Local Author Book Reviews

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.

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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.

Local Author Book Review #6: When The Stars Are Right by Scott R. Jones

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The subtitle of this book could just as easily be A Rhapsody On Themes Of H.P. Lovecraft.

While reading the first few chapters, my biggest problem was trying to figure out what it is: serious literary criticism, parody, philosophy, humour or a weird amalgam of them all?

One thing it isn’t, I soon realized, is any kind of explication or critique of H.P. Lovecraft. Scott Jones makes this clear from the get-go: We thank him [Lovecraft] for his art, then, and acknowledge the suffering that produced it, even as we leave the man (a random confluence of flesh and foibles, if ever there was one) in the ground.

Jones doesn’t think much of HPL, referring to him more than once as “malnourished,” as though this aspect of the Old Gentleman’s life extended to his personality and creative abilities. But Jones has a lot of time for HPL’s creations, especially Cthulhu. “Look, Howard,” he says, “you’ve made some pretty nice things here — Yog-Sothoth, Chthulu, R’lyeh, the Necronomicon — just leave them to me. Go away, eat some beans, write a few letters, while I play with your toys.”

Don’t read this book expecting to find out much about Howard P. Lovecraft. It isn’t about him. It’s about things that happened in Scott R. Jones’s brain after reading Lovecraft and a lot of other stuff. Everything went into that cranial Mixmaster and out came R’lyehian spirituality.

So what is “R’lyehian spirituality?” According to Jones, it’s a lifelong quest for the Black Gnosis (a wonderful phrase, that you won’t find in HPL, by the way). And what is the Black Gnosis, you ask? It’s the realization in the fullest sense that “when all is madness, there is no madness.” It is a knowledge, deeply felt and internalized, not of That Which Is, but of That Which Is Not; a profoundly instinctual apprehension of the liminal spaces, in-between-ness and porosity of the world, of the Unknown.

In making his argument, Jones often slips in key words and phrases from HPL — the very title of his book is one, along with others, such as: serene and primal, placid island of ignorance, non-Euclidean, tittering, vigintillions, strange aeons, and, of course, the Three-Lobed Burning Eye. They serve as props and springboards to the Spaces Between, and to R’lyeh. Jones gets pretty lyrical about R’lyeh. The chapter on that Dreaming City, and the one on Cthulhu, the Lord of Dreams, are the most poetic parts of the book.

At the same time, When the Stars Are Right in many paragraphs reads like an academic thesis. Where else would you find words like asemic, oneiric, telluric and entheogenic? Jones sprinkles these proofs of an extensive vocabulary throughout the book. Looking up their meanings can be regarded as an educational bonus, albeit an irritating one.

It’s clear that Jones professes to be a R’lyehian. One chapter describes an event intended to invoke the Black Gnosis, performed on an August night at a location just a few kilometers from my home here in the city of Victoria. (And indeed, in 2010 I myself attended H.P. Lovecraft’s 120th Birthday Celebration and Cthulhu-riffic Cabaret, organized and hosted by Scott Jones). I even wrote a blog post about it. R’lyehians, Jones says, are subtle folks. They may carry some beliefs in their craniums that many would find bizarre, but those craniums are, more often than not, topped with groomed and barbered hair, and the bodies they’re attached to are clad in perfectly normal garments. R’lyehians dwell among us, but don’t flaunt it. (I’m not sure if I find that disturbing or reassuring).

Anyone who cracks this book but is put off by the weirdness emanating from it, or merely by Jones’s excessive enthusiasm for obscure words, should read the Afterword before giving up: “Yes, Meridian, There Is A Great Cthulhu.” For Scott Jones is a husband and father. The book is dedicated to his daughter Meridian, who came into the world just after he finished the first draft. In the Afterword, he offers her some advice about how to deal with fear. It’s a (mostly) sincere and even touching wrap-up for the book.

My rating: 7 out of 10 stars.

A copy of When The Stars Are Right is available in the Emerging Local Authors Collection at the Greater Victoria Public Library.

 

 

 

 

Local Author Book Review #5: A Beautiful Heist by Kim Foster

I’m happy to say I’ve returned to reading and reviewing some of the 174 books in the Emerging Local Authors Collection at the Greater Victoria Public Library.

Fifth in the series is A Beautiful Heist by Kim Foster.

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Cat Montgomery is a professional jewel thief. She loves her job and is very good at it. The agency that employs her is hinting she’s ready to move up to elite status. But things get complicated. First, the IRS comes after Cat, threatening to empty her Swiss bank account. Then she’s offered a challenging job that would solve her money problems — recovering a rare and marvelous Faberge egg stolen from the Romanovs — except she has to work freelance, deceiving her employer and risking her career. On top of everything else, FBI Agent Jack Barlow, the guy who dumped her and broke her heart, shows up again — along with a new girlfriend.

The best thing about this book is the sinuous plot, full of good bad guys (like Cat) and bad good guys and others who switch from good to bad and back again, depending on the circumstances. Then there are the clothes and shoes. If your job is stealing stuff from the wealthy, you have to dress the part, and Cat does. It’s amazing what she can do while wearing an evening gown and stilettos. Watching her work is an education in precision tools, safe-cracking and high-tech gadgetry. Readers who would never dream of climbing tall buildings or jumping into black water get to share Cat’s daring feats and narrow escapes.

On the minus side, I sometimes thought there was too much going on. Cat’s family issues, for example, are a plot element I found annoying. All right — there has to be a good reason for Cat’s choice of profession, but her frequent pointless agonizing over her sister’s fate gets a bit tiresome. Her Dad’s disillusionment over his daughter’s career choice is understandable, but the cameo appearances by her Mom are distracting. Let’s face it — this is a caper story. Psychological nuances just get in the way.

The touches of romance, on the other hand, are a nice complement to the action sequences. At a museum security conference Cat becomes interested in sexy art thief Ethan, even as she carries a torch for Jack. Trying to figure out which one of them she might end up with adds a bit of extra spice to an already piquant story. Dan Brown-ish hints of ancient artifacts with mysterious powers provide depth and intrigue.

A Beautiful Heist is a fun, easy read — perfect for a lazy late summer weekend. My rating: 8 / 10.

Cat Montgomery’s adventures continue in A Magnificent Crime and A Brilliant Deception.