CANADA READS 2017 | The Contenders

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It’s that time of year again! CBC Books has announced the finalists for their annual Canada Reads competition! I’m a very proud Canadian, and absolutely love discovering new Canadian writers. The stand out book for me during the 2016 competition was The Hero’s Walk, and I still think about that book today. The selection this year looks great:

Chantal Kreviazuk defending The Right to Be Cold by Sheila Watt-Cloutier

Humble The Poet defending Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis

Tamara Taylor defending Company Town by Madeline Ashby

Candy Palmater defending The Break by Katherena Vermette

Jody Mitic defending Nostalgia by M.G. Vassanji

I have started The Right to Be Cold, and it grabbed me right from the first page. I can’t wait to dig into all of these great, Canadian reads!

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BOOK REVIEW | Distress Signals by Catherine Ryan Howard

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4/5 stars

Release Date: February 2, 2017

*I received a digital advanced reader copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

From the publisher:
A debut thriller that channels Gone Girl, from the newest writer to watch, Catherine Ryan Howard

The day Adam Dunne’s girlfriend, Sarah, fails to return from a Barcelona business trip, his perfect life begins to fall apart. Days later, the arrival of her passport and a note that reads “I’m sorry–S” sets off real alarm bells. He vows to do whatever it takes to find her.

Adam is puzzled when he connects Sarah to a cruise ship called the Celebrate–and to a woman, Estelle, who disappeared from the same ship in eerily similar circumstances almost exactly a year before.

To get answers, Adam must confront some difficult truths about his relationship with Sarah. He must do things of which he never thought himself capable. And he must try to outwit a predator who seems to have found the perfect hunting ground …

My thoughts:
I have been reading a lot of quiet, psychological thrillers lately, and I must say that this is quite the opposite – it’s fast-paced and action packed, with plenty of characters and story lines to keep the reader guessing.

It all starts when Adam’s long time girlfriend, Sarah, fails to return from her business trip to Barcelona. Unable to connect with her by phone or email, Adam and Sarah’s parents start to panic. They report her missing to the Gardi (Irish police), and struggle to get help from them. Sarah is, after all, a grown woman who likely decided she needed some space – this is not a crime. When Adam receives an anonymous package containing Sarah’s passport and a note simply stating “I’m Sorry – S”, he knows he needs to take matters into his own hands. After a bit of digging he discovers that Sarah’s story wasn’t all she made it out to be; she was last seen on a cruise ship called “Celebrate” and this is where he heads next.

In alternate story lines, we learn about Romain, a troubled French boy, and Corrine, an older woman who is working on a cruise ship for an unknown and mysterious reason. I really enjoyed these stories and how they eventually twisted together. My only complaint is that I sort of wish Howard saved these stories for another book! With a bit of fleshing out, this alone could have made an amazing second novel. It all works well in this book, but I really wanted to learn more about Romain and his family, his story really got under my skin!

For the first part of this book, I thought this was going to be “Gone Girl on a boat”, as many elements are similar. A woman goes missing, and her partner and parents must work together to piece it all together. The men in these books even share the same last name, Dunne! Howard, however, takes the story in an unexpected direction, and we end up in a place we never saw coming. Calling this another Gone Girl is inaccurate, as Distress Signals deserves to stand on it’s own. It’s intricately plotted and was a blast to read, and I look forward to more from Catherine Ryan Howard.

BOOK REVIEW | The Girl Before by JP Delaney

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3/5 stars

From the publisher: 
Please make a list of every possession you consider essential to your life.

The request seems odd, even intrusive–and for the two women who answer, the consequences are devastating.

EMMA
Reeling from a traumatic break-in, Emma wants a new place to live. But none of the apartments she sees are affordable or feel safe. Until One Folgate Street. The house is an architectural masterpiece: a minimalist design of pale stone, plate glass and soaring ceilings. But there are rules. The enigmatic architect who designed the house retains full control: no books, no throw pillows, no photos or clutter or personal effects of any kind. The space is intended to transform its occupant–and it does.

JANE
After a personal tragedy, Jane needs a fresh start. When she finds One Folgate Street she is instantly drawn to the space–and to its aloof but seductive creator. Moving in, Jane soon learns about the untimely death of the home’s previous tenant, a woman similar to Jane in age and appearance. As Jane tries to untangle truth from lies, she unwittingly follows the same patterns, makes the same choices, crosses paths with the same people and experiences the same terror, as the girl before.

My thoughts:
I’m in the minority here, but I didn’t love this book. It is very fast paced and kept me flipping the pages, but there was too much crazy for this to work for me.

Jane, mourning the stillbirth of her daughter, is looking for a fresh start and a new place to live. She steps into the house at One Folgate Street and is immediately taken back by its minimalist beauty. This house is truly special, and the rent fits her tight budget. The house, however, comes with stipulations. The architect, Edward, has compiled a lengthy list of rules you must comply with to live there – everything from no flat pack furniture to no books (?!?!). After the interview process, Jane learns that her application has been accepted and she can move into the house immediately. Before long, Jane starts to have questions about Emma and Simon, the previous tenants.

It’s no surprise that both Jane and Emma have relationships with Edward, and this is where my struggle begins – the women behave recklessly and allow themselves to be vulnerable, all the while ignoring blazing red flags. Additionally, the big twist wasn’t really a big twist at all. Multiple reviewers have described this book as 50 Shades of Grey mixed with Gone Girl, and I have to agree – there’s plenty of sexual domination and mind games in this one.

This is a fast paced thrilled, and I’ll admit that I couldn’t put it down. If you’re looking for a quick and fun read and can put aside reality to immerse yourself in this world, then go for it! If you prefer a more complex thriller, give this a pass.

BOOK REVIEW | Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

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4/5 stars

Release Date: September 5, 2017

*I received a digital advanced reader copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

From the publisher:
A searing and profound Southern odyssey by National Book Award–winner Jesmyn Ward.

In Jesmyn Ward’s first novel since her National Book Award–winning Salvage the Bones, this singular American writer brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first-century America. Drawing on Morrison and Faulkner, The Odyssey and the Old Testament, Ward gives us an epochal story, a journey through Mississippi’s past and present that is both an intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle. Ward is a major American writer, multiply awarded and universally lauded, and in Sing, Unburied, Sing she is at the height of her powers.

Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie’s children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.

Sing, Unburied, Sing grapples with the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power, and limitations, of the bonds of family. Rich with Ward’s distinctive, musical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an essential contribution to American literature.

My thoughts:
Sing, Unburied, Sing presents a way of life that will be unfamiliar to many of its readers. A life in which addiction rules and heartbreak abounds. Jesmyn Ward presents themes and ideas, however, that are as relevant today as they ever have been; racism, injustices in the prison system, police treatment of minorities, and how the past shapes the present. This is the story of a family living in poverty along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi.

Through multiple perspectives, Ward tells us the story of Jojo and his toddler sister Kayla who are being raised by their grandparents, Mam and Pop. Jojo’s mother, Leoni, is often absent and frequently high. When Leoni gets a call that Michael, Jojo and Kayla’s father, is going to be released from prison, she packs the kids up and head’s out onto the road to pick him up on his release day. Jojo, who has just turned 13, is less than excited to be reacquainted with the stranger that is his father.

Leoni is haunted by visions of her deceased brother, and Jojo is haunted by a young boy Pop knew in his youth during his time in prison. Ward carries these figures elegantly throughout the story, and they become central to Leoni and Jojo’s fates. Ward doesn’t hold back in her depiction of prison as slavery, and this storyline comes to a truly heart wrenching and tragic end. This book is wrought with pain and sadness, and I know I will be thinking about Jojo for a while.

This was my first time reading Jesmyn Ward, and I certainly understand her success. She has keen insights and a strong voice, and I am looking forward to reading her backlist.

BOOK REVIEW | Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
Still known to millions primarily as the author of the The Lottery, Shirley Jackson (1916–1965) has been curiously absent from the mainstream American literary canon. A genius of literary suspense and psychological horror, Jackson plumbed the cultural anxiety of postwar America more deeply than anyone. Now, biographer Ruth Franklin reveals the tumultuous life and inner darkness of the author of such classics as The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Placing Jackson within an American Gothic tradition that stretches back to Hawthorne and Poe, Franklin demonstrates how her unique contribution to this genre came from her focus on “domestic horror.” Almost two decades before The Feminine Mystique ignited the women’s movement, Jackson’ stories and nonfiction chronicles were already exploring the exploitation and the desperate isolation of women, particularly married women, in American society. Franklin’s portrait of Jackson gives us “a way of reading Jackson and her work that threads her into the weave of the world of words, as a writer and as a woman, rather than excludes her as an anomaly” (Neil Gaiman).

The increasingly prescient Jackson emerges as a ferociously talented, determined, and prodigiously creative writer in a time when it was unusual for a woman to have both a family and a profession. A mother of four and the wife of the prominent New Yorker critic and academic Stanley Edgar Hyman, Jackson lived a seemingly bucolic life in the New England town of North Bennington, Vermont. Yet, much like her stories, which channeled the occult while exploring the claustrophobia of marriage and motherhood, Jackson’s creative ascent was haunted by a darker side. As her career progressed, her marriage became more tenuous, her anxiety mounted, and she became addicted to amphetamines and tranquilizers. In sobering detail, Franklin insightfully examines the effects of Jackson’s California upbringing, in the shadow of a hypercritical mother, on her relationship with her husband, juxtaposing Hyman’s infidelities, domineering behavior, and professional jealousy with his unerring admiration for Jackson’s fiction, which he was convinced was among the most brilliant he had ever encountered.

Based on a wealth of previously undiscovered correspondence and dozens of new interviews, Shirley Jackson—an exploration of astonishing talent shaped by a damaging childhood and turbulent marriage—becomes the definitive biography of a generational avatar and an American literary giant.

My thoughts:
She kept it up until the end, sending her literary bombs unerringly to their targets, then standing back to watch them explode.

Ruth Franklin hit a home run for me with her comprehensive biography of the amazing Shirley Jackson. If you’re a fan of Shirley’s work, this is a must read. After reading this, I am more enamored with Shirley than I already was. She went against the grain in so many ways, and it was a pleasure to step into her world.

Franklin was granted access to many fascinating letters written by Shirley and her husband Stanley, which provided a truly intimate reading experience. Through the correspondence, we gain insight into their rocky marriage, as well as Shirley’s tenuous relationship with her mother, Geraldine. Reading this biography allows for a deeper understanding of many of Shirley’s works – whether it be humour or horror, Shirley wrote what she knew.

One of my favourite parts of the book comes in a discussion about Shirley’s humerous book about raising her children, Life Among the Savages. Franklin goes on to illustrate how much Shirley’s kids loved this book, displaying the book jacket in their kitchen and endearingly dubbing it Life Among the Cabbages.

Shirley was a woman who struggled greatly in her short life. She struggled with her relationships to her husband and mother, with her weight, financially, with household tasks, with her role was a working mother, and with her eventual agoraphobia. As a mother who works outside of the house in an anxiety ridden and fast paced world, I can relate to many of these challenges.

This is a detailed biography that does sway from the narrative at times, but I found all of those moments to be worthwhile. This book has a well deserved place alongside of Shirley’s on my shelves.

BOOK REVIEW | The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

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4.5/5 stars

From the publisher:
Mikael Blomkvist, a once-respected financial journalist, watches his professional life rapidly crumble around him. Prospects appear bleak until an unexpected (and unsettling) offer to resurrect his name is extended by an old-school titan of Swedish industry. The catch—and there’s always a catch—is that Blomkvist must first spend a year researching a mysterious disappearance that has remained unsolved for nearly four decades. With few other options, he accepts and enlists the help of investigator Lisbeth Salander, a misunderstood genius with a cache of authority issues. Little is as it seems in Larsson’s novel, but there is at least one constant: you really don’t want to mess with the girl with the dragon tattoo.

My thoughts:
Well, that was a hell of a ride! I am so glad I finally picked up Stieg Larsson’s landmark book, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I knew I would enjoy this book, so I don’t know why it took me so long to get to it. It was an absolute pleasure to read the book that changed the face of Swedish crime fiction, and I’m going to be jumping into the next installment, The Girl Who Played With Fire, pretty quickly! Larsson’s story has it all: a compelling mystery, complex psychology, dark family secrets, action, tension, passion, twists and turns, and an unconventional, kick-ass heroine.

After journalist Mikael Blomkvist is convicted of libel, he is mysteriously asked to meet with Henrik Vanger, an aging businessman, who would like to hire him for a personal assignment. With his career on hold and his life turned upside down, Blomkvist decides to go to the meeting, but is suspicious about what Vanger promises. Vanger wants to hire Blomkvist for 1 year to unearth the truth behind a puzzling family mystery; in turn he will offer Blomkvist generous pay and the ability to clear his name as a journalist. After much hesitation, Blomkvist takes the job, and so the adventure begins.

Enter Lisbeth Salander – a tattoo covered, pierced, and bleak young woman who just happens to be an incredibly talented hacker and private investigator. She works when she wants, lives by her own rules, and isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. We learn about her past, and the troubling path that has led her to where she is now. She has endured a hard life, and refuses to relinquish control now that she has it back. Naturally, Blomkvist and Salander end up teaming up, becoming one of the best duo’s I’ve read about in any crime book. Their respect for each other is palpable, and I love that their skills and partnership and completely equal. They each bring something to the table that serves the other well.

There are a couple elements that I found a bit funny, but not necessarily distracting: the technology, and the love of sandwiches. When this book was written in the early 2000’s, all of the technology described by Stieg would have been cutting edge and impressive – today, it dates the book a bit. That said, I actually enjoyed reading these scenes, there are just a lot of them! Secondly, sandwiches. Yes, sandwiches. Please tell me someone else has noticed this – the characters in this book are always eating or making multiple sandwiches! I really should have kept tabs on the sandwich scenes in this book. There are SO many!

So, with that, I loved this book! Salander gets under your skin, and you can’t help but love her and want more of her story. The final 2 pages leave us with a bit of a crummy cliffhanger, so I cant wait to see where things go in the next book.

BOOK REVIEW | You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman

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3/5 stars

From the publisher:
A woman known only by the letter A lives in an unnamed American city with her roommate, B, and boyfriend, C, who wants her to join him on a reality show called That’s My Partner! A eats (or doesn’t) the right things, watches endless amounts of television, often just for the commercials—particularly the recurring cartoon escapades of Kandy Kat, the mascot for an entirely chemical dessert—and models herself on a standard of beauty that only exists in such advertising. She fixates on the fifteen minutes of fame a news-celebrity named Michael has earned after buying up his local Wally Supermarket’s entire, and increasingly ample, supply of veal.

Meanwhile B is attempting to make herself a twin of A, who hungers for something to give meaning to her life, something aside from C’s pornography addiction, and becomes indoctrinated by a new religion spread throughout a web of corporate franchises, which moves her closer to the decoys that populate her television world, but no closer to her true nature.

My thoughts:
What occurred to me then…was that living wasn’t a matter of right or wrong or ethics or self-expression. There was no better way to live, or worse. It was all terrible, and you had to do it constantly.

Bleak? Maybe. Relatable? Definitely.

Alexandra Keleeman’s satire is a bold statement on modern life. She tackles consumerism, conformity, and the importance of the individual in an over-marketed world.

The premise is tricky to describe, but here’s my best shot. Our central character, A, has a roommate named B and a boyfriend named C. A eats popsicles and oranges, and is infatuated with Kandy Kakes – an artificial treat that she lusts after while obsessively watching their colourful commercials. A notices strange behaviour from her neighbours, that B is starting to assume physical similarities to herself, and C suddenly disappears. What follows is an examination of the self, or lack of self, in an overly consumptive society.

I enjoyed taking a peek into Keleeman’s world as this book is full of provocative and insightful moments. I’m the same age as the author, and can relate to her take on the obsessions endured by women today. This is a a bizarre, dystopian satire and will not appeal to everyone’s tastes. If you’re a fan of postmodern literature, this is definitely one to read.