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).

giphy (1)

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.

SMALL Transparent IVEREADTHIS

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.

giphy

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.

SMALL Transparent IVEREADTHIS

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.

giphy

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. 

SMALL Transparent IVEREADTHIS

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?

SMALL Transparent IVEREADTHIS

 

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.

SMALL Transparent IVEREADTHIS

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.
SMALL Transparent IVEREADTHIS

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!

SMALL Transparent IVEREADTHIS

Book Review: Black Apple by Joan Crate

In honour of the recent Alberta Book Awards being given out, I wanted to highlight another wonderful book I just finished by an award-winning Alberta author Joan Crate. Black Apple follows a young Aboriginal girl named Sinopaki as she is forcefully taken from her family and brought to the residential school of St. Mark’s. Throughout her entire childhood and teens she is held there against her will until she is a young woman, firmly rooted in a religion she reluctantly practices but does not truly accept.

author Joan Crate

author Joan Crate

As I’ve said before in this blog, the difficult history of residential schools is one that I believe all Canadians should be aware of; I believe this would help eliminate the racism that the indigenous people of our country still face each and every day. However, Crate has not penned ‘just another residential school’ story here. She writes the book from mainly two perspectives: Sinopaki’s and the head of the school, Mother Grace. Two very different characters with two very different views are expertly illustrated , giving one of the most fair accounts (I’ve ever read) of what happened to the people caught up in this system.

Smokey is clearly a fan of this book too

Smokey is clearly a fan of this book too

Sinopaki is the obvious protagonist of the story, and it’s her that we follow most closely. She is a rambunctious child, therefore she is beaten by the nuns (as many children were in residential schools), but she also shows great intelligence. Because of this spark,  she is tutored personally by the head nun and kept from her family to continue at the school, even in the summertime when the other students are finally allowed home. Aside from being clever, she has special visions where she sees people’s spirits leave their body, and can even see ghosts of people who have died in the school grounds. Many children died there each year (again, a true fact of history) so she is literally haunted by dead schoolmates regularly.

In comparison, Mother Grace is also suffering. Although she could be viewed as the villain of the story (it is her alone that keeps Sinopaki from her family), Crate attempts to depict her in a positive light at times. Mother Grace is struggling her way through a male-dominated system that cares more about bottom lines than the children themselves. She truly believes she is helping the children by keeping them at the school, but she does regret her actions when she sees how much she has hurt Sinopaki. As I’ve read before, many clergy who participated in the residential school system did believe they were doing good, but unfortunately there were many abusers alongside them, which is why these experiences were so traumatic.

Although it is difficult subject matter, the story has a somewhat happy ending, and I finished the book feeling positive, which is no easy feat when exploring a topic like this. And of course, I’m proud to say that Crate lives in my local digs of Calgary, which is another great reason to pick up Black Apple. 

SMALL Transparent IVEREADTHIS

IveReadThis Jr. Edition: If I Had a Gryphon by Vikki Vansickle and Cale Atkinson

The good folks at Penguin Random House Canada heard that I had a kid, so they sent me a picture book to enjoy with my daughter. They didn’t ask for a review in return, but I feel as if it’s the least I can do, so here it goes, a review of a kid’s book: my best attempt.

If I Had a Gryphon by Vikki Vansickle, illustrated by Cale Atkinson was a lovely book; and I believe I am now experienced enough in children’s literature to state this with confidence, because I’ve read some pretty crappy kids books since my baby was born a year ago: ones that don’t even make sense, or have absolutely no storyline or point to them. Many are a poor excuse to simply include touch and feel pages to them, with the worst accompanying text you’ve ever read. This book thankfully does not fall into that category. gryphon book

Many children’s books have a moral or lesson to them; this story is no different. If I Had a Gryphon begins with a young girl introducing her pet hamster, then it follows her imagination as she ponders how fun it would be to have a fantastical animal as a pet instead (unicorns, manticores, etc.). She quickly realizes that having these crazy animals would be more complicated than enjoyable, so she is happy to settle with her ‘plain old hamster’. Spoiler alert: the cute hamster has a few tricks up his sleeve too, which you learn about (while the girl’s back is turned) on the last page. It’s adorable, and I get a little smirk every time I read it. Kudos to the illustrator Cale Atkinson on this too; the pictures of these super cool creatures are fun to look at, and not at all scary for kids.

The amount of text on the page is enough to keep my one year-old interested, but not bored. But I’m sure as she ages and begins to actually understand what she’s looking at and hearing, she will still like it, because the fantastical creatures that are depicted make it fun, and a little bit silly too. So far, I find a book that grows with your child is the best kind to have, because it makes the purchase worthwhile, and sure to become a story they remember up through adulthood too.

SMALL Transparent IVEREADTHIS

Book Review: The Loss of All Lost Things by Amina Gautier

People who work at or attend universities seem to make numerous appearances in Amina Gautier’s collection of short stories The Loss of All Lost Things. Is this a problem? No, of course not, and it makes a lot of sense when you discover that Gautier is a professor of creative writing at the University of Miami. Write what you know, right? I’ve heard some authors disagree with that statement (John Irving thinks that piece of advice is silly), but writing within a familiar context helps stories ring true to the reader, and the writer is able to take the plot wherever they like from that base of reality. This is exactly what Gautier did, which culminated in an emotionally striking read.

I was in Virginia when I read this book, which is why I tried to get a photo of the cool lamp in the background, thus the crappy cover shot

I was in Virginia when I read this book, which is why I tried to get a photo of the cool lamp in the background, thus the crappy cover shot

The title story of the collection is actually linked with another story titled “Lost and Found” which starts off the book. It’s written from the perspective of a young boy who has been kidnapped by a man named ‘Thisman’. You don’t get many details as to where they are or what’s happening to them, but the young (unnamed) boy does mention that he believes his parents are happier without him because their life must be simpler only having to worry about one child rather than two. This sentiment of course broke my heart, right within the first few pages of the collection.

Two stories later is “The Loss of All Lost Things”, which is a continuation of “Lost and Found” but written from the parents’ perspective. Not surprisingly they are devastated, and their marriage is slowly crumbling under the enormous weight of losing one of their children. What I found really interesting about these two stories was the fact that they didn’t come right after the other-why this decision I still wonder? Would it have been too emotionally difficult for the reader to get trapped in this terrible situation for that long? That’s my guess, as it was a welcome respite to read something completely unrelated between these two stories, even if the one in the middle was also a bit maudlin.

This book doesn’t include many laugh out loud moments, in fact, probably none at all. It was however a pleasure to read, mainly because the ideas expressed in it were so smart (not surprising for a professorial author!). For example, “Intersections” describes a professor and his female grad student  locked in an extramarital affair, and at one point the young lover remarks how trite their situation seems; how it sounds like something out of a short story. I don’t know why I loved this dialogue so much, but I did find it extremely clever nonetheless, and it also tells me that Gautier doesn’t take herself too seriously, which I
appreciate in any author. giphy (1)

I’ll admit I had never heard of Amina Gautier before I was sent this book, but I loved it so much that I’ll be sure to pick up her next one, whenever that comes along. If you’re looking for an intelligent writer with an absorbing way of storytelling, do be sure and check her out.

SMALL Transparent IVEREADTHIS