Review | The Drake Equation, Heather Walsh

18440294The Drake Equation by Heather Walsh is an entertaining romance between an environmental activist and a PR professional at an SUV manufacturer. The best part of the story is the dialogue — the characters were clearly attracted to each other from the beginning, and the supposed tension between their opposing views only seemed to provide basis for flirtation rather than cause any actual conflict.

Much of the romance focused on lively debates between the characters, though often the “winning” argument was obvious from the beginning. Emily’s arguments against SUVs found little resistance from Robert, who mostly seemed confused at the vehemence of her position than passionately opposed to it himself. Robert’s work at the SUV manufacturer seemed clearly more a job than a cause, and ultimately, his main argument boiled down to SUV owners being insecure and therefore worthy of sympathy. Another argument on affirmative action offered a bit more meat for debate, and one side eventually backed down at an unexpected point from the other. Still, these discussions were interesting food for thought, and the characters had the chemistry to keep the sizzle going.

The big conflict in their romance ended up being Robert’s workaholic tendencies, which unfortunately wasn’t developed as much as their talking points on SUVs were. As such, when it was his work habits that ended up creating the big crisis in their relationship, it seemed to come from nowhere, and there never felt any real danger that this issue would cause lasting damage.

A couple other things that bothered me. In the beginning of their flirtation, Robert called Emily “girl” and “honey”, which Emily protested at as being offensive, and Robert said it wasn’t, because there was no malicious intent behind these terms. It wasn’t a problem for these characters, because Emily was only pretending to be offended, but I definitely object to the idea of offensiveness being measured by intent rather than by response. It didn’t help that, at least in the beginning, Robert struck me as being condescending and Emily as being a walking stereotype. The characters do develop and become more complex as the story progresses, but I was annoyed with both of them at first.

Also, I was taken aback when Emily’s friend Carson referred to himself as a “fag.” It wasn’t in the context of a homophobic attack; in fact, it was a complete throwaway line, and that was what bothered me most about it. (Referring to the success of his stint in a dunking tank at a fundraiser, he says, “I know all those meatheads just wanted to dunk the fag.”) Given the often pejorative use of the term in the real world, I found it offensive and was surprised that Carson would use it on himself so casually. It seemed more thoughtlessness than a deliberate gesture on the part of the author, who likely just wanted a casual way to let us know that Carson is gay, but it’s this very thoughtlessness about it that bothered me.

Overall though it’s a fun read, with great chemistry and entertaining banter between the leads.

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Thank you to the author for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review | The Two Sisters of Borneo (Ava Lee, Book 6), Ian Hamilton

17731888In the sixth instalment of the Ava Lee series, Ava and her business partners May Ling Wong and Amanda Yee discover that their investment in a furniture company based in Borneo has gone sour. The sisters who own the company have lost a considerable amount of money in a bad deal with a Dutch client, and Ava travels to Borneo to recoup the loss. Financial crimes call to mind images of men and women in suits analyzing numbers on a computer screen, but in typical Ian Hamilton fashion, this investigation leads Ava into dealings with a gang of local thugs and the need to call upon Uncle’s muscle.

This is probably my favourite among all the Ava Lee stories — it’s certainly the most emotional. I’ve always loved the mentor/protegee relationship between Ava and Uncle and in this book, Uncle has been battling cancer for several months now, and concern over his health is paramount on Ava’s mind even as she continues to investigate the case. Uncle’s health is clearly in an unstoppable decline throughout the book, and even though he’s still alive, there’s already a clear passing of the torch, and Ava must deal with the thought of a future without Uncle’s guidance.

The mystery itself is filled with unexpected twists and turns. Some aspects of the case fell flat, such as a senseless kidnapping that seemed added just to include some action, and a deus ex machina move involving a mysterious figure that made sense given the context of the story but still felt too convenient. The big reveal was a surprise, and added some emotional heft to the mystery.

My one big complaint, not just with this book but with the series as a whole, is the overemphasis on brand names and descriptions, particularly of luxury goods. We often hear that Ava is wearing a Brooks Brothers shirt (or a Giordano shirt, depending on the occasion) and how she never drinks anything but Starbucks Via. Unless the character is Miranda Priestley from Devil Wears Prada or Claudia Kishi from The Babysitters Club, I really don’t care what they wear for every single scene in the book. To give you an idea — I read this book a few weeks ago, and yet I can still remember exactly what brands she likes. It’s annoying, and all I can hope is that the author is somehow being compensated for the product placement.

Still, this is definitely one of, if not the, best in the Ava Lee series. Uncle’s illness adds an emotional heft that is at times more compelling than the mystery itself, yet that also adds a sense of urgency to the case, as Ava rushes to complete it as quickly as possible so that she can go back to Uncle. It’s a must read for fans of the series.

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Thank you to House of Anansi for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review | The Winter People, Jennifer McMahon

18007535What if you could bring the dead back to life? If you’ve read Stephen King or seen any number of classic horror movies, it should be pretty obvious that this is never a good idea. A character says as much near the beginning of this book, only to be told that someday, she just may love someone enough to seriously consider it.

Indeed. A mother loses her child. A woman loses her husband. Two children lose their mother. Loss is everywhere in this book, and Stephen King nightmares aside, how much can we really blame anyone for wanting just a few extra days with a loved one?

That being said, as we all know, the reality is never as good as we imagine. In Jennifer McMahon’s The Winter People reanimated corpses called sleepers are rumoured to haunt the woods, and in classic horror story tradition, these sleepers turn out to be rather thirsty for human blood. Reviews on Goodreads have compared it to Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, which either I’ve never read or it freaked me out so much I’ve blocked it completely from my memory. If you have read it, that might give you an idea of what to expect.

There is a Stephen King feel to McMahon’s book, particularly near the end. The story spans over a century, and refers to several mysterious deaths over the years, but McMahon keeps her focus tight and intimate. There is Sara in 1908, who has grown up hearing tales of sleepers in the woods from her Auntie who practices dark magic. When Sara’s daughter Gertie dies, Sara’s desire to be reunited with her leads to mysterious knocks in the night and notes in childish handwriting suggesting Gertie had been murdered.

The story switches between Sara’s story and the present day, with sisters Ruthie and Fawn living in the house Sara used to live. When their mother goes missing, their search for answers leads them to discover Sara’s story and realize that the tales of sleepers in the woods may be real after all. Also in the present day is Katherine, who discovers her husband met with a mysterious woman before he died, and her investigation into the last day of his life leads her to Ruthie and Fawn, and to Sara’s story.

It’s a scary book, though the supernatural elements weren’t quite explored enough to haunt the reader past the last page. The reveal about Gertie’s murderer mostly just confused me, and I had to flip back to see what I’d missed, and with regard to the ending, a couple of the characters appear far too easily accepting of their fates. Overall, it’s a good weekend read, an atmospheric, creepy tale that I can easily imagine being adapted for screen.

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Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Human Remains, Elizabeth Haynes

17349279The cover of Human Remains by Elizabeth Haynes holds the intriguing teaser: How well do you know your neighbours? But the crux of the book is really in the question: How well do your neighbours know you? More to the point, if you were to die when alone at home, how long would it take before someone found your body? How long would it take before anyone even noticed you were missing?

Haynes’ first book Into the Darkest Corner is still one of my favourite books of all time. I read it years ago and can still remember the intense claustrophobia, disgust and fear I felt as I read it. Her second book didn’t quite grab me as much as the first, but I was still intrigued by her characters. Her third, Human Remains, did not affect me as viscerally as Darkest Corner did, yet I believe it just may be her most powerful yet.

Haynes’ brilliance is in her uncanny insight into the human psyche, whether it’s a woman struggling to move on from an abusive relationship or a woman trying to escape her past, as in her first two books. In Human Remains, Haynes plays on our fears of loneliness, an almost ironic condition in today’s hyper connected world, yet it’s this very hyper connectivity that sets into sharp relief how alone some of us really are. The protagonist in this book, Annabel, is a police analyst who notices a trend of deaths in her hometown where the victims’ bodies weren’t discovered for several days. There is nothing to tie the deaths together — all appear to be from natural causes — and Annabel’s colleagues don’t deem it worth an investigation. But Annabel is intrigued by how all these victims had been dead for some time before anyone even noticed their absence, and while she had never really considered herself lonely, the pattern forces her to take a look at her own life and wonder who would notice if she were gone.

It’s a disquieting notion, and one that will haunt the reader as well. Haynes tells the story from multiple points of view — Annabel’s, of course, and also a creepy man named Colin. We also get chapters from some of the victims, and rather than a violent description of an attack that leads to their deaths, these chapters feel almost elegaic. There is no hint about what or who caused the deaths, but there is a glimpse at the person who lived before that moment. In a story where you know these characters will be forgotten, there is both comfort and a touch of despair in these all too brief tributes to their memory.

The drive to keep turning the page isn’t so much to find out how the people are dying. There is a great sense of mystery, with almost a locked room feel because the answer is hard to figure out. The answer, once revealed, is chilling, and not because of its inhumanity, but because it is all too human. The villain is probably even more reprehensible than the one in Into the Darkest Corner, because this one preys on the very weakest in society — and on weaknesses that likely everyone can relate to.

Human Remains isn’t the page turner Into the Darkest Corner is, nor will it be counted among my absolute favourite books ever as Darkest Corner is, but the issues Human Remains raises will stay with you long after you finish reading. Haynes taps right into our darkest fears, and lays bare our deepest vulnerabilities — that we are, in the end, truly alone, and that no one will care when we’re gone. We support Annabel’s fight for these victims, and we rage against the murderer’s predation, because ultimately, the idea behind this story hits far too close to home.

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Thank you to Harper Collins Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review | The Marrying of Chani Kaufman, Eve Harris

19547815At its heart, Eve Harris’ The Marrying of Chani Kaufman is a love story. 19 year old Chani Kaufman has never had a boyfriend but must now marry a man she barely knows. Fortunately, she and future husband Baruch are actually attracted to each other, and the conflict has more to do with his disapproving mother and both characters’ apprehension about the wedding night, rather than with any actual distaste for the marriage. Parallel to this story is that of the rabbi’s wife Rivka, who is charged with training Chani how to become a Jewish wife and yet who begins questioning her own decision to leave behind her own relaxed religious background and adhere to the strict rules of her husband’s. Can Chani and Baruch overcome both his mother and their nervousness about sex and relationships to find true love? Can Rivka reconcile her love for her husband with her growing discomfort with his way of life?

The Marrying of Chani Kaufman was referred to by its publisher as an Orthodox Jewish Pride and Prejudice, and while Chani and Baruch never actually went through the will they/won’t they love/hate cycles that made Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy’s romance so popular, they still face opposition from family due to class differences. Both books also take a somewhat bemused perspective of their characters’ societies, employing sharp wit and gentle humour to present the foibles of various social traditions. One big difference though, and the reason Chani Kaufman perhaps falls short, is that while Austen seemed fully immersed in her society and her pointed jabs at its conventions still reflect the exasperated affection of an insider, Harris’ narration sounds like it’s coming from the outside looking in.

To be honest, I am completely unfamiliar with Orthodox Judaism and its customs, and as someone who has taught at an Orthodox Jewish school, the author is certainly far more familiar with this society than I am. So I’ll take her word that all the customs she describes and all the details she includes are accurate.

That being said, there’s an almost gossipy tone in the descriptions that, to my ear, present the customs and traditions as exotic and at points almost absurd, which seems at odds with the insider’s perspective the book purports to present. While reading, I had a strong sense of the characters wanting to break away from tradition, but little sense behind the desire for these traditions in the first place. Characters like the rabbi and ultra-Orthodox neighbours are presented as one-dimensional and unreasonable, clinging on to outdated notions and deaf to any thought beyond their rules.

I grew up Catholic, and while there are many Church teachings I disagree with and certain traditions I’d be hard-pressed to explain to non-Catholics or even to non-Filipino Catholics, part of me will always find a sense of beauty in the intention behind these traditions. It is this sense of beauty that I found lacking in Harris’ novel — traditions were presented with amusement and at times annoyance, but rarely with affection or understanding.

The book is an enjoyable, amusing read, a broad-strokes comedy and light-hearted romance with a nice parallel story of a woman looking for a change in her life’s direction. My only hesitation is that Harris gives the impression of eagerness in presenting Orthodox Jewish culture, a task I fully support, and yet I don’t think she quite pulls it off. It may well be accurate, but I wish it had been presented with more nuance.

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Thank you to House of Anansi for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review | The Body on the T, Mike Martin

17913594A corpse washes up on a beach in the small town of Grand Bank, Newfoundland and Sgt. Winston Windflower, an RCMP officer and a Cree from Northern Alberta is called in to investigate. In The Body on the Tthe second book in the Sgt. Windflower series, Mike Martin strikes a balance between the police procedural and the cozy mystery genre, and presents a small town whodunnit.

With the best cozy mysteries, the place itself becomes a character, and the reader loses themselves in the protagonist’s world. Donna Leon’s Brunetti, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, Martin Walker’s Bruno — in all these series, reading the mystery feels like escaping into a different world for a few hundred pages. We get to know the series protagonist — they seem almost a friend, and figuring out whodunnit alongside them becomes a comforting ritual.

Mike Martin makes a pretty solid attempt at creating such a world, and yet falls short. We get interesting anecdotes such as a moose crossing the road and almost causing an accident, and a lovely romance with a coffee shop owner that later has its own dramatic subplot. We get series characters to cheer for — Sgt. Windflower is a duty-bound RCMP officer, his girlfriend Sheila is likeable, and I like the mentor/protege relationship he has with his deputy, Tizzard. There is a welcome touch of diversity in a genre all too often lacking in PoC characters — we get descriptions of Sgt. Windflower’s smudging ritual, and he and the coroner, Dr. Sanjay, have a weekly samosas and Scotch evening, an interesting combination.

Unfortunately, while the characters are likeable, none are particularly memorable. Thus, when a major event puts one of the characters in grave danger, I wasn’t invested enough in that character for it to affect me much beyond wondering what, if anything, this had to do with the case.

Martin also takes his love for detail too far, with, for example, a step by step description of Windflower getting up in the morning. There are also numerous descriptions of meals, lots of delicious smoked cod, but the descriptions lack the mouth-watering flair of Donna Leon’s Paola Brunetti or even Carolyn Keene’s Hannah Gruen.

The mystery itself was a solid whodunnit. There are the usual skirmishes with other departments trying to take over the case and some potential suspects actually being more interesting characters than the series ones. The pacing is slow, which is in line with the cozy mystery genre, yet there aren’t enough other details to keep me hooked in the meantime.

I like the idea of a mystery series set in small town Canada and featuring an RCMP officer. I particularly like the author’s attempts to include details about Cree rituals and small town wildlife, without resorting to tokenism — these details are in the story organically, and I don’t get the impression that he’s checking off a list on showcasing diversity. Still, overall, the story and its characters fell flat for me — not bad, but not particularly compelling or memorable either.

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Thank you to the author for a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Girls from Corona del Mar, Rufi Thorpe

Why did Lorrie Ann look so graceful in beat-up Keds and shorts a bit too small for her? Why was it charming when she snorted from laughing too hard? Yes, we were jealous of her, and yet we did not hate her. She was never so much as teased by us, we roaming and bratty girls of Corona del Mar, thieves of corn nuts and orange soda, abusers of lip gloss and foul language. (pp 6 – 7)

We’ve all known that girl. The one so perfect you want to hate her, and yet so nice that you just can’t. Maybe that girl was even your friend, and maybe, like Mia in Rufi Thorpe’s The Girls from Corona del Mar, you chose to become wholly imperfect rather than even attempt to compete.

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In the very first page, Mia asks Lorrie Ann to break one of her toes, because “it made a lot of intuitive symbolic sense to force the beautiful, pure, and good Lorrie Ann to break my toe and punish me for my abortion” (p 3). Almost immediately, Thorpe establishes the girls’ friendship: Mia is the purported bad girl who gets pregnant at fifteen and Lorrie Ann is so “pure and good” that she is almost an angel, vested with an almost divine right to dispense judgement.

The adult in us knows this can’t be accurate. No one can be as perfect as Lorrie Ann appears to be, and a young girl should not face corporal punishment for having made a difficult decision. Yet Thorpe does a great job in taking us back into the psyche of youth. We see the world through Mia’s eyes, and while we may believe her wrong to be the “bad twin” to Lorrie Ann’s good, we likely understand all too well the feelings of inadequacy that led to that.

We follow the girls as they grow up, and Mia inevitably not only becomes disillusioned by Lorrie Ann, but begins to realize she may never have understood her friend as much as she thought she did in the first place. The story is about Mia growing up, and coming into her own beyond the shadow of Lorrie Ann, or rather of Mia’s memories of her. And Mia is a richly developed character — slowly realizing her worth and freedom to define herself beyond the good twin/bad twin binary.

Yet it is Lorrie Ann who steals the show — given Mia’s idealized image of her, we never really get to know the woman behind the image. Mia describes Lorrie Ann’s story as a series of bad luck, and Lorrie Ann as a naive young woman struggling to keep her inherent goodness while coping with everything. Yet it isn’t until later that we hear a bit of Lorrie Ann’s own perspective and realize how much richer a character she is than we have known. This woman is compelled to be with broken men, yet unable to cope with the brokenness of her own child. She goes through a lot of bad and good things as an adult, as try as Mia might to explain her behaviour, the “real” Lorrie Ann remains elusive, to Mia and therefore also to the reader. A message near the end brings a harsh dose of reality, yet it absolutely needed to be said.

This story could easily have turned into a simplistic fable about growing up, and it is a testament to Thorpe’s talent that both Mia and Lorrie Ann emerge as such rich, vivid, complex characters. Thorpe resists the easy moral at every turn, and therefore makes the reader see how futile it would be to reduce the story and its characters into anything neat. Like real life, this book is messy. It’s confusing, and characters make unexpected choices, yet it all feels real.

There are things in the story that strain credulity — the episodes in Lorrie Ann’s life could be a soap opera, and the ending of her tale makes sense only if the reader remembers a minor detail mentioned once near the beginning and never brought up again. In contrast, Mia’s life appears almost too good to be true, as if the contrast between them that Mia set up as a teenager fully reversed in their adulthood. It’s a bit of apparent oversimplification that’s disappointing mostly because it stands in stark contrast to the richness of the character development.

Still, it’s a really good book overall, a wonderful exploration of the power of female friendship, such that one forged in childhood can have such a lasting effect even on your adult life. This is Thorpe’s first novel, and I’ll definitely keep an eye out for her next.

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Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.