Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Minds of Winter

Minds of WinterBy Ed O'Loughlin

In 1845, the Erebus, an Arctic exploration vessel captained by Sir John Franklin was lost to the harsh conditions of the North. Neither man nor artifact was ever recovered from this expedition and there has been much speculation about what happened to the ship and its crew. However, historians were stunned by the 2009 discovery of an Arnold Chronometer that was known to be on board the Erebus for this Arctic exploration. The chronometer mysteriously surfaced in London disguised as a carriage clock. 

Such is the premise for the novel, Minds of Winter, by Ed O’Loughlin, who brings us to the North through two modern day characters, Nelson and Fay, each on their own northern expedition of sorts. Nelson is searching for his brother, who has mysteriously committed suicide, but has left extensive research and notes on the various expeditions that set out to find answers to Franklin’s end. Fay comes to Inuvik to trace the life of her grandfather, who has some secretive ties to Northern exploration history. 

The novel switches back and forth between Fay and Nelson’s research and the many expeditions to find the Northwest Passage. Most of the expedition tales are written from the perspective of someone who was on the voyage, which makes it seem more vividly real. I found myself checking from time to time to see if any of the historical characters did in fact live- and many of them did!

In this in depth read, O’Loughlin has conducted a thorough research on the history of these Arctic expeditions and weaves a tale that effectively puts the reader on the ice, experiencing the loss of sanity that must have regularly occurred on these journeys that were so far from civilization in such harsh conditions. The story’s end comes quickly and leaves the reader with a sense of mystery and a sense of wonder at what just happened.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Don't I Know You?

Don't I Know You?
by Marni Jackson

There is a slightly surreal quality to Marni Jackson’s debut novel, Don’t I Know You? A novel broken into short stories, each one following Rose McEwan’s life from 16-60. These stories go through Rose’s  life chronologically, and each one contains a pop culture figure as a central character role  in the story. Whether it is wise words given by Joni Mitchell, a friendly kidnapping by Bill Murray, the best part of each story is Rose’s uncanny ability to describe the weird world she’s living in. 

Jackson is great at setting a scene and there is a languid flow to her words that really carries the reader on and through even some of the confusingly unbelievable celebrity encounters like Bob Dylan as an impromptu, guest-bedroom-crashing mooch. These stories, despite Rose’s recurrent proximity to fame and fortune, aren’t about the glamour and glitz of celebrity, but more of a sort of mundane celebrity fanfiction. And don’t let my use of “fanfiction” deter you either: these stories could exist without the celebrities and they would still be interesting, well-written vignettes. The use of celebrities allows the reader to bring their own characterization into the picture- a sort of shorthand to explore the story without worrying about having to build a character from scratch. Though certainly infused with detail from Jackson’s imagination, we all know a bit about Dylan without having to read much backstory or context. This also gives an intimacy to the storytelling- what would we do if Bob Dylan turned up at our cottage? 

There is a strong humour to Jackson’s choices of how the celebrities turn up in Rose’s life, an almost Wes Anderson-translated-to-the-page offbeatness.

I do think that this book is stronger in the first half than the second, as the stories do get a bit less believable as they go on. Another way to avoid this would be to read the book a few stories at a time, maybe even out of chronological order? Regardless, I enjoyed the writing and the premise is fun and original.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

The Husband’s Secret

The Husband's SecretThe Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

The Husband’s Secret was an unexpected choice for me as I don’t usually seek out mystery, and am always wary of it getting too dark and creepy. Luckily Liane Moriarty filled the bill on a great, suspenseful read. 

A mysterious sealed letter from her husband- to be opened after his death- turns Cecilia Fitzpatrick’s ordered life into a tailspin. Does she open it? Why does her husband act strangely when she mentions it? Doesn’t she know everything about her husband?

Moriarty effectively entwines the lives of three women: Cecilia, Rachel and Tess. Cecilia is the one who thinks she has it all: the put-together stay-at-home society mom with the perfect family, Rachel, still grieving the loss of her daughter 20 years ago, is consumed by the need to solve the murder, and regularly shares her suspicions with the police;  Tess, mother of one, is the owner of her own company and running away from her husband’s betrayal. We learn about each woman in her own voice, from her own point of view.

It seems unlikely that these three women would have any connection to each other, that they would be any more to each other than old school friends, or casual community acquaintances—and especially unlikely that they would be those who are ultimately affected by the secret contained in the letter. However, as the story unfolds and the women discover the secret, they become unexpectedly connected to each other. 

They each face up to the secrets and lies they individually have been holding onto and learn some unexpected truths about themselves and those around them. Their lives are forever changed by the secret: it is simultaneously freeing and confining, and demonstrates how the consequences of our actions affect not only ourselves, but also those around us.

This is a good read for mild mystery seekers. It is full of suspense and unexpected turns that keep you guessing…even when you think you have it all figured out.

For other popular reading suggestions check out Richmond Public Library's Web site at

Thursday, 2 March 2017

The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers
The Sisters Brothers

By Patrick DeWitt

Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers is an old western with a modern twist.  Even if you don’t like westerns (like me), you might like this one.  Hilarious and grotesque at the same time, The Sisters Brothers is surprisingly funny and doesn’t shy away from a bit of self-reflection.

The callous Eli and Charlie Sisters are legendary as the Commodore’s hired men.  Their mission is simply to find their targets and kill them, no questions asked.

Charlie is the lead man and feels no remorse.  Eli, the more sentimental of the two, senses that there could be more fulfilling careers available to him.  But he has always backed up his brother.  The killing itself seems to come naturally.

Hired to kill Hermann Kermit Warm for reasons they do not need to know, the Sisters brothers go perfunctorily about their business.  Their assignment takes them to California where gold fever has gripped the state.

The brothers live in the seedy underworld of the 1850s.  Throughout their travels they encounter an unappealing and unfortunate cast of characters.  These include a prospector who has lost his mind, a boy whose family has left him for dead (and who temporarily latches onto the indifferent brothers), and the sleazy Mr. Mayfield, proprietor of the town of Mayfield, who surrounds himself with sycophants.

The story is narrated by Eli, who, despite being a cold-blooded murderer, is an endearing character.  Eli would like to fall in love and settle down, and dreams of leaving the nomadic life.  Eli and Charlie live on the fringes, and Eli is looking for a way out. 

His wish may be fulfilled when the brothers learn of a business proposition that could be their salvation.  Like the gold crazed prospectors that populate the hills, Eli and Charlie hatch a plan that they hope will set them up for life.  They have to hustle their way into it, but they’re good at that.  Eli’s growing displeasure at his life of spare brutality is pushing him towards a new path.  Little do Eli and Charlie expect the calamitous mishaps that follow. 

DeWitt has a knack for making ugly realities into comedic episodes – do not underestimate the humour in this grim tale. Entertaining and tragic, The Sisters Brothers is more than a standard western.  As the brothers grapple with their own beliefs, childhoods and futures, these psychopaths reinvent themselves, for better or for worse. 

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

All the Ugly and Wonderful ThingsAll the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood is a book that will stay with me for years to come. I have never read anything like it, and don’t expect to ever find something like it again. Be aware this book will make you lose sleep and wreak havoc with your emotions.

Wavy, born in the backseat of a stranger’s car to a meth dealer and a mentally ill mother, is not what anyone would call normal. At eight, she rarely speaks—“Don’t you ever talk to people! You don’t talk to anyone!”—or eats—“Don’t eat that! That’s dirty!” She spends her days struggling to raise her little brother, surviving her mother’s moods and avoiding her father. The one thing that brings her peace is the starry night sky above the fields behind her house. Then everything changes when Kellen, a giant tattooed ex-con and thug for her father, crashes into her life. For both, it’s love at first sight. What follows is a tale that spans around fifteen years told from the perspectives of Wavy, Kellen, Wavy’s brother, her cousin, her aunt, her teachers, friends and her father’s thugs. It is a tale of love, woe, sadness, happiness, violence and compassion: a tale of all the ugly and wonderful things humans do to each other.

This book will make you uncomfortable. It certainly made me uncomfortable. It will make you question the world and yourself. The strength of it lies in the author’s refusal to force a view or opinion on the reader. Greenwood simply tells the story in beautiful language and brings the characters to life so vividly they live in your memory long after you close the book. It is up to the reader to pass judgement, to feel and react. 

Monday, 23 January 2017

All That Matters

All That Matters Although All That Matters is the sequel to Wayson Choy’s first novel, The Jade Peony, it is actually a parallel story. Told this time from the point of view of the eldest son of the Chen family, rather than his younger siblings, the Chens have arrived in Vancouver’s Chinatown in the 1930’s, during the Great Depression and prior to World War II. 

The Chen family is sponsored by Third Uncle, a distant relative who has no immediate kin to share his business with, so he arranges the passage for the Chens; father, grandmother (Poh Poh) and First Son, Kiam-Kim.

In this novel, we follow the family’s challenges through the eyes of Kiam-Kim, the First Son, who strives to uphold the honour of the family, a responsibility he takes very seriously. Kiam-Kim tries very hard to be a good example to his younger siblings as he himself comes of age in a new country, while trying to maintain the old traditions among the new ways.   

Poh Poh is representative of the old ways, intriguing the children with her stories and superstitions that she uses to keep the children in line. As Kiam-Kim grows up, he becomes less caught up in these stories, being pulled into the promise that life in Canada holds for him.

Choy gives us a historical inside look into Chinatown as we go with Kiam-Kim and his father on their collection work for Third Uncle. This work introduces us to many of the families and takes us inside the poverty and struggle of many of the residents of Chinatown and the difficulties many families faced. Choy’s descriptive writing and the first person narrative of Kiam-Kim lends itself to having the reader feel like they are in the middle of the events, right there back in the early days of Gold Mountain.  

I recommend this book for anyone interested in local history. I relished reading about the familiar places I often visit today and it was enjoyable to visit with the Chen family again.