Review | Jonathan Unleashed, Meg Rosoff

27774717I’m a sucker for dog books, so I was thrilled at the chance to read Meg Rosoff’s Jonathan Unleashed. A down-on-his-luck New Yorker with a dead-end job and aimless relationship with his girlfriend, Jonathan Trefoil’s life perks up slightly when his brother has to go abroad to work and asks him to look after his dogs for six months.

Dante the border collie and Sissy the cocker spaniel are just absolutely loveable characters with distinct personalities, and by far, the best parts of this novel. At Jonathan’s office, for example, Dante is the doggy “boss” who directs employees back to work after breaks, and Sissy is the doggy version of Miss Congeniality, who always makes people feel good just by curling up beside them.

Jonathan is clearly unhappy with his life, and projects a lot of his own emotions on the dogs. Early in the novel, he takes them to see a vet ostensibly because he’s afraid they’re feeling cooped up and depressed, though it’s fairly obvious that it is actually Jonathan himself who is suffering from boredom and discontentment. Enter the cute and dog-loving vet Dr. Clare, who (alas) has a boyfriend but (hurrah) also seems to be the dogs’ pick for matchmaking with their person.

The dogs are clearly the stars of this book, and the humans’ stories pale slightly in comparison. There’s a bit of comedy over the lameness of Jonathan’s account at his marketing agency, and I actually really like the people in Jonathan’s office, from his incorrigible best friend Max to his womanizing nonsensical boss, and especially the gender ambiguous executive assistant Greeley, who is the smartest in the bunch and very wisely advises Jonathan to quit for a better job. Jonathan’s girlfriend Julia is presented as supposedly a complete nightmare, but I felt bad for her and wanted her to find a handsome high achiever who would be a much better fit for her.

Jonathan is set up as an everyman type of figure, a loveable loser type, but honestly, I was mostly annoyed by his whining and spinelessness, and his projecting all his ennui and frustration on the dogs was more eyeroll-worthy than quirky cute. The section where he suddenly develops aphasia seems meant to be quirky funny, a comedic representation of how trapped and helpless he feels in his current life and romantic relationship, but for me, the joke grew old fast, and the resolution of this subplot was just too, too obvious. It got to the point that I almost wish someone like Greeley or Max could take the dogs home, just so Dante and Sissy wouldn’t have to put up with all of Jonathan’s whining.

Still, the dogs are fantastic, and I’d love for a Dante and a Sissy to be hanging out at my workplace.

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

Blog Tour | Five Roses, Alice Zorn

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There are two things you should know about Five Roses and its author:

  1. The title Five Roses is taken from the FARINE FIVE ROSES sign, lighted red letters visible on the southern skyline of Montreal since 1948. In 2006, the new owners of the flour mill turned off the lights, but Montrealers successfully reversed the decision by designating the sign as an iconic landmark.
  2. Author Alice Zorn lost her own sister to suicide and writes from a place of painfully true experience.

I mention these because, to me, they are the roots of the novel’s biggest strengths: a sense of place and a sense of loss. Five Roses tells the story of three women who live in Montreal in 2005, and each narrates her own part of the story. One of them, Fara, buys a house with her husband, and learning that the previous owner’s son committed suicide brings up painful memories of her own sister’s death. In one of the most powerful scenes of the novel, Fara muses that “all death is final, but suicide isn’t just dying. It’s choosing death.” She also points out that

…losing a sibling is  very specific kind of loss. It’s not like a parent who was in charge and took care of you. Your sibiling is the other kid who was there while you were growing up. Even if you didn’t have a good relationship, your sibling is part of you in a way no one else is — and probably even more so if your parents weren’t around or not really there for you.” (p. 168)

Being very close to my own sister, the above scene struck a chord in me. Later on, Fara recounts how, before her sister committed suicide, she asked around for someone to take her of her cat for a few days while she went away. Fara declined because she was allergic to cats, but I can just imagine the guilt she must be feeling, however irrational. Knowing about the author’s own experience, I can only wonder how difficult and/or cathartic it must have been to write about Fara’s experiences, and I enjoyed the somewhat subdued, thoughtful approach to the subject.

The second protagonist, Maddy, lost her daughter to a kidnapper in 1978, and finds somewhat of a daughter figure in a co-worker at a bakery, Yushi. Maddy is the narrator, but for me, it’s Yushi who stole the stage in these sections. I loved reading about her cooking, and I was moved by the story of her past as a pastry chef. Maddy asks why Yushi is bagging bread when she could be a pastry chef, and Yushi’s answer is beautifully evasive, hinting at a much deeper story: “If you can’t do what you want to do, it’s better to do nothing at all.”

The third narrator is Rose, Yushi’s roommate who grew up in a cabin in the woods and wants to learn more about her past. Her story involves much more than simply finding out the truth behind her birth, but to be honest, her character didn’t really interest me as much as the others.

The FIVE ROSES sign was brought up several times in the story, first in the prologue as a place marker and port in the storm to the woman who would raise Rose, and later, the sign prompts Rose to share a story she learned from her mother, about a girl alone in the woods whose only friends were five roses who named her Rose. Rose wasn’t sure why the story felt so significant, but it’s the only story her mother ever told. The significance of this sign makes Montreal almost as much as character as the three women, and the story somehow renders it a maternal feel, fitting into the novel’s themes of family and loss.

The story meanders, and the payoff feels mundane, but in a way that feels deliberate. It’s as if Zorn drops us into these characters’ lives then all-so-delicately lifts us out again. Overall, it didn’t quite work for me — I sympathized with the characters but never really connected with them, and while I enjoyed some of the scenes, I never really cared enough about the story to lose myself in it. Still, Zorn’s descriptions are evocative, and her characters feel broken in ways that are tangible and real. Montreal as written by Zorn appears on the cusp of a shift of some kind, and while I can’t quite articulate why, it feels like the characters are at a similar point in their lives. There seems more to this story than I got out of it, and while I wasn’t quite hooked, I can see its appeal to other readers.

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BLOG TOUR

My blog is the first stop on a weeklong blog tour for the Five Roses launch in Canada. For other perspectives on this book, check out the schedule below:

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Thank you to Dundurn Press for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Secrets Series by Orca Book Publishers (Multiple Authors)

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Seven books, seven authors, seven secrets to uncover. The premise behind the Secrets series by Orca Books intrigued me, and the authors involved read like a who’s who of contemporary YA fiction. The series follows seven teenage orphans from Hope, Ontario. When their orphanage burns down in June 1964, each of them sets off to discover the truth about their past. All they have is some pocket money from the kind orphanage director and a memento from their past — a medical certificate, a Star of David, a tailored man’s coat with the initials E.B., and so on.

The stories are as follows:

  • The Unquiet Past by Kelley Armstrong — Tess travels to a Quebec town and unearths the disturbing history of a mental health facility. A mysterious boy has his own reasons for helping her find the truth.
  • Innocent by Eric Walters — Betty/Lizzy takes a job as a maid in Kingston, Ontario and investigates her mother’s murder. Her father was convicted of the crime, but protests his innocence, and a cute policeman helps her investigate.
  • Small Bones by Vicki Grant — A man’s coat leads Dot to a lakeside resort in rural Ontario, where she and a charming reporter investigate the local legend of a baby who disappeared seventeen years ago. PTSD and the war emerge as themes in the investigation.
  • Stones on a Grave by Kathy Kacer — Sara’s newly discovered Jewish heritage leads her to Germany where she learns the truth behind her mother’s life and her father’s identity.
  • A Big Dose of Lucky by Marthe Jocelyn — Malou investigates her mixed race heritage in Parry Sound, Ontario, and discovers a much larger family than she expected. This book delves into the history behind a particular medical procedure and branch of scientific research, which I found fascinating.
  • My Life Before Me by Norah McClintock — Aspiring reporter Cady travels to Orrenstown, Indiana where she becomes embroiled in a web of politics, corruption and racial tensions.
  • Shattered Glass by Teresa Toten — Toni moves to Toronto, becomes involved in the local club and music scene, and discovers the truth behind the nightmares of fire and burn marks she’s had all her life.

I really enjoyed reading this series. The girls’ family histories are the core of the story, but many of the authors took the opportunity to also explore some pretty meaty subjects — the effects of war, the Holocaust, medical experimentation, race relations and the like. I also really like the love stories in these books. Jackson from Unquiet Past, David from Innocent and Eddie from Small Bones are all particularly charming, and while there was a lot more going on in these stories, the romances were definitely a highlight for me. I love Jackson and Toni’s snappy repartee (totally reminiscent of the romances in Kelley Armstrong’s other books) as much as David and Lizzy’s more old-fashioned, tender slow burning attraction, and Eddie’s teasing of Dot is adorable.

The books are all really short, written for a YA/MG audience, and unfortunately, the length means that many if not all of them end a bit abruptly. Or, possibly, that’s just a sign that I want to read much more of their lives, and to see more of how the romances turn out. (I like to think that David and Lizzy end up getting married, in a totally sweet and classical small town wedding.)

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All the books had their strengths, and certainly the search for family is a compelling thread throughout. Armstrong’s Unquiet Past and Walters’ Innocent were by far my favourites of the series, possibly because both had a more traditional approach to mystery-solving and also possibly because both had the love stories that were most compelling to me. I’ve long been a fan of Kelley Armstrong’s books, and all her best trademarks are here — intelligent and independent female protagonist, spark-tastic romance, and supernatural creepiness grounded in real life. Hers was the book I most looked forward to, and while I think the ending felt rushed, overall it lived up to my expectations. Eric Walters is an author I’ve heard of but never read, but I loved the Nancy Drew feel of his Innocent. A mysterious powerful family, a man who may be in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, and a young girl who doggedly follows the clues to find the truth.

Teresa Toten’s Shattered Glass for me held real potential (central Q: did Toni’s mother try to burn her to death?), but it was probably my least favourite of the series. All the girls were naive to some extent or other, having been sheltered for so long in the orphanage, and all of them to some extent built a fantasy about their past, but Toni’s naivete felt the most pronounced and her fantasies the most unrestrained. It just became annoying after a while, such as when she becomes a complete jerk to the love interest because of one of her theories about her past, which was annoying mostly because, being one of many wild theories contemplated and discarded throughout the story, it felt more like yet another overreaction than an actual problem. That being said, Shattered Glass also had some of most richly drawn adult characters in the series, and I particularly liked the romance that developed between a couple of them.

Overall, a fantastic series and enjoyable read. Recommended for middle school age and younger teens.

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I won the boxed set of this series from Lavender Lines and Orca Books in a blog contest a few weeks ago, and reviewed it just because it’s such an awesome series and one that I think many readers will enjoy. For more information, see the website at readthesecrets.com.

 

 

Review | Nine Women, One Dress, Jane L. Rosen

27245903Nine Women, One Dress is the perfect rom com of a novel, an utter treat I’ll definitely be dipping into time and again, and will probably stock in a place of honour beside my Devil Wears Prada DVD. Not that the story is anything like Devil Wears Prada; with its lightly interconnected stories of love and life, Nine Women, One Dress is more reminiscent of Love Actually than anything else. But like both movies, it’s a fun, lighthearted experience with unexpected moments of depth. It’s a comedy with heart, and I absolutely fell in love with its characters.

The story revolves around a single, classic little black dress that became the designer It dress of the season. A young model wears it on the runway and lands a magazine cover on her very first gig. An unemployed Brown graduate creates a fake life of success using Instagram photos yet the dress adds an unexpected twist to her career path. A teenager in a traditional Muslim household tries the dress on and gains a better understanding of her sister’s desire for a different life.

The main story lines are about love. Bloomingdale’s saleswoman Natalie is invited to be the beard for a movie star who needs to dispel rumours that he’s gay. She wears the dress to his movie premiere, and it’s just the cutest love story ever. Another highlight for me is a fairly minor but multilayered subplot about the dressmaker Morris, an almost-90 year old who has been cutting dress patterns all his life. I love the story of his immigration to America, and I love how the story comes full circle with the dress becoming instrumental in his grandson’s love life.

But my favourite story by far is that of Felicia, a middle aged executive assistant who has been secretly in love with her boss for almost twenty years. The little black dress and a matchmaking Bloomingdale’s salesman give her the chance of a lifetime, and I admit at times wanting to skim over the other stories just to find out how hers turns out. (As an aside, the matchmaking salesman is Natalie’s co-worker Tómas, and I’m thrilled that he too gets a mini-love story of his own.)

As can be expected with such a story structure and with less than 300 pages, we get mere snippets of these characters’ stories, and with the exception of possibly one or two, we barely get a chance to dive deep into their lives and how things turn out for them. In some cases, this feels a shame; for example, I would have been interested in learning more of the Muslim teenager’s story after she tried the dress on. But on the other hand, the dipping in and out of people’s lives is also a huge part of this structure’s appeal. You do still end up caring for many of these characters, and in a way, the bite sized snippets of their stories are just the perfect snack.

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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 | Here’s to Us, Elin Hilderbrand

27161845An Elin Hilderbrand Nantucket novel has become for me one of the hallmarks of summer. Always entertaining and lighthearted, with some heartfelt emotions, Hilderbrand’s novels are perfect for staycations, beach reads and sitting on your porch / balcony with an icy drink.

Her newest book, Here’s To Us, is no exception. Three women, all in love with the same man — the passionate, temperamental celebrity chef Deacon Thorpe — are drawn to his Nantucket house after he dies. All three women hate each other, and maintain a love/hate relationship with the man they all married and eventually divorced/planned to divorce. Adding to the drama, as Deacon’s best friend and executor Buck is reluctant to reveal, Deacon died heavily in debt so instead of splitting an inheritance or fighting over the proceeds from the Nantucket house, the women instead will need to figure out how to shoulder / split the financial burden he has left behind.

The novel appears ripe for a sitcom or a soap opera-ish drama, but Hilderbrand manages to balance both tones while keeping it all fairly lighthearted. I especially love the characters of the women, how richly drawn each of them is, and how much we glimpse into their lives with Deacon and beyond their relationship with him.

Laurel, Deacon’s childhood sweetheart and first wife, is probably my favourite, or at least the character I could most relate to. Supportive of her husband up until he left her for an actress, Laurel is a wonderfully rich character. A social worker, she is ironically (and tragically) unaware of her own son’s struggles with addiction, and she is understandably reluctant to begin a relationship with Buck, who has secretly held a torch for her for years. I love how, even if she is the oldest among the wives, she is also described as “effortlessly beautiful,” and her low-key beauty is viewed as more impactful than Belinda’s more glamourous style.

Belinda, the second wife, is a Hollywood actress who snapped him up at the height of his celebrity. She appears easy to hate, but on the other hand, is touchingly vulnerable as well. Her relationship with her daughter Angie is strained, and she is ever increasingly aware that she is getting older, and that this is particularly bad in the career she’s chosen.

Deacon’s third wife Scarlett, former nanny to Angie, is mostly portrayed as vapid and spoiled, a bit of karma for Deacon’s womanizing and drug use. Still, I love that she ends up choosing the safety and well-being of her child over a comfortable and wealthy life with Deacon, and also that one of her most extravagant purchases turns out to be an attempt at helping Deacon with his finances.

Angie, Deacon and Belinda’s daughter, is another really vivid character. A chef who apprenticed with her famous father, she is struggling with how best to continue his legacy, and to build her own life. Adding to the complication is that she is in love with a married man, and having to navigate a weekend with her estranged mother and the women her mother hates the most.

Hilderbrand’s strengths have always been her characters, her descriptions of Nantucket, and the relationships that bring all the elements together. The women are crafted so vividly that I can almost imagine being friends and having conversations with them, and urging Laurel in real life to go ahead and find a second chance at love with Buck.

Even Deacon manages to be a sympathetic character. Even if he was a jerk to the women he loved and not much of a father to two of his three kids, he was still a wonderful father and mentor to Angie, and in fact appears most sympathetic and likeable when we see him through Angie’s eyes. We also get a glimpse into his childhood, one of the happiest days of his life which turned into the day his father pretty much destroyed all of his childhood illusions. Deacon’s love and desire for Nantucket are rooted in that childhood incident, and for all his faults, you can’t help but feel for him and wish that for his sake, he is able to recapture the magic from that one day.

Nantucket, as always, is as much a character as the people in Hilderbrand’s stories are, and the elegaic tone of parts of this novel make me long to visit this place all the more. Here’s to Us is a bit heavier than some of Hilderbrand’s other beach reads, but it’s still a wonderful book, and a thoughtful story about love and family.

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Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

Blog Tour | In a Dark, Dark Wood, Ruth Ware

23783496Within the first few chapters, I knew I was going to absolutely love this book. The stage is set for a classic Agatha Christie-style mystery: a group of strangers is brought together in a house deep in the titular dark, dark wood where there is no cell reception, no easy way to escape, and where the characters are all bound by dark secrets from their past.

In Ware’s take on this classic trope, the characters convene for a bachelorette party organized by a rather obsessive perfectionist maid of honour named Flo for her BFF Clare. The main character is Leonora “Nora” Shaw, who is surprised to be invited since she hasn’t spoken to Clare since a falling out years ago. She decides to attend anyway, and as any mystery lover can attest, this cannot end well. What follows is a hilariously awkward weekend with people who mostly can’t seem to stand each other, and then someone is murdered. The novel opens with Nora in a hospital bed, trying to piece together what had happened.

In a Dark, Dark Wood is a classic mystery thriller. I couldn’t put it down, and I felt compelled to keep reading not only to find out what actually happened but also to find out how the various relationships develop. There are some aspects that stretch belief somewhat, for example that a bad breakup when Nora was just 16, could still have this much effect on her ten years later (why hasn’t she moved on yet?!), and also some twists and revelations that felt more convenient that believable. The motive behind the crime also felt odd, and I almost wish Ware had set it up a bit more like Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley character, which will possibly help us understand better how someone’s psyche can be so messed up that murder seems a sensible response to this motive.

That being said, I absolutely loved this book. I’m a sucker for classic Agatha Christie whodunnits and I think Ware captures this feel wonderfully. The house in the woods is a perfect setting for such a creepy mystery, and I absolutely love the twisted interlocking webs of messed up relationships that drove this story forward. Finally, I think the cover is just beautiful.

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Author Q&A with Ruth Ware

  1. I love the classic Agatha Christie whodunnit feel. How much was And Then There Were None an influence on this book, and how much is Agatha Christie herself an influence in your writing?

I loved Christie as a teen – well, classic crime full stop, really – so it’s definitely something that was there in the back of my head. However it wasn’t really a conscious decision to channel those influences into In a Dark, Dark Wood, but when I’d finished writing it I handed it to my agent who immediately said “you know, this has a very Agatha Christie-ish feel” and I realised she was right, and Christie’s influence had definitely seeped through into the text. The reference to And Then There Were None in the text is my little acknowledgement of that!

  1. What inspired this story? Where did the idea come from?

The original seed was a conversation with a friend who said she’d never read a thriller set on a hen night and would love to read one. And I realised in that moment that I’d never read a thriller on a hen night either, and would love to write one! On the tube on the way home I couldn’t stop thinking about the idea, and eventually it became In a Dark, Dark Wood.

  1. Why do you think the name change (from “Lee” to “Nora”) is so important to Leonora? Why is Clare so insistent on calling her “Lee”?

Well, one of the themes of the book is identity and self-image, and the way we choose how we to appear to others. Often the person we are at school is radically different from the person we are when we grow up – and Nora’s name change is a way of her owning that, I suppose – acknowledging that she’s more than Clare’s best friend (Clare was the person who bestowed the “Lee” nickname on Nora and it’s something she’s ambivalent about.) I suppose for Nora, making people use her grown-up name rather than her teenage nickname is a way of asking them to acknowledge that she’s not the same person she was back then, whereas Clare is maybe trying to do the opposite – remind Nora of who they used to be to each other.

  1. Will you be involved at all in the motion picture adaptation? How well do you think your story will translate to screen?

I know that some writers adapt their own books for screen, but I can’t imagine doing that. I’m not sure I’d know how! I think (I may be biased!) that it could be a great film, it’s certainly very visual and I think the dark woods and the glass house could make a great setting. A lot of the action takes place in Nora’s head though, and the tension comes from inside her. You’d need a good actor and director to convey that.

  1. Clare pretty much ends up having the bachelorette party from hell. What has been your most memorable (good, bad or simply hilarious) bachelorette party experience?

I’ve not had any really hideous experiences myself, but I did have a lot of friends unburden themselves to me after they read the book. I think the worst anecdote I heard was a party where the stripper failed to turn up, so the bar tender offered to make a few calls and find a replacement. Eventually a guy turned up, but the first clue that all was not quite well was that he folded his clothes neatly as he removed them! There followed an excruciating quarter of an hour as he got naked. When he had finished he turned and put them all back on again and quietly left. It turned out that he was the bar tender’s nephew or something, and an accountant and had never stripped before!

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review, and thank you to Ruth for participating in the Q&A!

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Blog Tour and Contest

This review is part of the Simon Schuster Canada Perfect Pairing Blog Tour. Check out the full schedule below.

Also: nothing pairs up better with a book than a cup of coffee, so heads up on an awesome contest: Simon and Schuster Canada is giving away a set of books AND one year of free coffee from aroma espresso bar! Enter at readchillrepeat.com.

Summer Fiction Blog Tour

Review | I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Iain Reid

28450159I absolutely loved Iain Reid’s memoir The Truth About Luck, about a road trip with his grandmother, and I was really excited to read his debut novel I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Reid is a wonderfully talented writer, and the way he subtly builds up the suspense and dread throughout this book is masterful.

A young woman goes on a road trip with her boyfriend Jake– their first trip together. They’re on their way to meet his parents, and she is thinking of ending the relationship. Talk about awkward. The tension increases with the revelation that the woman has been receiving calls from an anonymous man, sometimes as many as twelve calls in one night, and as if that wasn’t creepy enough, the calls all appear to be coming from her number. The caller appears interested only in leaving her messages; whenever she picks up the phone, the man hangs up.

“There’s only one question to resolve,” the caller says in her voicemail. “I’m scared. I feel a little crazy. I’m not lucid. The assumptions are right. I can feel my fear growing. Now is the time for the answer. Just one question. One question to answer.”

What that one question is, the caller never says, and that mystery just about drove me mad while I was reading. Often, I wanted to scream at the mysterious caller myself, just ask the f*cking question already! The caller also leaves a second voicemail, one that reveals he knows her inside and out, and ends with the chilling proof: “You shouldn’t bite your nails.”

Interspersed with this woman’s story are chapters of dialogue between unnamed characters, discussing an unnamed “horrible,” “scary” and “disturbing” act committed by a man who was “standoffish” and “kept to himself.” Sadly, many current events can help us imagine what this “horrible” act of violence could have been, and as we read on, the mystery deepens as to how Jake and his girlfriend are about to become involved in whatever had happened.

After the initial creep factor of the mysterious caller, and the introduction of the two main sources of tension (the mysterious “horrible” incident and the girlfriend’s intention to leave Jake who doesn’t seem like the type to handle it well), the story slows down a lot. I was bored for a bit because nothing seemed to be happening, and it’s only later that I appreciated all the little bits and pieces that Reid has so carefully set up.

The story picks up again once Jake and his girlfriend arrive at Jake’s parents’ farmhouse. There’s a vague feeling of rising disquiet, of encroaching dread, in those scenes, and Reid’s mastery lies in the fact that I could never quite put my finger on why. I just know that something feels off, that Jake’s parents aren’t acting quite right, and that something bad is going to happen, though I had no idea what. The story gets progressively better (read: odder) from there, and with the big reveal, all the puzzle pieces fall into place.

I closed the book and sat for a while, unable to move, just absorbing what I’d just read. It was a slow burn throughout and ended with a wallop, and I just felt like applauding the author for what he’d accomplished.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things isn’t my favourite Iain Reid book — nothing, but nothing and no one can compare to his absolutely loveable grandmother and the story of their road trip. As well, while I imagine there’s a pleasure in picking up the clues in the details Reid has so carefully scattered throughout, I’m not sure how well this book will hold up in re-reads, now that I know how it turns out. But still, bravo Mr. Reid. Well done.

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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.