Book Review: Double Happiness by Tony Brasunas

Ok I think this is a first for travel memoir to review! Yes, how exciting, but not just for you dear readers, but for me as well, because I was lucky enough to experience some oft-overlooked areas of China by flipping through the pages of this book.


Double Happiness recounts Tony Brasunas’s travels through China in 1997 (before the interwebs, cellphones, and ATMs). However, aside from the historical changes in politics that he experiences while there, this book could have taken place today as well, as I imagine (based on my broad assumptions only) that many things would have turned out/looked the same for him. While traveling, Brasunas wrote in a journal, and struggled to do things the right way, even if it was more difficult. For instance, when hawkers tried selling him things on the street, he would politely refuse, but then offer to help them carry their heavy burden up a steep hill, etc. They would always be surprised at first, but then gladly share the workload, immediately trusting the gwailo* (foreigner).

Speaking of run-ins with street vendors, one of the most poignant parts of the book for me was Brasunas’s struggle to successfully bargain with shopkeepers. He’s in an electronics shop and interested in buying a camera. When he tries to talk the price down, the vendor says “We’re a family, we have to buy our rice” (p. 145). That phrase struck me with it’s power. How could you argue with something like that? You later learn that this is a tactic that they use to keep the prices high, and Brasunas’s response back that he is a struggling teacher typically shuts down their earlier justifications, but this scene taught me something very obvious about myself-I would have paid the asking price right then and there, because the shop keeper has played to my ‘North American’ guilt that so many of us experience when traveling to poorer countries. Is paying the higher price the right thing to do, simply because you can afford it? Perhaps in some cases, but because Brasunas is travelling on such a tight budget, this question is never answered.index1

There’s a good balance of scenery description, inner reflection, historical reference and plot development in this book, and for that reason I devoured it in two days, eagerly diving back in to follow Brasunas on his adventures while safely nestled in my living room. As I mentioned before, I don’t typically read these types of books, mainly because they simultaneously make me want to go traveling, and then scare me away from it at the same time (the author got extremely sick when he was away, and he also experienced some near-death moments on some rickety buses in the mountains of Tibet), but I’m always so glad I did when I’m finished, because it literally transported me to another

The subtitle of this book is: “One Man’s Tale of Love, Loss, and Wonder on the Long Roads of China”. This gives you an idea of how ‘spiritual’ the journey is for the author, so expect some heavy soul searching to go along with it, more soul-searching that I believed any man in their early 20’s would ever do. However, Brasunas has an interesting background (he grew up on a commune in West Virginia) so his voice throughout the book is entirely believable based on those circumstances. Although I can’t prove this, I do believe Double Happiness is the author’s first book, which to me is quite surprising, seeing as his narrative is so well developed and balanced. One trap he does fall into, which many first-time writers can as well, is the overuse of flowery metaphors. We all do it, and not until you’ve written many a book will you grow out of this tempting habit, but other than that nit picky detail, I’m very impressed by Brasunas’s journey and its recounting.

*Side note-this book includes a quick glossary at the end of it, and Brasunas threw in enough Chinese words throughout that I actually began to understand a few as a I read through the book (insert internal fist pump here).


Book Review: Whiskey Creek by Dave Hugelschaffer

A forest ranger who puts out fires. A forest ranger who puts out fires and solves mysteries. A forest ranger who puts out fires, solves mysteries and looks good in the process. A forest ranger who puts out fires, solves mysteries, looks good in the process and does this all in Northern Alberta. What’s not to love about the premise of Dave Hugelschaffer‘s Porter Cassel mysteries? All of these aspects to his books come together to create a very unique and enjoyable series that I’ve returned to after a few years. Before I go any further, I must admit to everyone that I have a soft spot for Hugelschaffer: I was his publicist when I worked at Cormorant Books, and then I hosted him here in Calgary when he attended Wordfest 2009.

indexBut regardless of my personal connection to him, he’s a fascinating guy, and his extensive knowledge about all things manly play a big role in his books. Below is a quote from his bio on the Crime Writers of Canada website: “Dave Hugelschaffer grew up on a farm in Alberta and in his younger years worked as a trapper, construction worker, painter, beekeeper, log builder and stockyard hand before joining the Alberta Forest Service, where he worked as wildland firefighter, timber cruiser and Forest Ranger for eight years.  Following this, he spent ten years working in the forest industry for a private company, coordinating the operations of the forest and oil & gas industry, and has since returned to the Forest Service.”  Now, who doesn’t believe that a guy like this can come up with a believable mystery series that takes place in the wilds of Alberta?

When you read the book, you can’t help but liken the protagonist Porter Cassel to Hugelschaffer himself, they seem very similar in many ways, although some of the shenanigans that Cassel gets up to makes you secretly hope that Hugelschaffer is intentionally trying to distance himself from his character with these questionable personality quirks. Which is another reason why Hugelschaffer is so surprising as an author-he’s got great character development, on top of his detailed, procedural knowledge of crime scenes, arson cases, etc. The human qualities and personal troubles that his main character goes through are frequent and believable enough to draw in a reader like myself, someone who cares more about the ‘why’ then the ‘how’. So don’t be dissuaded female readers, this isn’t a book without its relationship troubles-Cassel is actually engaged, but even this is called into question within the pages of  Whiskey Creek.index

The plot of this book is your typical mystery: a strange death occurs, Cassel tries to figure out who did it, problems ensue, mystery is eventually solved, etc. Some have called his series “The Forest Rangers’ CSI” and I think this is a very apt description. Although some situations can get bogged down in details, many crime writers do this intentionally, so I’ll give Hugelschaffer the benefit of the doubt here. To sum up, if you’re like me and enjoy a good mystery, perhaps one that will teach you something about a topic you don’t know much about, pick up a Hugelschaffer mystery because you’ll be pleasantly surprised.


Book Review: A Permanent Member of the Family by Russell Banks

I blew through this short story collection in a few days (it’s true, check my goodreads status!), because the stories were great, the characters were interesting, and the collection wasn’t too long. It’s obvious Banks didn’t struggle to fill the pages in A Permanent Member of the Family; each story is succinct, enjoyable to read and beautifully written.

I read his novel The Sweet Hereafter a few years ago, and really liked it, so I’m glad I picked up the latest by this relatively well-known American writer. Plus, who am I kidding, I’m a book blogger, I just read what people send me, even if I’m not too excited about it to start with: but I’m always ready to be pleasantly surprised.

Mr. Banks-yup he's old, so he's had lots of time to hone his craft

Mr. Banks-yup he’s old, so he’s had lots of time to hone his craft

Which I was with this book, because a few stories have stuck with me for the past few days, my thoughts  drifting back to particular scenes or characters every once in a while. One story in particular I found especially relevant and realistic,  an occurrence that probably  happens every day but people wouldn’t want to admit it. “Snowbirds” describes a woman who has just moved down to Florida with her husband after buying a small condo in Miami, ready to live out the rest of their retirement in comfort and warmth. However, after just a few weeks of living there, her husband has a fatal heart attack after a tennis lesson (so Floridian!) and his wife Isabel is left alone. Immediately she phones her friend Jane who lives in upstate New York, (who was enduring the harsh winter Isabel has just escaped), and as a good friend Jane quickly flies down south to offer emotional support. However, when she arrives, she discovers that Isabel  is enjoying her newly single life, she’s almost even giddy. The two friends quickly tie up the loose ends of the husband’s death, and then get down to enjoying life down in Miami, once Jane has gotten over her initial shock at Isabel’s reaction.

What’s great about this story is that Isabel did love her husband, but she was ready to be free of him and explore her independence once more. How many seniors want to admit that they no longer want to be married, but feel like they can’t, or that divorce past your seventies just isn’t worth the hassle? That’s what I love about Banks’s writing, he uncovers these obvious but hidden feelings that we all experience at one point in our life, but have trouble admitting out loud, sometimes even to ourselves. index

Oh, for those of you who know me personally and we see each other on a regular basis, shoot me an email if you really want to read a book that I’m reviewing on here, and I’ll give it to you next time we see each other-I don’t keep any of these books after I’ve read them, because I want to share the book wealth! All of the leftovers that don’t get snatched up by my friends are donated, fyi.


Books Ive Read in 2013

For those of you who followed my dalliances into blogging while I was at WordFest,  you will recognize this list of mine. It’s a record of every book I read this year, in order of reading. Not the most exciting post I’ve ever made, but I find that people are interested in this nonetheless, so I’ll throw it up here anyway. And yes, you will notice I read 15 less books in 2013 than I did in 2012 and 2011. Why is that? Well I no longer work for a literary festival, and my current job description doesn’t include “reading books”, so unfortunately I have less hours in the day to enjoy my favourite pastime.

If you want to know what I thought of these books, some of them link directly to reviews I’ve written on this blog for them, or on-air reviews I’ve given. Just because I didn’t write a review on the book doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. In fact, I’d like to write reviews on all the books I read, but I simply don’t have the time (see above reasoning), and I’d much rather spend my time reading than attempting to write witty yet interesting anecdotes about 65 different books.

You’ll notice a wide range of titles here-some of that is due to the fact that I was reading books in preparation for my CBC appearances, which required very different genres than I am used to. I can always find redeeming qualities to every book (seriously, I can) so I really enjoyed that experiment.

  1. How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti
  2. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
  3. The Lion Seeker by Kenneth Bonert
  4. A Beautiful Truth by Colin McAdam
  5. The Miracles of Ordinary Men by Amanda Leduc
  6. The Rapture by Liz Jensen
  7. The Village by Nikita Lalwani
  8. The Truth About Luck by Iain Reid
  9. The Dilettantes: A Novel by Michael Hingston
  10. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  11. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
  12. The Demonologist by Andrew Pyper
  13. Roost by Ali Bryan
  14. Reconciliation by Dorothy Speak
  15. You Are a Cat by Sherwin Tija
  16. The Green and Purple Skin of the World by Paulo da Costa
  17. The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson
  18. Speaking From Among the Bones by Alan Bradley
  19. Caught by Lisa Moore
  20. Canary by Nancy Jo Cullen
  21. How to Host a Dinner Party by Corey Mintz
  22. Festival Man by Geoff Berner
  23. Emancipation Day by Wayne Grady
  24. Out of Their Minds by Luis Humberto Crosthwaite
  25. Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi
  26. Ballistics by D.W. Wilson
  27. Hellgoing by Lynn Coady
  28. Screw Everyone by Ophira Eisenberg
  29. Secret by L.M. Adeline
  30. The Blind Man’s Garden by Nadeem Aslam
  31. The Deep Whatsis by Peter Mattei
  32. Children of the Jacaranda Tree by Sahari Delijani
  33. Dance,  Gladys Dance by Cassie Stocks
  34. The Dark by Claire Mulligan
  35. Let’s Explore Owls with Diabetes by David Sedaris
  36. Little Cat by Tamara Faith Berger
  37. The Devil & the Detective by John Goldbach
  38. Death at Christy Burke’s by Anne Emery
  39. Beautiful Day by Elin Hildebrand
  40. Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple
  41. Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
  42. I Know Who You Remind Me Of by Naomi Lewis
  43. The Family Took Shape by Shashi Bhat
  44. This is How you Die-Various Authors, Edited by Ryan North and Others
  45. Life Without Death by Peter Unwin
  46. Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked by James Lasdun
  47. Almost a Great Escape by Tyler Trafford
  48. The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
  49. Burning from the Inside by Christine Walde
  50. Night Film by Marisha Pessl
  51. Everything is so Political by Sandra McIntyre
  52. The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence
  53. The Circle by Dave Eggers
  54. Worst. Person. Ever. by Douglas Coupland
  55. Cataract City by Craig Davidson
  56. Muse by Mary Novik
  57. Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie
  58. Are You Ready to be Lucky? by Rosemary Nixon
  59. Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen
  60. Corpse Flower by Gloria Ferris
  61. Mother, Mother by Koren Zailckas
  62. Life Class by Ann Charney
  63. Eleven Pipers Piping by C.C. Benison
  64. Bedrock Faith by Eric Charles May
  65. The Guts by Roddy Doyle

So what do you think? Do I need to read more, or should I be embarrassed that I spend this much of my life reading already?


Book Review: Bedrock Faith by Eric Charles May

Bedrock Faith is the first novel from author Eric Charles May, a Chicago native that’s also a journalist and teacher. He has also written a few short stories in his time, which is reflected in this book  because his writing is so precise and careful. Keeping that in mind, I will warn you that Bedrock Faith is close to 500 pages, so don’t pick this up unless you’re in it for the long haul. EricMay-200x149

The story centers on the small insular neighborhood of Parkland in a Chicago suburb. Every neighbor knows one another, and is generally interested in eachother’s business, whether they should be or not. The most delightful aspects of this book are the in-depth character descriptions of each household, each person’s daily habits, the mundane day-to-day life of the families, etc. May does such a great job of creating this realistic community that along with the characters, the reader feels put-out by the changes that reformed criminal Stew Pot brings along when he returns to Parkland, which is the premise of this well written book.

BedrockFaith2-133x200Stew Pot is a largely confusing and contradictory character. He returns home from prison as a born-again religious fanatic, and begins to condemn his neighbors for their ‘sinning’ ways, mostly in a disturbing and aggressive manner, for ridiculous things that only he considers wrong.  For example, he forces his own mother to begin wearing shawls over her head and skirts down to her ankles. He also berates and vandalizes a neighbor’s home for stringing Christmas lights up in July because he argues this is blasphemous to celebrate Jesus’s birth at the wrong time of year. His character is the main instigator of book, and his disruptive nature is what the plot hinges on.

Not surprisingly, the book takes a dark turn towards the very end of the story once Stew Pot’s antics get out of control, and (spoiler alert) some people end up dead. I will say that this tone shift was very unexpected to me as a reader, however I think this is a very realistic way of portraying these types of incidents, and I can appreciate the lack of foreshadowing because it kept me reading. There were some threads left hanging at the end as well, but again I really enjoyed the fact that I was kept guessing, and as a person who reads as much as I do, I don’t typically get surprised by the direction of narratives very often (I’m hoping that doesn’t sound as pretentious to you as it did in my head, but this is truthfully how I feel).

Akashic Books publishes some wonderful novels, many of them very different from the other. Eric Charles May is a gem of a writer that they found, and I’m so glad I picked up this unexpected delight of a book.