Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Reading The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri was an experience. Whenever a book follows multiple generations of one family, it’s typically called a ‘saga’ because it explains to the reader that many years will pass within the pages of just one novel. For some, this may seem a bit daunting, and in the cases of some books, readers have good reason to be hesitant before diving into a saga as they are usually quite lengthy. The Lowland however, is a tightly-written saga, one that I never found myself growing bored with, even though it’s 400 pages long.

A lot of things happen in this book, and as many other reviews have pointed out, the foreshadowing is so deftly placed that it left me racing through the pages, dying to unlock the secrets that were referred to earlier. I’ll admit that the political background of the book went right over my head-I wasn’t familiar with the uprisings that it was referring to so I didn’t have existing knowledge to reference when it came to the the names of rebel groups, political figures, etc. However, any reader can relate to the environment and tone that these political situations can stir up, which is what made this narrative so powerful for me. index

Early in the book the one of two sons of the family is killed because of his political ties and this causes a ripple effect in all the character’s lives, continuing to cause pain for generations to come. Although you don’t have a lot of time to get to know the two brothers as a pair, you immediately sense their closeness when you introduced to them, so the loss of one brother is felt keenly by the reader, which further develops the complications of his death and makes it that much more believable.

The fragility and challenges of parenting is also another major topic in the novel; the brother’s parents shut down once their one son passes and effectively ignore their other son for the remainder of their lives, right up until their deaths. Surprisingly, the living son does not drag that resentment into his own parenting experiences once his daughter is born, he makes the effort to be a constant and supportive presence in her life, never once blaming his own parents for their shortcomings. Instead, he harbors the regular anxieties that new parents always fret over, which made me second guess my earlier assumptions about his character. This is just one example of  the depth in which Lahiri went to create her characters-they are all very unique and entirely believable, always keeping me guessing, which I really enjoyed. index1

This post has been unusually serious, but I really feel as though reading this book has forced me to look closely at why I really enjoyed reading it. It’s complicated yes, but worth the effort in slowing down and really taking in what was written on the page. Not surprisingly, this book was acclaimed by many different sources, and Lahiri herself won the Pulitzer Prize, so it’s no wonder I enjoyed reading The Lowland. In closing-clear some time in your schedule and sit down to read this book, you’ll thank me later!

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Book Review: No Relation by Terry Fallis

Continuing the pattern of reviewing ‘nice guys that write great books’ that I’ve seemed to stumble upon, I decided to write about Terry Fallis’s latest book No Relation. This is Fallis’s fourth book, and just as good as his previous ones, so I’m glad I picked it up. It’s based on a really interesting premise: the main character is named Earnest Hemmingway, (spelled slightly differently than the Ernest Hemingway) who happens to be an aspiring writer as well. And, having just lost his job and girlfriend, he finds himself with lots of time to sit down and write that novel that he’s been struggling to complete for years, but he’s  run into a severe case of writer’s block. On top of that, his overbearing father is pushing him to enter the family business (men’s underwear manufacturing) even though “Hem” can’t stand the idea of doing just that. So, he begins a support group for people with other famous names (Diana Ross, Clark Kent, etc.) in an attempt to find meaning in the curse that is his famous namesake. Not surprisingly, hilarity ensues.

Smokey enjoying a nice summer read

Smokey enjoying a nice summer read

I read this book while on vacation in Belize, and it was the perfect beach/summer read. If you’re not familiar with his writing already, Terry Fallis is a humour writer, he’s won the Stephen Leacock award as well as the CBC Canada Reads competition, and one of his books was turned into a television miniseries, so I’m not the only one who thinks highly of him. He’s got that light style of writing that makes you look forward to turning the page because you know you’re going to feel good, before and after reading the book. Similar to the novel I just previously reviewed by Alexander McCall Smith, No Relation deals with difficult subject matter, but it does it in a light-hearted way that will leave you feeling optimistic. Who doesn’t want that from a book, especially in July and August?

If I had to point out one aspect of Fallis’s books that need improvement, I would say he should challenge himself a bit more in his protagonist’s character development. All four of his books have featured a different main character, however they differ in name only. They’re pretty much the same person; male, in his thirties, looking for love, a bit of a bumbling ‘nice guy’, etc. That being said, this shouldn’t prevent you from picking any one of these books-they are all great, and really well written. But, I really do think Fallis is talented, and can easily create female characters with depth, so I’m hoping that his next book will feature a female protagonist. If I had a twitter account, I would tweet this at Fallis, because I know he’s active on social media, so I’ll just hope that he has a google alert set up for himself and will eventually read this blog post (fingers crossed!).

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Book Review: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

My sincere apologies for abandoning this blog for the past three weeks,I have a good excuse for my absence though-I was away in Belize! As you will  see in the picture below, I had lots of time to catch up on my reading (9 books in total!) so I have lots of writing and reporting back owed to you dear readers. One of the books I read towards the beginning of my vacation and enjoyed the most (see my goodreads rating) was The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith.

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This is one of the books that can be classified as a ‘cozy mystery‘. Many of you are probably familiar with Smith’s books, they are international bestsellers, and for good reason-he’s fabulous writer, and has a knack of creating characters that you immediately find yourself caring for. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is the first in the series with the same name, and I fully intend on reading the rest (in correct succession of course) now that I’ve read and enjoyed the first one.

This book introduces the background of the main character, Precious Ramotswe, the lady detective of Botswana. She sets up a detective agency in the town of Gaborone, and immediately finds herself busy with requests from people in town: finding out whether one’s husband is cheating, discovering where a mysterious teenage daughter is spending her afternoons with, returning a stole car to its rightful owner, etc. The perfect adjective to describe this book is: charming. Mme Ramotswe drinks cups of tea to mull over her cases, and not surprisingly, she reminds me of Jessica Fletcher from Murder She Wrote with her personality-for those who are fans of the television series, you are sure to like The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency as well.

I had the pleasure of meeting Alexander McCall Smith a few years ago when he made an appearance in Calgary promoting one of his latest books. I can assure you that although we only had a few minutes alone together, he lived up to his reputation of being a kind and humble individual, despite his enormous success and grueling tour schedule. How does someone that travels that much for work maintain such a lovely demeanor? Beats me, but I was so thankful I had the chance to meet him in person, it led me to enjoy reading this book even more knowing he was such a great guy.Sandy McCall Smith

Some of you may be wondering-how did I bring 9 books on vacation with me? Well, I have a big suitcase, and they were all physical books (I don’t own an e-reader, and don’t intend on buying one any time soon) so it was tight coming down, but as I read them I left them at the various resorts we stayed at for future guests to enjoy. So, my luggage (physical and emotional) was quite a bit lighter on the way home.  If you’re heading to the Exotic Caye Beach Resort in Belize anytime soon, feel free to pick up my leftover copy of No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Or, you can always stay in the comfort of your own town and purchase a copy from your local independent bookstore, but that’s not as exciting is it?

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Book Review: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

I had really high hopes for this book, as I really enjoyed Joshua Ferris‘s last book The Unnamed, which was about a man who found himself compulsively walking days on end, therefore eventually destroying his life because he was unable to stop. Interesting premise right? Well, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour doesn’t have a hook like that-it’s essentially about a middle-aged, lonely dentist who has an existential crisis that lasts about 300 pages.index

Perhaps if I was a different person, one who enjoyed baseball (I don’t), theological discussions (I don’t) or ancient history (I don’t like that either) I would have found this book more compelling. But I didn’t, so when I look back on my experience of reading it, I generally recall being very bored.

I guess that isn’t entirely true-there are quite a few laugh-out-loud parts, because the protagonist/dentist Paul  O’Rourke is really funny. He doesn’t always mean to be, but he’s got some good quips throughout the narrative. And although it’s difficult to admit this, he did remind me of myself at times. For instance, he calls cellphones ‘me-machines’, because he dislikes people’s obsession with them. For those of you that know me personally, you would recognize the fact that I would wholeheartedly agree with this (see meme below). I’m of the opinion that people spend more time on their phones discussing their own life rather than simply living it, but I digress.

imagesThe dialogue in general is quite funny in this book, so it’s not all bad. Ferris uses this really interesting way of recounting a conversation between two characters by only recording what one person said, and then simply implying what the other character said, like this:

“Why must you always be reading your phone?” I’d tell her, she’d say “If you know it is merely a distraction from the many things you don’t want to think about, why let yourself be a slave to it?” I’d tell her, she’d say “That is the most blasphemous thing I have ever heard.” (p. 104)

Hilarious right?

This book focuses quite a bit on religion, its effect on people, the root of belief and ritual of religion. What I found strange about the storyline  is that Paul is surrounded by religion throughout his life, including very religious people themselves, and yet he doesn’t spent a lot of time really questioning whether he has his own religious beliefs, he simply follows what other people are doing so he can feel a part of something. Maybe that’s the irony that I’m just figuring out now, and Ferris created this dichotomy for that express purpose-so the readers would arrive at the same conclusion I just did. Is Ferris trying to say that religion is simply a comfort for those who want to belong? I have no idea to be quite honest, I feel like that kind of book analysis is a little too lofty for my tastes and intentions for this blog, but I will point out that it’s these questions and more that will get you thinking if you pick up this book.

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Book Review: The White House by JaQuavis Coleman

Sigh. That’s how I felt reading the pages of this 120 page novella. Not quite a novel, longer than a short story, but terribly written all the same. If you haven’t guessed already, I hated The White House by JaQuavis Coleman, and debated putting it down after the first few pages. Why did I have such a bad reaction to it? Well, the very first page put me off for starters. The author’s note at the beginning of the book essentially told me that I wasn’t the right reader for this book, and wouldn’t understand the underlying story of it. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the point of an author’s note to entice the reader, not dismiss them as not being the right kind of person to pick up their book in the first place? Coleman couldn’t have made himself any clearer, when he writes:

“I intentionally drop subtle gems for the people like me who came from where I came. There are always two layers to my books; not everyone will get the second layer but the ones who do…they feel me. You see, I talk to the readers but I whisper to the streets. The streets being people who grew up in the struggle and love to read books because it closely resembles their current or past lifestyles” (p. 7).

Let me be clear here-there is nothing subtle about this book. It opens with a raunchy sex scene that was rendered that much worse because I just finished reading another book that included sex scenes-ones that were much better written, let me assure you.18528294

I understand that because this book is an example of “street fiction”, the dialogue isn’t going to be high-brow, because many of the characters are un-educated and committing crimes in an attempt to make money. However, this doesn’t excuse the overwhelming amount of cliches and over-used sayings throughout the story. For example:

“Total pandemonium were the only words to describe the streets of Detroit. It was the most gloomy week for the city in recent memory. A well-respected OG was put to rest and days after a young man hung from a streetlight with a bullet-riddled body. The entire city was on pins and needles and the local officials were in a frenzy trying to hold everything together” (p. 91).

The phrase ‘pins and needles’ was used just a few pages before, and in my humble literary opinion, the use of such a cliched phrase twice in such a short time span is inexcusable. Why couldn’t a different term be used? I’m not reading a newspaper article, this is supposed to be enjoyable to read, so looking for variety in the text shouldn’t be too much to ask for.

Some have complained that the ‘urban street fiction‘ genre is glamorizing crime and life on the streets. My response to that is: so what? It isn’t any different than other more common forms of entertainment we enjoy (action movies, rap songs, etc.). If this is a popular genre,  and people like reading it, it should continue to be written if there is a demand for it.  What I do have a problem with is the terrible writing. There is no excuse for such unimaginative and cookie-cutter sentences in a published book. If you’re a bad writer, you shouldn’t have your stuff published on paper, especially by a reputable publisher that should know better. I enjoy Akashic Books, which is why I was so surprised that they put their brand behind something like this-I know they can do better, and I think they should expect more of their writers as well.

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Book Review: The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh

18007528 A quick synopsis of The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh: husband and wife go on vacation, step-daughter of wife joins her parents on vacation and brings her slightly older and very attractive boyfriend with her, chemistry ensues between wife and younger man.  A saucy summer read: that’s really all you need to know about this book. Ladies-I know you want to borrow this book from me, but you’ll have too much pride to post in these comments-feel free to shoot me an email directly!

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Book Review: The Blessings by Elise Juska

Have you ever read a book that features a family that makes you think “Hey, that’s kind of like my family”? I just had the pleasure of muttering that to myself as I turned the pages of this latest novel by Elise Juska. Now, The Blessings does not feature characters that resemble people in my own family, I want to be clear about that. However, the family dinners that act as anchor points for each character  reminded me of family dinners I attended as a kid (and still do!). Picture this: all the women in the kitchen, chatting with each other, putting the food together, cleaning up afterwards, while the men hang out in one big group talking in front of the t.v. or off in the back yard somewhere. This is a common scene many people can identify with, including myself. And the food that is eaten at these get-togethers is just as important to that ‘familiar feeling’-the food is generally not that healthy, but easy to make and freeze (casseroles, salads, cookies and dessert bars, etc.)index, comfort food basically. Juska uses these dinners in a strategic way throughout her narrative, and it acted as nice piece of nostalgia for me personally.

Strangely, although these family dinners happen throughout the book, and I recognized them from my own life,  I never really got that ‘cozy’ feeling that I thought I would. Why is this? It’s not a negative detractor from the book-far from it. In fact, it makes the narrative that much more realistic. Each chapter is written from a different character’s perspective and at a different time, so the reader is constantly kept on their toes, which also prevented me from getting too comfortable. I never knew what was going to happen next, The Blessings was definitely a page-turner. Each family member got a chance to give their own perspective on things, and it’s so interesting to read first-person perspectives about a close-knit group of people, mainly because it reinforces the “everything is not as it seems” saying that we’ve all heard. Especially when it comes to families, people are always assigning archetypes to people-the worrying mother, the weird uncle, the overly-sensitive sister, you get the point. But Juska blows these cliches apart, much to my delight.TheBlessings-Elisa-Juska

This book doesn’t follow the regular arc of a story either, as you probably guessed. There isn’t a clear beginning, middle and end. However, there is a ‘trigger situation’ that starts off the action of the book-a young father dies of cancer. Now, you would think that this would mean the rest of the book is a dire look at how each family member deals with this loss. But, like real life, this occurrence does not control people’s reactions, it affects them in a different capacities, in some cases, hardly at all.

So, those who know me well know that I love a good family book. I love reading about families, mainly because it confirms my suspicions  that my own family isn’t as weird as I first thought. In fact, the more books that I read about families, the more convinced I am that I lucked out with mine, the one I grew up with AND the one I married into. Regardless of the state of your family, you’ll enjoy this book because it’s well written, and above all believable!

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Book Review: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Nigeria has been in the news quite a bit lately, for awful reasons, so reading a book that showed the lighter side of this controversial country was a welcome change from what I’ve been hearing these past few weeks. That’s not to say that Americanah is a light romp through the complicated territory of race, because that’s obviously not possible, but it gives an honest perspective of America, Nigeria, and parts of Europe that I found refreshing.

You’re probably wondering how any of what I’ve described above sounds ‘light’. I should be clear that this is a very long, and literary book. There are many introspective passages, and the plot moves slowly. However, the plot also involves a very heart-warming love story that spans a few continents, so don’t let the book length scare you off, because a lot of  women would enjoy and identify with this story.  index

Reading about an immigrant experience in America typically creates a sense of smug superiority in Canadians like myself, mainly because a lot of the racism that the protagonist Ifem experiences immediately triggered a ‘not in my country’ kind of response while I read the book. However, in the blog that the Ifem writes, she points out quite a few examples of accidental racism, or offensive ignorance that also put me on the defensive, mainly because I could imagine myself or a friend unknowingly making these mistakes. However, I doubt very much that Adichie wrote this book to put white people like myself on the defensive, so whenever I caught myself justifying the behavior that Ifem was calling out, I forced myself to continue reading without judgement, which was difficult, but in the end rewarding. images

What good will come out of taking things personally when an author has strong views that you don’t necessarily agree with? Lumping her beliefs in with all Nigerian authors certainly isn’t the answer, which is why I believe reading with an open heart and mind is so important. I’ve said before that one reason I enjoy reading is because it offers me so many different perspectives on the world, and it brings me to places that I may never have the joy of visiting. Americanah offers you just that, and more.

I also don’t want to give the impression that Americanah is just a well-written immigrant novel. It goes beyond that, simply because it follows Ifem during her childhood in Nigeria, her immigration to America and her struggles there, and then her eventual return to Nigeria and her attempt to fit back into the culture she left. Although Ifem says and does some unkindly things to people in American and Nigeria, you also feel sorry for her, because you have this sense that she doesn’t fit in anywhere. She does not make friends easily, and you get the sense that she is constantly trying to ‘figure things out’ in order to settle into her life. Perhaps this is why Ifem ends up being such a likeable character that everyone can identify with in some way. She is hard, and quite judgmental at times, but I did enjoy reading about her, and I hoped things would work out for her, even though she made some questionable decisions along the way. I’d be interested to know what others thought about this novel, and whether they had the same conflicting reactions I did. This is definitely the kind of book that would start some lively discussions, and for this reason alone I highly recommend it.

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Book Review: One More Thing by B.J. Novak (the guy who plays Ryan from The Office)

I’ve gotten into a terrible habit lately. I visit the Buzzfeed website quite often these days, and I frequently find myself clicking through their lists of whatever, marveling at the fact that whatever they come up with seems to be right up my alley. Literally, whatever they combine into some sort of list or tally, such as “21 smells that 90s girls will never forget” make complete sense to me and I feel better for just having read it.   Yes Buzzfeed, how do you do it?  You seem to know everything about my life, and what I’m thinking right now (where can I find a bunch of pictures of fluffy animals all on one page) or tricks I wish I knew to make my mornings easier (morning hacks to start your day). Buzzfeed has it, all these things and more!!! I’m convinced that their staff is made up people who are all distant clones of me and my friends, which explains why everything they produce speaks to easily to everything I am and will ever be interested in.

Actor and Author B.J. Novak

Actor and Author B.J. Novak

The short story collection One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories is very much like this. It uses the same language that I hear every day and it deals with things that I can easily relate to and understand. For example, the story “One of These Days, We Have to do Something About Willie” is about a group of guy pals who decide to stage an intervention for one of their friends based on his misleading facebook photos. As sad and misguided as it may seem, people of my generation assume they understand or are ‘close’ with someone, simply by following their facebook profile, so as strange as this story seems, it really hit home for me because I could see how this could easily happen in real life.

Aside from the book being extremely relatable, it was also really funny, and the language was fairly succinct. Most of the stories in the collection worked well, there were only a few that I thought could be cut. In total, there are 64 stories in the book, and the ultra short stories that are a couple sentences or less I typically liked the least. The longer stories, like “Sophia” (about a man who orders a sex robot named Sophia, who eventually falls in love with him so he returns her) were fun to read because although they were humorous, they were also meaningful with an intelligent storyline.

This book doesn’t contain the same humour as the television show The Office, so just because Novak is a writer on that show doesn’t mean that will translate into his own personal writing, because it doesn’t. I watched the  trailer  (below) after I finished reading the book which I was thankful for because the trailer wasn’t very funny, even though it had Mindy Kaling in it. But the book is funny, so just read it.

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Book Review: Gin & Daggers by Jessica Fletcher & Donald Bain

Yup, you read that right. Jessica Fletcher, my favourite heroine from my favourite television show Murder, She Wrote has written a book. If you follow the show, you will know that Miss Fletcher has written many books, but this is the first book of hers that I’ve actually read! Because Jessica Fletcher is a television character, she obviously needed help from a real life writer to publish this book, which is where Donald Bain comes in. 334356

After doing a bit of my own detective work on the ghost writer Donald Bain, I discovered that Gin & Daggers was the first Murder, She Wrote  (I lovingly refer to it as MSW) book that was written. How fitting that it was the first book I picked up in the series-it must be fate! A good friend gave it to me, and based on a price tag on the cover I can see that it was purchased at a used book store in Orillia, Ontario. Unlike most of the books sent to me, I don’t intend on passing this one along. Selfishly, I would like to collect all the Murder, She Wrote books in the series, mainly because I’m such a big fan. I’ve also discovered that Donald Bain has started his own publishing house Hyphenates Books. Not surprisingly, Bain has written over 100 books, and received many accolades through his work with the famous television series. MSW was such a popular show that it still has many devoted followers, much like myself, and if you liked the shows, you’ll love the books too.

A review of this book will also give me the opportunity to extend another teachable moment to my audience. What is a ghost writer you ask? Well, it’s a term for an author who ‘helps’, or in many cases, writes a book but shares credit for the ideas with another person or author. In this case, Bain is sharing credit with a fictitious character, and although I would like to think Angela Lansbury had something of a say in this book, I doubt very much she did. So really, Donald Bain wrote this book, but because the MSW series was in existence before he wrote these books, and he most likely was contracted out to write these books, he is considered a ghost writer. In many cases, you will see ghost writers who work with celebrities to help them publisher their own books. So, memoirs, things like that are typically written with a ghost writer. The level of ‘transparency’ that the ghost is visible however, can vary from book to book. In the case of Gin & Daggers, Bain’s name is right on the cover, some celebrities will put just their own name on the cover, but on the inside they will thank the assistance of another writer. Depending on the contract, some ghost writers don’t really have to be mentioned at all! It’s very devious,  I know. But really, you didn’t think Ozzy Osbourne was lucid enough to write an entire book did ya?

Angela Lansbury-back in the day!!!! She's still alive and well for those of you who are curious

Angela Lansbury-back in the day!!!! She’s still alive and well for those of you who are curious

While reading it, I felt like I was in an extended episode of the show, and I was sorry to see it end when I reached the last pages of the book. Another fun aspect to reading this story was the ‘inside’ look you got at Jessica’s inner thought process. Shockingly, the reader discovers that she is romantically interested in other men, which was a storyline that wasn’t thoroughly developed in the television show. As a viewer, you are led to believe that Jessica cannot even entertain the idea of another lover after her long-time husband Frank died. However, there is a potential love interest introduced in Gin & Daggers, much to my delight. I probably don’t to have state this again, but I loved this book, and I can’t wait to read more Murder, She Wrote books in the series.

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