Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood

We all have that one author we can always go to when we do not know what to read, or when we need some quality comfort reading. For me, that author is Margaret Atwood. I fell in love with her novels when I found Alias Grace, and although I have had some trouble with some of her other works – such as The Robber Bride – she never disappoints.

I bought Cat’s Eye (1988) at my local bookshop a few months ago after a particularly bad morning at work. If there is anything that makes life beautiful, that is beautiful books, and I could not resist this paperback edition that only cost 10€. Then, when I included it on one of my Book Haul posts everyone told me that Cat’s Eye was a masterpiece. So, when my Christmas break started, I did not have second thoughts on which book to read.

catseye

Cat’s Eye tells the story of Elaine Risley, from her early childhood until her current middle-age life as a respected Canadian painter. This childhood is remarkably similar to Atwood’s, as the daughter of a forest entomologist who took his family with him on his research travels across Canada. It is certainly a point of departure from many other main characters, and the connection with Atwood’s own story makes Elaine’s much more precious, even suggesting some complicity between Atwood’s faithful readers, who would know about her early years. However, that nomadic life comes to an end when Elaine’s father is offered a lecturing position and they move to a developing suburb in Toronto. It is in this new home that Elaine meets Cordelia, the person who will model her life from that moment onwards. Neither very intelligent, nor very pretty, Cordelia manages to psychologically subject and torture Elaine for years. If you have been to school, you know what this means, even though you may have not been the victim, you have seen it. The power, the discourse, the behaviour, the incomparable cruelty of children against each other. And where does that come from? What makes Elaine a victim?

The story is told in the form of flashbacks from Elaine’s present – the 1980’s, back when the novel was published – although these flashbacks are chronologically organised, allowing the reader to easily slip into the novel’s main theme: the construction of identity. Atwood makes a great effort to show that both space and people play a key role in helping us become who we are. Or, rather, that the constant influence of different spaces and people shape our identity. However, my first reading of Cat’s Eye – I do think this is the kind of text that you have to revisit in every decade of your life – suggests a rather static identity, mainly influenced by events that took place in your childhood and early adulthood. For Elaine, Cordelia is the main constant of her identity related to the city of Toronto, and all the excerpts that take place in her present show her obsession for that childhood bully, turned friend, that shaped her school years.

However, the novel explores many other themes that I found very interesting, such as what it meant to be a woman artist during the Second Wave of feminism, the construction of motherhood, the ways in which patriarchy subjected Generation X’s mothers to a capitalist and domestic construction of femininity, and so on and so forth. I was especially delighted to read about Elaine’s turn to Christianism at the beginning of the novel as a way to blend in with her friends, and how her parents allowed her to try it, even though they did not attend church themselves. This allowed Elaine to explore what it meant to be middle-class in post-WWII Toronto, and it also introduced her in the imagery and symbolism of Christianity, which will be key in her later works of art.

Cat’s Eye is definitely the masterpiece you all told me it was. Even though Atwood has not commented on the similarities between her and Elaine, I think the novel makes a great job of re/presenting Atwood’s trajectory as a Canadian woman artist, but also as a woman who has seen two waves of feminism question and challenge what it means to be a woman, and an artist.

American Housewife by Helen Ellis

I first heard of American Housewife by Hellen Ellis thanks to her wonderful UK publicist, Elizabeth Preston. A good friend of mine, Preston kept boasting on this new collection of short stories that will be published in the UK the 14th of January 2016. So, I kindly requested a review copy and Elizabeth, as usual, sent one to me.

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American Housewife is a collection of short stories by Helen Ellis. If you normally read my reviews you will have noticed that I read mostly novels, but the few short story collections that I read are usually ace. I still remember the time I read Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, an anthology by Sarah Weinmann that collected the best short stories in the true domestic noir genre (USA, 1950’s). So, when I heard the title American Housewife, I thought it would be a contemporary update of those domestic, dark stories that I loved so much. And I was not wrong.

Ellis has written 12 short stories that depict the complexity of white, heterosexual, capitalist domesticity in a mocking and hilarious tone. However, the author does not want to take away from the characters: their problems are real, and they matter to them. Sometimes, they are a life-or-death issue. From tedious domesticity to community renovations that trigger a war with the next-door neighbour, each story is a character on contemporary femininity as defined by the a domestic, capitalist ideal. And, even though this domesticity concerns the whole family unity, Ellis only pays attention to the women in family, normally the Mother figure. Sometimes she also includes a daughter, a friend, or a group of friends – all female – that help paint a more complex picture of the lives of these women. And in case you need further references, the one and only Margaret Atwood chose American Housewife as one of her best books of 2015 for The Guardian:

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So, if you are looking for a short story collection to read in 2016, I would wholeheartedly recommend American Housewife. The stories are short, so that you can read one a day – even though I read the book in two sittings – and Ellis’ tone is so irreverent and special that you will feel as if Desperate Housewives is back, this time on book form.

Happy Holidays!

Dear all,

2015 is slowly coming to an end, and I would like to take some time to say thank you to everyone who has supported Books & Reviews all through this past year, with its ups and downs. Last May some people approached me at CrimeFest15 to ask me if the blog was still going on. I never had second thoughts on this, and out of my mouth always came a straight ‘Yes! Of course!’. However, I am aware that I have read less than I intended, and I have reviewed even less. As I am writing this, I still have two reviews to write and a lot of your blog posts to read. Bear with me, I’ll get there.

And all this has an explanation. One of the beauties of life is that unexpected things happen and you have to deal with them. They won’t wait for you to be ready, nor should you sit patiently waiting for things to happen. In my case, in 2015 I broke a 8-year relationship and I took a lot of time off to figure things out. This meant much travelling, and much time out with a bunch of lovely people, especially women, who took great care of me. And, obviously, less time for reading. But it’s OK. This is how life is supposed to be, and I have enjoyed the ride like I thought I never thought I would.

And now is when I go all cheesey: To my Mum, Dad, Brother and Puppy, I could not have done this without you. To María S, Laura, Sandra, Ana and Karixia, I owe you the world. To everyone in the UK and the US who made it possible for me to change places and come out of my arrested development  were it online – Leah and Naomi – and/or in real life – especially Mrs. Peabody -, thank you, thank you, thank you. For M I have only two words, and they are my Dad’s: ‘about time!’.

And, finally, to everyone who is still subscribed to Books & Reviews, I can only say thank you, and the show will go on. I can’t think of my life without books, and I can’t think of reading without writing and sharing it.

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Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith

Career of Evil is the third on the Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott series by Robert Galbraith – pseudonym for Harry Potter’s author J.K Rowling – set in London in 2011.

Career of Evil

This time the plot follows Strike and Robin when she is sent a severed leg via courier, a package that she mistook for cameras for her upcoming wedding to uptight fiancé Matthew. However, it is made clear while opening the package that the criminal wants to hurt Strike and Robin is just the means to get to him. The severed leg coincides with other crimes around London that see youg women killed and carved up by an unknown male criminal, reminiscent of Jack the Ripper’s terrorising of London two centuries before. Strike and Robin start their investigation into Strike’s past to find the unknown criminal, who also knows of Leda’s – Strike’s mother – death/killing decades ago.

I am a huge fan of the Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott series, even though I have had my share of criticism because of the way in which Galbraith represents young women. However, as the series progress we get a more complex picture of Robin, and how she has become the woman that we meet in The Cuckoo’s Calling. The fact that Cormoran is another flawed character, also subjected to gender stereotypes and the expectations that come from traditional gender roles.

Career of Evil has a sense of closure all over it. We finally learn about Robin’s and Strike’s past, before they meet each other, and we finally understand why life has shaped them to be such special main characters. Robin and Matthew’s wedding is finally approaching, and Strike seems more or less at peace with his job as a private investigator in London. The story also raises importnat questions regarding Robin’s role in the agency, and Galbraith makes an effort to inscribe past gender roles in Robin’s current life. Can she, as a woman, be an equal to the main male detective? Is she taken as seriously as he is? Why do people still see her as ‘Strike’s secretary?’.

Reading this book I finally realized why the series are so popular: the simple answer is they make really good reading because the writing is impeccable. Galbraith clearly benefits from Rowling’s experience at serializing novels, and the inclusion of major social events, such as the 2011 royal wedding, help to make the narration more realistic. I had not noticed this before, but the inclusion of social events that I had lived makes up for a richer novel. William and Kate’s wedding was a major historical event in the UK and in Europe, and it is wisely included so as to mirror Robin’s own wedding. However, will it be such a joyous ocassion for her as it was – apparently – for the Duchess?

Now I would like to talk about the crime, but this time the actual crime is just an excuse to build a novel based on characters. To do this, one has to have very strong and complex main characters, and Galbraith has tested and passed with merits this exam. Even though a good deal is made of the killing of the young women, I felt I learned more about Strike and Robin – and their relationship! – than I did in the two previous installments.

I would recommend this book to anyone who has throroughly enjoyed the previous installments, but I also think it is a good place to start reading the series, if you are not very keen on reading a series in order. I think Galbraith is fully aware there are quite a lot of readers out there who do this, and he/she makes a huge effort to situate new readers and introduce them to the characters.

In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward

I met Sarah Ward years ago at her wonderful crime fiction blog Crimepieces, and we have become good friends ever since. Last May I had the pleasure of meeting her in the flesh at CrimeFest, and this fall I was lucky enough to be sent a review copy of her debut novel In Bitter Chill. Best part? It was signed!

Sarah Ward's in Bitter Chill

In Bitter Chill tells the story of Rachel and Sophie two children from Derbyshire who get kidnapped one morning on their way to school in 1978. Flash forward to the present, and we find Rachel was actually released, while Sophie has never been found. Their cold case is open again when Sophie’s mom is found dead at a local hotel, and DI Francis Sadler and DC Connie Childs start revising the 1970’s investigation.

I finished In Bitter Chill almost a month ago, and right now I am getting the same feeling thinking about this review as I did while I was reading it. Ward’s debut novel is the perfect mix of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series and Kate Morton’s family secrets. The investigating team very much resembles the best aspects of French’s Maddox and Ryan, although I have to admit I prefer Childs and Sadler. However, I thought that if there was a good way to start this review it was comparing Ward to two successful, established female writers, a category I have no doubt, she will find herself at very soon.

The merging of past and present crimes can either make for the perfect narrative or be so confusing that you end up losing interest. In Bitter Chill achieves the perfect mix of past and present so as to remind us that we are never free of the past, but should do not dwell on it. In the case of Rachel, she is still haunted by unanswered questions from her child self: Why was she released? Where is Sophie? Whose fault was it? However, her job as a family historian fits perfectly this narrative and her research, and the chapters where she is given a voice will appeal to fans of Morton’s plots about family secrets.

As for the investigating team, I do hope to hear from DI Sadler and DC Childs soon. While reading I thought it was probably Ward’s intention to create a series with these two opposed, yet complementary main characters. I have to admit I would not have been so drawn to the story had not been for work-addicted, clever, and fashionable DC Connie Childs. I also appreciated the glimpses we are given of their private lives and, especially, one feminist detail about Childs’ past. I had no doubt Ward was a feminist before, but In Bitter Chill is the ultimate proof of her mastery of feminism and crime fiction.

So, I would recommend In Bitter Chill to anyone who is looking for a good crime novel, with interesting and complex characters. However, I would also like to suggest this novel to anyone interested in family history/stories. The descriptions of corpses and the morgue are minimum, and Ward makes the crime about the people rather than the procedure or the forensic science.

October Book Haul

Hi, everyone! It’s been a long time since I posted anything, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t bought any books – far from it! So, here are the recent additions to my already overpopulated shelves:

Borrowed from the library:

Shirley Jackson by the Library of America (LOA).I had planned on reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle for Halloween, but I didn’t. Because I don’t like reading plans except for my PhD (for which I cannot function but by setting weekly deadlines). However, I finished Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith last night and I’ve been listening to a Literary Disco podcast on Jackson, as recommended by Shannon, and I believe it’s time for me to read Shirley Jackson for once and for all.

Borrowed from Library - October 2015

For review:

I hauled a lot of books for review this November because the 10 books that I requested – and was sent – from publishers last December never made it to me. 10 books! I guess there is a well-read mail-person in Britain. So, this year I will no be accepting or requesting any books until January, and I obviously had to make up for it:

For Review - October 2015

  • American Housewife by Helen Ellis reminded me so much of Sarah Weinman’s Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives that I had to request a review copy. It helped that my lovely friend Elizabeth Preston is on charge of this jewel.
  • Antihero by Fiona Peters and Rebecca Stewart is an academic book, a study on the archetypes of anti-hero in crime fiction.
  • Detective by Forshaw is a study of four contemporary detectives and their relevance in nowadays’ fiction.
  • After You Die by Eva Dolan is the next installment in her series. I love Dolan’s novels because there is a strong social criticism behind the crime narrative. As it should be.
  • The Widow by Fiona Barton comes from the same publisher as Paula Daly. Needless to say, I had to have this one.
  • Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith is the third on the Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott series, one of my favourites. I finished it last night and I think it’s the best one until now.
  • Depraved Heart by Patricia Cornwell is the latest in the Kay Scarpetta series, and although I’m way behind the series, I was very glad to be offered this gorgeous hardback and golden copy.

Bought:

Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood. After quite a terrible week last month I decided to go book shopping to my local library and fell in love with this light paperback copy of yet another Atwood’s classic. LIke with Kate Morton’s novels, I always like to have one of her works on my TBR pile, just in case I want some high quality, feminist fiction.

Margaret Atwood's Cat Eye

Gone, Baby, Gone by Dennis Lehane

I have a really good friend called Abel, who is also a huge crime fiction fan and whose book recommendations I keep ignoring, systematically. But he puts up with it because I assure him I will eventually read the book he just shouted at me over Facebook I need to read as soon as possible. One of his recommendations was Gone, Baby, Gone by Dennis Lehane at least 5 years ago if I remember well. So, a few months ago I decided to buy it, second-hand at Abebooks. Now I have read it, and finished it, and I will publically say it: Abel, you were right. It was my kind of book.

Review of Gone, Baby, Gone by Dennis Lehane

Gone, Baby, Gone is the fifth installment in the Kenzie and Genaro series by Dennis Lehane. If you have not heard about them, Patrick Kenzie and Angela Genaro are two private eyes in the most hard-boiled, traditional, and American way you can imagine, and they are amazing. If you want to do this right, as I should have, go and check the order of the books here before keeping on reading my review. Have decided to keep on reading? Fine. Then I have to tell you that Gone, Baby, Gone tells the story of the disappearance of six-year old Amanda McCready from her bedroom in Boston. No traces. No signs of struggle. Her mother? Watching TV with her best friend in the apartment next door. And the city of Boston is desperate to find little Amanda. When her uncle and aunt doubt the Boston’s Police Department’s ability to find the kid, they visit Kenzie and Genaro, who, after much talking, join the investigation as private, independent investigators.

If you were in Europe in the 2000’s Gone, Baby, Gone will probably ring a bell and bring up the summer of 2007, when four-year old Madeleine McCann vanished from her hotel room in Portugal. But, despite the similarities, life imitates art: Lehane’s novel came out in 1998, and the award-winning film adaptation by Ben Affleck was released in 2007. In both cases the premise is just perfect: a young kid vanishes without a trace, leaving her parents bereft and the whole country wondering ‘Where is she?’. Only, this time you will get into the story thanks to Patrick Kenzie’s first person narration, which, along with his close relationship to Boston PD shows the reader the official and private eye take on the search for Amanda.

The first thing you need to know is that I am not really a fan of American hard-boiled crime fiction, or I thought I was not. If my reading of Gone, Baby, Gone is representative of my tastes, then I am a fan, because I could not put the book down. I started this novel while I was reading The Ecliptic by Benjamin Wood, but the book was so heavy, being a hardcover, that I needed something lighter to carry on my handbag. That is when I remembered by battered, second-hand paperback copy of Gone, Baby, Gone and when I made one of the best reading decisions in my life. The novel is definitely a page-turner, with an impeccable rhythm, and an even distribution of the detecting narration.

The second thing you need to know is that I loved Gone, Baby, Gone because of the many questions that it posts to the reader. Who is a good mother and who is not? Who gets to decide? When are children safe and when are they not nowadays? Furthermore, who allows us to ask this questions? Lehane makes a great effort to show the reading audience the many different points of view that can arise from such a complex and terrific situation as the disappearance of a child, even though the first-person narration makes legitimate and true Kenzie’s point of view. This is the part of the book I had trouble with. This, and the ending. The only two things that stopped me from giving the novel a five-star review at Goodreads.

So, I would recommend Gone, Baby, Gone to anyone looking for a good thriller, even though I feel obliged to post a disclaimer here that the novel has more than enough good reasons to be called ‘hard-boiled, modern noir’, and there are some crude scenes including extreme violence and detailed descriptions of corpses that will only be fit for the bravest contemporary crime fiction fans.