Review | Ten Lords A-Leaping (Father Christmas Mystery # 3), C.C. Benison

17568763Father Tom Christmas sprains his ankle during a charity event and is forced to convalesce in an estate in town, where a large number of relatives are in the area for that same charity event. One of the family members is murdered, and Father Christmas is pulled into the investigation. Benison has set up a classic Agatha Christie style cozy mystery with Ten Lords A-Leaping, with the requisite large number of possible suspects, family secrets and scandals, and detached observer ticking away at the clues.

It’s exactly the type of mystery I usually love, yet I couldn’t get into this one. There is a long list of characters and possible suspects, which shouldn’t be a problem except none of them really stood out. I found it difficult to keep track of who people were and I often found myself flipping back several pages to try to remind myself who that person was. I hadn’t read the second book, and it’s been years since I’d read the first, so that may be why it took me a while to get to know even the series characters, and it definitely didn’t help that the new characters were so interchangeable.

The story felt pretty plodding, and while a slow pace is par for the course for this type of mystery, this one just felt bogged down. Interspersed throughout the mystery are letters by Father Christmas’ housekeeper Madrun to her mother, about the goings on in the estate, and perhaps this is a series signature, but it just felt unnecessary. The subplot with Father Christmas’ daughter and one of the teens in the estate trying to solve the mystery themselves was entertaining, and I liked the hint of romance between them.

The plot seems simple enough — there’s a fortune at stake and the victim was pretty universally disliked. Still, the plodding pace and confusion of characters harmed the clarity of the basic plot, and by the time of the big reveal, I hadn’t connected enough with the characters or the mystery to care whodunnit.

The Father Christmas books are fairly popular, and Benison’s writing is good enough that I’d certainly give this series another shot. As a series detective, Father Christmas strikes me as being unmemorable other than his unusual name, and there is only so far you can go with a pun. Still, there are nine books to go, and plenty of time for the series to find its legs. In the meantime, Miranda is the sleeper in this series, and it will be interesting to see how her character develops.

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

Review | The Geek’s Guide to Dating, Eric Smith

17568806Calling all geeks! Ever wonder how to catch the eye of that gorgeous fellow geek? In this hilarious guide to dating, Eric Smith takes the geeky reader through the various stages of getting the date then beginning a relationship (or, reality check: possibly moving on) after that date.

The chapter titles are given geeky titles, mapping the dating landscape like an old school 1980s video game with some fun Star Trek and Star Wars references thrown in. “Engage, Player One” sets the ball rolling, and “Do or Do Not: There is No Try” gives tips on how to screw up the courage to ask someone out.

The book offers some pretty common sense tips on dating: start a conversation rather than a debate, clean out the junk in your car before picking your date up, put some effort into your outfit, and so on. There’s even a primer on how to kiss someone, though Smith cautions: “This isn’t the Konami code here, and trying to make out according to these directions (Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right) would only make things weird.”

Still, what sets this book apart, and makes it so much fun, is that all the tips are couched in geeky language — video game terms and science fiction references. A section on choosing the right wingman, for example, accords a number of points per option: a “Sharp Eye for Style” gets him “+250 to Armor”. A list of scenarios with tips on how to deal with them includes meeting someone at a video game store, or improving your online dating profile. I admit some of the references completely went over my head (what’s a “Kolinahr”?), but Googling them just added to the fun.

Minor complaint is that the book is completely geared to male geek readers. Smith does address this in the beginning of the book, and explains that while the text is ostensibly directed at males, a lot of the tips are equally applicable to female geeks. Fair enough, but as a female geek, I would have loved to see at least a gender neutral geek guide to dating, and if the tips are applicable to both genders anyway, why not write them as such? Or perhaps add some chapters dedicated to challenges particular to geeks from each gender. Or, on that note, someone please write a female geek’s guide to dating. Given how many books and publications on geekdom are already geared towards male geeks, it would be nice to have one written with a female geek audience in mind. Any female geek humourists up to the challenge?

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

Review | My Life Among the Apes, Cary Fagan

My-Life-Among-the-Apes_largeCary Fagan’s My Life Among the Apes was longlisted for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize and it’s easy to see why. Fagan’s stories are striking, the subtlety of his language enhancing the emotion within the human relationships he explores. Two of my favourite stories in the collection feature the public space of a diner, and the connection between people who interact seemingly on the most casual of levels. In “I Find I Am Not Alone on The Island,” a waitress forms a lifelong bond with a favourite customer whose name she doesn’t even discover until he dies. In “The Little Underworld of Edison Wiese,” a waiter who takes pride in his job despite the crappy working conditions spends an unusual New Year’s Eve at work. The unexpectedness of lasting connection is what makes these stories so lovely. The moment when the waitress, years after having left the diner, feels the need to share a literary allusion the customer had mentioned to her in passing, hints at a far deeper significance. And the scene where the waiter realizes the importance of his job is heartwarming.

My favourite story, “Wolf,” is about a Jewish man who returns to Germany to visit his granddaughter. Seeing a Holocaust memorial, all he can think of to say to his granddaughter is that he doesn’t feel qualified to judge it. How can he, how can anyone really, express such an experience? The tension between history and the present simmers throughout the story, inflecting his visit with much that is left unsaid. It’s a powerful story, and the ending makes you wish to read more, even as you feel the story had ended on a perfect note.

Oddly, it was the title story I found least affecting, about a bank manager who finds comfort in his obsession with Jane Goodall when he has to do a difficult task. The writing was good, but the story felt disjointed, and at the end I was, like one of the characters, utterly unmoved.

Overall however, the collection is a strong one. The simplest of details — a violin in “Wolf,” a lost magic trick in “The Floating Wife” — take on much significance, and Fagan’s writing teases your mind with so much that is deeply felt, but left unsaid.

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Thank you to Thomas Allen for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Murder Chez Proust, Estelle Monbrun

16284882Can Marcel Proust inspire one to murder? In Murder Chez Proust, Adeline Bertrand-Verdon, the unlikeable president of the Proust Association, is murdered just before a Proust convention. There is an assortment of suspects, including colleagues, lovers, and her assistant Gisele Dambert. Through a stroke of luck, Gisele owns a set of previously undiscovered notebooks used by Proust which proves the originality of a key scene in one of his most famous novels. It would have settled a debate in Proustian circles, and Adeline was going to steal Gisele’s research and publish a book.

Gisele is probably the most intriguing character in the book – an aspiring Proust scholar who lives with her cat and has a penchant for carelessness. She makes some idiotic decisions, such as letting Adeline know about her research, but overall, you root for her to succeed.

Murder Chez Proust is a solid, entertaining cozy, with an Agatha Christie-type list of suspects, and a genteel approach to murder. As someone unfamiliar with Proust’s work, I probably missed a lot of the significant little tidbits the author provided, but I did enjoy the description of how the interpretation of a single scene in one of his books can cause such heated scholarly debate. I wish the book had been more steeped in the academic world – the strongest scenes featured the politicking that goes on behind the publication of academic research, and I would have liked a bit more sense of that atmosphere.

There was a subplot mystery that I admit drew most of my attention — Gisele loses the Proust notebooks and tries to track down a hotel employee who had held them last. In some ways, it stole the spotlight from the main murder mystery, but it may just be because Gisele is a more interesting character than Adeline who, though villainous and potentially intriguing, was never quite fleshed out enough to go beyond a stereotype.

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Thank you to Thomas Allen for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Tampa, Alissa Nutting

9780062280541Alissa Nutting’s Tampa is a brave exploration of an uncomfortable subject, and the author’s brazen treatment will cause even the most inured reader to stop and think. Celeste Price is an eighth grade English teacher with a sexual preference for fourteen year old boys. Similar to Lolita in theme, it is starkly different in its approach. Unlike Humbert Humbert, Celeste pulls no punches in her description. She is unapologetically sexual.  The language is forthright and highly charged. As I posted on Goodreads: “Holy hell, Tampa. Powerful, intense, and I’m only 7 pages in.” And Nutting never lets up.

Female pedophiles aren’t as often discussed in popular culture as their male counterparts. Films like The Graduate for example even romanticize the adult female/teenage male sexual relationship. Nutting takes this trope head on by making her protagonist be only in her 20s — she’s young, beautiful, certainly an object of fantasy herself for many of her students. She is also hyper aware of her age, and understands that seducing these young boys may no longer be as easy when she starts getting wrinkles. Yet she is also, unmistakably, a sexual predator, unapologetic and despite the boys’ own fantasies, abusive of her power.

Nutting uses lurid sexual detail with purpose. At times, the scene reads almost like erotica, until you remember that the object of Celeste’s fantasies is a fourteen year old boy. The story is especially horrifying because of Celeste’s job as a teacher, a profession she chose precisely because it puts her in close proximity to the boys she wants. She sets her sights on one of her students in particular, selecting him because he is just shy enough to keep her secret, but bold enough to risk pursuing a sexual relationship with her. Her schemes to seduce the boy are horrific, particularly because her openness as a narrator implicates the reader in her plot. As an adult, we see how she is manipulating the boy and we want to rescue him, yet as readers, all we can do is watch.

Here, the sensual prose also implicates the reader by forcing us into Celeste’s psyche, without even the buffer of Humbert Humbert’s coyly seductive language. Either you are hyperaware the entire time about the boy being only fourteen, in which case the very act of reading feels disgusting, or worse, you forget for a time, and find yourself drawn into the eroticism of the scene, only to recoil with even more disgust when a detail (smooth skin, hairless legs) reminds you of what exactly is happening in the scene. Nutting employs a more brazen form of seductiveness than Nabokov in her prose, and in doing so creates a different type of discomfort. The book design itself plays into this approach; the jacket of the hardcover edition is made of velour, providing a velvety soft surface that invites stroking and that provides the reader with a highly tactile experience.

Celeste is too unapologetic about her proclivities to be an anti-hero, or anyone the reader can ever really cheer for. However, she is certainly a compelling, memorable character. Her utter lack of remorse, and total disregard for the need to sugarcoat her desires for the reader make her in some ways even more reprehensible than Humbert Humbert. Still, when she describes her disgust for the adult male form, you understand why sex with an adult male isn’t an option at all for her. Her horror at the thought of sex with her husband, or with any adult male, is palpable. You do not cheer her on, yet when things come crashing down, you can’t help but feel for her. It’s a difficult balancing act, yet Nutting manages it well.

Tampa is not an easy book to read, but it is powerful. Nutting uses shock value to a purpose, and creates a memorable protagonist in Celeste. The ending somewhat falters because it feels rushed, and the final page in particular feels unresolved. Still, overall a compelling book that demands attention.

Review | Kiss Me First, Lottie Moggach

16169852Kiss Me First has an intriguing premise: what if the main thing that stops people from acting on suicidal tendencies is the thought of the grief their loved ones will suffer? And what if, thanks to people’s ever-increasing digital footprint, a website can help you ease that transition? What if this website can help you distance yourself slowly from your loved ones even after you’re gone, so that by the time they’re aware of your death, their grief won’t be as sharp?

It’s an audacious idea, and a sobering realization that for some people, this might actually work. How many of our friends and family members interact with us only through email and social media channels? If it were someone else emailing and posting on Facebook on our behalf, how many of our family and friends will really know the difference? We’d like to think that the difference would be obvious, yet for someone who is determined to disappear, how difficult would it really be to do so?

Moggach tells the story from the perspective of Leila, a lonely, isolated woman who finds a sense of belonging in the website Red Pill, where members engage in ethical debate. She soon catches the attention of website founder Adrian, who invites her to join the inner circle and help a woman named Tess arrange her own death. Here’s where the story becomes especially powerful: the concept of using the internet to mask one’s suicide is compelling enough, but Moggach points the spotlight on the people who can make it happen. A perennial outcast, Leila is understandably caught up in what she learns about Tess’s life. As Leila practices impersonating Tess online, she begins to fall in love with Tess’s life, and eventually, begins to allow it to dominate her own. The lines between the reality of her life and the fantasy of Tess’s blur, and it’s an easy slope for Leila to fall, because, after all, this fantasy is no longer a life that Tess wants for herself. And when Leila’s genuine, albeit horribly misguided, attempts to form human connection are cruelly rebuffed, it is heartbreaking to read.

Even though told through Leila’s point of view, Moggach creates a compelling character in Tess as well. Beautiful, beloved and successful in so many aspects, Tess is nonetheless deeply troubled. She desperately wants to escape her life, to the point of paying Adrian to help her make it happen, but her decision to escape is itself another kind of trap. Having hired Leila to impersonate her, it gets progressively harder for her to back out and decide to live after all. At times she hesitates, and Leila convinces her to keep going, and it is to Moggach’s credit that Leila doesn’t appear a monster in such scenes — rather, we feel her pain and understand her desire to clutch on to Tess’s life, even as we hope Tess does choose to live.

It’s an intense, emotional thriller, and the conversation around assisted suicide remains unresolved. The story does have its clear villain, though perhaps the tougher question is about the way of life that allows such a person as Leila to reach such a depressing level of isolation, and a person like Tess to be able to disappear, if not easily, at least believably. Kiss Me First is a powerful debut novel, and highly recommended.

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

Review | Leonardo and the Last Supper, Ross King

9780385666091Ross King’s Leonardo and The Last Supper is a solid historical work on the artist and one of his most famous paintings. King does a good job setting the stage, by writing about the historical context in which da Vinci creates, as well as examining details of da Vinci’s distinct style and how it fit in within the larger context of art history.

The Last Supper has been the subject of many other art works, and yet da Vinci’s version became iconic long before Dan Brown launched a new generation of conspiracy theorists. King does a good job in examining what set da Vinci’s version apart from all others, in terms of technique, form and treatment of subject matter.

It is also interesting to get to know a bit of the man behind the work. Da Vinci has become such a cultural icon that it’s difficult to separate him from the mythos around him. King keeps the book firmly on the ground, and contextualizes da Vinci within his time, as well as paints a portrait of a man who is much more flawed than his “genius” moniker suggests.

My only concern with this book is that despite the rich history it explores, the writing itself is very dry. The beginning seemed a bit slow, and snippets of really interesting observations seemed almost lost within paragraphs of detail. I wanted to love the book, and I did learn some interesting tidbits throughout, but unfortunately, it was just very, very slow-going for me.

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