Review | Someone is Watching, Joy Fielding

22694047Private investigator Bailey Carpenter is attacked while working on a case, and her entire world falls apart. From being a confident, independent woman, she finds herself afraid to ride an elevator with a man and unable to sleep without having nightmares. Worse, she sees her attacker in almost every man she encounters — an obnoxious flirt at the gym, a man walking past her in the street, a narcissistic man in the apartment building across from hers. They all fit the frustratingly generic description of Bailey’s attacker: white male between the ages of 20 to 40 years old, average height, average build, wearing black Nikes.

I often find books involving sexual assault difficult to read — for example, Elizabeth Haynes’ Into the Darkest Corner kept me feeling claustrophobic, almost physically trapped, throughout. Fielding’s writing is a bit more detached that Haynes’, and while she did a good job of portraying Bailey’s fear and sense of paralysis after the attack, Someone is Watching felt more like an action-packed thriller than a psychological one.

Part of the reason may be that despite the attack that began the whole story, there were so many other things going on in Bailey’s life. A major subplot is the Bailey’s dysfunctional family — her father had had many children by different women, and left his vast fortune only to Bailey and her brother Heath. Bailey and Heath’s half siblings, led by high powered district attorney Gene, are suing for their share of the inheritance. This adds a touch of intrigue to the motives of Bailey’s half sister Claire, who stays over at Bailey’s apartment for days after the attack. Is Claire sincere in wanting to help Bailey heal or is Heath right and Claire is only after Bailey’s money? This is further complicated by Heath having issues of his own — a struggling actor who is perennially stoned, Heath also happens to be best friends with Bailey’s ex-boyfriend, who still wants Bailey back and who also happens to fit the description of her attacker. Then there is Bailey’s current boyfriend, a married man with children whose identity is glaringly obvious from the beginning and yet whom Fielding for some reason coyly refuses to name until Claire’s daughter susses it out. Finally, there is the man Bailey, Claire and Jade call Narcissus, the vain neighbour who parades naked in front of his open window and appears to know that Bailey is watching him.

There’s a lot going on, and while it’s easy enough to keep the characters straight, it can also be somewhat frustrating to see so many potential red herrings in the mystery. That’s actually a credit to Fielding’s writing, as it mirrors the frustration Bailey and other attack victims must feel themselves, where fear can take many forms, even among those familiar to you. That being said, there appears to be enough drama without adding so many subplots to the mix.

There’s a great moment near the end where Bailey realizes she may never know who her attacker is, and that she would just have to make her peace with that. I love that, because it shows an unfortunate reality of some victims, and it also takes the story back to Bailey’s psychological state rather than the physical investigation of potential attackers.

The ending as a whole felt overly convoluted. The first big reveal in particular seemed complicated, and while I admit it could have happened, the soap operatic nature of this twist detracted from the very real drama of dealing with an attack. The second reveal then felt anticlimactic, almost unnecessary after the dramatic impact of the first. That being said, I may be biased because I wasn’t happy to learn who the villains were, mostly because I had grown to like these characters earlier on. And that too is a testament to Fielding’s writing.

Someone is Watching is Joy Fielding’s 25th thriller, which is pretty awesome. If you’re a fan of her books, or of thrillers in general, this is definitely one to pick up. An entertaining read overall.

+

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

Review | Summer Sisters, Judy Blume

Judy Blume will always remind me of my childhood. Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret was one of my favourite books growing up, and while a recent re-read didn’t quite affect me as I’d hoped, I still remember getting caught up in Margaret’s concerns about filling out a bra and getting her period and all sorts of rites of passage young girls go through. Fellow Blume fans, say it with me: “I must, I must, I must increase my bust!”

Great news for all of us who grew up with Judy Blume: she has a new adult novel coming in June! In the Unlikely Event hits shelves June 2.

820100I was fortunate enough to have attended the Random House Canada Spring Bloggers Event, where they told us about the upcoming novel. There were no ARCs available, but they generously provided us with copies of Judy Blume’s previous adult novel Summer SistersIf you’ve ever read Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s EyeSummer Sisters reminds me somewhat of that novel, being about the strong bonds formed in female friendship when young, and how these can last in some form or another all through adulthood. And like Cat’s Eye, Summer Sisters took me right back to my childhood.

The novel is about best friends Vix Leonard and Caitlin Somers, who go to Caitlin’s family house in Martha’s Vineyard every summer. Caitlin’s family becomes somewhat a surrogate family to Vix, and helps her out with scholarships to the best schools. Over the years, the girls grow apart — having grown up with money all her life, Caitlin can’t understand why Vix would choose to spend her summers working at a restaurant rather than travel with her to Europe; Vix on the other hand finds it difficult to explain why she feels uncomfortable accepting Caitlin’s parents’ offer to pay for her ticket to Europe. Vix sees a degree from Harvard as a necessity for a stable life; Caitlin thinks it’s settling for an ordinary one. And as the novel opens, Caitlin invites Vix to be maid of honour at her wedding to Vix’s ex-boyfriend, whom they both met during a summer at the Vineyard.

The novel dips into the girls’ stories once a year, at first during the summer season, and then later on, during Vix’s school year. Even though the novel begins with Caitlin’s wedding, the romantic angle is secondary to the story of their friendship, and the boyfriend is as secondary a character as the girls’ parents. I love this glimpse into the girls’ lives, and their adventures in the Vineyard remind me of the unbridled fun summers were as a teen, when they were breaks from the school year, and where even a menial job like cleaning houses could be fun because you were doing it with your best friend.

Blume tells the story mostly from Vix’s perspective, and while various characters are given a chapter or two to tell their side, Caitlin’s voice is notably absent. This adds to her mystique as a character — we see her only as others do, and while Vix may know her more than most, even Vix eventually realizes that there are many layers to Caitlin that she will never know. I actually wasn’t a big fan of hearing from the other characters — with the exception of Caitlin’s stepmom Abby, none of the other interludes really interested me, and I would have rather stayed with Vix the entire time.

I hesitate to call this novel simple, because there is a lot that happens, and so much more in terms of family dynamics that remains unsaid. But in a way, there’s a wonderful simplicity that marks this story, and a forthrightness in Blume’s narration that again takes me back to childhood, to a time where summer friendships meant something, and the potential of the future appears limitless. This is a lovely read, and I can’t wait for Blume’s new novel in June.

+

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

Review | Something Wiki, Suzanne Sutherland

20860645Something Wiki is about a shy twelve year old named Jo, who has three brainy friends and edits Wikipedia for fun. When two of her friends suddenly decide they’re too cool for her, Jo has to deal with a situation unfortunately all too familiar with many young girls. Add to the mix a twenty-four year old brother moving back home with his pregnant girlfriend, and Jo’s dealing with quite a bit to handle.

Sutherland does a great job of capturing a young girl’s voice, and her writing took me right back to my days as a tween. I remember being like Jo — Wikipedia wasn’t around back then so I had to scribble my feelings in an actual paper journal, but I can certainly relate to her worries about bad hair cuts, monstrous zits, and not quite fitting in with friends who are finding new interests. Kudos to Sutherland for giving Jo a real acne problem, rather than the usual trope in movies of otherwise beautiful girls freaking out over a single pimple. The story feels real, and Jo is a sharp, witty narrator. Her sardonic asides give way to real pain though, and it’s almost painful to read about how cruel young girls can be.

I lent my copy to my sister after reading, and about halfway through, she asked me if Chloe (Jo’s best-friend-turned-kinda-mean-girl) ever gets her comeuppance. Unfortunately, Sutherland ends the story before the girls enter high school, which means we never get to see if Chloe gets major zits before the prom or ends up unable to land her dream job after university. There is some closure, but as in real life, things aren’t completely wrapped up in a tidy little package. The book does give a glimpse of hope, however — J, the girlfriend of Jo’s brother, is the cool older sister type who wears awesome outfits and is beyond caring what others think of her. Attitude-wise, she’s who Jo can grow up to become, and both provides emotional support and a reminder that things do get better.

Despite being in the title, the Wikipedia angle almost seems unnecessary. Perhaps it will resonate on a different level with contemporary tweens, but it  mostly just reminds me of those Baby-sitter Club notebook chapter introductions.

Something Wiki is fantastic realistic YA. It’s much tighter — plot-wise and style-wise — than Sutherland’s first novel, and is sure to resonate with many young girls and women who remember all too well the pains of growing up.

+

Thank you to Dundurn for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Black Dog Summer, Miranda Sherry

23574104When Sally is brutally murdered on her farming commune in South Africa, her spirit remains tethered to this world and the people she left behind. Similar to The Lovely Bones, Miranda Sherry’s debut novel Black Dog Summer is about a family dealing with grief and, more significantly, with all the issues left unresolved before death. Sally watches as her teenage daughter Gigi falls into a deep depression alleviated only by drugs. Her estranged sister Adele, her brother-in-law and unrequited love Liam, and their daughter Bryony are all struggling to come to terms with Sally’s death, and with the addition of a silent, troubled teen into their home.

Sherry’s writing is beautiful, and I love how she describes her characters’ lives as threads of stories that Sally must follow before she can move on. Sherry also weaves in a bit of a supernatural feel — the darkness Bryony senses in the aftermath of her aunt’s murder takes the form of a black dog out to harm her and her cousin. Bryony’s next door neighbour Lesedi is a reluctant sangoma, someone in touch with the spiritual realm and can communicate with the dead, and anchors the story’s shifting between both worlds.

My favourite passage in the novel comes early on, almost immediately after Sally is killed. She hears a noise, a “whispering, humming, singing, screaming awfulness.” She soon realizes that

The noise comes from Africa’s stories being told. Millions upon millions of them, some told in descending liquid notes like the call of the Burchells’ coucal before the rain, and some like the dull roar of Johannesburg traffic. Some of these stories are ancient and wear fossilized coats of red dust, and others are so fresh that they gleam with umbilical wetness…

[My family’s story is] just one story amongst millions, and yet it has become so loud now that it drowns out the others. It is howling at me, raging, demanding my attention. I look closer to find that this small, bright thread of story weaves out from the moment of my passing and seems to tether me to this place. Perhaps this is why I have not left yet. Perhaps I have no choice but to follow the story to its end.

Isn’t that beautiful? From that passage on, like Sally, I too felt compelled to follow this story to its end.

I also really like how Sherry connects the spirit world with the elemental one. Sally feels her being a spirit most keenly when Lesedi looks at her, and ironically, she is both most disconnected from the physical world and intimately connected to its elements. She has become an Ancestor, one with the millions upon millions of stories of the past and connected as well somehow to the potential of the future. What a beautiful way to think of the afterlife!

Black Dog Summer is a very emotional book. Much of the story within the physical world is told through Bryony’s point of view, and as a tween, she is barely able to cope with what has happened to her aunt. She looks up the term “massacre” in the dictionary, and repeats this definition several times. And indeed, when faced with something as incomprehensible as murder (not just murder, but mass murder), when having to deal with the overwhelming grief of a cousin you barely know who is now your roommate, when unable to comprehend the rising tensions between your parents, how can anyone cope?

This is a beautiful, heartbreaking, page turner of a book. Like Sally, we as readers are invested in the story while necessarily being detached from it. And like Sally, all we can do is hope it all works out for this family.

+

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

Please note that the passage quoted above is from the ARC, and may be edited prior to publication.

Review | The Damned, Andrew Pyper

damned-9781476755144_lgAndrew Pyper does it again with The Damned. Creepy, atmospheric and with more than a touch of existential tragedy, the book is signature Pyper. I raced through the book in a couple of days, and ended up not quite knowing how to feel at the end.

“I have a talent for dying,” protagonist Danny Orchard admits. “It’s the one thing it seems I can do, not just once like everyone but over again.” Danny is a middle aged man who had narrowly escaped death at 16, in a fire that ended up killing his beautiful, psychotic twin sister Ashleigh. Now a bestselling author who’d penned an account of his experience in the “After” (Danny’s term for the afterlife), Danny has lived his entire life haunted by Ashleigh’s spirit, who appears determined to take Danny back into the After with her.

Just like my favourite Pyper novel The GuardiansThe Damned focuses on the intensely personal, small scale, individual type of horror. Danny’s attempts at a normal life, foiled by his sister’s spectre appearing at inopportune moments illustrate a very personal kind of hell on earth. Pyper includes other characters who are undergoing similar experiences with their own departed unloved, and these incidents are both chilling and tragic. On one hand, The Damned is a freaky horror story (a scene with a washing machine almost gave me nightmares); on the other hand, it’s also a potent metaphor for how we can never really escape the people who have touched our lives. An abusive father may die, but his daughters will never completely escape the effects of his abuse. Ghosts, whether corporeal or psychological, are real. Even Pyper’s version of the After is based on reality — a bit of earthly life stretched out to eternity. This grounds the unknown of death in something tangible, and makes the idea of hell even more within our grasp.

What elevates this straightforward horror story into something much more troubling is that Pyper resists comfortable, easy characterizations. For example, it would be easy to paint Ashleigh as purely evil. Just like the abusive father who haunted another character, Ashleigh’s cruelty lives on and impacts upon Danny’s life for decades afterwards. However, Ashleigh’s explanation of her nature, rooted in a near death experience the twins had in their mother’s womb, raises questions about good and evil, and the justice of her damnation. Questions that go far beyond a novel, and possibly into our own concept of heaven and hell, right and wrong.

The Damned is a fairly quick read, mostly because you just keep wanting to find out what happens next. But much like Pyper’s ghosts, the disquieting questions his novel raises linger on long after you turn the last page.

+

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

Review | (You) Set Me on Fire, Mariko Tamaki

20622284Remember being seventeen and in love with someone you knew was bad for you? In (You) Set Me on Fire, when seventeen year old Allison Lee enters college, she has been in love once (disastrously), burned twice (literally), and appears headed for yet another romantic disaster. She finds herself drawn to beautiful classmate Shar, who soon becomes the centre of Allison’s universe.

As an adult, I immediately found Shar pretentious (the “too cool” outsider who looks down upon other students), and later emotionally manipulative and utterly messed up. I honestly didn’t understand the appeal, when there were perfectly nice classmates like former cheerleader Carly who were inviting Allison to join them in various activities. However, thinking back to myself as a teenager, I have to admit Allison’s decisions may not have been so far-fetched as I’d like to think.

Tamaki is fantastic at capturing the teenage voice. Allison sounds like a teenager without the usual Clueless/Valley girl trappings of authors trying too hard to sound young. Allison sounds smart, and more than that, funny. Here is a story about a girl heading into a toxic relationship, who’s had some problems with fire, and who feels she doesn’t quite fit in with others her age — and it’s funny! This is not to diminish everything Allison is going through — at times, her encounters with Shar and her flashbacks to her previous romantic disaster (high school classmate Anne), are almost painful to read because the emotions are so raw. But the narrative as a whole is laced with sardonic humour, and that, combined with an ever-present undercurrent of raw vulnerability, makes Allison’s story so powerful.

Take a look at this passage for example, shortly after Allison enters college and realizes her classmates there know nothing about her or her past:

So for a brief moment in time I was in the freshman threshold of opportunity: the people around me knew only what I’d told them about myself, Nothing more. They’d had almost no time to formulate an opinion for themselves and no one was around to inform them of anything different from what I said or what I did. If I smiled and giggled at their jokes, I could be a happy-go-lucky person. If I slept with the first boy I laid eyes on, I could be a slut. I could even get in a fight and be a loose cannon or a bully.

The world was my oyster. [p. 38]

I remember that moment of opportunity, that moment when I could completely reinvent myself, redefine who I’ve become. It happens every now and then, with a new school or a new job or even a new city. It’s exhilarating, and a great part of figuring out who you want to become. That moment of hope, so early in Allison’s story, is particularly poignant as we read on, and realize she’s falling into an old pattern, and that this too is a familiar experience for anyone trying to reinvent themselves.

The brilliance of Tamaki’s writing is evident even in the title, which is possibly one of my favourite book titles ever. The parenthesis create a dual layer of meaning, with both layers somewhat at odds with each other. The declarative, almost accusatory romantic statement “You set me on fire” is in tension with the directive “Set me on fire,” which could be either a demand or a plea. This subtlety is carried through with her use of fire as a metaphor, a somewhat overused symbol for passion, yet in Tamaki’s hands it feels fresh. From Allison’s scar to escalating incidents with fire in the story to the striking allusions to history and mythology, fire is woven through the narrative in a masterful way that is overt without, to my mind, ever being over the top.

+

I made a pledge in 2015 to read books by Asian American women writers, based on a list compiled by Celeste Ng. Mariko Tamaki isn’t on the list, but this book happened to catch my eye in a shop, and I’m glad it did. If you happen to be joining me on this pledge, I highly recommend you add this to your list as well.

Review | Emma, Alexander McCall Smith

20604787Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma is a funny and intelligent modern re-telling of the Jane Austen classic. McCall Smith is a master at language, and his take on the story features many wry observations and witty one liners that recall Austen’s style.

I particularly liked the updating of Mr. Woodhouse, now a rather neurotic scientist and overprotective father. Miss Taylor as well, as Emma’s governess, is a snappy and smart foil to Mr. Woodhouse, a caring guardian to Emma yet also a very practical modern woman.

My primary reservation with McCall Smith’s version is that it feels dated. With the exception of Mr. Woodhouse, it almost feels like a Regency period piece, with only a few markers here and there to remind us otherwise. The characters’ concerns about class, social status and marrying well are at odds with the contemporary setting. Emma does have a career, but it feels tacked on rather than integral to the story. The character has always been spoiled, even in the original Austen, but Austen’s version had a charm to her that appears lacking in McCall Smith’s. In this contemporary re-telling, we know Emma has the best intentions because Miss Taylor tells us so. But this Emma seems more true than the original to hold to Austen’s prediction that Emma will be a “heroine whom no one but myself will much like.”

Perhaps the characters in this particular Austen just don’t translate well to the contemporary era — George Knightley in particular seemed more pompous and self-righteous than I remembered. That being said, Amy Heckerling did a fantastic job adapting Emma into the movie CluelessGranted, Clueless is a much looser interpretation of the original Austen, but it keeps the heart of the characters — Alicia Silverstone’s Cher is exactly how I’d imagine a contemporary (well, 1990s) Emma to act. Clueless is dated, even today, but it still feels fresher and more natural than McCall Smith’s Emma. 

I actually enjoyed reading McCall Smith’s Emma. It was a fun, lighthearted read, and while Emma and Knightley irked me at times, McCall Smith’s deftness with language kept me entertained throughout. I also understand that McCall Smith’s project with this book was in no way similar to that of Clueless, and it would be unfair to compare both. This is a funny, well-written book, that felt just a tad too constrained by its purpose. I enjoyed reading this book, but I also kept wishing that I were watching Clueless instead.

+

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