Local Author Book Reviews

Constant Sister: a Sister Katherine medieval mystery by Gillian Bridge book cover

Local Author Book Review #14: Constant Sister: a Sister Katherine medieval mystery by Gillian Bridge

Despite the subtitle, this book is so much more than a whodunit in a medieval setting. Reading it is like watching the tiny, jewel-like pictures in an illuminated psalter come to life. It is a heartfelt story rooted in history, with a carefully structured plot and memorable characters. Readers familiar with London may recognize familiar place names with amazement at how different things were more than 800 years ago.

The story begins with the coronation of King Richard I (“the Lionheart”) and the riot and fire that followed attacks on Jewish people who attended the event. Sister Katherine nurses some of the victims of the fire in St. Bartholemew’s Hospital. Subsequent scenes introduce her brothers, Robert and William, and several other characters whose interactions create the central question of the story: who killed Master Simon?

As scenes unfold and interlock, leading to the answer to that question, the author’s knowledge of life in medieval England emerges and captivates. The characters represent a full range of social statuses and occupations, such as prosperous merchants, dutiful knights, busy clerks, dedicated religious, craftsmen, farmers and herders. Among them, Sister Katherine and her brothers (the elder a clerk, the younger a monk) play important roles in the final resolution. Women are not all subservient and uneducated, although their roles are more circumscribed than those of men. Details of architecture, clothing, food and drink, commerce, law, and agriculture are skillfully woven into the plot. A glossary at the end offers further information. I came away from the book with an increased knowledge of medieval life.

Parts of the book are set on the road between London and Colchester. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 8, in which one of the characters sets out on a ride to that town:

Robert rode carefully to avoid children who ran laughing after balls or willfully from the restraining arms of their mothers. As he entered the shadow of the ancient double gate with its raised portcullises, he was forced almost to a standstill by a flock of sheep on their last journey to the Shambles. Egged on by dogs and boys with sticks, they flowed around Sparrow’s legs, a moving sea of woolly foam. Then suddenly he was free. Ahead, crowded within the bars of Whitechapel were the workshops of glaziers and bell founders and, in the distance, the village of Whitechapel lay open to the fields. The rutted road was hard under Sparrow’s hooves; white clouds sailed overhead. He nodded to the gatekeeper as he passed the Bars and then smiled fiercely with pleasure as Sparrow tossed her head and snorted.

Aloud he remembered words from his childhood: “Hast thou given the horse strength? Hast thou clothed his neck with thunder?” He shouted out his response, “Yes,” and Sparrow picked up speed.

By the end of the book, most of the human dramas are resolved in a plausible and satisfying way, although not without a few tantalizing loose ends which make me wonder if a sequel is to follow. I certainly hope so.

My rating: 9 out of 10 stars (in my own rating system: 1 = abysmal, 2 = barely readable, 3 = mediocre, 4 = not bad, 5 = OK but not great, 6 = good but unremarkable, 7 = pretty good, 8 = really good, 9 = remarkable, 10 = superlative).

Constant Sister is published by Quadra Books and available on Amazon.

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The Mystery of the Missing Mask

Another Almost Local Book Review: The Mystery of the Missing Mask by M.A. Wilson

Publisher’s description:

Ryan and Kendra have returned to Maple Harbour on the British Columbia coast to visit their cousins Claire and Nathan. But the sleepy little town has been rocked by the news that a valuable Indigenous mask has been stolen, only days after it arrived at the local museum! While museum officials and the police search for answers, the four children and their new friend Tyler stumble upon a series of exciting clues. As they enjoy their summer holidays, not everything is what it seems.

This is the second adventure story for children set in the coastal community of Maple Harbour. Brother and sister Ryan and Kendra arrive for another summer vacation with their cousins, Nathan and Claire.

The action begins at the local museum, which has acquired a unique piece of Native art – a grizzly bear mask. The kids attend a ceremony featuring the mask. That very night, the mask is stolen.

The theft recedes into the background while the children plunge into summer activities – sailing, swimming, and building a tree house from salvaged lumber. Their activities are punctuated by wonderful meals provided by Aunt Jennie. A windstorm damages Uncle William’s truck. The kids make a new friend, Tyler, who has a canoe and shows them how to harvest oysters and clams.

Subtle clues to the mask theft are scattered through the plot, and converge in a satisfying way in the last few chapters. A nighttime investigation and exciting pursuit form the climax of the story.

This is a good, solid adventure tale, which would entertain kids from 7 to 12 or so. The characters are fairly distinct in terms of maturity, interests and abilities. Information about the environment and how to do things is presented in an engaging way. A subplot featuring the mischievous Mitchell twins and Claire’s dilemma about a lucky find on the beach is a lesson about doing the right thing. Figuring out who stole the grizzly bear mask by picking up on the trail of clues would be a satisfying reader experience. The final action scenes involve a series of exciting twists and jolts, with a role for everyone and a positive resolution.

I enjoyed the wealth of detail provided by the author, giving readers a complete experience of summer activities enjoyed to the full by a group of kids who are able to figure things out and make decisions. The detailed and attractive illustrations are a good addition to the story.

A review copy of the book was provided by the author.

Local Author Book Review #13: Deception Bay by Lea Tassie

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Greater Victoria Public Library (in Victoria, British Columbia) launched its third Emerging Local Authors Collection on May 4th. I have already finished reading a book from it!

Here is the description from the back cover:

To a tourist, the sleepy village of Deception Bay appears to be an idyllic, peaceful retreat, anything but deceptive. But Larry, a bartender in the old, quaint, ivy-covered inn, and Brenda, his realtor buddy, know better. They discover the secrets lurking below the surface, such as who attends the occult meetings and who committed the unreported rape. They can guess who lit the mysterious fire, though there’s no proof, and they discover the motives of the man who is definitely not what he seems to be. And they are not above starting a few rumors of their own to make the local news more interesting!

I picked up this book expecting to read a cozy mystery. Small town, secrets, crimes and rumors — cozy mystery, right? Wrong. Although it shares some elements with that genre, this book is about relationships — between parents and children, spouses and ex-spouses, friends, and people and their community.

The story is told in first person by the two main characters, Larry the bartender and Brenda the realtor, in alternating chapters. Each of them faces a series of problems which they share with one another, usually over drinks. There’s a lot of drinking in this book — endless gin and tonics (with lemon slices) for Brenda, beer, spirits and wine for others. Alcohol, in fact, is a major plot lubricant. The reader may wish to avoid vicarious driving after reading it.

The plot, like life in this village on Vancouver Island’s east coast, progresses at a leisurely pace. Nothing resembling a true crisis appears until the halfway point, but I was happy to wander through the spring and summer days with Larry and Brenda to discover how matters are resolved as autumn begins.

Author Lea Tassie lives in the region in which this book is set, and she knows whereof she speaks.

My rating: 7 out of 10 stars (in my own rating system: 1 = abysmal, 2 = barely readable, 3 = mediocre, 4 = not bad, 5 = OK but not great, 6 = good but unremarkable, 7 = pretty good, 8 = really good, 9 = remarkable, 10 = superlative).

 

Local Author Book Review #12: Hunter’s Daughter by Nowick Gray

This book is part of the 2016 Emerging Local Authors Collection at the Greater Victoria Public Library.

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From the back cover:

Northern Quebec, 1964: Mountie Jack McLain, baffled by a series of unsolved murders, knows the latest case will make or break his career. Eighteen-year-old Nilliq, chafing under the sullen power of her father in a remote hunting camp, risks flight with a headstrong shaman bent on a mission of his own. Their paths intersect in this tense mystery charting a journey of personal and cultural transformation.

Despite the reference to murder and a Mountie, and the word “mystery” above, this book is not a conventional “murder mystery.” Instead, it’s a character-driven, in-depth examination of cultural and personal change in Canada’s arctic. While the murders propel the plot, the substance of this book is a complicated dance of the principal characters, examining relationships and events from different points of view.

Sections narrated in first person by Jack McLain alternate with third-person chapters related from the point of view of Nilliq. This is entirely appropriate, since the author is a white man whose experience of the North was several years of teaching in Quebec Inuit villages. He does not presume to speak with the voice of an Inuit woman, but makes a great effort to represent her culture accurately. All other characters are seen through the eyes of these two; in some cases the same events and people. Rather than repetitious, I found these reiterations helpful in solidifying my understanding of events and relationships.

McLain and Nilliq are people in transition. He knows his term of service is coming to an end, due to imminent bureaucratic changes. Disillusioned with trying to administer justice in a rapidly changing and idiosyncratic cultural situation, but without any solid prospects elsewhere, McLain is a somewhat sad figure, an intelligent and well-meaning individual who too easily sees the dark side of things, but with a fundamental love for the northern way of life. Nilliq teeters on the edge of womanhood, increasingly aware of the exploitation of women by the men around them, and longing for wider horizons. Opposing them and one another are the enigmatic hunter and shaman who calls himself Wallin, although he also has other names, and the menacing figure of Nilliq’s father Sandlak.

The prose is spare and direct, tracing the narrative in a linear way, but permitting the characters to show background complexities in their interactions and conversations, finally taking the reader to a point where the issue of the murders is largely resolved, allowing the main characters to move on to new situations.

Hunter’s Daughter is a tale well told, with special relevance and interest at this time when many Canadians are trying to learn more about their country’s native peoples.

My rating: 9/10 stars.

An Almost Local Author Book Review: Adventure on Whalebone Island by M. A. Wilson

A while ago I decided to write reviews of some of the books in the Emerging Local Authors Collection at my public library. There were strict geographical criteria as to what constituted “local.” Michael Wilson, the author of Adventure on Whalebone Island, lives outside of the defined area, but I think I can bend the rule (this is my blog, after all), to include a resident of British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast, where the book is set.

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The book is aimed at 8- to 12-year-olds. Here is a brief description:

Ryan and Kendra have come to Maple Harbour on the BC coast to spend their summer holidays with their aunt and uncle. They’re expecting a leisurely holiday swimming and playing on the beach with their cousins Claire and Nathan. Claire, however, has other ideas – exploring islands in her sailboat and searching for sunken treasure. But what’s hidden on mysterious Whalebone Island? Have the four of them come across a secret that others don’t want discovered? Join these four intrepid adventurers and their fearless dog Meg in the summer escapade of a lifetime!

The story is simple and straightforward, with the main focus being a series of adventures. The children get re-acquainted, go swimming, sailing and enjoying the natural world. In the course of these activities, each of them has to deal with challenges involving self-confidence, getting along with others and learning new things. The action intensifies when they start looking for a sunken boat and survive a storm at sea, seeking shelter on Whalebone Island. While camping on the island, they encounter unexpected hazards presented by a group of criminals. Each child must call upon their inner resources to extract themselves and each other from dangerous situations.

The characters are sufficiently distinct from one another to give most readers someone to identify with. The situations are realistic and plausible, but the world in which these kids live is essentially a safe and secure one. There is no family dysfunction, corrosive personal anxiety or urban grittiness. This is a sunny adventure, perfect for entertaining its intended audience, who may also vicariously enjoy a lot of good food while reading about the meals and treats partaken of by the four adventurers.

The elements of this book — pre-teen children on a summer holiday, small sailboats, camping on an island, a quest for treasure, unexpected hazards — necessarily reminded me of Arthur Ransome’s books. Adventure on Whalebone Island may be favourably compared with those classics, incorporating the key elements in a present-day setting on the coast of British Columbia. One difference is these children inhabit the same world as the adult characters. There is no attempt on their part to create an alternate reality like the kids in the “Swallows and Amazons” stories. This is not a fault, but having made the comparison, I thought it worth mentioning.

The illustrations, by Vadym Prokhorenko, are notable for their elegant simplicity.

Further information, including purchase links, may be found at the website of Rainy Bay Press.

This review is based on a review copy of the ebook version.

Local Author Book Review #11: The Opera Singer by Keith M. Costain

A few weeks ago, I participated in an event at my the Greater Victoria Public Library featuring four authors who had contributed books to its Emerging Local Authors Collection. The four of us exchanged copies of our books. I declared I would read and review the other authors’ books. This is the first of those reviews.

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From the book jacket: “The book is a fictional memoir of a child’s life on the Isle-of-Man during the Second World War and focuses on the child’s relationship with a German/Jewish opera singer interned in Ramsey, the child’s home town.”

The Opera Singer by Keith M. Costain is a fascinating look at life on the Isle of Man during the Second World War. The author calls it a “fictional memoir,” but the element of memoir predominates, presenting island life at the time through vivid memories of childhood. Ten-year-old Erik relates anecdotes about family and community, easing the reader into the milieu in which the title character, Austrian opera singer Jakob Weiss, plays a crucial role. Weiss is an “enemy alien” interned on the Isle of Man, along with many others. In fact, the island was turned into a prison camp, with prisoners supplying unpaid labour to local farms as part of the war effort.

This fundamentally grim situation is enlivened with a great many humorous situations and colourful personalities, notably Erik’s choleric-tempered father (referred to as “Pop”), his refined and hard-working mother (called “Ma”), and Bessie, an opinionated neighbour. Many others are skilfully portrayed, always with an eye to their place in the big picture of the island’s society. An example of social class differences is the matter of which houses were requisitioned by the government to house military personnel. Erik’s family’s home is occupied by a shifting population of servicemen and their wives, adding to his mother’s burden of labour, but also contributing additional rations to the household.

At the centre of the book is young Erik’s relationship with Jakob, the interned Austrian who takes the role of an older brother and confidant. As the relationship progresses, Erik must deal with the prejudices of those around him and his own emotions of jealousy, fear and anger. The War is an ever-present threat that impinges on the child’s life in mundane and dramatic ways, from having to lug a gas mask around to watching a Spitfire crash into the bay and learning that its pilot has perished.

This book may be enjoyed in different ways — as a lively account of growing up in a time and setting very different from the present day, as a colourful fragment in the mosaic of 20th century history, and as a richly interesting and detailed look at family and community life as seen by a child on the border between innocence and experience.

Two minor quibbles: it seemed to me there was an absence of commas in quite a few places where they would have been useful; and I was sometimes stopped by phrases such as “asked him and I,” when I expected “asked him and me.” But these are small issues that did not interfere with my enjoyment of this wonderful book. I heartily recommend it to anyone who enjoys memoir or accounts of civilian life in the Second World War — or anyone who is looking for a warm and engrossing read.

In my 10-star rating system, The Opera Singer gets 9 stars.

 

Local Author Book Review #10: Arcane by Sever Bronny

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Arcane, by Sever Bronny is the first book in a 5-book YA fantasy series, The Arinthian Line. The story is set in the Kingdom of Solia, a medieval-type society full of peasants, knights and warlocks, who possess arcane powers (which must never be referred to as “magic”).

The book begins with the sufferings and trials of Augum, a 14-year-old orphan (“obligatory orphan,” I almost said), who endures bullying and bad treatment even as he trains as a squire to the bluff and earthy knight Sir Tobias Westwood. This life is shattered by a violent raid on Willowbrook, which destroys the village and launches Augum into a new life. He is caught up by a lightning storm that brings him into the hands of Mrs. Stone, once headmistress of the Academy of Arcane Arts. Another massacre brings Bridget and Leera into the group. The three begin warlock training with Mrs. Stone, while eluding a great peril with a special and horrible connection to Augum.

Bronny combines key elements familiar to readers of fantasy — the orphan with a tragic past, the bonds of friendship, training in the arcane arts by a mentor of power and integrity. Then there is a quest for objects of power, a deserted castle full of perils and surprises — and food! Lots of food, described in loving detail guaranteed to result in trips to the fridge for snacks. The narrative language is lively and colourful, never bogging down in metaphorical mudholes.

The fictional world of Solia is solidly thought out and internally consistent. Choices made in the past have cast the fates of the young protagonists and made them dependent on one another and the development of their arcane abilities. The last 80 pages of the book are a thrilling rollercoaster ride into the unknown. The main characters and their situation are intriguing enough that the reader will want to get hold of the next book as soon as possible. Luckily, Books 2 and 3, Riven and Valor, are now available in the usual places. For a fortunate few, a copy of Arcane is part of the Greater Victoria Public Library’s Emerging Local Authors Collection.

My rating: 8 out of 10 stars.

 

Local Author Book Review #9: Cat’s Castle by Chris James

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Cat’s Castle is a collection of poems by Victoria author Christopher (Chris) James.

They were written from 2005 to 2013.

Reading these poems, I was pleasantly surprised to discover familiar place names — Fairfield, Oak Bay, Willows Beach. I know these spots well, but it was interesting to read another’s experience of them.

The cover illustration shows hands holding tools, not surprising as the poems examine everyday life from various angles and through different filters, some of them rather harsh.

I speak the language of the dead coloured leaves.

squashed a cigarette end at the end of a sidewalk mud.

this is beautiful to me.

(from “Comfort”)

In many places I could feel the poet’s intensity in presenting his chosen images, sometimes with repeated phrases to create an atmosphere.

echoes

echoes capture trying echoes

trying echoes,

back saw sound, saw sound, cutting down a trying much.

A lawn mower, its

(from “Circular Saw Sound, Signifying”)

These poems are strongly felt impressions wrung out of daily life, images of place, work, love and sadness. The book is short, and few of the poems are longer than two pages. This makes it approachable to those who may be intimidated by poetry served up in hefty tomes. Almost everyone will find words and images to which they can relate, the colours of life as though broken through a bleared prism.

My rating: 8 out of 10 stars.

 

Local Author Book Review #8: Across the River from Detroit by Giselle Loeper

In 1956, Giselle Loeper, her husband Bob and their daughter arrived in Windsor, Ontario as immigrants from post-war Germany. Across the River from Detroit is a collection of brief anecdotes about their life in Windsor. Many years later, widowed, Ms. Loeper moved to Victoria, British Columbia and began to write. These stories were originally written for a community writing workshop.

Each chapter focuses on some particular issue or incident, from relations with neighbours to raising children, family vacations, jobs, friendships, triumphs and heartbreaks. Almost any reader would relate to some of these vignettes, drawn from ordinary life and presented in a simple, direct manner.

The chapters are arranged in chronological order, taking the reader from the family’s arrival in their new home, through early struggles, the births of two sons, becoming established and making the transition from immigrants to Canadian citizens. Many of the anecdotes arise from the jobs Giselle and her husband worked at over the decades. While he was mainly in the building trades, she turned her hand to food service, retail and housekeeping. Others feature incidents from their children’s lives, from infancy to adulthood.

The stories display a practical attitude to life, not without some quirkiness and a wry humour. They are short, quick reads which would add a thoughtful brightness to a reader’s day.

My rating: 7 / 10 stars.

Unfortunately I cannot find an image of the book’s cover, but a copy of the book is available at the Greater Victoria Public Library.

Local Author Book Review #7: Triptych by Malcolm McCallum

Right at the start I will note that parts of this novel were read and discussed two or three years ago at meetings of a critique group of which I am a member. This review, however, is based on my recent reading of the complete published work.

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Here is the author’s description of the book:

In Belle Epoque France, an art patron and his wife invite three painters to their countryside villa for the summer in order to create a new art movement. Murder ensues.

Triptych is not a murder mystery, however. The mysteries it explores are human nature and the creative act. Malcolm McCallum is himself a painter, and his book is full of vivid, detailed scenes and fully-fleshed characters: Roland de Grenville, the foolish art dealer and critic, Madeleine, his beautiful, dissatisfied wife, and, of course, the three artists. They have been selected by Roland as representatives of three types — the Intellectual, the Lyric and the Romantic. He hopes they will intermingle their talents to create something that will make him famous. Charles Montaigne, a wounded bear of a man, is the Romantic. The handsome seducer Boniface Roy is the Lyric, and the wizened oldster Ambrose Ferland is the Intellectual. Ambrose brings with him a young daughter, Ghislaine, and Jacqueline, his conniving wife. Emerging at crucial moments to yank on the threads of the plot is the lecherous man-about-town Gaston Hector, a good friend of Roland’s.

These are the ingredients of a rich, thick, fruitcake of a book.  The characters are distinct and real, bringing with them complete, lived histories, foibles, emotions and ambitions. Inevitably, there are conflicts and undercurrents, seductions, connivances and misunderstandings, leading to trouble and tragedy.

The action takes place in two locales — Roland’s country house in Amance and in Paris. The summer of artistic experimentation ends abruptly with a murder, blasting most of the characters back to Paris where they regroup into new configurations. Old entanglements cannot be ignored, however, and lead to further conflicts and alliances. A new character is introduced two-thirds of the way through the book — the bowler-hatted Harry Bellamy, lawyer and sometime investigator — who propels the action in unexpected directions. (Hats, by the way, appear frequently in this book, not surprising given the time period).

The making of art is the foundation of the plot, and it is present on nearly every page. The reader is privy to the artists’ thoughts and stands at their sides as they apply pencil to paper and paint to canvas. Colours (and this book is full of colour) are given the names found on tubes of paint — viridian, ochre, umber, titanium white, alizarin. The practicalities of art are at the forefront always, holding down firmly any tendencies toward windy gushing.

McCallum’s prose is sincere and idiosyncratic, bringing the tone of this 21st century work curiously close to the time in which it is set, the late 1800s. Scenes are built up from small details, finely rendered, working up to a wrenching climax and a final scene that is not without hope. It is not a fast read, but a rewarding one.

My rating: 9 out of 10 stars.

Triptych may be obtained in print or ebook form from Lulu.com, and a copy is available to users of the Greater Victoria Public Library.