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: The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus

2017: 94
Rating 3.5/5
Published 1902

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus – L. Frank Baum

You may recognize the author. He wrote the Wizard of Oz books but he also wrote other children’s books as well and this one is a lovely holiday book. I don’t know if there’s ever been a picture book made from the story but it would lend itself well to that. In any case, this book is about the life of the man that became the personification of Christmas even if he isn’t the “reason for the season”.

This book takes religion out of the holiday altogether and focuses on the Man in Red. The man who was raised by a wood nymph and protected by other other-wordly groups like the faeries and sprites and the Master Woodsman, Ak, himself. From the Forest of Burzee to Happy Valley, we watch as Claus grows up and develops a love for children, carving little toys to make them happy. His need to spread happiness to the children grows until he is the man we all know today, delivering toys around the world every Christmas Eve.

The book is a sweet, imaginative story, very positive, upbeat and cheerful and an interesting take on the myth behind the man.

Review: MacBeth – Jo Nesbø

2017:93
4 of 5 stars
Published in 2018

Thrilled to have received a Netgalley Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) of this book, I got started right away but it took me awhile to finish due to being on vacation and having less time to read! I’m also amused to see the cover of the book making reference to The Snowman, an earlier Nesbø novel since I’m sure that’s the publicity machine’s effort to tie it into the recent movie made from The Snowman. Never mind.

This is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project, bringing up to date a series of Shakespeare plays written as novels by many of the best writers we have currently. Who better to write about war, gangs and wrestling control at the top of the heap than crime novelist Jo Nesbø? In this novel, it takes place in the 1970s and the police in a Northern Scottish town are fighting against the Norwegian drug dealer gang, one of two drugs gangs operating in the area at the opening of the story. There’s also a lot of political maneuvering in the ranks of the various police branches with the ultimate prize of the chief of police, a powerful position, at stake.

Duncan is the commissioner as we open the story. MacBeth is the head of the SWAT unit and his ambition is sparked by his lover Lady, who runs a casino. (Mac)Duff heads up the Narco unit and he’s already got a full portion of ambition.There are three witch-like characters whose bubbly brew is filled with addictive meth. Even without the Shakespeare connection, this is a crime-noir thriller, dark, gritty and very well put together story. Corruption, loyalties, insanity, power, ambition, guilt, it’s all there. It follows the basic story of the play within the confines and power structure of the Police Commission, power and politics are still relevant even in a different environment, day and age.

 

Halifax Wrecked

“Halifax Wrecked” was the newspaper headline screaming off the page on the morning of December 7, 1917. The day before, at 9:04 a.m., an enormous explosion in the Halifax Harbour wiped out a large section of the North End of the city, killing almost 2000 people and blinding many thousands more. Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of that event, an event that has become part of who we Haligonians are.

Two ships trying to navigate the harbour ended up in the same shipping lane and one, The Imo, trying to maneuver, strafed the hull of the other, the SS Mont Blanc. The Mont Blanc was a floating bomb, loaded with explosives for the war effort but not flying a warning flag because that would only invite a German attack. The ship caught fire and exploded. There’s a pretty good interactive recreation on this site if you want to know a bit more about the details.

The day after the explosion there was a winter storm. The army set up tents to help house the newly homeless. Schools and churches were converted into hospitals and morgues. The City of Boston loaded up a train and sent aid with supplies and medical personal almost as soon as they heard the news. Halifax sends Boston their city’s Christmas tree in thanks and has done since the 1970s.

The event is part of our history and there have been a number of books written about it, as well as novels that use the event as a backdrop.

Pretty much the most definitive of the non-fiction books are:

Janet F. Kitz – Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion and the Road to Recovery – contains many first person accounts of the survivors. (1989)
Laura Macdonald – Curse of the Narrows: The Halifax Explosion 1917
Michael J. Bird – The Town the Died (1962)

There are also three new books just released:

Katie Ingram – Breaking Disaster: Newspaper stores of the Halifax Explosion from newspaper coverage point of view which sounds pretty interesting. (Read an article about Katie and the book in the Chronicle Herald here)

Ken Cuthbertson – The Halifax Explosion: Canada’s Worst Disaster
John U. Bacon – The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism
(Read a review of these books here at the Globe and Mail)

For the novels, I’ve read a few  and can recommend these:

Robert MacNeil – Burden of Desire from 1992. This Goodreads member review is quite good.
Genevieve Graham – Tides of Honour from 2015. I read this last year. Here’s my review.
Hugh MacLennan – Barometer Rising written in 1941 which I read recently. Review here.

An aside: Awhile back I wrote here about Project Bookmark, a project to focus on books written about various areas of Canada, a way you could “Read across Canada”. The 19th bookmark is going to be placed at the Halifax Citadel this afternoon and will honour Mr. MacLennan’s Barometer Rising.

Goodreads has a list of novels with the Explosion as a backdrop here.

A cannon from the SS Mont Blanc, found thrown several miles away from the harbour by the explosion near Albro Lake in Dartmouth

You can probably guess this has been a topic that has always fascinated me. None of my family were living here when it happened though my father grew up in the area that was rebuilt, on a dead end street leading to Fort Needham where the memorial now stands, overlooking the blast site below. I live around the corner from where one of the guns from the Mont Blanc was thrown, about 3 miles from the harbour. It’s mounted and there are a couple of information signs installed. They have a small ceremony there on the 6th every year though the main remembrance ceremony is at the larger memorial at Fort Needham.

To finish, a couple of interesting websites. The Nova Scotia Archives maintains the Book of Remembrance, a list of everyone that died, where they lived and how old they were. Another new site is 100 Years 100 Stories.

Review: Minds of Winter – Ed O’Loughlin

2017:92
2.5 of 5 stars
Published in 2017

It starts with Sir John Franklin whose expedition to find the Arctic Northwest Passage ended in tragedy, with the deaths of him and all his crew aboard two ships. All of the gear he had with the expedition was also lost. It ends with a Greenwich chronometer, a navigational aid, found in London 150+ years later. This really happened and nobody can explain how it turned up there.

Over the century and a half, there were various men and expeditions in the Arctic and Antarctic with some stalwart explorers trying to conquer both poles of the earth. In present day, Fay Morgan, grieving for her recently deceased mother,  is in Inuvik trying to track down connections to her grandfather who also had connections to the polar explorers. She meets Nelson whose brother has been missing and who may have committed suicide, a brother who was tracing histories of the polar explorers and looking into the mystery of the chronometer. As they sift through his papers, we are told more details about the various expeditions over the years. It doesn’t really solve the mystery of the chronometer but it does keep popping up.

It’s a big book with lots of characters. Some of them keep reappearing but mostly they come and go as their era/period is done. There are a great many stories of the expeditions and the explorers, real and fictional. The individual stories lead you through the decades of exploration and adventure, interspersed with Fay and Nelson’s ongoing investigations. The ending is a bit ambiguous and you end up scratching your head over what’s true or real and what isn’t. As always with a book that covers so many years, I felt the stories in the first half of the book are better crafted than the last few with much more interesting characters. Fay and Nelson are only the links between them and aren’t particularly interesting themselves.

This is on the shortlist for this year’s Giller prize though didn’t win.

Review: Today I Learned It Was You – Edward Riche

2017:89
3 of 5 stars
Published in 2016

The city is St. John’s, Newfoundland. A retired actor turns to the security guard profession and on a nightly check in a local park, has a clash with some teens. The next time we hear anything about him, he is apparently living in the park and is transitioning to a deer. Or something like that. Yes, you, too, will shake your head in disbelief.

In the meantime, we’ve shifted views to the local municipal council and the mayor, Matt Olford, who is a local hero because he used to be in the NHL on a Stanley Cup winning team. His wife has found religion, he’s contemplating entering Federal politics, he’s got a crush on a lovely fellow councillor, an immigrant from Italy. There are two animal rights activists stirring things up and another councillor who has a very large, ugly chip on his shoulder.  Social media goes viral over the whole deer situation. Many aspects of the tale are told by a lot of different voices, most of whom really have nothing to contribute to the actual story and are never seen again. That leaves most of the other regulars less developed than they should be. Not all of the narratives really cross over or just a little. It’s a bit confusing at times. And yet, it’s also kind of fun and it was enjoyable and quick to read.

While reading the book, I could almost picture it as one of those goofy Canadian films with quirky characters and lots of local colour and colourful locals. You can never go wrong with local colour in St. John’s. There are loose ends untied which loses a star in the rating and another star for the somewhat disjointed feel of the overall story.

This book was on the long list for Canada Reads 2017 though I do have to say I don’t think it would ever be considered a book that would fit the theme of “the one book every Canadian should read”.