Book Review: And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie (Cardinal Editions, 1960)

I was inspired to re-read Agatha Christie’s famous mystery novel And Then There Were None after reading FictionFan’s book review. I’d read this short mystery story a couple of times before, years ago, but it had always stuck in my memory as one of the finest mystery novels I’ve read. Years ago, reading it for the first time, I recall the tension as the plot unfolded.

Ten people find themselves on a remote island with a mysterious reputation – eight guests and two servants. Their host/employer is unknown to each of them and doesn’t seem to be present on the island. A recording accuses them each of murder and then they begin to die, one by one. With no one else on the island, it’s clear that one of the ten is an insane murderer.

Having read the book before, I remembered clearly who the murderer was and how he managed to pull of such a complex scheme. The first time I read And Then There Were None, it was truly creepy as the group was killed off and suspicions grew between each of them. While this read didn’t have that level of creepiness, it was fascinating to observe the murderer at work and how, if the reader was observant enough, there were clues to point in his or her direction.

When discussing mystery stories with someone recently, they gave Agatha Christie as an example of a “tidy” mystery writer. Meaning there isn’t a lot of blood and gore and the mystery is neatly solved at the end of the story. Actions and motives are explained. While some readers may not like this, I realized this is exactly what I like best in a mystery. I want a clear answer at the end of the novel and I want it fully resolved. And I don’t like reading about a lot of blood and gore. So while I don’t enjoy a lot of mysteries, I have always enjoyed Agatha Christie’s work.

And Then There Were None is deservedly one of Christie’s most famous stories. She was a master of tension and suspense. Much of the book will feel dated to a modern reader but charmingly so – no island could be so close and yet so cut off as this one is. And re-reading the novel, I couldn’t help but wonder how ten people could be so willing to isolate themselves and not learn a little more about their host. At the bottom of it though, Christie understood something about human nature. What motivates us, what moves us, and what we fear.

Book Review: Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

 

Harmless Like You – Rowan Hisayo Buchanan (Sceptre, 2016)

I’ll start off by saying that I almost gave up on this book halfway through. I’m glad I didn’t but it isn’t a long novel and it took me most of it to feel truly engaged.

The story is divided between two characters and times. Yuki is a teenager in New York in the 1970s. Her family is Japanese, living a fairly isolated life in America due to her father’s job. Yuki is shy and lonely but just before her family is supposed to return to Japan, she makes her first friend. Somehow (and somewhat unbelievably) she convinced her parents to let her stay in Japan, living with her friend Odile and her inattentive mother. We follow Yuki over the next years of her life, as she struggles with her desire to be an artist, drops out of school, and falls into a sort of love.

The other section is narrated by Jay, whose father has just died. Jay and his wife have recently had a baby and Jay hates it. Both the lifestyle of parenthood and, seemingly, the baby itself. This is where the book lost me. I recognize that not everyone enjoys parenthood, that the early months are especially hard and that transition doesn’t always come easily. My problem with Jay is that he’s so completely unlikeable in his dislike of his daughter. He tells the reader that he loves his wife but his thoughts (and actions) surrounding her are so negative and unforgiving. His attitude seems to be one of having no idea how he ended up with a baby, as if he were tricked into the entire endeavour. He really doesn’t have a single redeeming characters and I didn’t care a bit what happened to him.

It’s clear from early on that Yuki is Jay’s mother, the mother who ran off from Jay and his father when Jay was very young. This brings me to my other problem with the novel. The author apparently cannot conceive that anyone would ever enjoy having children. The book is populated only with characters who are happy to be separated from their offspring. It’s pretty depressing.

Yuki, at least, is imbued with greater depth than Jay and while her reasons for abandonment are never entirely clear, she is portrayed as at least loving him. Something Jay seems unable to feel for his child.

For a first time writer, Buchanan has some strong work here. While occasionally guilty of over-writing and using four words where one would do, there are also glimmers of real talent and story-telling here. My main problem overall is really that the author feels very young to me and I can’t help but wonder if this story would be different coming from someone with more life experience. Only time can tell.

Book Review: Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory

Spoonbenders – Daryl Gregory (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017)

You know how, as you get older, you begin to realize that your family is maybe not so normal? That all the things they do that you thought were average, might actually be a little crazy? That’s what’s happening to Matty Telemachus.

Sure, Matty’s always known his family is unique. Not many families once travelled the country and performed psychic feats of strength on television. But that’s all years in the past and nobody in the Telemachus family has done anything amazing in years. Until Matty suddenly leaves his body one day and begins to wonder if he might also be an Amazing Telemachus.

Teddy Telemachus is the family patriarch, the driving force behind their once upon a time fame. Teddy met his wife Maureen when participating in a highly secretive government study of psychic powers in relation to the Cold War. Maureen, or Grandma Mo, has been dead for years and her children have largely rejected their own powers. Frankie is something of a low-level con, in debt to the mob and hiding too many secrets from his wife. Irene has just moved back in with her dad, along with her own son, Matty, and struggles to form real relationships because she knows when people are lying to her. And Buddy…well, Buddy might just be the World’s Most Powerful Psychic but he hasn’t spoken much in the last few years and he’s building some kind of weird project in the basement.

This novel is fun and goofy and if you’re willing to suspend belief, it’s a good read. Even aside from the psychic powers, the real world plot is pretty over the top too. The story moves between perspectives of Teddy, Matty, and the three siblings and the sections are pretty balanced in terms of interest and enjoyability. These are strange and flawed people but they’re likeable too and easy to root for. It’s not terribly difficult to see where it’s all going to end up but it’s fun to travel along as Gregory takes us there.

Book Review: 2 Short Story Collections

It’s a bit unfair to lump these two story collections in together but I read them almost back to back and, a few weeks later, am struggling to differentiate them in my mind.

A Manual for Cleaning Women – Lucia Berlin (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015)

A Manual for Cleaning Women and Collected Stories are collections of a life’s worth of short stories by Lucia Berlin and Grace Paley, respectively. Both women are Americans and wrote primarily in the first half of the 20th centuries.While Paley’s stories are set in New York (almost entirely in Brooklyn), Berlin’s roam around the USA, delving into Mexico. They write about the ordinary lives of women, mostly at home, often surrounding their children and their failed relationships. A Canadian comparison might be the stories of Alice Munro, although Munro’s stories end up feeling almost pastoral compared to the crowded apartments of Berlin and Paley.

The Collected Stories – Grace Paley (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2009)

These story collections have two major things in common. The first is that each author leans heavily on their own life experiences. Berlin seems almost to be writing her own autobiography, often naming characters Lucia or delving into stories of her childhood in mining camps and South America. Her characters often have four sons, like Berlin herself did, and are divorced multiple times.

The second characteristic that I found the two collections to have in common was the recurrence of stories. Characters often popped up again and this made both collections have a larger feel, as the reader follows a woman through her life, watches her children grow, her marriage flourish and wilt, her neighbours age and change. It felt like a small challenge to connect the stories together. While they certainly stand as individual tales, the connections definitely add.

Both Berlin and Paley are excellent story tellers and while they’re overall experience of life as women, wives and mothers in the early 20th century doesn’t echo my own in 2017, there are certainly many familiar moments. I would categorize Berlin’s stories as slightly darker – there was one I stopped reading partway through – but I enjoyed each collection and found both of these women an important addition to modern American writing.

Book Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas (Balzer + Bray, 2017)

While Angie Thomas’ first novel is being marketed as a young adult novel. I would greatly encourage all readers interested in modern America, racial issues, or violence among youth to read it. The book is probably most appropriate for older teen readers (15+) due to violence and some language. It’s a fairly easy read but has a lot of content.

Starr Carter is sixteen years old, lives with her family in the ghetto of Garden Heights. Her dad, a former gang-banger who spent time in prison, has since turned his life around and owns the local grocery store. After witnessing the death of a friend in a drive-by shooting, Starr and her brothers are sent across town to a prestigious, predominantly white school.

Starr is no stranger to violence and drugs but her family life is stable and the Garden is home. She feels pulled between the two worlds she inhabits – her black neighbourhood and her white school – and knows she no longer quite fits into either one. Attending a party one night in the Garden, she’s uncomfortable and out of place and happy to live early with an old friend, Khalil, after a fight breaks out.

Driving home, Khalil is pulled over by a police officer and Starr becomes the only witness when the cop shoots and kills Khalil. If you’ve been watching the news at all in the past two years, you might be familiar with how this story plays out.

We follow Starr over the following weeks as tensions and violence rise in her neighbourhood. As her friends at school make disparaging remarks about Khalil being a drug dealer or a member of a gang. And as Starr struggles with finding her voice and deciding whether to come forward publicly to defend Khalil, or to protect herself first.

While I grew up in a very ethnically diverse neighbourhood, I’m not that familiar with African-American culture so I can’t speak to the accuracy of Thomas’ depiction of the ghetto. Parts of the novel felt like they dipped into the cliche – Starr’s father’s backstory, for example, or even a side story about her family helping a young man escape from the local gang – but I have to defer to Thomas’ knowledge and overall the book felt very authentic. It’s filled with pop culture references and language that is up-to-date and, I think, would appeal to a youthful audience.

Thomas does an excellent job of depicting Starr’s split between her two worlds, using language and dialogue to show how she adapts to her surroundings. Starr realizes the need to be tightly controlled around her white friends at school, that she can never slip or risk being stereotyped as the “ghetto girl” or the “angry black girl”. There is a decent progression of her finding a better balance between these worlds and learning to trust more people on both sides.

Overall, I think this book makes a great introduction for anyone interested in the Black Lives Matters movement. It could offer many starting places for discussion with young readers, or anyone who might want to know more.

Book Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara (Doubleday, 2015)

I’ve been sitting on this review for a while, pondering how I feel about A Little Life. Turns out, the longer I wait, the less I feel as though I really liked this novel.

I heard several rave reviews of it before I started (including the cashier at Powells when I picked up a used copy in Portland) and so was happy to tackle the huge hardcover. And it wasn’t hard to get into. The characters are interesting and diverse and the book moves forward quickly and with a rate of revelation that makes you want to keep reading.

The novel’s description will tell you that it’s about four friends: Willem, Jude, JB, and Malcolm, and that it follows them from their early twenties, shortly after they’ve been roommates in university, and through the next forty or so years of life. That isn’t false but it’s really more the story of Jude and Willem. At some point, JB and Malcolm drop to secondary characters and while the book checks in on them occasionally, we don’t get much detail of their lives and we stop seeing anything from their perspective.

Even more so, the book is about Jude. It is Jude’s mysterious background and childhood that compel the reader to keep reading, as it is slowly revealed, and it is Jude’s development (or lack thereof) that we’re following. And while this is what kept me interested while I read, it’s also what makes me look back on the novel with a little less affection.

Jude arrives at university two years younger than his new roommates (who quickly become his first friends) and with his past shrouded with secrecy. He doesn’t talk about his home or family and others soon learn not to ask. At one point, it’s mentioned that they don’t even know Jude’s ethnicity, which I found slightly hard to believe and an unnecessary mystery.

Jude’s past is horrific. This is clear from early on and as the story progresses, more is steadily revealed until we learn the final, terrible event that left Jude physically disabled. There’s no one event in Jude’s life that is unbelievable – unfortunately, the world is full of terrible people and events and things like this do happen to children. It wasn’t even the sheer amount of horror that occurs to Jude in his life that felt unrealistic, it was that it is never balanced by a single moment of kindness. Everyone Jude meets from birth to about age sixteen is terrible and abusive. And then everyone after that (with one notable exception) loves and cares for and protects Jude. It seems that there is no middle ground with Jude; either people respect and care for him or they hate him and physically abuse him. This is a world without people who are ambivalent to or ignore others, it seems.

It’s a pity because Jude is an interesting character and the book uniquely looks at his life and the aftermath of his abusive childhood. The trauma of it follows and affects him for the rest of his life and it makes for a fascinating and heartbreaking portrayal of a person struggling to recover from something so terrible.

The friendship of Willem and Jude is central to the novel and we get a decent look at Willem’s background and his own childhood and how that has affected him. However, he remains a somewhat one-dimensional character, more a foil for Jude than someone who would be interesting to read about in his own right. Partway through the book, the relationship between Willem and Jude changes drastically and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. I don’t want to reveal too much but it felt like an unnecessary alteration. The friendship that the two men have up until that point is powerful and unique and the change seems to be done more to create tension than anything else. It didn’t feel like a natural progression of their relationship.

While I’ve been rather negative here, I did enjoy A Little Life while I read it. It’s a big book but I finished it quickly because I wanted to keep reading it and to find out what happened to the characters. Yanagihara is clearly a skilled writer and I would be happy to read more of her work.

Book Review: The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway

The Garden of Eden – Ernest Hemingway (Scribners, 1986)

I’m a big fan of Ernest Hemingway (the writing more than the man himself but that’s a topic for another time) and I’ve read most of his writing. While in Washington recently, I spotted a Hemingway book I’d never read in a secondhand bookshop and so brought it home. It turns out that The Garden of Eden was published posthumously in 1986. I’m always wary of books published years after an author’s death. Would the author really have wanted this book made public? Is the story complete? Will it be as good as the rest of the author’s work? (The answer is often no.)

While The Garden of Eden is not Hemingway’s finest novel, it is a fascinating read and the style and setting will be very familiar to his readers. Set between France and Spain it follows David and Catherine Bourne on their honeymoon. Which is, in typical Hemingway style, a months-long holiday through Europe, spent fishing, swimming, and drinking a lot.

David and Catherine are utterly content when we first meet. They seem to have met and married in Paris after a short courtship. They’ve settled into a routine in a small town in the south of France where Catherine causes a small scandal by wearing shorts but they are otherwise accepted. David is a writer whose second novel has recently been published and he is beginning to receive very good reviews. Catherine encourages him to write but hates the sight of his news clippings and seems reluctant to discuss his book.

As the book – and the marriage – progress, Catherine begins to reveal to David her hidden desires. While Hemingway never goes into detail about these desires and the intimate moments between David and Catherine, it isn’t difficult to figure out what he’s alluding to. And, indeed, the book is more explicit than many others in its time and by Hemingway.

Then Catherine begins to involve another woman into their relationship and David and Catherine form attachments to her, both as a couple and individually. Predictably, this creates a lot of complications. David is writing more than ever but instead of writing the story Catherine wants him to, he’s begun to write a series of stories about his father in Africa. Hemingway’s descriptions of writing, his portrayal of David’s struggles and desires over his stories, feels terrifically accurate. Sometimes painfully so. The subtle comparison of David’s focus on his work and his growing focus on another woman, and Catherine’s reaction to both, is well done and fascinating to watch.

The book is sad, as most of Hemingway is, especially when it comes to marriage and romance. Catherine is much more fully developed than many of the women Hemingway wrote, though there are still many blank spots in her character. Some aspects of her past are alluded to but we’re told very little. In the end, I was left to feel that David was supposed to be a victim of her instability when, to my view, he was just as guilty for the destruction of their marriage. Yet, like Hemingway himself, it feels clear that David will never be satisfied in one relationship for long.

Book Review: What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours

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What is not Yours is not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi (Hamish Hamilton, 2016)

I’d previous read one novel by Helen Oyeyemi (Boy, Snow, Bird) so I had some idea of what to expect from her writing. Oyeyemi’s stories exist in a slightly alternate universe of magic, discomfort, and romance. There is something delightfully disorienting about her world. It’s almost like ours but some of the details are just a little bit off.

This is a collection of linked short stories. I normally don’t love linked short stories because the link can end up feeling forced. And while there’s a tinge of that here, I thought the collection overall was very good. The initial link between the stories is that they all involve keys. There are locks and doors and rooms and places better left shut in each story. More interesting though is that as the stories progress we begin to see the connections between place and character. Some characters pop up again, years later. We get to see what happens to the little girl obsessed with an abusive pop star. We catch a glimpse of a teenage puppeteer’s future. The connections aren’t hammered home and Oyeyemi doesn’t go out of our way to draw attention to them – they’re more like glimpses of someone familiar on a bus going the opposite direction to ours – and they left me feeling delighted and clever  for spotting them.

The stories themselves are strange but compulsive. Each one had me eagerly reading to the end because I couldn’t imagine where Oyeyemi was going. Like Boy Snow Bird there is a strong element of fairy tale throughout. That blend of magic and darkness that you find when you read the original versions of stories like “The Little Mermaid” or “Cinderella”. While Oyeyemi’s style certainly isn’t for everyone, if you’re able to disengage from reality and accept a world of talking puppets and doors that open by themselves then you’ll find a lot of enjoy in this story collection.

Book Review: Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer

Here I Am - Jonathan Safran Foer

Here I Am – Jonathan Safran Foer

Here I Am is 500+ pages and it took me about half of that to begin enjoying the novel. Having read Foer’s work before, I was sure my commitment would pay off. At the same time, my expectations of Foer’s work led to some initial disappointment with Here I Am.

Foer’s two previous novels, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Everything is Illuminated both featured strong, unique, and often hilarious narrators. Here I Am has a far more subdued narration, a more withdrawn, third person perspective. It was harder to feel engaged in the story, added to the fact that this isn’t exactly an action-filled novel.

The book focuses on four generations of the Bloch family in Washington, D.C. Isaac is a Holocaust survivor, about to move into a Jewish retirement home. Irving is a hard-nosed, controversial political commentator. Jacob – the primary focus of the novel – is mid-forties, nominally-religious, on the cusp of trying to make his marriage work or giving up entirely. Sam is thirteen, preparing for his bar mitzvah, which is in danger of being permanently cancelled. These four men bounce off each other, argue, are affectionate and hateful in equal measure. Then, tossed into the mix of regular life and conflict, a massive earthquake hits the Middle East and Israel is thrown into conflict as war and disease break out.

This is where the novel became more interesting to me. The diversion into alternate history is fascinating – how such an event might play out, particularly the international implications. When the earthquake hits, the Bloch’s Israeli cousins are visiting in Washington and Foer does a good job of portraying the two perspectives. The American Jewish family who care about Israel but don’t think of it as home, and the Israeli Jewish family. Showing this split within one extended family powerfully demonstrates the divisions and changes that have grown and developed among the Jewish people since the end of World War Two.

One of the interesting ideas that Foer brings forth as a result of this fictional upheaval in Israel is that the Israeli government calls for the Jewish people to return home. While this causes Jacob to make some big decisions in his life, it also mirrors the question of loyalty and commitment that is growing in his own household as his marriage with Julia founders.

In the end, there is a lot to admire in Here I Am. I certainly do feel that it could have been shorter, primarily because none of the characters really grabbed me in the way that Foer’s previous creations had. It was hard to sympathize with any of them, especially Jacob, as they worried over their privileged lives and had endless conversations that skirted around the real topics. (And I live a pretty privileged life myself.) The character who potentially interested me the most was Isaac but he didn’t get a lot of time on the page (which reflected how much time his family really spent with him). Foer continues to be a strong writer and I applaud him for reaching out into a different kind of story than his previous novels but I’ll be hoping for something a little more engaging next time.

Book Review: Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Fates and Furies - Lauren Groff (Riverhead Books, 2015)

Fates and Furies – Lauren Groff (Riverhead Books, 2015)

Lotto and Mathilde meet at the very end of their final year of university and marry two weeks later. They’re young, broke, and both shocked by the fact of falling in love. Fates and Furies follows them through the next twenty or so years of their marriage, detailing the ups and downs, the secrets that they share and the secrets they keep. The early years are shown through the parties they throw – at first raucous and wild, then mellowing with age. Then, following a surprise career change for Lotto, the action slows and the story becomes more complicated.

The first half of the novel focuses on Lotto, following him from birth (and even before, giving details about his parents and their histories), his childhood and particularly his relationship with his mother, something that is an important factor throughout his life and his marriage. (A man with a mixed-up relationship with his mother seems a little heavy-handed and Freudian even but for the most part Groff keeps Lotto’s mother from being too heavy-handed.) In the second half of the story we learn of Mathilde’ childhood and all the things about her that Lotto never knew.

The key point of the novel is ostensibly that Lotto and Mathilde’s marriage is happy though unconventional and yet there is so much they have hidden from one another. The second half of the novel is primarily comprised of all the ways Mathilde is not who Lotto thought she was but she made him very happy, so does it matter? My problem here is that we never truly see the substance of Lotto and Mathilde’s marriage. We never see them do anything together except host parties (which are often being thrown by one of them rather than both) and have sex. There doesn’t seem to be much basis for their relationships or for the reader to believe that they are so happy and in love. Where are their private jokes, their shared memories, the unique and mundane and sacred rituals of people who wake up together every day?

While both Lotto and Mathilde are fascinating characters, they aren’t people I’d want to spend time with in real life, despite being constantly told how charming Lotto is or how intriguing everyone finds Mathilde. The novel generally suffers from a bit too much telling rather than showing, which is especially disappointing because when Groff does show instead of tell, she does it very well. Groff never really makes her readers fall in love and so I’m not sure how much we’re supposed to believe the descriptions that are given to the main characters.

Overall, Fates and Furies has a lot of strong writing, characters with great potential, and some interesting revelations. Yet it falls short of feeling like a complete story and I was left to wonder what comes next.