Review | After I’m Gone, Laura Lippman

18089975I remember being very moved by Laura Lippman’s earlier work I’d Know You AnywhereAfter I’m Gone didn’t have quite the same impact on me, but it definitely kept me turning the pages way past my bedtime. Con man Felix Brewer disappears without a trace, leaving behind his wife, three daughters and a mistress. If this sounds like a story ripped from the headlines, that’s because it is: the novel is inspired by the true story of Julius Salsbury, the head of a large gambling operation in Baltimore in the 1970s.

Ten years after Felix disappears, his mistress Julie goes missing. Everyone assumes she’s gone to join Felix, but her body is discovered in a secluded park a few days later. Fast forward twenty six years and retired detective Roberto “Sandy” Sanchez is investigating the case of Julie’s death. No one seems overly concerned about who had killed Julie and why, but Sanchez is the classic dogged detective, who won’t rest until he finds justice for a victim no one cares about.

More than the hunt for Julie’s killer, the novel is about the lives of the women Felix left behind. We learn about his relationship with his wife Bambi, how they fell in love and how the relationship eventually hit its rocky patch. We meet his daughters, and how they dealt not just with their father’s disappearance, but also with his betrayal of their mother. And Julie, of course, and the mistakes that eventually cost her her life. Through it all, Felix remains a major force in their lives. He’s utterly unlikeable, and while generally good-intentioned, his insecurities and weakness for easy money end up destroying not just his life but the lives of the women around him.

After I’m Gone is an enjoyable read, with an entertaining look at family and romantic drama. The story really hits its mark near the end, where a series of revelations reveals the strength of the family ties among the remaining women. The epilogue takes us back to Felix, and ties the whole story up where it began — with the actions of one man.

What happens to someone’s loved ones when he takes the easy way out? What happens when he does get away with it, but the people around him are left to pick up the pieces. After I’m Gone is a frustrating read in some ways — even though the murderer is eventually caught, I can’t help but feel that justice has ultimately not been served — yet all too believable. One person’s choices can indeed ruin the lives of people around him, and After I’m Gone shows just how far reaching this impact can be.

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

Review | Ghostwritten, Isabel Wolff

21416276Writing is generally viewed as a profession that reveals much about the individual. Even fiction writers are asked time and again about parallels of their fiction to their own lives. In Jenni’s case, however, her career as a writer helps her subsume her own memories of a childhood tragedy. She is a ghostwriter, and in exploring other people’s stories and in taking on their own voices, she is able, for the most part, to forget a bit of her own story.

That changes when she agrees to write the memoir of a survivor from a Japanese internment camp in Java. The subject, Klara, lives near the same beach where Jenni’s own childhood tragedy has occurred. Worse, Klara’s story holds some disquieting parallels to Jenni’s own experience, and forces Jenni to reexamine her past.

Isabel Wolff’s Ghostwritten isn’t an easy story to read. Klara’s tale in particular is filled with violence and horror. Wolff doesn’t shy away from depicting some of the more gruesome aspects of these internment camps, and the tale is an eye opener for anyone unfamiliar with the history of the Japanese occupation in Gaza. Especially difficult to read are tales of prisoners who turn on other prisoners, either to escape punishment or to receive some form of special treatment for the guards.

The moment when we learn the decision that has haunted Klara all her life is heartrending, and while Jenni’s response is the right one, it also feels much too inadequate. Klara’s grief over this act is all too real and understandable, and to be fair, no response would likely have been enough to make her fully get over it.

Paling in comparison to Klara’s story is Jenni’s. Her struggle to come to terms with her own childhood tragedy is touching enough, but the parallel to Klara’s story just feels forced. The interweaving of the stories feels orchestrated, which is especially egregious when compared to the depth of emotion in Klara’s story. Jenni does indeed have her own demons to contend with, but I found myself skimming over her sections, and being impatient with her reluctance to open up.

Klara’s story is told ostensibly as a plot device to help the protagonist fulfill her own character arc, but Klara ends up stealing the show. There are some subplots within her tale that I wish I’d learned more about — the story about the neighbourhood bully and his mother, for example, and a star crossed romance between two of Klara’s neighbours — and I wish Wolff had focused more on this part of the novel.

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

Review | Human Remains, Elizabeth Haynes

17349279The cover of Human Remains by Elizabeth Haynes holds the intriguing teaser: How well do you know your neighbours? But the crux of the book is really in the question: How well do your neighbours know you? More to the point, if you were to die when alone at home, how long would it take before someone found your body? How long would it take before anyone even noticed you were missing?

Haynes’ first book Into the Darkest Corner is still one of my favourite books of all time. I read it years ago and can still remember the intense claustrophobia, disgust and fear I felt as I read it. Her second book didn’t quite grab me as much as the first, but I was still intrigued by her characters. Her third, Human Remains, did not affect me as viscerally as Darkest Corner did, yet I believe it just may be her most powerful yet.

Haynes’ brilliance is in her uncanny insight into the human psyche, whether it’s a woman struggling to move on from an abusive relationship or a woman trying to escape her past, as in her first two books. In Human Remains, Haynes plays on our fears of loneliness, an almost ironic condition in today’s hyper connected world, yet it’s this very hyper connectivity that sets into sharp relief how alone some of us really are. The protagonist in this book, Annabel, is a police analyst who notices a trend of deaths in her hometown where the victims’ bodies weren’t discovered for several days. There is nothing to tie the deaths together — all appear to be from natural causes — and Annabel’s colleagues don’t deem it worth an investigation. But Annabel is intrigued by how all these victims had been dead for some time before anyone even noticed their absence, and while she had never really considered herself lonely, the pattern forces her to take a look at her own life and wonder who would notice if she were gone.

It’s a disquieting notion, and one that will haunt the reader as well. Haynes tells the story from multiple points of view — Annabel’s, of course, and also a creepy man named Colin. We also get chapters from some of the victims, and rather than a violent description of an attack that leads to their deaths, these chapters feel almost elegaic. There is no hint about what or who caused the deaths, but there is a glimpse at the person who lived before that moment. In a story where you know these characters will be forgotten, there is both comfort and a touch of despair in these all too brief tributes to their memory.

The drive to keep turning the page isn’t so much to find out how the people are dying. There is a great sense of mystery, with almost a locked room feel because the answer is hard to figure out. The answer, once revealed, is chilling, and not because of its inhumanity, but because it is all too human. The villain is probably even more reprehensible than the one in Into the Darkest Corner, because this one preys on the very weakest in society — and on weaknesses that likely everyone can relate to.

Human Remains isn’t the page turner Into the Darkest Corner is, nor will it be counted among my absolute favourite books ever as Darkest Corner is, but the issues Human Remains raises will stay with you long after you finish reading. Haynes taps right into our darkest fears, and lays bare our deepest vulnerabilities — that we are, in the end, truly alone, and that no one will care when we’re gone. We support Annabel’s fight for these victims, and we rage against the murderer’s predation, because ultimately, the idea behind this story hits far too close to home.

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

 

Review | Tampa, Alissa Nutting

9780062280541Alissa Nutting’s Tampa is a brave exploration of an uncomfortable subject, and the author’s brazen treatment will cause even the most inured reader to stop and think. Celeste Price is an eighth grade English teacher with a sexual preference for fourteen year old boys. Similar to Lolita in theme, it is starkly different in its approach. Unlike Humbert Humbert, Celeste pulls no punches in her description. She is unapologetically sexual.  The language is forthright and highly charged. As I posted on Goodreads: “Holy hell, Tampa. Powerful, intense, and I’m only 7 pages in.” And Nutting never lets up.

Female pedophiles aren’t as often discussed in popular culture as their male counterparts. Films like The Graduate for example even romanticize the adult female/teenage male sexual relationship. Nutting takes this trope head on by making her protagonist be only in her 20s — she’s young, beautiful, certainly an object of fantasy herself for many of her students. She is also hyper aware of her age, and understands that seducing these young boys may no longer be as easy when she starts getting wrinkles. Yet she is also, unmistakably, a sexual predator, unapologetic and despite the boys’ own fantasies, abusive of her power.

Nutting uses lurid sexual detail with purpose. At times, the scene reads almost like erotica, until you remember that the object of Celeste’s fantasies is a fourteen year old boy. The story is especially horrifying because of Celeste’s job as a teacher, a profession she chose precisely because it puts her in close proximity to the boys she wants. She sets her sights on one of her students in particular, selecting him because he is just shy enough to keep her secret, but bold enough to risk pursuing a sexual relationship with her. Her schemes to seduce the boy are horrific, particularly because her openness as a narrator implicates the reader in her plot. As an adult, we see how she is manipulating the boy and we want to rescue him, yet as readers, all we can do is watch.

Here, the sensual prose also implicates the reader by forcing us into Celeste’s psyche, without even the buffer of Humbert Humbert’s coyly seductive language. Either you are hyperaware the entire time about the boy being only fourteen, in which case the very act of reading feels disgusting, or worse, you forget for a time, and find yourself drawn into the eroticism of the scene, only to recoil with even more disgust when a detail (smooth skin, hairless legs) reminds you of what exactly is happening in the scene. Nutting employs a more brazen form of seductiveness than Nabokov in her prose, and in doing so creates a different type of discomfort. The book design itself plays into this approach; the jacket of the hardcover edition is made of velour, providing a velvety soft surface that invites stroking and that provides the reader with a highly tactile experience.

Celeste is too unapologetic about her proclivities to be an anti-hero, or anyone the reader can ever really cheer for. However, she is certainly a compelling, memorable character. Her utter lack of remorse, and total disregard for the need to sugarcoat her desires for the reader make her in some ways even more reprehensible than Humbert Humbert. Still, when she describes her disgust for the adult male form, you understand why sex with an adult male isn’t an option at all for her. Her horror at the thought of sex with her husband, or with any adult male, is palpable. You do not cheer her on, yet when things come crashing down, you can’t help but feel for her. It’s a difficult balancing act, yet Nutting manages it well.

Tampa is not an easy book to read, but it is powerful. Nutting uses shock value to a purpose, and creates a memorable protagonist in Celeste. The ending somewhat falters because it feels rushed, and the final page in particular feels unresolved. Still, overall a compelling book that demands attention.

Blog Tour: Review | Hidden, Catherine McKenzie

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Catherine McKenzie’s Hidden is a wonderfully nuanced portrait of infidelity. When Jeff Manning is killed in a car accident, he leaves behind his grieving wife Claire and his grieving co-worker and girlfriend Tish. In such a story, it is all too easy to demonize one of the women, or to portray one as the man’s “true love.” McKenzie stays clear of that trap and in so doing, succeeds in crafting a complex, realistic tale of adult relationships, and the way people make them work.

McKenzie tells the story from all three perspectives, which makes each character come even more vividly to life. We see Jeff fall in love with Claire, and we understand the cause of his jealousy over her past relationship with his brother. We also see his first couple of encounters with Tish, and how they form an immediate connection. I love how his connection with Tish, despite the instant chemistry, was mostly more friendly than romantic, and I especially love how this connection in no way detracted from his feelings for Claire.

9781443411929Claire and Tish themselves were fully fleshed out characters. Claire is a former lawyer who now runs a daycare, and the reasons behind her switch in plans gives an idea of how important family is to her. Her son’s grief over his father’s death is deeply felt as well, and his vulnerability when reading the eulogy at the funeral is palpable.

Tish has a more unusual family situation, with a highly intelligent doctor husband and a genius-level poet daughter. Their accomplishments are in stark contrast to Tish’s own lack of ambition, and despite her natural talent at golf and poetry, she is mostly content to coast. Her connection with Jeff, and the intensity of her feelings towards him, are therefore a significant step forward, and his death forces her even further out of her comfort zone.

Complex relationships form this book, but strong characterization makes it work. We are drawn to all three characters; they feel like people we know, and even though we already know it ultimately ends in tragedy, we still want to see how it progresses. Knowledge of Jeff’s impending death add poignancy to the flashbacks of his chapters, and reading about Claire and Tish’s grief interspersed with Jeff’s story just enhances the nuance.

Hidden is a captivating read, and a compelling portrayal of three people whose lives are inextricably intertwined. A mature, richly drawn narrative that is ultimately more about relationships, and making them work.

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Thank you to the author for the invitation to join the blog tour, and thank you as well for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review and Giveaway | Crash and Burn, Michael Hassan

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Michael Hassan’s young adult novel Crash and Burn presents a unique perspective on the subject of school shootings. Rather than delve into the psyche of the shooter, Hassan focuses on the hero, Steven “Crash” Crashinsky, who has somehow managed to talk his classmate David “Burn” Burnett out of killing anyone when he took the school hostage. Crash becomes a local hero and media darling with a book deal — no one knows exactly how Crash convinced Burn to surrender, nor does anyone know exactly what Burn whispered to Crash before he did.

The mystery of Burn’s last words before surrendering forms the core of the rest of the story and propels it forward. Given that, Hassan makes the interesting decision not to make the hostage taking the focus of his story — it provides the catalyst for the story, certainly, and we are constantly aware of it having happened, but the story is really about Crash, a socially awkward young boy with ADHD who relates most with video game character Crash Bandicoot and who has a major crush on Burn’s wise cracking yet deeply troubled older sister Roxanne.

One of the major questions in any school shooting story is: what finally pushes the shooter over the edge? In Hassan’s story, it’s Crash’s family problems we are privy to — his domineering, almost cruel, father forms a shadow that haunts Crash for most of his life. Seeing Crash’s own troubles creates an interesting parallel between the two boys, and leaves the question hanging: what makes one boy a villain and the other a hero?

Even as a hero, Crash is hardly a saint. He uses his fame to pick up much younger girls, he treats the girl he loves pretty horribly, he is more interested in smoking pot than in actually doing anything. His book deal forces him to deal with memories of Burn, but he still often needs his agent or his friends to prod him into it. Dealing with a boy like Burn, and seeing him snap to the point of taking the entire school hostage — that’s a lot to deal with, and the image of Crash is not so much that of a hero as that of a young boy who has been forced to deal with an experience much bigger than himself, and the aftermath of that.

Crash and Burn is a gripping exploration of growing up with an unescapable source of fear. One question people usually ask after a school shooting incident is whether or not there were any warning signs, whether or not it could have been prevented. In Hassan’s book, Burn was clearly disturbed from the beginning. He almost blew up the school in elementary school, he was institutionalized time and again, and put on medication — and still, for some reason or another, he always ended up back in the public school system, free to take the school hostage. How could that happen? Hassan offers no easy answers, nor does he assign blame — teachers, administrators, even Burn’s mother all seem to be doing what they can, and yet due to one circumstance or another, it wasn’t enough.

Crash’s relationship with Burn is similar to Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort — their destinies are inextricably intertwined. Despite Crash’s attempts to keep Burn out of his life, they always manage to end up connected anyway, often because of the simple fact that their mothers are friends. The sensation then is of inevitability — like Crash, we know Burn is disturbed, and like Crash, we know at some point Burn will snap. Due to the sequence of events in the book, we even know how he will snap. And yet like Crash, we can’t seem to look away. Burn is a menacing presence throughout the book, even when he isn’t physically present in the scene.

It’s tragic, seeing Crash try to live his own life, seeing him already having to deal with a horrible father, seeing him try for happiness with his friendship with Roxane — and then seeing how no matter what, Burn happens to be by his side. More than tragic however, it’s also chilling, because unlike Harry Potter/Voldemort, Crash and Burn’s story is very much set in the real world. There are boys like Burn out there, and they may just be in your local school system.

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GIVEAWAY

Harper Collins has kindly offered two of my readers copies of Crash and Burn by Michael Hassan. Enter to win here: a Rafflecopter giveaway. (US and Canada only)

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

Review | Dark Tide, Elizabeth Haynes

16233477I absolutely loved Elizabeth Haynes’ first book Into the Darkest CornerI reacted viscerally to it, pulled in to the claustrophobic, terrifying, uncertain world the protagonist inhabited. So when Harper Collins Canada sent me the ARC for Haynes’ second novel Dark Tide, and particularly when I saw the haunting image on its cover, I was intrigued. I opened the book and waited for Haynes to pull me once again into her spell.

Dark Tide is a good, solid thriller; it’s just not an amazing one. In fairness to Haynes, that may just be because my reaction to Darkest Corner was so strong that it would have been difficult for any book to live up to my expectations. In a blog post, Haynes addresses the comments by many readers that unfavourably compared Dark Tide to Darkest Corner by arguing that she deliberately made both books very different from each other. Fair enough, and kudos to Haynes for not falling into the trap of sticking to a tried and proven formula.

However, what made Darkest Corner stand out from other thrillers is the gut-wrenching emotional reaction it provoked in even seasoned thriller readers. And while I certainly didn’t expect Haynes to repeat her theme of domestic abuse, or to once again use a frightened, scarred female protagonist, I did hope for a similar level of impact. Like I said, Dark Tide is a really good thriller — Haynes is a talented writer, and, particularly in the end, she ratchets up the adrenaline with suspenseful story telling. It’s just not a great one — it lacked both the urgency and the malevolent villain that propelled Darkest Corner.

Dark Tide tells the story of Genevieve, a former sales professional and pole dancer who moved into a houseboat with a mysterious package entrusted to her by a man she met while pole dancing. The book alternates between flashbacks of her attempts to keep her pole dancing a secret and the present day story of a body washing up by her houseboat and the threat of people from her old life tracking her down, presumably for the mysterious package.

Haynes again touches upon gender issues, in particular the objectification of female dancers and the social stigma against pole dancing. The fact that Genevieve is one of only two females at her sales job hints at the environment that requires her to hide her pole dancing. Genevieve’s only female co-worker seems a bit more focused on the struggle they both face in breaking the glass ceiling, and I only wish Haynes delved a bit more into the complexities of that character rather than reducing her to the role of office bitch.

The plot is fast-paced, with the twists requisite in any good thriller. The intensity is watered-down somewhat by the fact that the villains appear to be cookie cutter gangster types — Genevieve has a personal relationship to them, but never really establishes deep emotional ties. The result is that she mostly seems like an ingenue dabbling in situations way over her head. And due to the flat, rather stock aspect of the villain and the situation, the stakes, while certainly important (her life, her security, etc), never feel urgent.

Haynes does dial up the emotional intensity with Genevieve’s relationship with Dylan, a bouncer at the club where she danced, and the man who gave her the mysterious package to hide. There’s an interesting tension between the abrupt, distant Dylan in the present day, who ignores Genevieve’s calls, and the sweet, protective Dylan who befriends Genevieve in the flashbacks. Haynes has a talent for writing intense yet subtle romantic moments — a description of Dylan’s eyes as he notices Genevieve dancing for other men is just hot, and even when Genevieve just thought of him as a friend, sparks flew.

So when Dylan suddenly cuts off communication, even when Genevieve fears his package is endangering her life, there is the potential for some intense drama. Unfortunately, their relationship wasn’t developed enough to justify Genevieve’s almost unwavering trust in Dylan, nor was Dylan’s character developed enough to make such ambiguity believable. As such, the shift in character just creates a disconnect — is Dylan being a professional co-worker who may be attracted to Genevieve but isn’t necessarily emotionally attached to her, or is he a protective friend whose character traits shouldn’t make him put Genevieve in danger and abandon her? Either way, the package itself never seems important enough for Genevieve not to toss, particularly when her life and hard-won escape are endangered because of it.

Still, Dark Tide is a fun, fast-paced read, a good, solid thriller, and I loved the ending. To be fair, if I hadn’t read Darkest Corner and known just how much more Haynes is capable of, I probably would have enjoyed this book much more. As it is, I look forward to reading her next book, and hoping to see her again take the thriller genre to the next level.

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