Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: The Table of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips

‘A fairy tale for adults’ is the best way I can describe The Table of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips. This book has it all: unicorns, knights, magical swords, princesses, and of course, lots of swear words. It reminded of why I loved fairy tales so much when I was a kid; you had a general idea of what the outcome would be, but you still enjoyed the journey to get there.

The novel includes some really fun characters too: Martha, the naive queen, Elaine, the feisty princess, Jemima, the trusty elephant, and Conrad, the prickly giant who rides Jemima because he’s too big for horses. Each person has their own quirks, which endears the reader to them even more. In fact, I wanted to keep reading more of the book once it  ended, just because I was disappointed to leave these new friends behind. Reading about them on a knight’s quest was funny, but I’m sure reading about them doing their laundry would be just as hilarious. Phillips is clearly a master at dialogue and character development as both of these things came together to create an amazing book.9780307359964_0

The idea of writing a fairy tale for an adult is a new one (for the most part). People typically see kids as the main audience for fairy tales, mainly because they are expected to always end well. Yes, this book ends on a happy note, and the bad people get punished while the good get rewarded, but it’s also realistic in some of its plot elements too. For instance, the very end of the book introduces a homosexual male couple-not your typical fairy tale couple, that’s for sure! Yes, it’s a book for adults, so this inclusion isn’t shocking by any means, but I believe  Phillips included this  because she is highlighting the impossibility of the ‘happily ever after’ mentality of fairy tales. Why should everything fit into the tiny mold of perfection that fairy tales expect us to aspire to? It shouldn’t, which is why there are gay knights in this book, lots of swear words, self-doubt, tyrannical men who aren’t fully punished, and friendships between African animals and giants. After all….happily ever after comes in all shapes, sizes and colors.

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Book Review: Reunion by Hannah Pittard

What defines chick-lit? Or as people in the biz like to call it, “contemporary women’s fiction”-what does that even mean? I just finished reading Reunion by Hannah Pittard, and my first instinct was to define it as a ‘heavier’ kind of chick-lit, although I don’t think that’s giving it enough credit, because t20706746he book isn’t about romance or shopping. Why am I leaning towards this genre? Well, the book was fairly short and uncomplicated, so you can read it in a couple of hour-long sittings. The plot line is also simple, and told only from the perspective of the female protagonist, Kate. Family and marriage are the main topics of discussion throughout the book, so this is what pushes the novel into the chick-lit realm for me.

The book begins with Kate, a thirty-something woman at the end of her marriage, in the throes of debt, learning about her father’s suicide. She is dragged to Atlanta by her siblings to attend his funeral. What makes this book uplifting, and in the end quite funny, is the fact that their now-deceased father was married a total of five times, so Kate is joined by an assortment of extended family, all thrown together through circumstance alone. Not surprisingly, many of them do not get along, but because of the situation, they pretend to anyway.

143a5a96b179a60ca1714d1ecf3d66bfI like to think that I’m too literary to like books like this, but I’m not. I LOVE books like this, ones that delve into family dynamics, marriage issues, and relationships in general. One of the most interesting topics that are explored in this book is infidelity. Kate’s older sister Nell and older brother Elliot are dead-set against cheaters. They despise people who cheat on their significant others, and believe it is an unforgivable crime. Kate however, has essentially ended her marriage by cheating on her husband, and finds herself in the unfortunate position of coming clean to her siblings to explain why her marriage is ending. At the same time, she’s forced to admit  that she cannot financially support herself alone, and needs to explain to Nell and Elliot that she has been hiding a significant amount of consumer debt at the same time. Suddenly, their black and white opinions have to make room for the gray matter, which I found to be juicy, and ingenious twist in this book.

Basically, Kate’s life is imploding, which is always fun to read about, because in most cases, it puts the audience in the smug position of thinking “well, at least my life isn’t THAT bad”. This isn’t the only reason to read about people’s troubles and heartache, it’s really just a nice by-product, but I do feel the need to mention that in case I begin to sound a bit smug myself.

I’m assuming what I’ve written above is convincing enough to read the book, or to put you off of it entirely, both options seem particularly relevant in this case,as many people don’t like reading about these particular topics.  Either way, I’m in favour of reading books that make you feel good, no matter what they’re about.

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Book Review: Serpents Rising by David A. Poulsen

I just finished reading a great mystery by a great Alberta author. And by the way, he’s also got another job as a rodeo announcer, when he’s not writing (see video below).  David A. Poulson has written over 20 books, some for kids, some for adults, but according to the acknowledgements at the end of Serpents Rising, this is the book he’s wanted to write all along, but never had the courage to until now.

I can understand that hesitation, especially after reading the influences that led him to love and eventually write his own mystery book. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Ian Rankin and Peter Robinson were just a few of the names that he listed, but as any mystery lover knows, those are some pretty heavy-hitters! Although Serpents Rising wasn’t written in the same style that these authors are known for, it’s obvious that Poulsen knew enough about the genre to create a decent attempt at what he loved for so long.

9781459721722Serpents Rising is set in Calgary, Alberta which is one of the reasons I picked it up. For some reason, I love reading books set in my own city, and Poulsen clearly enjoyed working within this setting, picking many well-known locations for his plot to unravel in. He also gave the main character Cullen a very Calgary-esque job as a former reporter for the Calgary Herald, now a freelance journalist. All locals know that full-time Calgary Herald writers are hard to come by now, so the narrative was clearly well researched.

Is it necessary for the bad guy to always be a complete surprise to the reader in a mystery? No, I’ve certainly read enough mysteries that don’t contain a twist at the end when revealing the perpetrator. However, I must admit I’m always a bit disappointed when the killer/thief/criminal ends up being someone you suspected earlier on. I won’t include any spoilers here, but I will say that I wasn’t at all surprised when the culprit was revealed. Please surprise me!!! Especially if you’re just beginning the series (the cover of the book says it is a “Cullen and Cobb Mystery”), I’m expecting more to come in the future and I want to be wowed from the very beginning.

Regardless of the final result, the lead-up to the climax was interesting, and kept me reading at a faster pace than usual, so that’s always the sign of  not only a good writer, but a budding mystery writer in the making. I do hope Poulsen continues with this series, as I’d love to see what Cullen and Cobb get up to next. But he needs to step up his game, as the mystery market is crowded as is, and readers need that last little push to pick up one book over the next.

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Defending Us Conductors by Sean Michaels

So, the Giller Prize is upon us. In just a few short days, an author’s life will be changed forever. No, this is not an exaggeration, this IS a life changing prize, especially now that it is worth $100,000 (basically the equivalent of 10 years of working for most Canadian authors, if not more).

But I don’t want this post to be depressing, I want this post to be exciting!!!! On Nov. 10, I’ll be a part of the Giller Light Calgary party, defending the novel Us Conductors by Sean Michaels. I wanted to give you a sneak peek of what I would be discussing at the event, so below is a brief summary of what I thought of the book.

Firstly, it’s important that you understand what a theremin is when reading the book. To demonstrate, I have included a video of the instrument below. This is of course a miniature version of it, because a cat is playing it.

Thank you to “Mr. HarlemTwerk: for posting that video! Granted, theremin’s don’t really look like that; they’re much bigger with no antennae, but you got the point.

Us Conductors is about the Russian inventor Lev Terman who invented the theremin back in the 1920s. He also invented a few others things, most notably some technology that allowed the Soviets to spy on Americans in the 30s, but this book mainly focuses on his love of music, and the effect the theremin had on his early life.

Following an exciting first half of the book that details Terman’s wealth and celebrity-filled time in American, comes a very dark second half of the narrative. Terman is forced back to Russia and shuffled between gulags and various other prisons, basically working as a slave for his country. Similar to concentration camps from WWII, Terman barely survives the inhumane conditions. All in all, from the little I’ve read about Terman’s  life, this story is fairly true to history.

I realize this description of the book has remained fairly unbiased up until now, but I will be making the argument on Monday that Michaels  should win the Giller. Why? Sean Michaels is a great writer. At the very least, this is a requirement to win the richest literary prize in Canada. But he also has phenomenal storytelling skills. The book begins in one genre, and ends as an entirely different one. This abrupt change kept me reading, but Michaels was smart enough to maintain his tone and character development throughout. Because the narrative voice remained consistent throughout the book, the drastic plot change was not jarring or unbelievable to me as a reader.

If the above observations have piqued your interest, come on our to the Giller Light Bash on Monday to celebrate literary merit in Canada. If you don’t live in and around Calgary, make sure to tune in to the Giller Prizes on television, Rick Mercer is hosting!

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Book Review: The Freedom in American Songs by Kathleen Winter

Before I launch into my next book review, I wanted to put up a bit of a disclaimer. The author’s books that I have and will continue to review that were part of my Afternoon Tea event at Wordfest last week will all be receiving positive reviews. I’m not being biased, I just enjoyed them all, so there.

Here she is reading at the wordfest event a few weeks ago

Here she is reading at the wordfest event a few weeks ago

The Freedom in American Songs is a book of short stories. There is a wide variety of perspectives demonstrated throughout, (other than the first couple, those seem to be linked somehow), but this range of voices is what kept me interested. From a gay man still in the closet to a housewife who is struggling to keep a friend’s secret, each character is well-developed, and most of all believable.

Kathleen Winter is probably best-known for her book Annabel, which was nominated for and won numerous Canadian literary prizes a few years ago. I will admit that when I read the first few stories, I was concerned that Tindexhe Freedom in American Songs would read similarly to Annabel: full of nature-based metaphors and not much plot. However, I was pleasantly surprised as I moved through the book, because some stories contained twists, some contained subtle character shifts, and others were just wry observations that made me chuckle to myself as I turned the page. This demonstration of breadth is a true sign of strength in a writer, and I believe that Kathleen is worthy of all the praise she has received in her career.

Not only did Winter publish this collection this year, but she also published a book titled Boundless: Chasing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage, which is a memoir that details her trip to the Northwest Passage.  I know right? Pretty impressive. I try to think of my accomplishments this year, and somehow ‘keeping my cats alive’ and ‘not being fired from my day job’ don’t seem to stack up against publishing two books in one year*.

*yes, I recycled this joke from my hosting remarks at Wordfest, but I still feel entitled to do it, because it was my joke to begin with

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Book Review: Leaving Tomorrow by David Bergen

So as my hosting gig draws closer, I  have quickly realized that I should be getting these reviews up quicker than I have been in the past. In my defense,  I am taking a professional writing class this fall, so the majority of my online creativity is going towards my course work, rather than this blog. Don’t get too concerned about me though, I’m still taking the time to read books, just not as fast as I would like.

This weekend I finished reading David Bergen’s Leaving Tomorrow, and not surprisingly I enjoyed it. Bergen is a beautiful writer, and many of you may be familiar with his work already because he won the Giller Prize in 2005 for his book The Time in Between. Like many avid readers, I cannot remember if I’ve actually read this book or not, which is why I keep a list of what I’ve read in the past for times like this. I’ll have to refer to it later to jog my memory.9781443411387

Anyway, the book focuses on a boy named Arthur, who dreams of living in Paris, becoming a writer, and leading a very romantic life in general. What’s surprising about this story is Arthur’s background. He lives in a very small (fictional) town in Alberta called “Tomorrow”, and he grows up on a ranch, assisting his father with training horses and various other farm duties.

So, with the heart of a poet and the body of a farmer, Arthur moves to Paris for a year to find himself. I know what you’re thinking-this sounds like the beginning of a Harlequin novel. And of course, a follow up movie starring Zac Efron. But it’sbergen-photo not! Bergen is too fine a writer to let his work spiral into something as cliche as that (not that there’s anything wrong with that, the Harlequin publishing model is one of the most successful in the world, fyi).

This novel is more about self-realization and soul-searching than it is about action. I will be the first to admit that nothing much happens throughout the plot, but it’s strength lies not in what happens, but what doesn’t happen. Arthur is a character of dichotomies-both physically and emotionally, and it’s fun to follow him in his French adventures, even if many of them end in despair or loneliness.

I’m not sure I’ve done this book justice in this review, so you best attend Books and Afternoon Tea to hear Bergen read from and speak about this book himself. In the meantime, pick up a copy of Leaving Tomorrow, start reading it before Sunday and bring it with you to the event so he can sign it for you!

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Book Review: The Last Days of the National Costume by Anne Kennedy

I am lucky enough to be hosting a Wordfest event this year, which means I was the giddy recipient of a box of books a few weeks ago.  The festival sends each host a copy of the book(s) that will be included in the event they are managing, so in my case, I was sent six books in total, including The Last Days of the National Costume by Anne Kennedy.

I chose to read this book first because Kennedy is a New Zealand author living in Auckland, and I had some guests staying with me this past weekend who had been living in Auckland for the past four years, so I thought I could ‘get to know their experience a bit better’ by reading some of their literature from down under. Other than a few strange words that I wasn’t used to, it read much like North American literary novels do, which was of course a great relief to me!

Now to the book. This is a scandalous novel. It’s not erotica by any means, but it does delve into the dicey world of extra-marital affairs, lies between couples, and people just being altogether naughty. Have I piqued your interest yet? If that doesn’t sound appealing enough, the narrator and protagonist “GoGo” is an absolute hoot. She’s got fun little quips and observations about everyone around her, and she talks directly to the reader as if you’re also a character in the book, so you really feel like you’re a part of the story, even though you’re only an observer.

If you’re in the Calgary area on Sunday, October 19 you should be making plans to attend Books and Afternoon Tea. What could be better than listening to six different authors from around the world read from and discuss their latest books? Nothing, that’s what. So buy your tickets now!

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Book Review: Riel Street by Colette Maitland

thumb.phpAlthough this book is described as a novel in the press release, I think of it as a book of short stories, as each chapter can easily stand on its own. Taken together, the chapters are not cohesive enough to create one story, but I don’t believe that is a negative thing, each section is a wonderfully detailed look into the Bouchard family, whom I enjoyed getting to know.

Maitland grew up on a variety of army bases, which acted as part of the inspiration to write this book. Riel Street centers on a small military street in Kingston with a cast of characters all eager to gossip about and with each other. Many of the chapters are told from the perspective of one of the four Bouchard children, some are from their mother Shirley’s voice as well.

Shirley is featured prominently throughout the book, and she was by far, my favourite character. Her no-nonsese parenting provided quite a bit of comic relief throughout the story, which I also admired about her. I hope that I when I have children, I can trot out a fraction of the sass that this woman exhibits each and every day. I suspect that her personality is not something that she was born with however, it has come from a lifetime of taking care of others, and is a general product of being over-worked. For instance, her husband was sent overseas for the majority of one of her pregnancies and subsequent birth, all while she was still expected to take care of their other children  and living on a meager budget. How did women do it back then? Although probably not the main intention of authors like Maitland, whenever I read a period piece like this, it always makes me thankful for our modern-day technologies and conveniences.sassy-pants

Some tragedies do occur throughout the stories, but these are all treated with a light hand, never getting bogged down by too much emotion and drama. Some may see this as too cursory a treatment for these kinds of situations in a book, but I simply see this as a realistic depiction of that time period (1960’s). When you have little money and time, there is no room for drama, and this is reflected in Maitland’s stories. Yes, horrible things happen and they affect everyone differently, but for people like Shirley who are just struggling to keep her children healthy, there is no time to dwell on difficulties of others, or even difficulties of your own. You pick yourself back up and move on-just like the military teaches you.

One last observation-men are generally described as lazy and philandering in this book. They drink too much, don’t trust their wives with their cars (if they even allow them to drive them) and could care less about helping out around the house. Is this an accurate description of men on army bases at that time? Who knows? I’m not sure whether this was intentional by Maitland or not. If she doesn’t want to focus in on male characters in her book, she doesn’t have to, and creating a balanced depiction of all people at that time is not the sole responsibility of one fiction writer. So what if she doesn’t focus on any men in her book? Male characters have always been a dime a dozen in literature, lord knows we could do with a small break from them every once in a while (how am I doing with that sass?).

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Book Review: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

I know, I know. It’s been way too long since I’ve posted a review of a book on here. It took me an entire month to finish this last one, which is quite unusual for me, even though the book was 700 pages long. I don’t want you to misinterpret my tardiness for a dislike of it though-in fact I gave it five out of five stars on my goodreads account, so I really did enjoy A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. I knew I would like it before I even opened up the front cover-it’s won numerous literary awards, but has also been chosen as an Oprah’s Book Club pick, so when published, it appealed to all literary snobs and unpretentious book club readers alike. That is the sign of a good book indeed!

The story takes place in India, during the political turmoil of the 1970s. It features four main characters whose lives become entangled throughout the plot. The majority of India’s population had it rough at that time (understatement of the year, I realize), so not surprisingly this book is filled with sadness, misfortune, and disgusting unfairness. Some of these characters seemed to never catch a break, while others succeeded by taking advantage of others, which seemed to add to the balancing act that Mistry creates within the story.rohinton-mistry-giller-all-gillers-584

The genius in Mistry’s writing is found in these comparisons between characters. People who have lived lives of nothing but struggle and destitution are depicted in a humanizing, and compassionate yet realistic way. When sadness touches those that don’t struggle to the same extent, they react differently. However Mistry is not  assigning blame, or placing one person’s efforts above the other-he is simply painting a picture, leaving the reader to form their own opinions. Other than deep distrust of the government and politicians, very few emotions are black and white in this novel.

Moments of joy are simple and fleeting in the narrative, but when you come across them, you learn to savour and enjoy them that much more, just like some of the disenfranchised characters in this book. The horrific things you read about are never easily forgotten, yet the optimistic scenes are a well-earned reward that the reader receives after passing through the terrors that riddle the story. I know how cliche this seems, but Mistry truly teaches you the beauty in everything, which makes those 700 pages well worth the read.

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My Favourite Kids Books

My Dad is coming to visit me here in a few weeks, which always makes me a bit nostalgic for my childhood. Living far apart from my family is hard, so when I have people come to visit, it inevitably brings back memories that I’d forgotten since I moved away from home. Other than relying on family taking pity on me and flying out here to visit, I can also use my childhood books as a way to connect with my past. When you become an avid reader like myself, there’s a good chance that you devoured a ton of books when you were a kid, and I’m no different. Below are a few of my favourite kids books.

The Balloon Tree by Phoebe Gilman is a beautiful book. It’s got a nice (short) story and the pictures are stunning. You may also remember the “Jillian Jiggs” books that featured cute little pigs-this is the same author. And get this: Gilman was not only the author, but the illustrator as well. This author is what people in the publishing industry call a GOLDMINE.I suspect one of the main reasons I liked this book so much as a kid was because it featured a balloon tree that was rainbow, and I had a particularly love of rainbows from the age of 5-13, as I’m sure many young girls did. My friends can attest to this.

Pearl is checking out The Balloon Tree

Pearl is checking out The Balloon Tree

Another favourite book of mine was The Jolly Postman series, by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. There were three books in this series, and they were amazing because each page was its own little envelope that held a letter or small package that the postman was delivering. The Jolly Christmas Postman was great because some of the envelopes contained little puzzles or games that you could play with. Never underestimate the power of an interactive book, it clearly did wonders for my childhood imagination, and is the main reason I’ve saved this book for 25 (plus) years.m is for moose

The last children’s book I wanted to highlight was a very important book to my adulthood-or should I say, the beginnings of it. M is for Moose by Charles Pachter was the first book I worked on as a book publicist. Because it was wildly successful, I was thrown into a world I knew nothing about, but immediately loved. A world of television shoots, radio shows, cold-calling producers and pitching to crotchety book reviewers was something I will never forget, and I have Cormorant Books to thank for this trial by fire introduction into the Canadian book publishing industry. Pachter was also a lovely author to work with, and I’ll never forget his generosity and humor. So in closing-the point of this post? Turns out kids books aren’t just for kids!

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