Saturday, December 6, 2014

Review of Mary Lou's Brew by Jennifer Craig

Mary Lou's BrewMary Lou's Brew by Jennifer Craig
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mary Lou's Brew by Jennifer    Craig
There is one of those Fate & Publishing stories behind this book, as I discovered when reading the author's acknowledgements. This very funny, very smart, and highly readable book pre-dates the Harry Potter juggernaut. As anyone who has worked in a bookstore or in any facet of publishing knows, the collective unconscious dips into inventive minds around the planet. Voila, along with J.K. Rowling writing in an Edinburgh coffee shop to save money on her daytime gas bill, a British School of Sophistry with a reluctant student and a wacky faculty emerged in Canada, courtesy of a retired homeopathic doctor.Even more eerie is the fact that a form of airborne device which must be mind-activated by the passenger is a featured mode of transportation by all competent members of the imperilled School within a grand post-secondary institution, along the lines of an Oxford or Cambridge University.

Meanwhile Harry found a good publisher in Bloomsbury UK and went on to World Domination while this manuscript, equally talented in my opinion, was set aside. Finally in 2014, Mary Lou's Brew was self-published.(Why? Why? If I still worked in publishing, I would have pounced on this manuscript, championed it and then sold it to those of us who are sick to death of unicorns (should be shot on sight to prevent pastel imaginations from spreading like pink jello across the land of childhood), vampires (hand me a sharpened stake and a braid of garlic please) and those relentless, rotting-on-the-hoof zombies.)In contrast, this book is very well-written and science, pseudo-science, and the politics of academia are all skewered with great good humour and word play (look for JIM Beam technology).

For smart older teens (a hookah in the hands of a Dean is involved, but then a hookah appears in Alice in Wonderland as well) and especially fans of all ages pining for the sheer imagination of Harry Potter ...this book is for you. Adults who have not lost their sense of humour will be delighted as this book is often laugh-out-loud funny. The author knows her Greek philosophical sects and creates memorable characters, zinger dialogue and a brilliantly-paced plot. What a movie this would make as well! Dame Maggie Smith is a shoo-in for Octavia.

Highly recommended!

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Sunday, October 12, 2014

Review of The Longer I'm Prime Minister: Stephen Harper and Canada, 2006---

The Longer I'm Prime Minister: Stephen Harper and Canada, 2006-The Longer I'm Prime Minister: Stephen Harper and Canada, 2006- by Paul Wells
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First a reader alert: do not read this book, The Longer I'm Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Canada 2006 just before sleeping. I usually love reading myself to sleep with a good book but this one gave me nightmares. This may not apply to you if you tend to believe Daddy Knows Best and that someone with stony, empty eyes is a Strong Leader who should Take Charge while Canadian citizens pass out for three decades.

That said, Paul Wells is a terrific journalist and writer who has a great sense of humour (considering his beat for MacLean's magazine, federal politics, it's either that or leap off the Bell Tower) and the ability to synthesize a staggering amount of research while moving the narrative forward in a compulsively readable fashion. The reader isn't weighed down with every documented conversation or pelted with a dizzying array of names dropping from great heights.

It's best read in the clear light of day and will confirm what most political junkies already know, that the Prime Minister is overly-controlling about all aspects of governance and especially his contact with media, and that his aim is, above all, to hang on to majority government power (which he currently does with only 39% of the vote). This means curtailing the colourful outbursts of wing-nuts from the Reform Party in the merged ranks of Red Tories, fusty regular Tories and Reformers who line-danced their way into power by peddling right-wing umbrage on everything that was was immoral and/or involved paying too many taxes during the 20th century. I was counting on them reminding the four minute voters, the ones who managed to get to the polls with the latest political ad in their uncritical minds, that the quality of federal legislation was dependent on a lot of whack-job seat-warmers on the Conservative side of the house. But that's lazy, if hopeful, thinking on my part. What's even more sickening is the account of smear tactics used against NDP leader, Jack Layton, and the Robo-calling fiasco which directed dithering voters to the wrong polling station in hopes of nullifying their vote. There are an awful lot of unethical mean little trolls working for the Conservatives in this country at all levels. And that goes for the "Liberals" in British Columbia as well, an unholy assortment of opportunists from God-only knows what political beliefs spectrum.

The recent announcement of a bunch of gerrymandered ridings (at least, I assume they are ridings with much-studied borders and prior voting patterns with this micro-managing PM in charge)will undoubtedly bear even more Conservative fruit. The progressives on the left'ish side of the House seriously need to consider strategic voting or else we citizens will not recognize this country as our home within a decade or two. This PM and our country will continue to be international pariahs where once we were honorable world citizens and some us wish to be a great deal more honorable than we ever were before in the areas of aboriginal, environmental, chronic homelessness/poverty, immigration criteria, and women's issues in this country.

Now I'm going to read some murder mysteries just to recover from the trauma of reading this book...I comfort myself by knowing that when Stephen Harper dies, and he will someday, as we all will, there will never be a funeral for him like the one Jack Layton had. I'm sure the PM was taking notes while he attended, stoney-eyed as ever, but even the Master Micro-Manager will never be able to command an outpouring of genuine affection, admiration and love. Consider the way that he/his underlings botched the G-8 meeting in Toronto several years ago, the one with police brutality and a fake lighthouse and lake? The one where those of us watching television could not believe we were watching Canadians being corralled in our own civilized streets? There are certain issues of finesse far beyond the pedestrian power-hungry mind.

That he is highly disciplined, hard-working and true to his own beliefs is also undoubtedly true and this book is balanced in that the pros and cons of the PM's mind-set and approach are all handled in a transparently, even-handed way. I may not like what I read because I am a left-wing-leaning citizen but I feel I've read an entertaining, well-documented and honest appraisal.

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Sunday, September 7, 2014

Book review of Shafted A Mystery by Sheila Peters (Creekstone Press: 2014)

Full mea-culpa: I am the world's worst blogger. I've been far busier with lighthouse work, paid book reviews, garden work, and working on several of my own writing projects with deadlines...and those are my official excuses for not cheerfully sending millions of blogs into the ether every few days. But forthwith, another book review which I do on Goodreads and then transfer to my blog. It was a great warm-up for getting back to my major writing project underway, enjoy! Shafted A MysteryShafted A Mystery by Sheila Peters
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Shafted A Mystery is a departure in genre writing for author Sheila Peters, well-respected in Canadian literary circles for her published works in poetry, short fiction and most recently, The Taste of Ashes, a gritty and gripping novel set in Guatemala, Vancouver and Smithers, B.C.

The small and vibrant town of Smithers, B.C. makes another appearance in this book and is, in fact, a character of sorts as all well-written mystery settings are, which places this book in a new wave of Canadian mysteries from large and small publishers where the once-pejorative words "local" and "regional" are applied to tasty, specifically spiced and culturally authentic writing in the same way those words have been used in a laudatory way in the world of cuisine for several decades, and rightly so. The best-selling mysteries set in Three Pines, Quebec by Louise Penny or in Kootenay Landing, B.C. by Deryn Collier are two that quickly come to mind. Collier, like Peters, is particularly brilliant at deftly using local details of setting, cuisine, the slightly nosy neighbours who truly have your back, and the vicious local power struggles which can turn deadly in a way that is utterly authentic.

I grew up in a small rural community and have preferred to live in them ever since so my nose quickly detects those authors who ladle on the local detail but without the depth of relationships, the true intimacy of life in a close-knit community. Local "colour" when plopped onto a formulaic genre is still formula-driven fast-food writing with a bit of well-worn sauce, not nearly as satisfying as the slow food served by those who grow and know their own local ingredients. Mysteries are my brain candy, the genre I most love to read to relax and to sink into another world's sights and smells and tastes and voices, as experienced by the observant sleuth or any reasonable facsimile on his/her way to settling things so that justice prevails (or a satisfying facsimile of justice).

Another interesting aspect of this well-written book is the choice of April as the month in which all the action takes place. April in Smithers will resonate with many readers who experience four seasons of the year as, without a doubt, April is the cruelest month. It gets our hopes up for spring, surely just around the corner. Peters delivers April's uncontrollable run-off, collective mental teetering on the edge, freezing treachery and the first beautiful dry, bare patch in the yard with true panache. If I was an Aussie reader, I'd be just as fascinated, in the same way that I am when a writer from Down Under gives me prolonged drought and a couple of murders to ponder in such a way that I'm thirsty after just a few pages.

So, what we have in April in Smithers is an era when party lines on the rural telephone exchange still existed and the internet is barely a rumour.There are property development issues afoot so astute mystery readers know we need to follow the money, for starters. Into this mix, strides and stumbles the fatigued protagonist, Margo Jamieson, a part-time auxiliary cop and stage manager/janitor at the high school theatre auditorium, a young woman with a big heart and a maternal eye on a troubled student who is homeless, vulnerable and unpredictable. There is also a fabulously wealthy, thanks to a lottery win, eco-activist, a hometown girl who abandoned a promising career in the U.S. to come home to Smithers and there to fund a think tank with visiting international scientists to solve environmental problems. She also wants to create a local wilderness park, much to the displeasure of some residents who expected her to fork over wads of her cash for their assorted causes instead of this park business, where local logging and mining jobs might be lost.

The geological and political elements in this mystery are fascinating; both well-researched and highly credible as this conflict is currently happening all over North and South America. This brings us to another interesting character, a reclusive, handsome geologist or mining company fixer or scout, or all of the above...the stories vary according to the purveyor of the gossip but he's a hometown son as well and he, as the surviving member of his family, has a stake in the rubble left behind from their once-thriving mine in the proposed park zone. Another unsavoury character is an an old prospector, the kind who snoops around other people's claims and digs up dirt in all forms, also a former swimming champion and fading beauty with a massive mean streak, a charming and philosophical cafe owner, a beefy and brusque female RCMP officer dealing with a vindictive, misogynist supervisor (another situation ripped from much more recent headlines as women serving as RCMP stand up in the new millennium and speak publicly about the nasty unprofessional jerks they have had to work with for years in a culture which blatantly condones sexism), and an appealing local historian who works as a telecommunications technician. I could go on with the list but what I'm trying to say is that, as in the best theatre ensembles, there are no small roles, only small players, and every character created by Sheila Peters is immensely memorable, whether they are on the page for a few scenes or reappear as major players throughout the entire book.

Who is using a dry cleaning business to send poison pen notes to Smithereens from all walks of life (or at least those who can afford to get their clothes dry-cleaned?)Who amongst this cast of characters would stoop to using a pistol on an old man and a homemade bomb to cover up their mistakes, nearly killing two innocent people in the ensuing melee? What is connected to whom and why? It's a very satisfying read which kept me guessing right to the "reveal". Now what I would like is a series of mysteries set in Smithers by Sheila Peters, one set in each month of the year. There is the grim fact of the Highway of Tears to investigate, for starters. And I would like at least one book to include the wonderful bookstore in Smithers and the great music festival too! Shafted A Mystery is recommended reading any month of the year.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

What It Takes To Be Human by Marilyn Bowering

What It Takes to Be HumanWhat It Takes to Be Human by Marilyn Bowering
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What It Takes to Be Human
I could not put the book down until 2:30 a.m...a wonderfully paced and beautifully written story about a young man who is committed to an insane asylum by his (obvious to me) insane parents. There he has to hang on to his sanity while being experimented on with truth serum (sodium pentothal) or insulin injections, followed by relentless and devious interrogations. There is, as well as the criminally insane, a population of conscientious objectors and others whose chief failing seems to be hailing from German or Japanese, Chinese or Russian ethnic backgrounds. Communists and even a Mac-Pap veteran of the Spanish Civil War are memorably included as well as gay men, including former soldiers who are now being punished and "treated". The research is skillfully integrated and may serve as an eye-opener for some readers as to who exactly decides who the criminally insane "element" is and who has the power to put people away without a formal, legal link to the outside world. There is, as we fear, one particularly abusive staff member because there almost always is at least one sadistic bully in the workplace, and/or, in institutions like prisons and asylums with few objective eyes checking in to monitor and punish such behaviours.

Here we have a possibly unreliable narrator whose main ally on the "outside" is a beautiful dipsomaniac who clearly identifies with Sandy Grey as a man the same age as her own son, missing in action in Europe. She gives him a how-to writing guide, paper and pencils and Sandy begins his study of another inmate from an earlier time whose files he has discovered, those of an immigrant Scotsman wrongly accused of murder and summarily executed after a hasty and controversial trial. This case has very clear parallels to his own situation, as he is incarcerated with the threat of lobotomy, cold water hoses, experimental electrocution, castration and other horrors if he doesn't present his own sanity well enough to the attending doctors. And of course, he does go spectacularly off the rails from time to time. Who wouldn't?

It was truly gripping to follow the ravelling and unravelling of young Sandy's mind as he grappled with his own synthesis of reality vs the presentation of reality he had, on good advice from other inmates, to conjure up for the doctors and the Board. If the ending seems a little too neatly tied up with a bow, it's also an intense relief to this reader to know several of the outcomes did come to pass and justice was achieved at last! I'd recommend this for military history buffs, medical personnel and other writers who want to enjoy an interesting novel structure, deeply imagined characters, great Canadian and international historical research and the pleasure of a terrific story, very well-told.

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