Review: The Brands Who Came for Christmas – Maggie Shayne

2017: 97
3.5 of 5 stars
Published in 2000

I picked up a few free or cheap Kindle books as part of the Goodreads CanadianContent group challenge to read holiday themed books in December. This edition also has another book included. I haven’t decided if I’ll read that one or not.

This book is a light, frothy, typical romance novel. Man and woman meet, connect, then something happens and they are apart but they have a reunion and a happy ever after. Cliche plots, predictable endings, quirky and strong women characters, rich handsome men and beautiful women. This isn’t to say it’s a bad thing, but it does what it says on the tin. You know what you’re getting and you know how it will end.

Maya Brand is the oldest of five sisters raised by a single mother whose husband turned out to be someone else’s as well as hers. The family has to endure the bigamy scandal which, in this day and age, hugely annoyed me. It was hardly their fault, was it? Neither family knew the father had two families on the go. But Maya was the one that cared what other people thought and tried to be the perfect daughter, upstanding citizen, church goer, striving to be accepted. It’s an uphill battle when your family owns and runs the local saloon, one sister out in California modelling lingerie (!), another the bouncer at the bar and the rest helping their mother run it. Again, why it matters, I have no idea and the conservative mindset of the town nearly put me off altogether.

It was a dark and rainy night. Into the bar walks a scruffy looking cowboy who happens to be the third richest man in America (really?????) who doesn’t necessarily want to follow the route his family has laid out for him. (politics). He would like to meet a woman someday who wants him for himself, not for the power and money he could bring so when he and Maya meet and connect, he doesn’t use his real name. You can see where this is going, right? Circumstances being what they are, he ends up leaving town unexpectedly and she ends up pregnant. *SCANDAL*  Remember, now, she doesn’t know his real name but he’s the third richest man in America and is potentially headed into politics but she obviously doesn’t read the newspaper or see the news on television. He gets caught up in family matters and doesn’t get in touch with her again until his identity gets splashed all over the newspapers 8 and a half months later and someone anonymously gives him the heads up about his pregnant one night stand.

Things progress, there are hopes and doubts, shadows from the past, and a big, howling blizzard on Christmas Eve.

It’s very soapy. It’s predictable. It’s an easy read. It’s not badly written though it was a bit grating that most of the characters are “perfect”, strong, supportive, talented, protective, wise, grumpy. Grinch like hearts turn three sizes bigger. A life is saved, a family is reunited. And they all lived happily ever after.

 

 

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Review: Gods of Howl Mountain – Taylor Brown

2017:96
4.5 of 5 stars
Published in 2018

Thanks to NetGalley for an advanced copy of this book.

We are in the mountains of North Carolina in the 1950s, just after the Korean war. Rory has come home from the war and is working for a family that controls the local booze industry, bootleggers. He lives with his grandmother who has a lot of secrets. His Gran’s also a local healer, some say a witch. Rory falls for a woman who’s associated with a local spiritual church and his grandmother disapproves. This may or may not be related to a secret she’s keeping about Rory’s mother who has been in an asylum for years. That isn’t really the gist of the plot, though, That’s concerned with the life of a bootlegger who happens to be a disabled war veteran. He’s learned to live by the seat of his pants and he doesn’t back down. Ever. We know more about his life as well, through Granny’s POV, a woman who fiercely loves and defends her own.

I really enjoyed the book. The writing is fantastic, with the characters each having their own distinctive voice. I really became absorbed into the story every time I picked it up. My only niggle would be a bit too much detailed description at times but that’s probably only because I was impatient to get back to the story.

Review: Miss Kane’s Christmas – Caroline Mickelson

2017:95
3.5 of 5 stars
Published 2012

This novella is a light and cheerful story that could easily be a Hallmark Christmas special. Ben lost his wife to cancer some years ago, though she was about to leave him anyway. He’s been bringing up his two children with the help of his sister ever since and refuses to celebrate the Christmas season. Santa has decided this must change, for the children’s sake as well as Ben’s. Santa sends his daughter Carol to rectify the situation. Carol is a bright young woman full of the spirit of the season and faces her challenge full on. I’m not sure Ben really knew what hit him! Of course, Ben is handsome and Carol is beautiful and it’s not really any surprise how it’s going to end up. Quick and easy to read, not too sugary, perfect for the novella format.

Rewarding Reading – Awards and a Foray into Historical Fiction

For American movies, we have the Oscar awards for the best films and the Emmy Awards for television. In Canada, there’s the Canadian Screen Awards that also covers Canadian television.  In the U.K, they have the BAFTA awards and in France, a movie can win the César.

Music wins Grammy awards in the USA and  Junos in Canada, the unimaginatively named Brit awards in the UK.

Books have awards as well. Each year, there are various award prizes that shave the nominees down to a long list and then a short list before awarding a winner. There are a lot of different prizes. A LOT. Even the “big” prizes are plentiful. There are local and regional prizes all over the place but the best known national and international competitions are:

Nobel Prize (International)
Pulitzer Prize (America, various media and literary categories)
Man Booker Prize (Fiction, published in the UK, also an International prize, translated from any language to English)

Other well known awards are:

Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (Fiction, by women, published in the UK in English)
Scotiabank Giller Prize (Fiction, Canada)
The Walter Scott Prize (Historical fiction, UK, Ireland, Commonwealth)
The RBC Taylor prize (Canada, non-fiction)
National Book Awards (America, various categories)
The Edgar Allen Poe award (mystery)
The Governor General’s Literary Award (various categories, Canada only)
Irish Book Awards (Fiction, Ireland, various categories)
Hugo (Science Fiction/Fantasy, International) and Nebula (same, but for the USA)

Those are the ones I’m most familiar with. Wikipedia has quite a long list of competitions here, from all over the world. There are several dozen awards for debut novels which is something every new writer would love to win.  Most or all of these award cash prizes and they are all prestigious.

I follow the Bookers, the Gillers and glance in at the Governor General’s awards and the Irish Book awards. I will obviously back any Canadian writers in the Booker prize which is open to any book published in the UK in English. The next two (Giller and GG) are Canadian awards and I am a fan of some Irish writers. One thing I like about these various awards is their long list of nominees. If I want to try something by an author new to me, I can spend hours perusing the lists of current and past years’ awards looking at book descriptions. I have found some excellent books in this manner.

I planned to write here about the Historical Fiction book awards, from the Walter Scott prize, but it’s already gotten away from me! Historical fiction is probably my top favourite reading category. I love history and always have. I was lucky to have a very good history teacher in junior high school who made it really interesting.

For historical fiction, I’m not referring to the so-called “bodice ripper” books, the historical romances with a standard issue story, full of cliches and turgid euphemisms for the “act” and various body parts. I’m referring to stories that take place anywhere from 50 to hundreds of years ago. It may depict real historical figures or it may not and there may be romance involved but this isn’t always the case. I don’t mind a romance, if it’s written well, with good characters, plausible plot points and the occasional spicy scene. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is a perfect example of how to do it.

Unfortunately, it’s not straightforward finding the past long lists at their website.  You have to spend time going through the news archives for announcements rather than having the past winners and lists easily accessible. Thank heavens for Wikipedia!

Another favourite HF author of mine is Sharon Kay Penman who has written about various British and Welsh periods in the past. She has a trio of books on the last Welsh kings and princes during the 13th century, the conflict between King Edward 1 and Wales. She has a series on the Plantagenets and on the Wars of the Roses and has also written some medieval mysteries which are quite good. One of those was a finalist for an Edgar award, too.

The first of hers that I ever read was When Christ and His Saints Slept. This tells the story of the English civil war between King Stephen and Queen Matilda who was the mother of the man who would be Henry II, the first of the Plantagenet kings. What a great book! Her The Sunne in Splendour, her first novel, about the end of the Wars of the Roses, focusing on Richard III is also one of my favourites as are the ones she wrote on Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. She’s very good at including the point of view of various women in her medieval novels, recognizing that they were strong and had much to contribute even though history tends to push the accomplishments and contributions of women to the background.

I’m not sure I have a favourite era for historical fiction though I do tend to lean towards books set in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland for location. I’m not sure of the strict definition of what is included in historical fiction, but lately I’ve counted anything written from the 1970s backwards.  If a book is written now and is about a period of time 40+ years ago, that sounds perfectly reasonable to me. If I read a book that was actually written *in* the 1970s or 1920s or in the 19th century, I don’t count it as HF because it was current fiction when it was written. So if I read Dickens, or Jane Austen, I’d classify the novel as “classic fiction” instead or just fiction, depending on what I thought at the time.

As always, an award winning book doesn’t always appeal to me. Sometimes I feel it’s over-hyped but one book that cleaned up a lot of awards last year was Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeliene Thien. It’s historic fiction taking place in China during the cultural revolution, following three students and their families up to the Tianamen Square confrontations in 1989. It won the Giller and Governor-General and was shortlisted for the Booker., Bailey’s Women’s prize and a few others. That’s most definitely one book that deserved the awards it won. My Goodreads review is here though I don’t think my review does it justice.  I’ve spent so much of my reading on the UK past, that it was fascinating to read something from a much more exotic country. Pachinko was also very good and delved into the story of a Korean family that moved to Japan in the early 20th century. It was a bestseller though I don’t think it won any major awards.

Next month, the Scotiabank Giller prize will be awarded in a ceremony in Toronto. I’ve already read one of the shortlisted books, Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill (my review) and have just started I am a Truck by Michelle Winters. I’ve also got Minds of Winter by Ed O’Loughlin to read before the announcement. I have a feeling that none of these three will win. Transit seems to be more of a deep, full-of-themes type novel and that often swings the jury. For me, often, books like that have more theme exploration than actual story and are too slow and philosophical for my taste.

But that’s the beauty of reading. Everyone can find something that appeals to them.

As I like to say: Keep calm and read more books!

Review: Practical Magic – Alice Hoffman

2017:83
5 of 5 stars
Published in 2017

In the book Practical Magic, we met middle aged unmarried  sisters, Franny and Jet Owens who are witches from a centuries-long line of Owens witches. The Rules of Magic takes a step back into their history and tells their story right up to about where Practical Magic starts (I think, I haven’t read it but I plan to, now!)

It is New York and the year is 1960. JFK is about to be elected and the civil rights movement is underway. Life is changing for the Owens siblings, too. Sussanah Owens sets out a long list of rules for her three children to follow, knowing they are all special and knowing it will get them in trouble. She’s pretty much just holding off the inevitable. She knows, because she’s been there.

Franny and Jet and their brother Vincent spend the summer in Massachussetts with their Aunt Isabel who acquaints them with the Owens family curse. You cannot fall in love or tragedy will follow. As magic becomes a bigger part of their lives, they test the curse and find out the hard way how it has to be for them as we follow them all through the turbulent 60s for the bulk of the book and then over the next 25 years to where Practical Magic starts.

I really like Alice Hoffman’s books.  This book had a great feel for the decade of the 60s where the main story takes place, and a wonderful way to bring the reader to the heart of magic with details and descriptions that made it all feel real. The characters are all shown to be complex and relatable. The scene shifts between New York, small town Massachussetts and California.  The story is about finding out who you are and accepting that when your family is cursed, it’s probably better not to tempt fate. It’s also about love because what is life without it? Maybe the two are incompatible. Or maybe they are if you’re an Owens with imagination.

Thanks to Netgalley for a review copy.

Movie review: IT (and other Stephen King meanderings)

It might seem odd to post a movie review to a Reading themed blog but it’s a movie that was made from a book. “IT” is a 1986 novel by the horror writer Stephen King. It’s a big, chunky book that has two parts, one taking place in 1958 with a group of early-teens fighting an entity called Pennywise and then the second part some 25+ years later in the early 80s with the same group as adults returning to their home town of Derry to confront Pennywise again. Pennywise appears as a clown at first, to lure in children then it changes to represent the innermost fear on which it feeds. It may maim or kill and is terrifying. It lurks in the sewers, or in dark corners of old, abandoned houses, never out in the open sunlight. The kids are friends but are often bullied by the stronger and more popular children. They find strength in their bond as the Losers’ Club and that’s what gets them through this nightmare, both as children and as adults.

The book was made into a tv mini-series in the 80s starring British actor Tim Curry as Pennywise the clown and he was excellent, though for me, the best part of it. It was good, better because he was in it, but not great, as I recall.

The new remake of IT was quite good. I haven’t read the book since the 80s so I couldn’t say whether it followed it well or not but it only focussed on the part to do with the kids, not the adults years later like the original mini series did. It was set in 1988-89 which would bring the adult part forward to present day if there is a sequel planned, and it seems like there might be.

All of the child actors they cast were very good, which is unusual really (in my opinion). For me, there is always at least one or more that irritates me. Not all of the kids themselves are likeable but then that’s not down to the actors, just the character and I would think the actor must be doing a good job if he’s making the character annoying! The one playing the girl in the group was especially good. She’s Sophia Lillis and she’s got talent. She’s also really pretty now at the age of about 15. She’s going to be a stunner in 5 or 10 years. She kind of reminds me of Deborah Messing from Will and Grace. Talent and looks will take her far in Hollywood. Watch that space.

The man that played Pennywise the clown in this version is Bill Skarsgård from the Swedish family of actors. You’ve seen his father Stellan in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and his brother, Alexander, was in True Blood. We’ve only just seen Bill lately in a creepy series called Hemlock Grove. Excellent stuff with vampires, a werewolf and lots of other creatures. Tim Curry played the original Pennywise but Bill did just as good a job, I think.

Since this movie was all about the kids and their experience, it went into more detail about the lives of most of them and about their fears which is what the entity feeds on. Their parents are not major characters and only appear if it contributes to either the child’s state of mind or to their personal fears. If they do make a second movie about the adults, it should be interesting.

IT is on my list to re-read. Perhaps it would be a good October/Halloween book! I read a lot of Stephen King’s books back in the 80s with a few more in the past 10 years. I haven’t read the Dark Tower series so won’t be going to see the new movie out that’s based on them. Quite often, movies and mini-series based on King’s books have fallen flat which is a shame. Few seem to be able to really grasp the spirit of the book. Even The Shining with Jack Nicholson seemed to miss the mark a bit for em. Nicholson is great but his personality is so huge that it kind of takes over a bit. The Shining was one of the movies that was better received than most, however.

I wonder if part of the problem is that the King novels are usually so thick with lots of detail and that’s hard to translate into a film. By losing so much detail, you lose a lot of the plot and it doesn’t hang together as well. The movies then rely on effects and scare tactics rather than leading you into the situations more slowly where the creepy and scary bits then have more of an impact. At least, for me. In fact, it’s a general opinion that the best adaptations of King’s work have come from his short stories (Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption) with a few exceptions (Misery and the original version of Carrie were excellent adaptations from novels. You might think mini series would be better, giving more time to expand on the detail and the original IT wasn’t too bad at all but The Stand, one of my favourite books, really dragged. I loved the more recent novel 11/22/63 but I didn’t enjoy the series made from it, either. In my opinion, James Franco did not suit the lead part and they changed too much of it.

The new IT has managed to get past the details problem, probably by splitting the book into two movies, I guess. At the end, there’s a screen with “Chapter One” displayed, indicating there could be a second chapter. Hollywood loves sequels so it’s likely. If they do as good a job as they did with this one, it should be worth seeing and I would definitely recommend the movie we saw last night!

Another work in the making is a new limited 10 episode series that Hulu is producing called Castle Rock. King fans know Castle Rock is one of the towns that appear in a number of his books along with Derry, both towns in the easternmost U.S. state of Maine. Wikipedia describes the series as “The series is set to explore the themes and worlds uniting King’s entire canon, while brushing up against some of his most iconic and beloved stories. ” So far, Sissy Spacek and Bill Skarsgård are among two actors already cast, both of them being actors that have played in Steven King movies (Sissy was Carrie). It might be interesting, this “mash up” as it were.

Stephen King’s wife Tabitha is also a writer and I’ve read two of her books which were not horror based. His son Owen is now writing and collaborating with his father.

I do remember liking IT as a novel. My other favourite King books include 11/22/63, Christine, The Stand, The Shining, and The Dead Zone and Mr. Mercedes. Are you a fan? Which of King’s books or adaptations are your favourites?

Review: Binary – John Lange (Michael Crichton)

2017: 73
3 of 5 stars
Published 1972

This short novel by Michael Crichton writing as John Lange early in his career, was actually the last one of 10 he wrote under a pseudonym between 1966 and 1972, 3 years after his first novel published under his own name, The Andromeda Strain, hit the best seller lists.

Binary is a thriller about the chase to prevent an insane man about to unleash a chemical weapon on San Diego on the weekend of the Republican Primary, with the President in attendance. What the naked woman on the book cover has to do with anything other than book sales, I couldn’t tell you! Very Pulp Fiction and of its time, I guess.

It’s a short novel, really not more than a novella in which Agent John Graves must piece together the clues to figure out what the impending attack will be, where and how and then work against a very clever villain who keeps one step ahead of him all the way. It’s real edge-of-your-seat stuff though the clues are almost painstakingly slow to come together at times because the reader knows more or less the nature of the attack and Graves does not.

Still, even in his early days, it’s evident Crichton can put together a page turner and it’s interesting to read some early computer-related stuff like how long it took to send a few pages of information by a telephone wire to be printed on the other side of the country and how data would be hacked and stolen. Cutting edge stuff in the early 70s but would be in a museum these days!