Review | The Only Child, Andrew Pyper

32620376I’m a huge fan of Andrew Pyper’s work, but The Only Child wasn’t my favourite of his works. At first glance, the story seemed right up my alley — Lily, a psychiatrist, meets Michael, a man who claims to be the inspiration for Frankenstein’s monster and other characters from Victorian horror fiction. He also claims to be Lily’s father.

I usually love Pyper’s brand of literary horror, and his skill at calling upon elements of classical literature or mythology to formulate his contemporary stories. The Only Child, however, wasn’t quite as tightly woven as his other works. The beginning was weak, and the monster and situation weren’t quite as menacing as they could have been, given the premise. There were a couple of moments of gross violence, but otherwise, the book lacked the sense of all-pervasive danger that made Pyper’s other works so compelling.

Lily finds herself drawn to Michael, but given the possibility that he’s her father, it just created a weirdly incestuous sexual tension vibe that was just plain icky. As well, Michael wasn’t at all a charismatic enough character to make the attraction believable, or to make him a truly menacing figure. I like the traces of vulnerability in Michael, and his desire to “only connect,” as E.M. Forster once wrote, but this vulnerability wasn’t so much explored as simply expressed. It’s as if Pyper couldn’t quite decide if Michael was an evil or sympathetic character, and the result was a watered down muddle of both.

The story did get better as it went on, and I thought the ending was strong. Most of it, however, just felt jumbled, with Pyper attempting to squeeze in as many classical horror references as he could. Andrew Pyper is always an entertaining writer, but this wasn’t quite as compelling for me as his other works.

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Thank you to Simon Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Waking Gods, Sylvain Neuvel

30134847In Waking Godsgiant alien robots land in urban centres around the world. If that premise intrigues you, you should definitely give Sylvain Neuvel’s Themis Files trilogy (Waking Gods is Book 2) a try. Part of me is in total nerd heaven at the premise of this book — it’s not the military who can save us from the giant alien robots, but rather scientists. The military are all ready and eager to open fire and save the world, but it’s a task force led by a scientist who is tasked with coming up with a solution. Due to events in Book 1: Sleeping Giants, scientists have already been studying one of these giant alien robots for years, after a similar robot was discovered buried in the ground by Rose, the lead scientist on the project, when she was a little girl. Based on their study, they’ve managed to make the older robot functional, and it just needs two people in particular (a man and a woman with will-they-won’t-they romance) to operate it.

So far, so awesome. I personally would have preferred a bit more science in it. I was really excited that the solution seemed to be more an intellectual puzzle than just a straightforward action-packed battle, and in a way, this was the case as the big reveal that led to the solution had to do with science-related stuff. But most of the novel read like a Transformers movie, with stuff blowing up and teams of nameless good guys running right into the thick of danger. It’s fun and fast-paced action, and likely I wouldn’t have enjoyed too much hard-core science either, but in the beginning, I was expecting something more like Michael Crichton’s books, where there’s just enough scientific discussion to geek out over while still being accessible to non-scientists. Instead, the scientific and philosophical points here were quick throwaway lines, which makes sense given the urgency of their situation, but felt less exciting.

I’m also not a big fan of the style in which the story was told. Because there are so many characters, and lots of the chapters are told in unattributed dialogue, I found the middle of the story really confusing. I couldn’t understand what was happening, and at times, it felt like nothing significant was happening, which made the middle of the story feel really slow for me. The final third or so was the best part, where the pace finally picked up and it became an action-packed thrillfest. I compared the book earlier to a Transformers movie, and in a way, I think I would have enjoyed it more as a movie. The action scenes seem like they’d be a lot of fun to watch on-screen, and being able to put faces to the characters will be much more preferable to all the unattributed dialogue where the characters all end up sounding alike.

If you’ve read and enjoyed Sleeping Giants, you’ll likely enjoy this as well, as it significantly advances the stories of at least three of the main characters. If you enjoy giant alien robots and exciting action scenes, the final third alone makes reading the book worth it. I personally wanted more: the characters felt mostly flat, and the aliens’ motivation was fascinating but not quite as groundbreaking and impactful as I think it was meant to be. The story ended with a cliffhanger, setting up a whole new adventure for our main characters in Book 3. I’m afraid I just don’t care enough about any of the characters to be interested in what happens to them next.

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Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | House of Names, Colm Toibin

32739976Colm Toibin’s House of Names is a short but intense re-telling of the Greek myth of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and their children. I don’t think I’ve ever read the myth, so I can’t speak about how it compares to the original. The premise of the story is compelling — a young Greek woman Iphigenia is sacrificed to the gods by her father Agamemnon in order to ensure his victory in war, and the novel follows how this event impacts her mother Clytemnestra, sister Electra and brother Orestes.

Much like a Greek myth, Toibin’s novel is emotionally charged and at times melodramatic. I was immediately sucked in by the beginning of the novel, but found the book as a whole a bit uneven in execution, and it ended up not quite living up to its promise.

The first part, told from Clytemnestra’s perspective was particularly vivid and powerful. A fierce and loving mother, she is tricked by her husband into taking Iphigenia to the battlefield to be married to Achilles, only to learn her husband’s plan to kill their daughter. Fuelled by guilt and rage, she vows revenge on her husband and solicits the support of one of the palace guards to put her scheme into motion. This section was powerful mostly because of the character of Clytemnestra, who practically pulsated on the page, she felt so real.

I particularly liked how her story highlights the unfairness of gender roles, as Clytemnestra, a powerful woman in her own right, ends up needing to use seduction to gain necessary support from another man. Worse, having already been betrayed by her husband, she finds herself betrayed by her lover as well. The actual scene of revenge is satisfying, yet her single-mindedness proves her downfall, as she is so caught up in her scheme that she fails to notice the dangers around her until it’s too late. In this, she is very much like a Greek hero with their fatal flaw, and I love what Toibin has done with this character.

In contrast, Electra and Orestes’ sections fell flat. I was particularly disappointed with Electra’s section, as she set herself up as Clytemnestra’s nemesis, and in a way, her plans were more successful than her mother’s. Given what she accomplished, I wanted her to be as vivid a figure as Clytemnestra was, a worthy opponent to such a woman. Instead, her character felt bland, almost colourless. We’re told that she was scheming and making things happen, and we see the results of her actions, but she herself seemed as much a passive observer as the reader rather than the driving force behind these events.

Orestes, who was mostly an unfortunate boy caught up in the consequences of his family’s actions, had a more interesting section than Electra’s, just because it was more action-packed. Orestes was away from the castle and had several adventures. As a character however, he was about as bland as Electra. It was his friend Leander who took centre stage in Orestes’ section, and who eventually formulated a big plan to restore order in their kingdom. Unfortunately, so much of the actual action in this section happened offstage, as Orestes is as clueless as we are, and as a result, the big climax was a surprise without any increasing tension leading up to it.

House of Names is worth a read mostly for Clytemnestra’s section, as I was actively rooting for her to win even while she was offstage. Given how Greek myths usually go, I have a feeling Toibin reversed the gender roles a bit in his interpretation of the story, so that Clytemnestra and Electra, rather than Orestes and Agamemnon, are the ones driving the story. If so, I absolutely love that change, and am curious to learn more about the character of Clytemnestra and how that may have changed over time.

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Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Author Q&A | Andrew Pyper on The Only Child

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In The Only Child, a forensic psychiatrist in New York is asked to evaluate a man who may have inspired masterpieces of classic gothic literature. Author of The Demonologist and The DamnedAndrew Pyper is one of Can Lit’s foremost horror writers today, and has built a reputation for smart and creepy reads, so I was thrilled for the chance to interview him for this blog tour.

  1. Michael inspired not just Frankenstein’s monster but a host of other characters in classic horror fiction. What do all these classic characters have in common, such that a single character could inspire them all?

For me, the three most influential novels of the gothic monster are Frankenstein, Dracula, and Jekyll & Hyde. The monsters these books featured exemplify the three main characteristics of the modern monster: the Undead, the Parasite, the Psychopath (the Devil Within). You can trace pretty much any boogeyman back to one of these three aspects. To have one real-life figure inspire these three novels, therefore, required me to devise Michael as containing version of these three monstrous qualities. He is the original monster, in the Western sense, not just because he gave Shelley, Stoker and Stevenson material to write about, but because he was a collection of this Unholy Trinity of attributes.

  1. There seems to be a sexual undertone to Lily’s fascination with Michael. Was this deliberate, and if so, what does it say about our response to evil?

Transgression has always been a motivating characteristic of the gothic. To open the forbidden door, ignore warnings, desire what is closed to you: these are the human impulses that lead us to the mansion on the moor, the dark castle, the fogbound woods. Lily’s journey in the novel is, at least on one level, a rising of the Body after a lifetime of being repressed by the Mind. Part of this is to allow herself to fantasize about Michael, at least the beginning. When she discovers he is closer to her than she initially thought possible, she doesn’t think about him in those terms anymore.

  1. In confronting the truth about her father, Lily is forced to confront some truths about herself as well. How do you think her life would have turned out if she never met Michael?

That’s an interesting question. I suspect that something would have broken Lily open at some point along the line, if for no other reason than it required too much vigilance to hold herself closed to the past, to what her body remembers.

  1. Michael is presented as a monster, but he isn’t, and has never been, fully evil. What do you think makes a monster? Would you characterize Michael as one?

For me, a monster is a being possessed of special powers (even if that power is the absence of notice of social laws and norms). But what qualifies the existential condition of the monster, regardless to how he may present himself as human or charming or emotional, is his inability to experience love.

  1. Your recent books seem to be moving away from thrillers with some horror elements to pure horror, and particularly to playing with some classical horror elements (e.g. Dante’s idea of hell, gothic monsters). What draws you to writing horror and in particular to bringing these classic pieces to the modern world?

I don’t know, I still see the playing field as psychological thrillers with the supernatural dancing around the borderlands, but it’s true that I’ve been looking at existing mythologies in the latest books. It has to do with the power of those mythologies, and their openness to augmentation and revision. To play with an existing tradition in this way is to plug into body of questions that want asking, as opposed to fixed meanings we are barred from trespassing on.

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Thank you to Andrew Pyper for taking the time to answer my questions, and thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for inviting me to take part in this blog tour!

Review & Author Q&A | Our Little Secret, Roz Nay

33305530I read so many thrillers that it’s rare for one to blow me away. Roz Nay’s Our Little Secret did. And it wasn’t so much a gripping, unputdownable page turner that sent my blood racing, but rather a slow burn build up of psychological wrong-ness. What begins as a rather innocuous break up between high school sweethearts turns into a tale of psychological manipulation and potential murder. Nay’s genius is in the subtlety of her writing and character development, such that it’s hard to pinpoint the part where things go wrong, and we have a niggling suspicion that something isn’t quite right without being able to identify what that is.

In the Author Letter that accompanied my advance reading copy, Nay writes:

Don’t we all have a time in our lives that we see as golden — that version of ourselves when we were at our best, our happiest, and our most alive? I wanted to write a novel that, whilst a page-turner, had a kind of slow yearning at its heart to which most readers could relate.

There’s something very powerful about an unwritten future; but what if the story you’d write for your life isn’t the one you end up in?

This encapsulates my experience of the novel exactly. The story takes place in a police interrogation room. The narrator Angela has been taken in for questioning about the disappearance of Saskia, the wife of Angela’s high school sweetheart HP.  The story, Angela tells Detective Novak, begins not with Saskia’s disappearance, but years before, when Angela and HP first meet. Along with Detective Novak, we learn about how their friendship developed into romance, and how Angela’s choices along the way led to HP finding someone else to love.

I love how nothing dramatic happens, and how everything seems completely normal except we know that something must have gone wrong somewhere. And I love having Detective Novak as a foil to Angela’s narration — his responses give us clues to the larger story beyond Angela’s perspective.

With many thrillers, I often say it’s the ending that absolutely seals the deal for me. For Our Little Secret, while the ending is certainly strong, it’s the entire story that makes it so powerful. I love the pace of the story and its depiction of how yearning for a lost past can become a trap. Our Little Secret is such a fantastic, masterfully crafted character study, and to my mind, Angela has the potential to become one of the most compelling characters ever in the thriller genre.

Q&A with Author Roz Nay

1. How did you get the idea for Our Little Secret?

I used to teach high school and every year I’d watch the Grade 12s graduate, full of promise and excitement, so powerful. It struck me that there would always be a few kids in among them who didn’t reach their potential, and who ended up in lives they might feel weren’t theirs—or shouldn’t be. I also wanted to capture that time in a person’s life where everything is bright and vital and new. What if a character got stuck in that golden era and couldn’t quite move beyond it? I thought it might make an interesting backdrop to a crime.

2. Did you know in advance the truth behind Saskia’s disappearance, or did you have multiple possibilities in mind?  

I always knew what I wanted to happen to Saskia, but I did toy with the idea of different villains. I had great conversations with my editors, Nita Pronovost and Sarah St. Pierre, but it didn’t take us long to realize there was only one real path. I couldn’t swerve away from it!

3. What, if anything, surprised you the most about the way the story or the characters turned out? 

When I first wrote Our Little Secret, Olive was the victim. She was stolen—this was in the novel’s first draft, when it was first signed. As we started the edits, it became clear (because my editors have laser vision) that I’d written a novel with the wrong crime and the wrong victim. That’s pretty good, on a scale of one to very surprising.

4. There seems to me a rather delicate balance in Angela’s reliability as a narrator, which shifts subtly back and forth throughout the story. How challenging was it to create this narrative voice?

I actually found Angela’s voice came naturally, which is perhaps something I should be more worried about. You’re right, though: as fun as she was to write, she was also pretty complicated. I needed to create a shape-shifter who was also disarming and likeable. It was an enjoyable challenge. 

5. How much of a role do you think Angela’s mother had in the way Angela responded to HP and Saskia’s relationship?

Oh, I think she played a huge role. Shelley is fundamental in how Angela sees the world, even though Angela would never admit it. Equally, I don’t think Shelley has a full grasp on the impact she’s having on her daughter. I like the dynamic of neither character really understanding their own relationship.

6. Do you already have your second novel in the works, or an idea for one? What will it be about?

I’ve written two more psych thrillers and I’m working on a fourth. One story I’ve written is about a baby who’s taken from his mom and her plight to get him back; the other is about a British backpacker who’s gone missing in an airport hotel. They’re both currently under consideration.

Blog Tour

Check out the rest of the blog tour reviews for Our Little Secret!

 

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review | New Boy, Tracy Chevalier

32078646The Hogarth Shakespeare books have been a series of hits (Gap of Time, Hag-seed) and misses (Vinegar Girl, Shylock is My Name) for me. Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy is a powerful, disquieting re-telling of Othello that falls squarely in the hits column. Chevalier transposes Shakespeare’s tale of racism, jealousy and power into a 1970’s suburban elementary school, and seeing the story play out amongst 11 year old children gives a whole new resonance to its themes.

Osei, a diplomat’s son, begins at his fourth new school in six years. A perpetual new kid, he knows the drill: fit in, don’t stand out. It’s tough when you’re the only Black student in the school and even the teachers look at you with suspicion. Fortunately, he quickly befriends Dee and Casper, the two most popular kids at school. He also earns his other classmates’ respect with his athleticism during a kickball game. His popularity threatens the power structure enforced by the school bully Ian, who schemes to take him down.

Chevalier does a remarkable job in taking a story with such adult themes and making it feel real with 11 year old children. Due to their age, there’s an innocence and lightness to Osei and Dee’s romance, such that when their classmates fall silent at seeing them together and their teacher orders Osei not to touch Dee’s hair, the censure is all the more jarring in its harshness. A strawberry studded pencil case takes the place of the handkerchief in the original, and its childlike nature is very much incongruous with the jealousy and vitriol it will soon inspire.

Seeing Othello as an 11 year old boy is a disturbing reminder of how cruelty does not discriminate based on age. For example, Osei remembers how even Black and Chinese classmates at his previous schools kept their distance, so as not to risk their own precarious position in the school’s social hierarchy. He also makes the conscious decision to turn on his Ghanaian accent at school, because he finds that white people seem more threatened by Black Americans than by Africans, and it’s sad to think of an 11 year old child feeling the need to be so strategic. Later, his response to Dee and the pencil case is particularly tragic, as Dee was the one person at school with whom Osei didn’t feel the need for strategy, the one person with whom Osei could simply feel like he belonged.

I absolutely loved the character of Dee in New Boy. When Ian was plotting his schemes, he immediately discarded the option of tricking Dee because he knew she was too smart to fall for it. Later, when things completely fall apart, it’s Dee who first realizes what Ian has done, and while it was unfortunately too little too late (because Shakespeare), I love the power and agency Chevalier has given this character.

Ian is another interesting character. The extent of his cruelty seems out of proportion to what we’d like to imagine an 11 year old to be capable of, but there’s a childishness to his scheme that makes it all too real. His motivations as well are very childlike — he resents Osei and Casper’s popularity because he himself is feared rather than liked, and unlike Osei and Casper’s natural charisma, Ian has to actively cultivate this fear to maintain his social standing. I have rarely wanted a literary villain to fail as much as Ian, to an extent that I don’t think I’ve felt for a Shakespearean villain, and kudos to Chevalier for making this character so real.

By transplanting Othello into 1970s Washington, Chevalier frames the story within a charged political context around African American power and identity. When Osei’s sister Sisi declares that “Black is beautiful,” she is very much a part of a larger national movement. Even ordinary items like the pencil case, which used to belong to Sisi before she left home to become a political activist, are given added resonance by its setting.

The themes of Othello are of course sadly still relevant today, and what is on surface a straightforward schoolyard tale of bullying is a powerful, disturbing sucker punch of a book. I can’t help but wonder how a Black author would have handled this material, though I like that Chevalier drew upon her own experience of being an outsider as a white girl at a school with mostly Black students. In her words:

Othello is about what it means to be the outsider, and that feeling can start at an early age. We have all at one time or another stood at the edge of a playground, with the bullies circling, wondering if we are going to be accepted. [from the author bio]

New Boy makes Othello immediate and real, and gave me a whole new and visceral experience of the story. I loved it.

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Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Reviews | The Arrangement by Sarah Dunn and Fly Me by Daniel Riley

The Arrangement by Sarah Dunn

30841908Lucy and Owen decide to spice up their marriage by experimenting with a six month open relationship arrangement. At first, all seems to be going well, with both parties noticing an increased appetite for sex yet secure in the knowledge of each other’s love. But, as has been foreshadowed practically since the beginning, things don’t quite work out as planned, and both must face the consequences of their decision.

The Arrangement is a hard, utterly frank look at the challenges of married life. Lucy and Owen’s desire for a fantasy life is all too relatable, and I like how Dunn shows us the real consequences of having this fantasy in an entertaining, non-moralistic way.

I love how the fun, adventurous girlfriend actually turns out to be much more possessive and demanding than Owen expected, as this feels a bit of welcome karma for women whose husbands cheat on them with someone “less complicated.” I also love how Liz’s no strings attached fling leads to her rediscovering her desirability, when she receives a level of attention and desire that has long been lost amongst the mundanity of everyday life. There are real consequences beyond Lucy and Owen’s relationship as well, as they also have to deal with the impact of their decisions on their autistic son.

The Arrangement is a fun, realistic look at marriage. The ending felt a bit abrupt, but otherwise I really enjoyed it.

Fly Me by Daniel Riley

31684490Set in 1972 Los Angeles, Fly Me is about a young woman, Suzy Whitman, who follows her older sister into a career as a flight attendant for Grand Pacific Airlines. Suzy skateboards and suntans on the beaches of California and falls into a drug-trafficking scheme.

From the blurb, Fly Me seemed like glitzy, glamorous, hedonistic fun, but this just didn’t work for me and I ended up not finishing it. Something about it reminded me of 1980s novels by Harold Robbins or Jackie Collins, but not quite as delicious so it didn’t quite work. The story never quite hooked me, and I never quite came to care for the characters.

This just wasn’t a book for me, but from Goodreads reviews, it did work for other readers. One reviewer compares it to Don DeLillo, Joan Didion and Emma Cline, and a second reviewer echoes the comparison to Emma Cline’s The Girls. 

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Thank you to Hachette Book Group for advance reading copies of these books in exchange for honest reviews.