The following reviews composed by Kathy and Dave from 2011-2013 either were printed in the Beaver River Banner or broadcast on KOOL FM Bonnyville. Here they are arranged alphabetically by the author whose work is reviewed.
Biography, like good fiction, can draw us close to a character with whom, at first glance, we have precious little in common. Carmen Aguirre, a Vancouver actress and playwright, has written her memoirs of growing up in a revolutionary family and participating throughout South America in the resistance against the regime of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Her book, entitled Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter , leads us on a journey beginning in the Los Angeles airport in, 1979, when eleven year old, Carmen, hears from her mother that the plan to travel to Costa Rica is a façade, masking the secret objective, which is Lima, Peru. So begins Carmen’s growing up with a mother and step-father who are constantly leading a double life for the sake of revolution, a cause that also claims Carmen as she witnesses poverty, racism and repression in Peru, Bolivia and Argentina, and comes to admire the commitment of her parents and their comrades. As readers, we might not share Carmen Aguirre’s radical perspective, but her story helps us understand why people make the choices they do. The resistance movement is just one aspect of this quite wonderful coming of age story. Readers will enjoy Ms. Aguirre’s description of La Paz, Bolivia, a city set in a crater high in the mountains. On Independence Day, “Ladies with ten skirts in every possible colour twirled in unison, bright threads woven through their braids.” Pick up a copy of Something Fierce and come to know this interesting human being, at once a committed revolutionary and a young woman who thrills to see people dance.
The ‘Best Kept Secret’ is the third book in Jeffrey Archer’s suspenseful Clifton Chronicle series. The setting as the story opens is 1945 in London, England and the House of Lords has to decide whether the legitimate son or the illegitimate son will inherit the Barrington family fortune. This is a multi-generational family drama continuing into the late fifties when the Barrington grandson unwittingly becomes part of an international art fraud.
There are great twists and surprises and even a baby found on the doorstep, as Archer spins his intriguing story. I had no trouble enjoying this story on its own and I will definitely go back and read 'Only Time Will Tell' and 'The Sins of the Father', the two novels in the series before ‘The Best Kept Secret’.
If you have watched CBC television news at all over the last ten years, then foreign correspondent, Nahlah Ayed, will be a familiar face to you. Given all the conflict that has occurred in the Arab world, Ms. Ayed has been totally immersed in the journalistic task of bringing Canadians a fuller sense of what is going on than who is now out of power and who is in. Her recent book, “A Thousand Farewells”, opens up for the reader this reporter’s personal experience: why these communities of people matter to her and how she is touched by the hopes and the dangers of revolution. The sub-title to her work is “A Reporter’s Journey from Refugee Camp to the Arab Spring.” Ms. Ayed was born in Winnipeg, but when she was six years old, her Palestinian parents chose to return to the Middle East, to a refugee camp in Jordan, so that their children could become better grounded in Arabic culture. For this young Canadian, the transition was culture shock. In a conservative society she had to wear the hijab and keep silent when relatives gathered together. Returning to Winnipeg as a teenager, Nahlah participated with her family in that common story of Immigrants, working long hours in a family store. After the events of September 11, 2001, she changed career direction and became a journalist. Her fluency in both Arabic language and Arabic popular culture made her well suited to bring Canadians this particular story. It is clear in her writing that Ms. Ayed has a point of view, not a political perspective, but empathy for ordinary people. Nahlah really shared the life of people in Amman, Beirut, Baghdad, Benghazi and Cairo. Bombs and beatings took their toll, but glimpses of hope kept her going. I highly commend to you her book, “A Thousand Farewells”.
What Randy Bachman conveys to readers of his Vinyl Tap Stories is his deep appreciation for music and the people who make it. His two hour shows on CBC radio present a great variety of popular music from the past six decades always organized around some theme: songs with a girl’s name in the title or songs featuring particular guitars, Fenders, Gibsons and Rickenbackers. It’s well known that Bachman did not indulge in the kind of excess that is remembered in other rock and roll biographies. This author is all about the music: his own hits with the Guess Who and Bachman Turner Overdrive, but also the musicians who influenced him from Chet Atkins to Chuck Berry and the artists of more recent times like Jan Arden and George Michael who valued Randy’s support along the way. Hearing his show on the radio I really listen to each song, finding more in that song, even if it’s a number I’ve heard countless times in the past. In the same way his book brings meaning to the music by colouring in stories about how it was made and who made it. “Taking Care of Business” began as an impromptu jam session that was only later developed into a great hit. The book strongly narrates how Randy’s experience of growing up in Winnipeg nourished his musical career. I first heard “Prairie Town” driving between Cold Lake and Pierceland on a frigid winter night, and I had to nod in agreement when he sang “Portage and Main, fifty below.” Mr. Bachman is unfailingly kind to all those whose lives intersected his own, including Burton Cummings, his writing partner for "American Woman", "She’s Come Undone", and "These Eyes". Vinyl Tap Stories is an interesting and positive read. You may be inspired to explore some Lenny Breau or The Shadows, music that mattered to Randy Bachman, or just turn up the volume on "Let it Ride" as with new energy you tackle dirty dishes or whatever domestic chore.
A “flight of Aquavit” is an arrangement of three differently spiced liqueurs that are meant to be imbibed in quick succession. Flight of Aquavit is also the title of the second book in Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant mystery series. Indeed our hero finds himself in the bar at the Plaza Hotel in New York partaking of this ritual in the course of investigating a blackmailing scheme that threatens to expose his closeted client’s homosexuality. Quant is an interesting and sympathetic character, a gay private detective in, of all places, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, whose widowed Ukrainian mother arrives in town from the farm to spend Christmas and maybe longer. The bitter cold and the emptiness of the surrounding countryside feature strongly as persons unknown attempt to dissuade Quant from pursuing this case. Quant’s sleuthing is made more difficult by his client’s reticence to open up about his lifestyle, given his marriage and his corporate role. Connections with an assortment of friends paint a very positive picture of Quant’s character, and while the elements of the mystery come clear, there is also wisdom about life and living that emerges by the time Christmas morning arrives. Author Anthony Bidulka opens our attitudes with this very human hero to whom we can all relate. I highly recommend to you “Flight of Aquavit”, not the drinking, but the reading.
“STOMP YOUR FEET! CLAP YOUR HANDS! EVERYBODY READY FOR A BARNYARD DANCE!”
This is the opening to Sandra Boynton’s boardbook ‘Barnyard Dance’. What makes this author’s many children’s books so special is the musical singsong rhyme in which they are written. The cute characters participating on the pages jump and dance along with the words. In ‘Pajama Time’, as bedtime comes, we are all invited to celebrate.
“Pull on the bottoms. Pull on the top.
Get yourself set to pajama-dee-bop-
It’s Pajama Time!”
These books are infectious fun! You probably know kids, who years later, still sing the words of their favourite Sandra Boynton storybooks.
Today I have chosen the book ‘Caleb’s Crossing’ by Australian-born Geraldine Brooks. It was the author’s own interest and research for this story that began when she stumbled across an old map of Martha’s Vineyard showing the history of the native Wampanoag people. Upon further research she learned that, Cheeshahteaumauk, also known as Caleb, was the first Native American graduate of Harvard College in 1665. Although the story is centered on this theme, it is told through the character of Bethia. Brooks detailed research gives us a rich picture of a teenagers life in the 1600’s in North America. Although Bethia found academics easy and pleasurable, her Puritan faith did not allow her to participate in formal education. Rather she was assigned to housekeeping duties and family care. The story begins with her life in the tiny settlement of Great Harbor amid a small band of pioneers and Puritans, where her father’s position is to convert the Wamoanoag people. It is here where she meets Caleb, the young son of a chieftain. They enjoy a secret friendship where mutual learning and appreciation happens. Bethia questions her strict faith’s ideals as she experiences the beauty and reverence of the Native people. Since money donations were important to the small colony, it became her father’s project to educate Caleb, and a year later, Caleb is in Cambridge, studying Latin and Greek among the colonial elite. In 1665, this young man from Martha's Vineyard became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. The author, Geraldine Brooks, uses this sliver of historical fact to write an amazing story where a culture is uplifted through the political and social tensions of the day and age. Although the story moved slowly at first, I found myself more and more engaged with the characters as the story evolved through their many hardships and small victories. Several of the author’s previous books also are historically researched and great reads such as her stories: ‘People of the Book’, ‘Year of Wonders’ as well as her 2006 Pulitzer Prize winning book entitled ‘March’.
Bullying is a problem with sometimes lethal outcomes about which we are hearing more and more through the media. Caprice Crane has written a fun to read novel, ‘Confessions of a Hater’ for the 18+ age group, on this subject Although Crane writes with wit and humour she packs a powerful message: retaliation to bullying is ineffective. A psychological study on people who either bully or who have been bullied shows that both groups are six times more likely to have mental health issues as adults. In our story Hailey is being bullied in high school, but she gets the chance to start over when her parents move. With the help of an older sister’s diary she morphs into one of the cool kids in her new school. Unfortunately she also becomes a bully. This is a well written story that looks at bullying from a teen level although bullying happens at any age. Due to some of the mature content it is best for those over 18 years old.
Have you ever dreamed of living off the grid and being self sustaining while not paying utility bills? Ted and Kathy Carns live this life and have shared their adventure in ‘Off On Our Own: Living Off-grid In Comfortable Independence’. Ted writes about learning at an early age by working with his father on creative do it yourself projects. This book is not a ‘do it yourself’ book, but Carns does include several small projects such as how to make a propane bottle stove. The philosophy of self-reliance is dispersed throughout the book as Carns steps the reader through the process that led he and his partner to comfortably flourish while producing their own power, water system and vegan food source. He even offers some of their favourite recipes. Check out the pictures and sampler on stonecamp.com.
If you are looking for a fast moving thriller set in the present, but soaked in history and legend, then The Red Templar by Paul Christopher is for you. This is the fifth title in a series, but I had no trouble coming into Christopher’s work fresh. John Holliday is a retired U.S. Army ranger well versed in history, having taught the subject at West Point. It’s not just the quest to uncover relics from the Medieval Knights Templar and Tsarist Russia that provides interest. Borrowing from Dan Brown, there is a Vatican angle: and given recent events, a frightening appraisal of Vladimir Putin. Concerning the recent and the distant past, the reader might question whether the author has his history exactly right. His description of Rasputin’s death does fit with the latest solutions to this mystery. However, I’m not convinced that current patriarchs and cardinals conspire to assassinate anyone; but it really doesn’t matter. Remember that this is fiction! American authorities don’t come off any better in this story than do other potentates, (including a particular Canadian leader described as having plastic hair.) The reader sympathizes with our hero because he is on everyone’s hit list. Holliday and his afro-Cuban buddy, Eddie, careen from Istanbul to Moscow via a Bulgarian monastery, St. Petersburg with its famous Hermitage Museum, and Yekaterinburg where the last Tsar was shot in 1918. They fly rickety airplanes, climb through rat infested sewers and hitch a ride on a snow plow. Our adventurers’ goal is the mythical sword of the north forged for the Templars by Alberic, the dwarf. Somehow, the lost sword is connected with a non-canonical gospel whose discovery is what really concerns all the powers arrayed against our dynamic duo. Ultimately I thought The Red Templar was a buddy story, about two people from different backgrounds who share friendship and a thirst for adventure. Join them on this journey and, by all means, lock your seat in the upright position and fasten your safety belt.
Each Bryce Courtney book that I read reminds me of what a compelling story teller he is. ‘The Power of One’ tells of the growing up of Peekay, a South African of English descend. At five years old he is sent to an Afrikaans boarding school because of his mother’s hospitalization due to mental health issues. He endures horrible bullying through his schooling but learns to survive by blending in, not showing his real abilities and persevering. A boxing champion takes him under his wing and influences Peekay into becoming a boxer. The background of South Africa on the eve of World War II creates another layer of depth to the story. It’s interesting to me that Bryce Courtney’s own growing up parallels Peekay’s in many places. Although Courtney died last November he leaves behind many more great stories. ‘The Power of One’ is one of his earlier works and I look forward to reading many more. If you are looking to find a good author for the summer I highly recommend Bryce Courtney.
Pressures can come from many directions in life. What would it be like to just get into your car and drive away from them all? Barbara Delinsky gives us a poignant answer to this question in her story ‘Escape’. Emily and her husband James are two high powered lawyers living the dream in New Your city. Yet, in reality, both are work alcoholics, compelled to work long anxiety packed days, rarely seeing each other, in an attempt to get further up the corporate ladder. One morning Emily gets into her car and drives away and leaves her life behind. What unfolds is a story of coming to terms with this decision. It is perhaps is a gentler version of what it might look like for most, while attempting this escape plan. I recommend this book for an escape from January’s cold.
If you want a glimpse of Nigeria and can’t afford the airfare then pick up Will Ferguson’s new book entitled ‘419’. Through his story we see the Niger Delta area, before and after the discovery of oil, and we glimpse how resource development has affected the people’s way of life. There is an unsavory side to the emerging changes. You may not recognize the title of this book, but you probably have received in your email box invitations to make money by sending a small sum first to someone in Africa. Our story follows the death of a retired Alberta school teacher who loses everything through an internet scam. His grief-stricken daughter Laura, travels to Nigeria, against all wisdom, to find and confront the thief. Will Ferguson weaves a fast paced, tangled story, as brassy as the drivers in Nigeria who prefer horns to brakes. This is Kathy at Lots-a-Books saying if you want a great story that hits close to home, pick up ‘419’.
I enjoyed reading this week’s book however I did not like the ending. In her current bestseller ‘Gone Girl’, Gillian Flynn writes with exciting twists and turns. In the first few pages we meet Amy and Nick on their fifth anniversary. It is a picture of marital bliss as they enjoy breakfast together. Amy, we learn, is the only child of psychologist parents. They have become wealthy from authoring a series of children’s books entitled ‘Amazing Amy’ where the little girl in the story always chooses the correct way to behave. Shortly after Nick and Amy’s anniversary celebration, Nick arrives home to find the front door open and their ‘indoor’ cat sitting on the steps outside. There has been a scuffle in the house and Amy is missing. The crime investigators soon point to Nick as a main suspect. The point of view alternates between Amy’s diary and Nick’s reality as more and more evidence is uncovered. I won’t say any more about the story line, but shockers are dropped chapter after chapter. I definitely enjoyed the roller coaster story line!
Giffords, Mark and Gabrielle
Gabrielle Giffords, a member of the United States House of Representatives from Arizona, was shot almost one year ago while she met with constituents at a Tucson shopping centre. Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope is an inspiring book about this plucky woman, her recovery from severe brain trauma and her relationship with her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, before, during and after the tragic events of January 8, 2011. False media reports immediately after the shooting suggested that Gabby had not survived. The first few weeks of care were critical. Dr. Rhee, the surgeon in Tucson, assured Mark,” She will not die. I do not give her permission.” Indeed Gabby regained consciousness and after one month spoke her first word, and her journey of recovery continues.
The voice throughout the book, save for a page of Gabby’s thoughts near the end, is Mark’s voice. It is clear that he loves and admires this woman. Having met each other on an exchange sponsored by the National Committee on United States-China Relations, it was Gabby who initiated their first date, a fact finding visit to the Arizona State Prison. Mark was the divorced father of two daughters, and initially he was cautious. He acknowledges that the rapport between his daughters and Gabby has seen some rough patches along the way, but tragedy has a way of bringing people together. These are two high powered personalities, Ms. Giffords a businesswoman, a state and then a federal politician, and Captain Kelly a pilot who flew combat missions in Desert Storm and later the commander of the space shuttle, Endeavour. Even with Gabby’s recovery four months along Mark went into space knowing that this is what she would want him to do. A touching moment in their story comes when Mark returns from his trip to the space station and the two re-unite.
The congresswoman is still in speech therapy trying to put sentences together. The day will come when she will be able to express herself fully and offer more of her experience from her own perspective. Much has been made of the polarized political discourse in the United States and how Gabby’s assailant may have been encouraged by the crosshairs symbol over her district on Sarah Palin’s website. A detail that shocks me, living in a society less infatuated with guns, is that the shooter purchased the bullets that very morning at a nearby Walmart. But the tenor of this book is personal, not political. As she regained strength, Gabby was told of the six people killed in this incident, her constituents and a staffer who was close to her. She absorbed that news. She moved from institutional to out-patient care. She even made her way to Washington for a crucial vote in Congress. On You-tube you can see Gabrielle Giffords doing her best in a recent interview with Diane Sawyer. Her story adds to my hope this Christmas season.
This week's book was recommended to me by several of our customers. After reading 'The Book of Negroes' I agree that this is a riveting story and hard to put down. Over the last few years it has not only won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best Overall Book, but also the Rogers' Trust Fiction Prize, and the winner of CBC's Canada Reads. There are many intertwining themes in this sweeping story that takes the reader from a West African tribal village to a plantation in the southern United States, to the docks of Nova Scotia, on to London and finally to Sierre Leone. The strength and determination that the heroine of the story, Aminata Diallo, portrays through the many, many soul destroying events in her life, is inspiring. Meena, as she is called outside her village, goes beyond triumph of willpower to learn to read, write and master other languages. These skills save her life many times.
Abducted at eleven years old in West Africa she is sent to live as a slave in South Carolina. Years later, she works toward freedom by serving the British when they pulled out of the 13 Colonies in America. At this time she registers her name in the historic "Book of Negroes", a short but hugely revealing record of Loyalist slaves who were freed and granted permission to leave the US for resettlement in Nova Scotia. Over 3000 slaves were shipped to the Maritines in 1783. Once there they were to find more oppression in what they were led to believe would be a safe haven. Meena's story continues with her working toward freedom even through the pain of the loss of loved ones and the loss of friends who were weak and deceptive. At the end of the book, author Lawrence Hill, says that although the story is creative, it does reflect the history of the Black Loyalists and their history. He also includes a chapter highlighting other books for further reading about the history of the slave trade.
The Ukrainian capital of Kiev may not be your idea of a January escape, but that is the setting and the season for Andrew Kaplan’s latest thriller, Scorpion Winter. Ex CIA and now lone ranger secret agent, Scorpion, is paid to prevent from taking place a political assassination during the run up to the Ukrainian election. In the dangerous background are the delicate balance of power and spheres of influence between Russia and the west. As with many thrillers, the lead character is stoic, silent and super-competent, but Scorpion has one vulnerability, and her name is Iryna, assistant to the more pro western of the two candidates running for office. The author’s description of the cities, the culture and the current political climate in that country feels authentic. There are a variety of bad guys and questionable guys who intersect with Scorpion along the way, mostly not to their benefit. Our hero has his work cut out for him, so pick up a copy of Scorpion Winter and cheer him on.
Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys are book series that many kids grew up reading. I reread Nancy Drew’s book #2, ‘The Hidden Staircase’ this week. Did you know that the first books in this sixty-four set series were written in the 1930’s by a number of authors published under the pseudonym, Carolyn Keene. At that time, the character Nancy Drew presented the model of a female-teen, full of courage and determination. In ‘The Hidden Staircase’ , Nancy investigates a ghost haunting at a mansion while she deals with the fact that her father has been kidnapped. During the course of this suspenseful story, Nancy is able to get confessions out of criminals, find secret staircases and help the police find her father. Good work Nancy Drew! Over the years necessary revisions have been done to the stories in response to changes in society. If you happen to have any of the original books, hang on to them as they are becoming more and more valuable collector items. The success of these series is often due to nostalgia and the passing down of the books to children and grandchildren. I enjoyed rereading this Nancy Drew story, reprinted in 1987. And there are sixty three books left to go. This is Kathy from Lots-a-Books encouraging you to pick up again a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys book for the pure fun of it.
Alien Vs. Alien by Gini Koch is a Science Fiction novel set either in the near future or some alternative present. Friendly aliens from the Alpha Centauri solar system are living among us , marrying humans and having hybrid children. Kitty, the heroine of this novel, is developing super abilities like hyper-speed and empathic/telepathic communication with animal creatures. She attains these gifts in the process of carrying and giving birth to her hybrid infant daughter. The appearance of doctored photos of Kitty in compromising positions is just one of several incidents indicating that dark forces threaten the Centaurans and their human friends. Centauran traitors, anti-aliens associated with Club 51 and assorted other bad guys, pop up in and around The Centauran embassy in Washington D.C. and other locales to cause mischief. Kitty and her crew need to discern the true intentions behind the diversionary tactics. Somewhere in the first hundred pages a colleague tells Kitty that she talks too much. For my taste there was too much dialogue and not enough description in the beginning. Diverse characters came into the conversation and it was hard to keep track of who they were and what was their agenda. But patience is a virtue, and I gradually became familiar with the different players. Gini Koch’s story caught my interest and took me on a fun trip. Now Sci-fi and urban fantasy aren’t normally my preference, but a reader’s effort is often rewarded when you seriously try something different.
Raylan is the first Elmore Leonard story that I have read, and he has been publishing novels, short stories and screenplays since forever. Raylan Givens, a marshal in Harlan County, Kentucky, unfailingly says little, figures out much and shoots fast. The three loosely connected episodes in this book begin with the discovery of a man in a tub of ice missing his kidneys. The characters: the nurse who steals vital organs for ransom, the gangster who directs drugged out dancers to rob banks, the coal mining PR woman who murders senior citizens, and assorted others - are basically bad. The reader finds Leonard’s bad guys and girls disturbing because they make us face the resentment, selfishness and sheer stupidity that motivate our own misdeeds. Judgment, not redemption, is where this author goes. I didn’t care for Leonard’s minimalist style with truncated sentences, little description and undrawn characters to whom I felt indifferent. On the other hand, I didn’t put the book down, either. Elmore Leonard’s style does appeal to many, so read Raylan and judge for yourself. The New York Times reviewer thinks he’s a genius.
Victor Lethbridge, an Albertan author, has written another wonderful children’s book. ‘Little Chief and The Gifts of Morning Star’ tells a heartwarming story that includes themes of loss, grief and hope from a child’s perspective. Little Chief finds himself in an extremely dangerous situation while out riding his horse. What unfolds is a story about compassion and sacrifice, life and death. The tale is written in both a short and longer version. On the included CD the author Victor Lethbridge reads the story in English and First Nation Elders read the short version in Cree, Blackfoot and Lakota . ‘Little Chief and The Gifts of Morning Star’ has much to teach us about history and culture. I highly recommend this touching children’s book.
What often comes to mind when we think of a children’s Christmas story, is the good old “Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse….” It is a great classic yet there are other less known excellent Christmas stories. “One Hundred Shining Candles” by Janet Lunn paints a vivid picture of what Christmas might have been like in Upper Canada for many of the settlers a hundred years ago. Family hardships of cold, hunger and illness were common. In our story we learn that the family’s traditional Christmas present is a baked loaf of bread made with white flour, a luxury, and so different from the usual course brown flour. Their mother always makes an extra small loaf to give to the birds on Christmas Day. This year though is going to have an extra special present. Lucy and her younger brother Dan hear their teacher tell about a Christmas time when he saw one hundred candles lit to celebrate Christmas and it excites Lucy’s imagination. The children plan to make candles as their present for their careworn mother and father. This story reminds us that gifts need not be expensive to be meaningful. Sometimes handmade gifts are the most cherished along with stories read and reread from one generation to the next.Although this book is aimed at elementary level everyone will enjoy the ingenuity and mishaps that happen along the way for Lucy and Dan.
"One Hundred Shining Candles" is about giving, remembering the pleasure in the simple things in life, and gratitude for small comforts. This is a great message for this season.
Character and setting are two elements working really well in Edmonton writer, Janice MacDonald’s, latest book, Hang Down Your Head. Like Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum, “Randy” Craig is a woman with anxieties and insecurities, a bit of a trouble magnet, a character to whom we can all relate. Randy has a temporary position at the University of Alberta helping to develop the Folkways Project. A prominent Edmonton widow left a large bequest to help in this purpose which will include liaising with the Smithsonian Institute and with recording artists as they perform at the Edmonton Folk Festival. The grant money enabling Randy’s work is jeopardized when the body of the widow’s son is discovered in the tunnel under Belgravia Road, “stabbed, strung up from a beam, and a note was hanging from the handle of the knife. . .Hang Down Your Head.” All good folkies recognize the reference to Tom Dooley. Author, Janice MacDonald, cleverly blends fact and fiction. Descriptions of Hawrelak Park during Heritage Days and then the Folk Festival by Connor’s Hill really come alive, especially for readers who may have attended these events. Backstage, Randy keeps providing water bottles for the folk performers after their sets, and her policeman boyfriend, Steve, patrols on bicycle near the beer tent. After the Friday night crowd disperses with their tarps and packs, another body is found on the hill. Will our heroes survive till Sunday Night and the final chorus of Four Strong Winds? The note above the book’s title asks, “Who knew folk music could be hazardous to your health?”
Janice MacDonald has produced an intriguing follow- up to Hang Down Your Head, her 2011 mystery about murder at the Edmonton folk festival. In her just released work, Condemned to Repeat, intrepid freelance academic, Randy Craig, is building a website for Rutherford House, the historic home of Alberta’s first premier located on the University of Alberta campus. For extra cash Randy helps out the Friends of Rutherford House at a dinner theatre event that gets rudely interrupted when one of Randy’s colleagues is discovered dead in the bathtub. Everything is narrated from Randy’s perspective and we follow her to Old Fort Edmonton, the Provincial Archives, Whyte Avenue and the High Level Diner, amongst other places. I warmed to the book’s fascination for historical research, and I continue to appreciate this main character, Miranda Craig, her vulnerable humanity, her connections with police boyfriend, Steve, and buddy, Denise, and her engaging way with the variety of people she meets along the road to the mystery’s conclusion. I always enjoy novels with a strong sense of place. In Janice MacDonald’s work that place is Edmonton.
The reader who tackles Hilary Mantel’s book, Wolf Hall, had better have an interest in and at least some knowledge of Sixteenth Century English history. King Henry VIII needs a male heir and Queen Katherine has not produced one. Also in the background is the stirring of the Protestant Reformation whose ideas are beginning to seep into English society. Thomas Cromwell is the main character in Mantel’s book: a lawyer, parliamentarian and adviser to kings and cardinals. History has been divided about this individual, sometimes seen as an opportunistic foil to the more principled Thomas More. Hilary Mantel offers a revisionist, thorough and sympathetic portrait of Thomas Cromwell, not to be confused with the next century’s Oliver Cromwell. The narrative richly expresses Cromwell’s perceptions and experiences - as he works closely with some such as Cardinal Wolsey, the King’s Lord Chancellor, and as he guardedly encounters others such as Anne Boleyn, the King’s mistress and wannabe Queen. Both Wolf Hall and its more recent sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, are winners of the prestigious Booker Prize. They require patience from the reader, patience that just may be rewarded. The cast of characters printed at the front of the book is helpful as you make your way along Thomas Cromwell’s journey. A New York Times review asserts that Wolf Hall has texture. I cannot think of a better word.
Each story in the ‘Dear Canada’ series of books is set in a particular historical time and told through the voice and diary of a fictional Canadian young person. The newest release in this series, ‘Pieces of the Past: The Holocaust Diary of Rose Rabinowitz’ tells Rose’s story about coming to Winnipeg as an orphan. Over one thousand European Jewish orphans were resettled in Canada at the end of World War II. This small story about one little girl paints for us a picture of the horrors for the people who were victims of the Holocaust. Although written for young readers Rose’s diary can be read and deeply appreciated by all ages. I know it stayed with me long after I finished reading it.
With father’s day just around the corner I thought I would review a couple of favourite children’s stories. In Mercer Mayer’s ‘Just Me and My Dad, Little Critter goes camping with his dad. Although a few difficulties come up, Little Critter’s tries his best, and tasks such as putting up the tent turn out well. Mercer Mayer writes borrowing from his own, his children’s and his grandchildren’s stories of growing up. “They always remind me of what it is like to be little." Says this author. In the story ‘We Love Our Dad’ the Berenstain Bear cubs decide on Father’s Day to do all Papa Bear’s work so he can have the day off. It turns out that the Papa Bear’s chores are difficult for the bear cubs but, can you imagine, once again in the end it all turns out well.
Denise Mina’s latest book, Gods and Beasts, requires patience from the reader. A grandfather waiting at the post office puts his grandson in the care of a tattooed stranger, steps out of line to help a masked man who is robbing the establishment - only to be shot by this same man. Immediately we are transported to a highway where two of Strathclyde’s finest stop an Audi whose driver invites the police to take the bags of cash in the boot. In the third chapter we meet a Scottish politician being heckled at a Christmas dinner because he faces serious accusations. Detective Sergeant Morrow will seek to unravel the mystery tying these three threads together. But who is Alex Morrow? She has two young children at home, and a gangster for a half brother. That’s about all we know. In this third installment of the Alex Morrow series, our heroine strikes me as competent, but not nearly as colourful as the quirky and shady supporting cast of characters. Thrillers are black and white, but in Denise Mina’s writing, Glasgow has seldom been so grey. The author’s portrayal of the good, bad and in between in people is what keeps mysteries mysterious and patient mystery readers happy.
Rick Mofina’s thriller, “The Burning Edge”, starts with a bang. Four masked men on motorcycles roll into a service centre to interrupt the transfer of ATM money into the armored car. They kill the guards and an unfortunate agent on the scene. Lisa Palmer, a young widow, is the FBI’s only eyewitness to see one of the killers up close. We follow the thoughts and actions of Lisa, the shadowy killers, investigating agent Frank Morrow, and journalist Jack Gannon. The reporter, Gannon, is the interesting character. He digs and pushes, but respects his source’s privacy. He resents his editor’s bullying and relies on his instincts. I was on the edge of my seat throughout this roller coaster ride. Rick Mofina is a former crime reporter for the Calgary Herald who covered an armored car heist in 1998. This is the fourth book in his Jack Gannon series. Pick up “The Burning Edge” now and fasten your seatbelts!
The Canadian author of books for children, Robert Munsch, is most well known for his bestseller, Love You Forever, which has sold over eight million copies. Here at Lotsabooks, even Munsch’s titles from the nineteen eighties, such as Thomas’s Snowsuit, Fifty Below Zero and the Paper Bag Princess continue to fly out the door as quickly as they come in. A Munsch title first published in 1995 with which I was not so familiar is From Far Away, based on the true story of Saoussan Askar’s experience as a little girl leaving the violence of Beirut, Lebanon and then coping with Kindergarten in Canada, understanding neither the language nor the customs. Rather than being a source of comfort and fun, the scary costumes of Halloween remind Saoussan of her scary experience of the civil war in Lebanon. When you cannot speak the language, even a task as simple as excusing oneself to go to the washroom becomes a major challenge. Perhaps Saoussan's story will particularly resonate with many of the people of Lebanese origin who live now in the Lakeland. Robert Munsch has a unique ability to give expression to both the fears and joys of young childhood. This adventure, however, is really Saoussan's story, told from the perspective of a Grade Two student writing a letter about her memories to her reading buddies. Well, we will all be her reading buddies as her tale helps both adults and children to better appreciate the courageous spirit of all those who immigrate to Canada, who cope with the strangeness of this land until it becomes familiar, and who find a place amongst its people
without losing that strong sense of identity, the gift of their countries of origin, from far away.
Canadian author, Alice Munro, has recently won the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature. It was surprising and at the same time wonderful that this award should go to a short story writer. Alice Munro’s writing, depicting life in small towns, draws the reader quickly into the story as the narrative unfolds with clarity and psychological reality. In her book, ‘Open Secrets, in the short story ‘Carried Away’, Louisa, a librarian begins a letter writing relationship with a young man who is serving in the 1st World War. He saw her one day before leaving for the war and admits in a letter to being taken with her. Upon his return we are presented with a moral conflict and disastrous consequences for all involved. Many of her story endings leave existential questions, and for me, at least, the need to reread the story to find why she ended it as she did!
Kevin O’Leary’s recent book, Cold Hard Truth, is , in spite of the title, an enjoyable read. O’Leary stars on the CBC reality show, Dragon’s Den, as a wealthy magnate who hears the pitch of an inventor/entrepreneur and then decides whether to invest or publicly and perhaps cruelly offer the cold hard truth. The story of Kevin’s life in and out of business grabbed me: his learning disability that he overcame, his conversation with the Walmart CEO who demanded that he provide software that could retail for $19.95, his difficult but lucrative merger of The Learning Company with Mattel Toys in 1999 and his television journey through Business News Network, CBC and ABC’s Shark Tank. Throughout his narrative, Kevin O’Leary sums up his experience with some bullets on business and motivation. Frankly, his life story is more compelling than his assertions that monetary wealth is the only currency worth seeking. On the other hand, there is something refreshing about O’Leary’s directness. Either do your homework or don’t waste his time. Now do I take O’Leary’s recommendations about dividend bearing equities seriously because he has come out well financially or because, like him, I am getting long in the tooth and the markets have whacked us all in the past few years? Read his book, Cold Hard Truth. Appreciate his spirit and tenacity, and take only what you want and what you can from his particular perspective.
Today’s young adult book review is about the book ‘Witch and Wizard #1, by James Patterson and Gabrielle Charbonnet. You may remember James Patterson, in the Young Adult books, from his Maximum Ride and Daniel X series amongst others. Witch and Wizard is a great, fast paced thriller. The story starts off with an evil, new government who has seized control of society with the aim to control the world. The New Order, or NO for short, has arrested teens, Whit and Wisty Allgood, and sentenced them to execution. Now what if you were a teen who was awakened in the night to discover that you and your brother were being arrested for being a witch and a wizard, ripped out of a totally normal teen-age life. There parents have also disappeared. Life has become a wide awake nightmare for them. They have been accused of holding incredible powers that they never dreamed possible and even scarier is the fact that they are discovering that they do in fact have these magical abilities. With their parents disappearance they have little outside help or guidance in the realm of magic which makes for some challenging adventures especially while breaking out of prison. Can this newly realized witch and wizard master their skills in time to save themselves, their parents–and maybe the world? Just think…. What if…
What if you happen upon a great book in the middle of a series? You have to scrounge in used book stores for earlier volumes and stay posted at new book stores for later ones. We solve this problem by carrying new and used books. Dead Cold is the second in Louise Penny’s soon to be nine volume Inspector Armand Gamache series. The setting is winter in Three Pines, a village in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. There is much magic like at Olivier’s bistro where the Chief Inspector feasts on rack of lamb. The young sidekick, Jean Guy Beauvoir, prefers to work only with facts, but Armand knows that feelings are what lead to murder. The writing contrasts the gentleness of the place and the rage that is present in some people. A conspiracy to bring Gamache down weaves a dark thread through the whole series, while on a lighter note, the mix of cultures gives ample opening for humour: see Jean Guy’s lack of appreciation for curling, an opportunity for Anglos to wear plaid. But it’s precisely the commotion over a curling shot on the frozen lake that provides cover for the murder that must be solved.
Canadian mystery writer, Louise Penny sets much of her Inspector Gamache series in Quebec’s Eastern Townships between Montreal and the Vermont border. Where Ian Rankin darkly describes the grittiness of Scottish cities, Louise Penny sits you down with a cool aperitif in an Adirondack chair overlooking flowers, stream and forest on a hot summer’s day. In her latest novel, A Trick of the Light, the warm sunshine of the village of Three Pines and the graciousness of the Sûreté du Québec chief inspector who so often finds himself in that bucolic place contrast sharply with the dark conspiracies of Montreal’s arts community. Colleagues and gallery people trek out from Montreal supposedly to celebrate Clara Morrow’s artistic success with a party in Three Pines. The next morning a dead woman is found in Clara’s garden. Later on, a beginner’s Alcoholics Anonymous chip is uncovered nearby. Will Armand Gamache and his sidekick, Jean Guy Beauvoir uncover the deceased’s full story, and in that classic mystery tradition, gather all the suspects together en famille and invite the murderer to confess? Peut-être! It doesn’t matter that this is the seventh installment in the Inspector Gamache series, the reader can jump right in. You will find revenge and redemption, humanity glimpsed, healing journeys partly accomplished, and unfinished business left for the future; in short: a thoroughly satisfying read. If your taste runs more to complexity of character than to car chases, then A Trick of the Light is for you.
The Beautiful Mystery, the title of Louise Penny’s eighth installment of her Inspector Gamache series refers to the sublime power of Gregorian chant to convey the voice of God. In the remote forests of the Mauricie region of Quebec, a community of monks find themselves divided over the commercial success of their one recording. Do they continue their devotion to God in obscurity or do they share their talent and their message with the world? Murder in the monastery has been done before, most notably by Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose. Don’t let that stop you from immediately diving into this rich and rewarding book. Inspector Armand Gamache of the Surete du Quebec and his sidekick, Jean-Guy Beauvoir arrive at the abbott’s garden crime scene to discover the dead prior clutching what appears to be an ancient manuscript filled with Latin words and strange symbols. Readers are drawn in by the mystery elements: a conflict carried out with glances and shrugs by men vowed to silence, an ancient building with hidden rooms, and a comfortable routine where each monk sets to a particular task in between the many sung services of the day. The peaceful atmosphere has been interrupted by one of their own number, and it is up to the very secular officers of the Surete to restore serenity to this sacred space. But will Armand and Jean-Guy overcome the strains, both in their relationship and in the police force that they serve. I highly recommend Louise Penny’s book. Like plainsong chant, her stories speak to me deeply, yet gently.
Canadian author, Louise Penny, has had an amazing September. Her first book in the Inspector Gamache series, Still Life, was turned into a made for television movie that aired on CBC a few Sundays ago. Her latest book, How the Light Gets In, debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list. This book, Gamaches’s ninth and perhaps last outing, will be appreciated by readers who are familiar with the series. The characters in the village of Three Pines and the characters in the Surete de Quebec run their full course. The historical Dionne quintuplets are the story behind the story, and the author invites us to sympathize with personalities who become captive to the public. How will Armand Gamache overcome the forces aligned against him? His greatest weakness is his greatest strength. Gamache is kind.
In her most recent book ‘The StoryTeller’, Jodi Picoult tells, not just one good story, but three interwoven stories. Sage Singer, a young woman who hides from her scarred past, befriends an elderly German man who is a beloved community member in their small American town. His story emerges as they get to know one another and as Sage also begins to delve into her own family history. Sage learns that her grandmother, Minka, was a Holocaust survivor. Minka’s storytelling saved her life while being imprisoned at Auschwitz. Jodi Picoult challenges us through these characters’ stories to look seriously at the many sides of justice and mercy. I appreciate an author who can tell a good story and Picoult is an author that I enjoy time and time again.
I started to put down the book Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult as the first few pages seemed just too farfetched to be believable. The story begins with Luke Warren, a husband and father leaving his family to locate and integrate himself into a wolf pact in the wild. He walks into the forested area of Quebec with little more than the clothes on his back, a snare and a hook. But as always Picoult chews around the edges and creates interest as to who this person is and how the family copes. I learned a lot about wolves and how they use their senses and instincts within their packs and each pup is given a specific role at birth.
The story parallels the human family elements and wolf pack mentality. Luke is critically injured, not by wolves in the wild, but by a car accident. As chances for recovery dwindle, his son, daughter and estranged wife question from differing perspectives which direction to take. Lone Wolf dissects what it means to be family - from acting out of love and caring to the more animal instinctual motivations of fear, protection and responsibility. I am glad that I persevered past the first chapter, as this book really is a great read right to the end.
The Canadian actor, Christopher Plummer, will be remembered by most people for playing Baron Von Trapp and helping to showcase Julie Andrews as Maria in the Sound of Music. I well remember going in the mid-sixties to the Seville theatre on St. Catherine Street in Montreal to see that movie. I must have been twelve or so and that movie gave me a sense of wonder. The early parts of Plummer’s recent autobiography, In Spite of Myself, describe his growing up in Montreal and his affection for that city: Mount Royal, the Lake of Two Mountains, the Ritz Carlton and so on. Right after completing High School, and failing the entrance exam to McGill, Plummer embarked on his career in theatre. His fifty years and more in the entertainment business include movies and television, but his own words and his recurring trips over the decades to the three Stratfords in Ontario, Connecticut and England, reveal a man devoted to theatre, and in particular to Shakespeare. Plummer’s book, In Spite of Myself, reveals a special human being who certainly lived to the full and partied hard, a man who has come to acknowledge both his shortcomings and a debt of gratitude to others. His writing expresses the fondness he still feels for many of the people he encountered, from famous actors of Hollywood and Broadway to unpretentious hotel staff in Bermuda and Salzburg. Plummer invites the reader into the developing entertainment world when television was in its infancy, when actors who had started out in silent film were still plying their craft, when Shakespeare’s plays were presented in tents and when movie studios set up operations in exotic locations to produce big budget spectaculars - which as often as not ended up as box office flops. Plummer usually found something positive to take from both theatrical and cinematic flops. I know you’ll enjoy reading about his television adventures with alligators in the Everglades. The author shares his recollection of many, many personalities - from Truman Capote and Jason Robards to Gloria Vanderbilt and Natalie Wood. He is honest about his personal life, and thankful to Fuff, his wife of the past forty years who confronted him about his self-destructive side. I very much enjoyed reading In Spite of Myself , but I warn you. You will not polish it off in a weekend. I needed the time to explore Wikipedia articles on some of the characters Plummer mentions from the fifties with whom I am not very familiar. But I have to tell you, Plummer’s story-telling leaves me with a sense of wonder.
Like me, you may have heard of the term PTSD or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Sharlene Prinsen, who has just published her book, ‘Blind Devotion’ gives us a deeper understanding of this mental health issue based on her experience. She shares with readers her roller coaster ride. She fell in love and then married her husband, after he had just returned from his peacekeeping tour in Bosnia. Soon his behavior, such as abuse of painkillers, became dangerous to them both. Sharlene’s is a true story of pain endured and forgiveness offered and reoffered while coming to understand that her loved one’s PTSD controlled both him and their life together. What stood out for me was the mistaken attitude in society, that curing symptoms of the disease, such as addictions, could be the answer, when the deeper issue has not been addressed. Sharlene persistently stayed by her husband, becoming his advocate even when the toll became too much for her to bear. Besides telling a story, her book also offers advice and lists resources available that will help identify the various facets of PTSD. Although heartbreaking, the book ‘Blind Devotion’ has helped me come to understand more about PTSD, particularly the need to see deeper than the symptoms to the core disease.
What is it that makes an Ian Rankin mystery such a satisfying read? The city of Edinburgh, in its grittiness and its grandeur, is vividly present. The corrupt and the criminal are convincingly sleazy. The mysteries that need to be solved are intricate, and the character of the detective is always interesting. Over twenty years Rankin wrote a series of seventeen books featuring Detective Inspector John Rebus, a brooding, cynical, rule-bending personality who occasionally sought refuge in alcohol; and yet readers cared about him and cheered him on. Now past the age of sixty, Rebus has retired, and so Rankin is starting a new series based on a detective who works for the Complaints. This title, The Complaints , refers to the Complaints and Conduct department, and one of its constituent parts, the Professional Standards Unit. My immediate association with this aspect of policing was the ever suspicious Lieutenant Scanlon of Internal Affairs who tried to sniff out misconduct at the twelfth precinct on the old Barney Miller television show. I’ll never forget his grin when he thought he was close to ending someone’s career. DI Malcolm Fox is applauded at the beginning of The Complaints for having exposed and brought to account a fellow policeman. Now his superior is asking him to investigate another officer suspected of involvement in child pornography. Malcolm’s sister, Jude, is soon visited by the police because her abusive lover has been found murdered. Who is the one sympathetic detective attending to this matter? That would be Jamie Breck, the very man that Fox is investigating. The author paints a bleak and very contemporary picture of falling markets, half finished condo developments, streets torn up with construction, thuggish types smoking and spitting outside of pubs, and a police force with problems. There are many things about which Detective Fox could complain: the February weather, his aging father’s forgetfulness, the untrustworthiness of superiors, the hardness of hitting bottom and as a recovering alcoholic choosing not to find comfort in that particular medication. But rather than complain, Detective Inspector Fox simply gets on with it. He uses brains and blarney until closed lips speak and scattered pieces fall into place. Delve into Ian Rankin’s new series and its first installment entitled The Complaints. I assure you, about this book, there will be no complaints.
Saints of the Shadow Bible is Ian Rankin’s twentieth book featuring John Rebus, the one- time Detective Inspector demoted to Detective Sergeant now that he has come out of retirement. Thirty years ago Billy Saunders got away with murder because Rebus’s colleagues protected him as a useful snitch. Recent changes to the double jeopardy law allow Scotland’s Solicitor General to pursue a new trial against Saunders and an investigation into police corruption. Even as Rebus investigates a suspicious car crash, he, himself, is under suspicion concerning the past practices of Edinburgh’s Criminal Investigation Department at Summerhall. Rankin weaves into the narrative DI Siobhan Clarke, once Rebus’s protégé and now his superior, Malcolm Fox from the hated Complaints Department, and spokespersons for both Yes and No sides of the upcoming Independence referendum who are also brought under investigation. Will John Rebus turn out to be saint or sinner or some combination thereof? One can enjoy Saints of the Shadow Bible even without having read earlier volumes in the series. But if you are already an Ian Rankin fan, then you won’t want to miss it.
The guitar intro from Jumping Jack Flash is the same intro from “I can’t get no satisfaction”, only run backwards. I gleaned this nugget of information from Keith Richard’s recent autobiography entitled “Life.” The Rolling Stones’ saga will grab readers who have an interest in all the cultural and musical changes since the nineteen sixties . There is Keith’s story : growing up in a working class family east of London, forming a band with Mick Jagger, then coping with international fame, connecting with models and musicians, experimenting with drugs, and so on. The book also gives you Keith’s personality, often cynical but just as often, warm, sometimes crude, sometimes articulate, a friend who confides in you, a wise survivor who cautions you. Pick up this book or pick up a guitar and pick out the notes Keith made famous.
I confess that I really enjoyed reading the book, Even White Trash Zombies Get the Blues. This is the second in Author Diana Rowland’s white trash zombie series. One reviewer describes it as a marked improvement from the first book, My Life as a White Trash Zombie. Rural Louisiana resident, Angel Crawford, works at a morgue. That’s a good thing, as she needs to feed on a steady supply of human brains so as not to decay. Angel also requires consistent employment to keep her parole officer off her back. Her job, however, is threatened when she reports that a stranger stole at gunpoint a body for which she was responsible, and no one believes her story. While studying to pass her high school equivalency test and taking care of her alcoholic father, Angel discovers more of what life as a zombie is all about, and she begins to piece together the mystery of this body snatching. Readers have to cheer for Angel. Being turned into a zombie has been her redemption, giving her a chance to veer away from her earlier self-destructive ways. Her new powers help her put a bully in his place. But will she drink enough brain smoothies to survive multiple gunshot wounds and bring to account the really nasty culprits who threaten humans and zombies both?
Ruiz, Tom Miguel
We are coming to that time of year again when we celebrate new beginnings with graduates, couples newly married and friends moving away from our community. I highly recommend as a gift for these occasions a book that is filled with sage advice and wisdom , ‘The Four Agreements ‘ by Tom Miguel Ruiz. This author, who was born into a family of healers, returned to his roots after studying to become a surgeon. His book’s four essential points present very fundamental ways to live with integrity. Ruiz helps us become open to the best life can offer. This down-to-earth advice reminds us to communicate honestly with oneself and with others. We are not to take other people’s words or actions personally. Under all circumstances we are challenged to do our best. Although it is a short book and easy to read ‘The Four Agreements’ holds great truth that can be revisited again and
again to remind oneself of what healthy living is all about.
Today I want to review the book ‘Schrodinger’s Cat’ by Eileen Schuh, who is from St. Paul. I first researched the meaning behind the title: Schrödinger's Cat. In 1935 an Austrian physicist, Erwin Schrodinger, devised a thought experiment involving a cat in a box that is either alive or dead and dependant on an earlier random event. Like the experiment, this book surprised me with its quirky thought twists and turns. In our story, Chordelia , a young mother, finds herself living within two realities. In the first reality she and her husband are dealing with the fact that her daughter is dying. People close to her judge her as not being able to cope with her grief and the legal battles begin. In her other reality her daughter is healthy, however Chordelia faces other serious issues that I will leave for you to discover. The young wife and mother finds herself at a point where she must make a choice in which reality she will remain. Read this thought provoking book to find out what decision she reaches and what the consequences will be.
A newly published book that just came out in October caught my eye. It is entitled, Into the Abyss: How a Deadly Plane Crash Changed the Lives of a Pilot, a Politician, a Criminal and a Cop by Carol Shaben. Remember that 1984 Northern Alberta plane crash with only four survivors. Grant Notley, leader of the Alberta New Democrats, was among the six who died. One of the survivors was Larry Shaben, Alberta and Canada’s first Muslim Cabinet Minister, whom I had the honour of meeting a few years ago. It is his daughter, Carol Shaben, who has written this book. Carol is a former CBC writer/ broadcaster and international trade consultant. Her will-researched account explores the events that led to the tragic plane crash. The four survivors, as the subtitle suggests, were from very different backgrounds. But they fought together to survive the winter’s night in the wilderness. Through their strength and courage, they made it and lifelong friendships were formed that night. Carol Shaben graciously charts these men’s journeys after the crash in her powerful narrative. Although Larry Shaben died before the book was finished, Carol Shaben reflects her father’s voice as a person of integrity and concern for all people, whatever their position. I highly recommend this Alberta story.
Next Sunday, November 11th, we stop to remember the men and women who have served Canada during times of conflict. Therefore the book I have chosen to review today is ‘Freddy’s War’ by Judy Shultz. With a background in journalism, Shultz writes a fictional story about a young man, Freddy McKee. Freddy lies about his age to be old enough to join the Winnipeg Grenadiers in 1941. Soon he embarks with his Canadian troop to fight in Hong Kong. Only six weeks later Freddy becomes a prisoner of war. When he returns home five years later he is greatly changed. Shultz says that although the story is fictional, it is based on a family friend who survived the battle of Hong Kong and yet never fully recovered. It is a story of love and heartbreak as Freddy is reunited with his Chinese bride in a small, isolated Canadian town. This well written story helps us to have some fragmentary sense of the fell that was has been and continues to be for those who have served.
Daniel Silva’s latest thriller, The Fallen Angel, has strengths and weaknesses. Set in the near future, the book, like its context of Arab/ Israeli tension, is steeped in the past. The book’s hero, Israeli secret agent and art restorer, Gabriel Allon, is supremely competent in both his vocations, but he is afraid of dogs and he carries a lot of grief. Allon is both interesting and sympathetic. Allon’s Jesuit friend, Monsignor Donati, once upon a time a revolutionary, is now a defender of the institution. He only matters in the early chapters. Otherwise, Israelis are good guys, Arabs and Iranians are bad, and Europeans are ambivalent. How does Silva not see this type-casting as being similar to anti-semitism? But then thrillers are not about character or nuance. The story begins when the body of a young art restorer is discovered on the floor of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The twists and turns that follow are definitely entertaining if the one sided political observations don’t leave you too aggravated. The excitement moves through Rome, St. Moritz, Berlin and Vienna, then finally of course to Jerusalem.
The Kingfisher Navigator series informs young readers on everything from Sharks to Extreme weather to Pirates. Having just read the Navigators book on Ancient Egypt, I think it would be accessible to children ten and older. The text certainly does not talk down to anyone. Realistic, yet colourful, illustrations draw younger and older readers into ancient Egyptian life. Each turning of the page leads to a two page theme such as “Stairways to Heaven”, or “Mummification”, the former describing how pyramids were designed to help the dead pharaoh climb to the sky, and the latter outlining an embalming process that was news to me. The themes are briefly explained in one large print paragraph with related information arranged here and there in the main two page illustration. For instance the “Egypt at War” theme includes a caption revealing the strategy used at the particular battle depicted as well as notes on amulets worn to protect the warriors, and surgical methods needed when the charms did not work. Each one of the twenty themes, laid out chronologically, offer weblinks, connected with the British Museum, the BBC and other organizations, to which one can go for further information. I highly recommend “Ancient Egypt” by Miranda Smith. Reading this book was a pleasure. Plus, I learned something!
If you want to be distracted from the bone chilling winter weather, then read Touch of Power by Maria Snyder. This fantasy, young adult story is loaded with adventure, magic, man-eating plants (who also eat women) and romance as well. Avry, a young woman is the last survivor of her family, as far as she knows. She is also the last healer left in the land of the Fifteen Realms. The politics of the time have persuaded the people that the healers are to blame for a devastating plague that has killed most of the people. The excitement in this story starts immediately as Avry must choose between healing a dying child and being outed as a healer or running away to save her life. Our heroine of course heals the child. She is captured and condemned to die the next morning simply for being what she is, a healer. Unknown to her however, there are others who require her healing skills in order to gain power in the Realms. These mysterious others must rescue her and keep her alive. Readers are taken into a medieval-like world as the action kicks into gear and the story unfolds. I recommend Touch of Power to fantasy romance readers who are looking for a series debut with a sequel soon to follow.
Author, Nicholas Sparks writes stories that are close to the heart. His stories tell of the human experience of love and relationships that endure, are lost, and continue even through death. He has written several international bestsellers with six already made into films: Message in a Bottle (1999), A Walk to Remember (2002), The Notebook (2004), Nights in Rodanthe (2008), Dear John (2010), and The Last Song (2010). Today I am reviewing his latest story entitled The Best of Me. This story centers around two main characters who are high school sweethearts. Amanda and Dawson begin a relationship that is doomed from the beginning. Dawson comes from the wrong side of town and Amanda from a prominent family in their small town. Although they are deeply in love they decide to go their different ways after high school and life goes on. Eventually there is a death of a mutual friend that brings them back together at middle age and they are able to reassess how life has been. Amanda is married with three kids while Dawson has chosen to remain single. Sparks surprises us with a build up to an anticipated result and then twists away from it unexpectedly. The rich development of his characters connects everyone throughout the story. It is a ‘page turner’ as life brings them together through surprising incidents. It is an easy and enjoyable read and not a surprise at all that the story is going to be out in film soon. If you like Sparks’ books, it is worth catching up on his previous novels as well.
Have you ever heard of the sub-genre of mysteries known as cozies? Out of The Deep I Cry is the third installment in a series by author Julia Spencer-Fleming featuring Episcopal priest and amateur sleuth, Clare Fergusson. For me there was certainly suspense as Clare and local police chief, Russ van Alstyne investigate two disappearances roughly seventy years apart in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. Events from the past are woven in to the story: a diphtheria epidemic, the damming of rivers and flooding of fields, and the perils of encountering bootleggers transporting rum from Canada to New York City. In the present, the townspeople of Millers Kill are anxious for the future of their Free Health Clinic. The facility is threatened both by a protestor who blames inoculations for her child’s autism and by the clinic’s benefactress who considers shifting her funds to help a different cause. Okay, so there are no sadistic terrorists in the bad-guy corner. It’s not a crime to enjoy a cozy mystery where criminals are still human and character and setting count for something. One reviewer accurately describes Julia Spencer-Fleming’s work as “cozies with a kick.”
Experiencing a stroke at 37 years old, Jill Taylor, a Harvard-trained brain scientist started a journey literally from the inside out. The massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain quickly disabled her to the point that she could not walk, talk, read or write. Within the first few hours she tells us about the euphoria and sense of complete well-being and peace that came through to her as the uninjured right hemisphere of her brain took over. We learn that her struggle to call for help before her logical, sequential left brain was completely lost was an important part of this story. She includes very helpful information on the “Warning Signs of Stroke.”
It is worth hanging in through the first few chapters where she writes about the complexity of the brain, in easy to read terminology. Her story develops as she tells of her eight years of hard work to complete recovery. In bold print she states “I desperately needed people to treat me as though I would recover. . .I needed people to love me-not for the person I had been, but for who I might now become.” Jill’s stroke became a blessing along with invaluable learning for her. In a left brained analytical society she found how important it is for “stepping to the right” side of the brain for feelings of well-being and for finding that place of deep peace. The good news is that we can make choices about how we think. We can teach our brains to process in healthier ways. How we think can become patterns that can form our ways of living and can leave us looking at life as half full rather than as half empty. It is within our power to reprogram ourselves and therefore enjoy better mental health. For those who have been impacted by a stroke or for those who have interest in the mechanics of the human mind, My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor is an excellent book. I highly recommend it.
A newborn is a time for celebration. A special book on this occasion can be a great gift idea. ‘On the Night You Were Born’ by Nancy Tillman is a lovely choice. The cover has two polar bears dancing in the moonlight which sets the tone. Then we look out the window with the baby in the bassinette and read that “the moon smiled with such wonder that the stars peeked in to see you.” This book reminds us of how special every newborn is. “The sound of your name is a magical one. Let’s say it out loud before we go on.” The gorgeous illustrations depict nature and the heavens playfully attending to the little child, hoping to see a smile. This is a great little book for new mothers, fathers and grandparents to read over and over to always remind their little one how special they are.
I feel sympathy for Pete Townshend, lead guitarist for The Who, the third most popular British rock group of the late sixties after the Beatles and The Stones. Townshend’s recent biography “Who I Am” compares unfavourably for many with Keith Richard’s “Life”. These are two very different characters. In contrast to the Stones’ bad boy guitarist, Pete Townshend is complicated: deep but overblown, self-aware but capable of stupidity, charitable toward others but sensitive to criticism, a rock star who is awkward. No ghost writer was needed for this work as Townshend is accomplished with words, having produced regular columns in a popular culture magazine and then working for a time with the publisher, Faber and Faber, to say nothing of being The Who’s main lyricist and the creator of the rock opera “Tommy”. Readers are getting Pete’s voice in this bio. A better editor would have streamlined that voice. You may be familiar with the major events of the Who’s career: the appearance at Woodstock, the production of “Tommy”, the death of drummer Keith Moon and then scandal around Townshend’s investigation of bank complicity in child pornography. The book, Who I Am, is a long read. I was interested in Pete’s childhood trips with his musician father to the Isle of Man, his perceptions of contemporaries like band mate Roger Daltrey and his life-long love of sailing. However there were dreary and drawn out sections about the band’s management and the technicalities of making music really loud. But as I noted earlier, I give Pete Townshend the benefit of the doubt. When I was a teenager I had the privilege of seeing the Who perform live. If you like the music, you will have patience with “Who I Am.” If you don’t, then give Pete a pass.
Here’s a question. Shania Twain, is she a country singer or a pop singer? Early in her autobiography, From This Moment On, she remembers all the music that mattered to her growing up in Timmins, Ontario. In the family living room with her cousin, Kenny, she would sing along with the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt and Waylon Jennings, all artists who transcend the boundary between pop and country. What has always mattered to Shania Twain is to just make music without being constrained by strict categories. Listen to That Don’t Impress Me Much. Parts of the song lean to country and parts lean to pop. After arriving in Nashville, she was patient with producers until she established the credentials to assert her own voice. Another dichotomy that this Canadian star bridges is rags and riches. Eileen Twain grew up dirt poor in a dysfunctional family, but Shania Twain has lived in a Swiss chateau. She writes in an honest and heart-felt way about her often depressed mother and her First Nations father. Tragically they died in a car accident before they could celebrate their daughter’s success. From This Moment On is motivational reading. Shania Twain comes across as both a strong and vulnerable human being. She planted trees in the wilderness. She adores animals. Along with success, she has had to absorb much sadness, including the betrayal of a close friend and the breakdown of her first marriage. However, enduring these tough times, she has discovered wisdom and deep values. Pick up this book. There will be much to which you can relate. Personally, I found Shania’s story to be compelling.
Cold Lake resident Wally Wolfe has created a unique comic book describing in image and caption the RCMP pursuit of Albert Johnson, the mad trapper of Rat River. Wally Wolfe’s creation is entitled Encounter on the Eagle , highlighting the climax of the chase when Johnson was shot and killed by the RCMP Posse on the Eagle River in Yukon Territory on February 17, 1932. The story begins, however, with Albert Johnson’s arrival in the area just south of the Mackenzie delta in the Northwest Territories in the summer of 1931. As the tale is told, we see from the beginning both Johnson’s skill in the outdoors as he builds his cabin, and his disregard for others as he sabotages the traps of local natives and shoots at police. Wally’s artwork vividly describes the northern setting in a brutal winter and the action of the subsequent chase up the rivers and across the mountains with dog teams, sleds and snowshoes, and several skirmishes along the way, including the one where RCMP constable, Ed Millen, was shot and killed by Johnson. As a former aviator, himself, Wally pays particular attention in his telling of the story to the role of legendary bush pilots, ‘Punch’ Dickins and Wilfred ‘Wop’ May, who not only supplied the police posses but also tracked the fugitive from the air. I recommend for your reading pleasure and historical edification Encounter on the Eagle, a self-published comic book by local illustrator, Wally Wolfe.
Author Jan Wong took a courageous step when she wrote 'Out of theBlue', her own story of living through the debilitating disease of depression. She helps open conversation around the social stigma and shame of having a mental health disease. Jan details the institutional betrayal that brought her into depths of despair. The Globe and Mail newspaper, where she was for many years a columnist, denied her depression, and ordered her back to work in spite of several psychiatrists identifying her illness. This bullying tactic lasted over two years. The institution’s fear was that Ms. Wong would set a precedent and open the door to others coming forward with mental health issues. The Globe and Mail tried to slam the door shut, but Jan Wong stayed stubbornly strong. Because of her honest book, conversation can continue within families, businesses and institutions, when a person’s behaviours suggest a mental health issue. Instead of being left to sink even deeper into illness, with support of therapists, friends and family they can find their way to healthier and happier life. Thanks Jan Wong!
Malala Yousafzai, the teenage advocate for girls’ education, who was shot last year by the Taliban in Pakistan, has survived to receive a Nobel nomination, to speak at the United Nations and to write a biography, entitled I Am Malala. She had a correspondent’s help, but her own warmth and honesty shine through in her book. She is fiercely connected to her family and to her people, the Pashtuns, to her home in the Swat Valley of Pakistan’s rugged north-west and to her Islamic faith. Malala carefully distinguishes between faith and culture. There is much of her culture she embraces even as she criticizes those aspects that have limited the freedoms of girls and women. Malala is a teen-aged girl who competes with her friends and fights with her brothers. Malala is a keen observer of life, the beauty of her land and its’ hardships of poverty, earthquakes, floods and civil war. Malala expresses an idealist’s anger towards those who have power but do not use it for good. Pick up her book and find your own hope renewed.