BOOK REVIEW | The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner | Man Booker Prize 2018

3/5 stars

All of them were people who suffered and along the way of their suffering they made others suffer.

In this powerful novel about women in prison, Rachel Kushner touches on both issues within the correctional system, and the cycle of poverty and addiction that often leads women there. More than once, correctional officers allude to the women’s poor choices in life that led them to an existence under lock and key, with no regard for the circumstances which may have contributed to their crimes. An added layer of depth would have been beneficial here, as I feel in many ways this book only scratched the surface on this complex topic.

The story is focused on Romy Hall and the inmates she encounters while serving two consecutive life sentences at the Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility. We get a picture of Romy’s life before prison through recounts of her youth in San Fransisco, her drug use, and her experiences working as an erotic dancer at The Mars Room. I liked this book, and found many scenes to be especially powerful; Romy’s relationship with, and separation from, her son was the most affecting for me. Romy is not forgiven of her crime by Kushner, she murdered the man who was stalking her. Rather, we examine how Romy’s socioeconomic status may have led her to such a place.

There are many timelines and perspectives at play, which occasionally made for a disjointed read. I can only describe my relationship to Romy and the other characters as distant – there was a lack of emotional connection at work. I think focusing a little less on certain secondary characters, and honing in more on Romy’s emotional journey would have kicked this book up a notch for me. Romy seeps ennui about her life and crime, and it’s only when she realizes her son may be alone on the outside that we feel the retching pain that she must endure. An interesting addition to the Man Booker list, and a valuable read for those who have an interest in the mentioned topics.

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BOOK REVIEW | White Teeth by Zadie Smith

3/5 stars

I’ve delayed writing this review because I’m struggling a little with placing it appropriately. Zadie Smith is an immaculate writer and this book is witty and insightful, with razor sharp prose. Smith writes dialect beautifully, crafting characters that feel real. Something is lacking in the plot for me though, and while this is a character driven story, something is missing from each character’s arc that would push this into 5 star territory. This is a multi-generational saga that follows 2 two very different families as they overcome immigration, racial tension, war, and the pressures to raise their children in modern society without losing connection to their heritage. Throw in some genetic engineering and The Godfather, and that about sums it up.

There is a weighty plot here with a lot going on, but it essentially boils down to the story of Archie and Samad, two friends who meet at war, and their families. Archie, an Englishman, marries a Jamaican woman named Clara, and they have a daughter, Irie. Samad and his wife Alsana are Bengali immigrants and they have twin boys, Magid and Millat. I absolutely loved Clara but she disappears before long, becoming a secondary character. There was an interesting friendship between Clara and Alsana which could have been fleshed out into something significant as well.

I felt the deepest connection with Irie and I wanted so much more from her story; I would have loved to follow Magid and Millat further, to find out how they reconciled after a lengthy separation. Too many narratives felt incomplete and I wanted to go deeper. We are introduced to a third family, the Chaulfens, resulting in a completely unexpected turn in the plot. I found many scenes with the Chaulfens to be worthwhile, but ultimately felt like I was reading two different books – it felt disjointed.

Smith’s style is reminiscent of my favorite writer, John Irving: confident, bold, a little over the top, but never lacking in the right amount of sentimentality. Even though this wasn’t a home run for me, I’m really looking forward to reading more of Smith’s work.

BOOK REVIEW | The Outsider by Stephen King

4/5 stars

The first half of this book was such a blast, and one of the best thriller / mystery / police procedurals I’ve read in a long time. I was powering through at a pretty quick pace, until about the half way mark when the story takes a severe left turn. I like to go into books pretty blind, so I wasn’t aware that there would be a connection to the Bill Hodges trilogy. King loves connecting his stories together, but unfortunately I found this took away from an otherwise stellar narrative.

The premise: a young boy is violently killed but the prime suspect, coach Terry Maitland, has an indisputable alibi. Multiple eye witnesses claim to have seen Terry near the scene of the crime and with the victim, but there is no way he can be responsible – a man can’t be in two places at once. Due to the horrific nature of the crime police are looking to make an arrest ASAP to ensure the public feels safe, and when the DNA comes back as a match they arrest Terry publicly, leaving tragedy behind for his family. As the story progressive it becomes more and more apparent that Terry can’t be responsible, but DNA doesn’t lie…

If you haven’t read the Bill Hodges trilogy and would like to, do not read The Outsider first. It’s a stand-alone book, but will spoil the series for those who haven’t read it. When the mystery seems impossible to solve, King brings back Holly Gibney from his trilogy (which I loved) – the anxious, quiet, yet shockingly astute partner who played a pivotal role in those books. This is also the point in the book that dives into the supernatural, which can go either way for me. I generally don’t like supernatural stories, but King often does it extremely well. It was good here, just not as good as the first half of the story.

I love Stephen King, and this was so close to being a home run! My review sounds a bit negative but I really enjoyed the book, even though it felt a bit disjointed. Fans of King will appreciate his dedication to continuing to surprise, even with so many stories under his belt.

BOOK REVIEW | Snap by Belinda Bauer | Man Booker Prize 2018

5/5 stars

What a journey! This was a a fantastic crime read that packed an emotional punch in its last few lines. If you enjoy police procedurals and are looking for a unique story, this is a must-read. For readers that want to try the genre and are uncomfortable with the vast amounts of graphic violence in most crime novels (not me), this will satisfy as well.

Jack, Joy, and Merry are waiting by the side of the road in their broken down car: their mother had gone to call for help and would be back soon. An hour passes, and the kids decide go searching for her, unaware that they would never see her again – she was found stabbed to death days later. Three years pass, and the kids are living alone in their family’s house having slipped through all the cracks in the system.

Jack, the eldest at 14, turns to burglary to take care of his sisters. When he thinks he discovers a key to his mother’s death, he takes an unconventional approach to get the police to re-open the investigation. Meanwhile, a pregnant lady named Catherine, experiences a home invasion while her husband is away for work. These two narratives play out simultaneously, seemingly unrelated. Their stories, however, will soon collide.

There were a few elements that didn’t work for me; a secondary character named Smooth Louis, for example. He’s a mentor to Jack / petty criminal who is obsessed with removing all hair from his body. He’s always shaving it away, but we have no idea why. It’s never explained and his character doesn’t go anywhere. I’m all for weird for the sake of weird, but it just didn’t make sense in this book. Secondly, Bauer likes to call everyone fat. I can’t tell you how many times in this book her characters are described as fat and disgusting – it was a bit much. I’m sure there are more creative ways to describe someone’s size.

I sort of wanted to give this book 4 stars, but it was so damn addictive that I have to give it 5. This was an incredibly interesting choice for the Man Booker longlist – it’a an excellent crime read and I’m curious as to why the judges decided to include this genre into the prize for 2018. Looking forward to reading more of the longlist next!

BOOK REVIEW | Find You in the Dark by Nathan Ripley

3/5 stars

Look, this book isn’t going to win any awards for its quality of writing, but Find You in the Dark shines in plot. After reading countless thrillers that feel all too similar, it was refreshing to read one that had an entirely unique premise. This was a really fun read!

Martin Reese retired young after his tech company exploded, leaving him with both ample financial resources and plenty of time on his hands. He is a devoted husband and father, who happens to have a bit of a twisted obsession: he seeks out the bodies of murder victims from unsolved cases, uncovering them for the police to find. To carry out his compulsion he tells his wife, Ellen, that he’s going camping and uses his alone time to uncover bodies. Martin’s focus is on the victims of a long captured serial killer, Jason Shurn, and he gets his intel from a cop who sells him case files on the sly.

Before long, a past family tragedy takes centre stage, reaching a breaking point when his daughter disappears. Shurn may not have acted alone, and Martin has enraged someone by uncovering victims from the past. Martin will have to succumb to an internal darkness to save his family and get his daughter back.

I’ve heard this book compared to Dexter, but I have a hard time seeing that. Unlike Dexter Martin isn’t a killer. He’s simply a man who has taken an interest in true crime to the next level, albeit a twisted one. The book is a little long and though it drags a little, I was compelled to keep reading. Side note – Nathan Ripley is a pseudonym for Naben Ruthnum, an Indian writer from Canada. He’s said he used the new monicker because of the expectations that come with having an ethnic sounding name. I must say, I wish he used his real name! Shatter the expectations! OK, back to business – 3 stars, because it was hard to put down.

BOOK REVIEW | Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro

5/5 stars

I prayed forgiveness…for God to pluck me out like a coal from the fire… But Brothers, Sisters: What if that’s the wrong prayer? What if the right prayer is ‘Let me burn, only walk beside me in the flames’?.

Wow, that was intense. I’m not generally interested in books about religion, but Fire Sermon flipped the genre on its head, challenging the confines that keep devout followers trapped in unhappy circumstances.

Maggie, raised Christian, is married, contently. She has two kids, a boy and a girl, who are getting older and heading off into ventures of their own. Her husband, Thomas, is kind and attentive, though admittedly atheist. Maggie reaches out to James, a poet she admires, and the pair soon begin conversing regularly. Before long, Maggie and James are in the throws of a passionate, illicit affair. James provides Maggie with what she didn’t know she was missing; he encourages her to write and share her own poetry, and offers spiritually and intellectually satisfying theological debate. Though devoted to Thomas, Maggie struggles with her desires, and what she will lose if she continues in her affair with James.

You will watch the fire consume everything you care about. You will be left with ash – the proper and only end of any burning.

This book is as much about spirituality and monogamy as it is about the nature of female desire. In less capable hands, I don’t think this story would have been so effecting, but Jamie Quatro is a phenomenal writer. Her prose is haunting and poetic, resulting in a book that asks complex questions without surmising a moral standpoint.

BOOK REVIEW | There There by Tommy Orange


5/5 stars

We all been through a lot we don’t understand in a world made to either break us or make us so hard we can’t break even when it’s what we need most to do.

If this is Tommy Orange’s debut, I can’t wait to see what he does next. There There is a portrait of the “urban Indian”, and how racism, colonialism, and a painful history have contributed to modern day challenges. I’ve read many books by Aboriginal writers from Canada, but this is my first from the American perspective.

Told through twelve unique voices, There There follows each character as they travel to the Big Oakland Powwow. Each has heir own reason for going to the powwow: to connect to their culture, to reunite with family, to create art out of pain, and to bravely debut newfound talents. The stories of Dene, Jacquie, Blue, Opal, Orvil and more will ultimately clash in a violent denouement that is difficult to read. This is a commentary on gun violence in America as well.

We’ve read this sort of narrative before; multiple storylines cumulating in an epic event. However, Orange brings a passion for his culture to the table, making this a powerful read that resonates. His passages about traditional dance are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever read, so I’ll leave you with this moment in which Orvil, backstage, dressed in his regalia before his first public dance at the powwow, finds himself in his culture:

Orvil looks around the room, and he see all these men dressed up like him…There’s something like the shaking feathers he felt somewhere between his heart and his stomach…To cry is to waste the feeling. He needs to dance with it.