Book Review: The Butcher’s Hook by Janet Ellis

Is this book literary? Yes. Is this book a thriller? Yes, of sorts. Is this book a worthwhile piece of historical fiction? Definitely! The Butcher’s Hook by Janet Ellis is a lot of different things, it’s very unique in so many ways that it will appeal to many different audiences. But before I get into all the reasons I loved it, I wanted to state a few things up front.

The suspense of this book really kept Smokey on her paws

The suspense of this book really kept Smokey on her paws

Ellis still has some work to do in her plot development, I found the book to move a bit slow at the beginning, but the dangling of the protagonist’s misdeeds to come was enough to keep me going. Also, a few of the scenes were a bit repetitive, it seemed as though the same things were happening over and over again, so the lack of action needed some extra attention as well. However, even with these faults, The Butcher’s Hook is worth your time, and here’s why;

“His fingers trail over the book, stroking the patterned page as a snail marks its path with slime.” (p. 96)

and this;

“Hearing him speak is like stepping barefoot on a slug” (p. 107)

I absolutely loved Ellis’s writing. Just by quoting those two lines above, I’m sure you can see why: how perfectly she has evoked this terrible character Onions! The protagonist Anne is a fiery young woman whose terrible merchant father has promised her to Onions, an older, disgusting man who is well-placed to be a socially acceptable husband. However, Anne has fallen in very passionate love with the butcher’s boy Fub. As the novel progresses, the reader quickly realizes that Anne is capable of more than you initially think, and she will literally stop at nothing to make sure Fub is hers alone. Dum Dum Dummmmmmmmm… (insert scary piano music here).

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Anne is the other reason this is such a great book, and not just because she has the greatest name in the world. (I was hoping to use that joke on air last week, but I didn’t get the chance, so it gives me great pleasure to use it here). She is probably one of my favourite fictional characters I’ve read this year. She’s sassy, intelligent, and doesn’t suffer fools. For those of you who have read the wonderful Flavia de Luce series, she’s like Flavia, but grown up, and kind of evil. For those of you who have no idea who Flavia de Luce is, just trust me on this one, you’ll love Anne, and you’ll love The Butcher’s Hook.

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Radio Segment: Focus on Short Stories

I love reading short stories, and because they’re not as popular as they deserve to be, I’m always taking advantage of a little air time to talk about how great they are. You can click here to listen to my latest segment on CBC’s Homestretch. For those of you who listened to my radio spots a few years ago, you’ll recall me talking about short stories back then as well. No, I’m not recycling my ideas! I’m just putting emphasis on a style of writing that I really enjoy, and I think other would too, if they just gave them a chance. Can you tell I feel strongly about short fiction?

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I also give a little plug to my very first publishing gig at Cormorant Books, because I’m feeling a bit nostalgic these days.

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Radio Segment: Focus on Historical Fiction

All summer long, I’m appearing weekly on CBC’s Homestretch to talk about new books worth reading this summer. Each week, I’m focusing on a different genre, and yesterday I spoke about historical fiction. You can hear the segment here if you are interested. I don’t intend on listening to it myself, because hearing your voice on the radio is PAINFUL.

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Anyway, I spoke about two books, the first my blog readers will already be familiar with: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. You can check out my full review of it here. The second book I talked about (which I plan on posting a review of soon), was The Butcher’s Hook by Janet Ellis. Both are very different, but very worthwhile reads in the category of historical fiction. Next up: short stories! But those of you who follow my goodreads account will already know that.

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Book Review: White Elephant by Catherine Cooper

This is one effed up family. White Elephant by Catherine Cooper follows mother Ann, father Richard and son Tor as they struggle to navigate their new world in Sierra Leone at the beginning of the civil war there. I found this a really fascinating premise for a novel; three white people are transplanted from their middle class life in Nova Scotia to a treacherous, poverty-stricken part of Africa, and as you would probably suspect, it’s difficult for them. It’s not difficult for the reasons you would expect though; everyone in this family is severely unhappy, so when they add the daily challenges of living in a place such as Sierra Leone, their problems only multiply.

Originally,they move for a positive reason, because Richard is a doctor and has set up a hospital to help treat the poor along with a classmate from school. But when he gets there, he finds people unwilling to drop their cultural beliefs (female circumcision, herbal treatments, fear of witches, etc.) in exchange for the acceptance of modern medicine, so Rich is disgruntled with his situation at work. His home life is not much better because his wife Ann is convinced the house they live in is making her sick, and she’s still bitter about Richard’s affair back in Canada. On top of this, their son Tor is a real asshole (I can say this now, I’m a parent!). He’s gone on a hunger strike to try to force his parents to move back to Canada, and other than being insanely bored, he’s found a sick pleasure in causing animals pain. Richard is so fed up with Tor’s behaviour that he’s begun physically abusing him.  So…not an ideal situation all around.

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What I found very unique about this book was Cooper’s focus on the family. There are so many plot lines that could have come out of the Sierra Leone setting, but she only uses their environmental strife every once in a while. Flashbacks to the family’s past is what gives us the larger context here, and it provides tiny clues to why these people act the way they do.

I was lucky enough to read this book in the beautiful setting of Muskoka! Again, no cat accompaniment unfortunately

I was lucky enough to read this book in the beautiful setting of Muskoka! Again, no cat accompaniment unfortunately

I’m racking my brain trying to come up with a theory on what Cooper is trying to say by marrying these two situations; what is she trying to say about this family, and the affect that a place like Sierra Leone has on them? This move of theirs hasn’t destroyed them, it’s simply moved their destruction along at a faster pace. As I take a few days to absorb everything I read, something I can say definitively is that the change of lifestyle for all three characters simply stripped away all distractions for them, which cast the family into a darker place, but allowed them to see things more clearly in the end. Without giving anything away, I will say the book ends with some hope, although more so for the family, than the country of Sierra Leone. 

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IveReadThis is back on the radio-again!

Well folks, people don’t seem to be getting sick of my voice yet, because I’ve been asked to return CBC Calgary as their summer books columnist again. Many of you will recall me doing this a few years back, which was a ton of fun. And then last year I was on CKUA a bit, which was great fun as well. Because I’ve been asked to do this a second time around at the same radio station, I’m hoping that my nervousness will be able to take a back seat so I can focus on just enjoying myself, because chatting books is what I love to do!giphy (1)

I’ll be appearing each week on Tuesday afternoons between 3-6pm on The Homestretch, although next week, because it’s Stampede Week, I’m speaking on Thursday instead. I’m going to be talking about a different genre of writing each week. I already have a pretty solid idea of what I’m going to talk about, but if you guys know of any unique areas I should address specifically, please comment below!

I had my first radio session on Tuesday, and although you can’t hear the recording again, you can check out an article about it here.

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Book Review: Still Mine by Amy Stuart

The mountain landscape pictured on Amy Stuart‘s breakout thriller Still Mine has crossed my computer screen many times this year-it was a buzz book for 2016, so I was super excited to crack it open. Apparently it isn’t available in the U.S. until August, so my American readers are getting a jump start! I’ll make it easy on them and just state up front that it’s worth picking up when it comes out.

Once again, no cats in this photo, I finished this book while travelling

Once again, no cats in this photo, I finished this book while travelling

Having experienced a remote mountain town similar to the book’s setting Blackmore, I easily found myself absorbed in the life of its protagonist, Claire O’Day (not her real name). Stuart does an amazing job of placing us right into the damp, isolated town right alongside her characters, and we experience everything for the first time just like Claire does. We are introduced to her in bits and pieces as the story progresses, quickly learning that she was sent to this strange community to find a missing woman named Shayna, but at the same time, is a missing woman herself. The reader is forced to question Claire’s motives, and her dialogue is usually full of lies, so the reader is forced to play detective for both mysteries. What makes things worse is that Claire was at one point addicted to drugs, as was Shayna, so her actions are far from admirable, and her perspective is untrustworthy. In addition, the small left-over population of this mining town are all struggling with deep-rooted issues, many of them being addicts as well, so the cast of characters is not pretty, to say the least. This of course all leads to a brilliant Twin Peaks like atmosphere, which really appealed to me.

I don’t believe men would enjoy this novel as much as women. I know I’m stereotyping here, but Claire finds herself attracted to all the wrong kind of guys in this town (she hardly has much choice, in her defense), but I think other women would be able to relate to this common love of ‘the bad boy’. I read a review of Still Mine by a male writer, and he found Claire’s behaviour unbelievable, which illustrates my point perfectly. Females will read this book and nod their head internally: we’ve all been there. But don’t read too much into what I’m writing here, this book is hardly a romance, this minor plot line simply progresses the story forward, which I can appreciate as a long-time Murder She Wrote fan. Nothing ever comes of these romantic interests, much like Jessica Fletcher’s adventures back in the 80s and 90s.giphy

So there’s lots of twists and turns in this plot line, which comes together to create the classic ‘thriller’ experience for the reader. I’m going to go ahead and call this book the 2016 Girl on the Train read for the summer. The characters are engaging, and Stuart keeps us guessing throughout-what could be better?

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Book Review: Pen & Palate, Mastering the Art of Adulthood with Recipes

My reading of this book seems to have coincided with a very important milestone in my life: the marriage of a best friend. I find this happens to me quite frequently; I will pick up a book and find it is the perfect thing to be reading at that very specific time in my life. For example, I was reading a book about an overly protective mother before and after the birth of my child-the lessons of that story are still with me today. The same has happened in this case, because it has forced me to reflect on a decades long friendship I have been lucky enough to enjoy, similar to the ladies in this latest book.  Pen & Palate, Mastering the Art of Adulthood, with Recipes is all about female friendships, specifically the very close, fluid relationship between the authors Lucy Madison and Tram Nguyen.

I finished reading this book in Ontario, so unfortunately no kitty portraits to accompany the book this time

I finished reading this book in Ontario, so unfortunately no kitty portraits to accompany the book this time

I’ll go ahead and state right off the bat that this is chick-lit, also known as ‘women’s commercial fiction’ for those who feel the need to defend the genre. It’s not mindless though, men and shopping are not at the forefront of this book. It’s a refreshing change to see romance taking a back seat in this story, because the plot really does centre on these two women, and the way they evolve as friends. But food could be considered the third character in this memoir, as each chapter ends with a few recipes and a story as to why the recipe is relevant to the author(s). Madison and Nguyen seem to use  food as an outlet, and a way to connect with each other and those around them. I would consider both women ‘foodies’, so their intense focus on cuisine is understandable, but still fun for the reader to take part in. giphy

We are introduced to Madison and Nguyen as young girls, and follow them along their path to becoming ‘adults’. We leave them around their thirties (by my estimation), both in committed relationships, and comfortable with their current situations. Instead of agonizing over weddings and babies, both authors are intent to build up their own lives first, which seems to be the norm in my generation. Women aren’t so concerned with how many kids they have these days, but they are worried about the direction their career is taking them, and how stable their lives will be in the next five years. This is one of the reasons I loved this book so much, it rang true to me for so many reasons, another one being that the dialogue between Madison and Nguyen is so relatable.

My one complaint is that the recipes were given too much space, which forced the very interesting stories to end too soon. I felt as though the writing in between recipes was a bit rushed, or perhaps a large section was taken out, in order to meet a shorter pagination requirement. I would have liked to read more about Lucy and Tram; they were funny together, and they reminded me of how easy it is to settle back into a childhood friendship, even after months away. Pen & Palate celebrates not only the strength of women, but the strength of women together, which is something important enough to be given plenty of writing room.

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Happy 200th Post!!!!

Whew, how did I get here? 200 posts plus numerous cat pictures later, and I’veReadThis is still going strong, thanks to you guys, my readers. When I first began this blog, I had just left my job in the publishing industry, and was desperate to keep ties to the book community I knew and loved. But what I didn’t know was that I was about to step into the even bigger, more interactive community known as book blogging.giphy

Just to recap how this site has grown, I decided to take a look back at what I’ve been up to for the past three years. Aside from posting reviews and getting to know you book-loving folks out in the blogosphere, I‘ve had the pleasure of participating in a few radio programs where I got to ‘talk books’ to an even bigger audience, which was a TON of fun (and quite a bit more challenging, when you can’t use the delete button on your keyboard to erase something you regret saying!). And now, I regularly review books from the following publishers: Penguin Random House of Canada, House of Anansi Press, Simon and Schuster Canada, Hachette/Little Brown, Aksashic Books, Freehand Books, and many other small, independent presses. My foray into author interviews hasn’t been extensive, but I’ve loved my experiences so far, and hope to do others soon (hit up my contact page if you’re interested). Participating in book tours has also been part of my learning curve, but again, I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.

Cleave even used some authentic WWII stamps when he signed it-I watched him do it!

Cleave even used some authentic WWII stamps when he signed it-I watched him do it!

So to reward you, dear reader for making your way through that paragraph of bragging above, I’m doing a giveaway! I’ve got a (SIGNED!!!) advanced reading copy of Chris Cleave‘s latest novel Everyone Brave is Forgiven, and a Tom Dixon etched metal bookmark, all the way from Germany (seriously, I lugged this thing with me through my month-long travels specifically for this purpose), just ready to be shipped to the winner of this contest. All you have to do is comment on the post below. One week from today, I’m going to count up all the comments in total, and draw a number to determine the winner. I’ll contact you directly to let you know you’ve won, and ship you the prize to your doorstep. Oh, and you can only comment once you sneaky buggers.

So thanks again for being a part of my blogging and book reading journey-please keep in touch!

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Book Review: The Crooked Heart of Mercy by Billie Livingston

Oh jeez guys, oh jeez. I seem to have been on a streak lately, reading books about children dying, being kidnapped, and other horrible things. Billie Livingston’s The Crooked Heart of Mercy  continues this terrible theme as it begins with the accidental death of a two year-old, while he is at home with him Mom and Dad (so, essentially every parent’s worst nightmare). I can’t claim ignorance about the premise of this novel, I read the blurb on the inside cover, I knew this was going to happen, but still, I plodded on and finished the book. I have always enjoyed Livingston’s writing, so I hoped that this would be worth it.photo

I was right, this novel is amazing, like everything else Billie Livingston has ever written. Yes, it describes some horrific things that forced me into my daughter’s room late at night just to make sure she was ok (I thought I had gotten over that phase in my first few months of motherhood, guess not), but it ends with hope, and lightheartedness, which was exactly what I needed from this story to sit comfortably with it once finished.

The toddler death wasn’t the only heart-wrenching part of this novel. Parents abandon kids, people get addicted to drugs and alcohol, a protagonist tries to commit suicide, the list goes on. But almost all of these things happen in the past, and the majority of the present day narrative is about working through grief, and reconciliation. Each character has their own demons to contend with, and yet at the end of the day, they are all totally relatable. Plus, humor can be found in almost every page, which is something that we all use to help deal with loss, at one time or another. So not only does this book turn tragedy into something bearable, it was also a delight to read, because it depicts life at its best and worst, taking the reader on a roller coaster of emotion, but leaving us giddy at the end.

Another reason I loved this book? It was the perfect length, just long enough; not surprising when Livingston’s short stories are fantastic. You’ll notice that many novelists who also write short stories aren’t likely to write big long tomes that give the reader hand cramps to get through. It’s because they use prose sparsely, which is much more difficult, but so much more enjoyable to read (and edit, copy-edit, proof, sell, publicize, etc.). Thank you Billie Livingston, for choosing your words carefully.
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Book Review: Carry Me by Peter Behrens

Many Can-lit fans will know of Peter Behrens. He comes out with a new book every few years, he’s won the GG for his fiction in the past, and he looks like he a real-life cowboy. I will admit that I’ve harboured a bit of a crush on him in the past, and when I was lucky enough to meet him in person, his author photos finally made sense, because he described to me how much time he spends on his sailboat with his family, thus explaining the incredible tan he sports year round.

I found this photo of him on the internet, he's not physically on a boat but looks like he just stepped off one

I found this photo of him on the internet; he’s not physically on a boat but looks like he just stepped off one.

It’s not surprising that he’s a fan of the sea,  because the freedom of being out on the water is a feeling that is echoed in his newest book Carry Me.  It’s a family saga that begins shortly before the first war, and ends during the second world war, with lots of back and forth in between. Unlike some writers who struggle with time changes, Behrens deftly brings the reader with him through multiple jumps in time by simply separating each section with a blank page. This seems like a very simple and obvious tactic, but I’m shocked at how many authors do not do this, thus ending up with a confused reader. We’re all trying to save paper, but in this case, a page break is definitely necessary.

photo (6)Something else that set this book apart for me was its ambition. Behrens attempts to cover such a lengthy, complicated time in Europe’s history that it would have been difficult to keep the plot from unravelling. He keeps us engaged with the protagonists Billy and Karin, and we come to feel as though we know them intimately: two long-time friends turned lovers. The ending stuck with me for awhile-I wasn’t expecting it, but it seemed fitting all the same.

So why am I not in love with this book? I don’t know really, other than the fact that nothing really elevated it about all the other great historical fiction I’ve read. There are so many great books that detail our past so I find that one needs to write a very special story in order to make it stand out above the rest. Yes, Carry Me was unique in it’s attempt to deal with both World Wars in depth, but I wonder if it might have been stronger if it had limited its focus.

Literary historical fiction; is there enough of this in the world yet? I don’t think so, because we haven’t seemed to learn our lesson, we’re still making the same mistakes that they did in the past. So bring on more of the old-timey stories, we clearly need ’em!

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