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.




Review: Gods of Howl Mountain – Taylor Brown

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

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.


Review: Minds of Winter – Ed O’Loughlin

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: Church of Marvels – Leslie Parry

4 of 5 stars
Published 2015

At the turn of the 20th century in New York City, four people who live on the outer edges of society find their lives entangled. Sylvain spends his nights shoveling out outhouses and finds a newborn baby girl in one of them. He decides to keep the baby himself instead of taking her to an orphanage. Alphie finds herself committed to a women’s insane asylum, possibly by her vile mother-in-law. She meets a beautiful woman who does not speak but who has some extraordinary abilities and  may know how to get them out. Odile and her twin were raised in the environment of a stage show but their mother has died and her sister has disappeared.

The lives of these people will intertwine as Odile finds a vague clue to her sister’s whereabouts and heads to Manhattan to see if she can find her. The story jumps between the points of view of Sylvain, Odile and Alphie. It’s a pretty grim side of New York that we’re shown. Seedy side shows, illegal bare knuckle fights, horrendous insane asylums (you couldn’t call them anything like a “mental health facility”!), opium dens, liars, chancers, hustlers, poverty, addiction, prostitution. Yet there are glimmers of kindness and hope. Due to Odile’s hunt for her sister, Belle, all their lives will cross and converge and move forward into the future.

Really liked this book. The characters are all distinct and colourful and the descriptions of the underbelly of New York in that time period feel very real.

Review: The Icarus Girl – Helen Oyeyemi

2017: 90
3 of 5 stars
Published in 2005

This is a debut novel written when the author was 19. I wasn’t sure quite what to make of it, though. It’s about an 8 year old girl, Jessamy, whose mother is Nigerian and whose father is English. She’s been brought up in England but doesn’t seem to have friends and doesn’t fit in. During a family visit to Nigeria, she meets a girl called TillyTilly, a girl that nobody else seems to see. A girl who, eventually, Jessamy realizes isn’t real. Yet she has a presence and isn’t always a benevolent one, either.

Sometimes, I thought Jess was dealing with multiple personality, or some other mental illness. Sometimes, I thought it was a spirit, a ghost and other times I wondered if Jess had a brain tumour. The thing is, it’s never that clear. Jess is afraid all the time, not just of TillyTilly but of most things. She has an overactive imagination that fuels the fire. Even when she knows Tilly isn’t real, she knows there’s *something*.

Definition of Icarus. :the son of Daedalus who, to escape imprisonment, flies by means of artificial wings but falls into the sea and drowns when the wax of his wings melts as he flies too near the sun. – Miriam Webster dictionary

I think the story is a bit uneven. If I’m supposed to be picking up clues and metaphors, it’s lost on me. I’m not very good at that kind of thing.  Regarding Tilly and other events in the book, I’d like to have some sort of definitive reveal and motivation or something close to it but I don’t think it really gives you that. The ending is a bit ambiguous, too. But going by the definition above, when applied to the plot and especially the ending, then I can understand what happens at the end. And yet, I found the book engaging and interesting if a little frustrating to read. It kept me guessing and wanting to know what happens next and when the truth will be revealed. I was let down on that last point. It’s quite a complex novel for someone’s debut, written by a teenager who knows the Nigerian folklore that apparently some of this is based on.