Review | The Blue Hour, Douglas Kennedy

23492800Accountant Robin Danvers travels to Morocco with her artist husband Paul for a much-needed long vacation. There has been some tension in their relationship, with their various unsuccessful attempts to conceive and Paul’s recklessness with money, and Robin hopes that a trip to Morocco will help smooth out their relationship. Unfortunately, things don’t go quite as planned. Robin catches Paul out in a horrible lie, and when he disappears, she becomes the prime suspect in the police inquiry.

The Blue Hour started off slow, and only really picked up steam for me in the final third or so. I sympathized with Robin’s marital troubles and her unmet desire for a child, but when Paul disappears, I didn’t quite understand why she was so concerned over his welfare that she’d go so far out of her way to track him down. She’s found him out in a pretty major lie, and her investigation keeps uncovering almost an entire secret life, with a whole new set of dangers that threaten to drag her down as well.

Paul’s disappearance seems to be of his own volition, and he seems to have no interest in reconnecting with her — at one point, she sees him in the street, only to have him disappear in the crowd. Then she finds out he may be connected with a particularly shady man, the type who can be either a good friend or a dangerous foe, yet instead of cutting her marital losses and leaving for the safety of home, Robin persists in digging deeper into her husband’s past and in continuing to try to track him down. I understand that this search forms the entire impetus for the story, but for a large chunk of the book, I wondered why she was willing to risk so much just to find him.

Then a rather random, horrible incident occurs, and it completely shifts the rest of the story. On one hand, I’m somewhat bothered by this twist, as it seemed so unnecessary. On the other hand, the story did pick up afterwards — suddenly the threat Robin faces actually feels real, and I felt much more invested in her race for survival than in her earlier race to find her husband.

Kennedy does a good job in describing places.  You can almost feel the heat and the crush of bodies as Robin moves around Morocco, and you can almost see the vast, parched, shimmering expanse of the Sahara desert.

It took me a while to get into The Blue Hour, the whole love story angle really still doesn’t ring true for me, and I still wish the momentum of the final third could have been sustained throughout. But I thought the descriptions were really strong, and I like how the book ended.

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Thanks to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review | Tides of Honour, Genevieve Graham

TidesofHonourIf you love historical dramas and romances set in the time of war, you may love Genevieve Graham’s Tides of Honour. It begins in 1917 Nova Scotia, where Private Daniel Baker returns home having lost a leg in the First World War. Through flashbacks, we see how he met artist Audrey Poulin while stationed in France and how both fell in love. Though Daniel gallantly offers to let her go and find someone without such a debilitating injury, Audrey nevertheless professes her continuing love for him, and moves to Halifax to be his wife.

The novel starts off a bit slow. There are poignant moments, particularly where Daniel encounters the parents of soldiers who’ve died in the war, and the pain they feel upon seeing each other — Daniel, with the guilt of surviving, and the parents with the reminder of the son they’d lost. But otherwise, I found the beginning, with its buildup of the romance between Daniel and Audrey, to be plodding.

After marriage is when the conflict really starts, particularly when Audrey’s artistic career shows promise of taking off and Daniel is stuck underemployed and barely managing with his injury. Graham keeps the story very much a product of its time and place, and while I understand the faithfulness to historical accuracy, a lot was grating for a contemporary reader to witness. In particular, Daniel’s whole alpha male pride thing really ticked me off. He’s the man of the house, he should be the breadwinner, he should be the one to support the family, etc. Historically accurate, perhaps, but I didn’t blame Audrey for feeling stifled.

Audrey is the best part of this novel. I love how her talent helped her gain some degree of financial independence, and I love her interest in the suffragette movement. I only wish her involvement with the suffragettes was explored a bit more, and I would have loved an entire novel from her perspective.

Both their worlds get turned upside down with the Halifax Explosion of 1917. I wasn’t familiar with that bit of Canadian history, but Graham does a great job of showing the tragic effects on individual lives. I love how it affected Daniel, in particular, and helped him go beyond himself and his initial ideas of how his life should have turned out. It’s a poignant reminder that people’s stories continue even after something as shattering as surviving a war.

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu

GraceofKingsSometimes, you just want to completely immerse yourself in a good book. Such is the case with Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings. A doorstop at over 600 pages, the book was so good that I still wanted to read more after I finished. The story is so captivating that I lugged the book around on the subway to work every day, and devoured the entire tale in only about two weeks.

Liu is a master at world building. He has created a nation united under a single emperor, yet still feeling the tensions beneath its origins as seven separate kingdoms and the bloodiness of the emperor’s path to power. Enter our two heroes: wily bandit Kuni Garu and fierce warrior Mata Zyndu. Mata also happens to be the latest generation of a long family line whose power was deposed by the current regime. Kuni is on the path to power, yet his power lies in his background as a bandit, and his being, at heart, a commoner. Enter as well the gods, several of whom have a stake in the future of this nation, and like the gods in any ancient legend, have no qualms about interfering in human affairs.

Kuni and Mata become fast friends as they wage war against the cruel despot. They are united by a common goal, yet as time passes and circumstances change, both are revealed to have vastly different philosophies about the meaning of justice and how the world should be run.

I absolutely fell in love with this story, and I’m thrilled to see so much influence from Chinese folklore and mythology. So often, when I read these great epic novels — Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones — the influence is very clearly Western, and the characters usually come off as such. This is the first contemporary novel from a traditional publisher, that I’ve read (or at least can remember) with such scope and depth and such an epic, mythological, legendary feel, that struck me as being influenced by Eastern folklore. As an Asian Canadian, this is definitely important to me. (Another title of note, with a clear influence from Eastern mythology, is Amy McCulloch’s The Oathbreaker’s Shadow, a fantasy adventure YA duology.)

The Grace of Kings is the first book in the Dandelion Dynasty series. It is an entertaining story of intrigue, battles and political plotting. Beyond that, it also raises some interesting philosophical questions about what justice really means and how best to rule such a fragile nation. Above all, it’s a book to lose yourself in, so definitely set aside some time to treat yourself to this tale.

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.