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Book Review: Riel Street by Colette Maitland

thumb.phpAlthough this book is described as a novel in the press release, I think of it as a book of short stories, as each chapter can easily stand on its own. Taken together, the chapters are not cohesive enough to create one story, but I don’t believe that is a negative thing, each section is a wonderfully detailed look into the Bouchard family, whom I enjoyed getting to know.

Maitland grew up on a variety of army bases, which acted as part of the inspiration to write this book. Riel Street centers on a small military street in Kingston with a cast of characters all eager to gossip about and with each other. Many of the chapters are told from the perspective of one of the four Bouchard children, some are from their mother Shirley’s voice as well.

Shirley is featured prominently throughout the book, and she was by far, my favourite character. Her no-nonsese parenting provided quite a bit of comic relief throughout the story, which I also admired about her. I hope that I when I have children, I can trot out a fraction of the sass that this woman exhibits each and every day. I suspect that her personality is not something that she was born with however, it has come from a lifetime of taking care of others, and is a general product of being over-worked. For instance, her husband was sent overseas for the majority of one of her pregnancies and subsequent birth, all while she was still expected to take care of their other children  and living on a meager budget. How did women do it back then? Although probably not the main intention of authors like Maitland, whenever I read a period piece like this, it always makes me thankful for our modern-day technologies and conveniences.sassy-pants

Some tragedies do occur throughout the stories, but these are all treated with a light hand, never getting bogged down by too much emotion and drama. Some may see this as too cursory a treatment for these kinds of situations in a book, but I simply see this as a realistic depiction of that time period (1960’s). When you have little money and time, there is no room for drama, and this is reflected in Maitland’s stories. Yes, horrible things happen and they affect everyone differently, but for people like Shirley who are just struggling to keep her children healthy, there is no time to dwell on difficulties of others, or even difficulties of your own. You pick yourself back up and move on-just like the military teaches you.

One last observation-men are generally described as lazy and philandering in this book. They drink too much, don’t trust their wives with their cars (if they even allow them to drive them) and could care less about helping out around the house. Is this an accurate description of men on army bases at that time? Who knows? I’m not sure whether this was intentional by Maitland or not. If she doesn’t want to focus in on male characters in her book, she doesn’t have to, and creating a balanced depiction of all people at that time is not the sole responsibility of one fiction writer. So what if she doesn’t focus on any men in her book? Male characters have always been a dime a dozen in literature, lord knows we could do with a small break from them every once in a while (how am I doing with that sass?).

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Book Review: Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips

Was that last Dean Koontz creepy enough for ya? Time for another story that will keep you up at night! Quiet Dell is based on a true story-a true crime story in fact. You can read about the murders here, but essentially the book focuses on the victims of serial killer Harry Powers. After reading the Wikipedia page, I realized that Quiet Dell stayed quite true to the actual events, and if you’re wondering whether I’m citing Wikipedia as the only source I will refer to in this case, you would be correct. I typically take whatever Wikipedia states to be true, and this time will be no different, because quite frankly, I’m lazy.17571727

So, back to the book. What I found most interesting and insightful about this particular story was the fact that Phillips spent so much time at the beginning of her narrative introducing the  family that is eventually murdered. In fact, because I didn’t read the blurb on the back of the book, I didn’t realize that an entire family is done away with in the story. As I read along, I assumed that the Eicher characters would somehow solve the mystery, because I doubted the fact that an author would spend so much space empathizing with people that were going to end up dead. Well, I was clearly wrong, and because you identify and grow to love these characters in such a short time span, their untimely death comes as a great shock, especially when you weren’t expecting it, which, I obviously was not.

Strangely, I didn’t relate much to the fictional character of Emily Thornhill who takes up the majority of the book. She is a journalist that becomes entangled in the case, and serves more as a vehicle for the author’s thoughts than anything. Although she’s a nice enough woman, I didn’t relate to her as much as I did the murdered widow and her children, and she seems to take a back seat to the overwhelming presence of the victims throughout the storyline. In fact, I would go so far to say that her romantic storyline seems a bit of a stretch, and unlikely in the best of scenarios. But, it adds a nice uplifting interlude amongst the horror and death, so I see why it was thread that was included all the same.

This picture of Duty is taken from the actual book, sorry about the quality of this, my photo skillz are as strong as my research skillz

This picture of Duty is taken from the actual book, sorry about the quality of this, my photo skillz are as strong as my research skillz

Because I’m an animal lover, my favourite character in the book was Duty, the bull terrier who originally belonged to one of the Eicher children, who then ends up in Thornhill’s care. In fact, there’s even a picture of Duty in the book, (among other photos, most too creepy for me to include here, but you can find them here if you’re curious) but after googling him, I think he’s unfortunately a figment of the author’s imagination, like Thornhill. And yes, after I’ve googled something a couple of times and no hits come up, I just assume it doesn’t exist; another example of my voracious research skills.

Does it make me kinda weird to enjoy reading fiction based on true crime? Probably, although it’s a popular genre so I’m not the only one. Plus, non-fiction accounts of true crime are typically much more detailed and gory, so if you’re interested in reading about a real life crime, but not ready to stomach the specifics, I recommend a book like Quiet Dell to get you started.

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Book Review: Worst. Person. Ever. by Douglas Coupland

As I begin to write this review, I’m not really sure how I actually felt about this book. As the title suggests, the main character is a bad person, someone so despicable you can only shake your head at his wretched antics, finding yourself shocked when he carries on a semi-polite conversation with someone else in the book for longer than a couple of seconds. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it, but that doesn’t you mean you should read it either. Let me explain…

Isn't this a hilarious photo? There's a reason why this isn't the one Random House uses when promoting the book...he probably despises it.

Isn’t this a hilarious photo? There’s a reason why this isn’t the one Random House uses when promoting the book…he probably despises it.

I guess what I found most troublesome about this book is the silliness of it all. I don’t typically like ‘silly’ books, mostly because I want to feel like I’ve accomplished something by reading it, but as other reviews have suggested, you should read this book in one sitting, because it’s not a deep piece of thoughtful literature that you should return to time and time again, after having time to contemplate what’s between the covers. Maybe that was my mistake with this book-I shouldn’t have read it over the time span of a week, it gave me too much room to actually think about what I was reading, rather than just plowing through for the fun of it.timthumb.php

There are a few things going for this book. Similar to a Chuck Palahniuk book, the absurdity and foul language come together to create the perfect plot and read for someone like my husband, who (apparently), loves this sort of thing, and got a real kick out of the passages I read to him aloud. Although he barely reads, he seemed to really enjoy the snippets I shared with him, and because one of the last books he read in its entirety was Tell-All, I’m not surprised Worst. Person. Ever. seemed to delight him.

There’s no point in me giving much detail around the plot of this book, because it’s really secondary to the intent of the story (or at least, what I imagine Coupland’s intent is, or resembles). Raymond Gunt (yes, I know) gets hired to work on a reality television show being shot on a remote island somewhere in the Pacific, and its his adventures of not only reaching that island, but his time on the island and the people on it that make up the majority of the story. Instead of trying to entice people to read it, I should probably warn people instead: don’t read this book if you get easily offended by racism, sexism, or foul language. If you enjoy the game Cards Against Humanity and can appreciate a good laugh, even if its at someone else’s expense, you’ll probably like this book, or at least get a real kick out of the dialogue and ridiculousness that comes along with it.

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Book Review: I Know Who You Remind Me Of by Naomi K. Lewis

As a follow-up to a recent CBC segment, I’m happy to write that I’m following through on my oft-muttered promise  that I hope to review lots of Alberta authors on this site. So far, I haven’t really done that vow justice, so I’m really quite excited to write about the short story collection I Know Who You Remind Me Of by Naomi K. Lewis. This book was brought to my attention the year it came out (2012) but I had the pleasure of reading it only a few weeks ago, so although not recently published, it’s new to my bookshelf this summer.

Unlike some the other books I’ve reviewed lately, the appeal of this book lies in the writing, not the plots. For me, the perspectives of the characters really ‘made’ each story for me, and that’s why I found this book so unique. Part of that comes from the fact that because each story is short, the writer is forced to draw readers in through voice, rather than plot, because they have such little room to develop a timeline, explain back story, etc. But Lewis demonstrates incredible range in the characters she writes, particularly the male characters, as both their inner and external dialogue seem very natural and realistic.

indexLewis’s sense of humour is another aspect of this book that appealed to me, and left me thinking “That was a good book” after having read it. It’s definitely quirky, and some may not enjoy it as much as I did, but it’s clever and subtle, which is why I liked it. For instance, the novella at the end of the book is about a young woman who is desperate to win a contest that would prepare and pay for her to sky-dive from space. The company that is launching the contest and facilitating the dive is a soda-pop company, however one that extolls it’s health benefits at every turn. Is this beginning to sound familiar to anyone? Well it should, based on the Red Bull sky-dive from last year, which I’m assuming Lewis used as a basis for this story. Aside from the somewhat absurd but widely accepted fact that a sugar-filled beverage like Red Bull promotes active living through their promotion of extreme sports, Lewis makes this story memorable through the format; it’s a written letter from the diver-to-be to the company’s female CEO, explaining why she should be chosen. It’s a great way to draw the reader in, and works perfectly to exemplify the fact that the applicant is a bit crazy.

Do athletes really drink red bull?

Do athletes really drink red bull?

One of the best parts of this book? It’s a beautiful hard-cover (and short stories are almost never hard-covers!), and it comes with it’s own bookmark that’s sewn into the spine, like those old copies of War and Peace that your Dad has on your fireplace mantle at home (is that just me?  Well alrighty then).

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CBC.ca | The Homestretch | WordFest Authors

Well I almost put my foot in my mouth here, but I stayed strong and kept the secret of the WordFest line-up! Although I no longer have to do that because you can visit the website yourself to see who’s coming in October. For those of you who don’t know me personally, I worked at WordFest for 5 years and enjoyed every minute of it, so I may be a bit biased when I spend an entire show talking about it. Lisa Moore, Colin McAdam and Sahar Delijani are just a few writers who are coming that I’m excited about, so who wants to join me to take in some events this Fall?

CBC.ca | The Homestretch | Wordfest Authors.

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Book Review: Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

There’s a couple reasons I picked up this book and most of them are quite shallow. Number one: the cover is gold glitter with neon pink lettering, which obviously caught my eye. Number two: the title is hilarious, and I knew that I could get on board with this author’s humor right away. So…I read it.rich

I’m not going to make any grandiose statements here, the book was good. Was it great? Not really, but it was good, and exactly what you would expect from a book called Crazy Rich Asians, so I’m going to get behind it nonetheless. It’s not your typical chick-lit because it has a lot of cultural references and back story, and romance isn’t the be all and end all of the plot, in fact it ends without resolving much in the way of relationships. It’s real strength is the picture it paints of the super elite referred to in the title. The characters are SUPER rich, not just wealthy millionaires, but so rich that they can afford to put a yoga studio in their private jet (this is a real example). Imagine the richest person you know (probably a celebrity in most people’s cases), then realize that the person you’re thinking of most likely owns a fraction of the fortune of that these crazy rich asians posesses.

Because I spoke about this book on the CBC, I did a bit of digging to find out more on Kevin Kwan. Not surprisingly, he’s had experience with this type of wealth, and has readily admitted to interviewers that he comes from a wealthy family himself. How rich? Who knows, but I’m guessing he can splurge on a fancy car or two if he’s seen this kind of wealth up-close, and feels comfortable enough to write a book about it. In his author photo, he looks quite well-dressed so he must have a strong grasp of the latest fashion trends because he name drops designers like it’s going out of style (which it’s not, in case you were wondering).kwan

One of the reasons I’m not going over-the-top on this book is the fact that it was too long.  Maybe it got to this length because he was so busy describing people’s expensive clothes, decadent jewellery and fancy homes, but being a debut novelist, I’m not sure his editor should have given him this much free reign. It could have been shorter, and as we all know the sign of a good writer is tight use of language, which this novel could have benefiited from.

Regardless of this complaint, I still enjoyed the book, and it’s getting enormous amounts of attention, so I’m obviously not the only one to pick it up. If you’re looking for something that’s quick, this isn’t the book for you, but if you’re looking for a bit of fanciful escapism, Crazy Rich Asians will be perfect.

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Book Review: Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple

If any of you follow my goodreads account, you’ll already know how I feel about this book (psst-you can keep track of what I’m reading currently through my goodreads widget at the bottom of this page as well). Ok enough with the suspense-I loved it! The book’s a national bestseller, and people have been talking about it for awhile, so it doesn’t come as a big surprise that it was good, but alas I still feel the need to sing its praises.* What’s another reason why you should buy it? Well it was published in 2012, which means it’s now available in paperback, which means it’s now cheaper than buying it in hardcover. Once again-you’re welcome!

The story takes place in Seattle, and doesn’t hold back when making fun of it’s residents. They are so starbucks loving and politically correct that it’s painful, which is part of the reason why the protagonist Bernadette decides to disappear. My favourite part of this book is the correspondence between the outlying characters (specifically the ones related to school and parenting), because the humor is so subtle, but genius. If you read between the lines in these emails and letters you will not only laugh at the circumstances, but you’ll laugh at yourself, because you’ll see a glimmer of your own life’s craziness in the conversations.

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Another brilliant episode of the book is the play-by-play recounting of a TED conference, because although it sounds absurd, I’m sure everything depicted is closer to the truth than we all like to think. Would Al Gore be pissed that someone took his special seat, even though he doesn’t technically claim it each year? Of course he would!

I can’t say I know much about Maria Semple, but after looking at her website I now know that she worked on lots of funny t.v. shows like Mad About You, Arrested Development and Ellen before she started writing books. She also lives in Seattle, which is probably why she was never criticized for mocking it’s residents in the book, because quite honestly if you live there yourself you’re exempt from being called “petty” or “critical” when pointing out the annoying traits of a particular city.  index

I hope you find some valid reasons in the above train of thought to find this book and read it. You won’t be sorry you did, and it doesn’t take long anyway-a perfect summer weekend read, in my honest and humble opinion.

*You may have noticed by now that my reviews are a bit different than others you typically read-it’s because I don’t rehash what happened in the story, I simply pick out the reasons I liked it, plus things I didn’t like. Personally, I really don’t see the point to book reviews that summarize the book (some even forget/avoid to actually critique the book, they just write an extended explanation of the plot line). If you want to know what happens in the book, read the back of it or the jacket flap! Or, if you’re not sure you even want to pick it up, go to indigo.ca and read the summary yourself! It’s super easy, and you don’t have to wade through paragraphs of me trying to reword marketing copy and calling it a ‘book review’. You’re welcome.

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Book Review: Death at Christy Burke’s by Anne Emery

I read my first book from Anne Emery a few years ago, it was called Barrington Street Blues, and featured Monty Collins, the lawyer/bluesman who also makes an appearance in Death at Christy Burke’s, her most recent novel. Emery’s latest also features Father Brennan Burke, a character who makes a few appearances in her other books, as well as fellow priest Michael O’Flaherty.

What I enjoyed most about this book, and what I think is most memorable about it is the fact that it has two different detectives on the case (Brennan and Michael), both having very different ‘investigating’ styles and personalities. Monty helps out when needed, but his character had a much smaller role in this particular book. Quite honestly, I think two or more investigators were necessary, because the plot itself is quite complicated, with many other people frequently coming in and out of the story. Does this complement, or take away from the overall book? It depends what kind of a reader you are; some people like a straightforward storyline that they don’t have to stop and think about while reading, others don’t mind sinking their teeth into something complicated. If you can keep numerous character’s names and meandering story lines straight while still enjoying what you’re reading, this book is definitely for you.

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Death at Christy Burke’s also provides a solid lesson on the history of Ireland and the way it affects the current politics there. Keep in mind this book does take place in 1992, but to someone who is wholly ignorant of the situation over there, 1992 is just as good as 2013 for filling in the blanks. The cause of the IRA was the main focus of the plot, and I’ll admit I hoped for a bit more information on the motivations of the agitators as the perspective was a bit one-sided, but Emery bravely demonstrated that not all people aligned themselves with either side-the younger generation, as well as the clerical contingent simply wanted the violence to end, as it had been going on for so long. Some readers may already be aware of the issues between the Catholic and Protestant religions in Ireland, but this book provides a brief yet thorough history of the conflict, so I recommend reading it for that reason alone. bsb

Anne Emery is great writer, and I want to make sure that’s clear in this review. Many mystery authors have a very dedicated following, and I hope that Emery also enjoys the same. Her returning characters are fun to read about and well developed, so she deserves every bit of attention she gets. It’s obvious ECW believes in her, as they’ve published all of her books in this series, (6 in total, with another on the way in November).  So, if you want to discover a new series of mysteries with some depth, I recommend this book and Emery’s others.

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I’vereadthis on the radio: part deux

Below is the link to my second day of book reviewing on The Homestretch. Aside from a stuttering incident that I would rather forget, I felt much more prepared and confident for my segment. Who knew talking about something you were so passionate about on the radio could be so nerve-wracking? Today I spoke about The Devil and the Detective, as well as The Death at Christy Burke’s (my full review of this to come shortly).  I also got the chance to speak about the importance of reading books from small Canadian presses, a strongly held belief I plan on trotting on more than once throughout the summer-you have that to look forward to, so stay tuned! I’ll be on the radio again next Monday evening, just before 6.

http://www.cbc.ca/homestretch/episode/2013/07/08/mysteries/

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Book Review: The Devil and the Detective by John Goldbach

Coach House sent me this book a couple of weeks ago, and I was eager to dive into it as soon as I got the chance. I remember the book being pitched to me back in March, and what I recall from that conversation was the description of the quirky protagonist/detective. A break from stereotypical archetypes of the genre, private eye Robert James (or Bob as he likes to be called) is one of the most memorable characters I’ve ever read. This is quite the accomplishment on its own, especially when the book is only 153 pages long. I’ll warn you that some my find his musings tiresome because he gets off track easily, and does a lot more thinking that doing in general. He has some of the common traits that other private investigators exhibit (problems with alcohol, strange sleeping patterns, strange bouts of isolation and loneliness) but this doesn’t phase me. His personality and dialogue is so different and unexpected that this is what keeps the book going, and ultimately sets it apart from other mysteries out there. DevilDetective

Bob doesn’t drive (much like my favourite detective, Jessica Fletcher of the classic TV show masterpiece Murder She Wrote) so he later befriends a flower delivery man who offers to chauffeur him around and help him with his case. This is in spite of the fact that the car is filled with flowers, which gives Bob headaches, but he prefers the rides to city transit so he puts up with the discomfort. It’s meaningless details like these that I can see putting off some readers,  however as I mentioned before, the book is quite short, so it doesn’t drag on or slow down the plot in any way.

Aside from reminding us of just about everything, he also implies in the first few pages of the book that he’s not particularly good at his job: “There are a lot of things I get wrong when it comes to guesswork. I observe, and then I come to a conclusion, if there’s a conclusion to come to, which more often that not there isn’t. A lot remains unknown” (p. 13). So, just to recap, in the first few pages of the book we learn that a) Bob frequently talks about things that have no bearing on anything, b) he’s an alcoholic,  and  c) he can’t necessarily be trusted as a detective, or a narrator. So why continue reading? Personally,  I’ve never read a mystery written like this before, and I wanted to see how it played out. Msw

I won’t give anymore away, but I will say it’s worth your time to finish the book. It ends in a way most mysteries don’t, which is another reason why I liked it-it’s so unexpected. And to completely throw off the reader, Goldbach includes a summary sentence of each chapter at the very beginning of the book. Almost like a skeleton outline of the plot, this device is essentially an extended table of contents, again something I’ve never seen before, but intriguing nonetheless. So, looking for a new twist on an old favourite? Pick up The Devil and the Detective and you’ll be pushed out of your Janet Evanovich and James Patterson comfort zone.

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