weather, and government red tape to be untangled, all of  which I liked. It all contributed to making this story feel “real”.

Lucy is telling the story but she’s probably the least interesting character. Her mother died 3 years ago but she’s not really grieved properly and her father is not emotionally there for her. She’s got a baby and she’s new to the welfare system so it’s overwhelming for her to figure out the system, something the other mothers have already gone through. At 18, she’s clearly not as mature as she thinks she is. She mentions a couple of times that she spends more time interfering in other peoples’ lives yet I didn’t get that at all aside from the one big lie she told to her friend.  Lish is easily the most colourful, with eccentricities in her personality, the way she dresses and the way she raises her kids. The road trip was brief and not a huge part of the book like the description would have you believe. It’s a turning point for Lucy, I think, coming to terms with her mother’s death and her own life. I also seemed to have missed the point of the book’s title. It doesn’t seem to match the story.

This is Miriam Toews’ debut novel and while her more recent ones are more serious and heart wrenching, you can clearly see in this book that she has talent and a grasp of making her characters leap off the page, utterly identifiable to the reader. To me, anyway. I will be working my way through her books and highly recommend her as an author to anyone.

#20BooksOfSummer
Cross Canada Reading Challenge (Manitoba)

Review: The Only Cafe – Linden McIntyre

2017:63
4 of 5 stars
Published 2017

Pierre Cormier, a Lebanese native who immigrated to in Nova Scotia in 1982 disappeared, presumed dead  5 years ago when his boat exploded. He was finally declared dead and his son, Cyril, starts to unravel the secrets that his father kept about his past.  His father wanted his life celebrated with a roast at an out of the way pub called The Only Cafe. The only non-familiar name on the provided guest list is Ari, a regular at the pub. As Cyril begins to delve into the past of the man he never knew well, we also find out about Peter from flashbacks to Peter’s life, to traumatic events in Lebanon during wartime in the 70s and 80s and to the early millennium where “current” events in Peter’s life start to trigger long repressed memories of those events. Cyril is working for a national news network and his personal investigation may have ties to an ongoing one at work.

Who is Ari? Did Pierre and Ari know each other back in the day? Ari plays things very close to his chest as does Pierre but they have similar shared experiences. There are truths and a lot of lies and a very tangled web. Cyril might find out more than he expected or nothing at all, not really. The ending is as murky as the politics which is probably the point. It’s more important to accept what’s happened and move on, once you get to that understanding.

Linden McIntyre is an excellent writer who builds a world and weaves a plot with skill. His plots are dramatic and his characters jump off the pages. They are real and they are intriguing and the plot points build up and are revealed at just the right speed. You keep coming back for more. The most interesting parts of the book, for me, were those from Pierre’s point of view, telling his story and experiences in the civil war in Lebanon. Not very uplifting but some of the events are based on actual ones which lends a touch of reality, grounding the plot a bit more.

Thanks to Netgalley for the ARC
#20BooksofSummer