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.

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Review: First Snow, Last Light – Wayne Johnston

2017:74
5 of 5 stars
Published 2017

We begin with a 14 year old boy, Ned Vatcher, who comes home from school to discover his parents are gone. They’ve disappeared without a word on the day of the first snow storm of the winter, in St. John’s, Newfoundland, November 1936, leaving him behind. Ned has come home from school to an empty house and a mystery. He runs to his sports coach from school, Father Duggan and ends up with his father’s family, a family of fishermen who have already lost one son to the sea. He grows up to make a life for himself in media and other businesses but his parents’ disappearance continues to haunt him. What happened to them? Why did they leave him behind?

A couple of years ago, Wayne Johnston wrote a fictional account of the life of Joey Smallwood, the first premier of Newfoundland called The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. It featured a female journalist, the enigmatic, alcoholic and reclusive Sheilagh Fielding. First Snow, Last Light is told from Ned’s point of view and also from the point of view of Fielding, which is great because she was such a strange and engaging character in that first book. Johnston also wrote The Custodian of Paradise which is mainly about her though I haven’t read that (yet).

Ned’s parents’ disappearance colours his life as he grows up and becomes a wealthy businessman in Newfoundland. Sheilagh Fielding had made friends with his father and reconnects with Ned, his adopted son, Brendan, and  Father Duggan. The novel follows their lives while we wait to see if the mystery of Ned’s parents ever gets resolved. There are twists and secrets, and the ghosts of the past haunt them all.

Wayne Johnston is a very talented writer and his characters are complex with many layers. Ned is not particularly likeable, nor was Smallwood in Colony of Unrequited Dreams but Fielding is again the best character in the book. I wonder if the trilogy of books isn’t really her story, rather than those of Ned Vatcher and Joey Smallwood. I really enjoy his books and they haven’t let me down yet.

This was a Netgalley book for review. It is released in September 2017.

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: All Is Beauty Now – Sarah Faber

2017:64
4.5 of 5 stars
Published 2017

A young woman, Luiza,  walks into the water at a sunny beach in Brazil in 1962. She disappears and no body was found and she is presumed drowned, washed out to sea. A year later, her family is still reeling from the apparent drowning and has decided to move their family back to Canada because the father, Hugo, a Canadian citizen, needs medical treatment and it’s free in Canada. As they prepare, pack and spend time with friends, the story digs into the family,  their background and  personalities as each one deals with their grief in their own way.

Dora, Luiza’s mother, is desperate to learn about her daughter’s last days and still hopes against hope that her daughter is alive somewhere. The affair she had years ago is going to prove to have huge consequences. Hugo, Luiza’s father, is spiraling back into another manic “high” phase, and we find out Dora and the family have been dealing with his mental illness  all their married life.  Their other two daughters, Evie and Magda are very different personalities with their own secrets as they’re reaching their teens, becoming more aware of the adult realities of the family. Through flashbacks, we also learn about Luiza’s last months, weeks and days before her disappearance.  Hugo was adored by his daughters while Dora has to carry the burden of dealing with his illness more directly.

The story is told alternatively from each of their points of view. The atmosphere of Rio in the early 60s is vividly described. The story of this family, beautiful and glamourous on the surface,  reveals more and more layers beneath the brittle exterior. There’s one chapter describing Hugo’s thoughts while in his mania that is just breathtakingly, achingly bizarre, glorious and heartbreaking. The children think he shouldn’t be drugged and made to think and be like “normal”people, that his imagination and his ravings are what make him exciting but Dora, having to deal with his excessive highs and lows, ends up being the bad guy in her children’s eyes because she has to deal with it on an adult level, he can be dangerous to himself and his daughters in that state.

When all the secrets are revealed and the dust settles, you find yourself wanting to go back and start the ride all over again. This is a debut novel and is beautifully written, with the voices of each character unique and insightful .The author has captured the innocence of the children as well as the voices of the adults in a believable way.

And now I want to travel to Rio!

Thanks to Netgalley for a digital ARC for review.

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Review: Electric Shadows of Shanghai – Clare Kane

2017:62
4 of 5 stars
Published 2015

Will and Amelia are living in Shanghai in 1931. Will is attached to the British Consulate doing translation work. Shanghai is a city full of temptation and excitement, lit up by neon but the shadows contain the dark side of the city.  Will is soon drawn in to the nightlife. He becomes obsessed and infatuated with a married Chinese silent film star, Wu Feifei, who has ambitious dreams of Hollywood. Amelia is left to her own devices and finds her place at a small ballet company run by an ex-patriot Russian, with most of the other dancers also ex-Russians who survive by working as taxi dancers and prostitutes. As the Japanese aggression makes inroads into China with war imminent, and the Communists start to take hold of the younger student population, Will and Amelia and Feifei all get in over their heads.

I really found drawn in by the descriptions of the city of Shanghai, exotic and fascinating. It’s not a period in history I am familiar with so it was very interesting to read about the culture and the atmosphere. Not all the characters are likeable but they are all well written as is the dialogue. There are themes of betrayal, obsession, and it’s kind of like watching a train crash, seeing all the characters heading for probable disaster. Overall, an enjoyable read.

Thanks to Netgalley for a copy of the book for review.

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Review: The Way Back to Florence – Glenn Haybittle

2017:58
2 of 5 stars
Published June 2015

Freddie is British and attending an art college in Florence and meets the Italian Isabella. They fall in love and marry but soon, war breaks out. Freddie is now living in enemy territory and returns to Britain to join the Royal Air Force, flying bombing missions. Isabella stays in Florence and gets by the best she can. She ends up getting tangled up in a scheme to reproduce an Old Masters painting to keep the original out of the hands of the Nazis.

The couple had a friend, Oskar, who had returned to Paris but fled there with his small daughter, Esme because they’re Jewish. His wife was caught in the Velodrome roundup so he and Esme are on their own. In their attempts to get to Italy, they are also captured but manage to escape. Then there’s Marina who does life modelling for the art college and Francesco, the man that loves her. He is Jewish as well and is also captured along with his sister. It all starts to get a bit convoluted. I didn’t really find much connection between Marina, Francesco and the trio of Freddie, Isabella and Oskar. It felt a bit like two separate stories altogether and it felt very disconnected overall. I also found that Freddie’s story while he was flying bombing missions was repetitive and went on a bit too long.

Having said all that, I think I found Isabella’s story was the most interesting. Once Freddie’s circumstances changed, he became moderately more interesting. Francesco and Marina didn’t keep my attention much at all and Oskar’s story was also not connecting with me. It all felt very disjointed. I don’t know why, but perhaps all the different story lines just didn’t cross paths enough. I didn’t feel very invested in them. I also found that the movement of characters was too abrupt and leaps in the plotline from one point to the next often jarred. Someone might be in one location and the next time we see them, they’re in another place with no explanation as to how they got there. I also found that the “wrap up” chapter at the end was a bit unbelievable. I think the book had a lot more potential than the end result. I really wanted to like it, and I did enjoy parts of it, but it disappointed.

Thanks to NetGalley for a digital copy in exchange for a review.

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Review: Gone Astray – Michelle Davies

2017:57
4 of 5 stars
Published 2016

Winning the lottery is everyone’s dream. You know it will change your life but everyone thinks it will be great and things will never be the same, in a good way. Be careful what you wish for. Media attention. Begging letters from anyone you ever remotely met and from charities. Jealousy. You find you leave your old friends behind but can’t make very many new ones because you don’t know if they’re sincere. Maybe someone thinks they should have won instead of you and decides to take revenge. Oh, wait, that’s probably not going to happen. But in this book, it does. Rosie, the teenage daughter of Lesley and Mack has gone missing. They were big winners in the EuroMillions lottery and someone has it in for them which we know fairly early on in the book. What has he done with Rosie? Is she still alive? It’s every parent’s worst nightmare come true.

DC Maggie Neville is the Family Liaison Officer, one of two assigned to help. She’s unattached but with a sister, a single mother of three children that Maggie helps out regularly. Maggie ends up getting more involved in solving the crime than she’s supposed to, trying to untangle all the clues and figure out the truth and the lies in the stories of all the people interviewed that might have a connection to the crime.

I thought the story was pretty good. Had some good twists to it, though some of them pushed credibility just a tad. I liked Maggie’s character and the sibling dynamic which is shaded with the guilt of an old secret Maggie’s been carrying. It didn’t come out in this book but it seems there will be others.

Thanks to NetGalley for the digital copy in exchange for a review.

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