Monday, March 25, 2013

Tigers in Red Weather

Liza Klaussmann

On one of those super-hot days last summer I found myself conjuring up Nick and Helena, the two young women from Liza Klaussmann's debut novel, Tigers in Red Weather. I was there with the two cousins. We were drinking gin in the backyard, wearing only our slips, talking about the new lives we were about to embark on. It was September, 1945; the war was over, and Helena was about to be married for a second time, Nick was about to be re-united with her husband, and I was...but then the heat that had put me there pulled me right back, and I knew that in their fictional world this moment of happiness was fleeting.

Tigers in Red Weather, written by Herman Melville's great great great granddaughter, is a family story that invites you in. The bulk of the novel takes place in the 1960s and is set at Tiger House, the magnificent old family estate on Martha's Vineyard where Nick and Helena spent their summers together as children. Though Tiger House is still the same, the island has changed. When Ed, Helena's son, and Daisy, Nick's daughter, discover the victim of a brutal murder, the idyllic moments of the past are forever erased. Telling her story from five different viewpoints, Klaussmann uses a single act of violence to get at the hidden lives of her characters. The themes that you will find in this insightful and suspenseful novel include how our secrets define us, loss of identity in marriage, distortion of character by outside forces, and the longing we all have for something better.

One Good Hustle

Billie Livingston

Born into a family of con artists, sixteen-year-old Samantha Bell (a.k.a. Sammie) always prided herself on her quick wit and instincts. After a hustle gone wrong, Sammie finds her world turned upside down. With her mother becoming increasingly addicted to alcohol and plotting her death, Sammie becomes scared and runs away. With her father missing in action, Sammie takes refuge at a friend’s house whose parents actually seem to love each other. Sammie is torn between the acceptance and love of her father and the sense of belonging in this household.

One Good Hustle was really gritty and honest. The main character, Sammie, doesn’t let her past determine her future. Sammie is a strong heroine who should be looked up to by many girls. Her sense and instincts come from her past in hustling, but anyone can see that there is more to her than just her knowledge of what makes a good hustle.

Billie Livingston holds nothing back. She intertwines the hardships of being a teenager with the innocence and anger of girls on the run. Definitely a page turner.

- Christina Marchese

Bookshelf Home

The Red Pole of Macau & The Scottish Banker of Surabaya

Ian Hamilton's popular Ava Lee Series now includes five books. Here, Elizabeth Dent offers an opinion on Hamilton's two latest additions.

Ian Hamilton

The fourth book in Ian Hamilton’s Ava Lee series, The Red Pole of Macau, more than lives up to the rest of the series. The heroine, Ava Lee, finds herself with unexpected family commitments when she is obliged to use her skills as an international debt collector to assist her half-brother Michael. While helping her brother pull out of a troubled international real-estate deal seems simple at first, things go horribly wrong. This time it is not only Ava’s life that is at risk.

A fascinating international excursion, this book takes you from Toronto to Hong Kong and Macau and gives you the action of a spy novel, the intelligence of international business banking, and the interest of watching Ava and Michael manage their complicated private lives. The Red Pole of Macau is an excellent read.

The Scottish Banker of Surabaya
Ian Hamilton

The fifth book in the Ava Lee series by Canadian author Ian Hamilton, The Scottish Banker of Surabaya continues where his previous book, The Red Pole of Macau, left off. Ava Lee, the Chinese-Canadian international debt collector, is recovering from the adventures she underwent in Hamilton’s previous book and is developing a closer relationship with her mother. Of course no good deed goes unpunished, as Ava’s mother promises a friend that Ava will help her to recover some lost money. Helping one friend turns into helping a whole group of Vietnamese people in the grip of what appears to be a Ponzi scheme. Information is sparse and Ava must get her partner, Uncle, to assist her with access to help from Hong Kong to Indonesia.

This thriller is full of international intrigue, guns, planes, and automobiles, but the true humanity of the protagonist gives a new depth to this novel. The realities of Ava’s sexual identity, her loves, and her losses bring a more human side to this character, whereas her martial arts training and marksmanship were more predominant in previous novels. A great read and a fascinating series that will certainly keep you entertained.

- Liz Dent

Monday, March 18, 2013

San Miguel

San Miguel
T. C. Boyle

San Miguel is one of the Channel Islands in the Santa Barbara Channel off the coast of California. If you're picturing a warm, sunny Mediterranean climate like that of Santa Barbara, you'd be wrong. Vicious winds pound the treeless landscape, laden with sand that punishes buildings and people alike. The prose describing these conditions is potent. If you're at all suggestible, you'll want to be warm and cosy as you read.

Yet this desolate landscape has been home to sheep ranchers, and T. C. Boyle's San Miguel follows two such families--the Waters who arrived in the 1880s and the Lesters who arrived in the 1930s.

The story is told through the eyes of three women: Marantha Waters, her adopted daughter Edith, and Elise Lester.  Both families arrive on the island due to the fervent drive of the husbands, Will Waters and Herbie Lester.  Both men are veterans, Will of the Civil War and Lester of the First World War, both face poor prospects, and both work extremely hard to eke a penurious subsistence out of the ranch while their wives cook endless roasts of lamb and try to make a comfortable home in the inhospitable locale.

Will Waters is a tyrannical, miserable cuss who has inveigled Marantha's money to buy into the ranch on the false pretence that the climate will be beneficial for her tuberculosis.  Marantha strives to maintain a positive attitude in the face of the harsh elements, the damp rot and rodents that infest the tumbledown house, and isolation relieved only by the arrival of the sheep shearers and the odd fisherman. However, it's clear she's fighting a losing battle against her conditions and worsening disease. Marantha tries to pass on her remaining money to Edith to give her independence, but Edith ends up trapped with the abusive Will as a beleaguered servant, desperate to escape.

Matters are somewhat better for Elise Lester. From a wealthy eastern family, this spinster librarian thought she'd never marry, until the charming Herbert Lester appears in her life.  She falls in love with Herbie and approaches the island as a great adventure, where she and Herbie build a strong family with their two daughters.  Although still challenging, conditions have improved on San Miguel since Marantha and Edith served out their sentences. The house is in much better shape and, although life is still lonely enough that the arrival of the sheep shearers is a big event, it is enlivened by the frequent visits of recreational yachters from Santa Barbara and a friend with a plane who never fails to arrive with many goodies in hand. 

The tale of the Lesters was my favourite part of the book. Elise is a sensitive foil to the obviously bipolar, lovable Herbie and the two treat their isolated existence with their daughters as a privilege, insulated from the nasty things that happen in the rest of the world.  The press idealizes their existence and for a brief period they are characterized as a Swiss Family Robinson leading an idyllic, self-sufficient pioneer existence.

T. C. Boyle brings these characters to life.  But for me, even though the stories were told through the eyes of the women, it was the men and the island who made the most powerful impression in this excellent book.

- Lib Gibson

Bookshelf Home

Keith Richards, Life

Keith Richards

We all know show business is a sham. When we've had our fill, that is. But there's a kind of truth to the larger-than-life figures created by popular culture that plainspun iconoclasm can't provide.

The Rolling Stones were never meant to be life size, and in a decent-sounding, surprisingly contemplative voice Keith Richards' Life gives us all the craziness we could want. No one's likely to pick up this book without looking forward to the bits about the busts, the women, the fights with Mick, and all the riotous excesses of 1970s rock and roll. And Keef doesn't disappoint. The first chapter is a blow-by-blow recounting of an almost-bust in Tennessee. Longhairs being hassled by the man? Check. Bigoted sheriff? Check. Pliable judge with bourbon stashed in his sock? Check. Spinal Tap was a parody, but like any successful parody, it kept the exaggeration to a minimum.

But it’s the story leading up to all the fun that proves to be the revelation. Sentimental ramblings about growing up poor in Dartford we might expect. Tough times at school and home...well, you've heard the songs. But serious talk about choir competition breaking his heart, or his time as a scout troop leader making him a man?

Richards truly finds his voice when talking about the music itself, and about fellow musicians. He's unfailingly generous to his colleagues—Mick chief among them—although he takes a few swings, too. If there's anything missing from these pages it's a sense of humour, but rest assured: there are lots of laughs.

- Jeremi Roth

Bookshelf Home

Anno Dracula

Kim Newman

In London, 1888, two monsters are at large, capturing the imagination of the public. One is Count Dracula, who, after his defeat of Professor Abraham Van Helsing’s band of heroes, is married to Queen Victoria and spreads his vampirism throughout London. The other is a vampire killer in Whitechapel called Silver Knife, after the silver scalpel that he employs on vampire prostitutes. Charles Beauregard of the Diogenes Club finds himself on the case of the Whitechapel murderer (who is, of course, Jack the Ripper), a case that thrusts him deeper and deeper into worlds of darkness and forces him to team up with an unlikely partner, vampire Geneviève Dieudonné.

Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula is filled with political intrigue, action, and an abundance of historical and literary characters. Although the story is fast-paced, with an exciting and sometimes gory plot line, part of the fun of the novel is cataloguing the who’s who of vampires and discovering the fates of Stoker’s original characters.

Kim Newman’s novel and the series that followed it capture the power and resilience of Dracula’s hold on our imaginations since it was first published in 1897. His depiction of Dracula as an omnipotent monarch who controls British society feeds on the cultural fascination attached to Stoker’s Dracula and suggests why the vampire will never truly die.

Readers should be advised that some knowledge of Stoker’s novel is useful. However, Newman’s new cast of characters is well-rounded and generates an entertaining mystery about which literary or historical figure claims the title of Jack the Ripper.

- Kat Bellamy

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Art Forger

The Art Forger
B.A. Shapiro

B. A. Shapiro’s novel draws you into a world of conspiracy and high-class art, revolving around a real-life 1990 art heist from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. In a very Da Vinci Code-esque plot the novel follows a trail of forgery left undiscovered for over a century. And at the very center is a stolen masterpiece by Edgar Degas.

Shapiro is a master at capturing the beauty of paintings with her words. Her writing certainly helped a novice art enthusiast like myself to appreciate the depth and labour which goes into creating a painting. In fact she’s so good at describing the process of both creating and forging a piece of art, it wouldn’t surprise me to discover on the evening news that she’s been moonlighting as an art forger.

The only downside I found to the novel was the protagonist, Claire Roth. Shapiro gets bogged down in describing Claire’s self-doubt and pity, which takes away from the suspense of the plot. But I would highly recommend this novel to any art enthusiast or fan of thrillers.

- Andrew Cruickshank

Bookshelf Home

Kids of Kabul

Deborah Ellis

I have always felt a special connection to Canadian author Deborah Ellis. In grade five my art teacher, whose name also happened to be Deborah Ellis, read us passages from one of her novels. Ms. Ellis and I also share the same birthday. What is truly remarkable about Deborah Ellis, however, is her phenomenal ability to draw us closer to people across the globe through her adventurous yet compassionate work.

Ellis’s non-fiction book Kids of Kabul deals with the complex subject of Afghanistan. A concise book, scarcely over one hundred pages long, it is an enlightening and informative read for both children and adults. Deborah Ellis recounts the lives of twenty-seven children that she met on a recent visit to Kabul. The children vary from runaway child brides to children living in prison to young scholars sent abroad. The stories are skilfully selected to show both the strength and vulnerability of these resilient children. Ellis’s writing style is both objective and compassionate, portraying the children’s struggles and successes without glossing over the truth with unrealistic optimism.

The book is written with a diverse demographic in mind. Helpful and relevant information is provided for both adults and children. Prefacing each tale is relevant historical and situational information to set the story in its context. At the end of the book there is also a brief history of Afghanistan, a list of relevant organizations, websites, and books for further reference and research, and a glossary defining both advanced words for school-age children and foreign words used throughout the book.

It is clear from Ellis’s writing that each child has his or her own story, and that there is no one solution to the problems of the children living in Kabul. The children’s emotions regarding their situations range from anger and frustration to determination and hope. Fortunately, positive changes are happening both within and outside Afghanistan, such as the construction of a Women’s Garden, a Youth Exchange and Study Program, and homes and schools for children. However, much still needs to be done in order to offer these children more safety and opportunity.

Although I have a unique personal connection with Ms. Ellis, her writing also brings me closer to the world at large. Through reading this intimate and striking collection of stories, one comes to feel that these children are not so different from those closer to home. They remind us of ourselves as children and of our own siblings, cousins, nephews, nieces, children, and grandchildren. It can be easy to dismiss the issues of those far across the globe as irrelevant to our own lives. However, after reading Kids of Kabul, one realizes that we are all human in the very same way and that we all deserve the same opportunities for a positive future. All royalties from the sales of Kids of Kabul will go to the organization Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, making even the act of purchasing and reading this book a positive step toward the future of Afghanistan.

The Mapmaker's War

Ronlyn Domingue

When I was a child I once got lost at the market because I was busy staring at a female butcher hard at work with a heavy meat cleaver; it seemed something extraordinary to my young eyes! Such is the world of Aoife, the mapmaker of the fantasy novel The Mapmaker’s War by Ronlyn Dominigue. In the novel, women can choose a role in life, but from a narrow selection: “wife, mother, domestic.” Aoife breaks from convention, and from her mother’s desire to mould a good wife, to follow her own desires and inclinations “to be good at something other than what was expected of you.”

Aoife is not only attracted to useful work, but she is also drawn by the need to knit people together and to explore different customs and habits: “knowledge of the people was meant to be mapped.” She seems to be seeking the “truth” of difference and of how acceptance of the gifts and resources you have may bring peace and happiness in a way that seeking after treasures cannot. The  ultimate counteraction to her efforts is the war that sits at the novel’s center and creates the mechanism by which Aoife’s eventual exile occurs.

Aoife in fact discovers herself as a “human being who wanted peace regardless of the price,” but this blind pursuit has consequences—among them, the loss of her children from her first marriage. Once she accepts the world for what it is, she is able to facilitate healing in her second marriage and give birth to an unusually gifted child, Wei. The novel’s later section has Aoife living with the Utopian Guardians, but even their knowledge is barren and unproductive unless shared, and Wei becomes the instrument by which this growth can be achieved.

Reading this novel, I felt like I was examining a Jungian analysis dream diary, or perhaps a grown up feminist twist on The Hobbit. It was a pleasure to read a novel of broad scope that actually contained its exploration within a few hundred pages and didn’t balloon into the inevitable four-part saga. Definitely a tale to enjoy on a wintry evening by the fire.

- Rosslyn Bentley

Bookshelf Home

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Blue Book

A.L. Kennedy

The Blue Book is prolific Scottish author A.L. Kennedy’s fifteenth book, and sees her in top form. Beth and her dull but safe boyfriend Derek are taking a cruise across the Atlantic when they unexpectedly encounter an obnoxious, chatty little man named Arthur—who just happens to be Beth’s former partner in a series of cons, as well as her sometime lover. As Beth tries to keep Derek from learning about Arthur, the line between the person she is and the person she wants to be starts to blur, with even more important secrets from her past working their way to the surface.
Kennedy’s prose is Nabokovian in its beauty. Her sentences are elegant, complex, and structured with such obvious care that it becomes impossible to imagine that the words could have come together in any other configuration. Nearly every page offers a line that you will want to remember for the rest of your life.

The Blue Book can be challenging at times. There are long sections written in italics, extended digressions that seem irrelevant at first glance (though they pay off later), and shifting timelines and viewpoints that could have become a confusing mess in the hands of a lesser writer.
Kennedy has produced a nuanced portrait of love, grief, and need as imperatives that stem from romance, affection, domesticity, and the lies we tell about who we are. The Blue Book is a surprisingly intense book that challenges the reader’s emotions as thoroughly as it does its characters’.

August C. Bourré

August C. Bourré is a Waterloo-based writer and editor who blogs about books at

Bookshelf Home


Edited by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant

Steampunk! A relatively recent science fiction genre that, paradoxically, reaches back further than any other. Steampunk is for the person who prefers steam to electricity, clockwork to batteries, and antiquity to technology. Steampunk has become quite popular over the last few decades. It’s not only found in books, but in movies (Steamboy, Wild Wild West), music (Abney Park and The Cog Is Dead) and is even celebrated annually in several festivals in New Jersey, Vancouver, and Toronto.

Mask by Tom Banwell
Glasses by steampunk22
Now steampunk fans can add a treasure trove of steam-powered stories to their shelves. Steampunk! contains fourteen stories written by some of today’s best new authors. The beautiful thing is, no two stories are alike. Each one is told in its own unique, creative way. Some aren’t even written at all, but drawn, the atmosphere and backgrounds carefully crafted to bring the story to life.

All may share the basic elements of steampunk—brass, gears, and goggles—but they go so far beyond as to create an entirely new spectrum out of the genre, a veritable menagerie of the odd and the wonderful. Holly Black writes of a clockwork house that gains semi-sentience and begins to question the orders of its owners. Cory Doctorow weaves a Dickensian tale of orphaned cripples replacing their governor with a brass automaton. Kelly Link inserts a bit of fantasy into her writing, tinkering faeries whose tiny, incredible creations dazzle and enchant. And that’s only three!

Spider by Daniel Proulx

Not restricted to Victorian England, these stories go to other planets, other universes, the wild west, the Roman empire, and even our own world. They contain gigantic factories, talking dolls, ghosts, faeries, demons, time travel, mystery, mechaniques, and the very first flight of an airplane. There are explosions, villainy, war, revenge, treasure and so much more to read and experience.

The problem with anthologies is that they so often contain stories that are quite good, but also ones that are quite boring. Not so with Steampunk! Each story is a journey to a new world, a re-evaluation of all that is possible and all that could have been. “Steampunk is the intersection of romance [adventure] and technology,” wrote steampunk artist Jake von Slatt, whose designs for a homemade Wimshurstmachine may be seen online. He couldn’t have been more right.

What are you waiting for, then? Strap on your goggles, fire up your The Cog Is Dead CD, and settle down for some of the most timeless stories ever written. Steampunk! is destined to become a classic, and a true representation of the steampunk genre.

- Robert Green

Laptop by Richard R. Nagy (Datamancer)

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Demonologist

Andrew Pyper

Andrew Pyper’s The Demonologist brings science and the supernatural together to create a fascinating novel with truly heart-gripping moments. When David Ullman’s daughter is taken from him by a demon, he has to fight for his life to try to get her back. David is a professor who specializes in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and his connection to the poem is soon discovered by the demon, leading David to understand the true meaning behind Milton’s classic work. This was a quick read that I could easily see being turned into a movie. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys demonology, horror movies, and the ideas behind Paradise Lost. Reading Paradise Lost before reading this novel makes you realize the amazing job Andrew Pyper did weaving his novel and Milton’s timeless poem together, although you don’t need to have read Milton to enjoy Pyper’s story on its own.

- Wesley Wilson