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Thursday, 23 February 2017

The Hidden Keys - A Review


After I read “Fifteen Dogs” several years ago Andre Alexis became on author on my “need to read more by him” list.  If you saw my TBR you would understand why that hasn’t happened until now.  When I read about the release of this book in 2016 I knew I wanted to pick it up.  It took me this long to get to it.  Shame on me!

THE HIDDEN KEYS by Andre Alexis

Tancred Palmieri is an enigma – an honourable thief who also happens to have a detective as a best friend.  He lives in and mixes with the people in a shadier area of Toronto, not somewhere you would expect to meet Willow Azarian, a billion dollar heiress with a not so secret heroin addiction.  Tancred knew nothing about Willow but she knew him by reputation.  A chance(?) meeting sitting on the bar stools in a dive bar prompts them to start a conversation.  Tancred took Willow to be what she appeared, a slightly eccentric addict with possibly delusions of grandeur – until she shows him her “mad money” bank book containing a 6 figure balance.  After saving her from some thugs Willow tells Tancred a fantastic story about a treasure hunt her father arranged for her before he died.  Each of the five Azarian siblings received an unusual gift bequest in their father’s will.  Each gift individually was simply a memento but combined they were an intricate series of clues.  Willow is convinced there is a pot of gold at the end of the hunt but her siblings believe otherwise.  Willow wants Tancred to steal each of their mementos and help her solve the puzzle.  He gives his word and Tancred is nothing if not a man of his word even when it means completing the task without Willow’s help.  He quickly finds out that others are also on the same quest but is he on the mother of all treasure hunts or the wildest goose chase of his life?

As he did in “Fifteen Dogs” Mr. Alexis gives his reader an extremely entertaining story. This one is filled with eccentric characters from all parts of the economic spectrum, he gives us moments of almost slapstick humour and at other times nail biting suspense, all combining to ask the reader to question what the true meaning of family, friendship and promises might be.  Amazingly enough he does this in an unobtrusive way.  Never obviously preaching the subtle undertones, it wasn’t until I read the last page and closed the cover that it occurred to me how meaningful this entertaining story really was. 

If I was pressed to find fault with the book I would have to admit that in one or two instances it dragged a little, more than likely because I was impatient to find out if there was a treasure.  It was fun to read a book set in Toronto, a city I know well so it’s still five stars for this one.  Mr. Alexis hit another one out of the park.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from the Wikipedia)

Andre Alexis was born in Trinidad and grew up in Canada.  His debut novel, Childhood, won the Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Trillium Book Award, and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize.

Alexis began his artistic career in the theatre, and has held the position of playwright-in-residence at the Canadian Stage Company. His short play Lambton, Kent, first produced and performed in 1995, was released as a book in 1999.  His first published work of fiction, Despair and Other Stories of Ottawa (1994), was short-listed for the Commonwealth Prize.
Alexis published Ingrid and the Wolf, his first work of juvenile fiction, in 2005. Alexis wrote the libretto for James Rolfe's opera Aeneas and Dido, which premiered at Toronto Masque Theatre in 2007.  His novel Asylum was published in 2008, and is set in Ottawa during the government of Brian Mulroney.  Fifteen Dogs, was published in 2015 and won both the Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers' Trust Award that year. The third novel, The Hidden Keys, was published in 2016.

In 2017, Alexis was announced as a juror for the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Alexis lives and works in Toronto, where he has hosted programming for CBC Radio, reviews books for The Globe and Mail, and is a contributing editor for This Magazine.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

84 Charing Cross Road - A Review


This book blipped on my radar but wasn’t readily available so I sort of forgot about it, then it magically arrived on my doorstep in my “Cozy Box Swap” and I was quite thrilled.  I had a mountainous pile of library books that had to be read and returned so it took me a while to get to this one.  I’m really sorry about that because 1. It was a gift and I wanted to read it and, 2. It is a fantastic book!

84 CHARING CROSS ROAD by Helene Hanff

Helene is looking through the Saturday Review of Literature when she comes across an ad for the bookstore at 84 Charing Cross Road.  She writes a letter to the store inquiring about purchasing some classic books she is having difficulty finding in New York City … difficult that is without leaving her apartment and spending an outrageous amount of money.  Soon enough the books arrive on her doorstep and so begins a 20-year correspondence and friendship between herself and the proprietor of the store, Frank Doel.  The story is told entirely through the letters she and Frank, as well as some other employees of the store and Frank’s family, share.  The reader is not only privy to their lives through the correspondence but is also given a very clear picture of post war London compared to New York City in the same time period.  It was a charming read.

Helene never made it to London during Frank’s lifetime, or for that matter the lifetime of the bookstore at 84 Charing Cross Road, but she did eventually manage to take her “dream trip” to London because of the letters.  


A trip paid for by their publication led to what was the second half of this book, originally published as “The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street”, it is the tale of her exploration of London.  A little bittersweet because she can never meet Frank she never the less takes her reader along as she joyfully explores this city she loved from afar.

While I enjoyed the first part of the book slightly more than the second the book taken as a whole was marvellous.  I fell a little bit in love with Helene: her brashness, her outspokenness, her feminism before it was fashionable and her frugal way of getting things done.  She charmed me as she charmed all the people she met along the way during this part of her life.

This was definitely a 5-star read and I encourage anyone who loves books and likes London to pick up this book.  This is a book that is definitely getting a permanent home on my favorites bookshelf.  I am going to make a point of picking up what amounts to the third in this original “trilogy”, “Q’s Legacy”.  I wish I had read this book before my own trip to London last year.

  
“I do love secondhand books that open to the page some previous owner read oftenest. ...

“I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages someone long gone has called my attention to.”
                                                                              
Helene Hanff


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

An American writer born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She is best known as the author of the book 84, Charing Cross Road which became the basis for a stage play, television play, and film of the same name.

Helene Hanff's career saw her move from unproduced playwright to creator of some of the earliest television dramas to becoming a noted writer and personality in her own right, as a quintessential New Yorker. She wrote a memoir in 1961 called Underfoot in Show Business that chronicled her struggles as an ambitious young playwright trying to make it in the world of New York theatre in the 1940s and 1950s. She worked in publicists' offices and spent summers on the "straw hat circuit" along the East Coast, all the while writing one play after another. Her plays were admired by some of Broadway's leading producers but somehow none of them ever made it to the stage.
When network television production geared up in New York City in the early 1950s, Hanff found a new career writing and editing scripts for many early television dramas. Chief among these was the Dumont Network series The Adventures of Ellery Queen. At the same time, she continued to try to get one of her plays produced on Broadway and not just be "one of the 999 out of 1,000 who didn't become Moss Hart." (In later editions of Underfoot, this reference was changed to Noël Coward.) The bulk of television production eventually moved to California, but Hanff chose to remain in New York. As her TV work dried up, she turned to writing for magazines and, eventually, to the books that made her reputation.

Hanff was never shy about her fondness for cigarettes and martinis, but nevertheless lived to be 80, dying of diabetes in 1997 in New York City. The apartment building where she lived at 305 E. 72nd Street has been named "Charing Cross House" in her honor. A bronze plaque next to the front door commemorates her residence and authorship of the book. In England, a bronze plaque on the site of the original building commemorates the bookshop at 84, Charing Cross Road.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Nocturnal Animals - A Review


Susan Morrow is comfortable in her second marriage; although it’s not perfect she enjoys her home and her children.  She tells herself this is the life she wants.  Her first marriage to Edward Sheffield was filled with her encouraging him to write and Edward making excuses.  She hasn’t thought about Edward in years and then all of a sudden a manuscript arrives in the mail with a letter from Edward asking her to read his book.  Susan waits until she has some quiet moments and then begins the book about some …

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS by Austin Wright.

Susan is quickly drawn into the fictional life of Tony Hastings and his family.  On an ordinary drive to their summerhouse in Maine the unimaginable happened.  At first Tony is left emotionally paralysed by the violence done to himself and his family.  Slowly, he comes to terms with the fact that it happened but is unexpectedly drawn in to the often unexplainable quest for judgement both he and the local police seem to need in closing the case of what happened to Tony and his family.

Nocturnal Animals” is a book within a book that seemed like an interesting concept when I first read about it.  The first part of the book held my interest because I got caught up in Susan’s excitement at digging into the manuscript.  I could relate to her wanting a quiet place and a set time frame to do the book justice.  Reading along with Susan I was as shocked as she was at what was happening to the Hastings family.  When Susan had to close the manuscript to address her life (which I very quickly became bored with) I, like Susan, couldn’t wait to get back to the manuscript.  Unfortunately that feeling really didn’t last much past the first third of both the book and the book within the book.

I can’t say the writing was horrible – I’ve read worse – but the editor was asleep at his job on this one.  This book was previously published under the title “Susan and Tony” so you would think this being the second go round the errors might have been caught?  There were sentences that I had to read two and three times and still couldn’t make sense out of them.  I just moved on hoping I didn’t miss some important piece of information.  This does not endear me to the book I am reading.

I also kept waiting for the book to fulfill the promise in the cover description, “Susan is plunged into the past, forced to confront the darkness that inhabits her and driven to name the fear that gnaws at her future and will change her life.”  Yeah – didn’t happen.

So why did I keep reading?  There was an underlying sense that this book was going to surprise me with a big reveal at the end.  I was optimistic that my fortitude would pay off.  It didn’t.  The ending I was expecting never materialized and in the case of both books I was left disappointed.

I’m giving this one 2 stars because the first third was, aside from the editing, interesting.  It was too bad the rest didn’t live up to the hype.  This book has been made into a movie.  I may watch it if it ever makes it to the small screen but doubt I’ll go out of my way to do so.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from the Telegraph)

Austin Wright, an American novelist and English professor who died in 2003 at the age of 80. Despite having been praised by the likes of Saul Bellow, he remained little known in his lifetime. 

Between 1969 and 1977, Austin Wright wrote three experimental novels – Camden’s Eyes, First Persons and The Morley Mythology – all of which played with ideas about fiction and narrative voice. The protagonists wake up to discover they are characters in novels, or hear voices in their head so fully fledged they have real names. There are books within books and minds within minds. While the action is pulpy – sex, blackmail, murder, suicide – the context is mundane, typically involving a mild-mannered, middle-aged academic. (Katharine Wright remembers being “freaked out” by the violence in her father’s books: “It was such a leap from the man, who was very sweet and shy, to these crimes.”)

‘He was interested in how the mind works,” Katharine Wright says of her father, “how it fools itself and how it tries to rationalize things.” Wright was an inveterate player of games and puzzles – at Christmas in 1974, he waited until everyone had opened their presents, then gleefully pulled out from behind the sofa a newly invented Rubik’s Cube he had bought and wrapped for himself. He was also a compulsive recorder of facts. On long car journeys, the rest of the family would tease him about all the information he had noted in his journal: where they stopped for petrol, what they ate and so on.
Then, at the end of his life, his unique brain seemed to unpack itself, as if his most artful patterns of thought were spilling out uncontrolled. “Some horrible thing happened in his mind,” Katharine recalls. Doctors thought he might have Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, though an autopsy later proved that wrong; the cause of Wright’s death remains a mystery.

City of the Lost - A Review


Casey Duncan has three things in her life she cares about: being a detective, her best friend Diana and her no-strings-attached sometimes lover.  She also has one big secret.  When it seems like her past is catching up to her and Diana’s present is getting dangerous she realizes that they both have to disappear.  No place better than Rockton …

THE CITY OF THE LOST by Kelley Armstrong.

Rockton is a unique place.  It’s in the middle of nowhere and you will not find it on a map anywhere.  Somewhere in the Yukon, Rockton is filled with people who found it necessary to disappear from their lives … some for their own protection and some to evade the law.  Each must go through a vetting process and possess a significant amount of money to be accepted but only the Sheriff knows who is there and for what reason, yet even that information may not be trustworthy.  As each person arrives they are given tasks according to their particular skill set so Casey quickly becomes a deputy … just in time to help solve a gruesome murder.

In this, the first book of her new series, Ms. Armstrong once again does what she does so well – build a fictional world that is believable and unique.  Whether it’s her “Otherworld” or Rockton she takes us just far enough out of reality to make it ring possible.  An isolated town, a murder mystery and a little romance thrown in make “City of the Lost” an excellent read.  Originally published as six mini novellas I’m sure the reader was kept in suspense from one installment to the next.  I waited until all six parts came out in book form and am glad I did so.  Although, let’s face it, it’s a great marketing ploy but I would have found it frustrating to read it in bits and pieces.  Can’t wait for the next book in the series.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website)

I’ve been telling stories since before I could write. My earliest written efforts were disastrous. If asked for a story about girls and dolls, mine would invariably feature undead girls and evil dolls, much to my teachers’ dismay. All efforts to make me produce “normal” stories failed. Today, I continue to spin tales of ghosts and demons and werewolves, while safely locked away in my basement writing dungeon.

Friday, 10 February 2017

The Lion in the Livingroom - A Review


The mission statement of this book can be found in the description on the flyleaf “to better understand the furry strangers in our midst”.  Science writer Abigail Tucker does an admirable job but really, can anyone really understand cats?

THE LION IN THE LIVINGROOM: HOW HOUSE CATS TRAINED US AND TOOK OVER THE WORLD by Abigail Tucker

Ms. Tucker, a cat lover herself, takes us on a masterful historic tour of the world of cats and how they came to be the most popular of pets the world over – or rather how they invaded our lives and homes to ingratiate themselves into our lives – making us not owners, but drooling love slaves.  If you are expecting a written version of a “cute cat you-tube” video BE WARNED, this book is anything but that.  In fact if I didn’t know better I would think this book was written to dissuade anyone from ever cohabitating with a feline.

Ms. Tucker takes her reader through the history of cats and how they, quite literally, domesticated (if that word can even be used in reference to cats) themselves and how they managed to travel the world over, sometimes much to the chagrin and detriment of local residents, both human and wildlife.  Yes, she tackles the ugly problem of cats, domestic and feral, and their negative impact on the wildlife in their vicinity. 

“Worldwide, house cats already outnumber dogs, their great rival for our affections, but as many as three to one, and their advantage is probably increasing.  The tally of pet cats in America rose by 50 percent between 1986 to 2006, and today approaches 100 million … Wild and tame, homebound and footloose, these cats increasingly preside over nature and culture, the concrete jungles and the real ones beyond … the house cat is the new king of beasts.”

Ms. Tucker seems to have a wide variety of scientists and researchers on speed dial and gives excellent insight into things such as the toxoplasma parasite and how it may have possible infected the human brain causes us to love our little fur-babies even more, why cats, despite the best efforts of humans manage to remain strong and plentiful in feral communities. 

From history to science, cats in literature to our obsession with cats on the internet, dogs vs. cats as pets and new specialty breeds such as rag dolls and werewolf cats Ms. Tucker has written a very comprehensive book that every cat owner/lover should read at some point.  You may not like everything you read but it is worth knowing.

While I believe Ms. Tucker has done very thorough research in writing this book I can not, because of personal experience with this amazing creature that is cat, quite bring myself to jump on the bandwagon of everything she has written … or course, that could be a touch toxoplasmosis talking?  Read the book – you’ll understand.

Despite my minor misgivings I am still rating this book at 5 stars.  Ms. Tucker managed to write a book jam-packed with information and make it a very enjoyable read that proves her flyleaf statement true “the correct reaction to a house cat isn’t ‘awwww’.  It’s awe.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website)

Abigail Tucker is a correspondent for Smithsonian magazine, where she covers a wide variety of subjects, from vampire anthropology to bioluminescent marine life to the archeology of ancient beer. Her work has been featured in the Best American Science and Nature Writing series and recognized by the National Academies of Sciences. Previously she was a reporter at The Baltimore Sun, where she won Columbia University’s Mike Berger Award for feature writing and a National Headliner award. The Lion in the Living Room is her first book.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

HauGHnt - A Review

A deathbed confession, a family curse, a dark and stormy night complete with a mysterious stranger; really, what more could you ask for in a horror story?

HauGHnt by David C. Cassidy

As his father lies on his deathbed Paul Steele finds he can barely look at the man let alone offer him any comfort as he takes his last breaths. His father’s life-long quest to find peace in the bottom of a bottle destroyed Paul’s mother and alienated Paul. What the old man has to say before he dies does nothing to change Paul’s feelings, but now Paul may understand his never ending drinking. Paul’s father committed an unimaginable crime and avoided prosecution by making the proverbial deal with the devil. “We’re all damned. It’s just a question of when”. For Paul Steele the mysterious “when” turns out to be “right now”.

This short story is the first of Mr. Cassidy’s “Dark Shapes, Dark Shadows” series and after reading “HauGHnt” I am looking forward to what’s to come. Mr. Cassidy seems to enjoy taking an ordinary person with an ordinary life and putting them in the most extraordinary situation. It certainly makes for a chilling read.

Short stories are not my usual go-to read because, by their very definition, they are – well – short. It’s difficult to come to care for characters in the few pages allotted to the read but Mr. Cassidy packs a lot into this one, so I found myself totally involved in Paul’s dilemma. I couldn’t get to the end fast enough – in the good way! And the end? Paul shocked me as did HauGHnt and that’s always a good thing in a horror story.

I admit to wishing the story were just a tad longer, but taking the “creep” factor into consideration I’m giving this one 4 ½ stars.

* I’d like to thank the author for providing me with this book at no charge in exchange for an honest review. This in no way influenced my opinion. *

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from his Goodreads page)

Award-winning author David C. Cassidy is the twisted mind behind several best-selling novels of horror and suspense, Velvet Rain, The Dark, and Fosgate’s Game. An author, photographer, and graphic designer—and a half-decent juggler—he spends his writing life creating dark and touching stories where Bad Things Happen To Good People. Raised by wolves, he grew up with a love of nature, music, science, and history, with thrillers and horror novels feeding the dark side of his seriously disturbed imagination. He talks to his characters, talks often, and most times they listen. But the real fun starts when they tell him to take a hike, and they Open That Door anyway. Idiots.

David lives in Ontario, Canada. From Mozart to Vivaldi, classic jazz to classic rock, he feels naked without his iPod. Suffering from MAD—Multiple Activity Disorder—he divides his time between writing and blogging, photography and Photoshop, reading and rollerblading. An avid amateur astronomer, he loves the night sky, chasing the stars with his telescope. Sometimes he eats.