Book Reviews

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The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Wow! I loved this book. I originally read The Handmaid’s Tale as a teenager and re-read it last year after watching the TV series (yes, it diverges from the novel considerably but it’s excellent television). It took me a 20 pages or so to get into the swing of following the 3 different characters accounts but after that I was hooked. The book is set about a decade (maybe longer?) after the first book and follows the lives of an aunt, a Canadian teenager, and a teenage daughter of a commander. Atwood does an amazing job of keeping the plot racing and making the aunt’s backstory sympathetic (I don’t know why I’m not naming her its pretty obvious who she is!) In fact the aunt was my favourite part of the book.

The Strain by Guillermo Del Toro

So…This book isn’t particularly well written and it’s a genre I rarely read; a fairly formulaic horror thriller but I’m going to give it a five anyway! This is a good old fashioned page turner that had me hooked from the start. I de died I’d try reading some horror fiction for the month of October and stumbled upon this one. Its basically a vampire story but the main characters are CDC doctors, a Jewish holocaust survivor whose been hoarding weapons for decades for a vampire outbreak and a New York rat exterminator. The vampires are more like zombies than the charming Twilight style blood stickers which kept the story from feeling cliched. There are a shitload of loose ends at the end of the book, I’m fine with leaving the reader hanging on for a sequel but the authors could have tied things up better.

 

Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Taylor Jenkins Reid has created a very readable story of a fictional band in the late 1970’s (I pictured Fleetwood Mac as I read). The most compelling part of the novel is the intense chemistry between Billy Dunny (who’s happily married to someone else) and Daisy Jones.

I raced through this and it’s an enjoyable enough read, but the author’s narrative device of writing the whole book as a series of recollections by various members of the band didn’t work for me. Having the entire novel narrated back as past tense recollections made the story feel too detached and not engaging enough. Honestly it felt more like a Rolling Stone band profile than a novel. Still worth a read though.

 

Recursion by Blake Crouch

If you haven’t read Blake Crouch yet, you’re really missing out. Both Recursion and Dark Matter are awesome, engaging and intelligent books that draw the reader in from page one and don’t let go until the very last line. Without giving away too much, I’ll just say that Recursion is about collective memory, consciousness, time and reality. It takes big concepts and puts them in a story that grabs  and entertains you in a suspense-filled plot that I didn’t want to end.  I loved it. Definitely one of the best of 2019 so far.

 

Sour Heart: Stories by Jenny Zhang

  I picked up this book because it was a short-story collection by an author I’d never heard of, published by a larger press, so I was curious. How lucky am I to have stumbled upon my new favourite author! Jenny Zhang is brilliant. A collection of linked short stories that focuses on the lives of several immigrant Chinese families in New York City, told primarily from the perspectives of the children in the families, Zhang deftly drops psychological insights into long, rhythmic sentences filled with urgency. I feel like I’m with that child in that mash of emotion and calculation and puzzling out the puzzling behaviour of people around her. It makes for one mind-blowing scene after the other, and the contrast of childlike urgency and confusion with profound insight crackles and pops. Totally mind-blowing fiction.

 

River-Horse  by William Least Heat-Moon

This book is a slog, let’s just get that out of the way right now! At about 500 pages it’s a hefty tome but it feels even longer thanks to Heat-Moon’s plodding plotting and his style of overwriting. I really enjoyed Blue Highways when I read it years ago and the idea of his traveling the USA via rivers intrigued me and I’m glad I read the book but…

The author travels the entire journey with a man we know only as Pilotis, this gets annoying fast and we never learn a thing about the man he travels months and thousands of miles with. There are other travel companions and they remain similarly anonymous so there’s virtually no meaningful human interaction in the entire book. They stop frequently on their journey but apart from accounts of small talk with waitresses and the occasional farmer we never learn anything meaningful about the towns they pass through or the people who live near the water or work on it (the people who works the river locks or pilot river barges are pretty much universally described negatively).

All criticisms aside, the journey they embark on is audacious and worth reading about. I had no idea what sort of impact damns, dredging and other human activities have had on the US’s waterways and it’s worth reading the book for this alone. This is definitely not a must read but if you have a love for travel and nautical literature it may be worth picking up.

 

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

I put off reading this book because I heard it was so depressing! But so many people raved about it, I decided to give it a go. I found it difficult to get into this book because there were so many characters to keep straight. After 100 pages or so I was hooked. The characters are so well developed, you feel like you know them intimately. A Little Life is definitely not an uplifting book but it stays with you long after you’ve read it. 4 and 1/2 stars!

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Possibly one of the greatest books I have ever experienced. The story-line centers around the unspeakable childhood trauma of one of the main characters and how everyone around him has adjusted their lives to deal with it. I could not put this book down. Although many parts are not for the faint of heart, it is a book that will leave an impression on you long after the last page has been read. Beautifully written and achingly honest. 5 stars.

 

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog)  by Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut

This is not only a wonderful story about lovable foxes slowly turning into pets at the hands of scientists, but also a story of defying a backwards government in the name of science. The characters in this book do whatever it takes to forward science for everyone. It is inspirational and uplifting and finishes with cute foxes that you can call your friend. 4 stars.

 

Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures by Ben Mezrich

What will it take to change our future? This book tackles that subject in a way I have not ever seen before. Ben explains the use of DNA and synthetic biology to begin the process of creating a beast from the past. Half adventure story, half scientific treatise, it will captivate the reader with an almost science fiction approach to making a difference in our world today.

 

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

I’ve been meaning to read this for years and finally got around to it. I have a soft spot for romantic comedies (I also loved Me Before You, Bridget Jones Diary etc.) so it was no surprise that I loved this book.
There were frequent laugh aloud moments as I read and I’d say it’s about a perfect length for an escapist read (I read it on a weekend trip away). 4 and 1/2 stars!

 

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

This is the first novel from the master of short fiction, George Saunders. I love his short stories because they are full of distinct voices, brilliant and humorous contrasts, a healthy dose of speculative elements, and always the love and compassion of this author comes through. For Saunders fans, this novel will not disappoint. Clever, strange, funny, tragic, absurd and utterly beautiful. And now historical fiction + ghost stories like you’ve never seen them before. (See? He’s got everything.)

 

Eating Dirt by Charlotte Gill

I love a good memoir, local history and travel writing so this book ticked a lot of boxes for me! Charlotte Gill’s got a direct engaging writing style I enjoyed and she does a great job interweaving her account of her many years tree planting with a look at the impact of logging on our forests. I came away from reading this with a new respect for our old growth forests.

Although I really enjoyed the book I would have liked the author to go into her personal story a little more, there’s absolutely no backstory of how she got to be a tree planter and virtually no glimpse of her life outside of the job. Overall an excellent read, if you loved The Golden Spruce or the Hidden Life of Trees then this will be right up your alley. 4 stars!

 

A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult

Although this book is well written and Jodi clearly did her research on this sensitive topic, I didn’t find it a really compelling read. Maybe because we hear about shootings in the states every other week- I’m not terribly interested in reading fiction about a gun-man in the U.S.  3 and 1/2 stars.

 

 

Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of NIKE  by Phil Knight

This is by far one of the best memoirs I’ve read, period. Yeah I’ve read (and loved) the Jobs bio by Isaacson and Vance’s biography of Elon Musk but I don’t particularly love business books I just love a good memoir or biography of pretty much anyone if it’s well written.

Phil Knight has created what comes across as an honest (hard to know for sure) and self deprecating book about his creation of Nike and his passion to go against the grain. Ultimately this is the story of a young man who knew he didn’t want to conform to the stereotypes of what a successful college educated would become in the 1960’s. Running was still very much a misunderstood and under appreciated past time then (apparently it wasn’t unusual for joggers to actually be accosted on the street in the early 1960’s) but that didn’t stop Phil from hustling up an empire starting with a few bucks and a bunch of shoes in the trunk of his car (a cliche but apparently true!). The business side of the book is fascinating but more than anything I loved story of a young man finding himself, there’s plenty of international travel and adventure along with the deal making and hustling. This may sound strange but small bits of the book actually reminded me more of Hunter S. Thompson or Kerouac than a book you’d find in the business section. 5 stars!

 

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Found this to be a slog for about the first hundred pages. But it had been recommended by many and so I persevered. I couldn’t put it down! I came to love and respect the main character who was so well characterized that I felt I knew him. What a great read! 5 stars!

 

 

So, Anyway… by John Cleese

I’ve been wanting to read this for a couple of years, I’d heard it was interesting but not particularly funny but that wasn’t my experience. I found myself laughing aloud quite regularly while reading even though it is a serious account of Cleese’s childhood and younger years. (he’s not trying to be David Sedaris but there’s still plenty of laughs dotting the book).

Cleese spends a fair bit of time describing his upbringing as a single child with a doting Father and somewhat self- obsessed and neurotic Mother and his formative years at Cambridge where he started to develop his comedic talents. Honestly, he seems to have a led a fairly charmed life: there was no drug addiction to conquer, no lean years of sleeping in his car and while trying to make it in show business. So it’s particularly impressive that his story is still so entertaining.

I was a little disapointed that the book ends in the early 1970’s (I’m a huge Faulty Towers fan and would have loved to know more about its creation) but I guess I should have paid more attention to the subtitle “The Making of a Python”. 5 stars!

 

I See You by Clare Mackintosh

Couldn’t put it down! 5 stars!

 

 

 

 

The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi

John Scalzi is a truly amazing writer who seems to be getting better all the time, this is second book in the Interdependency Sequence and I think I loved it even more than the first. I’ve always enjoyed science fiction but lately when I’ve tried revisiting the favourites of my youth (Asimov, Heinlein etc ). I’ve been dismayed by the tedious writing style and blatant sexism. What I love about Scalzi is that’s he’s writing good old fashioned hard sci-fi but with a very contemporary voice. I won’t really go into the plot, presumably if you’re reading this you’ve probably already read the Collapsing Empire, there’s some major new relevations in this follow up that really upped the plotline and kept me riveted to the last page. 5 stars!

 

21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari

I think Harari is a brilliant and engaging writer who challenges his readers to broaden the way they think about the human species. So why only 3 stars? Have you ever been to a party and met a super smart interesting person, chatted with them enthralled for an hour but then found yourself unable to actually remember the finer details of your conversation? That’s how I feel about this book. In theory Harari is taking the points from his previous two books (do yourself a favour and read Sapiens if you haven’t already, it’s the shit!) and applying them to our present. In reality the book felt like not very coherent essays that don’t connect particularly well. Most of the chapters would make a fine magazine article but together as a book I felt they were lacking cohesion. Someone saw me reading this the other day and asked want it was about and I felt myself struggling to describe it, I still do! I enjoyed Harari’s writing enough to plow through the book and it was interesting to see more of the author’s personality come through (spoiler alert, he’s a hard core atheist!). Definitely worth a read for super fans but the first two books are definitely better.  3 stars!

 

crazy rich asiansCrazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

4 stars

This was a really fun book.  Not exactly deep,  but if you’re looking for pure entertainment about the super-fabulously-eccentric rich, this is a good pick. Pure candy! 4 stars!

 

 

The PowerThe Power by Naomi Alderman

3 stars

I really wanted to love this book. It got great reviews on Goodreads, which I usually find to be a reliable source. In this book, teenage girls everywhere suddenly discover that their bodies can produce a deadly electrical charge. At first there are just a few who have this power. Then suddenly all girls and eventually all woman can tap into this power – which of course, changes the whole power dynamic of men and woman the world over.  I really liked the fascinating premise of the book. Unfortunately, it just didn’t hold my interest after the first half of the story. Give it a try, though. I’d love to hear other people’s perspectives on this book. Submit your book review so I can hear what you think about The Power. I gave it 3 stars.

 

still meStill Me by Jojo Moyes

4.5 StarsThe third installment in the life of Louisa Clark, Still Me delivers another engaging look at Louisa’s quirky and lovable unique self. Now in New York, Louisa finds herself in a new country with a new, difficult employer. This book doesn’t disappoint, even after the high expectations I had after reading Me Before You. Definitely recommended! 4 and 1/2 stars!

 

City of WomenCity of Women by David R. Gillham

5 stars

Excellent story, recommend it highly. The main protagonist was annoyingly bland for a large portion of the book, and a reluctant ‘supporter’ of the resistance. However, I came to think this was intentional, reflecting a realistic struggle for a person – a very ordinary, typical person – who would rather just do nothing and try to survive. A brilliant depiction of how extraordinary circumstances force morality, in one direction or another. Several complex characters, making decisions and acting under the most horrific circumstances. All about ‘What would you do?’ 5 stars.

 

EveryonheEveryone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

4 stars

This novel is set in Britain at the time of WWII, from the declaration of war to the end. The narrator is the typical cute but plucky daughter of a high-ranking cabinet official, supporting characters are her best pal and 2 young men who are also close friends. Begins with young people struggling with ‘doing the right thing’ when the country goes to war. And then reality hits. This book captured me from page 1. Great character development, evocative on setting. I recommend other titles by this author as well. 4 stars.

 

road-endsRoad Ends by Mary Lawson

4 stars

Good but not great book. The author certainly captures the snowy environment of a small Ontario town and keeps the story moving as we move from character to character. I liked the way plot points developed through each point of view. 4 stars.

 

ulyssesUlysses by James Joyce

5 stars

I had to check excellent, because how could I not with a work that is considered the greatest work of modernist literature. But Ulysses is a slog. Joyce created several distinct sections of the story of a single day in Dublin….June 16, 1904. Fantastic word pictures throughout, and some observations that are so unique, and a web of characters that he manages to keep aloft… but it is not an easy read. Take your time to appreciate the literary genius of the man who veers into drama in one very long section, punctuationless stream of lascivious consciousness in Molly’s soliloquy, and a catholic mass-type call and response section that contains superlative language and a lot of humour, too. 4 stars.

 

Garden of eveningThe Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

5 stars

A wonderful read! It includes much of the 20th century history of Penang and detailed information on the complexity of Japanese gardening. It is an illusive mystery and is intriguing and informative. 5 stars.

 

man seeksMan Seeks God: my flirtations with the divine by Eric Weiner

5 stars

Only book I have EVER laughed out loud! Highly intelligent, witty,hilarious, thought provoking, best-of-its-kind-ever book. Educational and every page highly entertaining. 5 stars.

 

 

SarongSarong Party Girls by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

2 and half stars

This is about a Singaporean woman named Jazzy and her desperate quest to find a white husband. I picked up this book because I thought it looked like fun. But the quote on the front also intrigued me. Ruth Ozeki, author of A Tale for the Time Being, said that the author of this book was “saying something profound and insightful about the place of women in our globalized, capitalized, interconnected world.” When I started reading it, I found it funny and entertaining, yes. But I kept waiting for the depth and insight Ozeki seemed to have gotten out of this book…. I kept waiting for…. more. There must be more to it! This book has great reviews from Kirkus , National Book Award winners,  and celebrated authors such as Ozeki and Paul Theroux.  I was just expecting more from it. I was definitely left wanting. 2 and 1/2 stars.

 

Before the fallBefore the Fall by Noah Hawley

4.5 Stars

Before The Fall is like a cross between the Goldfinch and Gone Girl. It’s tempting to call this a a literary thriller but it’s so much more. The perfect summer read. 4 and 1/2 stars.

 

 

homegoingHomegoing by Yaa Gyasi

4.5 Stars

Amazing book! What a read! It starts in 18th century Ghana with 2 half sisters and follows the lives of their children and their children’s children up to present day. Each generation struggles, living in Africa and America – wars, slavery, the civil rights movement. You can see how the lives of each generation effected the next. Well written and constantly engaging the reader. I loved this book! 4 and 1/2 stars.

 

Red NoticeRed Notice by Bill Browder

4.5 Stars

A true story that was so compelling, I could not put it down.Bill Browder was a real maverick, and fighting against Putin, well, he’s amazing! 4 and 1/2 stars.

 

 

Curious CharmsThe Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick.

4 stars

Arthur Pepper, age 69, just lost his wife. Going through her things, he finds bracelet of hers that leads to clues about her former life before they met and fell in love. Arthur travels the world to discover more about his much-loved and missed wife. It’s a charming book about love, moving on and finding adventure and meaning after losing a love. He’s an endearing character.  Recommended. 4 stars.