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Sunday, December 31, 2017

Schatje's "Best Books Read in 2017" List

Today is the last day of 2017, so I’m presenting my list of the Best Books Read in 2017.  Please note that these were not necessarily published in the year – they made it off my “To Read” pile in the calendar year.

I’ve chosen my top 20 reads, organizing them into four categories:  Best Canadian Fiction, Best Fiction from the United Kingdom, Best American Fiction, and Best Thrillers.  By coincidence, all three books in the last category were read in translation.  Within each category, the books are not ranked.

Best Canadian Fiction

Best Fiction from the United Kingdom

Best American Fiction

Best Thrillers

Friday, December 29, 2017

Upcoming New Releases in 2018

As 2017 winds down, it’s time to start anticipating the new books that will be published in 2018.  I came across two extensive lists which I thought I’d share; both give brief summaries of the plots.


And check out https://readingbookslikeaboss.com/book-releases/#jan2018 for titles for each month of the year.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Review of MISSING ISAAC by Valerie Fraser Luesse (New Release)

2 Stars
I can see this book being adapted into a Hallmark movie.  Unfortunately, it is not a book I enjoyed; it is much too saccharine. 

In Glory, Alabama, in 1964, Isaac Reynolds, a black field hand goes missing.  When Jack McLean, Isaac’s friend and employer, was killed two years earlier, Isaac took Pete, Jack’s son, under his wing and the two were almost inseparable.  Thirteen-year-old Pete sets out to try and find out what happened to Isaac; in the process he finds a new friend and learns about the world.

This is to be seen as a coming-of-age novel showing Pete’s maturation from the age of 11 to 17.  The problem is that Pete seems mature from the beginning.  If anything, he is too good to be true.  He never seems to do anything wrong; his only transgression is lying to his mother that he is going fishing with Isaac when he actually goes with him to a barbecue in the black section of town where he hears blues music for the first time!  He is unfailingly courteous, works hard, and takes responsibility for his actions.  He shows no sign of teenage rebelliousness; he does get into a fight at school but only because he is defending a girl’s honour.  And because he respects Dovey, his girlfriend, sex is never ever mentioned.

And it is not only Pete who is perfect.  His entire family borders on the saintly.  They show no prejudice; though Jack was white and wealthy, one of his best friends was a black man and the other was a poor man.  Pete’s maternal grandfather, Ned Ballard, is the town philanthropist who quietly gives money to any deserving person regardless of colour.  In his attitude and behaviour, he is very much the Atticus Finch character.  Dovey’s deceased mother is described as an angel and Dovey seems one too; she is always doing nice things for others.  She even has an angelic singing voice!  The one person who could be seen as a rebel is Pete’s Aunt Geneva who is known for speaking her mind; nevertheless, everyone is crazy about her, even those she cowers into subservience.  She is Harper Lee’s Miss Maudie.

The blacks and the poor are also portrayed as overwhelmingly good.  Of the poor white people living in the hollow (?!) only Joseph Pickett is shown in a negative light; he marries a woman who is described as a loudmouth with no sense and who wears tight shorts and halter tops.   The blacks are likewise shown only in a positive light.  Hattie, for instance, is so hardworking that she is respected by all the whites.  She brings to mind Calpurnia in To Kill a Mockingbird.

While Pete’s family has no flaws, there are villains who have no redeeming qualities.  A character is introduced early in the book whom any discerning reader will immediately identify as one of the evil characters who will keep reappearing throughout.  Then there are the stereotypes:  two obvious ones are the stupid, prejudiced sheriff and the uneducated country bumpkin who in her mannerisms and speech reminded me of Mayella Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird.

With all the religious overtones, this book would probably fit the category of Christian fiction.  Hymns are quoted liberally.  The McLeans are good church-going Christians, as are the blacks.  The poor whites do not feel welcome in Glory’s churches but worship in their own way.  In the end, the good are rewarded (usually by finding a soulmate and getting married) and the hypocrites receive their comeuppance. 

Anyone who loves a feel-good ending will love this ending.   Despite some temporary setbacks, evil is eventually vanquished.  Good conquers all.  Happiness awaits those who persevere through hardships. I wish life were so simple, but such endings are not very realistic.

Undoubtedly, I will be criticized as being too harsh in my comments.  I do not mean to be.  This type of book is just not for me; it does not reflect the real world.  People are more nuanced than the characters in this novel.  Furthermore, by resorting to stereotypes and clichés, the author does not increase the reader’s understanding of Alabamians or appreciation for Southern culture.  (Or has my reading been coloured by Roy Moore’s  Senate campaign in Alabama?)

Note:  I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Make Jólabókaflóð a Boxing Day Tradition

My husband and I visited Iceland this past year.  It was an amazing trip; we saw waterfalls, glaciers, volcanoes, fjords, geysers, black sand beaches, lava fields, snow-covered mountains, lupin-covered valleys, icebergs, a black sand desert, geothermal mud pools and fumaroles, etc.  We hiked to the toe of a glacier, behind a waterfall, around a volcano crater, and down a lava cave; bathed in hot springs; experienced 24 hours of daylight; drove within 100 kms of the Arctic Circle; fed Icelandic horses; photographed puffins nesting on cliffs and a herd of reindeer grazing; sampled Icelandic cuisine; toured historic sites, landmark churches, geologic sites, and turf farms; and loved every minute of the journey.

One of the Christmas traditions of this country which I fell in love with is Jólabókaflóð.  Jólabókaflóð (Book Flood) begins with the release of Bókatíðindi, a catalogue of new publications from the Iceland Publishers Association.  That catalogue is distributed free to every Icelandic home!  Until about 15 years ago, paperbacks were rare because Icelanders didn't see books as something to be read and bought cheaply.  And the book in Iceland is such a serious gift that a physical book, rather than an e-book, is usually given. 

Iceland has a nearly 100% literacy rate, where at least 90 percent of the people read just for pleasure, and the gift most requested by children at Christmas time is a book.  Christmas gifts are opened on December 24 and, by tradition, everyone reads the books they have been given straight away, often while drinking hot chocolate or alcohol-free Christmas ale.

I think Jólabókaflóð would be a great tradition to import into North America and celebrate a version thereof on Boxing Day.  Why not spread a love of books?  Though many of us do give books as Christmas gifts, why not turn Boxing Day into Book Giving Day for everyone?  Now, many people spend the day looking for Boxing Day sales.  Why not end the day by exchanging books and then spending the night reading?  That sounds like a perfect way to relax after the hectic pace of Christmas.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Have Yourself a Stuart McLean Christmas!

I’ve always associated Christmas with books and reading.  A book has always been a favourite gift.  When I was a child, a Christmas did not go by without my reading Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  As an adult, that has been replaced with reading or listening to Stuart McLean’s short story, “Dave Cooks the Turkey” (audio version available at https://soundcloud.com/cbc-radio-one/vinyl-cafe-dave-cooks-the).

Stuart McLean died on February 15, 2017, but he will always remain a part of my Christmases.  This year, I received an early Christmas present:  a copy of Christmas at the Vinyl Café which was published earlier this year.  All the Vinyl Café Christmas stories are in this special collection—including the classic "Dave Cooks the Turkey."   There are also five new, never before published Christmas stories.  The last story in the book is entitled “The Christmas Card” which was the Christmas story Stuart read at his last concert.  This concert was played on CBC on December 17; if you missed it, you can listen to it at http://www.cbc.ca/listen/shows/vinyl-cafe/episode/15210170.  Then make certain you buy a copy of this book so if you have not already made reading a Stuart McLean Christmas story a part of your annual festivities, you can do so next year.  

 
 

Merry Christmas to all my readers.
Joyeux Noël à tous mes lecteurs.
Wesołych Świąt dla wszystkich moich czytelników.
Vrolijke Kerstmis aan al mijn lezers.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Review of THE KITCHEN HOUSE by Kathleen Grissom

Advent Book Calendar – Day 24
Since I started by blog, I’ve done an annual Advent Book Calendar highlighting books I have enjoyed and authors I really like.  This year I thought I’d do an Advent Book Calendar with a twist; for each day leading up to Christmas, I’m going to post a review of a book to which I’ve given only one star (Throw a book at this one) or two stars (Don’t put this book in your book bag).  Though I would not recommend these books, others have disagreed with me.  Each book, on Goodreads, has received a 3 or 4 Star average rating.

Review of The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom
2 Stars
Lavinia, an orphaned Irish immigrant, arrives at a Virginia tobacco plantation as an indentured servant in the 1790s. She is adopted by the family of slaves who work in the Big House and the Kitchen House (Mama Mae, Papa George, Uncle Jacob, Belle, Dory, Ben, Beattie and Fanny). The novel covers her life from the age of seven to her mid-twenties.

The novel is narrated primarily from Lavinia’s point of view, but Belle’s perspective is also given. Belle is of mixed race, the illegitimate daughter of the plantation owner, Captain Pyke. Certainly the point of view of a white indentured servant is original, but for me there were a number of problems with the novel.

First of all, I found Lavinia’s characterization problematic. Her naivety is unbelievable. She is raised by blacks and so sees first-hand the mistreatment they receive, yet she wants to be treated like them, not like a white person. At times she is just so foolish, making bad choices based solely on assumptions and misunderstandings which could easily have been cleared up with some frank discussion.

Characterization problems continue with other characters as well. The blacks tend to be too good, especially the adults such as Mama Mae, Papa George, and Uncle Jacob. On the other hand, some of the whites are pure evil. Mr. Rankin, the overseer, and Mr. Waters, the tutor, have no redeeming qualities. No background is given about them, so their motivations are unexplained.

There is definite plot manipulation. Unnecessary conflict is often the result of unspoken truths. Why, for example, does Captain Pyke let everyone believe that Belle is his mistress when she is in fact his daughter? Furthermore important documents are lost and then found at too convenient times.

There is so much tragedy in the book. There are countless beatings, deaths, and rapes, and the number of children fathered by white men with black women defies belief. With so many tragic things happening, the reader is left feeling numbed. To be honest, I felt emotionally manipulated.

The novel certainly portrays the vulnerability and powerlessness of women, especially female slaves. Their only strength is their families.

Too much melodrama, weak characterization, and plot manipulation make this less than quality fiction.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Review of COMING OF AGE IN MISSISSIPPI by Anne Moody

Advent Book Calendar – Day 23
Since I started by blog, I’ve done an annual Advent Book Calendar highlighting books I have enjoyed and authors I really like.  This year I thought I’d do an Advent Book Calendar with a twist; for each day leading up to Christmas, I’m going to post a review of a book to which I’ve given only one star (Throw a book at this one) or two stars (Don’t put this book in your book bag).  Though I would not recommend these books, others have disagreed with me.  Each book, on Goodreads, has received a 3 or 4 Star average rating.

Review of Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody
2 Stars
A friend returned from a trip to Mississippi and bought me this book during her visit there. I looked forward to reading it because it promised an interesting first-hand perspective, that of Anne Moody, an insider in the civil rights movement or, as Sen. Edward Kennedy stated, "A history of our time, seen from the bottom up." I was greatly disappointed because it offered little insight.

The autobiography often read like a catalogue of events: I did this and then I did this and then. . . From my studies and readings, I'm familiar with the facts of what happened; I expected to read about the impact of the events. It would have been interesting to read about how she felt, especially during events like the Woolworth's lunch counter sit-in. Only 3 1/2 pages are devoted to this protest, and the focus is on what everyone did, not on her feelings at the time. Being a participant, Moody could have added to the historical record by describing personal reactions, thereby increasing the reader's understanding and arousing his/her empathy. Her account is the equivalent of a newspaper story.

When there is an attempt to describe her feelings, it is not very revealing. She does faint a lot: "Everything around me went black" (387) and "my head began to spin" (402). Other reactions to situations are to move slowly or not at all: "It took me about an hour to change my uniform" (388) and "I sat there for a while with my face buried in my hands" (414).

There are many contradictions in the book. She makes statements like, "if [the white teachers] were at all like the whites I had previously known, I would leave the school immediately" (267). This statement totally ignores previous comments: "I thought of how nice these [white] people were to us . . . [They] treated me like I was their daughter. They were always giving me things and encouraging me . . . " (59). Summarizing her first experiences at working for whites, she says, "The five I had worked for so far had been good to me" (118).

Her treatment of her family is likewise contradictory. With her sister she moves into an apartment and then leaves her to cover the costs: "We had just moved into that apartment, we owed at least one hundred dollars on the furniture, and she couldn't take care of those bills alone" (399). She admits to "hat[ing] to run out on Adline" (399), but she does it nonetheless. Then, when Adline does not attend Anne's graduation, Anne says, "She had lied and said that she would come to the graduation" (419), although Adline had made no such promise when she spoke about attending the ceremony (400).

Publisher's Weekly praised Moody for telling her story "without a trace of see-what-a-martyr-am-I" but I found she could be full of self-pity. She talks about her exhaustion and having to wear the same clothes all day and losing "'about fifteen pounds in a week'" (324). She is upset that no family member attends her college graduation: "'Here I am,' I thought, 'alone, all alone as I have been for a long time'" (415 - 416). She repeatedly bemoans the fact that she can't go home, totally disregarding the fact that she was the one who chose to sever ties with her family: "'These people just ain't no damn good! Everybody in this fuckin' town ain't no good. I'm gonna leave this goddamn town right now'" (210). Incidentally, after this tirade, she complains that her stepfather is "'running around the house cursing all the time'" (214).

Moody can be admired for some candor in the book. Blacks are not viewed as totally innocent; for example, she decries the treatment her mother receives from her second husband's family "for no reason at all than the fact that she was a couple of shades darker than the other members of their family. Yet they were Negroes and we were also Negroes. I just didn't see Negroes hating each other so much" (59). Several times she mentions her frustration with the apathy of the people she is trying to register for the vote. She is present for Martin Luther King's speech in Washington, but she dismisses it: "I sat on the grass and listened to the speakers, to discover we had 'dreamers' instead of leaders leading us. Just about every one of them stood up there dreaming. Martin Luther King went on and on talking about his dream. I sat there thinking that in Canton we never had time to sleep, much less to dream" (335).

There is no doubt that Blacks suffered under the Jim Crow laws, but some of Moody's descriptions seem over-the-top. The arrest of protesters in Jackson and the presence of police dogs, though they "were not used" (298), prompt her to compare the situation to Nazi Germany. Policemen are compared to Nazi soldiers (305) and a fairgrounds detention centre is called a "concentration camp" (360).

The writing style is tedious to say the least. The repeated use of short, simple sentences becomes very monotonous: "I was there from the very beginning. Jackie Robinson was asked to serve as moderator. This was the first time I had seen him in person. . . . Jackie was a good moderator, I thought. He kept smiling and joking. People felt relaxed and proud" (285). Where did Publisher's Weekly find "good writing"?!

Moody has a story worthy of telling, but it could have been more effectively told. As is, it is a tedious read which details mundane events and omits the personal emotions that would have made the book a very compelling read.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Review of THE TULIP EATERS by Antoinette van Heugten

Advent Book Calendar – Day 22
Since I started by blog, I’ve done an annual Advent Book Calendar highlighting books I have enjoyed and authors I really like.  This year I thought I’d do an Advent Book Calendar with a twist; for each day leading up to Christmas, I’m going to post a review of a book to which I’ve given only one star (Throw a book at this one) or two stars (Don’t put this book in your book bag).  Though I would not recommend these books, others have disagreed with me.  Each book, on Goodreads, has received a 3 or 4 Star average rating.

Review of The Tulip Eaters by Antoinette van Heugten
1 Star
The novel begins in 1980 in Houston, Texas. Nora de Jong returns home to discover that her mother Anneke has been murdered and her daughter Rose has been kidnapped. An unknown man also lies dead. Dissatisfied with the pace of the investigation, Nora sets out to find her daughter. Soon she is in Amsterdam investigating her parents’ activities during WWII in The Netherlands since those activities seem to be connected to the murder and kidnapping.

My husband spent his teen years in The Netherlands and part of his family still lives there so I am always attracted to books with a Dutch setting. The novel’s historical information about the Nazi occupation of that country is certainly interesting and matches my mother-in-law’s descriptions of life in that period. Unfortunately, besides the historical aspect, I found little to like about the book.

The major problem is the lack of realism in the behaviour of the characters. For example, the police who arrive on the crime scene at the beginning are totally unprofessional. It is highly unlikely that police would allow Nora and a friend to be present during the examination of the crime scene or that they would not check a body for identification. The police believe that the dead man was Anneke’s killer but then make statements like, “if the killer wore gloves”? They don’t know if he did? One policeman says, “It appears that there was a struggle and movement on the staircase . . . and other footprints in the entryway and dining room.” What would indicate movement had occurred on the stairs? Footprints are found inside the house? The lead police investigator offers to help Nora hire a private detective, adding they “Used him before.” The police are in favour of a ransom being paid should it be demanded?

The police are not the only ones who behave unrealistically. Ariel manages to follow his father from Amsterdam to Houston and arrive just in time to witness a crucial event. Though he had never been to Houston, he has no difficulty navigating around the city and “drove as fast as he could toward the airport”? Though wounded by a gunshot and bleeding, he is able to escape authorities when he disembarks from a ferry – an escape that is never described.

There are several such gaps, as if the author could not figure out how to get a character out of a bind or have him/her learn something significant and so chose to leave events unexplained. One character says, “- and I have no idea how” and another says, “I never knew how he did it.” Twice, Nora’s hotel room number is divulged for the sake of expedience.

Characters have very convenient professions. Ariel works in immigration at the airport and coincidentally is the one who admits Nora into The Netherlands. (Do American passports include street and city addresses on them?) Nico, Nora’s love interest, just happens to be the director of a facility which houses documents from WWII and so can assist her in her investigation. Nora herself is a pediatric surgeon and apparently an exceptionally gifted one since she speculates how “oncologists dealt with death of their patients.” Nonetheless, she is fired from her job because she takes too much time to deal with the death of her mother and the kidnapping of her daughter? Nora’s grandfather was “a respected physician” but he was also “adept at ferreting out hiding places because he was so familiar with the city’s buildings”?

There are other gaps of logic. Henny, a WWII survivor, supposedly lost her husband, though there is no reference to her ever having married. Henny speaks of the Nazis taking “everyone in my family except me,” but the reader soon realizes a brother and sister of hers also survived. One of the villains overhears a conversation between Nora and Nico and then tells his boss that Nico’s surname is Meijer, even though Nico’s surname is never mentioned in that conversation. A character turns “down a narrow, dark alley” where she is attacked and her attacker “dragg[ed] her quickly into an alley.” The kidnapper changes Rose’s name to Jacoba but continues to call her Rose? A daughter argued “with [her father] constantly about his hatred of the Jews” but then he never questioned her joining the NSB which collaborated with the Nazis occupying The Netherlands?

Dialogue is unrealistic. One friend would not say to another, “I didn’t see you two that often, you know. I was busy working on my thesis on the effect of European economics on the Netherlands . . .” when the thesis topic has no relevance. Two Dutch people agree on a payment: “she’d given him the two grand up front.” Is that guilders or American dollars? And would anyone actually describe a couple as “Lovers such as the world has never seen – before or since”?

It was disappointing that there are so many problems with this novel. The lack of realism is impossible to overlook. The book needs much editing including a change of the title which really does not indicate the true content.

Note: I received an ARC of the book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Review of SORROW LAKE by Michael J. McCann

Advent Book Calendar – Day 21
Since I started by blog, I’ve done an annual Advent Book Calendar highlighting books I have enjoyed and authors I really like.  This year I thought I’d do an Advent Book Calendar with a twist; for each day leading up to Christmas, I’m going to post a review of a book to which I’ve given only one star (Throw a book at this one) or two stars (Don’t put this book in your book bag).  Though I would not recommend these books, others have disagreed with me.  Each book, on Goodreads, has received a 3 or 4 Star average rating.

Review of Sorrow Lake by Michael J. McCann
2 Stars
Detective Inspector Ellie March of the OPP arrives in southeastern Ontario to take charge of a murder investigation after Bill Hansen, a business owner, was shot execution style in a farmer’s field. Assisting her is Detective Constable Kevin Walker. Since the book is described as “A March and Walker Crime Novel,” it is presumably the first in a new series.

The best adjective to describe this book is plodding. It is a tediously slow police procedural offering a detailed look at a homicide investigation: the collection of evidence, the interviewing of suspects, the uncovering and following of leads. This focus on procedural elements makes for a dull read. Much of the information is given in a dry expository style: “As their designated search warrant co-ordinator, Wiltse’s job involved writing what was known as an Information to Obtain a Search Warrant, or an ITO. Essentially an application for a warrant, the ITO presented to the judge all the information forming the basis of their reasonable grounds to believe that the search would produce evidence related to the criminal offence under investigation, at the specified location. Because it was specialized work, and because it was important to have all the relevant information from the investigation in the ITO at the time of the application of the warrant, Wiltse remained separate from the actual investigative work itself. This precaution ensured that the ITO was objective . . . ” Such exposition is the norm rather than the exception: “The process [of cloning VINs] involved taking the unique vehicle information number, or VIN, from a legitimate car and printing it on a blank replica of a VIN plate. This fake plate would replace the VIN in a stolen car. When accompanied by falsified paperwork, it gave the car a superficially clean history. Often thieves would circulate through parking lots at shopping malls or other public places, looking for high-end vehicles of a make and model that matched cars on their shopping list. Using a cellphone, they’d quickly lean over the windshield and photograph the dashboard VIN plates in these cars to capture the numbers for their cloning process.”

There is very little suspense. The only event that has suspense involves a supporting character who almost dies because of his own stupidity. Otherwise, there is a complete lack of any real danger. It seems as if the author mentioned a few punches between players at a hockey game just to add a sense of physical danger.

The two main characters, Ellie and Kevin, are developed fairly well though some of the background information is puzzling. It is repeated several times that Ellie’s daughters hate her. Ellie tells a colleague, “’My kids hate me’” and she also tells Kevin that “they hated her.” The explanation given for their hatred is weak: “But they hated her guts. There was no getting around it. As far as they were concerned, she’d consistently chosen her career – i.e., herself – over them, and they refused to forgive her for it.” An unwillingness to forgive is not the same as hatred.

Another difficulty with characterization is the number of secondary characters who are introduced but not differentiated. There’s Leanne Blair, chief superintendent of the East Region; Detective Constable Janet Olkewicz, the victim liaison officer; Tony Agosta, director of the Criminal Investigation Branch; Inspector Todd Fisher, the detachment commander; Staff Sergeant Rick Tobin, Fisher’s operations manager; Identification Sergeant Dave Martin; Susan Mitchum, Crown attorney; Paul Beeson, assistant Crown attorney; Detective Constable Craig Dart; Detective Constable Monica Sisson; Detective Constable Tom Carty; Detective Constable Bill Merkley; Sergeant Bob Kerr; Detective Constable John Bishop; Constable Rachel Townsend; Detective Ben Wiltse, search warrant co-ordinator; Detective Sergeant Scott Patterson, Leeds County Crime Unit Commander; Jonathan Smart, clerical support; Brenda Milton, data clerk; Constable Mark Allore; Dr. Yuri Dalca, coroner; Dr. Carey Burton, forensic pathologist; Sally Gordon, intelligence analyst. And that’s just the investigative team! It is a real challenge to determine who is important and needs to be remembered.

There are unanswered questions at the end. (Why were the drugs left in the Range Rover? How does Mrs. Shipman know that there are other people, besides her and Hansen, being blackmailed into assisting Waddell?) Such loose ends should be tied up. It is also disappointing that the crucial piece of the puzzle is found because of a hunch. (Why does Ellie decide to interview Mrs. Shipman since her name is never mentioned in the course of the investigation?)

I looked forward to reading this book because I enjoy mysteries and this one is set in the part of the province where I reside. Unfortunately, the book is monotonous.

Note: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Review of THE DRY by Jane Harper

3.5 Stars
I kept coming across this title in people’s lists of the best 2017 mystery/thriller books, so I decided to pick it up.  I certainly enjoyed it but don’t agree with many of the reviews which describe it as a masterpiece of the genre.

After a 20-year absence, Aaron Falk returns to Kiewarra, his rural hometown, for a friend’s funeral.  That friend, Luke Hadler, apparently killed his wife and son and then himself.  Luke’s father asks Aaron to investigate to determine if Luke murdered his family.  Aaron is reluctant to stay because his presence is not welcomed by most of the town’s inhabitants; he and his father were basically forced out of town after Ellie Deacon, one of Aaron and Luke’s friends, had been found dead two decades earlier.  Nonetheless, he teams up with Raco, the town’s policeman, and the two gradually uncover problems with the murder-suicide theory.

There are many questions for which the reader seeks answers.  Why was Aaron suspected of being connected to Ellie’s death?  Why did Luke and Aaron lie about their whereabouts when Ellie disappeared?  Is there a connection between Luke’s death and that of Ellie?  Of course, it is not just Aaron who has secrets; several secrets are gradually uncovered as Aaron and Raco investigate. 

A strong element in the book is atmosphere.  The town has been experiencing a drought for two years and people are feeling desperate.  It is not just the landscape that can be described as a tinder box; emotions can also be easily kindled.  The murders increase the tension, and Aaron’s unwelcome arrival does nothing to relieve it. 

One of my issues with the book is characterization.  Aaron is a federal agent who investigates financial crimes, yet he misinterprets a major clue and jumps to a conclusion, especially after he had a telling conversation with an old friend?  By missing the obvious and focusing on a minor action, an errant glance, he again leads the case in the wrong direction.  Surely I can’t have been the only reader to see the investigation veering off course!   There are a couple of bad guys in the book and they are totally bad; such stereotyping weakens the novel.

There are some techniques which grated.  Cryptic notes linked to Aaron are used once too often.  Some of the clues are just too obvious; when a certain topic of conversation comes up more than once and with more than one person, an astute reader will be on high alert.  Again, I cannot have been the only reader to know the motive early on?  Then Aaron’s discovery of a key item at the end seems just too convenient.  One of Raco’s first questions to Aaron is about a hiding place, but he isn’t reminded of another hiding place that is significant for a couple of reasons?  The italicized flashbacks inserted throughout are useful because they verify what Aaron learns, but the last, very lengthy one seems like a too-easy way to bring things to a close. 

The book is fairly fast-paced and does keep the reader’s interest.  To the author’s credit, some relevant information is divulged in a very natural manner; unfortunately, other clues are not very subtle.  Perhaps my problem is that I was expecting too much after all the hype about this debut novel. 

Review of THE MOST DANGEROUS THING by Laura Lippman

Advent Book Calendar – Day 20
Since I started by blog, I’ve done an annual Advent Book Calendar highlighting books I have enjoyed and authors I really like.  This year I thought I’d do an Advent Book Calendar with a twist; for each day leading up to Christmas, I’m going to post a review of a book to which I’ve given only one star (Throw a book at this one) or two stars (Don’t put this book in your book bag).  Though I would not recommend these books, others have disagreed with me.  Each book, on Goodreads, has received a 3 or 4 Star average rating.

Review of The Most Dangerous Thing by Laura Lippman
1 Star
In the late 1970s, five childhood friends (Gwen, Mickey, Sean, Tim and Go Go) spend their free time exploring the woods outside their Baltimore neighbourhood. Then a tragedy occurs which changes their lives and those of their parents. It is a tragedy which they never discuss until Go Go's death (accident or suicide?) brings them together. Gradually the truth of what really happened in the woods is revealed.

The viewpoints of the friends are given, as are those of the parents. Everyone's motivation is examined. The problem is that irrelevant information is often included. For example, Gwen's mother was an unfulfilled artist who constantly wondered whether she made a mistake by marrying young. These details add nothing to the plot. Virtually every character suffers from depression and guilt about some choice made in the past. In essence there is too much analysis and retrospection and not enough drama. The revelations at the end are anticlimactic because it is obvious which characters lied and what they lied about.

In the recounting of the childhood escapades, the use of first person plural narration - the "royal we" - is very annoying. Sentences like, "And then we met the man who lived in the woods" suggest that one of the five is the narrator, but then all five are identified in the third person. This narrative technique does nothing but irritate. Collective experience and/or guilt can be conveyed without resorting to such distracting tactics. Furthermore, the childhood friends are all so self-absorbed that suggesting they can think or speak as a unit is not convincing.

The novel examines a number of subjects: friendship, jealousy, secrecy, guilt, and forgiveness. Obviously, the idea that the past and its secrets are always part of the present is a major theme.

What is the most dangerous thing? A secret? The truth? People's good intentions? The reader will have to decide for him/herself if he/she decides to read this not-so-thrilling "thriller."

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Review of THE ROSIE PROJECT by Graeme Simsion

Advent Book Calendar – Day 19
Since I started by blog, I’ve done an annual Advent Book Calendar highlighting books I have enjoyed and authors I really like.  This year I thought I’d do an Advent Book Calendar with a twist; for each day leading up to Christmas, I’m going to post a review of a book to which I’ve given only one star (Throw a book at this one) or two stars (Don’t put this book in your book bag).  Though I would not recommend these books, others have disagreed with me.  Each book, on Goodreads, has received a 3 or 4 Star average rating.

Review of The Rosie Project by 
2 Stars
This is another book I read only because it was chosen by my library book club. Fluff! It’s described as a romantic comedy and I have enough problems with that formulaic genre, but then the book goes further and has little romance and even less comedy.

Don Tillman is a 39-year-old geneticist with (undiagnosed) Asperger’s. He devises a plan to find himself a wife. While involved with this project, he meets Rosie who enlists his genetic expertise to help her identify her biological father. Of course, Rosie and Don develop an unlikely relationship.

Lovers of romantic comedy are obviously the ones writing the rave reviews. The book certainly has all the elements of the genre: the seemingly ill-suited couple who insist they have a just-friends relationship which inevitably develops into something more, the prevalence of chance and coincidence, the predictable plot, the comic set-pieces, the moments of less-than-profound epiphanies, and the love-conquers-all theme. And there’s a sequel which will undoubtedly continue to use the formula.

Some people rave about Don and how he is a unique character. Countless examples of Don can be found in popular culture. Don has been around in the guise of Shel(Don) Cooper on The Big Bang Theory since 2007. How about characters on Bones and Criminal Minds? And all of Don’s musings about love and logic are certainly reminiscent of Mr. Spock on Star Trek. In terms of books, what about The Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime?

But for me it is not just a lack of originality in character that is the problem; Don is not realistic as someone with an autism spectrum disorder. He possesses every attribute of an "Aspie"? Then, after decades of rigid behaviour, he is able to change? In a very short period of time he abandons his scheduling and learns to read facial expressions and social cues?! An autistic person is not someone with a “normal” personality trapped inside, a personality that can be released by the love of another.

The author seems to want people to realize that people’s differences should be appreciated and accepted; those who demonstrate “variations in human brain function” and do not fit “constructed social norms” (6) should not be ridiculed and shunned. Yet at the same time, the author expects readers to laugh at Don and his inability to function in social situations?! We are supposed to believe that just because Don is accustomed to ridicule and rejection, he doesn’t suffer when others laugh at him? Surely no reader believes Don is not capable of love so why would he/she believe he is not capable of feeling hurt? Why not show the ridiculousness of societal “norms”?

This book is the type which will appeal to readers who want pure escapism. I found it barely entertaining and certainly not memorable.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Review of THE PURCHASE by Linda Spalding

Advent Book Calendar – Day 18
Since I started by blog, I’ve done an annual Advent Book Calendar highlighting books I have enjoyed and authors I really like.  This year I thought I’d do an Advent Book Calendar with a twist; for each day leading up to Christmas, I’m going to post a review of a book to which I’ve given only one star (Throw a book at this one) or two stars (Don’t put this book in your book bag).  Though I would not recommend these books, others have disagreed with me.  Each book, on Goodreads, has received a 3 or 4 Star average rating.

Review of The Purchase by Linda Spalding
1 Star
This novel appears on two 2012 award lists: the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. I’m not certain why. The reviews I’ve read tend to be overwhelmingly positive, but I soon tired of it and struggled to finish.

The book begins in Pennsylvania at the end of the eighteenth century. Daniel Dickinson and his young family are exiled from their Quaker community when, after his wife’s death, he hastily marries a 15-year-old indentured servant girl. They end up in south Virginia but Daniel is in no way prepared to build a new life for his family in the wilderness. To add to his problems, he purchases a young slave boy despite his abolitionist beliefs. This event is a catalyst for a long series of tragic events in the lives of family members and neighbours over multiple generations. The long-term effects of that purchase on Daniel’s children are detailed.

A major theme is that of freedom, specifically whether anyone really has freedom. The black slaves are the obvious examples of people lacking freedom, but almost everyone is enslaved somehow because of religious beliefs or prevailing societal expectations. For example, Daniel’s Quaker pacifism leaves him unable to defend himself and others against violent neighbours.

One of the problems I had with the book is the character of Daniel. The motivation of much of his behaviour is not sufficiently explained. Why, for example, does he quickly marry Ruth when he seems to have no reason to do so, especially since that decision results in his family being shunned and banished? Though Daniel is an abolitionist and “his moral nature was unchanged,” at the auction he “felt his right arm go up as if pulled by a string” when a slave boy is being sold? Then, when his son is dying, he stops enroute to the doctor’s to reclaim a horse? Daniel’s treatment of Ruth seems unChristian as is his unforgiving attitude to his children, especially considering how he was treated by his own father.

And Daniel is not the only problem character. Mary and Bett are supposedly the best of friends, yet Mary takes credit for Bett’s healing skills and doesn’t give her freedom? Mary knows she needs Bett to help her with ill patients, yet she still goes to home visits by herself when she could easily have made an excuse for bringing Bett with her? Jemima adopts a way of life that will serve only to alienate her from everyone, including her family?

I found the book a harrowing read. Daniel encounters failure after failure. He betrays his moral code, albeit inadvertently, and it seems that he is continuously punished for his sin and so is his family. I guess I have difficulty with the Biblical admonishment “The sins of the father shall be visited upon the sons.”

I will continue to scan reviews to see if anyone satisfactorily addresses my concerns and enlightens me to the merits of the book; thus far I remain unconvinced. I am not, however, motivated to re-read the book; in fact, it is a purchase I wish I had not made.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Review of LACEY'S HOUSE by Joanne Graham

Advent Book Calendar – Day 17
Since I started by blog, I’ve done an annual Advent Book Calendar highlighting books I have enjoyed and authors I really like.  This year I thought I’d do an Advent Book Calendar with a twist; for each day leading up to Christmas, I’m going to post a review of a book to which I’ve given only one star (Throw a book at this one) or two stars (Don’t put this book in your book bag).  Though I would not recommend these books, others have disagreed with me.  Each book, on Goodreads, has received a 3 or 4 Star average rating.

Review of Lacey’s House by Joanne Graham
2 Stars 
Rachel is a young woman with a difficult past; Lacey, a simple woman viewed by most people as a mad old woman, had an even more difficult past. The two become neighbours and develop a friendship as they share their tales of loss. Lacey’s story, however, raises questions when Rachel discovers facts that totally contradict Lacey’s version of events from her past.

The novel is structured around chapters that alternate between the two protagonists. Rachel’s chapters are written in first person point of view whereas Lacey’s are in third person limited omniscient point of view. The advantage of this approach is that the reader becomes aware of the thoughts and feelings of both women and so comes to understand the reasons for their behaviour. This is especially important for an understanding of Lacey whose grasp of reality sometimes seems tenuous.

Rachel proves to be a dynamic character. She comes to terms with her past as she shares her story with Lacey and listens to hers in turn. Lacey’s life story serves to put Rachel’s own experiences into perspective and makes her realize she must take certain steps to avoid a future that could be as difficult as her past.

There are some twists but generally the plot is very predictable. Lacey’s visit to a lawyer, for example, foreshadows the inevitable ending. Likewise, certain topics of conversation keep cropping up and they indicate the direction events will take.

The theme is clearly stated: “it is easier to imagine a life without flaws, without difficulty than to accept a desperate reality you are powerless to change.” Both women do that, Lacey more so because of her circumstances. Of course this is a very human coping mechanism so readers should be able to relate.

Life in a small rural village is portrayed realistically. The author seems to understand how small towns function: the gossiping and rumor-mongering, the unwillingness to accept those who are even slightly different, the respect given to the village doctor.

This book is not really the literary fiction I normally read so I am perhaps not best qualified to judge its quality. I can, however, imagine it being made into a Hallmark movie.

Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Review of EXTENSIONS by Myrna Dey

Advent Book Calendar – Day 16
Since I started by blog, I’ve done an annual Advent Book Calendar highlighting books I have enjoyed and authors I really like.  This year I thought I’d do an Advent Book Calendar with a twist; for each day leading up to Christmas, I’m going to post a review of a book to which I’ve given only one star (Throw a book at this one) or two stars (Don’t put this book in your book bag).  Though I would not recommend these books, others have disagreed with me.  Each book, on Goodreads, has received a 3 or 4 Star average rating.

Review of Extensions by Myrna Dey
1 Star
This book caught my attention because it was The Reader's Choice for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Arabella Dryvynsydes, an RCMP officer, feels adrift after the death of her mother and a romantic breakup. By chance she finds a photograph of her grandmother and her twin sister at a garage sale in rural Saskatchewan. Arabella sets out to discover how the photo, taken 100 years earlier on Vancouver Island, found its way there. She also acquires a few letters written by her great-grandmother to her siblings in Wales, letters in which she describes the poverty and loneliness of life in a Vancouver Island mining town. Gradually Arabella uncovers family secrets as she also solves crime cases.

A problem with the book is the many chance occurrences and coincidences. The plot seems less driven by character than by a plot graph developed by the author. All of Arabella's encounters and experiences connect somehow to her search for information about her maternal ancestors. For example, she takes a history course, although she had never previously shown much interest in academics, and, conveniently, she is able to use her great-grandmother's letters for a term paper and eventually to solve a historical mystery. One of the letters, to which she gains access only towards the end of the book, helps her to solve a murder she is investigating.

Many of the characters are sketched in broad strokes and are unconvincing. People keep secrets and fabricate lies with insufficient motivation to justify their actions. A couple of great-aunts are totally vindictive and malicious and seem to have no redeeming qualities, while another is too good to be true. Several relatives are so lacking in ordinary human curiosity that they don't read family documents bequeathed to them; that total lack of interest means secrets remain buried even longer, only to be uncovered by Arabella of course.

The theme is rather obvious: "we are never as far removed from one another as we like to think" (247). In case the reader fails to understand, an explanation is given: "And what was I but an extension, through Dad, of [my paternal grandmother]. Just as this elderly cousin coasted on what her mother had gone through and passed on, so were our comfortable lives determined by what [my grandmother] had borne, distilled, and set in motion . . ." (245).

I did enjoy reading about the history of mining on Vancouver Island; about this history I knew virtually nothing, and the book has inspired me to do some further research.

The mechanical construction of the plot and the flawed characterization leave no doubt that this is a debut novel. It may have won the Reader's Choice Award, but I suspect that win was more the result of an organized voting campaign than the literary merits of the book itself.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Review of THE NINTH HOUR by Alice McDermott

3.5 Stars
Set in early 20th-century Brooklyn, this novel focuses on the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor and a mother and her daughter whom the nuns have helped.  Annie, a young widow, is given work in the convent’s laundry and her daughter Sally is virtually raised there.  As a young woman, Sally considers joining the sisterhood but the reader knows she does not truly have a vocation because one of Sally’s children intermittently narrates the story. 

It is the characterization of the nuns which stands out for me.  They are seen as they work amongst the poor and wretched of the city; they are both nurses and social workers in the service of the indigent and sick.  It is their task “to enter the homes of strangers, mostly the sick and the elderly, to breeze into their apartments and to sail comfortably through their rooms, to open their linen closets or china cabinets or bureau drawers – to peer into their toilets or the soiled handkerchiefs clutched in their hands.”  They enter places “unprepared for visitors, arrested, as things so often were by crisis and tragedy, in the midst of what should have been a private hour.”  As they visit invalids and shut-ins, details of what they see are not spared; bodily fluids are abundant.  It is clear that these nuns are a dying breed:  “The call to sanctity and self-sacrifice, the delusion and superstition it required, fading from the world even then.”

Each of the nuns emerges as a strong individual with a distinct personality.  Though they perform numerous good deeds and are compassionate women, they are flawed human beings.  Sister St. Saviour turns a cold shoulder to God; “It was the way a bitter old wife might turn her back on a faithless husband.”  And she openly states, “’It would be a different Church if I were running it.’”  Sister Lucy “lived with a small, tight knot of fury at the center of her chest.”  And St. Jeanne claims, “’I lost heaven a long time ago’” because of a deed she performed out of love.  It is refreshing to see nuns be willing to flout the rules when they feel it is best.  One sister has little respect for the rules of church and society because she believes many of them “complicated the lives of women:  Catholic women in particular and poor women in general.”  The nuns are even willing to sin and face the consequences later.   One who bends the rules makes a bargain with God:  “Hold it against the good I’ve done, she prayed.  We’ll sort it out when I see You.” 

The book examines, in detail, the human condition.  Everyone faces hunger of some sort, whether it be physical hunger or “a hunger to be comforted.”  People want to be loved though it is repeated that for the world’s ills, “Love’s a tonic, . . . not a cure.”  People strive to live a good life in their chosen role; Sister Illuminata, for example, labours in the laundry day after day because she believes herself to have been called “to become, in a ghastly world, the pure, clean antidote to filth.”  Everyone faces death:  “A terrible stillness would overtake them all, come what may.  A terrible silence would stop their breaths, one way or another.” 

This book is not full of action and adventure, but those who appreciate realistic characterization and an examination of real life will find much to admire. 

Review of THE ACCIDENT by Linwood Barclay

Advent Book Calendar – Day 15
Since I started by blog, I’ve done an annual Advent Book Calendar highlighting books I have enjoyed and authors I really like.  This year I thought I’d do an Advent Book Calendar with a twist; for each day leading up to Christmas, I’m going to post a review of a book to which I’ve given only one star (Throw a book at this one) or two stars (Don’t put this book in your book bag).  Though I would not recommend these books, others have disagreed with me.  Each book, on Goodreads, has received a 3 or 4 Star average rating.

Review of The Accident by Linwood Barclay
2 Stars
Glen Barber's wife Sheila is killed in an accident in which there are two other fatalities. Indications are that she caused the accident by driving while impaired. Glen has difficulty believing that Sheila was responsible since she was not an irresponsible drinker. He decides, therefore, to investigate his wife's death.

Besides grieving for his wife, Glen has several other problems. He has to protect his 8-year-old daughter from bullies; he is being sued by the family of the two victims in his wife's accident; his mother-in-law is trying to take his daughter to live with her; his construction business is suffering because of the poor economy and a fire at one of his building sites; several of his employees have personal problems.

The book is certainly suspenseful. Murders pile up as the plot twists and turns. Suspense is also created by the author's switching from one plot line to another at crucial points.

The major problem with the book is that there is an excess of villains. Everyone connected to Glen seems involved in murder or some type of criminal activity. Who knew that so much evil existed in suburban Connecticut!

Another weakness is that the motivation of characters is sometimes insufficient to justify their actions. Not everyone faced with financial woes will naively become involved with organized crime. In particular, the ultimate explanation given for Sheila's death is unsatisfactory.

This is the first book I've read by Linwood Barclay; based on my impressions, I won't rush to read his other books, although I'll probably give him another try when I've exhausted my "Must Read" list.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Review of UNDER THE JEWELLED SKY by Alison McQueen

Advent Book Calendar – Day 14
Since I started by blog, I’ve done an annual Advent Book Calendar highlighting books I have enjoyed and authors I really like.  This year I thought I’d do an Advent Book Calendar with a twist; for each day leading up to Christmas, I’m going to post a review of a book to which I’ve given only one star (Throw a book at this one) or two stars (Don’t put this book in your book bag).  Though I would not recommend these books, others have disagreed with me.  Each book, on Goodreads, has received a 3 or 4 Star average rating.

Review of Under the Jewelled Sky by Alison McQueen
2 Stars
I will preface my review by stating that historical romance is not my preferred genre. When I requested this title, I found it classified under literary fiction.

Sophie Grainger arrives in India in 1957 with her diplomat husband. This is not her first time in the subcontinent since she lived there ten years earlier when her father was a maharaja’s physician. During her first stay in India, she had an unconventional relationship with Jag, the son of an Indian servant, and the repercussions of that relationship follow her during her second sojourn: “memories have a habit of storing themselves up, like shoving things into the back of a closet. They’ll live there for so long as you care to leave them, and then, many years from now, you might find yourself cleaning out that closet one day and out they will tumble, all your memories of yesteryear.”

Characters are problematic in this novel. Many tend to be either too good or too evil to be believable. Veronica Schofield, Sophie’s mother, is part of the latter group. She is shallow, hypocritical, and abusive; one is hard pressed to find a positive quality. Jag, on the other hand, is just the opposite. He may be the romantic hero but surely there must be something this man cannot do? How many times does he cross a large swath of India? Even minor characters are unbelievable. Jag’s aunt, for instance, is just so loving and accepting of everyone. These characters are just not realistic.

The number of coincidences is also an issue. In a country with “four hundred million people,” Jag’s uncle locates Joy? In the midst of the Partition which saw the displacement of millions, Jag is chosen to work in the same clinic as Dr. Schofield? The author tends to emphasize the star-crossed lovers element a bit too much. Sophie is the one to initiate a kiss and then she and Jag totally discard all the values of their upbringing? Jag’s behaviour while a guard at the residential enclave does not ring true. Why doesn’t he identify himself sooner when he surmises the state of Sophie and Lucien’s marriage?

The historical element, on the other hand, is not emphasized sufficiently. The upheaval of the Partition is not conveyed very strongly. There is an attempt to show some of this during Jag’s stay at the refugee camp, but general descriptions such as “this unimaginable scene of human tragedy” do little to give a real understanding of the suffering of the displaced.

This novel would probably appeal to those readers who enjoy historical romances. It has the exotic location and the everlasting love that knows no bounds of time and space.