Review | Keeper of the Flame (A Crang Mystery), Jack Batten

25866583Crang is a criminal lawyer who is hired by popular hip hop artist Flame to shut down a blackmail scheme. Some offensive lyrics written when Flame was a teen have been discovered, and could destroy the clean-cut, Cary Grant type image Flame’s handlers are trying to cultivate, unless the performer ponies up eight million dollars. Crang’s investigation leads to an organized gang, murder and a subplot involving a porn video.

Keeper of the Flame is first I’ve read in the Crang series. Crang is a fairly old school wisecracking private eye, whose exploits usually lead him in hotter water than he’d originally planned. I like how he structures his fees according to his clients’ ability to pay — a retail worker gets charged a minimal fee for a fairly complex case, whereas a multimillionaire like Flame gets charged accordingly. I also like how Crang uses Flame’s fame to get things done; in one scene, a detective agrees to do Crang a favour only if Crang could get Flame to write personal messages on the Facebook walls of the detective’s daughters.

 

This is a fun read; it didn’t quite keep me flipping the pages madly, but I like the lighthearted tone and somewhat snappy dialogue. Toronto-philes may also delight in finding Toronto featured so prominently in the story.

Random aside – do any of the other readers keep thinking of Krang from the Ninja Turtles, or is it just me?

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Thanks to Dundurn for an advance reading copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | In the Unlikely Event, Judy Blume

There are writers whose books you love, and then there are writes whose books have actually helped define your childhood. Judy Blume is such a writer. I remember reading Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret when I was a child, and feeling that the author just got me. Somehow, Judy Blume placed her finger right on the pulse of pre-teen female anxieties, and while Margaret’s experiences may have differed from my own, in a way, I was Margaret. (“I must, I must, I must increase my bust.” Dear god, did we ever believe such an exercise would work?)

23899174I also enjoyed Blume’s adult novel Summer Sistersbut it’s where her characters are young adults, just beginning to figure out who they are, that I think Blume’s writing really shines. I feel the same way about her most recent adult novel In the Unlikely Event, which was inspired by a true incident in her childhood, when a succession of planes crashed near her New Jersey hometown and caused a ruckus in the community. Commercial air travel was still relatively new then, and much like the 1990s movie The Net warned of the potential dangers of the Internet, the real-life incident in the 1950s must have caused much anxiety over the safety of airline travel and the possibility that the crashes may not have been accidental.

In the Unlikely Event focuses on the story of Miri Anderson, who was fifteen when the airplane crashes occurred, and who was flying back home thirty-five years later to commemorate the anniversary of the incident. We learn about various stages in Miri’s life, all the way until adulthood, as well as receive glimpses of the lives of the passengers in the planes that crashed. Blume also incorporates newspaper articles, written in the somewhat novelistic, emotionally fraught style of the day, which help provide a wider picture of what’s going on. (Fun fact: In Blume’s Toronto talk about this book, she said that because she was so busy and the deadline for the manuscript was coming up so quickly, her husband stepped in to write the newspaper articles for her.)

As with Summer Sisters, I felt it was really the scenes of Miri’s childhood that shone. Her wonder at silk stockings, her desire to be a journalist, and later, her increasingly outlandish conspiracy theories about the real reason behind the crashes all took me back to childhood. Whereas an adult would likely think of practical solutions to planes crashing, or otherwise engage in knowing rhetoric about the perceived, widely accepted, “true” cause for the accidents, children are freer with their imaginations, and freer as well to admit that no one is telling them anything and that the situation is all the scarier for it. While the plane crashes formed the impetus for the plot, I especially loved the idyllic scenes of Miri and her mother in the small town. I love the saving up of pennies for silk lingerie, which is impractical but oh so pretty. I love reading about the gossip amongst the townspeople, and the way everyone pretends to know everyone else’s business. I don’t necessarily know that I would want to live like that, but I certainly love reading about it, and Blume’s narrative voice just lends itself so perfectly to nostalgia.

The intermittent vignettes about the airplane passengers were interesting as well. On a whole, I thought they distracted from the main story. But on quite a few instances, I actually found myself more compelled to read on about the vignette rather than return o the main story. I’d get all caught up in some passenger’s life, feel disappointed that they died in the crash and that I’d never get to hear more about how their lives could have turned out. And then I’d realize just how utterly, horribly tragic accidents could be. How much of a life, of a potentially beautiful and exciting rest of one’s life, can be cut off in an instant, and how utterly, horribly unfair it is to not even know the reason this death occurred. With these vignettes, Blume brought home the tragedy of these accidents, and suddenly, Miri’s theories make much more sense, not so much because they become more logical, but because in a small way, we too have developed a need to make sense of what has happened.

Judy Blume in Toronto, June 2015

In case you’ve never heard Judy Blume speak, she is simply marvellous. The Toronto Public Library hosted an event with her last summer. It was a sold-out event, with so much overflow that I believe the overflow room was just as crowded as the main one, and even though I had a ticket, I ended up perching on a bar stool somewhat behind a column at the very back of the room. It was so worth it though and made my inner thirteen year old squee.

Here is the Library’s video of the event:

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

Review | The Blue Hour, Douglas Kennedy

23492800Accountant Robin Danvers travels to Morocco with her artist husband Paul for a much-needed long vacation. There has been some tension in their relationship, with their various unsuccessful attempts to conceive and Paul’s recklessness with money, and Robin hopes that a trip to Morocco will help smooth out their relationship. Unfortunately, things don’t go quite as planned. Robin catches Paul out in a horrible lie, and when he disappears, she becomes the prime suspect in the police inquiry.

The Blue Hour started off slow, and only really picked up steam for me in the final third or so. I sympathized with Robin’s marital troubles and her unmet desire for a child, but when Paul disappears, I didn’t quite understand why she was so concerned over his welfare that she’d go so far out of her way to track him down. She’s found him out in a pretty major lie, and her investigation keeps uncovering almost an entire secret life, with a whole new set of dangers that threaten to drag her down as well.

Paul’s disappearance seems to be of his own volition, and he seems to have no interest in reconnecting with her — at one point, she sees him in the street, only to have him disappear in the crowd. Then she finds out he may be connected with a particularly shady man, the type who can be either a good friend or a dangerous foe, yet instead of cutting her marital losses and leaving for the safety of home, Robin persists in digging deeper into her husband’s past and in continuing to try to track him down. I understand that this search forms the entire impetus for the story, but for a large chunk of the book, I wondered why she was willing to risk so much just to find him.

Then a rather random, horrible incident occurs, and it completely shifts the rest of the story. On one hand, I’m somewhat bothered by this twist, as it seemed so unnecessary. On the other hand, the story did pick up afterwards — suddenly the threat Robin faces actually feels real, and I felt much more invested in her race for survival than in her earlier race to find her husband.

Kennedy does a good job in describing places.  You can almost feel the heat and the crush of bodies as Robin moves around Morocco, and you can almost see the vast, parched, shimmering expanse of the Sahara desert.

It took me a while to get into The Blue Hour, the whole love story angle really still doesn’t ring true for me, and I still wish the momentum of the final third could have been sustained throughout. But I thought the descriptions were really strong, and I like how the book ended.

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

 

#BingeReading with Penguin Random House Canada

So I come home on the Friday of a long weekend, and at my door, I find this:

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In the box is an invitation to join Penguin Random House Canada in #BingeReading this weekend. And what a binge this will be!

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For fans of Justin Cronin’s The Passage trilogy, mark your calendars! Book 3 The City of Mirrors will be on sale this May 24th. I loved the first book so much that I took all 800 pages of its hardcover version around with me on the subway, and I can’t wait to revisit that world and find out what happens next.

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This has also got to be one of the coolest marketing pieces around. What better antidote to a busy workweek than one thousand, nine hundred and thirty-six pages of pure, unadulterated reading bliss?

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And just in case it’s past  my bedtime and I still can’t put the book down, they’ve even included a pretty in pink reading light!

And as if all this wasn’t quite enough of a bookish binge, I also happened to receive this book for review earlier this week:

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I adored the first book in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time (based on The Winter’s Tale), and Shylock’s infamous speech in The Merchant of Venice has long been my favourite Shakespearean monologue, so I’m really geeking out over this. (Also, I just discovered a video of David Suchet as Shylock delivering this very speech, so I’m just in total geek heaven right now.)

Thank you, Penguin Random House Canada for this beautiful #BingeReading package!

Now, if you will all excuse me, I think I’ll spend the rest of this long weekend wrapped up in a warm, cozy blanket, popcorn and candy at arm’s reach, and lost in the world of one among many good books.

Excerpt | The Hunter and the Wild Girl, Pauline Holdstock

25861172Set in 19th century France, The Hunter and the Wild Girl tells the tale of two outcasts: a feral girl who had escaped captivity and was hiding in the woods, and a reclusive hunter named Peyre whose life changes when he encounters the girl. The book has been lauded as a dark fairy tale, and reviewers have described the author’s writing as difficult to get into, but well worth the effort (National Post and Quill and Quire).

Here’s the thing: I couldn’t get into it at all. This is not to say that the writing or the book is bad. In fact, I gave this book a few more attempts than my usual three strikes rule before giving up, and I think it’s because I recognize a certain beauty in its language. The book design is beautiful as well, with a bit of a crinkly cover design that suggests age and roughness, and deckle edge pages within that connote weight, a story beyond the ordinary. I think that the text has a kind of beauty as well, a rather dense and rich rhythm that invites unpacking. It’s not for me, but I think other readers may appreciate what Holdstock has created.

So, decide for yourselves. Below are two randomly selected passages from the beginning of the book, each featuring one of the main characters. I don’t know if these are a fair representation of the book, but I hope they give you an idea of the language throughout. If you find yourself intrigued and wanting to learn more, then do give this book a chance. Perhaps you are just the kind of reader it needs.

Up on the bluff now, the wind finds her as soon as she stands. She runs with it at her back. By afternoon she is far away, at one with the high garrigue, the rough sanctuary of scrub and rock that is her home. She moves with ease along the ridge where there seems no path. At length, seeing a small bush where yellow leaves have withered, she stops. She finds a sharp stone and with her back always to the wind she begins to worry and chisel at the base of her bush. She pinches humpbacked bugs from the crevices between the rotten roots. They try to squirm away as fast as they are revealed, and just as fast she eats them. Bitter and husky they are and not to her taste and she goes on. Her life is returning to her whole and unforgotten, like waking to a day as ordinary as another. [pp. 10]

Peyre wakes not as the fragile toper of yesterday, nor as the uneasy watcher who rose in the night to padlock his chickens and secure his front door. He is restored. His self as returned. Intact, it can steer his dangerous mind through another day, ride it with the reins taut and its vision blinkered, turning it from the boy who lies always at the edge of sight. He starts on yesterday’s list even as he leaves his bed, his body assuming the dreamlike quality of the sleepwalker while his mind engages fully with its subject — the outstretched wing of an owl, its primaries extended like fingers that would comb the air, its markings as if a painter ran a brush of white in bands across the wing half closed. [pp. 48-49]

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Thanks to Goose Lane for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Immortals, Jordanna Max Brodsky

25746707In The Immortals, the first in Jordanna Max Brodsky’s Olympus Bound trilogy, the goddess Artemis is now living in Manhattan as PI Selene DiSilva, who rescues female victims of abuse and punishes their abusers. When she arrives too late to save a murder victim, she vows to exact revenge on the murderer. Also on the hunt of the killer is Theo Schultz, the victim’s ex-boyfriend and a professor of the classics who notices that the murder has the markings of an ancient Greek ritual.

The Immortals is a nerdy fun read, a Greek mythology of The Da Vinci Code. Theo and Selene’s investigation reveals ancient artifacts, arcane rituals, and a series of murders that somehow have mythological significance. The Greek gods and goddesses at this point have left Olympus, and are fading in strength as their relevance to the contemporary world fades. Gods like Apollo (God of Art and Music) and Dionysus (God of Wine) are still going strong, but others like Selene as Goddess of the Hunt and Demeter as Goddess of the Hearth are fading away as hunting becomes less popular and the hearth is replaced by electric heating. Selene’s search for the murderer is complicated by her realization that she seems to be getting stronger with each death. Worse, her mother Leto is dying, and Selene must face the possibility that if this ritual renews the power of Greek gods and goddesses, the murders may be what is needed to save her mother’s life.

The murder mystery is fascinating, and I particularly geeked out over the scenes in the American Museum of Natural History. I also love the relationships between the characters — Selene’s pain at her mother’s impending death, and the estrangement between her and her twin brother Paul (Apollo) ever since an incident over two thousand years ago. (Readers more familiar than I with Greek mythology may know what happened; I found out a bit later in the book and found it fascinating.) There is also the attraction between Selene and Theo, which she feels the need to fight, partly because she has vowed to remain eternally chaste and also partly because of a long ago heartbreak with another man, Orion. Theo is just a total Robert Langdon type, who is sweet and dorky and prone to going into lecture mode when explaining particular aspects of the crime scene.

If you like Greek mythology, arcane puzzles and nerdy murder mysteries, The Immortals is definitely worth a try.

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

Review | The Magicians, Lev Grossman

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In Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, Quentin Coldwater, a nerdy and melancholy eighteen year old, is recruited to join a magic university in upstate New York called Brakebills. Quentin is obsessed with a children’s fantasy series about a magical land called Fillory, and real life just cannot compare, particularly when he sees himself as both sidekick and jilted suitor in his trio of friends. When invited to study at Brakebills, he hopes he has finally found his meaning in life, his place of belonging, and the thing that will finally bring him happiness.

Grossman riffs off the Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia traditions, and presents a rather more sardonic view of magic. As an older student, Eliot, tells Quentin, most people can’t do magic because “it’s very hard, and they’re not obsessive and miserable enough to do all the work you have to do to do it right.” Indeed, unlike Hogwarts which felt wondrous and, well, magical, Brakebills makes magic feel like a particularly rigorous college major, like pre-law or pre-med. During one term for example, students had to study in isolation all the different ways circumstances can change the makeup of a single spell. As Quentin observed, he knew more about that particular spell than he’d ever wanted to know, including how to cast it if he were a woman.

The book continues to follow the characters after graduation, when they struggle to find their place in a world where most people are unaware that magic exists. One of them discovers a portal to Fillory, and, having not quite found the happiness he sought in Brakebills, Quentin turns his attention into possibly finding happiness in the fantasy land of his youth. However, just like Brakebills isn’t quite as wondrous as Hogwarts, nor is Fillory anywhere near as magical as Narnia. The residents in Fillory appear to be in need of something, and while Quentin and his friends decide to go on a quest to become kings and queens of Fillory, the decision resulted more from an understanding of fantasy tropes and classic quest stories than from any real understanding of how the quest’s success will solve Fillory’s troubles.

I liked the story. I hesitate to call it more realistic than traditional magical stories because I like to think real-life magic would still be more exciting and wondrous than Grossman presents. As well, Grossman pulls short of delving deep into realism — while his characters drink a lot and face ennui upon graduation, they also lead charmed lives, with a magical network of corporations guaranteeing magical graduates a comfortable lifetime income for shell corporate jobs. I also hesitate to call it more adult than traditional magical stories, because while there is sex and drugs and certainly less wide-eyed innocence, there is also a naivete about Quentin and his friends’ approach to life, a sort of languorous privileged view that still makes me want to tell some of them to grow up. Still, in a way, both descriptors are accurate. Grossman does raise some interesting complications that could occur if magic and magical lands did exist. I can imagine mastery at magic requiring a lot more tedious memorization than fun tricks, and I can also imagine a magical fantasy land not quite living up to childhood expectations.

Among the characters, I absolutely loved Quentin’s classmates Eliot, a fashionable gourmet, and Alice, a brilliant, talented magician. In contrast, Quentin is not at all a likeable character, at least for me. It’s hard to root for someone who is so consumed by his own ennui and lack of self-worth that he is unable to see that other people around him have problems of their own and that he externalizes blame for his mistakes onto “the sick, empty world they were all in together.” (p. 263)

His attitude towards their quest in Fillory annoys me as well. When Alice points out that people could get hurt, he responds:

“If I die doing this, at least I’ll have done something. Maybe you’ll do something one of these days instead of being such a pathetic little mouse all the time.” (p. 332)

The problem is that they don’t really have a goal or stated need for that quest in the first place. Quentin is just bored with life and decides to find meaning by visiting Fillory, and then literally for lack of anything else to do, decides to go on a quest to become king.

Possibly one of the reasons I love Alice so much is that she calls Quentin out on his behaviour:

“If you will, for just one second, look at your life and see how perfect it is. Stop looking for the next secret door that is going to lead you to your real life. Stop waiting. This is it: there’s nothing else. It’s here, and you’d better decide to enjoy it or your going to be miserable wherever you go, for the rest of your life, forever.”

“You can’t just decide to be happy.”

“No, you can’t. But you can sure as hell decide to be miserable. Is that what you want? Do you want to be the asshole who went to Fillory and was miserable there? Even in Fillory? Because that’s who you are right now.” (p. 333)

The end of the book promises further adventure in the sequel, this time involving Quentin’s childhood friend Julia, who was not accepted into Brakebills and therefore taught herself magic. From what I hear, she is a much more interesting character than Quentin, and the TV show version somewhat conflates both books so that, on the screen, we get her story alongside Quentin’s.

The Magicians TV Adaptation on Showcase

Having read the book, I’m much more excited to see how it translates on the screen, and to see the actors who will bring the characters to life. I also can’t wait to find out more about Julia’s story, as the glimpse I’ve seen of her in the book seems intriguing.

The Magicians premiered last January 25, and airs on Showcase Mondays at 9. Catch up on previous episodes at www.showcase.ca/themagicians and check out a brand-new episode tonight on TV and tomorrow online.

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Thanks to Showcase.ca for a copy of this book (and awesome card deck!) in exchange for an honest review.