Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: Bark by Lorrie Moore

A woman who is so obsessed with Michael Jackson she roasts her chicken on the ‘clean’ setting of her oven because she’s distracted by listening to his music, a man who wears a t-shirt that says “Thank you for Having Me” at a wedding, a married couple who met at a peace movement but have grown to hate each other so much they both believe in nuclear weapons by the time they divorce: this is just a tiny selection of the quirky characters you will be introduced to in Lorrie Moore’s story collection Bark.

Moore is an American writer, and a quick google search of her will reveal uncontested praise of her books. The word ‘brilliant’ gets tossed around a lot when describing her stories. Her cover photo looks like a writer would and should: shy and unassuming, but painfully intelligent, someone who is obviously adept at observing people, and turning these observations into witty situations and dialogue. Lorrie Moore

The copy of Bark that I received is a trade paperback, and across the front of the cover are the words “National Bestseller” in capitals. Typically these words don’t mean much in publishing, essentially anyone can call themselves a bestselling author because there is no definition for bestseller. Someone’s book can appear once a local book store’s bestseller list, and suddenly that author has decided to call themselves a bestseller. Sad, but true. However, in this case, I’m pretty sure we can assume Bark has sold lots of copies. The first few pages of the book are filled with complimentary quotes about the book, and it’s published by the behemoth Random House, which is a feat in itself, because most short story collections are hard to sell, therefore not picked up by major publishers.

I’m aware that BarkI repeat myself over and over again when I discuss a particular genre of book, but I do want to stress that one of the highlights of a short story collection, especially Bark, is when the stories and characters are all very different. For instance: “Subject to Search” is about a man who works in international intelligence, meeting his new girlfriend in the city of France for a quick romantic rendez-vous; “The Juniper Tree” is about a group of woman saying goodbye to their recently deceased friend through their artistic talents; and “Foes” is about a middle-aged couple struggling to make their way through a stuffy fundraiser in Washington D.C., coming across a prickly lobbyist who seems to have an opinion on everything. How is that for variety?

There are many laugh out loud moments to this book, mainly found in the internal dialogue of Moore’s characters, who I can unashamedly announce are ‘brilliant’ in their own right. My favourite was Ira, the middle-aged man attempting to get back into the dating pool after his divorce, finding himself in love with a woman named Zora, who has a creepily close relationship to her son who of course hates Ira with a passion. That short description doesn’t do the story any justice, and yet I’m sure you can see how hilarity would easily ensue in this situation. So there you have it, Bark is a work of genius, and I highly recommend it.

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Book Review: Between Clay and Dust by Musharraf Ali Farooqi

I’ve had this book sitting on my shelf for a few months now, so I apologize this review is so late. It was originally published in India in 2012, and the lovely Calgary-based Freehand Books released it in the fall of 2014. If I had known that the book was so good (and such a quick read!), I would have pushed myself to pick it up weeks ago.

Between Clay and Dust tells the story of two  characters: an aged wrestler who’s struggling with the passing down of his title to his brother, and a beautiful prostitute with a prestigious past, both living in a small city in Pakistan, both coming to terms with the slow decay of their power. Their urban environment is reflective of their lives: both are crumbling.Between-Clay-and-Dust-cover-June-27

As I’m thinking back to the narrative itself, I realize that this book can come across as quite depressing to some, because not a lot of positive things happen in it. However, the novel is so short and precise that you don’t come away from it feeling unhappy, it’s meant to teach us a lesson, much like a fable does for children. Farooqi’s writing is simple, and easy to follow, even though he throws in terms specific to wresting or courtesans that youindex wouldn’t understand unless you looked them up. His sentences don’t contain more than what is absolutely necessary, and that is a skill that so many writers (and bloggers like myself) struggle with these days.

One of the review quotes on the back of the book states: “Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s new novel is the literary equivalent of an artfully executed miniature painting” (Outlook India). I couldn’t agree more! I’ve only found a few books like this in my reading travels:short yet very affecting. A book doesn’t have to be an epic tome that takes place over centuries to leave a lasting impression on the reader. In fact, I find the shorter the book, the more it resonates, because it leaves the reader with that breathing space once they’ve turned the last page to reflect on what they’ve read.

I should also mention that this book was a finalist for the Man Asian Literary Prize, which is a prestigious international award, so I’m not the only who thinks is a worthwhile read!

So pick up Between Clay and Dust if you have a free afternoon and you want to read something in its entirety. You’ll have time to spare, but lots to think about when you go to bed that evening.

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Book Review: A Crack in the Wall by Betty Jane Hegerat

I’ve always enjoyed stories about ‘regular people, doing regular things’. They hold a certain fascination for me, simply because I can relate to those kinds of characters more than others, my life being pretty uneventful in general. I definitely like a good cozy mystery or thriller every once in a while, but family dramas, introspective plot lines and emotionally-driven narratives are my reading comfort zone. For many, this sounds boring, but I’ve always been honest about the fact that I don’t enjoy fantasy novels-in fact, I’m probably one of the few bookworms who can say they’ve never finished the Lord of the Rings trilogy; I tried reading it, but had to put it down after a few pages, I found it boring.a-crack-in-the-wall-small

This is all to say that I’ve found yet another book of short stories that I enjoy, mainly because it deals with the mundane occurrences that most people experience from day-to-day. A Crack in the Wall by Betty Jane Hegerat is a great example of how masterful a simple story can be. Nothing earth shattering happens in these stories, mainly the protagonists come to particular realizations about themselves or someone close to them. Still, after I finished each story, I found myself looking up from the book and pausing for a few seconds, letting everything sink in. In my mind, this is a sign of a brilliant writer.

The fact that Hegerat is from Alberta is just another reason for me to read and love this book. Some of the stories take place in Calgary, others in distant parts of Canada, but there is always a sense of familiarity with the writing: probably because the characters are so relatable.ReadAlbertaBooks_Banner_Wheat_484x300

On another note, I took this book out from the library, and I was shocked to see it had been signed by the author herself. I’m curious how this happened-not because Hegerat is difficult to find in Calgary (quite the opposite in fact, she’s a fixture of our literary scene here), but because I’ve never come across a library book with an autograph before. I’m curious if other readers get a small thrill in discovering the book they’re reading has been signed by the author; I no longer do because I’ve worked with authors for so long, but I’m hoping that this is still a (somewhat rare) phenomenon that appeals to other readers.

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Book Review: Bear by Marian Engel

Some may already be familiar with this book; it was first published in 1976, and at the time, it was considered very controversial, although it still won the Governor General’s award for fiction that same year. It has been re-released by Penguin/Random House Canada in 2014, and although not as shocking as it was in the 1970’s, it’s still raising a few eyebrows even today. You’re probably dying to know what all the fuss is about. Very few topics are still considered taboo these days, but this novel deals with something that most find very uncomfortable (rightly so!): bestiality.9780771030130

Essentially, Bear tells the story of Lou, a young woman who is sent on a field mission in Northern Ontario to catalogue the library of a wealthy, long-dead colonel. The isolated island estate she is staying on is mostly abandoned, except for a pet bear that remains tied up in a woodshed out back. Apparently he’s been there for many years, and is quite tame, but of course a wild animal still, so he remains secured by a leash. Eventually, Lou finds herself quite lonely, and begins to assign human qualities to this bear, striking up a friendship with him, letting him off his leash to walk him like a dog, etc. This friendship takes a turn about halfway through the book, and she begins a sexual relationship with the animal.

Ok I know what you’re thinking-“whoa there, this just got really weird”. Yes, I must admit I felt the same thing, and many people have this exact reaction. If you are indeed interested in reading Bear, my best advice is to familiarize yourself with other, similar books from the same time period by other female authors to help you understand the context of this book. I recommend reading Survival by Margaret Atwood, because similar to Bear, Survival deals with the idea of ‘what is Canadian’ by looking at ourselves through the lens of nature, and the rugged environment we inhabit (but frequently forget about) here in the north.

I won’t disagree that this book is strange, and at times, certainly unbelievable. However, I didn’t read this book literally, and I’m sure it’s meant to be taken as a metaphor or symbol, rather than literally, because there’s more to it than just freaky run-ins with a bear. Lou is an interesting character, and it’s obvious that she struggles in her relationships with men. She hints at being taken advantage of by a superior at her job, and a man forces himself on her later in the book because he felt he deserved some ‘gratitude’ from her for all his assistance up until that point. Clearly, her romantic encounters are fraught with aggression, and her connection with the bear is one of the first examples of her empowerment in the book.workaholics-meme-its-friday-lets-get-weird

So, yes this book is weird, and I don’t blame friends of mine for resenting being forced to read this as a ‘can lit’ classic back in school. However, if you approach this novel with an open mind and read between the lines, you’ll find it’s deserving of at least half of the praise it has received over the years.

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Book Review: The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

A beautiful, short book about getting trapped in a library; what more could a girl ask for? Books, mystery, illustrations and a small word count-it’s perfect for me! Quite clearly, The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami is right up my alley.

The book is gorgeous-as many Murakami fans are aware, only Chip Kidd is allowed to design Murakami’s books for Random House (or something like that), and he’s done another exceptional job in this case (see photos below, featuring Pearl). Murakami has a strange obsession with cats, so I thought it was only fitting that I include one of mIMG_20141221_165722858y own in a photo with his book. Not only do the illustrations add the ‘extra touch’ to the novella, the cover flaps of the book also act as a built-in bookmark, which sounds useful at first, but really unnecessary because you’ll easily read this in one sitting. IMG_20141221_165857124

The story begins with a young boy in a library, looking for information on how taxes were collected in the Ottoman Empire (an admittedly obscure and strange topic). He’s directed to a basement room in which a strange old man forces him into a reading room to look at the books that feature this topic, quickly discovering he is now a prisoner in a labyrinth below the city library. While there, he meets some haunting characters, some who may or may not be real, but is also treated to delicious meals, including homemade fried donuts, made by a man in a sheep costume. I know what you’re thinking: “what drugs is Murakami on, and how do I get some?”. Sorry to get your hopes up, but this is typical for his style of writing: odd, non-linear, and frequently crossing into a world of fantasy.

Something else to note is that Murakami’s works are typically quite long, so the fact that this piece is so short must be the reason that illustrations were included, and extra care was taken with the design of the book. Murakami’s website calls The Strange Library a novel, which I disagree with; it’s way too short to be a novel! Anyway, this is sure to be a collector’s item, so I’ll be lending out this book selectively in the new year.

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Book Review: Abattoir Blues by Peter Robinson

Just to be clear, this is NOT a cozy mystery. There is blood and guts in this book, and even a few animal slaughterhouses thrown in for good measure, so don’t pick up Abattoir Blues by Peter Robinson if you are at all squeamish.  I don’t feel bad about starting off my review that way, because Robinson has a lot of fans, so if you want to read his latest Inspector Banks novel (the 22nd in the series), the gore won’t put you off. It’s a typical Robinson mystery: lots of inner character conflict, a wide cast of police figures, and a complicated mystery that unravels slowly but masterfully as you turn the pages.9780771076435

Abattoir Blues begins with two different crime scenes: a stolen tractor at a hobby farm and an abandoned hanger with human blood in it. There are no clues at the beginning that they are at all connected, although as the story develops it becomes clear that there is more than meets the eye. The majority of the narrative is police interviews, which are a great example of Robinson’s adept characterization skills. Some people are not what they seem, and others are described so chillingly you can easily (but unfortunately) imagine exactly what they look like. The vivid descriptions of Robinson’s writing is one of the reasons his famous protagonist now has a television show of his own in the UK.

You’re probably wondering where abattoirs come in (abattoir is another word for slaughterhouse). The majority of the novel takes place on remote farms,  so the topic of livestock quickly leads the investigation into these terrible settings which make vegetarians shudder with distaste and horror. Another interesting side topic is also touched upon in this book; apparently many people that work in that industry can suffer from PTSD, as killing living creatures over and over again takes quite a toll upon the human psyche. I don’t mean to get too sentimental here, but learning about these experiences is an important thing because it reminds us of the sacrifice that comes before we pick up the plastic-wrapped protein from the supermarket.

I don’t read a ton of Peter Robinson books, so I can’t give a definitive ranking of how Abattoir Blues stacks up to the other Banks novels. What I can say is that Robinson is a talented mystery writer, so you won’t be disappointed if you decide to give his police procedurals a try. If you like watching CSI, learning more about the necessary clues to make an arrest and eavesdropping on intimate details of a policeman’s life, you’ll enjoy this book and the others that Robinson has to offer.

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Book Review: You have to F**king Eat by Adam Mansbach, Illustrated by Owen Brozman

Although this book is illustrated, it is in fact meant for adults. Perhaps the expletive in the title makes it obvious enough, but it thought I’d mention it, just in case. You may already be familiar with the similarly named Go the F**k to Sleep book, which as you probably guessed is also meant for adults, so this new installment in the series which addresses the dreaded ‘mealtime’ is a logical next step for the author.

YouHavetoFuckingEat-800x600You Have to F**king Eat has gotten an enormous amount of attention, as did it’s predecessor. You’ll find multiple TV interviews with Mansbach about the book, which as my publishing friends will know, is extremely rare for any kind of book that doesn’t have the words “Harry Potter” or the “Hunger Games” in the title. One of my favourite clips is below, which includes a portion of the book being narrated by Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad fame.

What’s great about this book is the juxtaposition between the profane text and the idyllic illustrations. For example, there is an adorable picture of bunnies munching on carrots and happy looking baby lambs frolicking in a meadow, while above it, the following line appears:

“The bunnies are munching on carrots, the lambs nibble grasses and bleat. I know you’re too hungry to reason with but you have to fucking eat. “

So technically, you could read this to your child before they reach the age of understanding meaning behind words (whatever age that is, I clearly have no idea) just because the pictures are so cute, and you’ll get a real kick of reading this out loud.  But as my common sense prevails, this book is probably best left on your own nightstand, so you and your partner can chuckle at it together after a particularly difficult day of trying to force-feed your children vegetables.

I also like this little gem because it’s published by the small and mighty Akashic Books, based out of the United States. Yay independent publishing! If this review convinces you to purchase the book (fingers crossed), please do so on their website here.

And don’t worry, this isn’t the beginning of an influx of parenting book reviews on this blog, I promise to remain true to my adult-book focus regardless of the status of my personal life.

More importantly, this is the 100th post on ivreadthis.com, so the first person to comment on this post will receive a special gift from me. Thank you for following me and reading my reviews!!!

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Book Review: World War Z by Max Brooks

World War Z by Max Brooks: the book about the zombies. Yes, I know it’s a bit of a strange pick for me. Zombie apocalypses don’t typically fit in with my literary explorations of the human soul, but I’ve decided to go out on a limb here and try reading a book I wouldn’t normally pick up. I have my friend Jenny to thank for this; she lent me this book with a glowing recommendation, and she has great taste, so I was eager to give this a go.

I saw the movie that was based on this book when it came out with my husband. Again, not a movie I would typically jump at the chance to see, but he likes action movies, and I like Brad Pitt so I reluctantly agreed. The film  was (not surprisingly), gruesome and disturbing, but kept me interested, which is really all I can expect from a Hollywood flick these days anyway.

The book is entirely different from the movie. In fact, I couldn’t even determine which character in the book was supposed to be the Brad Pitt character in the movie (perhaps there wasn’t one) because clearly the author’s original premise was the only thing that actually made it into the movie. World War Z (the novel) is essentially a compilation of interviews. The narrative of the book is structured as a report put out by the UN to summarize the apocalypse once it had mostly ended. Essentially, the interviewee travels around the world to listen to people’s stories in an attempt to understand how the outbreak happened, how it was fought in each country, and how the clean-up is going.

book_cover_wwzThe apocalypse is kicked off by a virus that turns people into zombies once they are bitten by someone who is infected. So, the world’s population is slowly taken over by the ‘undead’. The only way to kill these zombies is to destroy or puncture their brain. Thus, there are many gory scenes in the book. However, many political issues are also addressed, which is what makes this story not only well-written, but interesting as well. Topics include: what happens in the middle eastern conflict zones when there is an entirely different war that needs to fought, how the open ocean becomes a place that people ‘escape’ to, the strange disappearance of all North Koreans during the conflict , etc.

This novel also does a great job of answering that burning question that would be on everyone’s mind, mainly: what would happen if the world was thrust into a war that involved every single human that lasted years on end? Brooks’s predictions are fascinating. He even addresses the problem of animals and ignored pets; the remaining population trains sniffer dogs that can detect the undead before the virus becomes visible, and all abandoned dogs are put to use on canine teams to aid the greater fight against the zombies. Another interesting point that is addressed are the people who are not actually infected, but begin to act as though they are infected, and bite other people needlessly. Basically, some people have psychotic breaks that make them believe they are zombies anyway, and these groups are a threat of their own. Soldiers are advised to avoid killing them if possible, because the government believes they can be rehabilitated. All of these smaller side effects of this huge war are explored in ‘mini chapters’ throughout the book, which kept me reading late into the night.

I’m not sure this could be called a dystopian novel, because  (spoiler alert!) it seems as though human life continues as it did before the outbreak, although the population is severely decimated, and PTSD is at an all-time high. But the world of World War Z seems much like our own, which is what makes it so scary. With the Ebola scare fresh in everyone’s minds, I can understand if people would avoid reading a book like this right now, but it is a very good, and dare I say, educational read.

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Book Review: The Table of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips

‘A fairy tale for adults’ is the best way I can describe The Table of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips. This book has it all: unicorns, knights, magical swords, princesses, and of course, lots of swear words. It reminded of why I loved fairy tales so much when I was a kid; you had a general idea of what the outcome would be, but you still enjoyed the journey to get there.

The novel includes some really fun characters too: Martha, the naive queen, Elaine, the feisty princess, Jemima, the trusty elephant, and Conrad, the prickly giant who rides Jemima because he’s too big for horses. Each person has their own quirks, which endears the reader to them even more. In fact, I wanted to keep reading more of the book once it  ended, just because I was disappointed to leave these new friends behind. Reading about them on a knight’s quest was funny, but I’m sure reading about them doing their laundry would be just as hilarious. Phillips is clearly a master at dialogue and character development as both of these things came together to create an amazing book.9780307359964_0

The idea of writing a fairy tale for an adult is a new one (for the most part). People typically see kids as the main audience for fairy tales, mainly because they are expected to always end well. Yes, this book ends on a happy note, and the bad people get punished while the good get rewarded, but it’s also realistic in some of its plot elements too. For instance, the very end of the book introduces a homosexual male couple-not your typical fairy tale couple, that’s for sure! Yes, it’s a book for adults, so this inclusion isn’t shocking by any means, but I believe  Phillips included this  because she is highlighting the impossibility of the ‘happily ever after’ mentality of fairy tales. Why should everything fit into the tiny mold of perfection that fairy tales expect us to aspire to? It shouldn’t, which is why there are gay knights in this book, lots of swear words, self-doubt, tyrannical men who aren’t fully punished, and friendships between African animals and giants. After all….happily ever after comes in all shapes, sizes and colors.

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Book Review: Reunion by Hannah Pittard

What defines chick-lit? Or as people in the biz like to call it, “contemporary women’s fiction”-what does that even mean? I just finished reading Reunion by Hannah Pittard, and my first instinct was to define it as a ‘heavier’ kind of chick-lit, although I don’t think that’s giving it enough credit, because t20706746he book isn’t about romance or shopping. Why am I leaning towards this genre? Well, the book was fairly short and uncomplicated, so you can read it in a couple of hour-long sittings. The plot line is also simple, and told only from the perspective of the female protagonist, Kate. Family and marriage are the main topics of discussion throughout the book, so this is what pushes the novel into the chick-lit realm for me.

The book begins with Kate, a thirty-something woman at the end of her marriage, in the throes of debt, learning about her father’s suicide. She is dragged to Atlanta by her siblings to attend his funeral. What makes this book uplifting, and in the end quite funny, is the fact that their now-deceased father was married a total of five times, so Kate is joined by an assortment of extended family, all thrown together through circumstance alone. Not surprisingly, many of them do not get along, but because of the situation, they pretend to anyway.

143a5a96b179a60ca1714d1ecf3d66bfI like to think that I’m too literary to like books like this, but I’m not. I LOVE books like this, ones that delve into family dynamics, marriage issues, and relationships in general. One of the most interesting topics that are explored in this book is infidelity. Kate’s older sister Nell and older brother Elliot are dead-set against cheaters. They despise people who cheat on their significant others, and believe it is an unforgivable crime. Kate however, has essentially ended her marriage by cheating on her husband, and finds herself in the unfortunate position of coming clean to her siblings to explain why her marriage is ending. At the same time, she’s forced to admit  that she cannot financially support herself alone, and needs to explain to Nell and Elliot that she has been hiding a significant amount of consumer debt at the same time. Suddenly, their black and white opinions have to make room for the gray matter, which I found to be juicy, and ingenious twist in this book.

Basically, Kate’s life is imploding, which is always fun to read about, because in most cases, it puts the audience in the smug position of thinking “well, at least my life isn’t THAT bad”. This isn’t the only reason to read about people’s troubles and heartache, it’s really just a nice by-product, but I do feel the need to mention that in case I begin to sound a bit smug myself.

I’m assuming what I’ve written above is convincing enough to read the book, or to put you off of it entirely, both options seem particularly relevant in this case,as many people don’t like reading about these particular topics.  Either way, I’m in favour of reading books that make you feel good, no matter what they’re about.

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