Category Archives: Book Reviews

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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Book Review: Neverhome by Laird Hunt

I never thought I would willingly pick up a book about the Civil War, mainly because the idea of it bores me. People may find this offensive, because granted, the various wars in our history are an important part of who we are today, but that doesn’t mean I need to spend my spare time reading about it.

So, when I picked up Neverhome for the first time, I gave an exasperated groan in my head when I read the description. “Great”, I thought. “A tale of one woman’s participation in the Civil War”. I couldn’t think of anything less appealing to me to read. However, I was quickly swept away by the character of Ash/Constance Thompson, a woman who disguises herself as a  man in order to fight alongside her countrymen against the south in the Civil War.

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Did you know that this was somewhat common for that war? Obviously women were not allowed to fight in the front lines in that day, (many were nurses) but some women felt so strongly about the cause, that they dressed up as men and joined up anyway, risking quite a bit to do so.

Constance is an interesting character, an early feminist if I could go so far. She grew up on a farm, and was braver than most boys around her. She married a man who was unable to join up due to some physical ailments, so she left their homestead instead. Her reasons for leaving her happy marriage and home are a bit muddled at the beginning, and the reader never learns her true motivation until the end of the novel.

She actually fits in quite well with her fellow soldiers, and manages to keep her secret with relatively few close-calls. She also turns out to be extremely skilled at shooting, and quickly earns the respect of her men around her. However, things take a dark turn (yes, even darker than they could in war) and ends up in a mental institution for an indeterminate amount of time. It’s at this point that you begin to question the truthfulness of what you’re reading, and whether or not Constance’s voice can be trusted as a narrator. Of course it’s difficult to trust someone who is essentially living a lie as a man in the first place, but as her mental state becomes more and more unstable, as a reader I questioned whether or not her version of reality was something to be trusted.

Despite that, she seems to recover (somewhat) and I continued to root for her, hoping for a happy ending, although she quickly falls further and further from her original self as the atrocities of war continue to haunt her. I found this book to be a very real, and honest account of what PTSD must have been like for people before the condition was ever considered an actual illness as it is today.

So, Laird Hunt does an amazing job of making this war a very real thing for a young woman of my age, which is no small feat. Constance is a beacon of bravery among the characters I typically encounter in my reading travels, and she’s one I won’t soon forget.

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Book Review and Upcoming Event: What I Meant to Say with the WGA and Wordfest

“…how can a man be so headstrong about not asking for directions, and such a wimp about pain?” These, and other  answers can be found in the collection of essays titled What I Meant to Say: the Private Lives of Men edited by Ian Brown. Although not all my questions about men were answered (which would be, quite frankly impossible, as I’m sure most women would admit), this collection certainly helped to put things into perspective about the opposite sex. It also assured me that my husband is a lot like the other guys out there, because although he does things that drive me crazy (like become completely absorbed with some mundane fact at the most inopportune time), most other women are cursing their husbands under their breath for the exact same reasons, so for this realization alone I recommend reading this book.whatimeantotsay

A book like this is just begging to be discussed in a group setting, so the Writers Guild of Alberta and Wordfest are getting together for their annual Freedom to Read Week event to hash it all out. This should be an interesting talk, because although two women are leading the discussion, I’m sure the men in the room will have lots to say as well! In fact, I’m really hoping our male audience are feeling chatty that day, because I’ll be one of those women asking the questions!

The Private Lives of Men contains essays on various topics: shopping, sex, manliness, observations of motherhood, etc. And what I truly enjoyed about this book was the variety of voices and tones each piece contained; the whole gamut of emotions are touched upon. What links each essay together is the brutal honesty of each man. Sometimes they say things that are hard for us (as women) to hear, but you can’t fault an author for telling it like it is, especially when this appears to be the intention of the entire work. Is reading about Ian Brown  visiting strip clubs strange? Of course it is, especially when it’s contrasted to his difficult home life that has him dealing with his son’s disability. However, I appreciated his candor, and the writing is never offensive, so I don’t want people to be scared off by this.

Have I piqued your interest enough? Don’t you want to hear what all the guys have to say about this book now? I sure do! Admission is free for the event, which is taking place at 7pm on February 23 at the Barley Mill Pub in Eau Claire Market, Calgary, so please do RSVP to ensure you get a seat.

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Book Review: The Forever Girl by Alexander McCall Smith

I am a big fan of Alexander McCall Smith. Granted, I’ve just started making my way through his most famous series, but I love it already, and I know there’s only months of delightful reading ahead of me when it comes to his novels. However, his foray into the ‘romance’ genre has left a little to be desired for me, and I’ll tell you why.

The Forever Girl centers on two families of expats who live in the Cayman Islands. One family has a young daughter, the other, a  son the same age. The kids grow up together, becoming fast friends, but eventually growing distant  as they get older. As affluent people do, the kids Clover and James seem to find themselves in similar international cities, coming in and out of each other’s lives intermittently. However, Clover has harbored an everlasting love for James that she has never been able to express to him, while James seems strangely distracted whenever they do meet.

The beautiful Cayman Islands!

The beautiful Cayman Islands!

Is this beginning to sound a bit cliche to you? Well it did for me as well, and of course (spoiler alert), they end up together in the end. Strangely, the b9780345807564ook starts off with an entirely different storyline-that of Clover and James’s parents. Clover’s mother and James’s father have a brief fling (nothing sexual, but they are emotionally cheating on their spouses nonetheless) and they eventually return to their own marriages. It’s a strange lead-up to the main romance of the story between Clover and James, especially because Clover’s mother comes to the eventual realization that she loved her husband all along.

So, it’s all a bit strange, and quite frankly Clover is an intensely annoying character. She’s spoiled beyond belief (all the kids are in this book, which is something I think Smith wanted to point out), and the fact that she’s so obsessed with someone for so long, even going so far as to stalk him, but never admitting this to him, is strange. Strange to the fact that I doubted whether it was healthy for her to even enter into a relationship with James in the end.

Still, it’s Alexander McCall Smith, so the book is covered in glowing quotes about the story, and people seemed to have loved it all the same. Perhaps I’m just jaded, and the romance genre is not for me, but I just couldn’t get into this book. And I love this author! I feel guilty even admitting my dislike of it, because he’s such a talented writer, and I usually love every word he prints. Ah well, perhaps I should just stick his cozy mysteries, and avoid anything with a beach photo on the front from now on…

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Book Review: We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

Have you ever attended the reading of a book you hadn’t read yet, and gotten a pre-conceived notion of what it was going to be like before you actually bought it? Or just based on the few pages the author reads to you, you think you already have a good idea of what the story will consist of? I must admit I did just that when I heard Matthew Thomas read from his book We Are Not Ourselves this past October at Wordfest, although I didn’t dismiss it at the time. I just assumed I knew what kind of book it was going to be, based on his two short readings. Us+cover

I wrongly assumed it was going to be a book about youth, and romantic relationships of early twenty-somethings. I couldn’t have been further from the truth! We Are Not Ourselves follows a woman named Eileen from her youth, through to her young marriage, the maturation of her relationship to her husband, and eventually her life after marriage. All this spans an impressive 620 pages. And you only hear from Eileen, and her son Connor, never from the perspective of her husband Ed. This is what gives the narrative it’s power however, simply seeing the two sides of the three-sided story. I won’t say anymore because I don’t want to give away the main crux of the story; the build-up to a particular realization is what creates a significant amount of dramatic tension in the book.

I’m not sure if Thomas intended this, but I grew to hate the IMG_20150201_174722584 (1)character of Eileen in the first third of the book; I wanted to reach into the pages and shake her out of her denial and stupor. She had an incredibly rough upbringing, battling between a charismatic but emotionally distant father and an alcoholic mother, therefore taking the role of caregiver much earlier in life than any child should. But from there, her independence seems to work against her, clouding her reality with visions of a perfect house and life that is unattainable for any realistic person. However, she goes against common sense and strives to achieve this idyllic being anyway, wreaking havoc on the people around her in the process. This foolish attempt at making things perfect from the outside is what made her character so frustrating, although the creation of this personality is also one of my favourite parts of Thomas’s writing, because it made this story so interesting.

I’m not sure if this is obviously yet, but I really did enjoy this novel, much more than I thought I would, especially considering it’s length (my faithful blog followers will know I typically hate longer than necessary books). I can also vouch for the author-he’s not a jerk, in fact he’s quite lovely, and very sensitive to his readers. I say this because I met him, and when he signed my book, he misspelled the word hospitality (see photo). Realizing his mistake, he was quite embarrassed, and quickly tried to fix it on the page  while joking about how ridiculous it was that a writer misspelled such a basic word. I know for a fact that many authors are shy and a bit insecure, but the fact that he so readily showed this side to me was quite charming, and I’ll never forget it. It’s also given me a great story to recount on this blog! So, thank you Mr. Thomas for proving my early judgements incorrect, and for writing such a wonderful story for me, and countless other readers to enjoy.

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Book Review: Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes is a very dark book. It takes place in dark territories (the crumbling city of Detroit being the main setting), but it also delves into the darkest parts of people’s psyches and souls. It shows the dark side of everything: from the mediocre visual art industry, to the crude jokes found in every police department, to the deepest recesses of a killer’s thoughts and motivations. Everything and everyone has a dark side in this violent thriller, but despite this, it kept me reading.

Like in many horror stories, we see the world through not only the protagonist’s eyes, but the monster’s as well. In this case, the monster is a human being who is also a struggling artist, seemingly possessed by a supernatural power that makes an appearance only towards the end of the book. This was a very smart tactic by Beukes, because it left the reader questioning what was really going on. Is this person truly evil, or are they being helplessly maneuvered around by an unknown entity? I don’t believe this question is ever really answered, especially because it’s a question we ask about people who commit heinous acts in our own world as well. Surely people who commit grisly acts against others are not of sound mind? I like to think this is the case, if only to help me sleep better at night.

The book trailer embedded in this review is a good example of the kind of creepiness you’re going to encounter when reading Broken Monsters. Some of the images described in the book are quite haunting, more so because it blurs the line between ‘art’ and ‘gore’. In some cases, the police mistook works of art for pieces of human bodies grafted together (and vice versa), which forces one to question what is in good taste when it comes to the art world. The idea of recording unfolding crimes on one’s phone for the sake of media, and distribution to the general public is also a big topic in this book, when a desperate blogger goes around the police in order to ‘release’ the story for his gain, thus complicating the case against the killer in the meantime. Does the public deserve to see these gruesome images, or is this best left to the professionals? Again, an interesting debate that I don’t have the energy or space for in this blog.

Even the cover of the book is super creepy!

Even the cover of the book is super creepy!

Another aspect to this book that I found equally disturbing was a high school student’s game of baiting potential pedophiles online. In a secondary storyline, they would create false identities of younger girls trying to catch older man in the act of trying to meet with them, and then humiliating them in public with the hopes of scaring them away from this terrible proclivity of theirs. Obviously this is a very dangerous game for the teenagers to play (even though their intentions are admirable), and when it’s later revealed what online bullying one of them has experienced, you feel pity and overprotective of their youth all at once. Once again, these are very timely topics that seem to be cropping up more and more these days.

So, a disturbing look at what lies beneath in the human psyche, but a worthwhile read for those who enjoy the genre and won’t get scared silly by reading it. Can you see yourself picking up this book and being able to read it in an empty house all by yourself at night? I did, and I lived to tell the tale, so take a chance and read it!

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Book Review: Bark by Lorrie Moore

A woman who is so obsessed with Michael Jackson she roasts her chicken on the ‘clean’ setting of her oven because she’s distracted by listening to his music, a man who wears a t-shirt that says “Thank you for Having Me” at a wedding, a married couple who met at a peace movement but have grown to hate each other so much they both believe in nuclear weapons by the time they divorce: this is just a tiny selection of the quirky characters you will be introduced to in Lorrie Moore’s story collection Bark.

Moore is an American writer, and a quick google search of her will reveal uncontested praise of her books. The word ‘brilliant’ gets tossed around a lot when describing her stories. Her cover photo looks like a writer would and should: shy and unassuming, but painfully intelligent, someone who is obviously adept at observing people, and turning these observations into witty situations and dialogue. Lorrie Moore

The copy of Bark that I received is a trade paperback, and across the front of the cover are the words “National Bestseller” in capitals. Typically these words don’t mean much in publishing, essentially anyone can call themselves a bestselling author because there is no definition for bestseller. Someone’s book can appear once a local book store’s bestseller list, and suddenly that author has decided to call themselves a bestseller. Sad, but true. However, in this case, I’m pretty sure we can assume Bark has sold lots of copies. The first few pages of the book are filled with complimentary quotes about the book, and it’s published by the behemoth Random House, which is a feat in itself, because most short story collections are hard to sell, therefore not picked up by major publishers.

I’m aware that BarkI repeat myself over and over again when I discuss a particular genre of book, but I do want to stress that one of the highlights of a short story collection, especially Bark, is when the stories and characters are all very different. For instance: “Subject to Search” is about a man who works in international intelligence, meeting his new girlfriend in the city of France for a quick romantic rendez-vous; “The Juniper Tree” is about a group of woman saying goodbye to their recently deceased friend through their artistic talents; and “Foes” is about a middle-aged couple struggling to make their way through a stuffy fundraiser in Washington D.C., coming across a prickly lobbyist who seems to have an opinion on everything. How is that for variety?

There are many laugh out loud moments to this book, mainly found in the internal dialogue of Moore’s characters, who I can unashamedly announce are ‘brilliant’ in their own right. My favourite was Ira, the middle-aged man attempting to get back into the dating pool after his divorce, finding himself in love with a woman named Zora, who has a creepily close relationship to her son who of course hates Ira with a passion. That short description doesn’t do the story any justice, and yet I’m sure you can see how hilarity would easily ensue in this situation. So there you have it, Bark is a work of genius, and I highly recommend it.

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Book Review: Between Clay and Dust by Musharraf Ali Farooqi

I’ve had this book sitting on my shelf for a few months now, so I apologize this review is so late. It was originally published in India in 2012, and the lovely Calgary-based Freehand Books released it in the fall of 2014. If I had known that the book was so good (and such a quick read!), I would have pushed myself to pick it up weeks ago.

Between Clay and Dust tells the story of two  characters: an aged wrestler who’s struggling with the passing down of his title to his brother, and a beautiful prostitute with a prestigious past, both living in a small city in Pakistan, both coming to terms with the slow decay of their power. Their urban environment is reflective of their lives: both are crumbling.Between-Clay-and-Dust-cover-June-27

As I’m thinking back to the narrative itself, I realize that this book can come across as quite depressing to some, because not a lot of positive things happen in it. However, the novel is so short and precise that you don’t come away from it feeling unhappy, it’s meant to teach us a lesson, much like a fable does for children. Farooqi’s writing is simple, and easy to follow, even though he throws in terms specific to wresting or courtesans that youindex wouldn’t understand unless you looked them up. His sentences don’t contain more than what is absolutely necessary, and that is a skill that so many writers (and bloggers like myself) struggle with these days.

One of the review quotes on the back of the book states: “Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s new novel is the literary equivalent of an artfully executed miniature painting” (Outlook India). I couldn’t agree more! I’ve only found a few books like this in my reading travels:short yet very affecting. A book doesn’t have to be an epic tome that takes place over centuries to leave a lasting impression on the reader. In fact, I find the shorter the book, the more it resonates, because it leaves the reader with that breathing space once they’ve turned the last page to reflect on what they’ve read.

I should also mention that this book was a finalist for the Man Asian Literary Prize, which is a prestigious international award, so I’m not the only who thinks is a worthwhile read!

So pick up Between Clay and Dust if you have a free afternoon and you want to read something in its entirety. You’ll have time to spare, but lots to think about when you go to bed that evening.

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Book Review: A Crack in the Wall by Betty Jane Hegerat

I’ve always enjoyed stories about ‘regular people, doing regular things’. They hold a certain fascination for me, simply because I can relate to those kinds of characters more than others, my life being pretty uneventful in general. I definitely like a good cozy mystery or thriller every once in a while, but family dramas, introspective plot lines and emotionally-driven narratives are my reading comfort zone. For many, this sounds boring, but I’ve always been honest about the fact that I don’t enjoy fantasy novels-in fact, I’m probably one of the few bookworms who can say they’ve never finished the Lord of the Rings trilogy; I tried reading it, but had to put it down after a few pages, I found it boring.a-crack-in-the-wall-small

This is all to say that I’ve found yet another book of short stories that I enjoy, mainly because it deals with the mundane occurrences that most people experience from day-to-day. A Crack in the Wall by Betty Jane Hegerat is a great example of how masterful a simple story can be. Nothing earth shattering happens in these stories, mainly the protagonists come to particular realizations about themselves or someone close to them. Still, after I finished each story, I found myself looking up from the book and pausing for a few seconds, letting everything sink in. In my mind, this is a sign of a brilliant writer.

The fact that Hegerat is from Alberta is just another reason for me to read and love this book. Some of the stories take place in Calgary, others in distant parts of Canada, but there is always a sense of familiarity with the writing: probably because the characters are so relatable.ReadAlbertaBooks_Banner_Wheat_484x300

On another note, I took this book out from the library, and I was shocked to see it had been signed by the author herself. I’m curious how this happened-not because Hegerat is difficult to find in Calgary (quite the opposite in fact, she’s a fixture of our literary scene here), but because I’ve never come across a library book with an autograph before. I’m curious if other readers get a small thrill in discovering the book they’re reading has been signed by the author; I no longer do because I’ve worked with authors for so long, but I’m hoping that this is still a (somewhat rare) phenomenon that appeals to other readers.

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