Category Archives: Book Reviews

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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Book Review: If I Fall, If I Die by Michael Christie

I’ve been missing in action on this blog for a few weeks, and I’m sorry about that, although I did just have a baby a few weeks ago, so I’m going to assume that’s a valid excuse for my lack of posting.

Speaking of children, this is a great segue into my next review: Michael Christie‘s If I Fall, If I Die. Why is that? Because his latest book delves into the complicated relationship between a mother and a son. Let me explain: Will lives with his anxiety-ridden Mother, who never leaves the house. So, he doesn’t either, until the very first page of the book where he experiences the outdoors for the first time, in a suburb of Thunder Bay, Ontario. It is of course, anti-climactic as he emerges on a regular summer day, but it’s a big deal for Will nonetheless, which prompts him to begin making his way outside on a regular basis, much to his Mother’s fear and horror. The book continues with Will’s adventures outside as he gets caught up in some trouble with the local homeless population, but luckily he makes friends with the street savvy Jonah, who helps him along the way. I’ve made this sound much more cutesy than it really is; Will does get himself into some pretty dangerous situations, but I don’t think that’s as important to delve into in this review.21462154

I began reading this book while I was pregnant, evening reading a few pages in the labour/delivery room before my contractions started,  and finished it a few days after my daughter came. When I completed it, I felt very differently about it than when I started. At the beginning, I thought the mother was crazy, and couldn’t relate at all to her anxieties and protectiveness. But in a few short days, I fully understood where her fears came from, and how they were able to consume her (side note: I won’t be shutting myself into my house anytime soon, but this character was a good warning sign all the same). I won’t spoil it for future readers, but the last few paragraphs of the book sum up a complicated sentiment nicely, basically describing the paradox of loving someone so much that it makes you vulnerable to immense pain in the future if something ever happened to them.1034501

I chose to discuss this book on the next episode of Muse on CKUA, airing on May 3, where you can hear all my ramblings about this novel, but before I end off, I wanted to point out how interesting the authors himself is. Christie used to be a professional skateboarder, and he’s also interested in discussing and relating issues of homelessness. His first book The Beggar’s Garden was highly lauded, so I’m hoping that If I Fall, If I Die will also be a hot item in this Fall’s awards season. His unusually easy road to literary success makes him one of those authors that other authors love to hate, which is another reason I wanted to review a bit of his biography.

Even if you haven’t given birth to a child in the past few weeks, I still recommend picking this book up, because I know you’ll enjoy it, regardless of your relationship or parental status.

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Book Review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

I read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn a few years ago, and really liked it. For those of you unfamiliar with the book (or the subsequent movie), it’s essentially a thriller rooted in marriage difficulties, with lots of twists and turns. It was enormously successful when it came out, so much so that a movie was made about it a few years later starring Ben Affleck.

I suspect this popularity was what drove Paula Hawkins to write (or perhaps submit, if it was already written) this book to publishers. The Girl on the Train is very similar to Gone Girl; it’s a thriller about a woman’s disappearance, with all eyes quickly turning to the husband as the most likely perpetrator. This book has an added twist to the plot however; the majority of the book is told through the eyes of a complete stranger to the couple, a sad woman whose life is in shambles, and fantasizes about this ‘perfect couple’ that she witnesses every day from her seat on a passing train.The_Girl_on_the_Train

I’m struggling with my overall opinion on this book. I find the premise and plot just too similar to Gone Girl in many ways, and it doesn’t have as many twists and turns as its predecessor, which is what made me really like Flynn’s book in the first place. However, The Girl on the Train is a well written book in its own right, and is it really fair to judge a book by one that was published before it? It’s an assumption on my part that Hawkins wrote this following Gone Girl, for all we know it could have been in the works for the past 15 years (and for many writers, that would be a conservative estimate!).

Hawkins is a very good writer, I don’t want to give anyone the impression that she’s not. In fact, her character development is outstanding, that’s definitely something she has over Gillian Flynn. The protagonist I mentioned above, Rachel, is quite flawed (alcoholic, desperate, prone to lying) but we still trust her judgement, even though she’s prone to blackouts and cannot remember entire periods of her days and/or evenings. Hawkins skillfully weaves this character into the drama unfolding around her, while offering the reader glimpses into the lives of other characters in shorter, first person perspectives. As the mystery continues, you see things from other people’s eyes, but you don’t trust them, or their intentions, the way you do Rachel’s. I’m really not sure why this is exactly, but I’m assuming that Hawkins does this on purpose to give the readers some ‘landing space’, or a character that we can feel comfortable to return to periodically. If I didn’t trust any of the characters or their judgements at all, I would probably feel a bit lost in the narrative, and wouldn’t become as invested in discovering the real culprit as I found myself doing by the end of it.

So, my final take is this: read The Girl on the Train before Gone Girl, if you can. If you’ve already read Flynn’s book, read The Girl on the Train if you enjoy the thriller genre anyway, because it deserves the attention in its own right.

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Book Review: As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust is another Flavia de Luce masterpiece by the prolific and always humble Alan Bradley: a Canadian author that we are all too proud to call our own. I think it’s safe to begin comparing Bradley to Alexander McCall Smith now; both create wonderful mystery novels with enduri0345539931ng female detectives that readers can’t seem to get enough of. I enthusiastically count myself as one of these people-as soon as I see a new Bradley book come out, I try to get my hands on it as quickly as possible.

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust opens up a whole new world for Flavia who is ‘banished’ to an all-female boarding school in Toronto, Canada. For a twelve-year old girl used to being in small town England, this is of course a big deal. She takes it all in stride though (as she typically does) and finds herself knee-deep into another mystery, as a dead body drops down the chimney of the fireplace in her room. As always, Flavia’s incredible knowledge of chemicals and insatiable appetite for solving mysteries is indulged as she forces her way into the upper echelons of the school, getting to the bottom of the this very strange occurrence. She also develops a strange habit of standing on her head to help her think, which I don’t recall from her earlier books, but it’s been about a year since I read the last book, so I could have simply forgotten. I know it sounds like I’m talking about her as if she’s a real person and not just a character in a book, but I’ve actually begun to think of Flavia as real-this is how good Bradley’s writing is.

It will come as no surprise that this series has been optioned for television, although I sincerely hope that I never see the actual fruition of this project. Why? Because I like imagining Flavia as she is in the books, and no matter how good the production is, it will indefinitely alter the way I see and read future books in the series. I’m much too protective of this character, and the act of bringing her to life is much too precious to leave to anyone but Bradley himself.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading one of these books yet, for god’s sakes go out and do so. Do yourself a favour, and enter the world of Flavia de Luce-you will not be disappointed!

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Book Review: Landing Gear by Kate Pullinger

So, Landing Gear by Kate Pullinger has a really interesting premise: a man drops out of the sky, onto the roof of a woman’s car in a grocery store parking lot. He doesn’t just drop out of the sky magically, he’s actually falling from the landing gear of a plane, which he was stowed away in to escape his life in Pakistan. Surprisingly, this isn’t even the main storyline in the book, although the ‘falling man’ Yacub does trigger a few extra plot lines.9780385681209-678x1024

At the center of the book is Harriet, a middle-aged Mom who finds herself at a crossroads. We’re first introduced to her as she begins to take on more responsibility at work, returning to her ‘pre-baby’ career path. However, secret circumstances which are referenced throughout the book but never fully explained until the end get in the way of this plan, and she finds herself unemployed at the same time this man drops onto the roof of her car. Changes are also happening in the lives of her only son Jack, and her predictable husband Michael. It’s this family life in turmoil that Yacub literally, falls into.

I will admit that I found Yacub’s story the most interesting, and I wish Pullinger focused on it a bit more than she did. He leaves a very physically tumultuous environment for a more subdued, yet emotionally tumultuous situation, and his past is dealt with in snippets. He remains an outsider of not only the other characters, but for the reader as well, and together, we are all desperate to learn more about him. I assume this was a tactic used by the author to help us focus back on the family, so we aren’t distracted by the action-packed aspects of Yacub’s previous life.

Pullinger thalso deals with the ‘falling’ scene quite brilliantly, re-visiting it a few times, from different angles. She staggers the sentences and perspectives on the page, as they relate to the different characters, creating literal steps of text that the reader must follow to complete the scene. It’s quite fun to read, and gave me the sense of ‘falling’ down the page. This technique is something I haven’t seen much of in my reading, and I assume it comes from Pullinger’s expertise in digital fiction.

I should mention that a little bit of suspension of disbelief is required in this book, , as many people come very close to dying, but miraculously don’t. In comparison, some deaths seem to come about very quickly, with every little warning or reason, but this is the world that Pullinger asks us to inhabit for the duration of the novel, and I was more than happy to oblige.

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Book Review: The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

I succeeded in something that very few others in this world have: I read the entire novel The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith without realizing that Robert Galbraith was a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling. Yes, I realize how impossible this feat seems to be, but I accomplished it, mainly through my inattention to detail and the fact that I never actually the read author biography on the back flap of the book. So, once I finished reading it, I read through the acknowledgements (which still didn’t tip me off), and then finally the bio on the very last page. Turns out this obscure mystery author that I naively thought I had ‘discovered’ turned out to be one of the most famous authors on the planet.Memorable characters … JK Rowling, AKA Robert Galbraith.

Even more embarrassing was I told a friend of mine that I’d just started reading a book by this great new author Robert Galbraith. I’d like to think that he thought I was being ironic, but he most likely assumed I was a) joking or b) an idiot. But really, my oversight has turned out to be a good thing, because I was able to read this book without any preconceptions, which based on some of the reviews that I’ve read of The Silkworm, other people wished they were able to do. If I had known throughout that the author was J.K. Rowling, I would have seen the book in an entirely different light, most likely comparing it to the Harry Potter series with every twist and turn.th

The main reason I liked this book was because it focused on a murder in the publishing world of London, and any book that focuses on publishing is of immediate interest to me because of my previous involvement in the industry. There’s some great characters too, ones who act as a mouthpiece for what many people in publishing have always wanted to say out loud (i.e. the agent who laments the  amount of crappy writing that gets sent to her, the publisher who wishes for more readers and less writers, etc.). It also does a great job of mocking writers, who are always ripe for some fun character descriptions; the murder victim is a pompous writer who wears a cape and expects everyone to worship him like the genius he believes he is.

But of course there’s a dark side to everything and everyone, which Galbraith/Rowling does a great job of involving the reader in. The detective Cormoran Strike is clever and of course flawed, but he’s someone I didn’t get tired of reading about, and his first person narrative kept the plot moving in the right direction. Towards the end of the book he ‘figures out’ who the murderer is, but keeps the reader in suspense until the last few pages, which was a technique I appreciated, because it helped build suspense. The book also ends quickly, almost right after the murder is solved, which I always prefer. They do this in the movies for a reason-because people stop caring as much afterwards, and it should be the same in books as well, although less skilled writers may draw out this conclusion more than necessary.

So, I’ve broken the spell of Robert Galbraith, but you should still read this book, even if visions of Hogwarts come sneaking into the back of your mind every once in a while.

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Book Review: 7 Ways to Sunday by Lee Kvern

More Alberta writers to love! That’s really how I should title every book review that I write on an Alberta-born book. People don’t typically  see Alberta as the literary hot-spot that it truly is, but I’m hoping to change that by highlighting amazing books by Western writers that don’t get the attention they deserve.

Lee Kvern for instance: she’s known in the Calgary book community: that I’m sure of. And I was heartened to see that her latest collection 7 Ways to Sunday received a glorious review from Kerry Clare’s blog Pickle Me This, which I happen to know lots of Toronto book people read. So, I’m late on the draw on this one (the book came out in April 2014), but nonetheless, I wanted to share with you how much I enjoyed this short story collection.index

ReadAlbertaBooks_Banner_Wheat_484x30013 stories make up this slim volume, which I burned through in a matter of days. Kvern’s writing is subtle, and left me wanting more by the end of each piece. That’s got to be a sign of a good short story; the reader wanting to know more about the characters and situations described, even after the narrative has ended.

At the beginning of the book, Kvern proudly boasts that she has not received formal writing education. This is clearly demonstrated in her writing, and I mean this in the best possible way: it’s straightforward and to the point, and not burdened by an education full of literary snobbishness. Flowery, overwrought language tends to ruin short stories for me, so I appreciated her directness. Strangely enough, I still found myself re-reading some sections because I missed some quick turns in the stories that weren’t obvious, so the book is ripe for a second reading, if one were to be interested in those sorts of things (me, I never do this, because I’m too eager to get onto the next book!).

Why is reading local important? Well, I suppose it really isn’t in the grand scheme of things, people should read what they want, by who they want. However, people seem to be averse to reading books by authors that live in the same community as them because they’re worried the books won’t be ‘exotic’ enough. Many people say “I want to learn about a different culture or place”, so reading an Alberta book (with stories that take place in Alberta) may not appeal to them. I would argue that this is the very beauty of reading local. You’re introduced to new people and places (and potentially even new cultures, especially in a place as diverse as Calgary) that you’ve never come across, even though they are just around the corner from you. And writers are able to take you by the hand, confidently into these new worlds, which is the next best thing to experiencing it yourself. Kvern does both of these things with 7 Ways to Sunday; we’re introduced to a young, artistic couple living in New York, as well as a suburban family experiencing some interesting house guest (i.e. prostitutes) for the first time. Both are great stories, and both teach us something entirely new about the world around us, regardless of their geographical settings.

Have you read a book by an Alberta author lately? You’re doing yourself a disservice if the answer is no-and 7 Ways to Sunday is a great place to start.

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Book Review: No Man’s Nightingale by Ruth Rendell

I haven’t read much Ruth Rendell in my day (in fact, this may be the first book of hers I’ve ever read!), but her name is always mentioned alongside other major mystery novelists, so I knew I was in a for a good read when I picked up No Man’s Nightingale. If you enjoy Peter Robinson mysteries, Rendell’s books are written along the same lines, although a little less gory and violent. Not quite a cozy mystery, Rendell’s latest book follows a retired police chief that goes by the name of Wexford. Apparently he’s appeared in many of Rendell’s books, because the cover states that this is an “Inspector Wexford novel”, so although he’s not officially part of the force anymore, he’s still solving crimes.

Rendell even looks like a mystery writer! In reality, she's a nice old lady.

Rendell even looks like a mystery writer! In reality, she’s a nice old lady.

You don’t learn much about Wexford throughout the book, but I suspect that devout readers of Rendell would already have a pretty good idea of what kind of character he was.  He is particularly sensitive to racism in his community, and constantly brings attention to it (in his thoughts, and out loud) throughout this story. The murder being investigated is that of a female, Indian vicar, who stirred up many emotions in the small town of n423765Kingsmarkham, simply because of the position she held as a woman. This resentment of course, is where many of the perceived motives of this crime lie. She’s strangled to death, but that’s not the only murder that occurs in the small town over the course of a few months, as the story unravels to involve more and more people.

As I’ve stated before in this blog, the success of a mystery novel will typically hinge on the character of the detective. Wexford has his own little quirks, but his personality hardly overshadows the plot line. It’s actually his relationships with other people that I found the most interesting. For example, his working relationship with Burden, (the police chief who replaced him) is full of contradictions; although Burden involves Wexford and gives him quite a bit of leeway in his current cases, he still dismisses Wexford’s opinions when they differ from his own, and Wexford is constantly trying to navigate the intricacies of being an ‘unpaid consultant’ to a police force.

in addition to this quirky friendship, many of the secondary characters are also well-developed in this novel: there is an old friend of the victim’s who weaves fabulous webs of lies to anyone who will listen; a mouthy housekeeper with a colorful family history, and a slovenly husband who will go to great lengths to avoid doing any kind of work. As you can see, characterization is truly where Rendell’s writing strength lies, although her plots are also solidly constructed and laid out. If you’re a lover of mysteries, you should definitely give this veteran crime writer a try.

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