Review | Jigsaw Man (A Mark Tartaglia Mystery), Elena Forbes

JigsawThe fourth in the DI Mark Tartaglia series, this book features a double mystery: a burned corpse turns out to be an assembly of parts from four different bodies and a young woman killed at a hotel turns out to be the sister of Tartaglia’s former partner Sam Donovan. I’d read and enjoyed the first book in this series a few years ago, where I commented that Tartaglia and Donovan clearly have some chemistry — from this book, I can see it had developed into something more and then ended badly, so there’s an interesting bit of tension from their shared history.

I was definitely intrigued by the plot of Jigsaw Man — in particular the stitched up bodies because how creepy and gruesome is that? There was also the interesting coincidence of Tartaglia having been in the hotel on the night of the murder, and I could just imagine a detective like Hercule Poirot having his ego completely bruised at not having noticed anything amiss. For Tartaglia, because he knew the victim, his response was more guilt than a bruised ego, and made the crime personal.

Unlike the first book Die with Me, Tartaglia’s personal life is brought front and centre in this novel, with the investigation taking somewhat of a back seat. As a result, I felt like there was so much of a backstory that I missed, and while Forbes does a good job of cluing new readers in, I wondered if the case would have meant more to me if I’d known the victim as well, or at least remembered more of Donovan’s character. As it was, it read as a fairly standard police procedural.

I mentioned in my review of Die with Me that nothing in particular about Tartaglia stood out to me, and I think that was a part of why I couldn’t really get into this book. When the story is so contingent on a mystery’s effect on the main character’s personal life, you have to care about the main character, and in this case, I just didn’t find Tartaglia compelling enough.

Again, as with Die with Me, I found Donovan to be a more interesting character. She is no longer a police officer in this novel, yet her background naturally makes her want to be involved in tracking down her sister’s murderer.  I found it annoying at first, mostly because I was no longer familiar with her background within the series and I thought she was just interfering in other people’s jobs. Later on, she then hides key information from Tartaglia because she wanted to take her own revenge, and while it’s an understandable impulse, it’s also a trope that annoys me in detective or superhero fiction, mostly because that kind of storyline always progresses predictably.

The mystery of the stitched up body parts didn’t make much of an impact on me — it mostly felt tacked on and while we follow the police procedural to solve that case, it felt more a background subplot to the actual mystery involving Sam’s sister.

Overall, I wonder if having read the other books in the series, or even having read the first book more recently, would have made me enjoy this book more. As it was, the book was okay. I found myself mostly bored by it, until Donovan’s perspective kinda takes over near the end. I may give the Tartaglia series another shot, but also wonder if Forbes may have plans of doing a Donovan stand-alone. That one, I’d definitely read.

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Thank you to House of Anansi for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The King of Shanghai (Ava Lee # 7: The Triad Years), Ian Hamilton

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t read Two Sisters of Borneo (Ava Lee # 6), this review includes a major spoiler in the first paragraph about that book and the Ava Lee series in general.

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King of Shanghai begins about a month after Uncle’s death in Two Sisters of Borneo. Ava is just coming out of grieving and ready to begin a new life as a partner in the Three Sisters investment business she runs with friends May and Amanda. She still feels the loss of Uncle’s mentorship, but is somewhat looking forward to a quieter life, with a steady income and without the violence that resulted from her previous work.

Unfortunately for Ava, her old life seems determined to catch up to her. Uncle’s friend and mentee Xu, the head of the Triad in Shanghai, is seeking the chairmanship of all Triad Societies, and he wants to recruit Ava as his adviser. The rest of the story unfolds in classic Ava Lee fashion — other Triad bosses don’t get along with Xu, Ava gets sucked into their conflict, various characters get kidnapped/beaten up/shot.

King of Shanghai does focus a bit more on Ava’s strategic thinking rather than her martial arts prowess, which I liked. She ends up having to strategize about the Triad, and that’s a scale beyond what she’s had to deal with in the past, I think. That being said, one of my concerns with this series is that Ava’s always been more than capable so I haven’t really seen much character growth in that regard over the series. Because she has been practically superhuman all along, there was never any doubt that she could come up with a good strategy, nor that she could strong-arm negotiations in her favour. More significantly, there isn’t much difference between the Ava working for Uncle and the Ava left without a mentor. She does mourn Uncle’s death, and there’s a great scene where she dreams about him, but in terms of character development, I didn’t really feel how Uncle’s death changed her in any way.

The appeal of any mystery and thriller series is familiarity — there’s a set structure and there’s a certain set of expectations of how the main character would react in a given situation. So in a way, I can’t fault Ian Hamilton for giving us the Ava Lee story we’ve come to expect. I think however that the story arc about Uncle’s health in previous books raised the emotional stakes in such a way that enhanced the series, and that is missing in this book. Ava’s concern over Uncle’s declining health added heart to the series and depth to Ava’s character, and perhaps it is in contrast to that that the language in this book feels oddly detached. Even moments of emotion, such as Ava’s emailing “I love you” to her girlfriend felt clinical in execution, added to the story just to remind us that Ava has a girlfriend before then going on to the business at hand.

There is also a subplot about PO, a fashion line the Three Sisters consider investing in. To be honest, I enjoyed that subplot more than the Triad part, mostly because I like fashion, but as the Triad story took off, this story was pushed to the sidelines, and it made me wonder why we spent almost half the book building up this storyline.

King of Shanghai is a solid addition to the Ava Lee series. If you enjoyed the earlier books, this has many of the elements that make the other books great, and Ava is as powerful and brilliant as ever.

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Thank you to Anansi for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Bone and Bread, Saleema Nawaz

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Beena and Sadhana are sisters orphaned at a young age and assigned to live with their uncle, a Sikh who owns a bagel shop in Montreal that people assume is owned by a Jewish family. Not only is their uncle’s traditional values at odds with their mother’s more hippie-style upbringing, but the sisters themselves seem to be inevitably growing apart, Beena feeling the weight of responsibility in her role as older sister and caretaker, and Sadhana trying to break free from her sister’s influence. Saleema Nawaz’s Bone and Bread is about sisters — the love, the rivalry and all the wonderful complexities contained therein. It’s about family, grief and guilt, and to a lesser extent, cultural identity.

The scenes depicting Beena and Sadhana’s childhood are strong. The difference in their looks and skin colour, such that people may not necessarily realize they are sisters, is mirrored in the difference in their personalities — the stolid Beena is the obedient eldest child and the beautiful, artistic Sadhana tries to fit in with the popular crowd. Nawaz describes their relationship beautifully, balancing sibling rivalry against a deep sense of affection.

Particularly powerful is the scene of their mother’s death. This causes an irreparable, yet mostly concealed, rift between the sisters, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a powerful, horrifying scene, one that sticks with me long after I’ve finished reading the book.

The description of the ensuing conflict between the sisters is also compelling. There’s a point when Beena, who takes her role as Sadhana’s caretaker very seriously, discovers how much Sadhana really resents her, and just that moment of realization, that searing bolt of pain Beena must have felt, was such a powerful, pivotal moment in the book.

Beena ends up an unwed teenage mother, while Sadhana becomes anorexic, and the visual tension created by Beena’s tummy growing while Sadhana’s body whittles away is striking. Both sisters are in bad shape, emotionally and physically, and much as you want them to return to the closeness they shared before their mother’s death, all you can do is watch helplessly as they pull even further away from each other.

The story falters somewhat in the present day plot. The mystery of the circumstances behind Sadhana’s death is important in terms of Beena’s sense of guilt over it, but it never really seems to matter. Beena’s issues with her son and his desire to meet his father similarly pale in comparison to her issues with Sadhana, and when Nawaz brings in a political angle to the plot, there’s just too much going on to care. Bone and Bread, particularly in the present day plot, tries to tackle too much, when the power of the story is firmly in the relationship between the sisters. Ironically, the event that set the story off in the first place — Sadhana’s death — appears to have weakened it. How would the story have been if Sadhana hadn’t died, if Beena had been forced to face her sister all the way till the bitter end? What if the story had been focused on Beena and Sadhana’s relationship, with the political subplot firmly ensconced within the sisters’ tale?

Personally, I would have liked to find out.

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Thank you to House of Anansi for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review | The Truth About Luck, Iain Reid

978-1-77089-241-5_lIain Reid has a gift for getting right into his readers’ hearts. In One Bird’s Choice, he made us fall in love with his quirky, hilarious parents, as well as with a certain bird named Lucius. These characters make an appearance The Truth About Luck as well, but Reid’s second memoir shifts the author’s focus to his adorable, utterly loveable 92-year-old grandmother.

The premise of the book is practically guaranteed to make anyone with a grandmother go “Awww…” When Reid’s brother reneges for the first time on a joint birthday gift for Grandma, Reid decides to take his grandmother on a week-long road trip, gifting her with something far sweeter than a quirky portrait: his time. Unfortunately, for reasons that are unclear to me (finances? lack of planning?), the much-anticipated road trip turns instead into a staycation in Kingston. I do wish I understood better why Reid opted for a staycation instead, especially since the original plan had allowed for the possibility of the grandmother paying for the trip. As it is, I felt bad for Grandma, who’d looked forward to a road trip for months, and had possibly even brought her swimsuit. Worse, Reid admits he had no idea how to entertain his grandmother for a week — a cringe-worthy admission, though admittedly, we’ve all been there.

Reid is endearingly self-aware, unflinching in his portrayal of himself and unafraid to make fun of his own quirks. At times, he tries a bit too hard at self-deprecation — people likely aren’t paying as much attention to his treatment of Grandma as he imagines — but this as well is rather sweet, a heightened concern for his grandmother’s well-being. A wonderfully wry passage near the beginning of the book sums up Reid’s self-deprecating humour pretty well:

I called a friend to see if he had any ideas for me, tips on how to inject some carefree mirth into the trip. He reminded me that I wasn’t really the fun or adventurous one in our group. […] When pushed for which one in the group I was, he used the word egghead and asked what the opposite of an adrenaline junkie was. I wonder if I can offer Grandma a sherry first thing tomorrow morning? [p. 60]

Fortunately for Reid, his grandmother is such a sweet, gracious woman that she genuinely seems as excited over a week in Kingston as she originally was over a road trip. Grandma is the heart of this book, and Reid’s prose is a lovely, loving tribute. The staycation offers him the chance to listen to his grandmother’s stories about her past, a rare opportunity with a woman more accustomed to asking about her grandchildren’s lives than speaking about herself. In a coffee shop, as his grandmother speaks about her life during World War II, Reid notices the other customers busy with their books, laptops and mobile phones, and feels the urge to command them all to listen. Grandma’s life is far too interesting to ignore.

My own 89-year-old grandmother, who has always been a feisty, chatty woman, has recently begun exhibiting signs of dementia. She has difficulty remembering events and recognizing people, and is most comfortable speaking in Chinese, her first language and, unfortunately, one I don’t speak myself. Reid’s book makes me think of all the stories I may now never have the chance to hear, and makes me wish I’d paid closer attention all those times my own grandmother spoke about her past. I remember our trip to China, and my grandmother’s attempts to teach me Chinese, and wish I could remember more of what she taught.

This book then, perhaps more than any road trip, may just be the best, most precious gift Reid could have given his grandmother. Not only will he forever be able to remind himself of her stories, but he has also immortalized her past for people who have never even met her. Time and again, his grandmother frets that she is boring him with her stories. Time and again, Reid assures her that he is fascinated. And thanks to Reid’s masterful prose, so are we.

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Thank you to House of Anansi for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Carnival, Rawi Hage

I was conceived on the circus trail by a traveller who owned a camel and a mother who swung from the ropes. When my mother, the trapeze artist with the golden hair, tossed me out of her self to the applause of elephants and seals, there was rain outside and the caravans were about to leave. She nursed me through the passages of roads and the follies of clowns and the bitter songs of an old dwarf who prophesied for me a life of wandering among spiders and beasts.

978-0-88784-235-1_lSo begins Rawi Hage’s Carnival. Its narrator is indeed destined to wander among spiders and beasts; however, unlike his mother, Fly’s circus is an urban landscape, where spiders are taxi drivers who sit in their cars waiting for a dispatcher to call and an odd assortment of passengers are daily fare. There are two types of taxi drivers in the Carnival city, and unlike spiders, flies roam the streets, looking for people to flag them down.

The story is carnivalesque — a Baz Luhrmann cacophony of sights, sounds and colourful characters. There’s a lot going on, and not a whole lot holding them together, but it’s a fun ride anyway. Through Fly’s eyes, we see the outsiders of society — a prostitute whose customers refused to pay, a disenfranchised carnival booth worker who ends up arrested, various other taxi drivers dealing with poverty, crime and anger in the face of a taxi inspector’s abuse of power.

I can only imagine the stories real-life taxi drivers can tell about their passengers, and in Hage’s novel, the strangeness and the drama are exaggerated to almost surreal proportions. A lover’s quarrel over money, with the younger man demanding to be let off and the older one demanding that Fly keep driving, ends in a surprisingly sweet moment of tenderness. Hage seems more interested in a British passenger who invites Fly to join him in an underground BDSM club. Other passengers also offer glimpses into secret lives, sex and drama and all. The atmosphere is seedy and sordid, yet, perhaps because of the carnivalesque tone, nothing ever truly shocks.

The final third or so of the novel was a bit of a letdown. It felt like Hage was trying to bring cohesion with a more traditional narrative, involving a series of crimes. Yet in doing so, the story loses the adventure afforded by the earlier sections’ heightened form of reality.

Carnival is over-the-top, in-your-face, and yet very real. I’m not quite sure I quite grasp what the story is about, yet I’m definitely glad I went along for the ride.

Review | People Park, Pasha Malla

9780887842160To celebrate the Silver Jubilee of People Park, the residents hire the illustrationist (as opposed to illusionist) Raven to perform. Unfortunately, Raven’s illustrations turn out to be all too real, and the consequences are much more permanent than the residents predicted.

Pasha Malla’s People Park is a very difficult book to get into, and in fact, I almost gave up halfway through. Malla’s book is ambitious, with a dozen or so narrative threads that never really come together. The various character stories do share the common event of Raven’s illustration — the build up, the actual event, and the fall out — but apart from setting, they seem disjointed. There is a two column character list at the beginning of the book, almost enough characters to populate War and Peace, except none of Malla’s characters are distinct enough to make me care.

To be fair, the story doesn’t seem to be about individual characters, but rather people in so far as they comprise People Park. We see a jumble of characters, arrogantly complacent and eager for Raven’s performance, then turn to panic when the rug is pulled from under them. There is social commentary here, particularly in a scene where Raven quite literally cuts the Mayor down to size and the residents applaud dumbly. The inefficacy of People Park’s political system and law enforcement agency is masterfully portrayed with biting humour. Malla is at his strongest in the political scenes, where we see how much more horrible things are going to get, with the residents absolutely unaware. While Malla resists allegory, there are certainly parallels to the real world, and Malla’s portrayal is harsh, but the harshness feels necessary.

Unfortunately, it’s all just too chaotic. There are too many things being juggled and rather than keep his readers grounded with a single focal point, Malla appears to fling these elements about wildly for his readers to rush around to pick up. The lack of quotation marks definitely didn’t help, particularly when the characters all sound alike. This may be deliberate, a reflection of the chaos already in People Park, whether or not the residents are aware of it. I just found it frustrating. Even when I was able to identify characters, I realized I didn’t really care what happened to them, because they all seemed little more than cogs being moved every which way by Raven’s illustrations. Again, this may be deliberate, but again, it just left me frustrated.

I did almost give it up halfway through, but I’m glad I stuck it out because the second half is better. Or perhaps I was just happy that the residents of People Park finally realize Raven is sinister rather than mere entertainment. To be fair, this may also be a case of myself just not being the right reader for this book. Matthew J. Trafford, for example, in the National Post, found it impressive. Definitely not for me, though.

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Thank you to House of Anansi for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Life Is About Losing Everything, Lynn Crosbie

978-1-77089-003-9_lIn Doug Coupland’s blurb to Lynn Crosbie’s Life is About Losing Everything, he comments that “it’s almost terrifying how deep this book goes, and how quickly it gets there.” The book is certainly intense, a blend of fact and fiction about a time period in the author’s life. I made the mistake of beginning it after a rather bad day, and after the first few chapters, had to stop because it was too depressing. Then again, with a title like that, what did I expect, eh?

To be fair, I think Crosbie’s book will strike a certain kind of reader as utterly beautiful, poignant and heart wrenching. It just didn’t work for me. (That’s not just because of my first, aborted attempt at reading it. I did give it another couple of tries before giving up. Full disclosure: I did not finish the book. I did try, but ultimately I decided to move on.)

The book saunters from vignette to vignette, some chapters in the form of lists, others more straightforward narrative. The story wanders, as if we had a glimpse right into the mind of the author as she thinks first of one memory and then another, and then perhaps doubles back to an earlier event, and so on. It’s not an easy read — the writing is soaked in bitterness and anger. Crosbie’s style is just sharp and biting enough to avoid being whiny, but hell, this novel cuts deep.

There’s a fine line between raw emotion and self-indulgence, and to my mind, this book crossed that line. The randomness of the vignettes, and the slapdash nature in which they were compiled added to the feeling that despite the hodgepodge of episodes, they all began to sound equally bitter. Blogger Buried in Print says that rather than the traditional beginning, middle and end narrative, Life is “all middle.” This maintains just that intensity that Crosbie is clearly going for, and is perhaps the reason other book reviews recommend dipping into Life a bit at a time rather than in one sitting.

Crosbie’s writing is tight and with a definite bite. However, the format of the book just didn’t work for me, and I ended up realizing that I simply didn’t care what other horrible, depressing slice of life was going to be revealed next.

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Thank you to House of Anansi for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.