Wednesday, 22 March 2017

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

Author: Lisa See
Genre: Contemporary Fiction (China)
Type: Trade Paperback
Pages: 358
Source: Publisher
Publisher: Scribner
First Published: March 21, 2107
First Line: "No coincidence, no story," my a-ma recites, and that seems to settle everything, as it usually does, after First Brother finishes telling us about the dream he had last night."

Book Description from GoodReadsA thrilling new novel from #1 New York Times bestselling author Lisa See explores the lives of a Chinese mother and her daughter who has been adopted by an American couple.

Li-yan and her family align their lives around the seasons and the farming of tea. There is ritual and routine, and it has been ever thus for generations. Then one day a jeep appears at the village gate—the first automobile any of them have seen—and a stranger arrives.

In this remote Yunnan village, the stranger finds the rare tea he has been seeking and a reticent Akha people. In her biggest seller, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, See introduced the Yao people to her readers. Here she shares the customs of another Chinese ethnic minority, the Akha, whose world will soon change. Li-yan, one of the few educated girls on her mountain, translates for the stranger and is among the first to reject the rules that have shaped her existence. When she has a baby outside of wedlock, rather than stand by tradition, she wraps her daughter in a blanket, with a tea cake hidden in her swaddling, and abandons her in the nearest city.

After mother and daughter have gone their separate ways, Li-yan slowly emerges from the security and insularity of her village to encounter modern life while Haley grows up a privileged and well-loved California girl. Despite Haley’s happy home life, she wonders about her origins; and Li-yan longs for her lost daughter. They both search for and find answers in the tea that has shaped their family’s destiny for generations.

A powerful story about a family, separated by circumstances, culture, and distance, Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane paints an unforgettable portrait of a little known region and its people and celebrates the bond that connects mothers and daughters.

My Rating: 4.5 stars

My Review: In her latest book, Lisa See has written a story about family - in its many forms, the bonds between mothers and daughters, what happens when fate takes the reigns and the differences between several cultures all with the backdrop of the tea industry. 

In The Tea Girl from Hummingbird Lane, See focuses on the Akha, one of the fifty-five cultural minorities from deep in the heart of the tea growing region of China. Their reclusive, rural way of life is vividly described to the reader as are their beliefs, which combine a focus on nature, superstition and strict, and sometimes harsh, rules. Some of these beliefs were shocking and hard to read about but See's description of this culture was told with respect and I became fascinated with their unique culture.

The book has two story lines with the main story focusing on Li-yan, a young woman who was raised in a large Akha family. When she becomes pregnant outside of marriage, a strict taboo in her culture, she makes the heartbreaking decision to keep her pregnancy a secret and give her baby girl up for adoption to give both a better life.  Li-yan's life is peppered with struggle and success as she makes her way from living the rural Akha way of life, to experiencing the changes of China's Cultural Revolution, to having success in the lucrative tea business and living a much more modern life than she could have ever dreamed of growing up. While she is a flawed character, you see a strength in Li-yan (as well as her a-ma (mother) who was one of my favourite characters) and I quickly became invested into her struggle, joy, sorrow and determination.

The secondary story follows the life of Haley, the baby Li-yan had given up, who was adopted by a California couple as a baby. Via letters and emails from Haley and Constance, Haley's adoptive mother, See addresses issues some Chinese adoptees and adoptive parents face, namely their struggle to be seen as a family unit despite their physical differences, rude comments made by strangers etc.  I liked that See focused on these issues and I found the discussion between Chinese adoptive kids' quite interesting and eye-opening as they talk about their conflicting feelings about being given up for adoption --- going from unwanted to highly treasured.

"On the one hand, our birth parents in China couldn't get rid of us fast 
enough. On the other hand, we're the biggest gift to our adoptive 
parents. Sometimes I try to imagine what their lives would 
have been life if they hadn't gotten me. It's so weird, don't you think?  
In China, we were considered worthless.  I mean, really worthless.  
Here we're super precious, like Heidi said.  But you could also say our 
moms and dads got cheated by getting the runts - the 
throwaways, anyway - of the litter."

I found the story about these multi-generational women fascinating and enjoyed learning more about the massive tea industry. But, while I have recently become a lover of loose tea, I found that there were parts of the book had so much detail about the harvesting, aging and selling of tea that it became a bit much for me. I was in it for the strong women, familial bonds and hoping for a mother/daughter reunion. Also, while there were a few highly serendipitous connections throughout the story, the ending was satisfyingly powerful (yet not overly surprising) and a little too short for my liking. Those are but minor criticisms within a rather stellar read.

This book is rich in culture and I thank Lisa See for bringing the Akha to the forefront of this book but the true focus, the life of one woman's strength, desire for redemption and determination to find her daughter, that made this book for me.  This well-written and absorbing book illustrates the undeniable bond between mothers and daughters, both birth and adoptive, and would make an excellent book club pick.

Recommended for: Readers who enjoyed Shilpi Somaya Gowda's The Secret Daughter

Disclaimer:  My sincere thanks to Scribner Books for providing me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Mitzi Bytes

Author: Kerry Clare
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Type: Paperback
Pages: 304
Publisher: HarperAvenue
First Published: March 14, 2017
First Line: "Still byting after all these years."

Book Description from GoodReadsSarah Lundy has a secret online life, and it might all come crashing down.

Back at the beginning of the new millennium, when the Internet was still unknown territory, Sarah Lundy started an anonymous blog documenting her return to the dating scene after a devastating divorce. The blog was funny, brutally honest and sometimes outrageous. Readers loved it. Through her blog persona, “Mitzi Bytes,” Sarah not only found her feet again, but she found her voice.

Fifteen years later, Sarah is happily remarried with children and she’s still blogging, but nobody IRL—not even her husband or best friends—knows about Mitzi. They don't know that Sarah’s been documenting all her own exploits, as well as mining the experiences of those around her and sharing these stories with the world. Which means that Sarah is in serious trouble when threatening emails arrive from the mysterious Jane Q. Time’s up, the first one says. You’re officially found out.

As she tries to find out Jane Q’s identity before her secret online self is revealed to everyone, Sarah starts to discover that her loved ones have secrets of their own, and that stronger forces than she imagined are conspiring to turn her world upside down.


A grown-up Harriet the Spy for the digital age, Mitzi Bytes examines the bonds of family and friendship, and the truths we dare tell about ourselves—and others.


My Rating: 3 stars

My Review: Mitzi Bytes is about secrets, boundaries and betrayal. It's about an anonymous blogger who goes from writing about her own life experiences to including secrets and (not always kind) observations about family, friends and acquaintances. When she receives an email threatening to divulge her identity, Sarah's life comes tumbling down around her. 

Okay, so obviously, I loved that Mitzi Bytes is about a blogger.  Blogging is a big part of my life and I liked how Clare addresses the issue of the anonymity of blogging. How what you type doesn't stay on your blog but is thrown out into the world where those words can hurt others. You don't blog in a bubble and Sarah learns that the hard way when her dual lives as Sarah and Mitzi are forced to converge.  

Sarah was a complex gal. She's definitely flawed, not overly likable and yet I think readers will be able to relate to her on some level. We've all had mean thoughts but never voiced them. Sarah used her blog to share those thoughts but never expected them to hit their targets. Was she naive to think she'd remain anonymous with major book deals under her belt? Yes. I think the big thing that kept me from jumping on the Sarah bandwagon was the fact that she repeatedly justified her often mean spirited words. Just admit that, while the posts were what you thought at the time, they were still mean! And yet, her struggle (and it was a struggle) to realize that not everything was about her felt genuine. She's a complicated gal.

What stood out for me is Sarah's strength which, I believe, she draws from her blog. She used it as a cathartic release as she figured out who she is as a woman, mother, wife, sister-in-law and friend. I think many readers will connect with Sarah and her struggle to maintain her own identity, her strained relationships with her in-laws and her commitment to be a good Mom while the highly competitive/high-maintenance PTA super moms are ready to pounce at any weakness. But, as she soon finds out, her blog is also a weakness when her words are revealed to those around her.

One of the weaknesses in the book for me were the secondary characters.  They were a diverse bunch but very much in the background with the men folk being too thinly drawn. Sarah's husband's lack of backbone and easy acceptance of the fallout was hard to believe and her brother-in-law was a one-sided jerk with no redeeming qualities to be seen.  Not a good day for Team Testosterone.

What readers will enjoy is Clare's humour which is sprinkled throughout.  I also enjoyed the addition of the blog archives as a great way to give the reader more background on Sarah/Mitzi and read the words that got people so upset. Honestly, I liked Mitzi and her posts about women and their balancing act between being a mother, wife, sister-in-law etc. I found the posts relatable as were the sometimes complicated relationships women have with each other. 

As the blurb suggests I was expecting a 'Harriet the Spy all grown up' kind of read ... and it was.  And then it kind of wasn't. The first part of the book builds this tension about Jane Q's identity but then the identity is revealed rather quickly and the focus becomes Sarah's lack of sympathy and justifying her online words repeatedly.

Overall, my feelings for this book are all over the place.  I really liked some topics that were addressed but felt other aspects were lacking. This book raises several issues, specifically relationships women have with each other, the anonymity of the internet and the struggles modern women face making to good fodder for book clubs.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

The Roanoke Girls

Author: Amy Engel
Genre: Suspense
Type: ebook
Source: NetGalley
Publisher: Crown Publishing
First Published: March 7, 2017
First Line: "The first time I saw Roanoke was in a dream."


Book Description from GoodReadsRoanoke girls never last long around here. In the end, we either run or we die.

After her mother's suicide, fifteen year-old Lane Roanoke came to live with her grandparents and fireball cousin, Allegra, on their vast estate in rural Kansas. Lane knew little of her mother's mysterious family, but she quickly embraced life as one of the rich and beautiful Roanoke girls. But when she discovered the dark truth at the heart of the family, she ran fast and far away.

Eleven years later, Lane is adrift in Los Angeles when her grandfather calls to tell her Allegra has gone missing. Did she run too? Or something worse? Unable to resist his pleas, Lane returns to help search, and to ease her guilt at having left Allegra behind. Her homecoming may mean a second chance with the boyfriend whose heart she broke that long ago summer. But it also means facing the devastating secret that made her flee, one she may not be strong enough to run from again.

As it weaves between Lane's first Roanoke summer and her return, The Roanoke Girls shocks and tantalizes, twisting its way through revelation after mesmerizing revelation, exploring the secrets families keep and the fierce and terrible love that both binds them together and rips them apart.


My Rating: 4.5 stars

My Review: I wasn't sure that I would finish this book.  I wasn't sure if I could. 

This is a story about family secrets that were much more disturbing than I had initially expected. It focuses on a Dysfunctional (yes, that's a capital D) family which is steeped in horrific secrets that keep them tethered to one another.

The initial reveal of the big secret shocked me so much that I had to read the sentence a few times hoping that I was mistaken. I took time to digest this info, even putting the book down while I decided if I wanted to proceed. But by that time, Engel had drawn me into the mystery surrounding Allegra's disappearance and the back story of Lane and Allegra's summer at the Roanoke house as teens.  

I was hooked ... yet apprehensive.

This book is a mystery but also a dissection of the dynamics of a highly dysfunctional, toxic family and the cult-like influence of its patriarch on its members. Readers, like myself, may feel like a rubbernecker at a tragic accident --- you're curious to see what's going on, but it's distressing to look and yet you can't seem to turn away.  Welcome to the Roanoke family.

The topic addressed will be hard for many readers and like I said, I wasn't sure I could finish it myself. The subject matter made me uncomfortable, angry, sad, sickened ... that's a whole lot of emotions. It's a hard read and not a subject matter that I'd normally want to read. But Engel sensitively incorporates the dysfunction and secret into her plot without making it sensational but more of a explanation for why and how the Roanoke family developed.  

Is it for everyone?  No.  

Is it well-written and a gutsy look into a toxic family?  Definitely.

Disclaimer: My sincere thanks to Crown Publishing for providing me with a complimentary e-book copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Frosted Lemon Cookies


Here in Ontario it's March Break. Unlike many of our friends we are not going to tropical locales or heading to the slopes to swoosh down the hill eagerly awaiting a hot bevvie at the bottom. Instead we're doing a 'hang out at home for a week' kind of vacation.  And by 'vacation' I mean that while my kids don't have school, four of the five of us are working throughout the week.  Yaaaaay-no. Vacation it is not.

But we do get more family time in between the working. To spend time with my 13-year-old daughter (and to make something yummy) she and I made some cookies.  I don't have a sweet tooth but my daughter more than makes up for it.  She is usually eager to create a treat in the kitchen but with two teenager brothers who are constantly ravenous for anything edible (think of bears after hibernation 24/7) my daughter becomes rather, shall we say, overprotective and quite vigilant that her culinary creations be enjoyed and not inhaled. I try to explain that her brothers are just showing her how good her baking is but she is not swayed by this argument and doles out her precious treats in a more reasonable fashion (ie. without the feeding frenzy feel).

I get it, I do. You spend time making these treats only to have your siblings come, not unlike a swarm of locusts, leaving mere crumbs in their wake. That's not cool. The boys give her praise for her baking but their constant 'just one more' mentality ensures that she becomes like Gollum with his ring, ready to protect her 'preciouses' at all cost.

And she has reason to be protective because she has the Baking Gene!! The other day we made Frosted Lemon Cookies and they were delicious. Made with fresh lemon zest these cookies are reminiscent of short bread cookies with a hint of lemon.  The flavour oomph comes from the lemony frosting on top.  Deeelish!  Needless to say, these cookies lasted just over a day in our house. 36 cookies, gone in a flash.  That's the sign of a good baker ... and teenage boys.

Yield: 3 dozen

2 cups + 2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup white sugar
2 1/2 tbsp lemon zest
1 cup salted butter, at room temperature
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla extract

Glaze
1 cup icing sugar, sifted
4-5 tsp lemon juice

Garnish
Lemon zest

Preheat oven to 350F.  Line baking sheets with parchment paper.  Set aside.

In a small bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

In another small bowl, combine white sugar and lemon zest.  Using your fingers, mix it together.  The fragrant oils from the lemon zest will be quickly absorbed into the sugar until it resembles more the clumpy consistency of brown sugar.

In your stand mixer (or by hand), combine room temperature butter with the lemon/sugar mixture.  Beat until light and fluffy. Add egg and vanilla extract.  Mix well.

Slowly add the flour mixture to the butter mixture on low speed (or by hand) until blended.  Using a melon baller or tablespoon, drop dough onto the prepared pans, leaving about 2-inches between the cookies. We rounded our balls of dough and then pressed them with the palms of our hands to slightly flatten them.  

Tip: As you get towards the end of your dough it may become quite crumbly.  Just hold it in your enclosed hand and allow the heat from your hands to soften the butter in the dough.

Bake for 12-14 minutes or until cookies get slightly golden brown on the bottom.  Remove from oven and let cookies sit on the baking pan for 2 minutes.  Transfer cookies from baking pan to a cooling rack and allow them to cool completely.


Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, combine sifted icing sugar and lemon juice.  You want it to be runny enough to spread onto each cookie but not so runny that it'll run right off the cookie.  I ended up using 5 tsp of lemon juice for our cookies.

Either dip your cookies or, like us, use the back of a small spoon and put a bit on the cookie and spread it towards the edges.  It will smooth itself out quickly and the frosting will become more hard. Garnish with wee bits of lemon zest, if desired.

Inspired by: http://www.twopeasandtheirpod.com/glazed-lemon-cookies/print/

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

A Piece of the World


Author: Christina Baker Kline
Genre: Historical Fiction
Type: Trade Paperback
Pages: 320
Publisher: William Morrow
First Published: February 21, 2017
First Line: "Later he told me he'd been afraid to show me the painting."

Book Description from GoodReadsFrom the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the smash bestseller Orphan Train, a stunning and atmospheric novel of friendship, passion, and art, inspired by Andrew Wyeth’s mysterious and iconic painting Christina’s World.

"Later he told me that he’d been afraid to show me the painting. He thought I wouldn’t like the way he portrayed me: dragging myself across the field, fingers clutching dirt, my legs twisted behind. The arid moonscape of wheatgrass and timothy. That dilapidated house in the distance, looming up like a secret that won’t stay hidden." 

To Christina Olson, the entire world was her family’s remote farm in the small coastal town of Cushing, Maine. Born in the home her family had lived in for generations, and increasingly incapacitated by illness, Christina seemed destined for a small life. Instead, for more than twenty years, she was host and inspiration for the artist Andrew Wyeth, and became the subject of one of the best known American paintings of the twentieth century.

As she did in her beloved smash bestseller Orphan Train, Christina Baker Kline interweaves fact and fiction in a powerful novel that illuminates a little-known part of America’s history. Bringing into focus the flesh-and-blood woman behind the portrait, she vividly imagines the life of a woman with a complicated relationship to her family and her past, and a special bond with one of our greatest modern artists.

Told in evocative and lucid prose, A Piece of the World is a story about the burdens and blessings of family history, and how artist and muse can come together to forge a new and timeless legacy.
 


My Rating: 3.5 stars

My Review: After reading and absolutely loving Baker Kline's book, The Orphan Train, three years ago, I was more than a little excited to read her next book. As with Orphan Train, Baker Kline has done a tremendous amount of research - this time featuring New England, Andrew Wyeth and two eras, 1917-1918 and post WWII. She pulls her readers into the small world inhabited by Christina Olson, the woman who inspired the iconic Wyeth painting "Christina's World", as she writes a fictional account of the painting's real-life muse.

Each summer, for over thirty years, Andrew Wyeth went to Christina's farm house and painted. Over time, he and Christina bonded over shared experiences of their overbearing fathers and their physical limitations. It was through this connection that Christina became such an integral part of one of Wyeth's most famous paintings.

This is an intense and melancholic read. Christina is a woman with a deep attachment to her family, their house and land as well as her brother, Al who is always by her side. Christina's affliction, which initially keeps her mainly home bound, becomes less about her physical limitations and more and more about her stubbornness and her emotional and mental afflictions that bear down on her over time. Her bitterness is understandable with all that she lost and what she has had to endure but while she was a unique main character, her demeanor, apathy and choices made it hard to sympathize with her.

I'm grateful that the author provided a picture of the painting at the back of the book because I often turned to it as the story progressed. It is a quietly intense painting which features a stark landscape and a woman lying in a field looking towards a farmhouse.  The more you look at the painting, the more it evokes emotion and additional questions. 

This is a character driven story which was well researched and based on a unique premise. It is a quiet kind of read with no huge twists or jarring moments. Instead, it is a fictional story of the life and struggles of the mysterious woman in the iconic painting. I appreciate the work that went into sharing her story with the world and while I didn't connect with this book as much as I would have hoped, it was well written and an interesting read.

Baker Kline has given Christina Olson a voice and lets her readers into Christina's seemingly simple, stark yet complicated world. As Wyeth did so many years ago, Baker Kline has helped Christina Olson to finally be seen.  

Favourite Quote"What she wants most - what she truly yearns for - is what any of us want: to be seen."

Monday, 13 March 2017

Never Let You Go


Author: Chevy Stevens
Genre: Suspense, Canadian
Type: e-book
Publisher: St Martin's Press
First Published: March 14, 2017
First Line: "November 2005 - I didn't have long."

Book Description from GoodReadsThe author of Still Missing targets her readership with a novel that hits all the notes they come to expect from her—and ratchets up the stakes even more. Lindsey Nash has left an abusive relationship and her ex-husband was sent to jail. She has started over with a new life, her own business, and a teenage daughter who needs her more than ever. When her husband is finally released, Lindsey believes she has cut all ties. There is no way he can ever find her and her daughter again. But she gets the sense that someone is watching her, tracking her every move. Her new boyfriend is threatened. Her home is invaded. Even her daughter is shadowed. Lindsey is convinced it's her ex-husband, even though he claims he is a different person and doesn't want to do her any harm. But can he really change? Is the one who wants her dead even closer to home than she thought? 

My Rating: 5 stars

My Review:  I'm a big fan of Canadian author, Chevy Stevens, and have read all of her books.  I definitely have my favourites (Still Missing, That Night, I'm looking at you!) and I can now happily add Right Behind You to the top of my favs list.  This latest book is a spine tingling, twisty, dark, fast-paced read in which Stevens introduces multiple culprits, each of which have a very plausible reason for terrorizing Lindsey, a single mom of teenage daughter, Sophie.

Stevens brings her readers into Lindsey's tumultuous and highly toxic marriage.  From their romantic beginning, to bringing their daughter into the world and ultimately to the demise of their marriage which was caused by fear, distrust, abuse, control and one fateful decision.  Lindsey's confusion, mistrust and fear are palpable for the reader and rear up again ten years later when her husband is released from prison.  He says he's a changed man and wants them back.  But has he changed?  Or is he furtively toying with their lives?

The book flows back and forth between Lindsey and Sophie's points of view with ease.  This dual perspective helps readers connect with both women and I felt that Stevens got into the teenage mindset and vernacular well (as a mom of three teens I consider myself fairly savvy when it comes to teens). I was surprised at how emotionally charged a few of the scenes were -- you can feel Lindsey's fear and understand her paranoia as well as Sophie's confusion about what she should feel for her father.  

The characters, in general, are believable and multi-layered with the secondary characters playing active roles within the plot. There are a few different culprits introduced to readers. I jumped back and forth about who I thought was the 'baddie' because each of them had good reason to be terrorizing Lindsey.

Lastly, can I just say that I love how Stevens proudly shows her Canadian pride in her books?  She keeps her characters and settings in Canada. She's a Canuck and not afraid to show it - even including a shout out to Tim Horton's in one scene.

This is an outstanding read that kept my interest the entire time. With its multiple twists, scenes that gave me ALL the feels (good and bad), a couple of characters I could root for (and a few I could enjoyable hate) this is one stellar suspense read. 

As I joked with Chevy Stevens on Twitter the other day, over the course of two days she was responsible for my laundry pile growing, no working out and limited food in my cupboards.  Once I started this book I couldn't put it down.  The sign of a great read.  I highly recommend this book. Just be prepared that it will take over your life for some suspense filled hours of pure enjoyment.  You have been warned.

Disclaimer:  My sincere thanks to St Martin's Press for providing me with a complimentary ebook copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Right Behind You

Author: Lisa Gardner
Genre: Suspense
Type: Hardcover
Source: Local Public Library
Pages: 400
Series: #7 in the Quincy and Rainie series
Publisher: Dutton Books
First Published: January 31, 2017
First Line: "I had a family once."

Book Description from GoodReads

Is he a hero?

Eight years ago, Sharlah May Nash’s older brother beat their drunken father to death with a baseball bat in order to save both of their lives. Now thirteen years old, Sharlah has finally moved on. About to be adopted by retired FBI profiler Pierce Quincy and his partner, Rainie Conner, Sharlah loves one thing best about her new family: They are all experts on monsters.

Is he a killer?

Then the call comes in. A double murder at a local gas station, followed by reports of an armed suspect shooting his way through the wilds of Oregon. As Quincy and Rainie race to assist, they are forced to confront mounting evidence: The shooter may very well be Sharlah’s older brother, Telly Ray Nash, and it appears his killing spree has only just begun. 

All she knows for sure: He’s back.

As the clock winds down on a massive hunt for Telly, Quincy and Rainie must answer two critical questions: Why after eight years has this young man started killing again? And what does this mean for Sharlah? Once upon a time, Sharlah’s big brother saved her life. Now, she has two questions of her own: Is her brother a hero or a killer? And how much will it cost her new family before they learn the final, shattering truth? Because as Sharlah knows all too well, the biggest danger is the one standing right behind you.


My Rating: 3 stars

My Review:  I'm a fan of Lisa Gardner. She's kept me on the edge of my seat more than a few times with her DD Warren series. Right Behind You is her latest bookish offering and the 7th book in the Quincy and Rainie series. 

The most surprising thing about this book is that I wasn't captivated. Not a good surprise, for sure.  There were some twists but I can't say I was ever captivated by the characters or the plot. It felt predictable, more than a little long-winded and I can't say that I was a drawn to Quincy and Rainie.  They weren't driving the story and felt like secondary characters alongside characters like Cal, who readers will forever remember as the 'tracker/cheese maker' because it's mentioned repeatedly about his mad skills at cheese making.

One of the things I enjoyed about the book is how Gardner addresses the idea of familial bonds (both blood and other) and how much those bonds can influence who we become. She paints a strong picture of the sad childhood that Sharlah and Telly experienced at the hands of their birth parents and shows how vastly different the siblings' experiences were within the foster care system.

This is a decent read but not up to the standard that I had expected from Gardner.  Unfortunately, this book won't stay with me for long. I'm going to stick with her DD Warren series (Find Her was fantastic!).

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Big Mushy Happy Lump


Author: Sarah Andersen
Genre: Comics/Graphic Novel
Series: Sarah Scribbles #2
Type: e-book
Source: NetGalley
Publisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing
First Published: March 7, 2017
First Line: "I have so much work to do."

Book Description from GoodReadsSwimsuit season is coming up! Better get beach-body ready! Work on those abs! Lift those butts! 

...Um, or how about never mind to all that and just be a lump. Big Mushy Happy Lump! 

Sarah Andersen's hugely popular, world-famous Sarah's Scribbles comics are for those of us who boast bookstore-ready bodies and Netflix-ready hair, who are always down for all-night reading-in-bed parties and extremely exclusive after-hour one-person music festivals. 

In addition to the most recent Sarah's Scribbles fan favorites and dozens of all-new comics, this volume contains illustrated personal essays on Sarah's real-life experiences with anxiety, career, relationships and other adulthood challenges that will remind readers of Allie Brosh's Hyperbole and a Half and Jenny Lawson's Let's Pretend This Never Happened. The same uniquely frank, real, yet humorous and uplifting tone that makes Sarah's Scribbles so relatable blooms beautifully in this new longer form.


My Rating: 4 stars

My Review: Sarah Andersen is back!!  Her comics are a battle cry for awkward, introverted, comfy clothes lovin' people who have a penchant for self-deprecation and bottling up their feelings.  My kind of people!!

Once again, her comics feature expressive big headed, big eyed characters with wee appendages.  The main character is relatable as she struggles with low self-confidence, social anxiety, unexpected period woes, holding in her emotions and even a sudden addiction to all thinks kitty.

But, while Big Mushy Happy Lump is similar to Andersen's previous book, Adulthood is a Myth, it has more of a personal feel to it as she interjects personal narratives about some of the issues addressed.  While I couldn't relate to the character's one-eighty from being a cat hater to lover of all things feline, there were many other of her comics that I could relate to. 

Like today after I get my haircut into a short bob I will invariably walk by someone with long, flowing locks and regret my decision.  It happens ... every ... time.

My favourite comic shows the differences between men and women when it comes to compliments.  This one had me giggling repeatedly because I have reacted exactly that way many times with my sisters.
And don't forget the unfair fresh hell that is puberty for us girls ...


While not all the comic strips were laugh out loud funny (and a few had been featured in her first book) this is still a very enjoyable book. If you're introverted, have suffered through embarrassing social situations, feel pretty snazzy when you're wearing your 'good' undies and would rather snuggle up with a pet in an old ratty sweatshirt and read then this book will give you that "I'm not alone!" feeling.  If you're more of an extrovert then this book will educate you on the finer points in dealing with us lovable, awesome, complicated introverts.

Disclaimer: My sincere thanks to Andrews McMeel Publishing and NetGalley for providing me with a complimentary e-copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Close Enough to Touch

Author: Colleen Oakley
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Type: Trade Paperback
Pages: 306
Source: Publisher
Publisher: Gallery Books
First Published: March 7, 2017
First Line: "At first glance, Jubilee Jenkins is your run-of-the-mill third grader."

Book Description from GoodReadsOne time a boy kissed me and I almost died... 

And so begins the story of Jubilee Jenkins, a young woman with a rare and debilitating medical condition: she’s allergic to other humans. After a humiliating near-death experience in high school, Jubilee has become a recluse, living the past nine years in the confines of the small town New Jersey house her unaffectionate mother left to her when she ran off with a Long Island businessman. But now, her mother is dead, and without her financial support, Jubilee is forced to leave home and face the world—and the people in it—that she’s been hiding from.

One of those people is Eric Keegan, a man who just moved into town for work. With a daughter from his failed marriage who is no longer speaking to him, and a brilliant, if psychologically troubled, adopted son, Eric’s struggling to figure out how his life got so off-course, and how to be the dad—and man—he wants so desperately to be. Then, one day, he meets a mysterious woman named Jubilee, with a unique condition...

Close Enough to Touch is an evocative, poignant, and heartrending exploration of the power and possibilities of the human heart.


My Rating: 4.5 stars

My Review: This is a story about a young woman named Jubilee Jenkins who has a severe, life-threatening allergy ... to other people. This story has a bit of everything - romance, dysfunctional relationships, serious issues and a hodgepodge of distinct characters set within a poignant story.

Jubilee is a protagonist that I could get behind and I loved that she was a book lover and fellow Library Assistant. She had quirks, issues and faults and you will root for her.  But her allergy sets her apart and becomes debilitating to the extent that she becomes agoraphobic.  When she's forced to leave her house after years of being a recluse her small world begins to expand.  Did it feel a little too easy for her to leave her house after nine years of being agoraphobic?  Yes, a little.  But by then I wanted her to succeed so badly that I was willing to overlook the relative ease with which she slipped back into the outside world.  

Being a mom of an anaphylactic teen myself I also connected with Jubliee and her allergy. Even though Jubilee's allergy to people is fictional, I applaud Oakley for bringing an authenticity to the severity, fear and misunderstanding that often comes with severe allergies. Jubilee's intense fear of having another allergic reaction is palpable to the reader.

As Jubilee's world expands she meets Eric and his son, Aja (easily my favourite character of the bunch). My heart hurt for Aja. He's a sweet, awkward, inquisitive, brilliant boy who has lost his way.  He has his father, Eric, by his side whose love for the boy is apparent but Eric is equally lost after his recent divorce. He's a pro at misreading situations and people and his deep need to reconnect with his teenage daughter takes a lot of his energy. 

One of my favourite relationships in the book was between Jubilee and Aja.  They were kindred spirits whose connection was almost immediate and something that they both needed very much. The book also focuses on the romance between Jubliee and Eric which was sweet, awkward, complicated and touching.  How does one have a relationship with the fear that an accidental touch may cause the death of the person you love? There were a few scenes within these various relationships that will tug at readers' heartstrings.

My only issue with the book is the ending which felt rushed with things falling into place a little too easily for the characters.  I liked how things turned out but would have liked to get more details and time to digest it.

This is an offbeat romance of an eccentric, introverted protagonist that examines different relationships (romantic; divorced families; contentious relationships with parents) as well as some serious issues (anaphylaxis, agoraphobia, loss and family dysfunction).  Oakley's writing is top notch as she approaches these complex issues and relationships with heart and a bit of humour thrown in for balance. 

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: My sincere thanks to Gallery Books for providing me with a complimentary paperback copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

The Silent Kookaburra

Author: Liza Perrat
Genre: Suspense
Type: e-book
Source: Author
Publisher: Amazon
First Published: November 29, 2016
First Line: "Knuckles blanch, distend as my hand curves around the yellowed newspaper pages and my gaze hooks onto the headlines."

Book Description from GoodReadsAll eleven-year-old Tanya Randall wants is a happy family. But Mum does nothing besides housework, Dad’s always down the pub and Nanna Purvis moans at everyone except her dog. Then Shelley arrives –– the miracle baby who fuses the Randall family in love for their little gumnut blossom. 

Tanya’s life gets even better when she meets an uncle she didn’t know she had. He tells her she’s beautiful and could be a model. Her family refuses to talk about him. But that’s okay, it’s their little secret. 

Then one blistering summer day tragedy strikes, and the surrounding mystery and suspicion tear apart this fragile family web. 

Embracing the social changes of 1970s Australia, against a backdrop of native fauna and flora, The Silent Kookaburra is a haunting exploration of the blessings, curses and tyranny of memory. 

Unsettling psychological suspense blending the intensity of Wally Lamb with the atmosphere of Peter James, this story will get under your skin. 


My Rating: 3.5/5 stars

My Review: I have read and enjoyed two of Perrat's earlier Historical Fiction novels set during WWII (Wolfsangel, Blood Rose Angel).  She is a wonderful writer whose plots are compelling and characters leap off the page.  When she approached me to review this book I was more than eager to read something from her from a different genre and era - suspense in the 'groovy' 1970's.

The book is set within Perrat's native Australia with Tanya, an eleven year old girl as our protagonist. She's a tween growing up in the 1970's who experiences bullying and lives in a dysfunctional family.  Perrat got into Tanya's mindset, rationale and vernacular well and gives her readers a different perspective looking at the mystery through a child's eyes. But, using a child as the protagonist limits how much the reader can see and I found some scenes hard to read when I could easily predict what would happen but naive Tanya could not.

These emotional scenes are contrasted by the humour of Nanna Purvis with her mispronounced words and opinionated 'old school' values.  While Tanya and her Nanna were quite vibrant as characters, unfortunately some of the secondary characters didn't feel quite so well-defined (Angela and her family, the mean girl down the street etc).

This book is touted as a suspense read but I found it was much more of an analysis on this dysfunctional family.  There was a murder but it was slowly paced and played second fiddle to the turbulent lives of the Randall family.  And wow, were they turbulent!  There were some scenes that were quite disturbing and hard to read.  But these scenes help the reader to root for Tanya who has lived through so much and, unfortunately, has had to take up more responsibilities in her family because her parents are absent - emotionally and physically.  There is still an element of suspense that progresses through the book but the tension wasn't there for me. The twist, which wasn't predictable but wasn't shocking either, is left until the end.

Overall, this was a good 'slow burn' kind of read that had some hard to read scenes but wasn't as suspenseful as I had hoped.  It had some very powerful scenes but I would call it a well written story that features several social issues and a destructive family who suffers through tragedy, loss, mental illness, abuse and the effects of family secrets.

Disclaimer: My sincere thanks to Liza Perrat for providing me with a complimentary e-book copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

The Wonder

Author: Emma Donoghue
Genre: Suspense, Gothic, Canadian
Type: Hardcover
Pages: 291
Publisher: Harper Collins Canada
First Published: September 20, 2016
First Line: "The journey was no worse than she expected."

Book Description from GoodReadsAn eleven-year-old girl stops eating, but remains miraculously alive and well. A nurse, sent to investigate whether she is a fraud, meets a journalist hungry for a story.

Set in the Irish Midlands in the 1850s, The Wonder—inspired by numerous European and North American cases of “fasting girls” between the sixteenth century and the twentieth—is a psychological thriller about a child’s murder threatening to happen in slow motion before our eyes. Pitting all the seductions of fundamentalism against sense and love, it is a searing examination of what nourishes us, body and soul.
 


My Rating: 4.5 stars

My Review:  It took me awhile to get into this book and I almost put it down.  But, based on my friend's review I persevered and I'm so glad I did.  This is the ultimate slow-burn kind of book and it wasn't until around page 175, two-thirds of the way through, that the book went from slow-burn to fully ignited where you would have had to pry this book out of my hands to get me to stop reading.

The Wonder is a quiet, mysterious and atmospheric read about an eleven-year-old girl who claims to have lived without food for four months and the nurse who is hired to observe the girl to see if this miracle is true or a hoax. Throughout the book, Donoghue gives her readers vivid descriptions of late 19th century rural Ireland's countryside, local hierarchy and people and shows the strong power of faith among many of the locals.  The atmosphere is lonely, secluded and dreary.  It's within this setting that the plot is slowly revealed as Lib, a Nightingale trained nurse, tries to figure out what is happening to her charge.

Lib is a wonderful main character who goes through a transformation from ardent skeptic to a strong advocate for her patient. She was complex and her feelings were often in line with my own.  I loved the backbone she showed with the local men in power and as Lib's concern and frustration increased so did mine. I found myself more and more invested in learning what was going on with this child.  I felt a whole gamut of emotions - I was sad, hopeful, curious, anxious but most of all, angry. 

My perspective went through a metamorphosis while reading. While I initially didn't think there was a supernatural element involved, as I continued reading, I wasn't entirely sure that there wasn't a possibility of a mystical aspect.  How could this eleven-year-old girl survive for four months without food?  Donoghue painted such an eerie atmosphere for her readers as well as a strong sense of faith within many of the characters that by the end I felt anything was possible.  Could it be a miracle as some of the locals believed?  Or was it something more mundane, yet nefarious?  I had a few theories but ultimately, I didn't predict the final outcome. Donoghue had me hook, line and sinker.

I also enjoyed seeing the infancy of modern nursing.  Donoghue shows the frustrations and struggles nurses experienced to be taken seriously and professionally by doctors.  The general limitations of being a woman in the late 19th century is well documented as well.

I don't want to give any of the plot away but just know that I highly recommend this book.  It's a slow go at first but the last third of the book makes up for the cautious beginning. While this feels like a different kind of book from Donoghue's other book Room (which I also enjoyed) I think that she gives her readers a similar 'can't put this book down' kind of intense read.  

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

The Promise of Canada

Author: Charlotte Gray
Genre: Non-Fiction, Canadian
Type: Hardcover
Pages: 400
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
First Published: October 28, 2016
First Line: "When I immigrated to Canada from Britain, I was stunned to discover the wobbly sense of national identity here."

Book Description from GoodReads:  What does it mean to be a Canadian? What great ideas have changed our country? An award-winning writer casts her eye over 150 years of Canadian history.

“Our country owes its success not to some imagined tribal singularity but to the fact that, although its thirty-five million citizens do not look, speak or pray alike, we have learned to share this land and for the most part live in neighbourly sympathy.” —Charlotte Gray, from the Preface of The Promise of Canada

On the eve of Canada’s sesquicentennial celebrations comes a richly rewarding new book from acclaimed historian Charlotte Gray about what it means to be Canadian. Readers already know Gray as an award-winning biographer, a writer who has brilliantly captured significant individuals and dramatic moments in our history. Now, in The Promise of Canada, she weaves together masterful portraits of nine influential Canadians, creating a unique history of the country over the past 150 years.

What do these people—from George-√Čtienne Cartier and Emily Carr to Tommy Douglas, Margaret Atwood, and Elijah Harper—have in common? Each, according to Charlotte Gray, has left an indelible mark on our country. Deliberately avoiding a “top down” approach to our history, Gray has chosen people whose ideas have caught her imagination, ideas that over time have become part of our collective conversation. She also highlights many other Canadians, past and present, who have added to the ongoing debate over how we see ourselves, arguing that Canada has constantly re-imagined itself in every generation since 1867.

Beautifully illustrated with evocative black and white images and colourful artistic visions of our country, The Promise of Canada is a fresh take on our history that offers fascinating insights into how we have matured and yet how—150 years after Confederation and beyond—we are still a people in progress. Charlotte Gray makes history come alive as she opens doors into our past, our present and our future, inspiring and challenging readers to envision the Canada they want to live in.


My Rating: 5 stars

My Review: This past weekend I had the opportunity to go to a book event featuring award-winning author Charlotte Gray.  She was interviewed by fellow Canadian author Susanna Kearsley about her recently published book The Promise of Canada.  It was an interesting interview which got to the heart of why Gray chose this specific format and focus for her tenth published book.


Gray arrived in Canada 40 years ago, and as an immigrant she brings a unique perspective as she chronicles the elements that have most influenced our 150 year old country.  Each chapter focuses on one person within each of these elements. She doesn't necessarily choose well-known Canadians (and has consciously not focused on Prime Ministers and famous athletes) and yet the diverse group of people she has chosen are pivotal in the formation of the Canada we know today. 

These influential Canadians include: 

  • George Etienne Cartier and his involvement in the formation of federalism
  • Sam Steele, one of the founding officers in the Northwest Mounted Police (NWMP)
  • Emily Carr and the distinction and recognition of Canadian art
  • Harold Innis and his Staples Theory about how the exploitation and export of natural staples (fur, lumber) effected Canadian economics, politics and culture
  • Tommy Douglas and the beginning of Canadian Medicare
  • Margaret Atwood for the beginning of CanLit
  • Bertha Wilson - first woman on the Supreme Court of Canada
  • Elijah Harper - politician and First Nations leader and his effect on the Meech Lake Accord
  • Preston Manning - a politican who changed Canadian politics more than many people realize  
  • and five short vignettes which include a mayor, rapper, artist, journalist and business innovator
This is a well researched book. Gray uses first and secondary sources as well as interviews with some of the subjects and brings it all together for an enjoyable read. This is no dry textbook-like read nor is it a comprehensive history of Canada. It is compelling (even for this rare Non-Fiction reader) and filled with facts, humour and history.  It is an honest and a non-partisan look at our country from infancy to modern day and will give readers a better insight into how our country attained its unique culture, diversity, values and all the things that bring us together as a country.

While overall this is a positive look at Canada's history Gray also recognizes some events that weren't our proudest moments - most egregious being the treatment of Canada's Indigenous peoples in the past, present and their as yet unknown future within our country.  Even these negative moments have influenced the formation of our country.

Since this is Canada's sesquicentennial this book is very apropos and a nice reminder about where we started, our struggles and the hard work that others did to form our country. I had my favourite Canadians within the bunch but this book has shown me that although I am a proud Canadian I didn't know as much about my country as I thought. Gray has enlightened me and helped me to reconnect with the country that I'm proud to call home.  And even though the question "What does it mean to be a Canadian?" may continue to be elusive I think that understanding where we've come from will help us to see that our uniqueness, core values and history bind us together more than separate us.

Highly recommended. 

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