Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: In Another Country, Selected Stories by David Constantine

I had never heard of David Constantine before I picked up this book, but after I had quickly scanned his bio on the inside cover of In Another Country, I realized what I was missing. He’s kind of a big deal, being nominated for many different prizes, and according to his Canadian publisher Biblioasis, he is “regarded as one of  the greatest living short story writers in the United Kingdom”. Who knew? Clearly I didn’t, so I dove right into this collection with high expectations.download (3)

This book of short stories brings together the best of Constantine’s work from the past three decades, so anyone new to his writing will get a good sampling of what he’s about. Personally, I felt as though many of the stories blended into the next, because of the similar content. The more I reflect back on what I read, I believe I felt this way because of the significant representation of nature throughout the book. Although each character was very different, the outdoors/the environment played a huge role in each narrative, usually affecting the plot or characters directly.

constantineThe longest story (and in my opinion, the one that dragged on a bit too long) was “An Island”, which appeared as diary entries from one man to a past lover. The protagonist  lands on a very isolated island, strongly affected by the scenery, and only somewhat by the people around him. Not a great deal happens in the story, and the reader is never given a very clear idea of the past and future of this strange man; we are forced to live in the moment alongside him, desperate to leave this island setting yet unclear as to where we would go after that.

Not all the stories had lone characters in the wild though, for instance “The Mermaid” details the mundane routine between an aging couple, and their unspoken battle that plays out over a few months; same with “Strong Enough to Help”, which describes an encounter between an older man who is obsessed with poetry, and the door-to-door interviewer tasked with understanding his preferred social activities. Overall, Constantine relies on detailed descriptions of each character’s environment to bring the reader along on the journey, which is something that many readers enjoy, although I must say, I did not. There wasn’t enough meat to the stories: not enough content to warrant such flowery descriptions. That being said, he is a very skilled and subtle writer, never did I feel as though his metaphors were silly, or overwrought. He is a poet after all, so if you’re into that kind of stuff, give him a try.

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Book Review: Wake the Stone Man by Carol McDougall

When I picked up this book from my shelf, I immediately noticed the seal on the front announcing it had won the “Beacon Award for Social Justice Literature”. Not exactly an exciting call to action, because who wants to read a book about social justice in the dead of summer? But I had promised to review it, so I reluctantly picked up Wake the Stone Man and started reading it. I finished it in just a few  days, and I still find myself thinking back to it and the characters even as I’m on to my next book. Needless to say, it had a profound affect on me.

downloadAs the above paragraph suggests, the topic was not light: two young girls grow up together within tragic and unfortunate circumstances. One is a residential school and foster care survivor while the other loses her parents in a car accident at Christmas (that’s sort of a spoiler alert, my bad). Anyway, situations are dire, and both struggle in different ways. But there is light at the end of the tunnel: a common theme throughout is redemption through art, and the way it can clarify our emotions, rather than complicate them. This is an aspect to the narrative I really enjoyed, and found easy to relate to, as many book lovers would, I’m sure.

So despite the difficult subject matter, what made this book so likeable? It’s certainly not cliche, far from it I would argue. I found the juxtaposition between the problems of such different women very unique. Yes, the story is about the tragic echoes of the residential school experience, download (1)which many authors are beginning to explore more and more. But McDougall takes it one step further, forcing us to examine the impact of this abuse on not only the Aboriginal kids who were forced into it, but also on the kids on the outside, looking in. In the author note, McDougall explains that she was one of those kids, standing on the outside of those gates, looking in. She transfers this memory to the protagonist of the story, Molly. Doubtless, many people (people not that old, in their 40s and 50s most likely!) will have experienced something similar if they lived in these areas. Like a haunted house, outsiders were curious about these schools, but avoided speaking about them, because the truth was typically too scary to imagine. Now that the truth is out, many are horrified at what they lived next to all those years ago.

One area McDougall could have given a bit more thought to would be the dialogue in the book. Sometimes it didn’t ring true, in fact, it was jarring at some points. The slang used within some of the conversations and Molly’s inner dialogue seemed very out of character and could have used a bit more editing before being printed. That being said, I’m reviewing an advanced reading copy, so perhaps some of this was changed before it was published.

But a couple of misplaced curse words are no reason to pass up this book. I won’t say it’s an important book to read, because this typically scares people off. So I’ll just say it’s worth your time, and then some.

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Book Review: Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg

Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg is based on the life of Mazie Phillips, an out-spoken, big-hearted woman who lived through The Great Depression, helping those less fortunate in any way she could. Although she is referred to as a ‘celebrity’ in many places, not much is known about her, which is why this book felt like it was missing something for me.

Attenberg tells the story in a very unique way, including snippets of Mazie’s long-lost diary alongside people’s first hand accounts of their run-ins with Mazie. She also weaves in minor story lines of the people who discovered her diary years later, so there is no shortage of characters or perspectives in this book. The way the story is told is quite brilliant actually, it doesn’t give everything away, expertly creating the mystery around this woman while drawing the reader in with each entry, leaving us wanting more.download

Saint Mazie focuses in on a few decades of Phillips’s life, presumably the ones that people know most about. After moving in with her older sister and husband as a young child, Mazie turns into a rambunctious teenager and young woman, going against what is typically expected of women at the time. In fact, I see her character as a young Carrie Bradshaw, playing out an old-fashioned version of Sex in the City. Mazie loves the streets of New York City, even more so than the numerous men she befriends during her late nights partying.

The dialogue is witty, and as mentioned before, the various perspectives are a nice change from the typical historical fiction I read, but I do wish there was more to the book as a whole. Perhaps my critique is unfair: Attenberg may have intentionally left big gaps in the narrative on purpose, as there is little known about Mazie. But I can’t help but think that more information or plot was needed to round out the story.  It feels as though a chunk of the narrative is missing; even if no resolution is possible or known, there needed to be more to make this a satisfying read.

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Book Review: The Incarnations by Susan Barker

This is one of the best, if not the best book I have read so far this year. Bold statement I know, but The Incarnations by Susan Barker is worth the praise. So why did I like it? There are so many reasons why, I have to put them in bullet form:

  • It’s got a bunch of mini, well-told, and well-developed stories within the main narrativedownload (1)
  • The numerous characters are colorful, flawed, and so interesting to read about
  • Many of the situations are painfully emotional, and very well written without being melodramatic
  • There is a deep-seeded mystery being developed between each plot line that ends in a satisfying way
  • It’s an incredibly unique story, and considering the thousands of books being published each year, this is no small feat!

When you read the amount of books I do, you develop a deep respect and reverence for a book that is truly ‘different’. “Oh, a story about an enigmatic young woman, I’ve been dying to read one of these” said no one ever. Honestly, life is ripe with a million untold tales, there just needs to be someone creative and insightful enough to pick up on this, and turn it into an enjoyable book to read. Barker has done just that with this book, her third novel. I loved it so much I wished she was Canadian, because I wanted to claim this as our own.

Now I should warn you, there are some very violent, and terrible happenings in this story. But it covers a good chunk of Chinese history, so there’s got to be some blood and gore to stay true to life! Personally, I’ve never been one to shy away from this sort of thing (crazy cat ladies like myself need their action from somewhere) but just keep this in mind before you pick up The Incarnations, it’s not for the faint of heart but you’d be missing out BIG TIME if you skipped it.

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Book Review: Where did you Sleep Last Night by Lynn Crosbie

Okay, Lynn Crosbie scares me a bit, and not for the reasons you think. The stuff she writes is a bit strange, always has been, and yet I’m drawn to her work like a cat to an open box (see below). I discovered her back in university during my Canadian Poetry class with the amazing Carolyn Smart (another great poet). At that time I read Crosbie’s poetry collection Paul’s Case, based on the Paul Bernardo case from the 90s. Anyone who lives in Ontario will know what I’m talking about. Anyway, this was a controversial book, very disturbing, but after studying it so closely I’ve been following Crosbie’s writing ever since.cat-trapslynncrosbie

Her latest, Where Did You Sleep Last Night has an interesting premise: Evelyn tries to commit suicide, and wakes up in the hospital beside a man (Celine) who is basically a reincarnated Kurt Cobain. He looks like him, talks like him, and creates music just like him. Together, they become famous musicians, and the reader follows along their path to fame, their spiral into drug-induced episodes, and the constant highs and lows of their relationship. Both Evelyn and Celine are on drugs for the majority of the novel, so you’re never quite sure if what you’re reading is actually happening, or if it’s just a hallucination or exaggeration, but either way, it’s beautifully written and described.Where Did You Sleep Last Night by Lynn Crosbie.  No Credit

I’ve included a few samplings of her writing below, to give you an idea of what you’ll find in the book:

“a sweater that has unravelled into a river of cream” (p. 8)

“books and magazines stacked everywhere with paper tongues panting from each”(p. 15)

“and he carved our names on the bridge as my scarf unwound and fainted beneath us,landing like a vein in the stones” (p. 120)

A novel written by a poet is always a joy to read, the metaphors they employ are like no other, and instead of devouring the pages like I normally do, I’m forced to stop and savour the words as they come. When drugs are being consistently consumed by the characters throughout the book, the narrative becomes even more fanciful, creating the perfect opportunity to describe extraordinary, frivolous, and sometimes downright disturbing images for the reader. However, this is how Crosbie writes, and what people have come to expect of her. She has not disappointed with this latest book.

A lot happens in these pages, although similar to someone on a high (not that I would know first hand!), you skim over these situations without even realizing they’ve happened. In fact, when I would put the book down to go do something else, I would have to sit and clear my thoughts for a bit, my mind feeling a bit muddied after what I had just read. Because (I’m assuming) Crosbie has done this on purpose, I see this a strength of the writing, not a drawback. So are ya ready to get freaky? Time to pick up this book.

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Book Review: The Mountain Story by Lori Lansens

I read this book, and then climbed a (very small) mountain with my family. Nothing makes a survival story quite so real until you put yourself in the situation that’s being described in the story you just finished! Luckily, we made it off the trail alive, unscathed, and in very good spirits, but I can’t say the same for the characters in Lori Lansens‘ latest, The Mountain Story.a12701b2ec1f2e4f438a81184d731fc8-e1429041224310

Many people loved this book, and I can easily see why. It’s a plot that is filled with both suspense and emotion: a literary adventure, if there ever was one. But a book about a mountain hike gone wrong has even more appeal to someone who is used to (not quite comfortable with) being on mountains for both skiing and hiking. Mountains, even small ones are majestic, and when I first moved to Alberta, I vividly remember getting sweaty palms just driving past them on my way into Banff. Like Mother Nature herself, mountains are beautiful, but have the power to destroy you. They are not forgiving; the slip of a rock, the passing over of a storm, the dislodgement of a piece of snow can easily mean death for a human, and unfortunately, many mountain enthusiasts are killed each and every year, even the most experienced. Mountains are not discerning, they choose their victims at random, no matter who you are.

Mount San Jacinto-the inspiration for the fictional mountain in the story

Mount San Jacinto-the inspiration for the fictional mountain in the story

Ok that sounds very ominous, but I feel this way because I respect and admire mountains, which the characters in this book do as well. Wolf, the protagonist finds himself ready to jump to his death off the very same mountain that his friend Byrd fell from just a year before. But instead, he comes across some inexperienced hikers who have lost their way. Taking pity on them, he tries to lead them to where they are going, but instead they become lost, and stranded on the mountain for five days. Based on the size of the mountain described, this would have been very easy to do, so the plot is easily believable, and I’m sure many people can relate.

What makes this book so interesting is the fact that Lansens interrupts the survival story with flashbacks of Wolf’s childhood (which is also quite harrowing, and in some ways, more horrific than what he’s experiencing in the present day). So, although you’re eager to get back to the mountain, you read the justifications for Wolf’s suicidal mission, slowly understanding and sympathizing with his situation, present and past. Obviously Lansens is a skilled writer if she’s able to take the reader away from a mountain disaster, to something not as life threatening but just as absorbing. So take a big breath of courage and pick up this book before a hike (or if you’re a nervous hiker like me, perhaps after would be better). You won’t be disappointed.

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Book Review: The Royal We by Heather Cocks & Jessica Morgan

This book is written by two bloggers. They may have co-authored The Royal We, but Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan are best known for their successful celebrity style blog Go Fug Yourself. I had never heard of this blog, but that doesn’t say much, because I don’t follow fashion (especially now that I can’t fit into my old skinny jeans from my pre-baby days). You can probably guess that this book isn’t a serious literary novel, but I still enjoyed it, especially because it’s summertime, which is the perfect (and only time) I will read ‘chick-lit’ and not feel guilty. This is the season this genre was created for! download

Although the protagonists’ names are Nick and Rebecca, I quickly realized this was a book loosely based on Prince William and Kate Middleton’s romance, very loosely based: it’s a fun re-imagining of what their courtship might have been, with some twists thrown in for good measure (and to avoid any libel suits, I’m sure). Rebecca, or “Bex” is an old-fashioned American girl. She comes from a wealthy family who made their money in couches, and she’s a tomboy through and through. She literally stumbles into the path of the King-to-be, and they quickly find themselves falling deeply in love with each other, despite the difficulties of romancing a royal.

I didn’t have any jaw-dropping revelations while reading this, but I did thoroughly enjoy it, and I laughed out loud quite a bit, the dialogue in particular is hilarious. I suspect this wouldn’t be surprising to anyone who regularly follows Go Fug Yourself, Cocks and Morgan are obviously a funny pair, and have translated this charisma into a successful novel. The publicist for this book called it ‘good frothy fun’, and I couldn’t agree more.

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Book Review: In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

So, I saw that Judy Blume had a new book coming, and of course I jumped at the chance to review it. Who wouldn’t? It’s Judy Freaking Blume! I didn’t read the premise of the book at all, hell I didn’t even look at the cover. I just said “Yes, please send it to me”. And then, I saw it on my to-read shelf at home, and immediately took it off my bookshelf thinking “Yes, it will be great to finish this book before I go on my trip home, because it’s hardcover, and I don’t want to pack it in my luggage, and I really want to read it now, so I’ll just crack it open today!” I didn’t even clue into the fact that the book was about plane crashes until I started reading the first page. Geez, do I have terrible timing or what?

No one likes reading about terrible senseless tragedies like plane crashes, especially because flying is something many people do numerous times a year. People who are nervous fliers like me? They definitely don’t like reading about plane crashes, and yet Judy Blume has written about plane crashes, and it’s her first book in a long time, so you can see the conundrum I was in. Not wanting fear to control my life, and/or my reading choices, I soldiered on through In the Unlikely Event, even though I’m a nervous flier, and  hopping on a plane in a few days. I wanted to include this long introduction to my review to make it clear that I am commenting on this book as a nervous flier, so keep that in mind.

The book starts off with a very nervous woman about to board a plane, and then jumps back thirty five years before that to describe the fateful year that is responsible for this woman’s anxiety. Based on true events, there were three plane crashes in Elizabeth New Jersey over a three month period, which Judy Blume experienced herself, as she grew up in Elizabeth. Miri, the protagonist is the woman who we follow back into her childhood to experience this terrible year firsthand. download

My love of Miri is what kept me turning the pages of this book. This is the power of a Judy Blume book. I was reading about literally my worst nightmare, but I was still able to enjoy the story, and felt better, not worse about flying once I finished it. To Blume’s credit, she describes flights that are perfectly safe alongside the tragic ones, which seemed to alleviate my anxiety quite a bit. But the characters themselves are what kept me going back. Miri is such a well developed character, I felt like she was a real person that I could know, or relate to in my own life. Her thoughts, emotions and actions did not always reflect one another, which made her such an interesting, and believable person. Blume excels at drawing us into the lives of people that we are introduced to in only a few pages before they perish in a crash. And yet, although we’ve only known them for a few paragraphs, we mourn them just like their fictional families and friends.

The only problem I did have with the book was the number of characters introduced. I would have liked to have gotten to know a few of them better, and I lost track of similar-sounding names a few times. Some may say that’s the fault of the reader and not the author, but I hate when too many people are needlessly described, it can take away from the impact of the other, more important central characters.

Anyway, this book is well worth the read. Plane lovers should rush out and buy it in the hardcover. Nervous nellies like myself can wait for the paperback.

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Book Review: The Half Brother by Holly LeCraw

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

Pearl enjoyed this book just as much as I did

Pearl enjoyed this book just as much as I did

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

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

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Book Review: Time Will Say Nothing by Ramin Jahanbegloo

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

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

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

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

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

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