Book Review: The Half Brother by Holly LeCraw

Before I started reading The Half Brother, I scanned the blurb on the inside cover, quickly assuming I was going to be embarking on a thriller. Why did I think this? I seemed to recall Holly LeCraw’s last book The Swimming Pool being of that same genre, and I incorrectly assumed her sophomore effort was going to follow this same path. I wasn’t disappointed though, there were secrets revealed, and unseen twists in the plot, which made for an interesting book all the same, even if no one was murdered.download

Pearl enjoyed this book just as much as I did

Pearl enjoyed this book just as much as I did

The story centers on a love story gone wrong: nothing sinister in the end of the relationship, just unspoken words and long ago family secrets coming to light. Charlie, the older brother, and his younger, half brother Nick are the main protagonists in the story. Charlie falls in love with May, a younger woman he taught, but eventually admits his overwhelming feelings for. However, he abruptly breaks up with her, and then encourages Nick to start a relationship with her a few years later. Yes, that premise alone seems a bit strange, but there are enough curveballs thrown in to lift this plot line out of cliches and into something emotionally relevant.

Now I will reveal a secret of my own: I always read other reviews of books that I’m about to write posts on, because I want to know what other people thought of it. Am I admitting that I have trouble forming my own opinions? Maybe just a little, although reading other people’s reviews helps me form my own opinion of the book. Many reviews stated the fact that they thought The Half Brother was a bit contrived, and that the coincidences were too unbelievable. Who ever asked all fiction to be realistic? That’s why it’s called fiction! I still enjoyed this book in spite of these all-too convenient details, because I love a good page turner, and this definitely fell into that category for me.

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Book Review: Time Will Say Nothing by Ramin Jahanbegloo

Conflicting emotions! This is exactly what Time Will Say Nothing brought out in me, although I will admit I wasn’t sure it would bring out any emotions, because it’s very philosophical. One fact about me: I actually hate philosophy; I took one course in it in first year university, and I found it extremely difficult to understand, and quite honestly, pointless. So, I agreed to review this book because it was a memoir first and foremost, which is a topic I find interesting.51rINeJ6+ZL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

The book starts off with the author, Ramin Jahanbegloo being escorted to prison from the airport, when he is about to catch a flight. He is there for three months, and while held captive, he philosophizes, not surprisingly. This part I did find boring, although he includes snippets of his life and real-time experiences in the jail in between his pondering, which kept me reading. He uses his thoughts and memories to escape the hell he finds himself in, so it’s actually a very clever way of taking the reader away with him-we forget where he is for the moment, instead learning about his childhood and other philosophies he subscribes to. Before I go any further, I want to commend the University of Regina Press for publishing this book, because I suspect it may stir up a bit of controversy (of course, I’m not familiar with academic presses, perhaps this is par for the course for them?).

So when do the conflicting emotions and controversy come in? Towards the end, surprisingly after he is released from jail and exiled to Canada. As he begins teaching here,  Jahanbegloo finds many faults in our education system and ‘culture’ (something I didn’t necessarily agree with, although I digress),  falling into a depression while living here. In Canada. After he was released from jail in Iran. I know it sounds crazy, but let me continue.1425421551_435146_1425421749_noticia_normal

We frequently condemn countries that we consider backwards when they punish their artists for speaking out against their own government.  This is why the amazing organization PEN exists-to protect people’s right to publish what they want, and to support free speech. However, my first knee-jerk reaction to the last part of this book was my astonishment that Jahanbegloo was so critical of Canada, and how harshly he judged us and our post-secondary system. Especially because he was coming from Iran, a place that I, and I’m sure many others, find scary. How dare he criticize us? What gives him the right to point our our faults (real, or imagined) after we gave him refuge?

As these initial thoughts ran through my head, it dawned on me that I was reacting the way he most likely expected, and wanted me to.  If I’m not willing to listen to any complaints about Canada, does this mean I’m against free speech?  I’d like to think I’m a supporter of free speech, but when I read these opinions that I didn’t agree with, I realized I wasn’t as tolerant as I first thought. What an eye opener! So, this book taught me a lot about myself, which I believe was Jahanbegloo’s intention. I still think Canada is an amazing place, and I feel so lucky to have been born here, this book won’t change that. However, it has changed the way I look at and understand the term ‘free speech’. Tolerance isn’t something we are necessarily born with, it’s learned, but that doesn’t make it any less important.

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Book Review: A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

A spacious, well-made house with a wrap-around porch full of family and laughter. This is the idyllic setting of Anne Tyler‘s latest, A Spool of Blue Thread. I know I’m not the only one who has pined over a house with a huge porch and shiny swing where people congregate and socialize; apparently, I share this characteristic with the patriarch of the Whitshank Family: Junior. But more about him later.

The narrative revolves around the Whitshank family, and their everyday family issues. Spoiler alert: nothing is extraordinary about this family, so if you’re look for a thriller, this is not the book for you. However, I don’t always want a plot-driven book, and Tyler is adept at creating characters and situations that make you want to turn the page, even if that situation is a simple family argument around the dinner table. Think I’m the only one that feels this way? Apparently I’m not, because Anne Tyler is a bestselling author who has also won the Pulitzer Prize; not too shabby I would say!

So back to Junior. He’s mentioned at the very beginning of the book in passing while the family tree is being described, but we don’t hear from him directly until half way through the book in a flashback. It may seem a bit abrupt to some, but we begin knee-deep into the lives of the present family, and then half way through the book are whisked back to a ‘simpler time’ that explains the origins of this famous Whitshank house and it’s builder, Junior.download (1)

The story of Junior and his wife getting together is fraught with controversy: he was in his 20s, she was only 13 when they met and began a physical relationship together. However, from Junior’s point of view, he was reluctantly dragged into the marriage, and his wife’s point of view is much different; she believes they had a fairy tale romance like Romeo and Juliet. This clash of perspectives is what makes up much of the conflict in the book, and what I personally found most interesting. Every family appears one way to outsiders, and is of course very different to the people who are actually a part of that family. From the outside, the Whitshank family seems perfect, yet Tyler is able to reveal a more realistic side of these people without falling into the cliche, or the unbelievable. This is a book about life as we experience it here in North America, the ups and downs we have all been through and understand all too well when we read about it in a fictional context such as this.

What I most enjoyed about this book was recognizing myself and my family in these pages: the conversations we have with each other and ourselves, as well as the things left unsaid. If you’re ready for a trip down memory lane, prepare yourself a nice cup of tea and settle in with A Spool of Blue Thread, you won’t be disappointed.

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Book Review: God Telling a Joke and Other Stories by Dave Margoshes

I love reading short stories. I seem to flip through them faster than a novel, simply because it it forces you to reach the end of one story before you put your bookmark in. I also find (and I know I’ve said this before) that they’re typically better written than novels, because the writer has such a limited space in which to make their point, so the sentences are stronger and more succinct. Additionally, writers typically submit their short stories to literary journals before they compile them into a book, so each piece is typically re-worked a few times before it makes it into the final collection. I know this is a painfully obvious remark to make, but I’ll say it anyway; when you’re enjoying a book, it’s much more difficult to put down.

margoshes-god_telling_a_joke-cover-dd02-smallDave Margoshes‘s God Telling a Joke and Other Stories is no exception to what I’ve outlined above. Each story in this volume is tight, to the point, and enjoyable to read. Margoshes also demonstrates a wide range of perspectives, which only increases the joy of reading his short stories. The book starts off slow with a story called “Desert Isle or The Compunction of Narrative” which I didn’t really like, or understand. It came across as a more self-congratulatory story about writing and authorship more than anything, and it left a sour taste in my mouth. The last story of the collection “God Telling a Joke” was my favourite by far; it was laugh-out-loud hilarious but still included a well developed narrative and protagonist.

So some stories were much stronger than others, which is common when stories are grouped together like this in one book. Margoshes could have benefitted from cutting a few from this collection, which is a kindness to the reader because it recognizes that not all pieces were ready to be published. Having very strong stories next to weak ones is not a huge problem, however it does create an unbalanced read, leaving me with mixed feelings about the book in general. That being said, I stand by my initial statement that this is a strong book, because Margoshes is a good writer who knows his stuff. At the same time, I think his editor should have insisted upon a few more re-writes before some of these stories were included, which would have taken this book from a 7/10 to a 9/10.

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Book Review: Delicious Foods by James Hannaham

Delicious Foods: what a wonderful sounding title! Before I read the first page, I imagined this book would be full of tantalizing recipes and cooking stories mixed into a heart-warming tale of family drama. In reality, the story is nothing like this, but what I do want to stress is that the book is better than what I imagined, even if it’s far from feel-good.

Addiction plays a major role in the plotline, in fact, one of the three central characters is crack cocaine, otherwise known as “Scotty”. A major chunk of the story is told from the perspective of this drug, which is given human qualities. Like the poor souls who are addicted to the substance, we see and hear from this chemical as if it’s a cool guy who only has his friends’ best interests at heart. The other two characters are Darlene, the woman who falls into the addiction, and her son Eddie, the person (arguably) who is most hurt by “Scotty”.e5274e27e60d0912539396bb87833d96-w204@1x

Delicious Foods is the name of a farm that Darlene is tricked into working for, where others like her are given easy access to crack, but basically treated as slaves and held against their will forced to do hard labour while there. What’s scarier than this premise is the suggestion that these farms still exist today, holding people in similar situations captive (or close to it) by taking advantage of their addictions and poverty. I eat a lot of produce, which forced me to beg the question: did the hands that pick my food also find themselves trapped the way Darlene and Eddie did? It could be naive of me to think that modern day slavery does not exist in North America (perhaps in third world countries it would seem more believable, of course no less terrible), but after reading something like Delicious Foods, I fear that we are turning a blind eye to this terrible industry right in our own back yard. If you watch the embedded video, you will see this was Hannaham‘s intent!

What I found even more painful than the evil farm and its handlers was Darlene’s mistreatment of her only son. Now that I’m a mother, even the slightest bit of child neglect is especially painful for me to read about. Her addiction to crack was fueled by the early loss of her husband, but even then, I still blamed her. Eddie spends his evenings searching for his mother on the streets late at night, talking to homeless people, prostitutes, and drug dealers in an attempt to find her. He is luckily (and unluckily) lead to her on the farm, at Delicious Foods, where he is submitted to the same kind of torture she is. The only difference between him and her is the crack: Eddie does not take it, therefore he is the most clearheaded one on the farm, as most of the workers are addicted to at least one substance, which is why they are there.

So as you can tell, this book is full of tragedy, although it isn’t all doom and gloom. There is a fairly redemptive ending to look forward to, and the story line is quite good, so it’s worth the read for sure.

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Book Review: Flying Time by Suzanne North

I absolutely adored this book. I wasn’t sure I would, because it appeared as though it would be a war-time novel bogged down with historical details (which I don’t particularly enjoy), but instead, Flying Time turned out to be a coming-of-age story that I couldn’t put down.

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The book is written from the perspective of an aging woman in an recovery home for old-folks, tasked with writing her memoirs (or parts of it) by an enthusiastic writing instructor. As many people do of that generation, she had quite the story to tell, because her youthful years were punctuated by experiences of the war, which not surprisingly were quite exciting.flyingtime

As a typist in downtown Calgary, Kay becomes a personal assistant to Hero Miyashita, the only Japanese businessman in town. Enduring racial slurs are something of an every-day occurrence for him, but despite these hardships he is extremely successful, a very kind gentleman, and a generous employer. Kay enjoys a close relationship with him and his wife as she introduces them to her life in Calgary, a very different one that they experience tucked away in the wealthy area of Mount Royal. Although the depression is subsiding and war is looming, Kay’s family enjoys a close-knit relationship that they welcome the Miyashita’s into, and in turn, Kay is given the very rare opportunity of traveling overseas (first class) to complete a task on behalf of Mr. Miyashita.

The characters hold the true appeal in this narrative. Kay is boisterous in her old age, offering the reader humorous glimpses into her current life at Foothills Sunset, which she seems to handle with grace and ease. These funny asides punctuate her re-telling of her war-time experiences, which complement the overall arc of the narrative quite well. The Miyashitas are also well-developed anchors to the story, and you can’t help but get caught up in their lives as they navigate the Calgary of the 1930s and 1940s. I’m always a fan of books that take place locally, so I must admit that this also endeared me to the book (although surprisingly, the author no longer lives in Calgary, and Flying Time was up for the Saskatoon Book Award, so go figure). I should also note that North’s personal website features a picture of the Calgary skyline, so she obviously harbors an undying love for her hometown, even though she currently lives in Saskatchewan.

Another sign that North is a strong writer? Her book focuses on the time before the war broke out, and the effects of the lead-up on the characters, rather than the fairly obvious (and easy to write about) affect that the ACTUAL war had on the characters. The majority of the book dwells on the simple yet powerful moments that happen in between the exciting parts of one’s life, which I can appreciate as a reader. It’s easy to write about a major, life-altering occurrence, but North stretches her powerful writing muscles in describing the quiet moments that make up the majority of our lives, highlighting their often overlooked importance.

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Book Review: Welcome to the Circus by Rhonda Douglas

Short stories! What a refreshing change from the every day novel that we so typically read, and what’s even better, you can pick it up and put it down without feeling guilty. So, basically, they are perfect for parents with newborns, whose moods can change between page turns!

downloadI don’t just love Rhonda Douglas‘s collection simply because they are stories: they are also fun. Whimsical is probably the perfect word for Welcome to the Circus, her first book of short stories. What do you think of, when the word circus comes up? For me, a ‘collection of oddities’ is a phrase that comes to mind immediately, and the premises that make up these stories is a perfect example of that. Some of the characters find themselves in very realistic situations (a teenage boy who cuts himself for instance), while others struggle with situations we wouldn’t necessarily find in the every day: a woman who works at a museum is charged with taking care of a living neanderthal that was unearthed near Drumheller while the exhibit space is prepared for him to move into. As you can see, there is a wide variety of themes going on here, which is another reason why I enjoyed this book. welcome-to-the-circus

The wide range of genres demonstrated in Douglas’s writing is a great testament to her talent. Not everyone can include fantastical elements in an otherwise down-to-earth collection, but she does it seamlessly without any abrupt suspension of disbelief. I’ve found that other cultures do this quite well (Mexican writers in particular do this quite often, which is known as magic realism), but Douglas takes this a step further, and weaves these elements into her tales without the reader even noticing. So, one step further than magic realism, I would argue.

I’ve read a lot of short story collections because I truly enjoy them, and believe they don’t get the recognition they deserve. But Welcome to the Circus is unique because it includes so many different elements: humor, fantasy, sex, empathy, and mystery. “La Republique de France v. Mata Hari” in particular is an important story to mention. It essentially describes and quotes a correspondence between the famous Mata Hari, and a man who was married to another woman, as told by the man’s son. A fascinating piece of history to be sure, but what makes it more interesting is the way it’s told in epistolary format.

So as you can see, Douglas employs a whole bag of tricks here to keep her readers reading, and it works!

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Book Review: Wes Side Story by Wes Funk

I’m writing this review in December 2014, although I don’t expect to post this until April 2015 or later (side note; my predictions were correct, as I’m posting this on May 21!) The wait is due to the fact that I’ve read Wes Side Story as part of a judging panel that I’m participating in for the Saskatchewan Book Awards, and I can’t post my opinions of the books I’ve read until after the awards have been given out. However,  I strongly believe it’s always best to review books right after you’ve read them, as they are always freshest in your mind at that point, which is why I’m writing this now.wes_side_story

Admittedly, I had never heard of Wes Funk before, although it seems he has received some substantial success in Saskatchewan and other parts of the country. According to his biography, he hosts a literary-themed TV program called Lit Happens, and has also won a CBC Bookie award, which is no small feat. Wes Side Story is a memoir, which is a genre I really enjoy reading: especially when it’s about a Canadian author struggling to build a career in the literary community of Canada, because I have so many friends in the same position and industry. The video below is a clip of Lit Happens with the wonderful Albertan author Rosemary Nixon.

I will say that I was a bit wary of this book, mainly because it is self-published, along with the rest of Funk’s work. He doesn’t address self-publishing directly in this memoir, but his website states that he does many workshops about the topic, so I don’t doubt he’s a champion of the process. Coming from a traditional publishing background, it’s hard for me to enthusiastically support authors self-publishing work in hopes of achieving literary fame, but I will support the act of self-publishing if the intention is to simply ‘get one’s story out’. However, this book focuses more on Funk’s life and his job as a by-product of his upbringing, which I found fascinating. It’s also very inspirational; Funk went through lots of up and downs in his life, he readily admits that he suffered from depression at times, but he found his way through the dark times on his own, and that’s something he can truly be proud of. So, if this book sounds of interest to you, I recommend picking it up. It’s well written, and quite fun, as you get a truthful glimpse into someone’s life: the good and the bad.

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Book Review: Suitcase City by Sterling Watson

Suitcase City: a place where the margaritas are cold, and the danger is hot! Ok that may not have been the best tagline (and to think I used to be a book publicist!) but this gives you a good idea of where this book gets its inspiration. The story takes place in Tampa, Florida, and not surprisingly palm trees and daiquiris are referred to quite a bit. It may seem cliche to some, but it really helps you get into the mood of the book; it also takes place in the late 80s, so I couldn’t help but play a Miami Vice soundtrack in my head while reading this.

Anyway, setting aside, the plot is quite juicy, but very violent. It starts off with some drug running in the mangroves, and progresses to saucy extra-marital affairs, pimping, and jealousy-fuelled murder. Doesn’t this sound like the perfect7def0a422165513161c9fb8129f49b9c-w204@1x summer-time read? This is a great book to take to the beach with you, plus if you’re in a warm climate while reading it, you won’t resent the scenes that take place on private yachts, as I did while reading it in sub-zero temperatures.

If you’re a fan of Dennis Lehane’s work (who also happens to be a close friend and mentor to the author Sterling Watson), you’ll definitely enjoy this book. I must admit I hadn’t heard of Sterling before, and from what I can tell he is an up-and-coming name in the genre, but with a big name like Lehane in his corner, he’s in a great position to make a name for himself. Like many authors in his position, he is also a professor of creative writing, so you can be confidant in the fact that his writing is enjoyable and easy to read, at the very least.

Akashic Books has released some great mysteries, as well as some not so great mysteries. However, one thing I’ve noticed about their books in this genre is that they are quite violent and gory: nothing cozy about these mysteries! However, I realize I may be getting a little too used to Murder She Wrote and Alexander McCall Smith, so diving into a book such as this is good for me, and many fans of this genre look for this kind of escapism, so I think Akashic has found a really interesting niche to continue publishing in. I look forward to seeing what comes next!

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Book Review: Rose’s Run by Dawn Dumont

Rose’s Run by Dawn Dumont is another book I had the pleasure of reviewing while on the jury for the Saskatchewan Book Awards. It’s published by Thistledown Press, whose books don’t normally come across my desk,  so I was delighted to crack this one open.

Dawn Dumont is a successful broadcaster, humorist and writer. I was impressed to read her biography, which lists an assortment of activities that she’s involved in. Rose’s Run starts off with lots of humor, and of course, a foot race. This is where the book ends as well, although the stuff in between is nothing short of extraordinary.

The book takes place on an aboriginal reserve in Saskatchewan. The environment described in the book is surprisingly cliche for what a non-native person would imagine a ‘rez’ to be like. This is not a criticism of Dumont’s writing however, it’s simply an observation I’ve made. I’ve never been on a reserve myself, but the things you hear about them in the news (poverty, alcoholism, corruption, the struggle between the new ways and the old) all play a role in this book. I can only guess that Dumont is being realistic when drawing upon these issues, because I doubt an Aboriginal writer would want to perpetuate something that isn’t true about this environment. Rosie's-RunThere is much to admire about the story, and it’s writing. The main character Rose Okanese is fun, and very relatable. She’s a struggling (mostly single) mother who’s attempting to lose weight by training for a marathon, while starting a new job and keeping her family and finanLG-Thumb-dawn-dumont-book-launchces in check. There’s also a minor love story that weaves in and out of the storyline, although this isn’t the main driver of the plot by any means.

Every once in a while, a spiritual/supernatural element would rear its head, which eventually takes over the last 100 or so pages of the book. This is where I became somewhat lost. Not because it wasn’t well written, or didn’t make sense, but because I didn’t expect it at all, and it didn’t seem to fit with the tone Dumont had so brilliantly set-up in the beginning of the novel. It was almost like a Terry Fallis novel that ended up being a Stephen King book: a mix of genres of that don’t belong together.

It’s a good book regardless of this shift, but I think it could have been stronger if it stuck with the original humorous slant it began with. This abrupt change should not discourage you from reading it however, just getting to know Rose is well worth the read in itself.

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