Review: The Child Finder = Another Excellent Sophomore Novel

The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld

The Child Finder coverFormat/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: September 2017
Publisher: HarperCollins
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Literary fiction
★★★★½    Add to Goodreads button

The Child Finder focuses on the mystery of a missing child. If you stripped away the insightful prose, made the characters full of heart and heartbreak into something more generic, and ignored the histories that drive them, you’d be left with a pretty a pretty standard tale that could be the plot for an episode of Criminal Minds. But there’s so much more to this book that makes it soar beyond the usual thriller standards. This is a book worth your time and your tears.

I knew, from having read The Enchanted (review here), that The Child Finder would be a difficult read. I started reading with a small hope that there might be a more positive lean to the story – because no one hopes to read about the physical and sexual abuse of a young abducted child – but that hope was dashed less than 30 pages in. Denfeld writes with care and compassion for the victims in her story. She is neither explicit nor gratuitous. Her writing, though, even when in metaphor, hit me hard in the chest and made breathing a little more difficult. By page 60, I noted “need a lot of breaks from this one”. The Child Finder is not an easy read – Denfeld writes both eloquently and realistically, meaning The Child Finder may be too painful of read for some people. This is not a thriller you can quickly breeze through.

Madison’s story is not the only one shared in The Child Finder. The novel is peppered with small sad stories (descriptions about Naomi’s past cases) that burn for how real they read. Juan’s story is shared as the lesson that taught Naomi to “view every act, with suspicion, every witness as questionable, and every piece of possible evidence along the way as a trap” (60). Naomi suspected a man of abducting Juan, but the man caught onto her, disposed of Juan’s body, and disappeared.

Juan Aguilar was one of her early cases. His mom was an undocumented farm worker, who, weighing the risk of going to the poilce about her missing son agains the risk of deportation, chose the police – and was deported. She had told Naomi from her jail cell, where she was shackled and waiting for the deportation bus, that she had named her son Juan because the name meant “God’s gracious gift” (59).

Not least of all, Naomi’s own story is threaded throughout. At the start of the book, Naomi has no memory as to her life before she was eight years old. She ends up in the care of Mrs. Cottle, a lovely woman who raises Naomi alongside another foster child, Jerome. Mrs. Cottle fulfills a similar role as the warden in The Enchanted  – she’s a reminder that there are good people trying to good work within difficult systems. Naomi’s memories don’t stay entirely buried, setting the stage for the next book in what GoodReads calls an ‘untitled series’.

Despite all the darkness contained within this story, it is more hopeful than the last bleak book I read (The Good People, review here). Madison, through her trauma, retains at least part of herself,and Naomi begins to learn how she might heal from her own trauma.

The Bottom Line

I can’t sum up this book better than Erin Morgenstern, whose blurb reads: “Rene Denfeld has a gift for shining bright light in dark places. […] Raw and real yet wrapped in a fairy tale, as lovely and as chilling as the snow.”

Further Reading

  • Author website
  • Read an excerpt
  • Interview @ Psychology Today (this is a great interview that offers some insight into Denfeld’s experiences and how she is able to write in such a vivid and moving way)
  • Review @ Oregon Live
  • Review @ Publisher’s Weekly

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Sputnik’s Children by Terri Favro

Sputnik's Children by Terri Favro
I think this is an improvement over my last book snap? Look at those pretty iridescent stars…

Author: Terri Favro
Title: Sputnik’s Children
Format/Source: Paperback/Publisher
Published: 11 April 2017
Publisher: ECW Press
Length: 348 pages
Genre: Science fiction in literary clothes
Rating: ★★★★
GoodReads | Indigo | IndieBound Wordery

I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Cult comic book creator Debbie Reynolds Biondi has been riding the success of her Cold War era–inspired superhero series, Sputnik Chick: Girl with No Past, for more than 25 years. But with the comic book losing fans and Debbie struggling to come up with new plotlines for her badass, mutant-killing heroine, she decides to finally tell Sputnik Chick’s origin story.

Debbie’s never had to make anything up before and she isn’t starting now. Sputnik Chick is based on Debbie’s own life in an alternate timeline called Atomic Mean Time. As a teenager growing up in Shipman’s Corners — a Rust Belt town voted by Popular Science magazine as “most likely to be nuked” — she was recruited by a self-proclaimed time traveller to collapse Atomic Mean Time before an all-out nuclear war grotesquely altered humanity. In trying to save the world, Debbie risked obliterating everyone she’d ever loved — as well as her own past — in the process.

Or so she believes . . . Present-day Debbie is addicted to lorazepam and dirty, wet martinis, making her an unreliable narrator, at best.

Alternate timelines + cult comic books = say no more. (Though I am generally not a fan of unreliable narrators, that turned out to be less of a transgression against my personal preferences than I braced myself for.) Sputnik’s Children combines alternate history and literary character building to tell a creative and entertaining story.

I wasn’t quite sure how to interpret the above summary, particularly this statement: “Sputnik Chick is based on Debbie’s own life in an alternate timeline called Atomic Mean Time”. Is Debbie imagining this alternate timeline or did she actually believe she lived it? The latter turns out to be true. To clarify, Debbie currently lives in ‘the real world’ of 2011. She’s considering writing the origin story of her cult comic book hero, Sputnik Chick. Debbie believes she (herself, Debbie) grew up in Atomic Mean Time (AMT), an alternate universe similar to ours, but that’s stuck in Cold War time with a constant threat of nuclear bombings and World War III. Debbie’s youth in this other timeline inspires her Sputnik Chick stories. The bulk of the book is Debbie’s first person narration of her time in AMT, with occasional chapters of third person narration in the ‘real world’ leading up to the present. The question is, did Debbie actually live through AMT or is this just a concocted story?

At its core, Sputnik’s Children may be described as a coming of age novel. The majority of the story takes place during Debbie’s teen years, beginning when she’s 12 and continuing to mid-twenties. Debbie has to deal with a maturing body, unwanted sexual attention, and her first romantic relationship. This relationship is a significant component of Debbie’s life in AMT. Debbie is White and her boyfriend John Kendall is Black. This relationship creates tension from societal expectations in their small town of the 1970s.

What sets Sputnik’s Children aside from other small town stories is the science fiction setting of AMT. Debbie has to contend with the fact that her community expects to be destroyed at any moment by an atomic bomb. Favro establishes the AMT world in the first few pages, laying out the core differences between Atomic Mean Time and Earth Standard Time (the ‘real world’). This gives the reader a chance to focus on character and plot right away, without having to spend too much effort on becoming oriented with the setting. AMT differs in slight ways from the real world, resulting in an alternate universe where the Cold War only intensified in the seventies and corporations manufacturing weapons rule the day. (I do love a shadowy overseer organization.)

The plot of the story comes in the form of a time-travelling man from the future, who wants to prevent World III. He believes Debbie is the key to doing that. Debbie herself only time travels once, with seemingly little impact on the plot (aside from the personal changes she notices, having skipped a few years into puberty).

The Bottom Line:

Sputnik’s Children is a character-based take on science fiction that blends comics, the Atomic Age, the seventies, and interracial romance into one compelling tale. The question of whether Debbie has made everything up or actually lived it is almost irrelevant – you’ll enjoy the story either way.

Further Reading:

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Review: The Conjoined by Jen Sookfong Lee

Author: Jen Sookfong Lee
Title: The Conjoined
Format/Source: Paperback/Publisher
Published: 13 September 2016
Publisher: ECW Press
Length: 262 pages
Genre: Contemporary
Why I Read: Premise + setting intrigued me
Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound | Indigo | Amazon
Thanks to ECW Press for providing a complimentary copy in exchange for my honest review,

 On a sunny May morning, social worker Jessica Campbell sorts through her mother’s belongings after her recent funeral. In the basement, she makes a shocking discovery — two dead girls curled into the bottom of her mother’s chest freezers. She remembers a pair of foster children who lived with the family in 1988: Casey and Jamie Cheng — troubled, beautiful, and wild teenaged sisters from Vancouver’s Chinatown. After six weeks, they disappeared; social workers, police officers, and Jessica herself assumed they had run away. As Jessica learns more about Casey, Jamie, and their troubled immigrant Chinese parents, she also unearths dark stories about Donna, whom she had always thought of as the perfect mother. The complicated truths she uncovers force her to take stock of own life. Moving between present and past, this riveting novel unflinchingly examines the myth of social heroism and traces the often-hidden fractures that divide our diverse cities.

One might argue that the cover and jacket description tricks the reader into thinking this is a dark thriller in the vein so popular these days. That closing statement (underlined above), however, hints there’s more going on here than a gruesome murder mystery. For me, this is a story about family relationships and how they can break and fail. It’s also about identity, suffering, broken social systems, and understanding how the past forms us. There’s a lot going on here, but these themes organically engage and shape one another in The Conjoined, out next Tuesday (Sept 13).

Despite knowing that two young foster girls would end up dead in a freezer, I didn’t anticipate having my heart broken by Casey and Jamie. The story’s focus on family relationships and broken social systems makes for a tough read. Lee takes us inside the the girls’ family and shows us how their lives fell apart. This quote from the girls’ mother’s perspective especially got me:

No one would believe that she was a good mother. No one would think she had tried her best. She was on the verge of losing her girls, not to a bearded, smelly man in a rusty pick-up truck, but to a phalanx of people who would look at her and see her mistakes, the gaps of time that she had left her daughters alone, the frank conversations she might have started with them but didn’t. She had worried over the wrong threats. (81)

Prose like Lee’s makes me think about why I could never be a strong writer. It’s the little vignettes that always make me pause. Those small personal observations of thoughts, characters, events, etc., bring depth and beauty to the story. These sorts of things I would never think to write about. I’m not a close observer of the world around me (alas, one of my faults!). This is why I love reading. To see, experience, feel, things I might otherwise have overlooked. Example:

She didn’t know what she was crying about – her mother, Trevor, or the girls – but it didn’t matter. She knew that weeping was its own vortex. It spun and pulled until identifiable feelings were no more than fragments, like half-words that only hinted at meaning. She let her arms and legs curl until she was huddled, small, on the floor of the hallway. (26)

Please noteThe remainder of this review contains general spoilers for the conclusion.


I did wonder about the fact that neither Jess nor her father (let alone anyone else) ever went into those freezers for 27 years. The detective briefly addresses this conundrum at one point, but it’s a moot point. This not a whodunit. For those of us who like tidy stories with clear endings, we might find reason to be unsatisfied here. Personally, I felt only a small bit of disappointment. Of course I would rather know than not know, but not knowing didn’t spoil the ending, as it might have in a lesser story.  I understand that you can’t always get a neat little ending with all the answers (in life or in fiction).  This story is, to some extent, about how two girls wind up in a freezer – but it is not about the particular logistics; it’s about something more. And I’m sure this ties in, somehow, to Jess’s growth as a character and her acceptance with not knowing what happened and not knowing her mother as well as she thought. But that’s a bit beyond my literary analysis capabilities. 😛

Some final notes on things I liked: I liked Jess, mostly because I sympathized with her attitude toward her boyfriend and the detective… I also liked how personal recollections interweave with her present day perspective. Jess’ memories slip easily into her present day narrative, just as one might slip into a daydream while folding laundry. I liked the role Jess’s father, plays in the story.

The Bottom Line: Don’t read this for the whodunit side of the story. Read it for the considered exploration of ‘the myth of social heroism’ and the complicated relationships that factor into it.

Further Reading:

Family Reads: Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

Born out of a desire to get a family of book lovers to connect more over what they’re reading, Family Reads is an occasional feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book. 

Why Dad chose this book: It was in my to read on December 25 (WPF review?) and then it was picked for CBC Books group read for June with a high rating so I wanted to try it, also because it has high aboriginal content which I have a special interest in. I reserved the ebook but I wanted to follow along with the group and didn’t want to wait, so I had my bookstore daughter buy it for me.

Dad gives this book 4.5 stars and I give it 4 stars. Here’s our thoughts on how this story kept us interested, even though it didn’t sound too exciting based on the back description.

He wondered how time worked on a person. He wondered how he would look years on and what effect this history would have on him. He’d expected that it might have filled him but all he felt was emptiness and a fear that there would be nothing that could fill that void. (232)

When Dad and I tried to summarize this book to each other, we agreed we would have a hard time convincing someone Medicine Walk isn’t as dull as we made it sound. We both enjoyed the steady pacing and the considered prose. I also liked the dialogue, which has a natural cadence and dialect that conveys a stronger sense of character. Wagamese writes in a calm tone while still building anticipation in a tale that doesn’t have a lot of hills and valleys. The story fills you with wonder about the questions it proposes without being melodramatic.

At times the plot surprised us. Dad never expected the connection between the old man and Eldon. I didn’t expect Eldon’s heartbreaking war story or that he didn’t try to find his mother. We both struggled to sympathize with certain characters (Dad with Eldon, me with Franklin’s mother). Even though a large part of this is Eldon telling his story, it’s still hard to understand without having gone through the same experiences. We agreed it can be too easy to judge people. I also thought this was quite a man’s story, as Franklin’s mother is a key but undeveloped character who has no story of her own. The only named characters are Franklin and Eldon; this is really their story.

As we talked about the book, Dad searched for reviews on his iPad. He thought these descriptions hit the nail on the head:

To be alive is to be vulnerable to the myriad shocks and disappointments of the human condition, but Medicine Walk is also testament to the redemptive power of love and compassion. (Globe and Mail)

For Frank, a “hunt was a process.” And so is the way Wagamese pursues his story: biding his time, never rushing, calibrating each word so carefully that he too never seems to waste a shot. But he isn’t after the kill. Rather, it’s something more complicated — finding a way to honor or at least acknowledge a life ill-lived as it enters its final bitter days. (NYT)

If you handed us this book five years and asked if we thought we would enjoy it, we both would have said no. Now, though, we find we have a deeper appreciation for realistic stories about human relationships Medicine Walk is a particularly fine example of the genre.  

Have you read any works by Richard Wagamese? Are there any similar stories by Indigenous authors you would recommend?
 

Brief Thoughts: In The House on The Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell

In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods tells the story of a newly married couple who take up a lonely existence in the title’s mythical location.In this blank and barren plot, far from the world they’ve known, they mean to start a family. But every pregnancy fails, and as their grief swells, the husband – a hot-tempered and impatient fisherman and trapper – attempts to prove his dominion in other ways, emptying both the lake and the woods of their many beasts. As the years pass, the wife changes, too; her powerful voice sings new objects into being, including a threatening moon hung above their house, its doomed weight already slowly falling, bending the now star-less sky. (jacket description)

  • The cover, description, and strong of praise of this book drew me to it. The back of the book includes quotes such as “The story’s ferocity is matched by Matt Bell’s glorious sentences: sinuous and darkly magical, they are taproots of the strange.” and “This book, which will grip you in an otherworldly trance, reads like something divined from tea leaves or translated from a charcoal cipher on a cave wall”. Unfortunately, I didn’t get those feelings. The book fell short for me, though I can see where it would appeal to some. Not quite my type of mystical prose, though.
  • The third page lets you know what you’re actually getting into. I read the paragraph quoted below, thought “Whoa wait did that actually just happen?” and had to go back to reread it. At that point I had to take a 24 hour break to reset my expectations for this book (despite all the clues, I thought it was going to be more like Gaiman or Valente).
    • Then no kiss at all, but something else, some compulsion that even then I knew was wrong but could not help, so strong was my sadness, so sudden my desire: Into my body I partook what my wife’s had rejected, and while she buried her face in the red ruin of our blankets I swallowed it whole – its ghost and its flesh small enough to have in my fist like an extra finger, to fit into my mouth like an extra tongue, to fit slide farther in without the use of teeth – and I imagined perhaps that I would succeed where she had failed, that my want for family could again give our child some home, some better body within which to grow. (6)

  • When I tried to describe this scene to my Mom, I realized it sounds a lot crazier than it reads – “This guy eats his miscarried child and then he calls it the fingerling and it gives him bad ideas.” (Her response: “I don’t want to hear anymore about that book.”). The prose is, in some sense, very poetic. There’s a lot of dancing around actual actions.
  • I felt a bit squirmy awkward at the beginning that the man is already so opposed to his wife. I hoped to their relationship when it was fresh and loving. The man is an unlikable character (which is usually neither here nor there but he was the dominant character out of just a few and I didn’t enjoy spending so much time in his head). I couldn’t get over his attitude towards his wife.
  • “I dug more holes, and because I could not dig a hole without wanting for something to put in it, for the first time I began to kill what I did not intend to use: In one hole I buried a muskrat and in another a rabbit and in another a wrench-necked goose, caught by my own hands after it squawked me away from its clutch of goslings, themselves doomed beneath my frustrated heels” (43).

  • I seriously considered giving up around the halfway point. The man and the fingerling and their actions were beginning to bore me. Somehow, I persevered.
  • I wondered how the story could fill a whole novel. I certainly got a short story/novella vibe from it. I still wondered that by the end.
  • The atmosphere (and the endless cottage) brought to mind House of Leaves at times.
  • The Bottom Line: Two stars for the prose that kept me reading (also driven by my curiosity of whether something more was going to happen), but I really should have DNF’d at that halfway point.