Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: Long Change by Don Gillmor

I live in Calgary, my husband and his family work in the oil and gas industry, and I read books. Clearly, Long Change was written for me. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I’ve never read a book by Don Gillmor before, and I really should have, in fact his last book Mount Pleasant sounds really interesting, so I’m going to be picking that up shortly too. After reading his latest book that focuses on the fictitious (but very realistic and believable) oil man Ritt Devlin, I’ve been converted-I am now a Gillmor believer! He is well known in Alberta, he’s frequently found at the Banff Centre teaching, and his writing is prolific and  varied; children’s books, magazine articles and books of non-fiction all make up his impressive writing CV. So it’s no surprise the writing in Long Change was absorbing and informative, all at the same time.

Don GillmorAs mentioned above, Long Change is a meditation on oil; how it controls people, economies, and of course politics. With the all-time lows of  oil prices, this book is particularly relevant. I doubt this was done intentionally, but reading it was actually quite comforting, because it reminded me of the fluency of oil prices, and its direct affect on Calgary. There have been crashes in oil prices in the past, and yet everything seems to right itself again when it comes to the economy. What’s left in pieces is us; the lengths we went to to protect ourselves during the crash, and the scars that are left from our desperation while things looked bleak.Long change

But enough about the economy; Ritt is a wonderful, steadfast man who we enjoy reading about, seeing the world through his eyes. Although he becomes involved with unsavoury people, and turns the other way when he suspects foul play, we still believe he is at his core, a good man. I’m not sure if every reader felt the same way about him as I did. Although he does bad things (sometimes accidentally), I still feel immense compassion for him.

Gillmor endears him to us by giving Ritt’s love life the same amount of attention as his working life. As a young man, Ritt he meets his soulmate Oda, who dies tragically young. He then goes through two more women, both never being able to live up to Oda’s legacy, but he tries desperately to love them the same way. Gillmor uses this contrast well; in business, Ritt is optimistic and driven, building a company all his own, but in love, he flounders, struggling to be happy but never able to successfully recreate what he lost all those years ago. The significant attention to Ritt’s romantic turmoil was surprising to me, because I thought a very masculine book such as this would downplay all types of ‘feelings’. However, this unique perspective is what makes Gillmor’s writing so satisfying; he truly keeps the reader’s experience in mind throughout the whole story. He’s done a wonderful job of demonstrating the human side to ‘big oil’, so there is no better time than now to pick up this book.





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Continuing the Conversation with Donna Bailey Nurse and Marina Endicott

A few days ago, I received a lovely email from Donna Bailey Nurse regarding my book review of Marina Endicott’s Close to Hugh. Like myself, she was disappointed it didn’t make the Giller shortlist, but she also wanted to share with me downloada wonderful piece she did on Endicott for the literary magazine Black Iris.  For those of you who read and enjoyed the book, or for those of you who simply can’t get enough of Endicott, you can find the profile on this wonderful Alberta author here. 

Nurse makes an extremely poignant observation about Endicott’s writing that really rang true for me in this piece; she points out that Endicott has incredible compassion for her characters, and that she treats them much the same way as Anne Tyler or Carol Shields does. Having just read Anne Tyler for the first time a few months ago, I couldn’t agree more!

For those of you who aren’t familiar with her, Donna Bailey Nurse is a very well-established writer in her own right, and I’m a big fan of her book reviews. So make sure to check out Black Iris for some more bookish writing.


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Book Review: One Night, Markovitch by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

Not bad for a first novel, not bad at all: that was my overall impression of One Night, Markovitch by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen. It’s part of  House of Anansi’s foreign fiction imprint Anansi International, and was translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston.

Smokey taking a rest beside her next read

Smokey taking a rest beside her next read

Translations are never the most glamorous of books; many people shy away from them, the same way popular culture doesn’t embrace movies with subtitles. But for those of us who are feeling adventurous (or perhaps, just a bit more open-minded than others), translations offer us something special. They not only give us a glimpse of life in another country, but they introduce us to new styles of writing, and if the translation is done well, they immerse us in a different world with a subtle shift in storytelling style.

I tend to go a little easier on first novels, because the writer doesn’t necessarily know any better at this point. That being said, this book doesn’t need this generosity, because it was really quite engaging. Most notable was the characters; each was incredibly well-developed, which is surprising considering how many were included. Although Markovitch is in the title, I would argue he is not the only protagonist. Many lives are intertwined in this story.

We follow a set of characters that are slowly introduced to us throughout the first half of the book. We then follow them through WWII, and then we skip ahead ten years to follow a snippet of their children’s lives. It’s an interesting way to structure a narrative, skipping between the generations like this, but it allowed us to see the adults (the main characters) in various circumstances and environments. We learn what they are like as young lovers, married couples, and then parents.

Taking over the author photo at a time

Taking over the world…one author photo at a time

My favourite part of this book is the fact that we get to see and understand the aftermath of the Second World War. There’s a heart-wrenching scene where Markovitch (who is Jewish) goes to Berlin to search for his friend shortly after the war ends. While there, he deals with an uncontrollable anger that he feels towards the German people he encounters, repressing the desire to smash things unnecessarily, instead pushing and shoving people as he walks through crowds on the street. Even though the war is ‘technically’ over, his rage is still present, but as a decent citizen, he can only express it such minor ways as this. This is one of the most powerful and enlightening scenes I have ever read, because it really did place me in the character’s shoes, for just that short moment. As a reader, I felt enraged on his behalf, which is something Gundar-Goshen should really be proud of.

Overall the book could use a bit of a paring down, I found it a bit long and it incorporated too many story lines. However, as I mentioned above, there are some real gems in the writing, so taking a look at this author’s future works is definitely a must.


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Book Review: Ghostly, A Collection of Ghost Stories introduced and illustrated by Audrey Niffenegger

Happy Halloween everyone! I wanted to dash out this post to you in time for the big night tomorrow to help you get into a spooky mood. I’m back from my European tour, and this was the last book I finished on my travels. There’s a photo of its final resting place (a hotel that was sure to be haunted, in Kassel Germany), so needless to say, my luggage was quite a bit lighter returning home!

I thought this spooky hotel library would make a fitting resting place for this book

I thought this spooky hotel library would make a fitting resting place for this book

Everyone loves Audrey Niffenegger. If you haven’t read her break-out success The Time Traveller’s Wife, you should because it’s fantastic. And so is this collection! She didn’t edit the stories, but she does introduce each one with a blurb of her own, and she’s also included her own illustrations accompanying each one. Oh, and she wrote one of the stories too (does her overwhelming breadth of talent make me feel a bit useless? Just a bit…).Just one example of Niffeneger's cool illustrations

Ghostly includes more historical ghost stories than newer ones, which was just fine with me, because all the ones chosen were creepy as hell. The newer stories (for example the one written by Niffenegger), seemed almost like science fiction, more ‘twilight zone’ than anything. I’ve included a photo of one of her illustrations here, because I wanted to point out the fact that cats played a big role in this book (!!!). Yes, black cats are creepy, but she took it to a whole new level in her story “Secret Life With Cats”, which essentially describes a crazy cat lady who died in her own house, was eaten by her cats, and then regurgitated by those same cats to come back to life. Yes, I realize this is gross, as well as a huge spoiler alert, but it’s just one story, so you’ve got lots left to enjoy in the book.

If you have time before you head out trick-or-treating, go pick up Ghostly. Or, wait to read it until December when the Christmas cheer is getting too annoying for you, and you’re ready for a good old fashioned scare.


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Book Review: The Wrong Cat by Lorna Crozier

I don’t typically read poetry, but I always make an exception for the wonderful Canadian poet and icon Lorna Crozier. The Wrong Cat is her latest collection of poetry, and ‘spellbinding’ is one of the best words I can find to describe it. *

Obviously I’m going to like it because it features poems about cats, that’s a given. Although she doesn’t get into crazy cat lady territory, the cat poems simply introduce each section of the book, of which there are four in total. These short, cat-focused poems are mysterious, just like our feline friends. For example:

“Unlike the dog,

its opposite,

a cat defies

the anecdotal,

goes for the lyric…” (p. II)

And Crozier continues the animal theme throughout the book, including poems from different animals’ perspectives; usually their take on humans, which is wildly entertaining as you can probably imagine. She writes from the perspective of crows in quite a few pieces, as well as a lengthy ode to the nose of a moose. But these poems aren’t hokey, in fact they are quite the opposite. Crozier has a way of twisting the reader’s attention to something completely different, changing our perspectives as quickly as possible. For instance, at the end of the moose poem, she describes its mind:

 “a mind of huge imaginings,

so complex

Samuel Beckett and Virginia Woolf

wait in line at dusk for his office hours…” (p68)

See what I mean? Brilliant right? I don’t normally read poetry, and I detest nature poetry the most; I can get some lyrical descriptions of trees from any well-written novel thank you very much. But Crozier’s writing is different. I find it completely accessible, funny at times, and always interesting. Unlike other poetry I’ve read, hers almost always tell an absorbing story.

Reading on the wonderful German trains!

Reading on the wonderful German trains!

A frequent theme she touches upon in this collection seems to be aging couples, and the dynamics of their ever-changing relationships. In “The Question”, a woman asks her husband if he thinks the amount of love in a relationship is unbalanced; if one person always loves the other more. His inner turmoil is described, and then the poem ends with the woman sitting at her vanity smearing cold cream on her face. I loved this image because I could so easily imagine it as I read it: always the sign of a good writer!

 I’m still on my European tour, so I took a few weeks to read through this collection because I really did savour each poem. I’m sorry to be leaving my copy of The Wrong Cat in this hotel in Wolfsburg, but I’m hoping that some German, English-speaking person will pick it up and enjoy it just as much as I did.

Signature*I feel as though I should mention the fact that I may not be properly citing these quotations properly, so please forgive me any mistakes I’ve made here. But you’re going to go out and buy the book yourself though, so these quotes should only be giving you a taste of what’s to come anyway.


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Book Review: The Mountain Can Wait by Sarah Leipciger

So I’m back in Germany (Berlin actually) and I’ve just finished Sarah Leipciger’s The Mountain Can Wait. Before we dive in I should mention that this book came out in summer 2015, so many people have already read it, but if you haven’t you’ll probably want to pick it up. Go. Go now and pick it up, especially during the Fall months when nature is still pleasant to be in.97caf776b9ca77d9dcea6fe6962e6db6

The story begins with a hit-and-run incident, but the plot doesn’t touch upon this accident again until halfway through the book so the reader is given a chance to get their bearings and understand the characters a bit more before the fallout begins. Tom, the patriarch of the family is quiet, uncomfortable with expressing his emotions and consequently turns to nature when struggling with his life as a single father. His kids, Erin and Curtis are both kind-hearted, independent and active, ready to take on any challenges their dad throws at them. We meet these three when Curtis and Erin are essentially adults, but we learn snippets of their childhood through Tom’s  reflections, eventually piecing together the reason their mother is gone.  As the pieces of the puzzle fall into place, the tension builds as well, because the references to the missing mother are quite ominous and it’s one of the bigger mysteries that comes to light in this story.

Other than the family drama, another interesting aspect of this work is Tom’s second life in the bush. He owns a company that manages tree planting up north, and with this comes vivid descriptions of the dirty, fraternity-like world of tree planting that so few of us will ever experience. It’s a bizarre world, but Leipciger describes it in such a way that you can easily imagine yourself up north with the crew, swatting at flies and crouching by the fire, shovelling porridge into your mouth before the gruelling day of work begins. Yes, it seems like a bit of a time-out when we follow Tom into this isolation, but I believe Leipciger did this on purpose. Like Tom, we readers can forget about his problems in the ‘real world’ as we tuck into his other life in the deep forest, literally allowing us to breath some fresh air before we dive back into the aftermath of the hit and run.

So there’s a real push and pull in this book: between one’s duties towards family, and one’s duties to oneself. These aren’t always in conflict, but they are certainly examined in a thoughtful, and entertaining way in The Mountain Can Wait.




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Book Review: The Mystics of Mile End by Sigal Samuel

As I continue my journey through Europe, I continue my reading adventures as well. Next up is newcomer Sigal Samuel’s The Mystics of Mile End; a book I started in Switzerland and finished in France (and a side note to the author and publisher: after finishing the book I left it on a high speed train going between France and Switzerland, so it’s bound to end up in someone else’s deserving hands). This book had been sitting on my shelf for awhile, it came out in May from Calgary’s Freehand Books and was sent to me for review in the spring. I’m always amazed at how I misjudge books based on their covers, and I did the same thing with this one too. A pink, lime green cover seems to announce a young book about kids in their twenties, but this book couldn’t be farther from that assumption.

Sigal Samuel has a promising career ahead of her! Stay tuned for her next book...

Sigal Samuel has a promising career ahead of her! Stay tuned for her next book…

The Mystics of Mile End features a brother and sister who seem far older than their actual years. Lev and Samara live in a Jewish neighborhood surrounded by hipsters and Hebrews, struggling with a distant father and a yearning to better know their deceased mother. The narrative begins with their childhood, and skips ahead to their experiences of early adulthood. But what lends this book its sparkle is the neighborhood itself, and the characters that surround these kids. The descriptions of this Montreal neighborhood are downright delightful;  they made me want to go there and experience the streets for myself. But it’s not all roses and rainbows!Mystics-of-Mile-End-webcover

The Glassmans are an older couple that live across the street, and are constantly battling with Lev and Samara for the reader’s attention. This tug-of-war is probably the main problem I had with The Mystics of Mile End. Don’t get me wrong, the writing is fabulous, and when Samuel speaks through each character, the dialogue rings true, however I was never quite sure where my focus should have been. It seemed as though Lev and Samara were the main characters, but really, their stories acted as a distraction from the far more interesting backgrounds of the Glassmans.

I may have read the book too quickly, because I think I may have missed some of the most important points. The ‘main’ conflict seems to be Samara’s metaphorical climbing of the Tree of Life that figures in the Kabbalah faith. However, I never felt as though I had a complete grasp of what this tree actually was, or what its significance was to Judaism. Maybe this was the point? Mysticism only makes sense to very few, and for people who are not Jewish, this makes things even more difficult to understand, which leads me to believe that Samuel needed to provide more background information for her readers.

I should probably wrap this up, so I’m going to say that Samuel most likely bit off more than she could chew with this story. Which is really too bad, because I think this author has a lot of promise, so I intend on picking up her next book with higher hopes.


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Book Review: Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

So I’m still in Europe, Switzerland actually, so reading a book that takes place in the German countryside had a particularly relevant angle for me, as I had just come from that wonderful country, and will return to it in a few short weeks. Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller switches between London and the forests of Germany to tell the tale of Peggy, a young girl taken by her survivalist father to live in the woods for nine years. She ends up coming back to civillization (this isn’t a spoiler alert, the books starts off with her attempts of reintegration back into normal life),which is how the book begins, and as it continues, you learn how she comes to live in a cabin nicknamed “Die Hutte” for the remainder of her

BMnN5wkRooks about kidnappings, and people surviving long abductions (think Room by Emma Donoghue) are typically quite popular because they are so thrilling to read: terrifying to most, but page-turners for everyone! Our Endless Numbered Days is no different-this book was absolutely spellbinding. And there is a twist at the end; I had anticipated it to an extent, but it was still as startling when I read the words I dreaded were coming. Many people will flip right back to the beginning of the book to read it again, with the knowledge that they acquire in the last few pages.

What makes this book different was the fact that Peggy willingly followed her father to the cabin. She thought they were going camping, and enjoyed being in the wilderness, and it wasn’t until a couple months in that she really began to hate where she was. Still, she made the best of it, close to starving their first winter, they managed to survive, plant a vegetable garden, trap squirrels and rabbits, etc. To keep her there, her father tells her that the entire world has perished in a storm (yes, a thin lie, but she was eight at the time, and kept on believing it because they were so isolated) so they continue their life somewhat uninterrupted until Peggy meets another man in the forest.

To Fuller’s credit, she doesn’t tie everything up neatly at the end of the book, there are still many questions, more so than answers, which kept me thinking back to this story days after I finished it. She also creates a very vivid, strong, and likeable character in Peggy. Yes, she’s easily duped into following her father into this hellish new life, but she grows physically and emotionally while away, and when she returns as a 17 year old, she harbours an old soul that many girls her age will never understand, endearing us to her even more. Hell, I love a good wilderness story (as I’ve discussed in past posts)  so that’s another reason I enjoyed this book. As many of my friends know, I have a healthy respect for nature and its power. Are you afraid of getting lost in the woods too? Well it’s October, so it’s time for a good scare.


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Book Review: Honeydew by Edith Pearlman

I started reading this book in Canada, and I finished reading it in Germany. This doesn’t really  have anything to do with the way I enjoyed it, I just wanted to brag about the fact that I’m travelling to fun places right now. Instead of taking pictures of books with my cats, I’m including photos of my locations instead so I can

a) prove that I am indeed in the places that I claim I am and

b) distance myself from the ‘crazy cat lady’ label I’ve so recently clung to.

Reading Edith Pearlman in Badenweiler, Germany

Reading Edith Pearlman in Badenweiler, Germany

Edith Pearlman is an American author of short stories, and she’s won quite a few nods for her collections in the past, so I’m sure this latest one won’t be any different, because I found it very well done. In my previous reviews of short story collections, I’ve typically praised a book for having a wide variety of stories, but I’ll have to break from my pattern here, as I really liked Pearlman’s stories, even though they seemed to have similar characteristics. For instance, the character of the wise, middle-aged woman seemed to come up quite a bit. She was typically a bit eccentric, had some very specific ideas on love, and wasn’t afraid to voice her opinions on that particular topic. However, the way in which this character was used varied quite widely throughout the collection, but she was someone that seemed to come up again and again. Does this show a lack of creativity on the author’s part? Perhaps, but the ‘write what you know’ adage makes a lot of sense, so Pearlman clearly knows her own strengths and limitations.

Pearlman also included a few linked stories (for those of you who don’t know, this is basically the use of the same character in more than one story, although the character may be a supporting role in one, and the lead in another, etc.) which I always enjoy, because you get to know a bit more about that one character while the separate tales each retains its own interesting plot.

The idea of perspective seems to run throughout the stories too. In one, a boy has a special kind of vision that allows him to see shades of colours that are indistinguishable to the regular human eye. In another, a woman is accused of being an enabler when she confesses that a brutal female circumcision has allowed her to enjoy sex, rather than avoid it. In yet another, a woman is able to pinpoint the happiest day of her life, when her father rescues her from a harmless dog she was unexplainably afraid of. I suppose this focus is something that gives many short stories their strength;  plot twists are not always a requirement for a good story, but the way in which we view the narrative and the characters contained within it is what makes the story memorable. Pearlman uses quirky circumstances alongside well drawn characters to keep us turning the pages, so I’ll be sure to keep my eye out for her next book of stories.





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Book Review: Close to Hugh by Marina Endicott

As the countdown to the Giller Prize ticks along, I’m reading and reviewing as many nominated books as I can. Next up on my list is Marina Endicott’s Close to Hugh.

I have a soft spot in my hardened little heart for Endicott. She splits her time between Toronto and Alberta (Edmonton), so she goes between the place I’ve come from, and the place I ended up. I realize this is quite arbitrary, but nonetheless, I’m inclined to pick up her books more often because of

It also helps that she has landed on the Giller list more than once, and has also won other awards for her fiction. She is a dependable, literary writer who is also a beautiful wordsmith, and every few books that she writes seems to strike a chord with people, which is why I believe Close to Hugh is being recognized.

I read her last book The Little Shadows when it came out. I must admit, I wasn’t a huge fan. It’s not that I disliked it, but I found it too long, and I wasn’t engaged with the characters. Close to Hugh is also quite lengthy, but I adored everyone included, even though some of them were beyond frustrating (mainly because they were all artists in one way or another, therefore, they also tended to be very dramatic, eliciting a few eye-rolls once their hysterics got to be too much).Giller2015_Web_Site_Longlist_banner_Sept9

My favourite part of this book, by far, was Endicott’s play with the words Hugh/You. I never realized they sounded so similar until the chapter headings cleverly clued me in: Falling For Hugh, If It Makes Hugh Happy, Are Hugh My Mother? etc. I’m not sure why I loved this so much, but it fit into the narrative perfectly, as Hugh seemed to superimpose himself on many things unnecessarily, mistaking the word “Hugh” for “you” more than once.

As I mentioned above, it wouldn’t hurt for Endicott to cut down the length of her novels a bit, I think she would gain more readers if she tried this (some people are intimidated by big fat books, and voracious readers like myself don’t tend to gravitate towards them either), but either way, I think she’s got a good shot at being on the Giller shortlist, which is being announced October 5.  And if you live in the Calgary area, you’ll be interested to know she’s also going to Wordfest!




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