Monthly Archives: February 2016

The Opposite of Everyone, by Joshilyn Jackson

oppositeofeveryoneIt’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Joshilyn Jackson and I’ve loved each one of her six previous novels — some more than others, but she’s never written a bad or boring book, and some of hers are among my very favourite books ever. I loved her last novel, Someone Else’s Love Story, and The Opposite of Everyone, in which a minor character from the previous book takes centre stage, does not disappoint. I read it in less than twenty-four hours in the day after it was released, and stayed up till one a.m. on a work night finishing it, crying just a little bit as I reached the final pages.

Jackson excels in creating strong, memorable, deeply flawed heroines, and Paula Vauss, the tough-as-nails divorce lawyer who narrates her story in The Opposite of Everyone, may just be her best creation yet. Paula grew up poor and rootless, drifting from town to town with her mother, Kai, who wandered from boyfriend to boyfriend, providing her daughter with a treasurehouse of stories, a variety of inappropriate childhood experiences, and the rock-solid knowledge that she is loved. The bond between Kai and Paula is close, but then Paula makes an impulsive decision that severs it and changes both their lives. Now, decades later, she’s still haunted by that choice and the broken relationship.

Paula works hard to keep the past in the past, but it won’t stay there. Just as a mysterious message from her mother suggests that perhaps she can finally put their complicated history to rest, Paula discovers her family is bigger and more complex than she’d imagined. As a woman who’s devoted her professional life to breaking up families, she has to start stitching together her own … kicking and screaming at every step. This is a wonderful, funny, moving book and my only criticism is that it was over too soon.

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Dead Before Dying, by Kerry Schafer

deadbeforedyingFor everyone who’s ever said, “Why aren’t their more paranormal thrillers with kickass older women as heroines?” … and you know you’ve said that once or twice … Dead Before Dying is the book you have been waiting all this time for.

Maureen Keslyn is an FBI investigator, nearing sixty, recovering from a devastating attack in the last case she investigated. Maureen specializes in investigating paranormal phenomena, and that near-deadly attack was carried out by something … not quite human. Now, instead of a quiet recuperation, Maureen is off to a mysterious retirement home called Shadow Valley Manor at the request of a former colleague and lover. And while some of the Manor’s residents may be nearing death by natural means … there are forces at work that may want to push them over the edgea little ahead of their time.

Maureen is a smart, sarcastic, no-nonsense first-person narrator, an action heroine with creaky joints and a wound that hasn’t healed properly. She doesn’t trust anyone, and as the story unfolds we start to see that might be Maureen’s smartest quality. In the shadowy world of the Manor, with a cast of mysterious characters, it’s hard to tell who, if anyone, can be trusted.

A paranormal thriller is not a genre I’d normally pick up to read, but, as you know if you read this blog, I often read books outside of my usual reading comfort zone when the book is by someone I know. Kerry Schafer is a very old friend whose previous books, which fall closer to the “urban fantasy” genre, I’ve greatly enjoyed. So it was no hardship to follow her into slightly unusual territory, especially in the company of a heroine as engaging and funny as Maureen. As long as you can suspend your disbelief long enough to visit a world where FBI investigators may end up tangling with vampires, werewolves and ghosts, you will thoroughly enjoy Dead Before Dying.

 

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The Lord Peter Wimsey novels, by Dorothy L. Sayers

wimseynovelsI’ve posted here before about my great love for Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, the book in which her detective hero Lord Peter Wimsey finally gets the girl after five years of patient (though not always well-thought-out) wooing. I lover Lord Peter, I love Harriet Vane, and I love Sayers’ writing, so I often reread Gaudy Night and fairly often re-read the two Lord Peter/Harriet novels that precede it (Strong Poison and Have His Carcase) and the sequel, Busman’s Honeymoon

I already knew those four books extremely well when, about ten or fifteen years ago, I decided I really should read the rest of the Lord Peter novels, the earlier ones that don’t have Harriet in them (as well as two that cover the period of their sort-of courtship but focus on Lord Peter’s adventures apart from Harriet. There are also a couple of collections of short stories). I enjoyed all those as well, but haven’t reread any of them for years.

The online book club in which I participate read one of the Lord Peter novels, The Nine Tailors, last month. When I reread it, I somehow got sucked back into re-reading the whole series. So I ended up reading all the novels (with the exception of Five Red Herrings, the only book of the series I don’t like and will never reread; it’s boring) and the collection of three short stories that come after Busman’s Honeymoon. It was a wonderful experience; they are simply the best, with language that is delicious and evocative and unforgettable characters. Even in the earliest novel, Whose Body, when the characterization of Lord Peter is far thinner and more superficial than it will become in later books, there is still the capacity to surprise the reader. Anyone who picked up the book when it was first published in the 1920s, and whose expectations of detective novels had been shaped by Sherlock Holmes, would have been jarred to find the murder investigation derailed when the brilliant detective suffers a brutal attack of shell-shock with flashbacks to his time in the trenches, and has to retire from the scene for awhile to recover from his breakdown. 

As I’ve said before, I am not a great reader of mysteries, and the main reason I love the Lord Peter books is probably that they are so much more than just mysteries. They are incisive, thoughtful and funny explorations of time, place, class and society, and the character development of the hero as he matures and especially as his relationship with Harriet Vane develops, is a masterpiece of storytelling. These will probably always be among my favourite books in the entire world.

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Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders, by Julianna Baggott

harrietwolfThis is a book I didn’t enjoy quite as a much as I thought I would, and I’m finding myself hard-pressed to pinpoint exactly why. All the right elements are in place — a three-generation drama about a family of strong, eccentric women, an intriguing historical setting reaching back to early 20th century America, and a literary mystery. Yet the elements didn’t quite come together for me.

Beloved and critically-acclaimed novelist Harriet Wolf has died. She has left behind six beloved books unfolding the story of the same pair of characters. She’s also left behind her daughter, Eleanor, and Eleanor’s two chalk-and-cheese daughters, Ruth and Tilton. What Harriet Wolf may also have left behind, her fans like to think, is a seventh book that will complete the story. But if there is a seventh book it’s hidden in the house where Harriet died, where Eleanor tries to keep Tilton packed in layers of cotton wool (metaphorically, but almost literally) to protect her from the world. This is the house to which the runaway Ruth returns to wreak havoc on the lives of her mother and sister and the memory of her grandmother, and to uncover family secrets left and right.

As I said, this should be the recipe for a novel that pushes all my buttons (history, literature, families, women) but I found it hard to finish. The only parts I found truly engaging were the flashback scenes narrated (posthumously) by Harriet, telling about her early life growing up in a home for “mentally defective” children at the turn of the twentieth century, and falling in love with a fellow “moron” before being unexpectedly set free to begin life outside the institution. If Harriet’s story had been the whole novel, I would have found it engrossing, but I never connected with Eleanor, Ruth or Tilton as characters, so I wasn’t as engaged with their parts of the story. However, it may just be a matter of personal taste. Not every book appeals to every reader, and I can’t say there’s anything terrible or badly-written about this book. Maybe you should give it a try — you might like it better than I did!

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Life & Death, by Celeste Perrino-Walker

lifeanddeathLife and Death is a gentle and sweet romance; it’s also a novel about overcoming grief and moving on with your life. It’s the first in a series of novels about a fictional small town named Toussaint, Vermont. While the town and its inhabitants are imaginary, the region, its culture and people are all very real, and author Perrino-Walker is at her strongest here, re-creating on paper a world she obviously knows very well.

The main character in the novel is a woman named Emerson Giroux, single mother of a teenaged daughter. Emerson is still grieving the loss of her husband in an accident four years ago and despite the strength she draws from a loving community of family and friends, she hasn’t really moved forward in her life since then. The tall, dark and handsome stranger (except he’s not really a stranger) who moves to town piques her interest, but he turns out to come with some baggage of his own that may be impossible to carry for a woman who’s suffered the kind of loss Emerson has.

The real strength of Life & Death, and the thing that makes me happy it’s the first of a series, is the novel’s strong sense of place. The largely French-speaking area of Vermont snuggled right under the Canadian border is a place rich with traditional music (which plays a huge part in this novel), lively spoken Franglais, and small-town values. There’s  a rich tapestry of minor characters in this novel, enough that it’s easy to see how the author will have a wide range of possible stories to tell about the people in this small town. 

If I have one quibble with this novel it’s that a large part of the romantic plot turns on the tried-and-true “a misunderstanding keeps them apart” trope that could so easily be dispelled with a good, honest conversation. Now it’s true that far too often we avoid those honest conversations, but after you’ve read enough novels where this is a key plot element, it becomes hard to believe that so many people, so much of the time, avoid sharing simple, basic pieces of information with each other! However, this is a minor complaint (and one I have with nearly every novel where romance is a major part of the storyline, so obviously most readers don’t have a problem with it!).

Perrino-Walker is a Christian novelist, and there’s definitely an inspirational element to the book — as Emerson struggles to move on with her life after loss, a more devout friend shows her that going to church to play the organ isn’t enough — she needs to read the Bible and pray for herself so she can develop her own relationship with God. The novel is light and lively enough that it manages to resist being preachy, and Emerson’s spiritual journey feels like a natural part of her overall journey away from despair and into hope.

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The Nothing, by Kerry Schafer

nothingThe Nothing is a fast-paced, action-packed novel about Vivian, who has the ability to travel between the Wakeworld we all know into the Dreamworld and the Between, and is on a quest to stop The Nothing from destroying everything. If you’re confused already, believe me, there’s a lot more to keep track of (like the fact that Vivian is a woman, but also sometimes a dragon, and the man she loves, Zee, is a dragonslayer, so … that’s difficult). The main thing to know here is, this is the third volume of a trilogy (I’ve reviewed Between and Wakeworld here previously) and nothing is going to make sense if you haven’t read the first two. In fact, if, like me, it’s been awhile since you read the first two, you may want to go back and give them a quick re-read before you read The Nothing, or else you’ll be confused and spend the first part of the book trying to remember who’s who and why they’re on this quest they’re on. 

But once you get past that — or a lot sooner, if you have the sense to re-read the first two books first (or the luck of discovering the whole series at once now that they’re all out!) — you’ll be engaged in a nonstop fantasy adventure that touches on our everyday world but spreads out to encompass worlds stranger than we can imagine. The Nothing provides a satisfying conclusion to this excellent series, tying up loose ends but leaving just a few tiny threads dangling on the off-chance Schafer might choose to revisit Vivian’s worlds and take us with her sometime in the future.

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Road Trip Rwanda, by Will Ferguson

roadtriprwandaAlthough Will Ferguson is an award-winning writer in both fiction and non-fiction, Road Trip Rwanda is the first book of his I’ve read. It’s a travel book about a journey to Rwanda taken with a friend, Jean-Claude, who grew up in that country and got out shortly before the 1994 genocide. Though the focus is very much on the beauty, vitality and energy of a country that has thoroughly (and to a large degree successfully) reinvented itself after the horrifying events of 20 years ago, the genocide is always in the background of this story. Ferguson talks to many survivors and visits places where some of the more egregious acts of slaughter took place, so if you don’t want to read about the Rwandan genocide, this is not a good book for you. If you want to read about the successes and also the challenges of Rwanda today, and how the country has tried to meet those challenges, then you will enjoy Road Trip Rwanda.

Among the awards Will Ferguson has won for previous books is the Leacock Medal for humour. While there might not seem to be much fertile ground for humour in revisiting sites of one of the last century’s most horrific genocides, Ferguson does manage to inject a lot of gentle, self-mocking humour into other parts of his Rwandan road trip, and the result is an enjoyable and informative read.

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