Review | Cracked, Barbra Leslie

25733546Cracked is a fast-paced thriller about a woman’s hunt for her twin sister’s killer. Danny Cleary is smoking crack in her Toronto apartment when she hears of her twin sister Ginger’s death. She immediately hops on a plane with her rock star brother Darren and flies over to Ginger’s home in California to find out what could have happened. It turns out Ginger’s death could have been drug-related, and the reason Ginger was doing drugs in the first place was to get a better understanding of her twin’s addiction. Things are further complicated when a woman who looks like Danny manages to get ahold of Ginger’s young sons, and Danny begins to wonder if her sister’s death was somehow her fault.

Danny and Darren’s search for the truth takes them deep into a much more complex web than I originally anticipated. Leslie keeps the twists and turns and minor reveals coming, quick and often enough to keep the reader off-balance and wondering what the heck the truth actually was. Danny’s crack addiction plays a major role in the story, as she struggles to stay sober enough to find her twin’s killer, though at one point and surprisingly, giving in to her addiction actually ends up helping her out.

Danny is also a former women’s self-defence instructor, and therefore joins a welcome and ever growing list of kick ass heroines who can disable a bad guy with a single blow. I especially like that despite Danny being really good at fighting, Leslie still manages to keep it realistic, so that Danny isn’t so much super powered as just really good at strategizing and at taking advantage of the element of surprise.

I also really liked how Danny’s love for her twin sister is so evident on the page. It forms her main motivation throughout the book, and it’s her loyalty to her family that fuels all her ass kicking. So when Danny speaks of her desire for vengeance on whomever killed Ginger, and when Danny goes to great extents to save her nephews, it’s all very much a part of who she is, and Leslie does a great job of creating a character whom you believe will travel across North America and combat her addiction for her family.

The big reveal was actually surprising. By the end, it felt a bit more complicated than it strictly had to be, but to Leslie’s credit, she did keep me guessing throughout. Cracked is the first in a trilogy, and the book ends with a set up for the next one. So if you try this out and enjoy it, keep an eye for the next book Rehab Runout this November 2016.

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

 

 

Review | Mannheim Rex, Robert Pobi

29346606Horror writer Gavin Corlie moves to a secluded house on Lake Caldasac after his wife dies, and befriends a thirteen-year-old boy Finn Horn, who loves fishing, uses a wheelchair and is obsessed with killing the Lake’s legendary monster. Mannheim Rex reads like a monster movie, a contemporary combination of Moby Dick and Jaws,  and it’s full of action and suspense that monster movie fans will enjoy watching on the screen.

Finn’s hunt for the monster is made especially urgent because of his condition. He only has a few months or years left to live, and he wants to do something extraordinary in that time. At one point, he admits that he wants to kill the monster so he’ll be remembered forever, and while his doctor Laurel tries to reassure him that he’ll be remembered regardless, he’s a bit more practical and points out that to most of the world, he’s nobody. Killing the monster, and thereby also proving its existence, will ensure his place in history books. Finn is also wisecracking and fun, and so determined in his quest that he’s at the lake before 4 am every morning, so it’s fun cheering him on and hoping he does catch the monster.

While Finn and Gavin hunt for the lake monster, a very real monster also resides in their town, Sheriff Pope. He likes killing people (often in bloody, brutal ways) and sexually assaulting young children. More than the lake monster, Pope emerges as the villain of the story, particularly as he becomes obsessed with Gavin and Finn, and their friendship. This had the potential of turning really dark and creepy, but Pobi keeps the tone brisk and continues with the monster movie feel, so it’s more about cheering on the good guys as they stay out of Pope’s crosshairs and waiting to see if and how the sheriff will get his just desserts.

One thing that did stand out and that I loved is the romance between Gavin and Laurel. In many ways, Gavin is a fairly typical horror story / monster movie hero — young, (39 years old) handsome, fighting his own demons — and one can easily imagine any number of actors filling the role. In movies, the love interest would likely be an actress much younger than he, likely in her 20s. So I love that Laurel is actually older than Gavin, and at 56, almost two decades older. It’s a neat reversal of the usual Hollywood practice, which is pretty awesome. I do wish we saw a bit more of her age in her description, which mostly says she has small breasts and is a size 4 but makes no mention of any marks of age, but regardless, it’s a pretty cool thing to happen in this book.

Overall, Mannheim Rex is a fun, quick read about the hunt for a monster, with a subplot about the monsters in our midst. The characters are nicely fleshed out, and at times, Pobi seems more interested in Gavin, Laurel and Finn’s family dynamic than in the hunt for the monster, which is nice. Recommended reading for the cottage, preferably one with a lake.

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Couple Next Door, Shari Lapena

The advance reading copy of The Couple Next Door began with an editor’s note that set up pretty high expectations:

CoupleNextDoor

Did it meet the expectations? Not quite, but to be fair, it’s still a good, solid mystery with multiple twists. I just wasn’t blown away, but to be fair, I was expecting the unreliability and twists of Gone Girlthe emotional resonance of The Girl on the Train and a big reveal to rival The Murder of Roger Ackroydso to be fair, my expectations were really high.

28815474The story begins with every parent’s worst nightmare: Anne and Marco Conti return home from a dinner party to find their six month old daughter Cora missing. As the search for Cora continues, we learn that not all about Anne and Marco are as they seem, and in both cases their secrets raise the suspicions of Detective Rasbach, who is investigating Cora’s disappearance. Other characters include Anne’s multi-millionaire parents who hate Marco, and Anne and Marco’s flirty next door neighbour who may or may not be interested in an affair with Marco. All of the characters are compromised in some way, and red herrings abound as Detective Rasbach tries to figure out what really happened to Cora.

Like I said, it’s a good, solid mystery, and even when we think we have it figured out, Lapena brings out another twist that complicates the case and keeps Cora from safety. I was curious about the kidnapper’s identity, but not as emotionally caught up as I wanted to be, especially considering that a six month old baby was missing. There was something workmanlike about the reveals; we often found out about intriguing wrinkles only shortly before they are resolved, and suspects are suggested only to be summarily dismissed fairly quickly. The kidnapper’s identity is kept hidden throughout, but the most intriguing possibilities are revealed and/or debunked fairly quickly and the eventual reveal is unexpected but not that surprising. Despite their secrets and their clearly heightened emotions, Anne and Marco weren’t really unreliable as narrators, and both kept the reader fairly well grounded in what really was happening. The descriptions of emotions were perhaps realistic, but also a bit melodramatic, with Anne’s repeated screaming, for example, reminding me more of the damsel in classic detective movies than a real mother in distress. Finally, the twist at the end felt unnecessary, and while the elements for this were well set up in advance, the emotional build up could have been better laid out.

The Couple Next Door is not a bad book, but I caution against high expectations coming in. It’s a good, solid mystery and a quick entertaining read, and will keep you guessing.

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

Review | The Hatching, Ezekiel Boone

Hatching

I think spiders are gross and scary, so the story Ezekiel Boone tells in The Hatching can pretty much count as one of my top ten nightmares. Prehistoric spiders begin appearing all over the world and all they seem to want to do is feed on humans. Blood drives them wild, and there are scenes where they literally chew their way out of a person.

The novel begins with a tour group in Peru, where the tour guide notices what looks like a black liquid stream engulfs a man nearby and makes him disappear. (Yeah, ew.) There are quite a few more, much gorier, details on what happens when one of the tour group members returns home, but you can probably imagine.

The spiders get US President Stephanie Pilgrim’s attention when China “accidentally” drops a nuclear bomb on one of their own remote provinces in order to stop the spread. Her Chief of Staff Manny’s ex-wife, Melanie Guyer, is a scientist who specializes in spiders. Guyer’s students have discovered an ancient egg sac that they bring to her lab for research, and it’s around this point in the story that you just want to tell the characters on a page that this is a really bad idea. FBI Agent Mike Rich rounds off the core team of protagonists when he is pulled in to investigate a mysterious plane crash involving the spiders.

There isn’t much to say about the story other than it’s exactly what you’d expect in a story about killer spiders. It’s scary and gross, and Boone has a penchant for describing the spiders’ eating habits in great detail, which is a fair warning to any readers with weak stomachs. The characters are also straight out of a potential Hollywood adaptation of this story — the brilliant and ambitious scientist, the detective who just wants to be a good dad, the no-nonsense president, and so on. That being said, I’m glad that the scientist and president were both women, and I especially liked that the National Security Advisor, Alexandra Harris, was a 73 year old woman who looked like a grandmother but was often the most badass person in the room.

I also liked that Boone calls out systemic sexism several times in the story. For example, when Mike asks a uniformed policewoman to watch his daughter while he investigated the plane crash, the policewoman doesn’t let him get away with it.

“Sorry, man. I’m on the clock and can’t play babysitter, especially for a suit.”

Mike shrugged. “Can’t blame a guy for trying.”

“Actually, it’s some kind of sexist bullshit.”

…He looked back at the cop. “And you’re right. I probably wouldn’t have asked a man. Not cool.” [p.94]

Good on the cop for calling him out, and good on Mike for acknowledging it, though ironically, the cop then recommends that Mike leave his daughter with the only female EMT on the scene.

Later, in the White House, when Alexandra disagrees with something that Ben, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, recommends, Manny notices that Ben “didn’t look pissed. He looked furious.” Manny attributes Ben’s overreaction to his discomfort with a woman in power. Manny observes,

Billy Cannon, the secretary of defense, didn’t react like that when Alex challenged him, but that’s probably because Billy looked at Alexandra Harris and saw the national security advisor, while Ben looked at Alex and saw a woman. [p. 116]

It’s an attitude that likely does exist even in such a high echelon of power, and good on Boone for calling it out.

Overall, if you like spiders or enjoy getting scared about spiders, The Hatching is for you. Fair warning: this appears to be the first book of a trilogy or series, and the story ends with Melanie making the kind of announcement that’s usually timed right before a commercial break or the end of a season. It’s designed to whet our appetites for more, and while I don’t know if I’ll keep reading (because the story really is gross), I am definitely curious to find out how humanity eventually defeats the spiders. (And I’m assuming they do, because that’s the type of story this feels like, and also because I really, really don’t want to imagine a spider version of Planet of the Apes in humanity’s future.)

 

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

 

Review | The Wonder Trail, Steve Hely

27069094I thought Steve Hely’s previous novel How I Became a Famous Novelist was one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, bar none, and I’m a huge fan of his work on The Office, so I was really excited to read his travel memoir The Wonder Trail. In this book, he heads south from Los Angeles, and just keeps heading south until he hits Patagonia.

The book is structured as a series of anecdotes about his travels. The tone is one of irreverent but ultimately gentle humour, somewhat akin to a dorky but loveable uncle making side comments with a wicked grin and you laugh partly because his comments are amusing but also partly because he seems like he’s having such a good time doing it. Whether Hely is relating an amusing anecdote or sharing a bit of history, his enthusiasm shines through, and it’s easy to be caught up in that.

The key highlight for me are the people he meets: Guatemala Pam, Kelly Slater (not his real name, but he looks like a “Kelly Slater” would look), and the Australian “A-team,” among others. Hely meets up with quite a cast of characters throughout the trip, all colourful and interesting in their own way, but also quite ordinary, by which I mean you can easily imagine bumping into such characters yourself on a trip, without having to go on a major grand adventure. At one point, he comments that travellers tend to find each other and tend to want to share their stories. He then follows it up with a warning not to exaggerate your adventures too much lest the person you’re speaking with can top you, and it’s amusing to imagine seasoned travellers trying to one-up each other, but on a more serious note, I really like this idea of a community of travellers who somehow fall in together and manage to connect.

One of my personal favourites among the people Hely encounters is Alan Tang, who always travels in style. As a taste of Hely’s humour in this book, a footnote says Alan Tang is a fake name, so the real person can deny the stories are about them, and that his real name is actually Alan Yang. As a taste of Healy’s humour and Alan Tang’s style, in a chapter about getting to Machu Picchu, Hely notes that hard core travellers can walk the “something like 25,000 miles of remnant Inca roads and trails,” and agrees that Machu Picchu is “like the epic goal of a quest, like a place of pilgrimage.” But because he was with Alan Tang, they instead rode a train and a bus to the edge of the cliff and saw the amazing view without having to walk for days. All respect to hard core adventurers, but I think I’d like travelling the Alan Tang way myself.

My favourite passage in the book comes from Hely’s friend Professor McHugh, who compares some travellers’ behaviour to “Oompa Loompa hunting.” He’s referring to the hipster type of traveller, the ones who want nothing short of the “authentic” experience, and when that experience feels too familiar, it isn’t “authentic” enough. Professor McHugh compares it to looking for Oompa Loompas (characters from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) because they’re looking for something “exotic” and out of the ordinary. Professor McHugh says:

People say they hate Bangkok because it looks like LA. “Get out of Bangkok,” they tell each other. Well, sure, on the surface, Bangkok looks like on LA. But then in some strip mall you can find a temple where people worship the embalmed corpse of a middle-aged woman who died in, like, 1998. Why do you have you go out to the jungle looking for people in funny costumes? [p. 244]

Wonder Trail is nowhere near as gut-splittingly hilarious as I remember Famous Novelist to be, but, like both Famous Novelist and The Office, it works because it has heart. Because the people Hely met were so interesting, part of me wishes we could have spent a bit more time with each of them and learned more of their stories, but on the other hand, I like how each new place brought a new encounter, and so meeting new people became as core of a feature of his trip as his geographical movement was. Wonder Trail is an entertaining travelogue, a bit uneven in terms of pace and humour, but overall, the stories of the people he meets and the insights on connecting with fellow travellers and on looking beyond the immediate familiarity make it worth a read.

And if you were an English major or are otherwise embroiled in the publishing industry, particularly around “literary” fiction, I highly recommend How I Became A Famous Novelist. It was published in 2009 (i.e. pre-social media, during the Dan Brown Da Vinci Code era) so some of the humour may seem dated, but its skewering of the literary ivory tower is still worth checking out.

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

 

 

Review | Three Years with the Rat, Jay Hosking

27833835In Three Years with the Rat, an unnamed narrator moves into Toronto to meet up with his older sister Grace and her boyfriend John. Both Grace and John are scientists, and when the book begins, it’s been about a year since John disappeared and a bit longer than that since Grace disappeared. The narrator goes into their apartment to take their stuff and finds a mysterious, mirror-filled box, a lab rat named Buddy, and John’s notebook written in code. He sets off to investigate their disappearances and save his sister and friend, and what follows is a pretty trippy story about science and philosophy and time travel / alternate dimensions/realities. I don’t completely understand what happened, and I suspect that’s the author’s intention. The narrator’s girlfriend Nicole quotes Albert Camus, “I realize that if through science I can seize phenomena and enumerate them, I cannot, for all that, apprehend the world,” and that seems to be the point of this story.

Structured by the months of each particular year, the story flips us between the narrator’s early days in Toronto when he first learns of his sister’s work to Grace’s seemingly sudden decline into bouts of irrational anger to John’s own mood swings that appear to mirror Grace’s and finally to the present day when the narrator tries to piece it all together and must decide how far he is willing to go to save them. The Camus quote is a warning about the limitations of human intelligence, and in an early chapter, we see just how grand in scale Grace’s work aspires to be.

At one point, the narrator jokingly asks Grace to make the dumbed-down version of her work even dumber, and I admit I wanted to ask the same. So, per my understanding of the dumber version of the dumbed-down version of Grace’s work: she is interested in isolating pure subjectivity. Things and places around us are objective realities, in that an apple is red no matter who’s looking at it. But even though there are objective measures of time, our experience of time is very subjective, as it seems to speed up or slow down in relation to our needs. So how can we distil whatever it is that makes time different from everything else?

It’s a helluva project, and I feel like there are all these philosophical and metaphorical threads that Hoskings invites us to tease out and that I don’t quite grasp, but it also gives you an idea of how someone can lose themselves so thoroughly into that question that they, literally, disappear.Reading this is an unsettling experience, and deliberately so, I think. What starts out as a fairly straightforward missing person mystery somehow turns into a disquieting tale of things that aren’t quite right turns into a bit of a fantasy with a philosophical bent.

The end of the book left me with some lingering questions, and it’ll be easy to slip into an endless loop of questioning, possibly about things that are completely insignificant. (e.g. Does it mean anything that John’s lab passcode is the same as the ID badge number of the officer investigating Grace’s disappearance?) However, unlike Grace whose never ending thirst for knowledge consumes her, I think I’ll remain comfortable in the limitations of my own knowledge, and just remain glad that I read and enjoyed this twisty trippy tale.

As an aside, the author of this book is a neuroscientist who researches decision-making and the human brain, which I think is a pretty nerdy-awesome job for an author to have.

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

Review | Stranger, Father, Beloved, Taylor Larsen

27274351When Michael sees his wife Nancy chatting with a stranger at a party, his intuition tells him this is the man she should have married. What follows is a rather melancholy glimpse into the breakdown of a family, as Michael befriends the man, John, and schemes to have his wife fall in love and marry him. A concurrent storyline involves Michael and Nancy’s daughter Ryan who senses the marital tension and distances herself from her family, whilst, as the book blurb puts it, she “goes through a period of sexual awakening.”

It’s an interesting premise — how tragic is it to feel that you just met the man you know your wife should have married? Yet on the flip side, how fucked up is it to try to manipulate her into falling in love with this man enough to leave you, instead of just talking to her straight out? I’d expected Michael to be a bit of a tragic figure and to an extent he is, but he is also really messed up, like a reverse Tom Ripley who is determined to ensure himself a miserable life.

I mostly felt bad for Nancy. At one point, she says that while other women fantasize about sex with handsome strangers, her fantasy is for her husband to make love to her. How sad is that? She does deserve a more loving, affectionate spouse, and so to that end, kudos to Michael, I guess, for trying to make it happen?

 

Despite the story being told in Michael’s voice, it’s really hard to get into his head because all I could think of was how he was messing up the lives of people around him. At one point, he lets John believe he wants to leave Nancy because he has a serious, likely fatal, illness. I’m just imagining how scary and horrific it feels to learn that a loved one, whether a spouse or a friend, is fatally ill, and I’m actually angry at him for putting them through that. He later writes Nancy that he’s “sick in more ways than you know” and while he may have some medical conditions, I think he’s referring to something else which has a long, unfortunate history of being pathologized, and so that just made me like him even less.

It took me a while to get into this story and I almost didn’t finish it, but I’m glad I did because the story comes together in the end. Some of the things that really annoyed me came at the end as well, but overall, the ending made sense. There’s a quiet intensity to Larsen’s writing that I think will draw some readers in and at least propelled me enough to finish the book. It’s the kind of book that I think readers will either love and praise for its “mesmerizing, unsparing quality” (back cover blurb from author Karen Russell), or dislike and possibly hate for probably the same reason, its intensely claustrophobic focus on a man who self-destructs and takes his family down with him.

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.