Local Author Book Reviews

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.

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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.

Local Author Book Review #4: The New Fire by Ada Robinson

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The New Fire by Ada Robinson is a historical novel about a history that never happened set in a place that does not exist. But it reads as though rooted in a real place and time.

This is from the back cover:

Imagine a land blending the geography of California, the technology of medieval Spain and the theology of pagan Rome. Isolated by distance and slave-hunters, the community of Iktalan has diverged from its Hispani roots.

Ada Robinson has taken pains to craft her fictional world and its inhabitants, rendering vividly its geography, economy and cultures. The Iktalai and a related people, the Zalatai, are the native peoples of the region. The Iktalai have had more contact with the Hispani, who come from Nueva Hispania on the other side of the mountains; indeed, they have intermarried at some point. Then there are the fearsome Bakai, enemies of all three peoples, who raid coastal settlements to take prisoners and slaves, using repugnant means to subdue them.

The story plays out over a period of months, during which a treaty is negotiated between the Iktalai and the Hispani, guaranteeing protection of Iktalan from the Bakai by the Hispani army in exchange for tribute.

Woven into this tapestry is the story of Sakela, a young Iktalai woman who represents her community in the treaty negotiations and serves as a herbalist and healer. She encounters dangers and challenges, not least among them the need to overcome a personal tragedy. In the course of these adventures she meets the new Governor of Tierra Ermosa, Don Francisco Montoya, and a warrior of the Zalatai who is also her cousin.

Robinson’s prose is clear and direct, outlining with equal clarity religious ceremonies, community feasts, military operations and issues around land claims and taxation. The human stories are nearly obscured by the volume and detail of this information, especially in the opening chapters. Some readers may be discouraged by this, but persistence is rewarded by several tense situations and their resolution, only to be followed by additional complications.

The technique of creating a fictional world that engages readers by its similarity to the real one, while allowing the writer freedom to plot, has been used in several well-known novels by Guy Gavriel Kay. Robinson has accomplished something similar in this novel, with less drama and intensity, perhaps, but with admirable sincerity and thoroughness.

My rating: 8 stars out of 10.

The New Fire is available as an ebook from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and at the iBookstore, as well as in print from Amazon. It is also part of the Greater Victoria Public Library’s Emerging Local Authors Collection.

Local Author Book Review #3: PsyBot by Nowick Gray

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The Plot: Computer programmer Joe Norton juggles a series of awkward relationships with women while working for a tech company that’s facing a merger. As if this isn’t bad enough, he experiences strange and disturbing hallucinations and nightmares, in some of which he is offered a rifle for an unknown purpose. Maybe they’re psychotic episodes. Or worse — maybe he’s somehow caught a virus from one of the computer programs he works with. Accident, conspiracy or karma? Joe struggles to make sense of it all, growing ever more flummoxed and distressed. He seeks answers from coworkers, girlfriends and a psychiatrist, embarking on a search for his “home brain.”

The Characters: Joe is a middle-aged guy with a pretty drab life. His reality doesn’t quite measure up to his rather modest expectations. He goes to work, eats TV dinners in front of the “UltraScreen,” changes girlfriends frequently and anxiously. To be honest, it’s pretty hard to care much about him. The other characters, seen through Joe’s eyes (since he’s the narrator) range from quirky to repellent. The most sympathetic ones are Harry, a coworker, and Giselda, the boss’s assistant, but even they are somewhat peculiar.

The Setting: Philadelphia in the fall — as described by Joe, a pretty bleak place. Gritty streets of drab brick buildings. Joe’s girlfriends’ apartments, the office where he works, the eateries he frequents. And a variety of “virtual” situations — airplanes (or airships?), transit stations in space, windowless rooms, festering jungles.

On the plus side, Gray produces good prose. He assembles well-chosen words into coherent sentences, often creating vivid images or displaying a sly humour:

Distracted from the flimsy newsprint, I rode forward carried along on a wave — no, a rising tide — of compulsion toward a greater reality, a more expansive dimension than I had known. At the same time neither joy not freedom beat in my heart. Too much instead of that dark dread, the taste of black ooze in my mouth. And I don’t mean the coffee.

Even though the plot revolves around computer programs and virtual reality, the occasional occurrences of technical language are not incomprehensible. Readers who can relate to metaprograms, branching logic and metamovers that window to lot-caches may derive more from the story than those who do not, but the latter can skim over those sections without losing the thread.

The premise of the novel is interesting and original. Unfortunately, its execution bogs down in excessive detail soon after the opening scenes. The first quarter of the book, in which the drabness of Joe’s life is contrasted with his bizarre visions, is excruciatingly slow. Finding little to charm or captivate me, I nearly bailed around page 40; only my resolve to finish the book in order to write this review kept me going. By page 100, I was intrigued. Joe was starting to engage with his problem and trying various strategies to solve it.

Sadly, this promising thread frayed out into a repetitious series of further bizarre incidents with little coherence. Reaching the end of the novel became my primary motivation again, rather than a desire to discover the reason for Joe’s weird experiences and curiosity about how things work out for him. I wasn’t willing to wallow in disembodied strangeness again and again. “Goodbye Joe, and good luck,” I thought, but since the end was in sight, I kept plugging away.

I’m happy to say that the final 20 pages brought a fairly satisfying resolution. Despite (or perhaps because of) its denseness, PsyBot is a book that gives a reader plenty to think about.

My rating: 6 out of 10 stars. In my 10-star rating system, 6 stars means “Good but unremarkable.” In the case of PsyBot, I would change this to “Potentially good but hard to engage with.”

PsyBot and other books by Nowick Gray may be obtained through his website:  http://nowickgray.com or through his author page at Smashwords:  http://smashwords.com/profile/view/nowick

And, of course, there is one copy of PsyBot available to users of the Greater Victoria Public Library as part of its Emerging Local Authors Collection.

 

Local Author Book Review #2: The White Limousine by John R. Paterson

Time travel. Second chances. A lost love and a new love. These are the compelling elements of The White Limousine, a science fiction romance by Victoria author John Paterson.

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The plot revolves around two couples: Lisa is part of a genius team that creates the world’s first working time machine, and Eddie is an adventurer who takes a job as a very special kind of chauffeur. They give Fred a chance to fix the worst mistakes of his life, the biggest of which is losing his true love, Kimberley. But things go wrong.

The white limo of the title, which reads like something designed by Elon Musk with help from James Bond’s “Q,” is the vehicle that whisks the characters from 2014 into the past. Complications arise when the limo returns empty except for bloodstains, and Lisa becomes part of her own experiment. From that point two stories unfold, one in 1950 and the other in 1985.

Science definitely takes a back seat to romance here. Paterson offers just enough scientific-sounding information to maintain plausibility, but keeps the focus on the characters’ emotions and their relationships with one another. Underlying the story line of The White Limousine is a sincere concern with values and ethics, which manifests in a lurid subplot involving a rather bizarre church. A car chase right out of the movies concludes this episode. Even though some details strain credibility, the story is engaging enough to ride smoothly over these bumps.

I noted a few problems with editing: inconsistency with the surname of one of the principal characters and frequent instances of missing or misplaced quotation marks that make it difficult to tell who is speaking when.

It’s tempting to compare this book to Stephen King’s 11/22/63, since they share the premise that time travel is possible, and both feature characters that fall in love while visiting the mid-2oth century. King, true to form, takes the shadowed side of the road, while Paterson mostly sticks to the sunshine and takes the reader on an entertaining excursion.

My rating: 7 out of 10 stars.

The White Limousine is available at the author’s website, and one copy is in the Emerging Local Authors collection at the Greater Victoria Public Library.

 

 

Local Author Book Review #1: Clamming Up by Lee-Anne Stack

Since the recent launch of the Emerging Local Authors collection at my local library, I have decided to read some of the 174 books and write reviews of them. I’m not sure how many I’ll be able to get through, but I’ve noted at least half a dozen that seem worth checking out (literally). Expect reviews here in the next few months. This is a personal commitment!

And since I frequently find the 5-star rating system inadequate, I’ll use a ten-star system, thus: 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.

Enough preliminaries!

First up is Clamming Up by Victoria author Lee-Anne Stack. Right from the get-go I’ll reveal that I was a beta-reader for this book months ago, but this review is based on my recent reading of the published book.

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Lee-Anne Stack really knows how to write a good time. Her characters, business partners Kate and Pearl, take their two-woman home reno business to Tofino, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, to do a job for a rather… memorable couple. (Here I’ll just digress for a moment to say that Tofino, along with Pacific Rim National Park and the neighbouring community of Ucuelet, are magical places. Getting there is a journey — through a mountain range, past pristine rivers and lakes and what remains of the magnificent coastal rainforest. Tofino is a quirky mix of locals and tourists, with endless beaches, surfing, resorts, restaurants, and even a hot spring in the vicinity. It’s one of my favourite places).

Kate Nia O’Malley is quite a character. She tells the story, and her narrative voice moves the plot along briskly, with considerable verve. The opening scene gets things off with a bang and they don’t slow down much until the final epilogue.

As Kate and Pearl work on the interior of a guest house — sawing, nailing, mudding, sanding and painting — romance and adventure swirl around them. Two personable guys make the scene — doctor Colin and boat owner Andrew — leading to fun times. Sitting on my couch, I vicariously went surfing, diving and clamming (of course!), and enjoyed superlative meals in a variety of situations. The book reads as fast as a screenplay; much of the narrative is carried by snappy dialogue. These women are as competent with one-liners as they are with power tools!

The mystery is fairly subtle until the last few chapters. The death of a fisherman before the book starts casts a shadow, especially over Andrew, since the dead man was his uncle. The presence of some shady (but colourful) characters adds a bit of menace. Sinister hints accumulate to the bursting point, precipitating a frantic search and the final denouement. To be quite frank, I found the resolution of the mystery a bit weak, but that didn’t matter because getting there was so much fun. The characters are distinct and memorable, and their interactions with one another are almost more important than the plot. This is a fun read, perfect for beach, bath or boat.

My rating: 8 out of 10 stars.

Clamming Up is available through Amazon in print and Kindle versions. Other ebook formats may be purchased at Smashwords and the ebook stores it distributes to. And folks who use the Greater Victoria Public Library may check out the copy there.