Category Archives: Book Reviews

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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Book Review: Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Anna Benz, the protagonist of Hausfrau (meaning “housewife” in German), is living in Switzerland after moving there with her husband Bruno from the United States. They have three young children, live in a nice home in a respectable neighborhood, and appear to be ‘the perfect family’ from the outside. As you can probably guess by my quotation marks, they are anything but.

At first, Anna just seems bored. She embarks on various affairs with men that seem to give her a sense of purpose, something her life was lacking before (according to her). But as the book continued, I realized that Anna was far more than bored, she was depressed. I think my complete ignorance of her true state of mind just goes to show how marginalized mental illness can be, which is really at the heart of this book. Anna isn’t addicted to cheating on her husband, but she is desperately sad, and seeking ways to fill the hole in her heart that she isn’t entirely aware of.

Smokey checking out Hausfrau

Smokey checking out Hausfrau

Anna attends German classes throughout the story, and the language lessons mirror her thoughts and actions in a brilliant way as the plot thickens. There was quite a bit of hype about this book when it first came out in the Spring, and I can see why; Essbaum is a very talented writer. She is a poet, but this is her first novel, and as I’ve mentioned in many of my past posts, novels written by poets are usually beautiful and it’s obvious that this author has chosen each word very carefully. That being said, the book left me feeling very flat. I probably felt this way because Hausfrau is very melancholic. Although I’m sure Essbaum didn’t intentionally want to paint the Swiss as a stiff or unfriendly culture, it did leave that impression on me, among other things.

I mistakenly assumed this was book was a thriller when I started reading. It’s undertones are quite bleak, and you do get the sense that the narrative is building towards something dark and disturbing, which does occur (that’s sort of a spoiler alert, but meh). There was enough going on in the plot that kept me reading right to the end, despite the sadness that pervaded the setting and characters.

Once again, my life is imitating art, because I’m headed to Switzerland for the first time in my life in October! Even though I’m technically a temporary hausfrau myself, I’m hoping my experiences of the Swiss are drastically different than what’s described in this book.


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Book Review: The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald

An homage to the wonderful world of books! I dare any book lover to read The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend and not fall in love. As you can tell by the title, this novel is about reading for pleasure. So, obviously I thoroughly enjoyed it, and am highly recommending you pick it up.BooksHBOProgramming_zps975421f4

It begins with Sara, a young, shy Swedish woman landing in a small town in Iowa, waiting to picked up by her pen pal, Amy, whom she’s never met. She quickly discovers that Amy has passed away, although the townsfolk are eager to keep Sara comfortable, so they encourage her to stay in Amy’s house (yes it sounds weird, but small town hospitality is always strange to us city dwellers). While there, she decides to open a book shop in an attempt to revitalize the dying town and struggling population. 9780385683593

Sara herself is a fun character, one that will appeal to anyone who loves books. She prefers to read over just about anything else, and finds herself perfectly content with a book in hand and a warm cup of tea. But because of her addiction to reading, she finds herself adrift and wanting, similar to the people of Broken Wheel, and relationships are something she has little to no experience in. Which is where the ‘commercial fiction’ side of this book comes in. Like many chick lit books, Sara finds herself falling in love with a handsome man, and hilarity and happy endings ensue. Is this a reason to not read this book? No, not at all. I did find it a bit cliche, but not enough to warrant a negative review, and there is still enough meat to the story that the romance doesn’t completely take over.

If Sara sounds like someone you would like to know, you’ll be even more impressed with the bevy of characters that Bivald introduces. There’s Grace, the no-fuss, tough as nails lady who owns the only diner in town; George, the recently sober father whose wife and daughter left years ago; and Caroline, the uptight and religious do-gooder that’s in dire need of change. All of these characters are interesting, believable, and highly readable. Although Sara is the main protagonist of the story, each character comes with their own storyline, which adds even more colour to an already eclectic narrative. And if you need one last reason to read this book: it’s the English version of the original story written in Swedish, so you’ll sound extra intelligent when you can truthfully tell people you read translations.



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Book Review: Under Major Domo Minor by Patrick deWitt

Ok I am specifically NOT looking at any other reviews of Patrick deWitt‘s Under Major Domo Minor before I post this, because I don’t want anyone else’s opinion to influence mine, or make me second guess myself. Not only did I love this book, but I think it is destined to become a classic, one that will end up on school syllabi everywhere. This is the new definition of Can Lit baby!!! Let me explain.

Smokey's lovin' it

Smokey’s lovin’ it

We are all forced to read ‘the classics’ in school. Some were dumb, and I hated reading them. But others were very clever, witty, and I completely understood why they were so popular and had stood the test of time. Patrick deWitt’s latest is just like this, in fact it reminds me of Shakespeare. It’s so funny, I had a smile on my face the entire time I read it because the dialogue is so sharp. Not only was Shakespeare good at dialogue, he was even better at plot, and deWitt shares this strength: keeping us reading but savouring each word as we go, torn between wanting to find out what happens next and enjoying the banter between two characters. I know this seems like a crazy comparison, and it may turn people off of deWitt completely if they have Shakespeare, which is the opposite of what I want to do, so I’ll give you some other reasons why I loved this book.

It’s a very gothic novel, it takes place in a castle in some unnamed country in Europe in the very distant past, and there are spooky happenings every once in a while. But, while the setting is quite eerie, the characters themselves are not, they are the source of the comedy, and Lucy (short for Lucien), the protagonist is likeable, even though he has a bad habit of making up outrageous lies. Can I make another comparison here? The movie Clue is one of my favourites, and Under Major Domo Minor shares its ability to simultaneously make us shudder from disgust and smile in delight.

The novel also contains some scenes that I’m sure will become infamous in Canadian literature. There is the ‘rat’ scene, and the ‘ballroom’ scene. That’s all I will say about them, but you have those to look forward to when you pick up the book. There’s also an unexpected adventure at the end. Yes, a love story is at the heart of this book, but Lucy gets himself into some pretty awkward situations (see above!), and what happens within the last few chapters of the book are quite surprising, something I didn’t seem coming, but didn’t disrupt the flow of the narrative at all. Literally, I shook my head and chuckled “That deWitt” under my breath as I read along, because I was so impressed by everything I read.

So I’m going to post this now, putting my obvious adoration of this book out for all to see. I suspect many critics will feel the same way I did, and rave about the book, I’ll be shocked if they don’t. But don’t just take my word for it. Give yourself a back to school gift and buy this book. Oh, and if you live in Calgary, go see deWitt at Wordfest  in October!


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Book Review: Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola

Apparently people can blackout when they are drinking;  they can carry on a normal conversation, walk to and from places, even get into the car and drive, all without remembering any of it the next day. It is quite literally a blank in their memory, which they will never be able to retrieve, because of their excessive alcohol consumption. Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget explains this phenomena, along with many other interesting facts about alcohol and its consumption.

So I’ve never been much of a drinker, in fact, whenever I used to get offered an alcoholic beverage, I would think to myself “I’d rather have a chocolate bar”, but in order to be accepted socially, I’ve learnt to enjoy a cocktail every once in a while. Being a book lover that hates wine is always a bit odd, especially at book launches, where boxed wine is a given (at least, the ones I’ve attended).  However now that I’m a parent, I’m beginning to see the error of my ways. Wouldn’t it be nice to just take the edge off; have a bevvie that helps me think less/worry less about whether I’m nailing this parenting thing? Yes, I see many more gin and tonics in my future, now that I’m a mother. But I realize that my  previous shunning of drinking is not the norm these days, especially when I was single and in my twenties. As Sarah Hepola points out in Blackout, many adult social engagements typically involve alcohol of some sort, and getting drunk is no longer something to be embarrassed about, in fact, it is the new norm, and the way that many people solidify friendships nowadays.

I can't decide if this meme is in poor taste or not, but it's the way I feel so I'm using it anyway

I can’t decide if this meme is in poor taste or not, but it’s the way I feel so I’m using it anyway


Blackout is the latest in a steady stream of memoirs about drinking problems, the most recent one I read and enjoyed was Drunk Mom by Jowita Bydlowska. Reading memoirs about addictions you have never had a problem with is enjoyable for so many reasons, the main one being the fact that you can read it without any sort of guilt, smugly knowing that you are superior to the author in this one part of your life (but simultaneously being jealous of how brave they are for laying it all out there, and in such an elegant and well-written way). No, I don’t think I’m better than alcoholics, in fact, I’m pretty sure I’m addicted to chocolate and sugar in general, but reading a memoir about an addiction you actually suffer from would be torture, I’m sure.sarah_hepola

Anywho, another reason I really enjoyed this particular book was the  author’s voice. She is FUNNY. Super funny, even when dealing with something as serious as alcoholism. But she doesn’t belittle the topic with her humor, in fact her insights into society and its acceptance of excessive drinking are fascinating, and she gets surprisingly honest when talking about her insecurities, which she believes eventually led to her addiction.

So,if you have a problem with drinking too much, you should probably read this book (although you won’t find it an enjoyable and interesting read like I did, regardless you should be seeking help any way you can). If you don’t have an addiction to alcohol, but you do have an addiction to anything (Oh Henry bars included), you should still read this book, because it’s good, and I said so.




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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 (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

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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