Secrets in a Jewellery Box – a review

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Secrets in a Jewellery Box
by Demetra Angelis Foustanellas

Purchase copies here

Secrets in a Jewellery Box by Demetra Angelis Foustanellas spans time and culture, shifting between the past and present. Foustanellas knows both worlds: she was born in Ottawa to Greek parents and in her thirties relocated to Greece. She writes of the tension between old and new worlds through her character Elly, a young woman who rebels against her Greek culture.

“If I ever have children I’m not raising them Greek. I want my kids to grow up normal” (p.13).

This clash is also described when Elly confesses to her parents that she has a non-Greek boyfriend. When her mother says, “We find nice Greek boy to marry you so forget the boyfriend stuff” (35), Elly becomes distraught. She longs for a life of her own, one separate from her Greek heritage: “Elly wondered what it would be like to live in the city; a dream she hoped to achieve one day. Freedom from her parents. Liberation, at last” (37). But: “She loved the way her mother and aunt were tightly bonded and a true inspiration to one another, always supportive of each other’s needs. They came from the same village, from a common background” (23). Foustanellas delves deep into the divide that many first-generation Canadians struggle with. Elly searches for a way out of her culture, one she loves and loathes simultaneously. But can she bring these two roads together?

When she meets the charismatic Perry at a Greek youth meeting, she feels an instant attraction. Despite her friend Chryssa’s warnings, she falls for Perry and ends up getting pregnant. He vanishes for a while and Elly is left alone to figure out what to do with her pregnancy. She finds out that Perry is in Greece. Unknown to her, he is a member of the Pan-Hellenic Democratic Movement and participates in protests. There are a few paragraphs dedicated to the torture Perry endures. I felt most of that chapter read like a newspaper article, somewhat informative but very expositional. “Three days and nights of clashing with police, tear-gas, gunshots, arrests and beatings evolved into pandemonium” (71). Perhaps if Foustanellas had shown this chaos through Perry’s participation, the reader would have the chance to fully engage in intense scenes showing the escalating violence in Greece.

Another problem was the lack of sufficient political context. Most readers need to be told more about the history of Greece in order to understand what is happening during the specific period Perry’s torture takes place.

Eventually, Perry returns to Canada and Elly shares her news with him. He wants to marry her and she reluctantly agrees. I found it surprising that her traditional parents would be so willing to accept her pregnancy, since Greek culture, like many other cultures, values abstinence until marriage. I expected more tension in this regard. Perry and Elly marry but then Perry’s mother becomes ill and he returns to Greece to take care of her, begging Elly and his young daughter to join him. During the separation Nena grows without her father’s presence. But then one day Perry calls and asks Elly if Nena can spend the summer with him in Greece. Elly must decide if she can accept having Perry back in her daughter’s life and, therefore, in her own life. She has moved on and has a new boyfriend. Can she return to the past?

With Perry’s help and a secret contained in a jewellery box, Nena surprises her mother with a ticket to Greece. They travel with Nena’s Greek tutor. As Elly becomes reacquainted with her estranged husband, she finds herself wondering if she can salvage her relationship with Perry. Can they remain friends? Or will they forever be split by the ocean and anger? Elly remembers the younger Perry who didn’t believe in helping her with housework or cooking, thinking it was “woman’s work,” but during her stay in Greece she realizes that those old-world ways have vanished: Perry now cooks, cleans and gardens. Elly is surprised, exclaiming, “Who would have guessed that you’d be cooking entire meals one day” (215), and Perry explains, “Well, people change” (215).

Yes, people do change. Perry is no longer that old-world Greek guy and this makes Elly ponder the possibility of reconnecting with him and finding the balance she has always wanted between her two worlds; Perry knows her Greek heritage and he seems more open to the new world, thus making it conceivable for them to reconcile and to build a strong bridge from the Greek world to the Canadian one, one that Elly can walk along with Perry and Nena. Many first-generation Canadians can appreciate this feeling of being stuck on a bridge between two conflicting cultures, but sometimes there is a way to cross over without leaving a part of yourself waiting on the other side. In Greece, Elly learns that she still loves Perry. She knows Perry can understand her because they share the same culture and, furthermore, their love for Nena binds them together. Like a bridge. A rope bridge at first, but can it become solid like an iron structure? And is Elly willing to give Perry a second chance?

Despite some minor flaws, the book is captivating because it provides insight into another culture. The author’s artistry at weaving vivid descriptions of Greece make the reader feel as if he or she is right there. Here is the view from their balcony: “Athens looked divine…. Bright lights glistened in the dark. Beyond, the illuminated passenger ferries drifted to and from the port of Piraeus; the navigation lights of cargo ships flickered in the vastness of the Gulf of Saronikos. Overhead, a large aircraft descended towards the Elliniko airport, coming in for a late landing. The crossroads of the world united at their feet.” (169) This passage describes exactly what Foustanellas is achieving in her novel: unity between two sides. A beam of light guides Elly at her crossroad and, like many other individuals struggling with two cultures, this novel offers hope and acceptance of oneself. All in all, Foustanellas has painted a striking picture of family, culture and the importance of understanding one’s heritage.

Sonia Saikaley
(This review has appeared elsewhere.)

Demetra Angelis Foustanellas has been previously featured on Reading Recommendations. Sonia Saikaley is an award-winning author of Lebanese descent who lives and writes in Ottawa. Thanks to Debra Martens for allowing me to repost this review, which originally was posted on he blog, Canadian Writers Abroad.

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The Shore Girl – a review

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The Shore Girl
by Fran Kimmel

Purchase copies here

(at) eleven with fran kimmel: the shore girl

They’re everywhere. A certain kind of young mother, single, unemployed, pushing prams, kids in tow as they walk and walk … yet something suggests there’s no real destination—that hours, days, years, are merely something to get through … until … what? More kids maybe, another guy, another unfortunate choice. Because for some people life is a series of unfortunate choices or, worse, unfortunate events. Whatever the reason, they keep moving, these mothers, as if in the hope it’ll all somehow ‘become’ right. They’re recognizable—not by any expression of hope—but by their sadness, sometimes by the look of fear in their eyes. We worry about them for a moment but mostly do nothing. We wring our hands for the children: what chance do they stand?

and then we drive on by …

This is the impression we take. We of the narrow minds.

Fran Kimmel either doesn’t have a narrow mind or is just a lot brighter than many of us. Or more aware. Her book The Shore Girl, the story of Rebee Shore, shows the world of single motherhood and their kids from the inside out, through a child’s eyes and [in dedicated chapters] through the eyes of everyone who is—by blood or choice—connected to her.

But there’s a difference: Rebee’s mother [Elizabeth, who prefers to go by Harmony] isn’t a pram pushing sort of mum. She’s on the run, rejecting her past and doing her best to dodge the present, which happens to include her daughter. From infancy into her teens, Rebee’s life alternates between moving constantly from van to motel to trailer to relative’s couch. “… Harmony gets restless. For her, a new place has a three-month expiry date, same as fruit bars.”

And if she’s not moving with her mother, she’s being temporarily abandoned by her.

In other words, the kid has every reason to be angry, to follow suit, to make a mess of her life. She has the excuses. But that’s not what happens. Rebee is one of those miracles who, instead of becoming resentful, learns through the very debris of her childhood that she has to be strong because her mother is preoccupied just keeping them alive.

“I thought how rage must hurt in the beginning, but a person gets so used to it, she thinks it’s a heat a body’s supposed to feel.”

She gets it.

It’s why she keeps a box of fingernail clippings, mostly Harmony’s, the various shades of nail polish reminding her of places they’ve stayed; it’s the only constant in her life, the only thing that reminds her of where she’s been and the only part of her mother that she can protect from disappearing.

We rumble along the highway under a watery sky, past wheat rolled into giant soup cans, cows frozen in muck. I think about where we just came from. I can’t remember the colour of the walls or feel of the curtains or shape of the bathroom sink. Blank as water, like on a test day in a new school and I end up at the fountain, gulping, drowning… I slip off my runners and slide my toe across my bag until it touches my nail box. We’ll get to wherever we’re going tonight… I’ll wait awhile. Sprinkle the brittle bits on my blanket. Sift them like seashells.

While often told from Rebee’s perspective, it’s very much Harmony’s story too, one that has her cemented in shame and anger.

All that and yet … The Shore Girl is ultimately hopeful. It’s about connection, the small and unfathomable ways we touch each other and thereby save each other. About reclaiming what’s ours and how family comes in various forms. It’s about getting beyond what’s ‘normal’. About using the scraps you’ve been tossed.

Above all, it reminds us that our story is never obvious to others, nor is it entirely ours alone.

Carin Makuz
(This review has appeared elsewhere.)

Fran Kimmel has been previously featured on Reading Recommendations. Carin Makuz, while never having been directly promoted as an author on Reading Recommendations, is a great pal of this site. Carin maintains two blogs: Matilda Magtree and The Litter I See Project, which has featured the work of a number of RR-promoted authors (including Fran and me!) and was promoted on the blog in Nov. 2015.

Flying With a Broken Wing – a review

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Flying With a Broken Wing
by Laura Best

Purchase copies here

Flying With a Broken Wing evokes many emotions as the reader enters the world of Cammie Deveau, a young girl with more than her fair share of disadvantages.

Cammie Deveau is a dreamer. She dreams about a better life, one where she has a mom and a dad. She dreams about having pretty clothes and a nice house. She dreams about going to school. But most of all, she dreams about being able to see better. It’s her dreams that get her through the tough stuff, like living with her flamboyant, bootlegging aunt and being the subject of gossip in town.

“A bird can´t fly with a broken wing, Cammie Deveau, no more than you can do the things the rest of us can,” Aunt Millie said, the day I asked why I couldn´t go to school like everyone else, and for the longest while I believed her.

One day she realizes that dreaming about things just isn’t enough. She has to take action. Cammie hears about a school for blind and visually impaired children like herself. She longs to attend this school but her aunt won’t let her go. She comes up with a clever plan to make it happen but things go terribly wrong. Will she have to be content with just dreaming about a better life?

This engaging story is set in rural Nova Scotia just after World War II. The descriptions are so well written, the reader is easily transported to the place and time. In Cammie Deveau, the author has created a memorable, spunky ten-year-old who dreams of a better life against all odds. Other quirky characters are sprinkled throughout the story, some hilarious, others sad and pathetic. With the clever use of dialogue that is both timely and local, this is a most enjoyable read that will keep you turning the pages as you root for Cammie. Can she have a good life even if she is flying with a broken wing?

Darlene Foster
(This review has appeared elsewhere.)

Both Laura Best and Darlene Foster have been previously featured on Reading Recommendations.

Playground of Lost Toys – a review

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Playground of Lost Toys
Editors, Colleen Anderson and Ursula Pflug
Published by Exile Editions, December 2015
Contributing Authors: Chris Kuriata, Joe Davies, Catherine MacLeod, Kate Story, Meagan Whan, Candas Jane Dorsey, Rati Mehrotra, Nathan Adler, Rhonda Eikamp, Robert Runté, Linda DeMeulemeester, Kevin Cockle, Claude Lalumière, Dominik Parisien, dvsduncan, Christine Daigle, Melissa Yuan-Innes, Shane Simmons, Lisa Carreiro, Karen Abrahamson, Geoff Cole and Alex C. Renwick.

Purchase copies here and here

Where better to start understanding the ways in which the child is mother to the woman than digging that old toy out of the sandbox, perfect metaphor for the subconscious. The stories in Playground of Lost Toys reflect the other minds that parallel play with adult imagination: magic realism, horror and surrealism, where extreme child consciousness is formed in the interaction of good and evil, the light and shadows that play on nursery walls.

This collection, a gathering of diverse writers, many of them fresh out of fairy tale, may have surprised the editors with its imaginative intensity and the realisation that childhood is an earthquake zone with cracks that swallow the innocent. The acquisition of language, spells and nursery rhymes that vanquish fear and bad fairies can save them; and toys are amulets that protect children from loneliness, abuse, and acts of god. This is what these writers found when they dug in the sand. Perhaps they even surprised themselves.

Eleventh in Exile‘s anthology series, this collection is further evidence that storytelling, binding generation to generation, brother to sister, mother to daughter and grandmother to grandson, is the glue of culture. Harmonious dialogue, sharing narrative, is as essential to a healthy family as it is to a healthy world. In the common gestalts in stories from every world culture, we discover the one in the many.

In “The Ghost Rattle,” one of several stories in which magic transforms reality, two grave robbers discover that objects left on graves meant for the other side camp, across the river from this life, are sacred and have a power beyond ownership. The story comes out of an oral tradition where ancient archetypes are kept relevant by contemporary re-telling. The new generation of aboriginal writers and visual artists like Kwakwakwa’wakw Chief Rande Cook, revitalize the relationship between “real” and spirit worlds by making the idiom contemporary.

This is a cautionary tale. Nathan Adler’s adolescent Beavis and Butthead cannot hide from the light after they desecrate a sacred place. The references are current, but the lesson is timeless.

Coils of sapphire and electric jade infiltrated his room, like flashes from a television screen. Except his television wasn’t on. The flicker formed a secondary phenomenon, as if it were a miniature three-dimensional version of the larger aurora outside.

The book is advertised as speculative fiction. This is the direction of several recent Exile anthologies, a direct appeal to a new generation of readers who might yet be lured away from their virtual devices, a different kind of reading. Re-discovery of the empirical book could still charm a generation accustomed to sound bites and twitter lite. Short fiction is a perfect genre to restore the prodigal reader to the pleasure of reading real print, turning real pages and smelling real paper.

Experimentation with language, as in “Wheatiesfield in Fall,” life as a log with breathing space between minimal entries, by Geoffrey W. Cole, serves as a clock in the time-warped reaches of speculative fiction. In collections like this, there is room for every possibility as we are left to consider what is normal in a normal childhood.

“Show and Tell,” Kate Story’s memoir from the normal, resonates every insecure narrative reflecting in school washroom mirrors, even decades later, when two old friends reflect.

“But if you’re here, then it’s your life.” She was taking this seriously. “Multiple universes?”

“Maybe it’s not about universes, ” she proposed. “Maybe it’s a narrative like you said. Maybe it’s what you choose to remember.”

The stories in Playground of Lost Toys are all about choice. The toys, never lost because they carry on with their buried lives, are catalysts in the time travel that allows the various narrators to consider the life decisions they have made.

We choose to explore the other side because it is there. Some decide to stay and some to return and witness the peacefulness of not being, the release of anxiety. The ten-year-old child in Dominic Parisien’s “Goodbye is a Mouthful of Water” experimented with drowning, going to the deep place where life begins and ends:

“As your feet hit the bottom, a great brown cloud blossomed around you, and for a panicked moment you felt it close around your legs, its greedy maw chewing on your ankles.” and then returning from the dead, “who could not really hurt you after all, not really,” to celebrate another birthday.

On their first birthdays, Chinese boys are presented an array of toys. Whatever they choose is the direction that child’s life will take; a horse indicates a soldier, a book a scholar, a flute a musician. Thinking back to Lawrence’s life-changing “Rocking Horse Winner,” a universal favourite, we can hope for more normal and paranormal fiction with toys as the objective correlative linking child and adult real and surreal possibilities. This is the (bookbinders) glue that binds us.

Linda Rogers van Krugel
(This review has appeared elsewhere.)

Both Colleen Anderson and Ursula Pflug have been featured on Reading Recommendations previously. Linda Rogers van Krugel is a Canadian author. Her forthcoming novel, Bozuk, will be released with Exile Editions in late 2016.

Amanda in Alberta – a review

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Amanda in Alberta
The Writing on the Stone

by Darlene Faster

Purchase copies here

Foster’s Amanda series is about a preteen girl who travels around the world and solves mysteries. In this adventure, Amanda stays home and her friend, Leah, comes to visit from England. When they are watching the parade at the Calgary Stampede, Amanda picks up a rock that fell from the pocket of one of the rodeo clowns. He left before she got a chance to return it to him. It turns out that this is no ordinary stone. As Amanda and Leah travel around Alberta visiting different places in the province, they are stalked by a nefarious character who wants the rock for himself.

Amanda in Alberta is loaded with lots of action and adventure as the girls attempt to elude him and discover more about the stone. Along the way, as they travel around the province, readers learn about Alberta as a modern place, but also about its history and geography. They visit Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump, a world heritage site that showcases how First Nations people of the area hunted and preserved buffalo. Another destination is Drumheller, where they visit the Royal Tyrrell Museum and learn about dinosaurs.

What worked for me:
It was enjoyable to read about familiar places. Foster has captured a sense of place in this novel. I liked the action and adventure that keep readers entertained at the same time as it will educate them. Through Leah’s visit, Foster introduces readers to Alberta’s First Nations people. At the same time as they are revealed as an historic culture, she also shows them as modern people living modern lives.

The large print made this book easy to read for me. It will also make it easier for younger readers to navigate. It is a bit more than a chapter book as it is written at about a grade 4 flesch kincaid reading level. It would make a great read-aloud, and will probably appeal most to readers from ages 7 to 12 as Amanda and Leah embody both a naivety and sophistication that will appeal to them.

Quibbles and wishes:
When the girls visit a Pow-Wow, it is explained as a dance competition. It is my understanding that Pow-Wows are a much more complex cultural event that were once banned by the Canadian government. My wish is that this could have been somehow incorporated into the book.

Foster left out Fort MacLeod, renowned for its museum of the North West Mounted Police and especially the Igloo Drive-In, where they serve the best real soft ice-cream in the province. Seriously, if I am within 50 kilometers of the place, a detour is made to visit it. No one I have ever taken there has been disappointed.

I’ve just made sure that all the books in the Amanda series will be part of our library.

Cheriee Weichel
(This review has appeared elsewhere.)

Darlene Foster has been previously featured on Reading Recommendations. Cheriee Weichel is a fulltime teacher/librarian in Vancouver who posts book reviews to the blog, Library Matters.

Second Chance and Absent Souls – a review

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Second Chance
by Dylan S Hearn

Purchase copies here

These books are part of the Transcendence Trilogy set slightly in the future, not totally dystopian but not far off. The third book, Genesis Redux is due later this year.

The first thing to say is that both books stand alone. Naturally I read them in reverse order, as you do, but it made not one jot of difference. You don’t need to know what happened in Second to enjoy Absent, nor are you left with a cliffhanger ending if you read Second first.

How to describe them? Futuristic thrillers with an underlay of politics, intrigue, corruption (the three go together, don’t they?), globalisation and a finely understated sense of irony and satire.

Second Chance has a number of strands: a new independent delegate is elected to the governing body in England and gets out of her idealistic depths, a technician at the Re-Life laboratory works to improve the cloning/regeneration process, and an information analyst finds himself alone and betrayed. The seemingly separate strands are brought together with the investigation of the disappearance of a college student.

For me, what made this a great read, was the sheer strength of the characterisation. In the delegate, Stephanie, and the information analyst, Randall, Dylan has created two excellent and credible characters. Plus, some of the secondary characters are equally good, Gant and Sian in particular.

Here’s an extract with Stephanie and the unscrupulous Gant, who is the Prime Delegate’s enforcer.

“So is this business or pleasure?”

“A bit of both, actually.”

Gant was standing close enough for Stephanie to smell the sweetness of his breath. Reaching up, she gently brushed some dust that had fallen on his lapel. “Why don’t we talk business first, then …” She had been looking forward to this moment. A little flirt, a look, a knowing smile …

“I understand that you’re planning to vote against the budget proposals next month, and that you’re actively persuading others to take your side. The Prime Delegate would very much prefer for this not to happen.”

Stephanie froze. This was the last thing she wanted to talk about. She tried to think back to Sian’s briefings. “I’m not sure what you mean.”

Gant pressed closer, his smile gone. “Please, Stephanie. Don’t treat me like I’m an idiot.”

“Come on, Zachary.” She gave him her best impish smile. “You don’t mind if I call you Zachary? I’ve no argument with the government. I’d be more than happy to support the Prime Delegate’s cause if it was in the best interests of my district. As far as I am aware, the details of the budget proposal haven’t been made public, so I can’t form an opinion until they have.”

Gant’s face hardened. “This isn’t a game. You’ve somehow found out that the proposal includes a number of capital projects, so you’ve decided to try and overturn the bill. Isn’t that right?”

The warmth from earlier had evaporated. Stephanie took a step backwards, looking for space in which to think, but Gant followed. Was he was bluffing or did he really know this? And if he did know what they were planning, where the hell had he got his information from?

“Look, if what you say is true I may have a few issues, but I’m sure we can work them out. Why don’t we go back to my office and talk this through?” She looked up at him, smiling. “Then, once we’ve reached a compromise, we can move onto the other reason you wanted to speak to me.”

“No.”

Stephanie found herself pushed hard against the wall. She tried to move away but Gant’s grip was solid.

And it just gets worse after that … bad move Stephanie.

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Absent Souls
by Dylan S Hearn

Purchase copies here

So, what about Absent Souls?

Well, this one is totally different. Some of the same characters, well, sort of, and a development of others. O’Driscoll, who is basically outside the law, was mentioned briefly in Second, but plays a strong role in Absent. Another great character, bad, but not so bad. Always good to love the baddies and hate the goodies. But, how do we know who is who?

In this book, our heroine is Juliet, yet, as the plot develops she is left not only knowing who to trust, can she even trust herself? And the Re-Life laboratory marches on. Plus, we move out of the UK to America, or something that resembles America, for a little revolutionary action and serious global interference.

But as my fave character was O’Driscoll, King of the Shambles, here’s an extract including him and his somewhat impetuous cousin:

The cellar smelled of mildew and rot. O’Driscoll ducked under an old oak lintel. He wasn’t a tall man but even he had to watch his head in this place. He made his way towards the back of the room where a man sat tied to a chair. The side of the man’s face was swollen, his left hand clamped to a table bolted to the floor. Charlie stood at one side watching, out of the spotlight, invisible to their captive. His cousin, Darragh, stood by the man, wiping a bloodied knife on the apron he was wearing. A fingertip lay on the floor, blood gleaming in the brightness.

As O’Driscoll walked over to Charlie, Darragh leaned towards the captive. “Why are you holding out on us, Sjaak? Who are you protecting?”

The man said nothing, the only sound his breath through gritted teeth. Rivulets of sweat dripped down his waxen face.
Darragh took hold of the wounded finger and squeezed. The man’s screams echoed around the crumbling brickwork. “How long have we known each other, Sjaak?” he asked. “Five years? Ten? Is this a Dutch thing? I heard some of the Rotterdam boys tried to muscle in on the Turks a few months back. Are they trying to do the same here? Is that it?”
The man looked down at the floor, refusing to meet his gaze.

Tough times, and O’Driscoll later finds the tables are turned on him as he is forced to run.

Again, great characterisation, tense and exciting plot, totally unpredictable, leading to a very good ending.

Both books are well thought through and well crafted with some cracking characters. I never could work out what had happened to the missing student, and I found the investigator Nico somewhat bland, but having said that he was almost normal. That’s the nearest I can get to fault finding.

Good books and recommended if you like these sort of reads. Or even if you don’t.

roughseasinthemed
(This review has appeared elsewhere.)

Dylan S Hearn previously has been featured on Reading Recommendations here and here. roughseasinthemed is a professional editor, writer and journalist who writes and publishes the blog, roughseasinthemed.

this is the ritual – a review

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this is the ritual
by Rob Doyle

Purchase copies here

When you strip away all the gloss and glitter, the highwire plotting with acrobat characters, after the trumpets of hype are laid to rest in their velvet-lined cases what remains at the nut of a writer’s art is reporting. See something that is worth knowing and convince a reader of that worth. Tell the truth and make it vivid. All the rest of it is marketing.

There are of course two generalized means of approach to this. The writer can travel to places and experience things that are both literally and psychologically foreign to the average reader in his horsehair-stuffed chair, or her comfy bed with the pillows plumped just so. Or, there are the dramas in the study and the fire in the bedroom, those familiar objects that look very unfamiliar indeed when an a torchlight held by the writer’s hand causes them to cast monster-shaped shadows on bungalow walls. Is the art here or is it there, and where is there if not indeed here?

That doesn’t make it easy of course, although given that in 2015 over one million books were published in English alone there seem to be one hell of a lot of people who think that just because they can speak a language they can write in it; most can’t, or at the very least not well. This makes it rather difficult for the few hundred who can truly re-create a world on a page to get noticed at all. The task is rather like two top football teams, say Barcelona and Bayern Munich, trying to play an artful match on a pitch where the spectators were allowed to wander around, occasionally taking a punt at the ball. Can’t someone please blow a bloody whistle and call security?

Rob Doyle is one of the writers who deserves a place on the team and I am therefore delighted that his short story series this is the ritual is the first book I am reviewing in 2016. Doyle you see takes a perspective on his work that is equal parts wisdom and mischief. Given that you’re the sort of person who reads literary book reviews, I am quite sure you know the tale of Plato’s Cave, so there is no need to explain that one for the nine millionth time. However, while most writers (including many very good ones) will create stories about the deception of the shadows or the blindness of the cave dwellers, Doyle is interested in the anonymous person who keeps the flame burning behind the drama. That’s the real interesting person in the room; the wizard in the Oz chamber, the author himself.

For this reason, this is the ritual is not a short story ‘collection’ in the traditional sense. No, these nineteen pieces are a series that interweave and comment on one another with the effect of a scientist looking into a microscope only to see on his slide a smaller version of himself looking up through a telescope.

Doyle lets us know what he’s up to in the very first story, John-Paul Finnegan, Paltry Realist. Finnegan and the narrator are traveling from Holyhead back to Ireland after many years away on a not-at-all-ironically-named ferry Ulysses. On deck and with spray slapping about, they talk about books they have read, experiences they have had, and what expectations readers demand. They are also more than a bit edgy about returning to Ireland. The story thus becomes as whimsically elegant an apologia as you’ll ever run across. Here’s what I’ve been up to and I hope you like what I’ve done with it.

Doyle’s cast includes many a character who are like the prophets writing on the subway walls in Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sounds of Silence. The words may be wise, but who pays attention to spray paint philosophy? For instance, there’s the nameless roll-up smoker found alone on an empty Ballymount Estate in No Man’s Land who expounds on Nietzsche between slugs of Dutch Gold beer. He summarizes with an eloquent description of despair that later reduces the narrator to such a quivering mess he asks his mother if he can sleep on the floor beside her bed:

‘There’s no plan any more. This is unprecedented. There is no father. There is no appeal. And hell, hell assumes its true fuckin significance. We’re already there. I saw all this so fuckin clearly, durin a mushroom trip out here, one of the first times I came to this place. The mushrooms are like a technology, they let ye see what’s happened to the world. Death is in everything now. I sat there cryin and screamin for hours. The entire sky was crushin me, all of outer space was pressin down on me. I was buried and I’ve never come back. I’m still buried. There is no surface, nowhere to claw back to. You’re buried too, and ye know it, I can see it in ye. There is no father. There is n therapy. Do ye know how that feels?’

Well yes actually we do … not that we like to dwell on those moments. That though is the writer’s job, the ritual itself, to cause us to feel that which we prefer to bury for truth should never be buried. Mind you, truth-tellers are often uncelebrated or come to grim ends. The dubious fortune of being ‘taken seriously’ often seems utterly random, a point Doyle makes with his deeply satirical, wonderfully wicked creation Killian Turner. Much like Kurt Vonnegut Jr’s Kilgore Trout – and if those matching KT initials are a coincidence, I’m my Aunt Nancy’s cat – Turner is either a genius disguised as a fraud or a fraud disguised as a genius. Turner is introduced in the story Exiled in the Infinite – Killian Turner, Ireland’s Vanished Literary Outlaw. Turner, an Irish writer, is described by a minor academic thusly: ‘In fact, his body of work, taken as a whole, might be seen as Turner’s lifelong project of effacing all marks of nationhood from his authorial voice and literary being.’ Much like James Joyce or Samuel Beckett, Turner becomes a celebrated Irish writer be getting the hell out of Dodge, or at least Dun Laoghaire. He becomes a linking device in this is the ritual, popping up unannounced in the later stories, again much like Kilgore Trout in Slaughterhouse-Five or Breakfast of Champions.

The themes and interplay, the point/counter-point of story elements continue to work until what is formed is akin to a watertight woven basket. Nietzsche arrives again as a subject for a writer who never gets around to writing much as he never feels his research his sufficient. Doyle himself appears in character form, which is a device I usually use to club writers with a spade, however given the shot/reverse shot nature of this is the ritual‘s dialogue about observing and writing, this is one time where the author deserves to appear on stage.

Finally, this is the ritual reminds of a favourite lesser-known film, Joe Gould’s Secret, directed by and starring the criminally underrated Stanley Tucci. Joe Gould was a real-life charlatan, a for want of a better term hobo who was taken in, virtually adopted by New York’s cognoscenti as he claimed to have written a nearly completed, nine million word long ‘Oral History’. The book was the sociological equivalent of a physicist’s theory of everything, except the book never existed. Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker was one of those taken in by Joe Gould, writing two Profile pieces on him, one in 1942 and the second admitting the fraud in 1964. After that second piece, Mitchell continued to go to his office at The New Yorker every work day, Monday to Friday, for another twenty years. He never wrote another word. In this is the ritual, Rob Doyle writes the book Joe Mitchell should have written emerging from that experience.

Brilliant.

Be seeing you.

Hubert O’Hearn
(This review has appeared elsewhere.)

Since writing this review, Hubert has also interviewed Rob in a 30-minute podcast for Thoughts Comments Opinions on the San Diego Book Review site.

Both Rob Doyle and Hubert O’Hearn have been previously featured on Reading Recommendations.

Are You Ready To Be Lucky? – a review

Are-You-Ready-to-be-Lucky

Are You Ready to Be Lucky?
by Rosemary Nixon

Purchase copies here

Rosemary Nixon is a well-known figure in the Calgary literary scene, so I’ve been eager to read something of hers for awhile. Her last novel Kalila didn’t appeal to me because of the heart-wrenching subject, so when a book of linked short stories labelled ‘humorous’ came along, I was eager to pick it up, and I’m really glad I did.

I love reading books by Alberta authors because I find they all have a very no-nonsense way of approaching difficult subject matter-what’s so refreshing about Are you Ready to be Lucky? is that it demonstrates this trait in an appealing way. The characters that whirl around in the story lines all face difficult situations, but endure their plights with humor and optimism-this in a nutshell, is how I view Albertans. And although some may be upset with me for painting the entire province with the same paintbrush, please understand I am offering up a compliment here. For example, most Calgarians will fondly describe the numerous chinooks that come around through winter, but cheerfully admit that during those same warm spells, they experience the most painful kinds of migraines possible. As a newly transplanted Ontario-an, I would hear these stories and grimace, feeling terrible for those who relayed these stories to me, not believing that they were really that comfortable with their plight- but now I see that’s just part of being westerner!

Yes-Albertans are tough, and so are Nixon’s characters. Roslyn was by far my favourite, slogging her way through an ill-fated marriage to a British man named Duncan, who was clearly searching for a slave rather than a wife. This book is far from a happy-ending fairy tale, but I find that each character is left with what they deserve, and this is far more satisfying for a reader. I will point out that most of the characters in Nixon’s collection are older, and hitting points in their lives that I (luckily) couldn’t relate to yet. Second marriages, grandkids and mid-life crises, are all dealt with in this book, albeit in a light way.

I have one minor problem in what I read about the book-not the book itself, but the media stories on it. You can check one out here. I only reference this to prove a point that I have-unlike what other articles and interviews say, this book is not raunchy! It fits all the other categories that the journalists mention (great writing, tawdry characters, funny dialogue) but raunchy it is not. Whether this was the journalist’s, publisher’s, or Nixon’s idea to use the word ‘raunchy’ I’m not sure, but if that’s what you’re looking for, I’ll send you along to a review of a book that I did earlier which was most definitely raunchy.

If you want a fun read with some laugh-out-loud moments, please pick up this book.

Anne Logan
(This review has appeared elsewhere.)

Rosemary Nixon has been previously featured on Reading Recommendations. Anne Logan worked in Canadian publishing for 7 years and reviews books on her blog, i’ve read this.

Serpents Rising – a review

9781459721722

Serpents Rising
by David A. Poulsen

Purchase copies here

I just finished reading a great mystery by a great Alberta author. And by the way, he’s also got another job as a rodeo announcer, when he’s not writing (see video below). David A. Poulson has written over 20 books, some for kids, some for adults, but according to the acknowledgements at the end of Serpents Rising, this is the book he’s wanted to write all along, but never had the courage to until now.

I can understand that hesitation, especially after reading the influences that led him to love and eventually write his own mystery book. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Ian Rankin and Peter Robinson were just a few of the names that he listed, but as any mystery lover knows, those are some pretty heavy-hitters! Although Serpents Rising wasn’t written in the same style that these authors are known for, it’s obvious Poulsen knew enough about the genre to create a decent attempt at what he loved for so long.

Serpents Rising is set in Calgary, Alberta which is one of the reasons I picked it up. For some reason, I love reading books set in my own city, and Poulsen clearly enjoyed working within this setting, picking many well-known locations for his plot to unravel in. He also gave the main character Cullen a very Calgary-esque job as a former reporter for the Calgary Herald, now a freelance journalist. All locals know that full-time Calgary Herald writers are hard to come by now, so the narrative was clearly well researched.

Is it necessary for the bad guy to always be a complete surprise to the reader in a mystery? No, I’ve certainly read enough mysteries that don’t contain a twist at the end when revealing the perpetrator. However, I must admit I’m always a bit disappointed when the killer/thief/criminal ends up being someone you suspected earlier on. I won’t include any spoilers here, but I will say that I wasn’t at all surprised when the culprit was revealed. Please surprise me!!! Especially if you’re just beginning the series (the cover of the book says it is a “Cullen and Cobb Mystery”), I’m expecting more to come in the future and I want to be wowed from the very beginning.

Regardless of the final result, the lead-up to the climax was interesting, and kept me reading at a faster pace than usual, so that’s always the sign of not only a good writer, but a budding mystery writer in the making. I do hope Poulsen continues with this series, as I’d love to see what Cullen and Cobb get up to next. But he needs to step up his game, as the mystery market is crowded as is, and readers need that last little push to pick up one book over the next.

Anne Logan
(This review has appeared elsewhere.)

David A. Poulsen has been previously featured on Reading Recommendations. Anne Logan worked in Canadian publishing for 7 years and reviews books on her blog, i’ve read this.

Solace – a review

solace

Solace
by Therin Knite

Purchase copies here

I had the pleasure of reading and recommending Othella by Therin Knite last year and enjoyed it so much I joined the author’s mailing list. Earlier this year, Knite offered her mailing list a free copy of her latest book, Solace, in return for an honest review. It’s taken me a little while to get to it, but here are my thoughts. I’m glad to say I wasn’t disappointed.

The Blurb

Corina Marion has a father problem—namely that her Red Cross doctor of a dad has finally returned home from sixteen years of war…

…as a body in a box to be buried.

Her mother is devastated, her friends shocked and saddened, her hometown in mourning at the loss of its local hero. And Corina, indifferent to the man she never met, is trapped in the middle of an emotional onslaught she isn’t prepared to handle.

But when a strange old man confronts Corina at her father’s funeral, he offers her an impossible opportunity: the chance to know the late Luther Marion. And in a moment of uncertainty, Corina makes a choice with consequences she can barely fathom.

A choice that sends her twenty-five years into the past.

Right on the cusp of the harrowing events that will shape Luther Marion’s life…and death.

And in order to return to her damaged home, supportive friends, and uncertain future, Corina will have to fight tooth and nail alongside the man she’s resented her entire life. Because if she doesn’t help fix the past she’s inadvertently changed with her presence, Luther Marion may not live long enough to become a hero at all.

The Review

Corina is a tough, independent teenager. She’s had to be. Her doctor father left before she was born to save lives in a never-ending war on the other side of the world, leaving just her and her mother waiting for him to return. But when he does, it’s in a box. Angry at what’s happened, and the reverence in which her father she’s never known is held, she tries to escape the cloying atmosphere at her father’s funeral, only to meet a mysterious man who offers her the chance to know what her father was really like. Corina agrees, and before she know’s it she’s being rescued from a canal 25 years in the past – by the man who became her father.

Solace is a well-written, hard hitting YA coming of age story set in an alternate version of our future. It’s a modern take on the Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol, but instead of our protagonist following her own life, she gets to follow the life of her absent father.

Therin Knite has a great writing style, and it didn’t take me long to be sucked into the story. The opening scenes are about as tough as I’ve read in my (admittedly sparse) experience of YA novels and set the tone for the rest of the book, introducing us to the harsh world in which the tough, loyal and driven Corina lives. It’s a dark but well realised vision of our future, with America almost on its knees due to the effects of an ongoing war against China. Yet almost as soon as we’re introduced to this world we’re taken out of it as Corina is sent back in time on a journey to discover the real person behind her father’s heroic image. The only rule, is she’s not allowed to turn him away from the life he is going to lead.

At the heart of the story is the relationship between the abandoned daughter and the absent father. As they journey together through some of the defining moments of her father’s life, the two of them form a bond which never existed in real life as they each learn about the other. But throughout the book the joy of a daughter learning about her father is tempered by the knowledge of where that journey’s heading.

I really enjoyed the concept behind this story and found Knite’s stripped-down writing sharp and very engaging. The characters were well-rounded and believable, the settings realistic, and I devoured it in just a few days. The only issue I had with the book was that there were a few occasions where the dialogue appeared forced, with some conversations used as a means to explain or advance the plot (in the hospital, for example), but they probably stood out because of the high quality work in what is yet another strong novel by Therin Knite. If you like gripping, near-future thrillers with strong female protagonists, this is the book for you. Highly recommended.

Dylan S Hearn
(This review has appeared elsewhere.)

Both Therin Knite and Dylan S Hearn have been previously featured on Reading Recommendations.