Category Archives: Book Reviews

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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Book Review: A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

A spacious, well-made house with a wrap-around porch full of family and laughter. This is the idyllic setting of Anne Tyler‘s latest, A Spool of Blue Thread. I know I’m not the only one who has pined over a house with a huge porch and shiny swing where people congregate and socialize; apparently, I share this characteristic with the patriarch of the Whitshank Family: Junior. But more about him later.

The narrative revolves around the Whitshank family, and their everyday family issues. Spoiler alert: nothing is extraordinary about this family, so if you’re look for a thriller, this is not the book for you. However, I don’t always want a plot-driven book, and Tyler is adept at creating characters and situations that make you want to turn the page, even if that situation is a simple family argument around the dinner table. Think I’m the only one that feels this way? Apparently I’m not, because Anne Tyler is a bestselling author who has also won the Pulitzer Prize; not too shabby I would say!

So back to Junior. He’s mentioned at the very beginning of the book in passing while the family tree is being described, but we don’t hear from him directly until half way through the book in a flashback. It may seem a bit abrupt to some, but we begin knee-deep into the lives of the present family, and then half way through the book are whisked back to a ‘simpler time’ that explains the origins of this famous Whitshank house and it’s builder, Junior.download (1)

The story of Junior and his wife getting together is fraught with controversy: he was in his 20s, she was only 13 when they met and began a physical relationship together. However, from Junior’s point of view, he was reluctantly dragged into the marriage, and his wife’s point of view is much different; she believes they had a fairy tale romance like Romeo and Juliet. This clash of perspectives is what makes up much of the conflict in the book, and what I personally found most interesting. Every family appears one way to outsiders, and is of course very different to the people who are actually a part of that family. From the outside, the Whitshank family seems perfect, yet Tyler is able to reveal a more realistic side of these people without falling into the cliche, or the unbelievable. This is a book about life as we experience it here in North America, the ups and downs we have all been through and understand all too well when we read about it in a fictional context such as this.

What I most enjoyed about this book was recognizing myself and my family in these pages: the conversations we have with each other and ourselves, as well as the things left unsaid. If you’re ready for a trip down memory lane, prepare yourself a nice cup of tea and settle in with A Spool of Blue Thread, you won’t be disappointed.

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Book Review: God Telling a Joke and Other Stories by Dave Margoshes

I love reading short stories. I seem to flip through them faster than a novel, simply because it it forces you to reach the end of one story before you put your bookmark in. I also find (and I know I’ve said this before) that they’re typically better written than novels, because the writer has such a limited space in which to make their point, so the sentences are stronger and more succinct. Additionally, writers typically submit their short stories to literary journals before they compile them into a book, so each piece is typically re-worked a few times before it makes it into the final collection. I know this is a painfully obvious remark to make, but I’ll say it anyway; when you’re enjoying a book, it’s much more difficult to put down.

margoshes-god_telling_a_joke-cover-dd02-smallDave Margoshes‘s God Telling a Joke and Other Stories is no exception to what I’ve outlined above. Each story in this volume is tight, to the point, and enjoyable to read. Margoshes also demonstrates a wide range of perspectives, which only increases the joy of reading his short stories. The book starts off slow with a story called “Desert Isle or The Compunction of Narrative” which I didn’t really like, or understand. It came across as a more self-congratulatory story about writing and authorship more than anything, and it left a sour taste in my mouth. The last story of the collection “God Telling a Joke” was my favourite by far; it was laugh-out-loud hilarious but still included a well developed narrative and protagonist.

So some stories were much stronger than others, which is common when stories are grouped together like this in one book. Margoshes could have benefitted from cutting a few from this collection, which is a kindness to the reader because it recognizes that not all pieces were ready to be published. Having very strong stories next to weak ones is not a huge problem, however it does create an unbalanced read, leaving me with mixed feelings about the book in general. That being said, I stand by my initial statement that this is a strong book, because Margoshes is a good writer who knows his stuff. At the same time, I think his editor should have insisted upon a few more re-writes before some of these stories were included, which would have taken this book from a 7/10 to a 9/10.

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Book Review: Delicious Foods by James Hannaham

Delicious Foods: what a wonderful sounding title! Before I read the first page, I imagined this book would be full of tantalizing recipes and cooking stories mixed into a heart-warming tale of family drama. In reality, the story is nothing like this, but what I do want to stress is that the book is better than what I imagined, even if it’s far from feel-good.

Addiction plays a major role in the plotline, in fact, one of the three central characters is crack cocaine, otherwise known as “Scotty”. A major chunk of the story is told from the perspective of this drug, which is given human qualities. Like the poor souls who are addicted to the substance, we see and hear from this chemical as if it’s a cool guy who only has his friends’ best interests at heart. The other two characters are Darlene, the woman who falls into the addiction, and her son Eddie, the person (arguably) who is most hurt by “Scotty”.e5274e27e60d0912539396bb87833d96-w204@1x

Delicious Foods is the name of a farm that Darlene is tricked into working for, where others like her are given easy access to crack, but basically treated as slaves and held against their will forced to do hard labour while there. What’s scarier than this premise is the suggestion that these farms still exist today, holding people in similar situations captive (or close to it) by taking advantage of their addictions and poverty. I eat a lot of produce, which forced me to beg the question: did the hands that pick my food also find themselves trapped the way Darlene and Eddie did? It could be naive of me to think that modern day slavery does not exist in North America (perhaps in third world countries it would seem more believable, of course no less terrible), but after reading something like Delicious Foods, I fear that we are turning a blind eye to this terrible industry right in our own back yard. If you watch the embedded video, you will see this was Hannaham‘s intent!

What I found even more painful than the evil farm and its handlers was Darlene’s mistreatment of her only son. Now that I’m a mother, even the slightest bit of child neglect is especially painful for me to read about. Her addiction to crack was fueled by the early loss of her husband, but even then, I still blamed her. Eddie spends his evenings searching for his mother on the streets late at night, talking to homeless people, prostitutes, and drug dealers in an attempt to find her. He is luckily (and unluckily) lead to her on the farm, at Delicious Foods, where he is submitted to the same kind of torture she is. The only difference between him and her is the crack: Eddie does not take it, therefore he is the most clearheaded one on the farm, as most of the workers are addicted to at least one substance, which is why they are there.

So as you can tell, this book is full of tragedy, although it isn’t all doom and gloom. There is a fairly redemptive ending to look forward to, and the story line is quite good, so it’s worth the read for sure.

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Book Review: Flying Time by Suzanne North

I absolutely adored this book. I wasn’t sure I would, because it appeared as though it would be a war-time novel bogged down with historical details (which I don’t particularly enjoy), but instead, Flying Time turned out to be a coming-of-age story that I couldn’t put down.

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The book is written from the perspective of an aging woman in an recovery home for old-folks, tasked with writing her memoirs (or parts of it) by an enthusiastic writing instructor. As many people do of that generation, she had quite the story to tell, because her youthful years were punctuated by experiences of the war, which not surprisingly were quite exciting.flyingtime

As a typist in downtown Calgary, Kay becomes a personal assistant to Hero Miyashita, the only Japanese businessman in town. Enduring racial slurs are something of an every-day occurrence for him, but despite these hardships he is extremely successful, a very kind gentleman, and a generous employer. Kay enjoys a close relationship with him and his wife as she introduces them to her life in Calgary, a very different one that they experience tucked away in the wealthy area of Mount Royal. Although the depression is subsiding and war is looming, Kay’s family enjoys a close-knit relationship that they welcome the Miyashita’s into, and in turn, Kay is given the very rare opportunity of traveling overseas (first class) to complete a task on behalf of Mr. Miyashita.

The characters hold the true appeal in this narrative. Kay is boisterous in her old age, offering the reader humorous glimpses into her current life at Foothills Sunset, which she seems to handle with grace and ease. These funny asides punctuate her re-telling of her war-time experiences, which complement the overall arc of the narrative quite well. The Miyashitas are also well-developed anchors to the story, and you can’t help but get caught up in their lives as they navigate the Calgary of the 1930s and 1940s. I’m always a fan of books that take place locally, so I must admit that this also endeared me to the book (although surprisingly, the author no longer lives in Calgary, and Flying Time was up for the Saskatoon Book Award, so go figure). I should also note that North’s personal website features a picture of the Calgary skyline, so she obviously harbors an undying love for her hometown, even though she currently lives in Saskatchewan.

Another sign that North is a strong writer? Her book focuses on the time before the war broke out, and the effects of the lead-up on the characters, rather than the fairly obvious (and easy to write about) affect that the ACTUAL war had on the characters. The majority of the book dwells on the simple yet powerful moments that happen in between the exciting parts of one’s life, which I can appreciate as a reader. It’s easy to write about a major, life-altering occurrence, but North stretches her powerful writing muscles in describing the quiet moments that make up the majority of our lives, highlighting their often overlooked importance.

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Book Review: Welcome to the Circus by Rhonda Douglas

Short stories! What a refreshing change from the every day novel that we so typically read, and what’s even better, you can pick it up and put it down without feeling guilty. So, basically, they are perfect for parents with newborns, whose moods can change between page turns!

downloadI don’t just love Rhonda Douglas‘s collection simply because they are stories: they are also fun. Whimsical is probably the perfect word for Welcome to the Circus, her first book of short stories. What do you think of, when the word circus comes up? For me, a ‘collection of oddities’ is a phrase that comes to mind immediately, and the premises that make up these stories is a perfect example of that. Some of the characters find themselves in very realistic situations (a teenage boy who cuts himself for instance), while others struggle with situations we wouldn’t necessarily find in the every day: a woman who works at a museum is charged with taking care of a living neanderthal that was unearthed near Drumheller while the exhibit space is prepared for him to move into. As you can see, there is a wide variety of themes going on here, which is another reason why I enjoyed this book. welcome-to-the-circus

The wide range of genres demonstrated in Douglas’s writing is a great testament to her talent. Not everyone can include fantastical elements in an otherwise down-to-earth collection, but she does it seamlessly without any abrupt suspension of disbelief. I’ve found that other cultures do this quite well (Mexican writers in particular do this quite often, which is known as magic realism), but Douglas takes this a step further, and weaves these elements into her tales without the reader even noticing. So, one step further than magic realism, I would argue.

I’ve read a lot of short story collections because I truly enjoy them, and believe they don’t get the recognition they deserve. But Welcome to the Circus is unique because it includes so many different elements: humor, fantasy, sex, empathy, and mystery. “La Republique de France v. Mata Hari” in particular is an important story to mention. It essentially describes and quotes a correspondence between the famous Mata Hari, and a man who was married to another woman, as told by the man’s son. A fascinating piece of history to be sure, but what makes it more interesting is the way it’s told in epistolary format.

So as you can see, Douglas employs a whole bag of tricks here to keep her readers reading, and it works!

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