About Jaclyn

I'm a total bookaholic! Fiction, non-fiction, mysteries, YA, science fiction, I read practically anything and everything. I also love talking about books, and chatting about books with people who love them as much as I do!

Review | Closed Casket, Sophie Hannah

Poirot is back! I’m a huge Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot fan, so I admit to being initially a bit wary of Sophie Hannah’s take on such a beloved character. To Hannah’s credit, she doesn’t attempt to imitate Christie’s style nor to present a Poirot rigidly identical to Christie’s original, but rather pays homage to author and character while weaving her own yarn of a story. The mysteries themselves are akin to what Christie may have written — a series of mysterious deaths in a hotel (Monogram Murders) and a matriarch changing her will and thereby causing a murder in the family (Closed Casket) — but the dialogue and characters and plot twists feel more Hannah than Christie.

This is especially evident in Closed Casket, which I think is much better than Monogram MurdersClosed Casket just feels a lot more confident, Hannah coming into her own as a Poirot writer and simply letting the mystery take shape rather than worrying about proving how much she knows Christie’s Poirot.

It’s due to that confidence, I think, that she finally gives Edward Catchpool, her narrator, his due as a character in his own right rather than merely a bumbling foil for Poirot’s brilliance. Catchpool is, of course, still not as smart as Poirot, but we can at least understand now why Poirot saw such potential in him. Whereas Catchpool annoyed me in Monogram Murders with his sheer stupidity (seriously, how he even got a job in Scotland Yard baffled me), he appears more like a real detective in Closed Casket. He still doesn’t have quite as many little grey cells as Poirot (because no one really does), but he’s at least become a valuable partner, slightly more capable perhaps than Hastings and a bit more like Martin Freeman’s John Watson than Nigel Bruce’s take.

I also geeked out quite a bit more over the Closed Casket mystery, possibly because it felt more Christie-like, and also possibly just because I love family dramas that culminate in locked room (locked house?) murders. There is a tiny pool of suspects, all of whom have known each other for years, most of whom have a viable motive to kill. It begins with Lady Athelinda Playford, a wealthy author of children’s mysteries (and possibly Hannah’s take on Ariadne Oliver?), inviting Poirot and Catchpool to her home and then announcing to her family at dinner that she has changed her will to leave everything to her secretary rather than her children. The catch? Her secretary is fatally ill and expected to live only a few weeks more. Why would a woman leave her fortune to someone whom she will very likely outlive? And who better to figure it out than a Belgian detective with an overload of little grey cells and a penchant for relying on psychology to solve a case?

I absolutely loved the mystery in this book. Like the characters, I couldn’t figure out Athelinda’s motive for changing her will in that way, and when a murder is committed, I couldn’t figure out who could have done it or why it was done in the first place. As Catchpool and Poirot uncover clues and learn about the other characters’ stories, Hannah keeps the psychological twists and turns coming and, as with any of Christie’s best mysteries, I found it best to simply sit back and enjoy the ride. Best of all, the big reveal did not disappoint. The culprit’s motivation was unexpected and chilling, and as messed up as the motive of any of Christie’s murderers.

Hannah’s Poirot isn’t (to me) as loveable as Christie’s original, but this book will certainly stay in my collection of beloved mysteries. More than anything, it made me want to read more of Sophie Hannah’s work. If she does this well with a classic character, how much better will her mysteries be when she’s completely unfettered by tradition and can completely let loose with her mystery-writing muscles? Part of me also wants to re-read Monogram Murders to see if I will appreciate it more now, and perhaps despite the annoying level of Catchpool’s stupidity, there’s the same gem of mystery genius I enjoyed so much in Closed Casket.

It’s tough to fill shoes as big as those of Agatha Christie, who is the best-selling novelist of all time, outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare. I hesitate to call Sophie Hannah as the successor to Christie, but then that hesitation for me would apply even to such mystery writing greats as Val McDermid and P.D. James, simply because their styles are all so different from Christie’s. Rather, I say that Sophie Hannah is a brilliant mystery author in her own right. I enjoyed Closed Casket and can’t wait to start reading Sophie Hannah’s non-Poirot mysteries.

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As an aside, isn’t the UK cover (top image, right) gorgeous? Both covers have their charm, and possibly a mood will strike when I prefer the US cover, but the UK cover just really caught my eye.

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Thank you to Harper Collins Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Blog Tour: Review and Giveaway | Jungle Land, Eric Walters (Seven Prequels)

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When thirteen year old DJ is invited by his grandfather on a trip to Central America, he may have expected adventure, but he certainly didn’t expect to be chased by gun-toting kidnappers and wild animals. Eric Walters’ Jungle Land, part of the Seven Prequels series, is a high octane thrill-fest of an adventure whose plot twists and cliffhangers reminded me somewhat of the Hardy Boys mysteries.

Just like the Secrets series (which I’ve read and enjoyed), Jungle Land and the other books in the Seven Prequels are standalone stories that share a common thread but can be read in any order.

Jungle Land is the prequel to DJ’s further adventures Between Heaven and Earth (Seven) and Sleeper (Seven Sequels). Want to learn more? Check out orcabook.com/seven for more information on the series!

Q&A with Eric Walters

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What do you love most about DJ’s character?

D.J. is strong, determined, and thoughtfully conflicted between how he feels and how he has to present to look like he’s in charge.  This is very much a result of taking on so much responsibility so early after the death of a parent.  The joke with this series is that we have all written our selves into our characters.  I lost my mother when I was four and can strongly identify with who this character is and what motivates him.

2. What made you decide to set this prequel adventure in the jungles of Central America?
I often set my books in places I’m either visiting or want to visit.  I spent a lot of time in Costa Rica – staying at a hostel for young surfers – trekking through the jungle, hanging around jungle waterfalls and rivers, talking to people.  It gives the writing some details that are essential to get it right.
3. What was it like to write for one of the characters in a larger series with multiple authors? Was there a lot of collaboration involved?
This was remarkably easy.  I was fortunate enough to have chosen the writers so I chose great writers who are also great people.
4. How have your students responded to your books? What do you find works really well in getting them excited about reading?
I wrote my first 20 novels while I was teaching and my students were my constant audience.  Now I have schools that act as test audiences to help me refine my stories.  It’s so important when you’re writing for children and young people that they are your audience.
5. Who are your top 3 favourite writers and why?
Jerry Spinelli, William Bell, John Steinbeck.  They all are dynamic writers who combine dialogue, description and action is a perfect blend.

Boxed Set Giveaway (Canada only)

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The kind publishers at Orca Books have offered my readers a chance to win the entire Seven Prequels boxed set, including a copy of Eric Walters’ Jungle Land!

As you see in my blog post about Secrets, a blog contest is how I was introduced to these Orca Books series in the first place, and I’m really excited to share this opportunity with all of you!

Three Ways to Enter

  1. Enter on Rafflecopter
  2. RT my #SevenPrequels contest tweet at @jacqua83
  3. Like my #SevenPrequels contest post on Instagram at @jacqua83

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Thank you to Orca Books for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review, and for the invitation to join the blog tour!

Review | Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d (Flavia de Luce 8), Alan Bradley

28814726Flavia de Luce is back, and Bradley has finally recovered some of the magic that made me fall in love with the series in the first place! I’ve never been a fan of Bradley’s decision to take Flavia to Toronto and involve her with the spy organization Nide, so I’m thrilled to see her back in England discovering a body in her hometown.

Flavia goes to a reclusive woodcutter’s house to deliver a message from the vicar’s wife, only to find him dead, tied spread eagled and upside down to his door. The clues: a lottery ticket and a collection of Crispian Crumpet children’s books. The witness: a tortoiseshell cat. Flavia’s investigation takes her around the village and into London as she digs into the decades-old death of an author and meets a colourful cast of characters, including a neighbourhood witch, a teenage aspiring singer, and the real-life Crispian Crumpet. The mystery is full of twists and turns, and while I figured out one of the big mid-book reveals pretty much off the bat, I certainly never saw the ultimate big reveal coming, nor the bad guy’s motivation.

 

Brinded Cat gives us a more mature Flavia, still geeking out about chemistry and blood patterns, but slightly more subdued in her reproach. Rather than playing mischievous scientific pranks on her sisters and angling for her father’s undivided attention, this Flavia worries about her father’s health (he’s in the hospital and she’s unable to visit) and wonders about the seemingly irreparable rift between her and her sisters. Flavia’s relationship with Dogger and Undine really come to the fore in this book, with Flavia struggling to come to terms with the changes in her family while she was away and also with the fact that she’s no longer the youngest child in the household. In one scene, she scolds Undine for some mischief, only to learn that Dogger had helped her do it. Flavia felt betrayed by Dogger, not because he did anything wrong, but rather because Undine appears to have taken on Flavia’s role in Dogger’s life. It’s a really well-written moment, as is the part where Flavia looks at Undine with affection tinged with annoyance, a sort of maturation into the older sister mode.

The end of the book is just heartbreaking. Seriously, Alan Bradley, what was that for? I personally wish it had been moved earlier in the story, or at least that we had a bit more time to process it, rather than ending the book so abruptly, cliffhanger style.

Still, overall, a wonderful, captivating book, and I’m so glad to see Flavia back to form.

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Thanks to Penguin Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Swan Riders, Erin Bow

26409580The Swan Riders picks up right where The Scorpion Rules leaves off. Greta Stuart has become an AI to save two kingdoms from destruction and war and is now on a journey with Talis, the AI who rules the world, back to his headquarters. Their journey is perilous, partly because the transition from human to AI puts Greta as the risk of death, and also partly because Greta’s sacrifice has stirred her nation into open rebellion. The Swan Riders in the title refer to members of Talis’ army, introduced in Scorpion Rules as the ones who take the Children of Peace to their deaths, and brought to the fore here as enhanced humans who have offered Talis their fealty and the use of their bodies.

Scorpion Rules was intense, horrific, tragic. We saw the world through the eyes of Greta as a human princess with human friends who were all raised as hostages for peace. We felt her dignified resignation at her fate and her abject fear when things actually do come to a head. Swan Riders has a completely different tone and perspective, yet no less gripping and thought-provoking. We gain Greta’s new perspective as an AI who can tap into the world’s satellites yet still struggles with the dichotomy between her analytical programming and her human emotions. It’s fascinating to see things through her AI eyes, yet also heartbreaking to realize how much of her humanity has been suppressed in the transition. It’s especially disquieting to realize that because we’re in her head, we don’t even really miss the markers of her humanity until one of the other characters points it out. In one scene, Elian observes that the old Greta wouldn’t have stood back and watched someone get hurt. Greta points out, logically, that she was outnumbered, and Elian responds that old Greta wouldn’t have been deterred. It’s a disturbing realization, made all the more so because as a reader, I was so enmeshed in Greta’s new perspective that I didn’t even notice the lack of humanity in her behaviour.

While Greta remains the main perspective, much of the story’s heart really lies with Michael Talis and the swan riders Rachel (whose body Michael inhabits) and Francis Xavier (Rachel’s partner). Michael is the most powerful AI in the world, yet circumstances prompt him to examine his humanity, or whatever is left of it. It’s a nice ambiguous semi-reversal, somewhat like the flip version of Greta’s transition to AI, and it makes the series villain probably one of the most sympathetic characters in the book. Rachel’s fate is very much tied to Michael’s, and seeing Francis Xavier’s reactions to his beloved’s body being moved by an AI’s mind makes the price of the Swan Riders’ fealty very tangible.

The horror of having one’s mind violated was touched upon in Scorpion Rules, with the mention of dreamlock as a torture tactic, but it’s explored even deeper in Swan Riders. In this case, Michael entering Greta’s mind is an act of kindness, of helping her deal with human memories encroaching upon her AI thought processes. (Due to their perfect memory, AI’s don’t remember experiences, but rather relive them, with all the intensity that implies, and so can be traumatic.) But however kindly meant, it’s still a violation, and Greta fears what it does to the vestiges of her humanity. At one point, she says, “He took it, and I didn’t say he could.” This, as well as other incidents in the book, make uncomfortable parallels between mind control and rape, and again raise so many thoughts and emotions about what’s being done by a character whom we’re beginning to sympathize with.

Erin Bow’s books defy brief summaries and simple star ratings. There is just so much going on, and so much more happening between the lines, that while it’s accurate to say I loved and enjoyed her books, it’s even more accurate to say that they left me reeling at the end. Much like the ending of Scorpion Rules, with Greta’s irreversible decision to become an AI, felt both tragic and necessary, the ending of Swan Riders is similarly complex. On one glance, it’s a good ending and a good final note to the series. On the other hand, it can lead to so many more complex issues that can give rise to an even more thought-provoking third book.

Both Scorpion Rules and Swan Riders are amazing, among the most complex and mature YA books that I’ve read. I can’t predict how you’ll feel about the story, but I can predict that you’ll feel something, likely a lot of things, and that you will be left full of thoughts and questions. This series is a brilliant example of building a world and seeing where it takes you. Kudos, Ms. Bow.

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

Review | Murder at the House of Rooster Happiness, David Casarett

28449133A few pages into this book and I already knew that Ladarat Patalung would become one of my favourite series detective characters, and that I’ll be keeping an eye out for further titles in the Ethical Chiang Mai Detective Agency series.

Nurse ethicist Ladarat Patalung, who works at a hospital in Chiang Mai, Thailand, is pulled into three different cases. In the main mystery, a woman’s husband dies in Ladarat’s hospital and someone recognizes her as having taken a different husband to another hospital and that other husband also dying. Detective Wiriya Mookjai needs Ladarat’s help to investigate the potential of a serial killer.

The other two cases have more to do with Ladarat’s job as a nurse and an ethicist rather than with murder. In one, an American tourist is on the brink of death after an accident with an elephant, and Dr. Suphit Jainukul, the director of the ICU, needs Ladarat’s help in breaking the bad news to his family. In the other, a man mysteriously appears each day in the hospital waiting room, yet runs away whenever someone tries to talk to him. Who is the man, what does he want, and, more importantly for Dr. Jainukul, how can Ladarat get him to leave the hospital in time for an upcoming major inspection?

I love the character of Ladarat, a middle aged woman who genuinely cares about doing the right thing and who is positively geeking out over discovering her talent for detective work. She’s a modest, unassuming woman who concurs with her late husband’s assessment of her “coat hanger” figure, and notes that her “oversized glasses and hair pinned tightly in a bun admittedly did not contribute to a figure of surpassing beauty.” [p. 5] She works long hours, owns a cat named Maewfawbaahn (does anyone know if this means anything?), and, having no talent or time to cook, often orders her meals from a corner stall. In other words, she is an ordinary woman, not super brilliant so much as super empathetic, and it’s her genuine interest in people and ability to place herself in their shoes that helps her solve her cases.

I also love the developing attraction between her and Wiriya, who is described as “solid and comforting, with close-cropped graying hair, a slow smile and gentle manners that would not have been out of place in a Buddhist monk.” I love the quiet nature of their chemistry, and the fact that much of their attraction to each other is built on respect for the other’s abilities. Wiriya often comments on the acuity of Ladarat’s observations, and Ladarat clearly admires Wiriya’s skills as a detective. Even their physical attraction to each other isn’t built on Ladarat suddenly wearing better fitting clothes or applying makeup, but rather on features that perhaps other people wouldn’t pay attention to.

The mysteries as well are intriguing character studies and explorations into human nature. The motivations of the various characters whom Ladarat encounters are all so richly textured. They feel real, for lack of a better word, and I think it’s Ladarat’s perspective that makes it so. The story of the man in the waiting room is particularly intriguing, and we find this out mainly thanks to Ladarat’s willingness to, literally, see things from his perspective. The story of the murderer in the main story could have been fleshed out a bit more, in my opinion, particularly the involvement of a particular figure in their crimes, but I think that’s just because Casarett does such a good job in fleshing out other characters that, like Ladarat, I end up wanting to understand even more.

Casarett also provides a lot of detail about Thai culture, particularly customs and cuisine. It’s an intriguing glimpse into a culture I’m not too familiar with, and kudos to the author for explaining customs like the wai greeting ritual without presenting it as exotic. Casarett travels to Chiang Mai often, and his love for Thai cuisine is very much apparent in this book. He describes Ladarat’s meals with the same level of loving detail as Carolyn Keene described Hannah Gruen’s feasts in the Nancy Drew books, and I often became hungry for Thai food while reading this.

Empathy is under-emphasized as a super-skill in detective fiction, and in that, Ladarat Patalung stands out. I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with her and seeing her tease out the various threads in people’s stories. Murder at the House of Rooster Happiness is a strong start to a new mystery series, and I can’t wait to read more.

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Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The FOLD 2016 #DiverseBooks Reading Challenge, Part 2

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Earlier this month, I’d posted about taking The FOLD‘s #DiverseBooks Reading Challenge, with some awesome reads by FOLD 2016 authors (See Item # 8).

The FOLD’s 2016 Reading List

  1. A book you’ve had for more than a year.
  2. A book outside of your ‘favourite genre’.
  3. A book you buy at an indie bookstore.
  4. A book by a person of a faith (different from your own).
  5. A book by an Aboriginal author.
  6. A book by a Canadian LGBTQ author.
  7. A book by a Canadian person of colour.
  8. A book by a FOLD 2016 author.

Today’s read comes courtesy of Item # 7:

# 7 A book by a Canadian person of colour

The Translation of Love by Lynne Kutsukake

I took this book to the beach on a scorching summer day, and it was so captivating I almost ended up reading all afternoon without going into the water. (Key word: almost. But if you’ve been in Toronto this summer, you know how much that ‘almost’ means.)

In post-World War II Japan, thirteen-year-old Fumi, with the help of her classmate Aya, a repatriated Japanese-Canadian, writes to General Douglas MacArthur for help in finding her older sister Sumiko, who had left home to be a dancer at a nightclub frequented by American GI’s and never returned. Their stories interlock with that of Matt, the Japanese-American GI who translates letters to MacArthur from Japanese people asking about his promise of a brighter future; Kondo, a schoolteacher who translates love letters for the Japanese girlfriends of American GI’s; and Sumiko herself, whose story echoes that of so many Japanese women in that era.

Translation of Love is such a beautifully told story of interwoven narratives that resonated with me because I could imagine my own home country, the Philippines, after the war, and how my family must have felt when General MacArthur gave them a similar promise of liberation and hope. It feels a bit odd to feel that connection to a story about Japan, since a lot of the atrocities Filipinos suffered during World War II were at the hands of Japanese soldiers, but like Katsukake’s characters, Filipinos also looked (and many still do today) to America for the promise of a better life.

Most palpable in Translation is the desperation mixed with hope in Japanese women looking for an American to fall in love with them enough to take them back to a life of comfort and relative luxury in America. I can’t remember which of the characters said that the women of Japan showed the most courage after the war, but the sentiment certainly felt true while reading this book.

Contrasted with their hope is the harsh reality of life as a person of Japanese descent in North America. Along with Aya and her father, who lived at a concentration camp before being kicked out of Canada, we also read of Matt’s co-worker Nancy, a Japanese-American who happened to be in Japan when war broke out and was unable to return home. Translation is moving and complex, and the characters all feel so real. A beautiful book.

The Illegal by Lawrence Hill

Keita Ali is an elite runner from Zantoroland who escapes to Freedom State when his journalist father is killed for his activism against the government. It’s a tough life for an undocumented immigrant in Freedom State, where the government is cracking down on immigration and deporting numerous illegals back to Zantoroland. When Keita enters a major race for money and wins, his newfound notoriety catches the attention of the Zantoroland government, which captures his sister Charity and demands an exorbitant ransom. Keita’s story intersects with that of a brothel in poverty-stricken Africtown when a USB that incriminates the Prime Minister ends up in Keita’s bag.

The allegories to real life are very thinly veiled, yet also very relevant. This book was published in 2015, when thousands of Syrian refugees were trying to enter Canada, the US and other countries, and the Canadian government promised to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees within a year.

It seems odd to say about a book that tackles such real-world issues, but once we move into Freedom State, the violence in the story almost feels…sanitized? In an early chapter, set in Zantoroland, a young Keita is called upon to pick up his father’s body from the so-called “Pink Palace,” where political dissidents are summoned and few are able to leave. There’s a chilling bit about the government’s requests for ransom, and how to tell if there’s any hope at all of getting your loved one back alive. The violence in Freedom State stands in stark contrast to this — for example, the major threat is a bounty hunter who can shoot off a finger without harming the rest of the body, and while this is certainly menacing, it feels almost stylized compared to the Pink Palace segment.

Possibly, after the threat of the Pink Palace and a phone call suggesting a young boy bring a fruit cart to take his father home, the more familiar image of a hired gun just doesn’t have the same impact, though I wouldn’t discount the similar degree of danger. I wonder if this dichotomy is a personal response from me or a deliberate narrative move on Hill’s part, to highlight the many different types of violence and danger refugees and illegal immigrants face, from whatever they were escaping in their country of origin to the more subtle yet equally inescapable source of fear in their new home.

Special Mention: Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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Colson Whitehead is not Canadian, but Underground Railroad is absolutely amazing. I highly recommend it.

Next Up…

#6 A book by a Canadian LGBTQ author.

I loved Jeffrey Round’s Endgame (punk rock riff on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were Noneand I’m excited to read Lake on the Mountain.

#5 A book by an Aboriginal author.

Any suggestions?

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Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of Translation of Love in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Nutshell, Ian McEwan

29752912A fetus observes from his mother Trudy’s womb as she schemes with her lover Claude to murder her husband, his brother John. Ian McEwan’s Nutshell has a clever conceit, a loose re-telling of Hamlet told from the point of view of an unborn protagonist. There are shades of Macbeth in there as well, with Claude and Trudy’s dynamic very similar to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. There have been quite a few Shakespearean re-tellings lately (the Hogarth series in particular of which Nutshell is not a part), and McEwan’s novel stands among the best and most clever riffs on the Bard’s legacy.

McEwan pays homage to his source material from the start. The book opens with an epigraph from Hamlet and the early passages provide some knowing winks to anyone familiar with Shakespeare. “Seems, Mother? No, it is. You are,” the narrator says on page 2, echoing Hamlet’s response to his mother Gertrude in Act I, scene 2: “‘Seems’, madam? Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems.'” Just a page later, the narrator ponders his will to be born, and his phrasing echoes Hamlet’s iconic “To be or not to be” soliloquy on his desire for death: “So getting closer, my idea was To be. Or if not that, its grammatical variant, is.” There is just enough similarity to twig recognition in Shakespeare fans, and just enough difference in context to make it wholly original. Throughout the book, McEwan maintains a playful touch with language, teasing with hints of Shakespearean phraseology or planting bits of story recognizable from the play, but keeping these touches light enough that they never feel stale, nor trying too hard to be clever.

There are moments when the prose gets a bit unwieldy, the narrator waxing on with as much melodrama as, admittedly, Hamlet was wont to do, and I find myself tempted to skim ahead. That being said, there are also times the florid descriptions work, as with this masterfully vivid passage: “Between his weakness and her deceit was the fetid crack that spontaneously generated a maggot-uncle. And I squat here sealed in my private life, in a lingering, sultry dark, impatiently dreaming.” [p. 34] How beautiful is the phrase “lingering, sultry dark”?

While a riff on a classic, the story itself feels fresh and original. It’s mainly a story of murder, the plotting thereof and the aftermath of the decision. McEwan’s comedic talents and ear for dialogue come to the fore, particularly in the scene where Trudy and Claude attempt to implement their plan. One can almost imagine the actors in this murderous plot turned farce, and much of the comedy comes from the choreography of the conversation.

Or take as well the bawdy comedy of a sex scene as told by a fetus, likely enough to make any pregnant reader blush. “Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose,” the narrator comments wryly. Then: “This turbulence would shake the wings of a Boeing.” [p. 20] He compares the experience to that of an amusement park ride, and his mother “[arriving] to take her place on the Wall of Death.” [p. 22] As George Takei would say, oh my.

 

The novel is a masterclass in craftsmanship, and the language finely tuned. The story itself seems like a pretty straightforward one of murder and betrayal, but the execution is brilliant. Bravo, Mr. McEwan.

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