November 05, 2017

The Golden House - Salman Rushdie

Random House, September 5, 2017.


Four Stars


Nero Golden is a powerful real estate tycoon who relocates to New York under mysterious circumstances, shortly after Obama’s inauguration. He arrives with his three adult sons, who all have issues of their own. The four Golden men take new identities with classical Roman names – Petronius, Lucius Apuleius, Dionysius – and enter into the high society of the rich and famous in downtown Manhattan.


Narrated by the Goldens' neighbor and family friend Rene, an aspiring filmmaker, Nero and his sons seem like the perfect subject for documentation. Rene chronicles their rise to power in New York society, their tragic ups and downs, and their eventual fall from power. The Goldens face conflicts involving money, women and the betrayal that takes place between siblings – all of it leading to an impending sense of danger.


The novel covers all the relevant plot points of American politics in the past eight years, starting with the new era of the American dream following Obama’s inauguration and ending with the ascendancy of an ambitious, media-savvy villain who aspires to become the 45th president – which should sound familiar to most of us. In our current political climate of “alternative truths”, The Golden House is a timely novel of identity, truth and lies – both personal and political.


This novel is classic Rushdie in both plot and style – it takes heavy themes and carries them lightly. It is a serious, literary, political novel while remaining highly readable. The references to The Great Gatsby emphasize the glittering New York setting – it is tragic, gaudy and clever. In fact, my main complaint is that it is sometimes overly clever, as only Rushdie can be.


The world of the Goldens is a post-modern, post-truth America with a focus on identity – hidden or otherwise. The unreliable narrator emphasizes this fact, and the fact that the many narrators of our current political situation are unreliable as well. Rushdie’s own opinions about the cartoony villain leading the country are clear, and leave no doubt about who he is referencing. This is a lengthy novel packed with pop culture and political information, and yet it is a fast paced and enjoyable read, and a clever guide to America today.


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

October 29, 2017

The History of Bees - Maja Lunde

Simon & Schuster, August 22, 2017.

Four Stars

The History of Bees is an ambitious cautionary tale about Colony Collapse Disorder – bees all over the world are disappearing without explanation, and without pollination, our food sources will disappear with them. This isn’t exactly a dystopia, since it is already happening today, and the world described here is a likely outcome if we don’t protect our bees from pesticides and other invasive modern farming methods. This is one of the most relevant and quietly terrifying environmental disasters of our time, and it is described here with an emphasis on the personal repercussions of the collapse – if we don’t fix it now, it is our children who will suffer.

The novel is told in three parts, looking at the past, present and future. In Hertfordshire, England in 1852, William is a biologist who has failed professionally and given up on life and ambition. He takes to his bed, leaving his family with no source of income, until he is inspired by his daughter to design and build a new type of beehive. It is built so that the layers can be removed and studied without damaging the colony, and he thinks his study of bees will result in fame and fortune for his family.

Years later, in 2007, George is a beekeeper in rural Ohio. He shuns modern farming advances, and still builds his own hives using the design that has been passed down through generations of his family. As George watches how powerful pesticides are destroying neighbouring bee colonies, he learns about the newly named Colony Collapse Disorder, in which beekeepers open up their hives in the spring and the bees are just gone with no explanation. George hopes for the best, and expects that his son will take over the family business – but Tom is more interested in his university writing classes.

In Sichuan, China in the year 2098, we see the full repercussions of the loss of the bees. Tao is one of many people who does the hard labour of hand-painting pollen onto fruit trees, to preserve the crops that cannot live without the bees. The government controls every aspect of peoples’ lives, they barely make a living wage, and have almost no free time to try to improve their lives. Tao wants more for her son Wei-Wen, but her decision to spend a day in the fields teaching him simple math ends in tragedy. Wei-Wen is taken by government authorities, and Tao makes the dangerous journey to Beijing in order to find out the truth about Wei-Wen’s accident.

The History of Bees is a haunting story because it is already happening in our world – this isn’t some distant future issue, but one that is affecting us today. However, this is not only an examination of environmental disaster – it is also about the powerful bond between parents and their children. It’s thought-provoking in this context, because while we will do anything for our immediate children, we are less concerned about destroying the planet for generations to come.

I wish the storylines had come together sooner, because the ways that the three plots echo each other aren’t clear until the end. The pacing is often slow, especially in some of the technical explanations of beehives, and of the events that led to Tao’s world. However, it is definitely worth reading when it all comes together and we see how William, George and Tao are connected. This is a wake-up call about the bee epidemic that is told without being pedantic – and ultimately it is hopeful that this crisis can be reversed if we start thinking now about the future.

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

October 22, 2017

Manhattan Beach - Jennifer Egan

Scribner, October 3, 2017.


Four Stars


Anna Kerrigan is twelve years old, living in Brooklyn with her family during the Great Depression. Her father’s job description is unclear to her, but his union connections bring him into contact with people from all walks of life, including the world of organized crime. When Anna accompanies him to one of these meetings, she is introduced to Dexter Styles, a powerful man who controls her father in ways she doesn’t understand. Visiting Dexter’s beachfront mansion makes a strong impression on Anna that will last into adulthood.


Several years later, Anna’s father has disappeared – presumably he has walked out on the family that he was unable to support financially. Working at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, Anna is now responsible for her former showgirl mother and her disabled sister who suffers from a debilitating and progressive disease. The country is at war, which is why Anna has the opportunity to work at a traditionally male job – she works on small-scale machinery, but dreams of become the first female diver, repairing ships underwater.


Anna has been drawn to the water ever since that day at Dexter’s beach house, so when she gets her chance to dive, she finally feels whole. And when she runs into Dexter at a night club shortly after, it seems like fate. He doesn’t recognize Anna, and she doesn’t give her last name, but they do forge an immediate connection. Anna convinces Dexter to help with her sister, who is still alive but not truly living – together they take her to the beach, which seems to make her better. But when tragedy strikes, Anna and Dexter turn to each other in a romantic relationship that is as intimate as it is dangerous. Secrets emerge about Dexter’s work, including a possible connection to Anna’s father’s disappearance.


Manhattan Beach has all the energy and passion of Egan’s earlier novels, but it is also saturated with historical detail about life in New York City during the Depression and World War II years, including a view through the cracks in the world of organized crime. The situational details are mostly interesting, but sometimes became long-winded and dry. I much preferred the intimate portrait of Anna as a young girl, growing into an independent and powerful woman, taking on new roles within her family and out in the wider world.


Anna learns to stand up for herself and make life-changing decisions – she discovers what to hold onto and when to let go. Although many of the characters in the novel are one-dimensional, Anna is fully formed and makes the entire novel worth reading. These are transformative years for New York City, for America, and for the world as a whole – and we witness it unfold through the transformation of one girl, Anna, as she expands the definition of what a woman is capable of becoming.


I received this book from Scribner and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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.