Friday, August 27, 2021

Book Review: The Lions of Fifth Avenue

The Lions of Fifth Avenue
by Fiona Davis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fiona Davis is one of my recent favourite historical authors. So to give her four stars is a bit surprising; but The Lion of Fifth Avenue was just not near as compelling as some of her previous novels. You'd think the setting, of the New York Public Library, would be more than enough to make this perfect; but the reality is quite different. Here we have a historical mystery (as Davis tends to write) where the mystery felt unsolvable as it was so tenuous a connection.

The Mystery
Stole artifacts, including paintings, books, manuscripts, sculptures, etc. are always super intriguing. For one, you have to find a buyer in order to get cash value out of them; and two, you need to know exactly what to take. Not just any old Shakespeare book is going to do. It needs to be a special one, for example: a first edition, hardcover, only 10 in the world left, etc. Knowledge plays a key part in stealing these items. And so I was disappointed to learn who our thief was (both in the present and past), their motivation of the theft was very dull, and the way it was stolen only had a hint of interest for me. Perhaps if there had been more details about each book/piece that was stolen, or even an estimated worth (although arguably priceless artifacts) I would have felt more drawn into the intrigue. All the who, what, where, when, why and how questions of this mystery are wrapped up in the last 25 pages and just stated. The whole core plot lacked a romance that I know Fiona Davis is capable of.

Our leading ladies; one in the past and one in 1993 were equally interesting however. Both had excellent love interests (including one that is lesbian!!) that kept me on the hook wondering how they might resolve the conflicts in their way of each relationship. As per usual these ladies had strong voices and Davis gives each their own way of telling their part of the tale. So that you can't mistake one for the other (even if you miss the chapter heading telling you when you are). I felt both ladies have good introspective moments and each is a much better person as they grow in life and love. It's refreshing to see two women, albeit in two very different times, combat prejudices of being a woman, and be faced with situations similar to ones I've been in professionally in the past.

Women's Rights
I really wanted to know more about what Laura Lyons (our past lady) wrote about women's rights that was so compelling. I know this is a made up character and Davis doesn't want to rewrite history; but some more examples of the types of writing she did near the end of her life would have whet my appetite. Our 1993 lady could have certainly been a little more staunch in her stance as a women. She seems to just fall into a number of the scenarios and promotions; as opposed to really fighting for, and earning, them. There should have been more of a connection here between our two ladies.

The weak mystery outcome and a lack of real connection between our two ladies (past and present) really brought The Lion of Fifth Avenue below the usual standard that Fiona Davis has set for herself. I would still recommend this book but I just can't give it the five stars I did The Address or The Chelsea Girls warranted. Much like Davis' novel, The Masterpiece, The Lions of Fifth Avenue is just missing the special spark that the other novels have. I hope she is able to bring it back in her upcoming novels! Either way I will still continue to read her stories and have them on my print bookshelf (my highest honour) as I do love to read Davis' style, tone and narrative overall.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Book Review: The Way of the River

The Way of the River 
by Shan L. Spyker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This independently published middle grade book is quite the adventure! With a large cast of boys, girls, and animals to adore. While the introduction was a bit slow and disjointed for me, The Way of the River more than makes up for it with it's evil circus ringmaster/owner and his minions whom are awful to both humans and animals alike. Add in a big dose of talking animals from a magical forest, healing water, mystical powers, and some good ol' sibling rivalry; and you've got yourself the recipe for Shan Spyker's debut novel (and first in a series).

Normally I would put this at the end of my review. But in this case I think it's important I be really upfront. I know Shan Spyker. I donated to her Kickstarter for this novel, and am thanked in the book's liner notes (which is super cool for me!). So this review does need to be taken as it is. I've tried to be as honest and up-front as always; but I will confess it is possible that I've given Spyker more room for improvement and less critical comments than I might another debut author. The Way of the River is not without its faults (as you will read below) but overall I am super proud to say I had a teeny tiny piece in getting it to it's audience and have proudly gifted copies to all the little kiddos in my life.

It's an Indie Book
As always I think it's important to note this is an indie book. No big publishing house editor looked at it, critiqued it, or edited out the typos. So there are some to be stumbled over. I've let Spyker know of my list so that she can fix them up for the eBook, or a second edition publication.
Additionally I found a few points in the book to be quite weak. Sadly the introduction is one of them. For the first 50 pages or so I had a hard time figuring out if Kellandale Wood was supposed to be on Earth, or in another magical realm or planet. For the record it's in another land. Adding to this was my confusion about timeline. There is mention of events from hundreds of years before; but no real mention of 'today's' timeline. This also added to my confusion on if we were supposed to be in today's world and timeline or not. When you say things like 100 years ago, it makes more sense if I have a basis for what the present day looks like. In this case we do not.
Once I got over my time and place issues I then had to contend with large jumps in the timeline for our main characters, the kids. There are times where a few weeks go by, a day or two, and then months at once. While Spyker does a decent job of ensuring we are aware of when we are, it does feel a little leap froggy to me and made my head spin once or twice to keep track of when we were in the current storyline.
These are all critiques that are standard fare for an indie book; but are still elements that do bring the enjoyment down for many readers.

The Narration
Minus our introductory elements discussed above, the narration in The Way of the River is fabulous! I mean really, truly strong. I felt like I was in a movie at moments when our kids are infiltrating the circus and I felt the change in points of view was done gracefully as the narration is clear on who is speaking or thinking at any given moment. Spyker is a talented action writer. Many middle grade and young adult authors struggle with this. They do well at the editorializing and info-dump; but fail in creating truly captivating action. Not so for Spyker. I would compare the action here to recent debut YA author Tomi Adeyemi; whose overall first novel I wasn't a huge fan of but there was no discounting her ability to write some engrossing action scenes. Spyker fits well into this same category. The action and plot are not at all a problem. Some of the finer details about the magic, time, and place are needed to really bring this to the next level.

I know it's not right... but this nearly 40-year-old woman (yes that's me) loves Alister. I mean adores him more than any adult should fan-girl over a teenage boy. This is unusual as it's often a girl I am most drawn to in MG/YA books; but here it was Alister. His adoration of the circus animals, cunning and swift thought process; plus the fact that he's young and quick all contributed to me loving every moment his name came up on the page. But don't worry there are two young girls to adore here, including the adorable Tillie that most girls under 10 are likely to want to be, the older Elinore that reminded me of Susan from Narnia (a bit stoic and definitely in-charge), and then the other boys/cousins that are around. One thing I lament is that I lost track of Tillie's BFF at some point near the end and I'm not sure what happens to her. I hope this comes back around in book 2. Or I need to reread the story as maybe I simply missed her role in our exciting climax. In fairness there are a lot of characters to keep track of.

I wanted to love this book. I really did. And I have to say after a rocky start I'm happy to recommend it as a great debut novel. You need to know what you are getting into, as per my Indie Book section written above; but if you want to treat yourself (or a child you know) to a story that is very exciting, has lots of characters (and animals!) to love; and is quite magical then you cannot go wrong with The Way of the River. I know Spyker is planning (hopefully writing currently!) the second installment. One warning this book does not have a wrap it all up in a bow ending. We have resolution for some of our characters but not all (including my boy Alister!). So be prepared to want the next book immediately!

My huge thanks to Spyker for allowing me to be a part of her journey and donate to her Kickstarter. And for putting my name in her liner notes! This is hugely exciting to me and as a lover and reviewer of books I'm proud to say I had one of the first copies in my hand.

Order a copy on Amazon or at the author's website:

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Book Review: Hummingbird Salamander

Hummingbird Salamander 
by Jeff VanderMeer
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I hate writing reviews for books I didn't like. Unfortunately this is one of those. And to think it's a Jeff VanderMeer book! But alas I have to be honest, the reality is I was psyched for Hummingbird Salamander and ended up massively disappointed. Here's why:

Genre Confusion
Part of the problem with VanderMeer's novel is that it is really toted as a science fiction book in it's classification and marketing. But I found there was really nothing sci-fi about it until the last 75 pages. Which means you have to slog through 250+ pages of what would be classified as a weak mystery novel. Unfortunately it was just boring to me. I'm not much of a mystery/thriller (on it's own) reader so I struggled through a lot of this.

Narrative Voice
First off, I hated (yes I mean hated) our leading lady who narrates the novel for us. She seems to be rambling, confused, and in need of some serious mental health help at every turn. At about 80% through the novel VanderMeer reminds us that this is supposed to be a written account of the events that happened. I had completely forgotten that tidbit from the beginning. Why were we not reminded more often? Why did the prose not read that way? It felt like Interview with the Vampire for me which was an attempt to have a personal narrative but flopping badly because the voice is not strong enough or just not consistent enough to feel like someone is telling (or writing) the story down.

The Ending
I'm surprised I made it to the ending. Honestly if it was an unknown author I would have DNF'd Hummingbird Salamander for sure. But because it was VanderMeer I kept thinking there had to be something up-coming that was worth the wait. I wasn't totally let down. The point or morale of the novel is very good in the end. But I'm not sure why it took 250+ pages to get to it. I almost feel like the last 75 pages was a great novella at some point and someone made a poor decision to make it a full length novel. The first 250+ pages could easily have been put into a paragraph at the beginning of a novella to get you into the story and then explode into the epic ending from there. I felt no value to the lost, confused, and boring narrative leading up to the sci-fi section of the novel.
That said I do get what VanderMeer is making a political/societal comment here. And so I really appreciated this quote; especially given the crazy amount of misinformation during the pandemic to date:
"Impossible to tell how fast society was collapsing because history had been riddled through with disinformation, and reality was composed of half-fictions and full-on paranoid conspiracy theories."
It's really too bad that the majority of this novel is not for me. If you like super slow burning, disjointed stories with very little foreshadowing then you'll maybe enjoy this one. If you're hoping for a fast paced science fiction novel (like you'd expect from VanderMeer ) then step away slowly and find something else to read; I wish I had. And while yes I did enjoy the ending it was simply not worth it. Maybe there is a screenplay here that might play out better with more character development and really good acting chemistry, maybe. But honestly I'm not sure it's salvageable at all without cutting the first 2/3 out and just working with the last bit.
This won't turn me away from VanderMeer as I've enjoyed this short stories in the past. I'm sad it was my first novel by him. But I have a few others of his on my shelf that I will definitely try in the future. He is after all a Canadian, like me, and I always try to support my fellow Canadians! For now I need to move onto something with some true science fiction elements and maybe a bit snarky to get over my bitterness...Murderbot anyone?

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review. (less)

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Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Book Review: I Come With Knives

I Come with Knives
by S.A. Hunt
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The further away I get from reading this book the more I think three stars is just too generous... so I'm dropping it to two stars. Honestly, unless you thought book 1 in the series was the best book you've ever read then I cannot see anyone finding this read good and it's certainly not better. Given book 1 was only okay it's really not enough to get much from me (no matter how many cute Buffy or Doctor Who references S.A. Hunt puts into her stories. I will not be lured into liking bad writing by nostalgia!)

In the Beginning...
...there was an info dump. And I don't mean like a couple pages to catch you up and remind you of the story. No, no I mean like almost 50 pages of non-stop information that is impossible to digest or remember in the end. I know many writers, especially novice ones, feel like they need to explain everything about their world (be it a: fantasy world, Earth with magic, etc.). This is not the case! Readers are smart, and in fact, better writing keeps things interesting, provides just enough information while still moving the plot and our characters development forward. Please don't set-up every detail of your world to start any novel. It's just plain boring.

Gory & Gonzo
Do these things go together? Maybe... but there needs to be a really delicate line between a lot of gore (which Hunt seems obsessed with) and weird, odd descriptions. I just have trouble imaging a gory monster when it's so oddly described. A good lesson here is refer back to H. P. Lovecraft. That is an author that excelled at descriptions that were both icky, gory, and horrific (without sounding just silly). Here is an example that made me shake my head in utter confusion. Is this scary? Does adding blood to it help the absurdity? Not for me.

"It was all head and lanky frame, an enormous black-green chimpanzee with jagged dinosaur legs and a giant mascot head."

As with S.A. Hunt's first book in the series there is a heavy reliance on shock value to keep the reader interested. Maybe that keeps the attention of 12-year-old's? But it will not keep the attention of the average 16-year-old... so to me this is a fail. If this is supposed to be a teen book, and given how gory it is I think it must be put there, then relying on shock value isn't going to work. Hunt commits a classic kid/teen literature mistake: assuming the reader is not intelligent. Even a child of 5 can handle a complex plot. So don't dumb it down for MG or YA readers.
Additionally there are a lot of references in here that I suspect the average teen isn't going to pick-up. Now maybe that's okay... but writers need to be careful not to have throwbacks to their own teens in a book written for today's teens. Let's face it, as much as I want to think that being almost 40 doesn't put me in a different realm of language and pop culture knowledge; it does. And referencing Buffy the Vampire Slayer seems cute; but if your target audience is currently 14 it's doubtful they will catch the very subtle reference. Maybe that's okay... but to me it would be better to have a more current reference that your target reader will appreciate.

I have told myself under no circumstances am I letting myself read book 3. I will not allow my "need" to finish a series waste my precious reading time on anymore of Hunt's over-the-top, absurd, and gory descriptions or ridiculous plot points.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Monday, August 9, 2021

Book Review: Folk Songs for Trauma Surgeons (Anthology)

Folk Songs for Trauma Surgeons: Stories 
by Keith Rosson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This collection of stories was very 'real' feeling. Intense, violent, and sad; but very truthful about how messed up the word is. If you want to feel better about your own life this is a set of short stories that is likely to help because these stories are brutal.

Story #1 - The Lesser Horsemen
I’ve always thought Death didn’t fit in with the other horsemen. I mean all of their powers result in death. This story really nails on the head this issue. As well as brings up a great ‘new’ horseman.
Although I can’t help but wonder if our buddy Pestilence should get a sequel since covid hit. (Nervous laughter?)

Story #2 - At This Table
Footnotes!! Gotta love a good (generally useless) footnote.
Sadly the story is meh.

Story #3 - Baby Jill
What is it about tooth fairy stories lately? This has to be like the fourth or fifth I’ve read this year! Granted three were in one fairy anthology; but still.
This one is odd… feels more like an opening to something bigger.

Story #4 - Their Souls Climb the Room
A. I like pork and no amount of gory slaughterhouse descriptions is likely to change that,
B. If this is attempting to compare slaughtering pigs to killing humans it misses the mark.
If the story is just about loving pigs and not eating them then I'm a poor target audience. *shrugs*

Story #5 - Hospitality
Wow, shocker of an ending. I can’t say anything about this without possibly tipping off too much. So I’ll just say wow.

Story #6 - This World or the Next
An interesting little story about the connection, or difference, between a head injury and what most would call a religious experience. Can they be one and the same?

Story #7 - Gifts
Dark, forbidding, and depressing. This story would make an amazing full length novel or movie.

Story #8 - Coyote
It feels like there are about 20 pages missing to this story. A piece where we learn about the brother a bit more; something other than his heartbreak.

Story #9 - Yes, We are Duly Concerned with Calamitous Events
Well this is very disturbing. A Lord of the Flies with office workers. Another visceral story in which I can't quite peg the reason that people are motivated to kill in awful ways. Very strange and a bit psychotic.

Story #10 - Winter, Spring, Whatever Happens After That
This is a very sad, yet realistic story of a family destroyed by alcoholism, poverty, and the failure of the ‘American Dream’. The children; a young boy and a teen girl, are stuck in the cross-fire of it all and suffer because of it. A good account of how circular life is and that the choices we make affect the children around us immensely and (all too often) negatively.

Story #11 - Forgive Me This
Another father to child (in this case a son) story that is sad all around. I can only wonder at Rosson’s relationship with his parents if he has garnered inspiration for his stories from them...

Story #12 - Dunsmuir
This may be the most hopeful story of this collection. While it has murder, drugs, and alcoholism. It also has rehab, (what passes for) justice, and a baby. Really well put together and could easily be a full fledged novel with a lot of introspective comments in it.
One critique is that snakes do not molt. They shed. These are very different activities. One involves feathers (molting), the other involves scales (shedding). It really bugs me when people get info on snakes incorrect! My poor babies are so misunderstood.

Story #13 - Homecoming
I’m not sure if Rossom means this afterlife to be a type of hell or not. But if hell is as desolate as described here then it might be worse than fires and constant physical pain. Bring on Satan and his whips instead please!

Story #14 - The Melody of the Thing
Brutally violent story about how one innocuous decision can bring everything to a grinding halt.
Also a reminder that we leave people with little proper care once they leave the hospital. Super sad; even if the ending has some hope in it. The violence here would warrant a warning; but then if you've read this many stories in the anthology, in order, you aren't likely to be surprised by this escalation in violence and gore.

Story #15 - Brad Benske and the Hand of Light
This final story is a bit odd but interesting. It is about a man with anger management issues (who is trying to 'handle' them); and a woman who is a bit flighty.

All of these stories so far are so well written and most have been very clever. I’m definitely going to keep my eye on Rosson. His early (first two) novels were only okay; but these stories suggest major talent. Highly recommend this for any horror fans or those who want some really dark insights into our lives as humans.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Book Review: Penelope Strudel

Penelope Strudel: And the Birthday Treasure Hunt
SPOT THE CLUES and CRACK THE CODES to help Penelope find her birthday surprise!
by Brendan Kearney
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had a book super similar to this one as a kid. It was one of my favourite books ever. I wish I had a copy or could even remember the name! But it had a hidden dodo on the cover and decoding, search and find, etc. just like what is found in Penelope Strudel. Here you find puffins instead of a dodo.

This is such a beautiful book. Well put together, easy to follow, and sooo fun! The type of book that a 10-year-old will adore; but that the adults will want to join in on to solve the clues. Perfect for a car or plane trip, rainy day, or for a kid that is intrigued by codes. Don't know if your kid cares about decoding? This is a great place to start!

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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