Review: The Strays by Emily Bitto

30145124*I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*

Title: The Strays

Author: Emily Bitto

Publisher: Hamish Hamilton Canada

Publication Date: January 3, 2017

ISBN: 9781455537723

The Strays: A Novel
Synopsis from Goodreads:
On her first day at a new school, Lily befriends one of the daughters of infamous avant-garde painter Evan Trentham. Lily has never experienced anything like the Trenthams’ home, where Evan and his wife have created a wild, makeshift family of like-minded artists, all living and working together to escape the stifling conservatism of 1930’s Australia. An only child accustomed to loneliness, Lily soon becomes infatuated with the creative chaos of the Trenthams and aches to fully belong. Despite the Trenthams’ glamorous allure, the artists’ real lives are shaped by dire Faustian bargains and spectacular falls from grace. As the girls find themselves drawn closer to the white-hot flame of creativity, emotions and art collide with explosive consequences–and Evan’s own daughters may be forced to pay a dangerous price for his choices.
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The synopsis of this story does a good job of hiding most of what goes on in this shocking tale, so much so that I was completely surprised at how this book unfolded. I loved that nothing is revealed and Bitto’s tale remains quite a surprise. This book evoked a lot of emotion in me: shock, anger, sadness, intrigue. This story of artists coming together is very visceral. The emotion of the characters in a story told decades after the fact, is still raw and very much present.

Lily, the narrator, takes on a fly-on-the-wall role in this story. Her role as the narrator is not to tell her own story, but to share the story of the Trentham family. We’re as distant from her as she feels from her own family. It’s hard to get to know her because her words are observations of the goings on around her. She loves this world where she is accepted without question–although the reader sees this as something akin to neglect. She can escape her own world by letting the Trentham family consume her. Lily is a vessel for this story.

I found the book to be a little chaotic. There are a lot of relationships taking place: Lily and Eva, the Trenthams, the artists that come to reside in the home, Lily and her parents, Eva’s sisters. It’s a whirlwind, but I think that’s the point. I think that Bitto shares this world through the eyes of a growing child. She doesn’t fully understand the world around her, but through this book, she comes to learn things both beautiful and horrible.

There are some pretty tough themes and topics dealt with in this book, and I don’t know if they are fully resolved. I didn’t feel completely satisfied in the end. I wanted more. Perhaps I’m just a sucker for a happy ending, but this is a story so turbulent that a happy ending may not be possible. Bitto has an alluring writing style and I thoroughly enjoyed the way she presents her world and her characters. However, it’s not a book that made me happy. It talks about many upsetting things, presented through the eyes of a child who’s ignorance prevents her–at least until she’s older–from fully understanding.

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Review: The Boy Who Escaped Paradise by J. M. Lee

28943776*I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*

Title: The Boy Who Escaped Paradise

Author: J. M. Lee

Publisher: Pegasus Books

Publication Date: December 6, 2016

ISBN: 9781681772523

The Boy Who Escaped Paradise
Synopsis from Goodreads:
An unidentified body is discovered in New York City, with numbers and symbols written in blood near the corpse. Gil­mo, a North Korean national who interprets the world through numbers, formulas, and mathematical theories, is arrested on the spot. Angela, a CIA operative, is assigned to gain his trust and access his unique thought-process. The enigmatic Gil­mo used to have a quiet life back in Pyongyang. But when his father, a preeminent doctor is discovered to be a secret Christian, he is subsequently incarcerated along with Gilmo, in a political prison overseen by a harsh, cruel warden. There, Gilmo meets the spirited Yeong-ae, who becomes his only friend. When Yeong-ae manages to escape, Gil­mo flees to track her down. He uses his peculiar gifts to navigate betrayal and the criminal underworld of east Asia—a world wholly alien to everything he’s ever known.
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Thank you so much to Pegasus Books for sharing this incredibly intriguing story with me. We meet Gilmo in the midst of a shocking tragedy: someone has been murdered and Gilmo is the prime suspect. Through his interrogating we come to understand him and his life, from North Korea all the way to America. With a character reminiscent of the boy from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, The Boy Who Escaped Paradise tells the story of a young man who understands numbers and math better than people. In his harrowing tale, he’s befriended, used, taken advantage of, and so much worse, but he remains a loyal, but naive friend to those in his life.
I thought that this story had a fascinating, yet quite awkward protagonist who’s quirks will draw you to him, but also set the reader apart as he’s quite difficult to relate to. He’s such a trusting character, seeing only the good in others and so willing to trust. He makes his way in the world, working hard and harnessing his talent with numbers to find his place in the world. One can’t help but feel for him because of his lack of understanding of humanities inclination towards deception. His world is a cruel one. The plot moved along with great pacing. I was quickly turning the pages trying to find out what was going to happen next. Gilmo has quite a story to tell.
I very much enjoyed this novel and I hope you will as well. I thought that it was well-written, entertaining, and moving.

Review: A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell

22638315Title: A Reunion of Ghosts

Author: Judith Claire Mitchell

Publisher: Harper

Publication Date: March 2015

ISBN: 9780062355881

A Reunion of Ghosts

 

Synopsis from Goodreads:
In the waning days of 1999, the Alter sisters—Lady, Vee, and Delph—finalize their plans to end their lives. Their reasons are not theirs alone; they are the last in a long line of Alters who have killed themselves, beginning with their great-grandmother, the wife of a Jewish Nobel Prize-winning chemist who developed the first poison gas used in World War I and the lethal agent used in Third Reich gas chambers. The chemist himself, their son Richard, and Richard’s children all followed suit. As they gather in the ancestral Upper West Side apartment to close the circle of the Alter curse, an epic story about four generations of one family—inspired in part by the troubled life of German-Jewish Fritz Haber, Nobel Prize winner and inventor of chlorine gas—unfolds. A Reunion of Ghosts is a tale of fate and blood, sin and absolution; partly a memoir of sisters unified by a singular burden, partly an unflinching eulogy of those who have gone before, and above all a profound commentary on the events of the 20th century.


I had a really tough time with A Reunion of Ghosts which I found a bit disappointing because I’d been looking forward to reading it for a while. It’s the story of the Alter sisters who are in the midst of planning their death. This book is their suicide note. The Alter family is cursed by the great-grandfather who developed the chemical that was used as a lethal gas in WWI and the lethal agent in the gas chambers of WWII. This is a sad tale, with little happiness or redemptive quality. It’s a story without hope. The “family curse” is an inescapable burden to them. To them, they’ve been doomed from the start.

Suicide hangs over this family at every turn. Aunts, parents, grandparents, have all killed themselves from the shame, sadness, and anger at the devastation that hangs in their family history. Eventually, suicide becomes their own personal destinies. Even as one of the sisters thinks to fight it, and even makes a significant attempt to leave this tragic destiny behind, she fails and ultimately succumbs to the curse.

It’s a very sad story. The sisters are trapped by the sadness of the inescapable. We get to know the sisters as much as we get to know their ancestors and their history. Where they come from informs who they are.

I’ve decided that dark humour just isn’t my style. The reviews that I’ve read about this book seem to all be good, but I found that this type of humour was lost on me. I found this book deeply depressing and sad. It was very hard for me to finish and it took me a long time to read.

Review: Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

22725443Title: Hausfrau

Author: Jill Alexander Essbaum

Publisher: Random House

Publication Date: 2015

ISBN: 9780812997538

Hausfrau

Synopsis from Goodreads:
Anna Benz, an American in her late thirties, lives with her Swiss husband, Bruno—a banker—and their three young children in a postcard-perfect suburb of Zürich. Though she leads a comfortable, well-appointed life, Anna is falling apart inside. Adrift and increasingly unable to connect with the emotionally unavailable Bruno or even with her own thoughts and feelings, Anna tries to rouse herself with new experiences: German language classes, Jungian analysis, and a series of sexual affairs she enters with an ease that surprises even her.  But Anna can’t easily extract herself from these affairs. When she wants to end them, she finds it’s difficult. Tensions escalate, and her lies start to spin out of control. Having crossed a moral threshold, Anna will discover where a woman goes when there is no going back.


Essbaum’s Hausfrau is an exploration of womanhood, marriage, love, lust, and self. Anna is lost in her life. A mother and housewife, she doesn’t work and has two sons. Her marriage has lost it’s passion. Anna has no friends and can barely even speak the language of her husband. She knows no one beyond her husband and his family, and even they are still strangers to her even after years of marriage. In an attempt to find herself and to make a life for herself, she finds desperate passion in the lustful affairs she conducts with strange men. Anna experiences incredibles sexual awakening in her affairs, loosing herself in the pleasure that she cannot derive from her home life. She comes to understand herself, her needs, and her wants throughout the book, in a way that she doesn’t recognize in the first few pages.

Anna loses everything to her indiscretion. She is punished severely and receives no redemption. It is certainly not a happy ending. What’s worse is that as the reader, you can see it coming from a mile away, and yet, you can do nothing to help her. She remains on this self-destructive track in a way that makes you cringe and want to look away. But as the reader, I felt I wanted her to succeed. I wanted her to find happiness. She is in a period of exploration, trying to know herself and to build a life that has meaning in this place where she has nothing. But she becomes confident and careless in her exploits, making more daring decisions until she has nothing left.

What I loved about this book is how real and tangible Anna is. She makes bad decisions, life altering decisions, and she fails. Her decisions do not make her likeable, but they make her independent. She is seeking change and she desires to actually feel loved and wanted. She is only human. While I could not get on board with her lies and her deception, I felt like I could understand her in her unhappiness and her need to make a change.

This story questions what it means to be a housewife, a mother, a woman. What is expected of Anna in a marriage where there is no love left? What can she do if she cannot support herself? Where does one turn to when one has no one in the world? She has limited means, no connections, nearly nothing left in the world. Her actions question her moral character, but they also hint at her deep seeded unhappiness and discontent. Her actions also reflect her situation: trapped, lonely, and unsure.

I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it. This one has left me a bit indecisive because it has elements that I really appreciated, but also characterization and plot that I found incredibly sad.