Review: Seven Days of Us – Francesca Hornak

2018: 13
4.5 of 5 stars
Published 2017

The Birch family are going to be spending Christmas at the country house in Norfolk, all of them together for the first time in years but it may be too much of a good think. You see,they are quarantined for 7 days when their daughter, Olivia, returns after several months on a medical team treating an insidious virus in Africa. Olivia seems to be a bit cut off from her family, having her own life but she’s looking forward to her future. Her younger sister, Phoebe has finally become engaged to George so her world is looking up, too. Andrew has discovered he has a son but hasn’t told anyone,not even his wife, Emma, who also has a secret that she’s keeping. There, then. It’s got my interest and attention.

The long lost son shows up, anxious to meet his family and he’s thrown into the mix and he really is the cat dumped in among the pigeons as they all get used to each other. The secrets all dribble out, one by one like little pop explosions. Are they going to blow the family apart or make them stronger?

This is a debut novel and just the style I do enjoy. I’d love to read another book about this family. I enjoyed all the characters. The setting could have been any old manor house in rural England set near a village. I wanted to know more about the family members and hear more about their stories  and I thought it was a nice, light read. Slightly predictable? Yes but these types of books usually do have happy endings. It’s why I read them.

Review: American War by Omar El Akkad

4 of 5 stars
Published 2017

This debut novel will keep you thinking long after you turn that last page. Set at the end of the 21st century, America is in the depths of a second Civil War fought over fossil fuel that the North wanted outlawed and the Southern section refused to give up.  The map of the country as it’s known today looks very different as most of the coastal areas are under water. Extreme weather still takes its toll on the country.  There are unmanned but armed drones that dot the skies, raining explosives down.  There are soldiers that come, night or day.  At the end of the war, there was then a terrible plague that swept the country. War is hell. We know all this at the start of the book. The rest of the book fills in the blanks, told by the nephew of the protagonist as he looks back on his own life and the woman that influenced him and saved his life.

Sounds grim. It’s gonna get grimmer. Sarat is a child at the beginning of the book. She and her mother, brother and twin sister are taken to a refugee camp when her father is killed. From here, we get an insight as to what life is like for ordinary people during wartime. As Sarat gets older, we see the effects of living to survive has on her and her family. Sarat is recruited to the Southern (Red) manifesto, having continually lost people she loves. It takes a toll on a child and she is easily turned into a hard core revel who takes on the North faction (Blue) as she is instructed. If this were an action movie, it would involve high leg kicking, num chucks and lots of explosions but it is more underhanded and nefarious than that. We watch Sarat through her life, her determination, her obsession, her willpower and her single minded beliefs. Her fate is inevitable.

The book is very well written but while not a pleasant read, it’s a very good one just the same. It’s bleak but it’s also somewhat believable that the near-ish future could come to that point so it has that touch of reality to it. There are a number of topics that were not brought into the story but that probably would have made the book too long and would distract the reader from what the author wanted to say, a warning that within 50 years, this could be the way it is, or similar.

This is one of the books shortlisted for the Canada Reads competition at the end of March.

Review: White Heat – M.J. McGrath

2018: 10
5 of 5 stars
Published 2017

White Heat takes place in a small settlement on Ellesmere Island in the most northern part of Canada there is. The tundra is bleak, the wind is chilly at the best of times and can flashfreeze your skin at an instant’s notice.

Edie Kiglatu is a teacher and guide who takes curious tourists out on hunting expeditions. On one fateful expedition, while Edie was in the forest, one of her two tourists is killed but not by the other one. A few weeks later, the other tourist returns to try to find evidence and he, too, dies. Another tragedy closer to home shatters Edie. Grief and anger take over and she takes matters into her own hands when the local law authorities and tribal elders are more than willing to sweep it all under a rug. People are dying and Edie needs to find out why.

One thing I loved about this book was the excellent descriptions of the Northern environment and culture of the Inuit, what they believed, what they ate, their customs, and more. The writing and detail is so good that you really feel like seal blubber might actually be a tasty treat! These far northern settlements do not make for an easy life but for the First Nations that call it home, it’s the only way of life they know so they get on with it. Other people have arrived for a variety of reasons, to stay or just to visit.

The author is British but has done a lot of traveling including to Ellesmere Island where this book takes place. Her research feels meticulous and I would enjoy reading the other two books she has out about Edie.

Review: Fables of Brunswick Avenue – Kathleen Govier

3.5 of 5 stars
Published in 2005

I read a novel by Ms. Govier last year and liked it (The Three Sisters Bar and Hotel). This year, for the Bingo reading challenge, one of the books to read must be short stories and Fables of Brunswick Avenue is just that. It’s a collection of 16 short stories. The book “blurb” describes them as being about the people who live in the neighbourhood around Brunswick Avenue, north of Bloor Street in Toronto. The stories reflect on the multicultural inhabitants of the neighbourhood in the 1970s, much as it was when the author herself lived there, or so she says in the pre-amble and first story which feels autobiographical but which may or may not actually be.

That’s not exactly the case. The first story is the one reflected in the title of the book and is about the people and the neighbourhood as it was when the author lived there in the 70s. Fair enough. The rest of the stories take place in various locations including Toronto and don’t really seem to be time-era-specific. The stories are not tales with twists or surprises, they are slices of life, character portraits, mostly women but some men as well. Some stories ended too abruptly for my taste, some just fizzled but there were a few stronger ones as well.

She’s a very good writer though I think I prefer her novels. That might be because she’d had more experience by then and because I prefer a longer lasting story. This short story collection will suffice to satisfy one of the Bingo challenge squares, as well.

Review: Scarborough – Catherine Hernandez

4 of 5 stars
Published 2017

This will be the second book that is also on the long list for Canada Reads 2018. It didn’t make the shortlist and I need to write a blog piece about that shortlist, too. *note to self*

This book takes place in the working class multicultural city of Scarborough, just east of Toronto. We follow the stories of several adults and several children who don’t have a lot of support to get them through their days. Most of the parents are single parents struggling and the kids navigate life through a virtual mine field. Tying it all together is the voice of Ms Hina, the beloved worker at the shelter literacy centre where many of the other main characters come for some respite from their daily lives. Hina finds it difficult not to get involved in the lives of some of her clients and helps them every way she can, standing up to her own bully  of a regional manager.

Her clients range in age from small toddler to adult. The children in the centre are ragged urchins, some with very tenuous family connections and  your heart breaks for some of the kids and their home lives. The story focuses on survival, the strength of a community and the apathy of it as well. Friendships, family, poverty, champions and tragedies. The story is told from the voices of most of the clients that use the centre, child and adult and from the neighbourhood as well.

The writing is exquisite and the voices are true. The only thing I didn’t care for was the last chapter. I didn’t think it was necessary but in the long run, doesn’t take away from the book all that much for me.

I’ll be using this book for CanadianContent’s Cross Canada Reading Challenge on Goodreads  for Ontario. It may also be able to be used in this year’s Bingo reading challenge.

Review: The Clockwork Dynasty – Daniel H. Wilson

3 of 5 stars
Published 2017

“Avtomats” are a race of clockwork beings. They have “lived” side by side with humans for millenia but they are warring with each other and their numbers are dwindling. The Avtomats can be very sophisticated, with technology that gives them the appearance of breathing, even crying in order that they fit in.

In the Russian court of 1725, two “avtomats”, a male and female, were restored and became favourites of the Tsar but when the Tsar died, they had to flee St. Petersburg. They declined to seek out more of their kind, and we then follow them through the next 250 years, having to live in secret,  avoiding some of their kind that would destroy them.  Ultimately, they get pulled into a war within their race of beings.

In present day, June, an anthropology student who specializes in antique mechanical antiquities, finds an antique robotic female doll. She extracts an artifact from the heart area and manages to restart the robot. She herself has an old artifact that her grandfather gave her. He came into possession of it during a WWII battle where he encountered what he believed to be a robotic soldier. Her artifact,  which is the “soul” of the avtomat, turns out to be something that’s wanted by a lot of people. Or Avtomats as it turns out. She is rescued by one of them and begins a journey that will take her around the world and land her in danger.

I found this new world and the avtomats in it fascinating. While sometimes inconsistencies niggled and confused me (how can a robot smell if it can’t breathe? how could it know what is a good smell or a bad one? It seemed like these beings shouldn’t have emotions and yet they do at times. ) overall the detail and the adventure was pretty good.

Another inconsistency was that it seemed to be implied that the avtomats could be found among modern day society, there were even “safe” places where they could go for repairs yet at the end, we are told there are only dozens of them left in the whole world after killing each other off to gain their “anima”, which is that artifact in their “heart” that provides them with their power source and “soul”.  There were some plot points that weren’t explained or that were inconsistent but  I did enjoy the story, alternating in current day and through Peter and Elena’s timeline.  I do think Peter and Elena were far more interesting as characters than June, who was the catalyst for the storyline but didn’t have much character development at all.

The book had it’s strong points and overall, a good read.

Review: Mistletoe and Murder – Carola Dunn

3 of 5 stars
Published 2002

This is a Christmas adventure in a series of books about the heroine, Daisy Dalrymple, who is married to a London police inspector in the 1920s, book #11 in the series. It’s the first I’ve read by this author so I don’t really know how it compares to the rest of the series. I picked it up from the library as part of the December holiday reading challenge.

Daisy is spending Christmas 1923 at a mansion in Cornwall at the invitation of the distant cousin who owns it. The house is  so remote that it has no electricity at all. Most of the guests are other distant relatives that are dependent on the kindness of the owner of the house who is not there for the holidays. Daisy arrives a few days ahead of her husband so that she can research and write about the house for the newspaper she works for so we get to know the other guests through her. There are two brothers, one a captain in the army and the other a historian. Their mother is an elderly woman from India. The captain has brought a sour old preacher to the festivities. There are also two teenage girls, one who wanders the grounds pretending to be a ghost and a younger one that tends to be a bit volatile. Daisy is stepmother to a little girl and there’s a boy as well, a cousin.

When the preacher turns up dead in a chapel in the house on Christmas Eve, Daisy helps work out who did the deed, digging into the family’s history.

It’s a light book, easy to read and, for me at least, is far more entertaining than Christmas romance/miracle type stories.