BOOK REVIEW | Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

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4/5 stars

Release Date: September 5, 2017

*I received a digital advanced reader copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

From the publisher:
A searing and profound Southern odyssey by National Book Award–winner Jesmyn Ward.

In Jesmyn Ward’s first novel since her National Book Award–winning Salvage the Bones, this singular American writer brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first-century America. Drawing on Morrison and Faulkner, The Odyssey and the Old Testament, Ward gives us an epochal story, a journey through Mississippi’s past and present that is both an intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle. Ward is a major American writer, multiply awarded and universally lauded, and in Sing, Unburied, Sing she is at the height of her powers.

Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie’s children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.

Sing, Unburied, Sing grapples with the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power, and limitations, of the bonds of family. Rich with Ward’s distinctive, musical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an essential contribution to American literature.

My thoughts:
Sing, Unburied, Sing presents a way of life that will be unfamiliar to many of its readers. A life in which addiction rules and heartbreak abounds. Jesmyn Ward presents themes and ideas, however, that are as relevant today as they ever have been; racism, injustices in the prison system, police treatment of minorities, and how the past shapes the present. This is the story of a family living in poverty along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi.

Through multiple perspectives, Ward tells us the story of Jojo and his toddler sister Kayla who are being raised by their grandparents, Mam and Pop. Jojo’s mother, Leoni, is often absent and frequently high. When Leoni gets a call that Michael, Jojo and Kayla’s father, is going to be released from prison, she packs the kids up and head’s out onto the road to pick him up on his release day. Jojo, who has just turned 13, is less than excited to be reacquainted with the stranger that is his father.

Leoni is haunted by visions of her deceased brother, and Jojo is haunted by a young boy Pop knew in his youth during his time in prison. Ward carries these figures elegantly throughout the story, and they become central to Leoni and Jojo’s fates. Ward doesn’t hold back in her depiction of prison as slavery, and this storyline comes to a truly heart wrenching and tragic end. This book is wrought with pain and sadness, and I know I will be thinking about Jojo for a while.

This was my first time reading Jesmyn Ward, and I certainly understand her success. She has keen insights and a strong voice, and I am looking forward to reading her backlist.

BOOK REVIEW | The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

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4.5/5 stars

From the publisher:
Mikael Blomkvist, a once-respected financial journalist, watches his professional life rapidly crumble around him. Prospects appear bleak until an unexpected (and unsettling) offer to resurrect his name is extended by an old-school titan of Swedish industry. The catch—and there’s always a catch—is that Blomkvist must first spend a year researching a mysterious disappearance that has remained unsolved for nearly four decades. With few other options, he accepts and enlists the help of investigator Lisbeth Salander, a misunderstood genius with a cache of authority issues. Little is as it seems in Larsson’s novel, but there is at least one constant: you really don’t want to mess with the girl with the dragon tattoo.

My thoughts:
Well, that was a hell of a ride! I am so glad I finally picked up Stieg Larsson’s landmark book, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I knew I would enjoy this book, so I don’t know why it took me so long to get to it. It was an absolute pleasure to read the book that changed the face of Swedish crime fiction, and I’m going to be jumping into the next installment, The Girl Who Played With Fire, pretty quickly! Larsson’s story has it all: a compelling mystery, complex psychology, dark family secrets, action, tension, passion, twists and turns, and an unconventional, kick-ass heroine.

After journalist Mikael Blomkvist is convicted of libel, he is mysteriously asked to meet with Henrik Vanger, an aging businessman, who would like to hire him for a personal assignment. With his career on hold and his life turned upside down, Blomkvist decides to go to the meeting, but is suspicious about what Vanger promises. Vanger wants to hire Blomkvist for 1 year to unearth the truth behind a puzzling family mystery; in turn he will offer Blomkvist generous pay and the ability to clear his name as a journalist. After much hesitation, Blomkvist takes the job, and so the adventure begins.

Enter Lisbeth Salander – a tattoo covered, pierced, and bleak young woman who just happens to be an incredibly talented hacker and private investigator. She works when she wants, lives by her own rules, and isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. We learn about her past, and the troubling path that has led her to where she is now. She has endured a hard life, and refuses to relinquish control now that she has it back. Naturally, Blomkvist and Salander end up teaming up, becoming one of the best duo’s I’ve read about in any crime book. Their respect for each other is palpable, and I love that their skills and partnership and completely equal. They each bring something to the table that serves the other well.

There are a couple elements that I found a bit funny, but not necessarily distracting: the technology, and the love of sandwiches. When this book was written in the early 2000’s, all of the technology described by Stieg would have been cutting edge and impressive – today, it dates the book a bit. That said, I actually enjoyed reading these scenes, there are just a lot of them! Secondly, sandwiches. Yes, sandwiches. Please tell me someone else has noticed this – the characters in this book are always eating or making multiple sandwiches! I really should have kept tabs on the sandwich scenes in this book. There are SO many!

So, with that, I loved this book! Salander gets under your skin, and you can’t help but love her and want more of her story. The final 2 pages leave us with a bit of a crummy cliffhanger, so I cant wait to see where things go in the next book.

BOOK REVIEW | I’m Traveling Alone by Samuel Bjork

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
A six-year-old girl is found in the Norwegian countryside, hanging lifeless from a tree with a jump rope around her neck. She is dressed in strange doll’s clothes. Around her neck is an airline tag that says “I’m traveling alone.”

A special homicide unit in Oslo re-opens with veteran police investigator Holger Munch at the helm. Holger’s first step is to persuade the brilliant but haunted investigator Mia Krüger to come back to the squad–she’s been living on an isolated island, overcome by memories of her past. When Mia views a photograph of the crime scene and spots the number “1” carved into the dead girl’s fingernail, she knows this is only the beginning. She’ll soon discover that six years earlier, an infant girl was abducted from a nearby maternity ward. The baby was never found. Could this new killer have something to do with the missing child, or with the reclusive Christian sect hidden in the nearby woods?

Mia returns to duty to track down a revenge-driven and ruthlessly intelligent killer. But when Munch’s own six-year-old granddaughter goes missing, Mia realizes that the killer’s sinister game is personal, and I’m Traveling Alone races to an explosive–and shocking–conclusion.

My thoughts:
I’m happy to report that my first read of 2017 was a good one – a really good one. Samuel Bjork is a Norweigan author, and his North American debut I’m Traveling Alone pulled me right in.

After a disturbing crime is committed, detective Holger Munch is leading the case on a new homicide unit. It doesn’t take long for him to realize that he needs his old partner, Mia Kruger, to help him piece this together. Mia, extremely depressed and haunted by the tragic death of her twin sister, has isolated herself on an island, intent on suicide. When Holger shows up unannounced, she is less than pleased – she had a plan and he’s messing with it. Known for her brilliant mind, Mia can’t keep herself from hypothesizing about the details of the crime and before long the wheels are in motion and she is heading back to the police force with Holger – for one final case.

This book is intricately plotted with well-drawn characters that the reader can become invested in. I can’t wait to read about Holger and Mia again – they make for an awesome team and I really enjoyed that there was zero romantic involvement between the two. Just two strong, though flawed, characters working together to beat the clock and get the job done. There were no major twists or turns, rather a layered work that slowly unfolded to reveal the each piece of the puzzle. Bjork kept the tension high and I flew through this one pretty quickly!

There was a little to be desired at the end – I wasn’t totally thrilled with how the last two chapters played out. That said, I absolutely loved this book and can’t wait for the follow up! The second installment in the Holger Munch and Mia Kruger series, The Owl Always Hunts at Night,  is set for North American release in June 2017.

BOOK REVIEW | The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

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4.5/5 stars

From the publisher:
In the latest masterpiece by Emma Donoghue, bestselling author of Room, an English nurse brought to a small Irish village to observe what appears to be a miracle-a girl said to have survived without food for months-soon finds herself fighting to save the child’s life.

Tourists flock to the cabin of eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell, who believes herself to be living off manna from heaven, and a journalist is sent to cover the sensation. Lib Wright, a veteran of Florence Nightingale’s Crimean campaign, is hired to keep watch over the girl.

Written with all the propulsive tension that made Room a huge bestseller, THE WONDER works beautifully on many levels–a tale of two strangers who transform each other’s lives, a powerful psychological thriller, and a story of love pitted against evil.

My thoughts:
How could the child bear not just the hunger, but the boredom? The rest of humankind used meals to divide the day, Lib realized – as reward, as entertainment, the chiming of an inner clock.

This book is fantastic! Admittedly, I went into this with fairly low expectations, but it blew those out of the water. It’s atmospheric and slow burning, mysterious and infuriating.

The year is 1859, shortly after the Crimean war and Lib, an English nurse, is called to Ireland to take watch over a young girl named Anna who claims she no longer needs food to live. In a time of religious fervor, the people of the town believe that Anna is a living wonder, chosen by God. Lib is convinced that Anna is playing an elaborate prank on everyone, sneaking food on the sly, and watches her every move closely in an attempt to figure out how she’s doing it. Anna’s explanation is that for the last four months, she has lived on manna from heaven – this confounds Lib, who is determined to understand what the girl means. No one can sustain themselves for this long without some nourishment, this she knows to be true.

The story unfolds slowly, leading up to startling confessions and disturbing realizations. Lib knows she must take immediate, drastic action to save Anna, who has deteriorated physically.

The Wonder asks the reader to consider questions about religious conviction, loyalty, and parenthood. It will keep you flipping the pages as you race to discover the truth.

BOOK REVIEW | Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn

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3.75/5 stars

From the publisher:
Capturing the distinct rhythms of Jamaican life and dialect, Nicole Dennis- Benn pens a tender hymn to a world hidden among pristine beaches and the wide expanse of turquoise seas. At an opulent resort in Montego Bay, Margot hustles to send her younger sister, Thandi, to school. Taught as a girl to trade her sexuality for survival, Margot is ruthlessly determined to shield Thandi from the same fate. When plans for a new hotel threaten their village, Margot sees not only an opportunity for her own financial independence but also perhaps a chance to admit a shocking secret: her forbidden love for another woman. As they face the impending destruction of their community, each woman—fighting to balance the burdens she shoulders with the freedom she craves—must confront long-hidden scars. From a much-heralded new writer, Here Comes the Sun offers a dramatic glimpse into a vibrant, passionate world most outsiders see simply as paradise.

My thoughts:
‘Membah dis, nobody love a black girl. Not even harself.

Don’t let the beautiful bright cover fool you, this book is bleak. This is the story of a family, the secrets they keep, and the fight for a better life.

Despite living in a part of town that is less than prosperous, Margot has a prestigious job at a tourist’s resort hotel. She endured an unspeakable tragedy at the hands of her mother as a child, and is now determined to do anything that it takes to keep her younger sister, Thandi, from following her dark path. Because of her mother, Margot engages in prostitution to make ends meet and keep up with Thandi’s expensive schooling. While the family expects Thandi to become a lawyer or doctor, she is occupied with a boy from a bad neighborhood, lightening her skin, and dreams of becoming an artist. Margot and Thandie, along with their mother Dolores, harbor damaging and painful secrets which are exasperated by the confines of their culture.

Nicole Dennis-Benn has crafted an engaging story that had me moving quickly through the pages. I cared about these characters and was deeply invested in their fates. This book touches on LGBTQ issues, and issues that people of colour face with raw power. I’m half Jamaican, and I absolutely love reading Jamaican authors – recommendations please! I will be anxiously awaiting Dennis-Benn’s next work.

 

BOOK REVIEW | A House Without Windows by Nadia Hashimi

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
For two decades, Zeba was a loving wife, a patient mother, and a peaceful villager. But her quiet life is shattered when her husband, Kamal, is found brutally murdered with a hatchet in the courtyard of their home. Nearly catatonic with shock, Zeba is unable to account for her whereabouts at the time of his death. Her children swear their mother could not have committed such a heinous act. Kamal’s family is sure she did, and demands justice. Barely escaping a vengeful mob, Zeba is arrested and jailed.

Awaiting trial, she meets a group of women whose own misfortunes have led them to these bleak cells: eighteen-year-old Nafisa, imprisoned to protect her from an “honor killing”; twenty-five-year-old Latifa, a teen runaway who stays because it is safe shelter; twenty-year-old Mezghan, pregnant and unmarried, waiting for a court order to force her lover’s hand. Is Zeba a cold-blooded killer, these young women wonder, or has she been imprisoned, like them, for breaking some social rule? For these women, the prison is both a haven and a punishment; removed from the harsh and unforgiving world outside, they form a lively and indelible sisterhood.

Into this closed world comes Yusuf, Zeba’s Afghan-born, American-raised lawyer whose commitment to human rights and desire to help his homeland have brought him back. With the fate this seemingly ordinary housewife in his hands, Yusuf discovers that, like the Afghanistan itself, his client may not be at all what he imagines.

My thoughts:
The results of the American election have shaken me deeply left me questioning the world I thought we lived in. I’m a proud Canadian, but have relatives living in the States. I’ve been in a particularly bad reading slump while struggling to come terms with recent events, and am just starting to get back on track. It seems apt, though not planned, that the first read I finished post-election is by a woman with Afghan roots, about modern day women living in Afghanistan.

I think most wives imagine their husbands dying – either out of dread or anticipation. It’s an inevitability. Why not guess at why or how it might happen?

This was my first book by Nadia Hashimi, but it certainly won’t be my last. Her prose is rich and vivid as she explores injustices endured by modern day Afghan women. Zeba, the matriarch of this story, is discovered at the scene of a crime with blood on her hands as her slain husband lays close by. Accusations of her guilt begin to fly as Zeba maintains her silence, unwilling to discuss what happened. She is arrested and sent to jail, where she develops unexpected bonds with the other female prisoners.

Hashimi tackles deeply troubling issues through Zeba’s cell mates as we hear their stories and discover what brought them to the prison. These women are all essentially criminals of morality, jailed for acting in ways that society believes women should not. What is a woman’s place in Afghanistan? What is her value?

A woman was only as good as the drops that fell on her wedding night, the ounces she bled with the turns of the moon, and the small river that she shed giving her husband children.

There are so many layers and so much depth to this story. I also realize that there is a lot of grey area that goes unexplored here as well. This story is not a universal experience for Afghan women, but it is the story Hashimi wanted to tell. At the root, however, this is a murder mystery. Who killed Zeba’s husband? More importantly, why? Hashimi does not disappoint as she reveals the heartbreaking and infuriating events that led to his death and delivers, unexpectedly for stories of this nature, a deeply satisfying ending. I know I will be thinking about this book for a while.

BOOK REVIEW | The Ice Princess by Camilla Läckberg

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3/5 stars

From the publisher:
In this electrifying tale of suspense from an international crime-writing sensation, a grisly death exposes the dark heart of a Scandinavian seaside village. Erica Falck returns to her tiny, remote hometown of Fjällbacka, Sweden, after her parents’ deaths only to encounter another tragedy: the suicide of her childhood best friend, Alex. It’s Erica herself who finds Alex’s body—suspended in a bathtub of frozen water, her wrists slashed. Erica is bewildered: Why would a beautiful woman who had it all take her own life? Teaming up with police detective Patrik Hedström, Erica begins to uncover shocking events from Alex’s childhood. As one horrifying fact after another comes to light, Erica and Patrik’s curiosity gives way to obsession—and their flirtation grows into uncontrollable attraction. But it’s not long before one thing becomes very clear: a deadly secret is at stake, and there’s someone out there who will do anything—even commit murder—to protect it.

My thoughts:
I was so excited to jump into my first Camilla Läckberg! I love Nordic Noir and crime fiction, and couldn’t wait to dive in.

Eric Falc, a writer who has returned to her home town of Fjällbacka, finds the body of a childhood friend who has committed suicide. She has trouble understanding why someone who is beautiful, successful, and with a husband who loves her dearly would come to such an end. She begins working with detective Patrik Hedström to uncover the details of her death. Along the way more death occurs, terrible secrets are revealed, and the truth uncovered is unexpected and disturbing. Oh, and there’s a love connection between Erica and Patrik.

This was a nice escapist read with a few interesting characters, and I will be continuing with the next in the series, The Preacher. This certainly wasn’t an amazing literary work, or the best crime fiction book that I have read, but I am intrigued enough to carry on! I believe this was Läckberg’s first book after a drastic career change, and there are some passages that give the reader insight into her style as a crime writer:

The material was increasingly taking on the form of a crime novel, a genre to which she’d never felt particularly attracted. It was people – their relationships and psychological motivations – that she was interested in; she thought that was something most crime novels had to give up in favor of bloody murders and cold shivers running down the spine. She hated all the cliches they used; she wanted to write about something genuine. Something that attempted to describe why someone could commit the worst of all sins – to take the life of another human being.

There was a side story about Erica’s sister and her abusive husband that didn’t wrap up at all – I really hope that there is more about this in the next book. That said, there were just enough twists to keep this interesting, and I look forward to seeing Läckberg’s voice develop in the next installment.