Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust is another Flavia de Luce masterpiece by the prolific and always humble Alan Bradley: a Canadian author that we are all too proud to call our own. I think it’s safe to begin comparing Bradley to Alexander McCall Smith now; both create wonderful mystery novels with enduri0345539931ng female detectives that readers can’t seem to get enough of. I enthusiastically count myself as one of these people-as soon as I see a new Bradley book come out, I try to get my hands on it as quickly as possible.

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust opens up a whole new world for Flavia who is ‘banished’ to an all-female boarding school in Toronto, Canada. For a twelve-year old girl used to being in small town England, this is of course a big deal. She takes it all in stride though (as she typically does) and finds herself knee-deep into another mystery, as a dead body drops down the chimney of the fireplace in her room. As always, Flavia’s incredible knowledge of chemicals and insatiable appetite for solving mysteries is indulged as she forces her way into the upper echelons of the school, getting to the bottom of the this very strange occurrence. She also develops a strange habit of standing on her head to help her think, which I don’t recall from her earlier books, but it’s been about a year since I read the last book, so I could have simply forgotten. I know it sounds like I’m talking about her as if she’s a real person and not just a character in a book, but I’ve actually begun to think of Flavia as real-this is how good Bradley’s writing is.

It will come as no surprise that this series has been optioned for television, although I sincerely hope that I never see the actual fruition of this project. Why? Because I like imagining Flavia as she is in the books, and no matter how good the production is, it will indefinitely alter the way I see and read future books in the series. I’m much too protective of this character, and the act of bringing her to life is much too precious to leave to anyone but Bradley himself.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading one of these books yet, for god’s sakes go out and do so. Do yourself a favour, and enter the world of Flavia de Luce-you will not be disappointed!

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Book Review: Landing Gear by Kate Pullinger

So, Landing Gear by Kate Pullinger has a really interesting premise: a man drops out of the sky, onto the roof of a woman’s car in a grocery store parking lot. He doesn’t just drop out of the sky magically, he’s actually falling from the landing gear of a plane, which he was stowed away in to escape his life in Pakistan. Surprisingly, this isn’t even the main storyline in the book, although the ‘falling man’ Yacub does trigger a few extra plot lines.9780385681209-678x1024

At the center of the book is Harriet, a middle-aged Mom who finds herself at a crossroads. We’re first introduced to her as she begins to take on more responsibility at work, returning to her ‘pre-baby’ career path. However, secret circumstances which are referenced throughout the book but never fully explained until the end get in the way of this plan, and she finds herself unemployed at the same time this man drops onto the roof of her car. Changes are also happening in the lives of her only son Jack, and her predictable husband Michael. It’s this family life in turmoil that Yacub literally, falls into.

I will admit that I found Yacub’s story the most interesting, and I wish Pullinger focused on it a bit more than she did. He leaves a very physically tumultuous environment for a more subdued, yet emotionally tumultuous situation, and his past is dealt with in snippets. He remains an outsider of not only the other characters, but for the reader as well, and together, we are all desperate to learn more about him. I assume this was a tactic used by the author to help us focus back on the family, so we aren’t distracted by the action-packed aspects of Yacub’s previous life.

Pullinger thalso deals with the ‘falling’ scene quite brilliantly, re-visiting it a few times, from different angles. She staggers the sentences and perspectives on the page, as they relate to the different characters, creating literal steps of text that the reader must follow to complete the scene. It’s quite fun to read, and gave me the sense of ‘falling’ down the page. This technique is something I haven’t seen much of in my reading, and I assume it comes from Pullinger’s expertise in digital fiction.

I should mention that a little bit of suspension of disbelief is required in this book, , as many people come very close to dying, but miraculously don’t. In comparison, some deaths seem to come about very quickly, with every little warning or reason, but this is the world that Pullinger asks us to inhabit for the duration of the novel, and I was more than happy to oblige.

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Book Review: The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

I succeeded in something that very few others in this world have: I read the entire novel The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith without realizing that Robert Galbraith was a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling. Yes, I realize how impossible this feat seems to be, but I accomplished it, mainly through my inattention to detail and the fact that I never actually the read author biography on the back flap of the book. So, once I finished reading it, I read through the acknowledgements (which still didn’t tip me off), and then finally the bio on the very last page. Turns out this obscure mystery author that I naively thought I had ‘discovered’ turned out to be one of the most famous authors on the planet.Memorable characters … JK Rowling, AKA Robert Galbraith.

Even more embarrassing was I told a friend of mine that I’d just started reading a book by this great new author Robert Galbraith. I’d like to think that he thought I was being ironic, but he most likely assumed I was a) joking or b) an idiot. But really, my oversight has turned out to be a good thing, because I was able to read this book without any preconceptions, which based on some of the reviews that I’ve read of The Silkworm, other people wished they were able to do. If I had known throughout that the author was J.K. Rowling, I would have seen the book in an entirely different light, most likely comparing it to the Harry Potter series with every twist and turn.th

The main reason I liked this book was because it focused on a murder in the publishing world of London, and any book that focuses on publishing is of immediate interest to me because of my previous involvement in the industry. There’s some great characters too, ones who act as a mouthpiece for what many people in publishing have always wanted to say out loud (i.e. the agent who laments the  amount of crappy writing that gets sent to her, the publisher who wishes for more readers and less writers, etc.). It also does a great job of mocking writers, who are always ripe for some fun character descriptions; the murder victim is a pompous writer who wears a cape and expects everyone to worship him like the genius he believes he is.

But of course there’s a dark side to everything and everyone, which Galbraith/Rowling does a great job of involving the reader in. The detective Cormoran Strike is clever and of course flawed, but he’s someone I didn’t get tired of reading about, and his first person narrative kept the plot moving in the right direction. Towards the end of the book he ‘figures out’ who the murderer is, but keeps the reader in suspense until the last few pages, which was a technique I appreciated, because it helped build suspense. The book also ends quickly, almost right after the murder is solved, which I always prefer. They do this in the movies for a reason-because people stop caring as much afterwards, and it should be the same in books as well, although less skilled writers may draw out this conclusion more than necessary.

So, I’ve broken the spell of Robert Galbraith, but you should still read this book, even if visions of Hogwarts come sneaking into the back of your mind every once in a while.

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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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