October 15, 2017

The Red-Haired Woman - Orhan Pamuk

Penguin Random House Canada, August 22, 2017.

 

Four Stars


 

Ten years ago, I read Snow – my first book by Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk – and absolutely loved it. I haven’t been as impressed with Pamuk’s more recent work, although I’m not sure if it’s the slower pace, weighed down by symbolism and archetypical characters, or if my expectations are too high after my experience with Snow.

 

The Red-Haired Woman is heavily influenced by both western and eastern legends, specifically Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and the Persian story of Rostam and Sohrab. Although these stories provide complex layers to the novel, they also sometimes make the characters feel less real and more like symbols for the themes that Pamuk is exploring here – the relationships between fathers and sons, the idea of individual freedom versus the government, and ultimately the gray areas between good and evil. It’s a lot to take on, and it explains why the story sometimes becomes dry and unable to hold the reader’s attention.

 

The novel is set in Istanbul in the 1980s. Cem is sixteen years old, and he spends his summer as the apprentice to a well-digger, Master Mahmut, in a small town outside the city. As they desperately search for water in the barren land surrounding them, they tell stories at night to pass the time, including the legends mentioned above, which both man and boy become fixated upon. Oedipus Rex, the story of a king who kills his father and marries his mother, specifically becomes a loose allegory for Cem’s larger lifelong struggles.

 

After a day of digging wells, Cem goes into town to visit the tent of some travelling performers who act out “morality tales” for the crowd. When Cem meets the older, married, red-haired woman who performs in the plays, he becomes obsessed and follows her around town. To Cem’s surprise, the two experience one night of passion together, before an accident at work causes Cem to flee back to Istanbul. His experiences that summer weigh him down with a sense of guilt and shame that follows him into adulthood.

 

Thirty years later, Cem and his wife have the opportunity to purchase the land where he dug the well that summer. When Cem travels back to the small town, he discovers that his past has not stayed buried as he expected – and the red-haired woman has a surprising secret for him. The mystery elements tie the novel together from start to finish, although the big reveal is certainly not surprising. The Red-Haired Woman is much more concerned with its multi-layered plot, rich in literary and historical references, than in developing the mystery or the characters themselves. Although the novel didn’t always hold my attention, I did appreciate the complex layers of story and history – and I think it will only get better with each re-read.

 

I received this book from Penguin Random House Canada and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

October 12, 2017

We All Love the Beautiful Girls - Joanne Proulx


Penguin Random House Canada, August 22, 2017.



Five Stars



Mia and Michael Slate and their son Finn are a healthy, happy and prosperous family. They co-own a successful company, giving Mia time to pursue her passion as a photographer, and they live in a beautiful home in which they want for nothing. However, their perfect lives are shattered one night when they receive an unexpected visit from their accountant – he interrupts their cozy evening to tell them that their best friend and business partner has been embezzling from them for years, leaving them financially destitute.


Mia, a former corporate banker, cannot believe that Michael did not realize what was happening. She goes to bed angry, leaving her husband to wait up for their teenage son Finn. Hours past curfew, Michael starts to worry, and he heads out into their small town to search for his son. Eventually, he tracks Finn to a party at his wealthy best friend’s property, where he discovers Finn passed out in a snowbank after drinking too much. His tragic mistake has devastating consequences that echo through the whole family.


Finn survives the night, but loses his hand to frostbite, and everyone copes differently with the loss. Finn begins a clandestine relationship with his former babysitter Jess, who happens to be dating Finn’s best friend’s older brother. Mia and Michael lose the tenderness of their decades long marriage – instead of communicating, they retreat into rough sex and silence. Mia enters into a dangerous flirtation with a former colleague, and Michael begins to spend his time at an abandoned baseball diamond, playing catch with a scruffy street kid who replaces his damaged relationship with his son.


The Slate family slowly unravels throughout the novel, as they struggle with money and intimacy. All three characters take turns narrating the story, as they all get closer to the edge of betrayal, revenge and violence. The novel is written with honest and clear emotion, reaching deep into the compassionate terrain of marriage, parenting and what it means to be a family. The characters are solid and well-defined, populating a touching and emotional world without becoming saccharine or melodramatic.


We All Love the Beautiful Girls explores how the choices we make can affect everyone around us, and how people show their true colours in the face of tragedy. While I enjoyed the Canadian content of the novel (it’s set in Quebec), its themes have global reach, especially regarding the normalization of violence – specifically towards women – in our current socio-political climate. I didn’t know much about this book when I started it, and I think that’s the best way to read it – it started out slow, and therefore it was surprising yet appropriate when the story became increasingly savage and raw. These characters express real heartache, and with narrators that cross gender and age boundaries, I think this novel could speak to a wide audience as we struggle with how to connect to each other in the world we now live in.


I received this book from Penguin Random House Canada and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

October 09, 2017

The Other Girl - Erica Spindler


St. Martin’s Press, August 22, 2017.

 

Four Stars


 

When she was fifteen, Randi Rader was kidnapped by a stranger who picked her up hitchhiking – she escaped before too much damage was done, but she was forced to leave another girl behind with the kidnapper. When she went to the police for help, however, no one believed her story. Randi had a troubled family life and several run-ins with the law, and she still carries the guilt that because of her past, she will never know what happened to the other girl that night.

 

Now an adult, Officer Miranda Rader works for the police department in a neighbouring town in Louisiana. Despite her negative experience with the police in the past, Miranda has vowed to use her sense of honesty and integrity to protect innocent victims like she once was. Her current chief of police was the only officer that believed her that night, and she trusts him completely. So when he calls her to a crime scene in the middle of the night, Miranda follows unquestioningly.

 

The crime scene turns out to be the ritualistic murder of a well-liked local college professor with strong family ties to the community. Because of the way he was found, Miranda immediately realizes that the killer was intimate with the victim. She searches the house for clues, but doesn’t find anything leading to the killer – instead, she finds a newspaper clipping about her own childhood kidnapping. When Miranda’s fingerprints are later found at the scene, she realizes that someone is trying to frame her for the murder – but she has no idea how she’s connected to the victim.

 

Miranda soon becomes the prime suspect of another murder – the death of the police chief who failed to believe her kidnapping story on that night. Her current chief and friend is forced to suspend her from duty, although his motives are becoming unclear – is he protecting Miranda, or himself? Meanwhile, Miranda begins a romantic relationship with her partner Jake, who seems to support her innocence, although there is no one she can completely trust. Even her best friend becomes a suspect, and Miranda must question the motivations of everyone around her.

 

This is a thriller, filled with twisty suspense and edgy excitement. While the characters could have more depth, they are surprising in many ways and often slip out of their stereotypical roles. It wasn’t difficult to guess what was coming at the end, but it was still a completely entertaining read. Miranda is able to trust her own instincts in order to survive the final showdown with the killer, and with her own past. While this is a typical thriller in many ways, the interesting characters and their individual choices made this a satisfying summer read.

 

I received this book from St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

October 01, 2017

The Atlas of Forgotten Places - Jenny D. Williams

Thomas Dunne Books, July 11, 2017.



Five Stars



The Atlas of Forgotten Places is a surprising, incredible novel that really has it all – a thrilling, adventurous narrative, strong and powerful characters, and a plot entwining historical, political and current events. Most of all, it is an exploration of family, friendship, and the lengths we will go to protect our loved ones –  and how that love unites us across borders.


The novel is narrated by two very different women, brought together in their search for the people they love – especially when they learn that those two people may have gone missing together. Sabine Hardt was an aid worker in Africa for many years, until a tragic event made her doubt her ability to make a difference in the world. She retreated to a quiet life in her native Germany, watching from a distance as her American niece Lily takes her place in Uganda. Envisioning a future of helping people, Lily is wide-eyed and optimistic in her emails to her aunt – until she suddenly disappears on her way home to America. Sabine makes the inevitable trip to Uganda to search for Lily, bringing back surprising memories of her past.


While tracking Lily’s movements, Sabine meets Rose Akulu, a young Ugandan woman working with the American aid workers, offering support to the victims of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. Rose herself was kidnapped by the LRA as a child – she eventually escaped, under circumstances that are slowly revealed, and returned to her village with haunting memories and a missing arm. Members of the LRA who return home are shunned by their former friends and family, and Rose was only able to find solace in her boyfriend Ocen, whose brother was also taken by the LRA. Now Ocen has disappeared too, and the evidence suggests that he may be with Lily.


Sabine and Rose do not completely trust each other, but with the help of relief worker and mutual friend Christoph, the two women are willing to sacrifice everything to find Lily and Ocen. As an American girl, Lily’s disappearance is publicized by the western media – meanwhile, Rose worries that Ocen will be collateral damage in the search for Lily. Williams does an impressive job of creating complicated, emotionally-charged characters who realistically reflect the situation in Uganda – white aid workers are attempting to do good, helping people during a time of civil war, but their role in Africa becomes an echo of the colonialism that caused these issues in the first place.


Williams has obviously spent time in Uganda, and the setting comes alive in a real and assured way. The novel is written in clean, straightforward prose that clearly reflects the complex political situation in Uganda – there is no awkwardly inserted exposition about the war, but instead it is explained as it is relevant to the scenes and characters. There are also no simple explanations of good vs. evil here – when children are kidnapped and forced to kill, and then ostracized by their families when they return, we are forced to witness the true extent of human cruelty. And there is no escape into fiction, as this novel is based on real-world, current events that we cannot look away from.


Sabine and Rose each have distinct voices and perspectives on the situation around them – neither one is particularly likeable, and yet as their backstories are revealed, both are sympathetic and real. Although these women come from extremely different circumstances, they are more similar than they realize. And while the ending of the novel is sudden and unresolved, it is certainly hopeful – it leaves room for many possible outcomes, including the hope for a future in which we can be united across borders to prevent child soldiers and the men who create them. Most of all, there is hope for people like Rose, whose childhood was taken from her, and yet she emerged from the jungle willing to help others discover a better way of life.


I received this book from Thomas Dunne Books and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

September 24, 2017

Girl in Snow - Danya Kukafka


Simon & Schuster, August 1, 2017.

 

 Four Stars


 

On a frozen, snow-covered morning, the body of popular high school student Lucinda Hayes is found in a local park. In the small Colorado neighbourhood, everyone knew Lucinda – and everyone is affected by her death, whether they liked her or not.

 

Girl in Snow is narrated by three characters with connections to Lucinda. Cameron is an anxious, unpopular boy who was obsessed with Lucinda – he drew detailed portraits of her and watched her through her bedroom window at night. Jade is an edgy girl with an alternative style, whose alcoholic mom and miserable home life make her jealous of Lucinda’s seemingly perfect world – she also admittedly hated Lucinda for stealing her babysitting job. Finally, Russ is the officer in charge of investigating Lucinda’s murder, and he also has a strong connection to the family of his main suspect, Cameron.

 

Each character works to expose the others’ secrets while confronting their own emotions as they all search for the truth about Lucinda’s death. The novel explores how people can see us and interpret our lives in different ways, while never knowing the truth about who we are – not just Lucinda, but all of the characters are judged by who they appear to be. Cameron expresses himself through his artwork, while Jade’s sections often shift into her dramatic screenplay in which she envisions the scenes that she wishes had taken place, and the conversations that sounded better in her mind.

 

Lucinda could have been killed by anyone in her small suburb, but as more backstory is revealed through the eyes of different narrators, the identity of the murderer becomes inevitable. This novel is ostensibly a mystery-thriller, but the focus is ultimately on character development. The only exception is Lucinda, who remains fairly flat, but she acts as a device to bring everyone else together. The story is written in clear, concise prose, yet it is saturated with depth and emotion – Kukafka’s words are evocative without being overly descriptive. As the characters become increasingly intertwined, they show the unknown connections between all of us – and how appearances can be deceiving.

 

I received this book from Simon & Schuster and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.