Review | Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family, Anne-Marie Slaughter

unfinishedbusinessThis is such a good book! Unfinished Business is an intelligent and well-balanced discussion on work/life balance. I love how Slaughter eschews a one-size-fits-all solution and instead talks about how this could work given a range of circumstances.

I thought the reframing of the question on work/life balance to re-evaluate how much caregiving should be worth is really smart. Slaughter also gives a broad understanding of the term “caregiving”, applying it equally to caring for a child, an aging parent, a spouse, a friend or whatever other type of loved one. Too often the discussion on work/life balance focuses on working mothers, and as a single, child-free woman, I’m glad to see my own experience finally included in this discussion.

Slaughter as well gives equal importance to working dads and distinguishes between making men equal partners in the home and having them help with household duties (the first accords them responsibility and a sense of ownership.) She also points out that same sex couples are unable to rely on traditionally held social notions of the gendered division of labour, and so their experiences demonstrate how bread winning and caregiving can be distributed equitably between both partners regardless of social assumptions about gendered capabilities.

Lots of food for thought in this book, and Slaughter raised a lot of interesting points. Hopefully this book sparks discussion on these topics and makes us all re-think how we see careers, competition and caregiving.


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

Review | Loyalist to a Fault (Dead Kid Detective Agency 3), Evan Munday

DeadKidLoyalistI’m a huge fan of Evan Munday’s Dead Kid Detective Agency series, so I was thrilled to hear that book 3 was coming out this Fall. Loyalist to a Fault has all the trademarks that make Munday’s writing such a treat — 1980s/90s pop culture references, middle school hijinks (school dance!) and a historical mystery. Throw in a ghost pirate who breaks into the town’s museum, and my little museum nerdy heart was all a-twitter.

The unifying thread behind the Dead Kid series is a mix of Scooby Doo meets Nancy Drew goes goth — October Schwartz befriends some tween ghosts in her neighbourhood cemetery, discovers that they’ve all died under mysterious circumstances, and vows to solve each of their murders in turn. The ghost whose death is investigated here is 18th century British settler Cyril Cooper, whose story involves spies, pirates and some mysterious historical documents involving his family.

Munday ratchets up the antics in this instalment, which wasn’t a huge draw for me, but which I admit may appeal to the kids this book was actually written for. Among the ghosts’ superpowers is the ability to detach and reattach body parts, and all the tossing about of heads and limbs was just a bit much for me.

I did enjoy the middle grade romances in this book’s subplot, in particular a couple of romantic possibilities for October herself and a potential match between a couple of the dead kids. The scene at the school dance was hilarious and fun, and shows just how perfect a battleground a school gym can be. I did wish the subplot involving October’s living friends was explored a bit more (the resolution felt a bit of a letdown), but I’m glad there are several more books in the series for this to play out.

I’m a total museum geek, and I especially geek out over historical archives, so I was glad that Munday made the Sticksville Museum such a huge part of this story. As a fan of British cozy mysteries in small towns, I have to admit being disappointed that the Sticksville historical celebration wasn’t quite given as much focus as I’d hoped, but to be fair, I can imagine that most other readers would have chosen to focus on ghostly pirate battles as well.

The mystery behind Cyril’s death is solved, somewhat, but a whole lot of other questions remain. We end the book knowing who the murderer is, but unless I missed it completely, still completely in the dark on the motive behind the killing. Instead, Munday teases us with some big revelations about the overarching mystery of the series, hinting at a major series-end reveal that would explain everything. More significantly, he also hints at a link to October, which ties her in even more with the ghost kids and possibly explains the mysterious phone calls she’s been receiving.

Munday is as witty and full of pop culture references as ever, but none of the lines quite struck me as much as the witticisms in his earlier books. I’d also be curious to know how his middle grade readers respond to the humour — I geek out over it because I understand the references to 80s cartoons and 90s TV shows, but I’d love to know how it connects with kids born after 2000.

Overall, this is a solid instalment in the series, one that seems stronger as an instalment in a larger story than as a stand alone title. I’m intrigued by all the various plot threads Munday has in the air, and am curious to see how they all tie together in the end. And if you’re looking for a fun book to read this Halloween, you just can’t go wrong with a ghost pirate mystery.

Review | Jigsaw Man (A Mark Tartaglia Mystery), Elena Forbes

JigsawThe fourth in the DI Mark Tartaglia series, this book features a double mystery: a burned corpse turns out to be an assembly of parts from four different bodies and a young woman killed at a hotel turns out to be the sister of Tartaglia’s former partner Sam Donovan. I’d read and enjoyed the first book in this series a few years ago, where I commented that Tartaglia and Donovan clearly have some chemistry — from this book, I can see it had developed into something more and then ended badly, so there’s an interesting bit of tension from their shared history.

I was definitely intrigued by the plot of Jigsaw Man — in particular the stitched up bodies because how creepy and gruesome is that? There was also the interesting coincidence of Tartaglia having been in the hotel on the night of the murder, and I could just imagine a detective like Hercule Poirot having his ego completely bruised at not having noticed anything amiss. For Tartaglia, because he knew the victim, his response was more guilt than a bruised ego, and made the crime personal.

Unlike the first book Die with Me, Tartaglia’s personal life is brought front and centre in this novel, with the investigation taking somewhat of a back seat. As a result, I felt like there was so much of a backstory that I missed, and while Forbes does a good job of cluing new readers in, I wondered if the case would have meant more to me if I’d known the victim as well, or at least remembered more of Donovan’s character. As it was, it read as a fairly standard police procedural.

I mentioned in my review of Die with Me that nothing in particular about Tartaglia stood out to me, and I think that was a part of why I couldn’t really get into this book. When the story is so contingent on a mystery’s effect on the main character’s personal life, you have to care about the main character, and in this case, I just didn’t find Tartaglia compelling enough.

Again, as with Die with Me, I found Donovan to be a more interesting character. She is no longer a police officer in this novel, yet her background naturally makes her want to be involved in tracking down her sister’s murderer.  I found it annoying at first, mostly because I was no longer familiar with her background within the series and I thought she was just interfering in other people’s jobs. Later on, she then hides key information from Tartaglia because she wanted to take her own revenge, and while it’s an understandable impulse, it’s also a trope that annoys me in detective or superhero fiction, mostly because that kind of storyline always progresses predictably.

The mystery of the stitched up body parts didn’t make much of an impact on me — it mostly felt tacked on and while we follow the police procedural to solve that case, it felt more a background subplot to the actual mystery involving Sam’s sister.

Overall, I wonder if having read the other books in the series, or even having read the first book more recently, would have made me enjoy this book more. As it was, the book was okay. I found myself mostly bored by it, until Donovan’s perspective kinda takes over near the end. I may give the Tartaglia series another shot, but also wonder if Forbes may have plans of doing a Donovan stand-alone. That one, I’d definitely read.


Thank you to House of Anansi for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review | A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson

GodinRuinsI had mixed feelings about Atkinson’s earlier novel Life After Life. I thought that concept behind the book — the ability to live one’s life over and over again until you get it right — was more compelling than the book itself. So when I received an advance reading copy of the companion novel A God in Ruins, I wasn’t quite that hyped up about it, and while I was going to give it a shot, I was at most cautiously optimistic.

A God in Ruins is about Teddy, the younger brother of Ursula, who in turn was the protagonist in Life After Life. Unlike Ursula, Teddy gets only one life to live, and we follow his journey from being a mischievous little boy to fighting in World War II as an RAF pilot, and finally to adjusting to life after the war.

I thought A God in Ruins was a much stronger book, though I also think that having it parallel Life After Life to some degree added to its strength. The poignancy of having only one life to live, set against the backdrop of World War II, is particularly heightened by our knowledge that having the chance to live one’s life over and over again isn’t quite tragedy-free either. The scenes about the war may be the most dramatic, but it’s Teddy’s life after the war that holds most resonance — his struggle to cope with going back to ordinary life and his strained relationship with his daughter.

There were some points where I felt bored reading the book, but other moments where scenes hold major emotional impact. I love the Adventures of Augustus stories about a little boy modelled after Teddy. The innocence and mischief in these tales are particularly resonant when contrasted with the hardness he needed to acquire for the war.

Despite the shifts back and forth in time, the story is fairly linear, with the exception of the final couple of chapters in the end. These chapters hearken to the mysticism of Life After Life, but in this case, I found they packed an emotional wallop for the reader. With these final few pages, Atkinson casts the rest of the novel in a new light, and heightens so much more the reality of war, of wasted potential, lives cut too short, and other lives that can feel too long.


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

Review | At the Water’s Edge, Sara Gruen

WatersEdgeWhen a trio of privileged young socialites set off to find the Loch Ness monster in a war-torn zone, they instead discover the monsters hidden in their midst in Sara Gruen’s At the Water’s Edge. The Second World War is on, and for Ellis Hyde, proving the Loch Ness monster’s existence is a way to validate his father’s sighting years ago, defend his family’s honour, and protect himself from accusations of cowardice for avoiding the draft due to his colour-blindness. His wife Maddie and their best friend Hank reluctantly come along for the ride, leaving behind the safety of their estates for the centre of a battlefield.

I love the symbolism in this novel — their quest for the Loch Ness monster is framed by the very real spectre of Hitler destroying the world in his campaign of hate. The monster symbology becomes personal as well, as Maddie begins to see a different side of Ellis in his obsession with his quest.

The story is very much about Maddie and her growth as a character. While Ellis and Hank go off daily to search for the monster, Maddie is left alone in their temporary home, and has to deal with the reality of the villagers’ lives around her. I love how she develops from someone who is completely oblivious to her privilege to a strong, self-sufficient young woman. Their quest is immediately a source of scorn, as the people around them are too busy trying to survive various air raids and deal with the loss of their loved ones to even think of wasting time on chasing an imaginary creature. Of the three socialites, Maddie is the most sensitive to these responses and immediately feels embarrassed, though she doesn’t quite understand the full extent of their insensitivity until she gets to know the villagers a bit better.

In contrast, Ellis and Hank remain fixated on the monster, and barely make an effort to adapt to the circumstances. This is fascinating from a symbolic perspective, with the monster motif made personal, but it’s also a bit of a shame as their characters — Ellis in particular — fairly quickly devolves into a caricature of himself. There is little depth to his character, and virtually no development.

A revelation near the end had the potential to add texture to Ellis’ character, possibly even cast a sympathetic light on his motives. But it was framed with such a disturbing confession that it mostly seemed as just another bit of proof of monstrousness, which was such a shame.

That being said, I love what Gruen has done with Maddie’s character. It’s not easy to step out of one’s comfort zone — and then to be shunted aside for some whimsical adventure — but it was fantastic seeing the character rise to the occasion, and seeing her come to terms with the reality beyond the world she’s always known.


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

Review | The Heart Goes Last, Margaret Atwood

atwoodIn a dystopian world, humans are offered a chance at escape: join a social experiment and live in a self-contained community where you alternate months between a suburban lifestyle and a prison. The goal for the experiment is a solution to overcrowding in prisons, as one character terms it, timeshare taken to the extreme.

For couple Stan and Charmaine, it beats the hell out of their current existence sleeping in their car and fighting off hoodlums every night. Stan is somewhat suspicious, but the lure of clean towels and a fresh bed proves too much temptation, and they both apply.

The Heart Goes Last is an Atwood novel, and as anyone familiar with the Oryx and Crake trilogy or The Handmaid’s Tale can attest, ay time a society is presented as utopian, you can pretty much guarantee that it’s not. In this case, the corporation that runs the experiment has its eye on profits — familiar Atwood tropes like headless chickens bred for meat make an appearance, and the question of what happens to residents after they pass away raises a chill, given the community’s devotion to waste reduction.

The title refers to the process of dying, the last vestige of humanity right before the moment of death. And as the story progresses, the title takes on much more resonance, and the struggle to hold on to one’s humanity becomes ever more problematized.

The novel begins as with a fairly slick sci-fi tone — we have the seemingly perfect world, the heightened technology and a philosophy taken to the extreme. Throughout, we get hints that the world isn’t quite so perfect — e.g. the chilling reality of Charmaine’s job, prisoners having sex with chickens — but the core conflict is fairly typical sci-fi. It begins with Charmaine having a secret affair with the man who lives in their house while she and Stan are in prison, and launches off into Stan being utterly enmeshed in the reality behind the system’s shiny veneer.

My main concern with this novel is that Atwood appears to squish so many of her ideas in, yet their impact rarely goes beyond a brief appearance. One example is the aforementioned headless chickens which were literally a passing reference. Another is the development of sex droids, which played a key role in the plot, but barely dealt with the problematic nature of their development.

Rather, the sex droids seemed a mere stepping stone toward what I found a truly chilling development (I’ll avoid spoilers here) — and again, this further development did play a part in the plot, but Atwood barely grazes the surface of how problematic this is. There is a great snippet of a conversation where one character challenges the idea that “nobody is exploited,” and another corrects him, “I said nobody feels exploited. Different thing.” There’s so much to unpack within that statement, vis a vis some of the things happening within this world, but then it’s barely touched upon till the very end. Unlike, for example, The Handmaid’s Tale, where there are a couple of key driving forces behind the plot, the story in The Heart Goes Last seems to want to go off into multiple directions, without quite settling on one.

The most powerful section of the book for me comes at the very end. Without giving too much away, it involves a procedure and the happiness of a couple of characters. The final pages in particular call into question what happiness entails, and what love really means. It brings up contemporary notions of romantic love, and contrasts it with the sedateness of a long-term relationship, and calls into question under what circumstances we can find happiness within both. These themes were discussed in various ways throughout the novel, but I felt a lot of it got lost underneath the discussions around the prison system and sex droids. There were certainly moments of potency (a revelation about the knitted blue teddy bears is particularly discomfiting), but not quite enough cohesion among them all.

Still, the book made me think, and the ending in particular was problematic in a good way and made me long for more. It’s not my favourite Atwood, but it’s a highly readable tale with Atwood’s trademark wit and quite a few tidbits for thought.


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

Review | If I Fall, If I Die, Michael Christie

IfIFall“The boy stepped Outside and he did not die.” One of the most promising beginnings to a novel that I’ve encountered in a long time. If I Fall, If I Die tells the story of 12 year old Will, whose agoraphobic mother has kept him indoors all his life. When the novel begins, a noise outside his home leads Will to take his first taste of freedom.

The novel has such a powerful beginning. We experience with Will his fears at his first steps outside, his uncertainty at dealing with other people, and finally his exhilaration at discovering how limitless the world really is. Coupled with that is his guilt over, in a way, leaving his mother behind. I love the interplay between Will’s emotions, and his warring desires to introduce his mother to the wonders of Outside while at the same time to make her feel safe and comfortable, which she can only really feel within the walls of their home.

I also really loved the glimpse into the mindset of Will’s mother Diane. Christie details how a single day at the subway transformed her into a woman too afraid to leave her front door. At one point, he writes, “How easy it is for a life to become tiny. How cleanly the world falls away.” (page 16) That entire chapter is such a potent, moving depiction of how easy it is to slip into agoraphobia, & how terrifying/paralyzing the condition can be.

The story falters a bit when it leaves behind Diane’s story somewhat and focuses on Will’s life Outside. He happens to become involved somehow with some unsavoury characters, and ends up trying to solve a fairly complex mystery dealing with some dangerous criminals. Even as this part of the plot began, I could see how it could develop into a potential motivation for Diane to face her fear, but from such a powerfully intimate beginning, these developments just felt contrived. From such depth of emotion in the characters’ internal worlds, the shift to a primarily external plot was jarring, moreover, disappointing. It was all just a little too convenient, and I wondered how Will and Diane would have dealt with the shift in their dynamics if Will’s life had stayed just a tad more ordinary — how much much poignant the catharsis would have felt.

That being said, there’s just a gorgeous line near the end of the book that brought back, somewhat, what I loved so much about the beginning:

But the shadow that love can’t help but cast is fear: fear they won’t stay alive or around — fear they’ll be reckless, or doomed, or just walk away and not consider you ever again. With love, you’re scared it will disappear. With fear, you’re scared it never will. (page 323)


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