Category Archives: Reviews

Book Review: The Forever Girl by Rebecca Hamilton

I read a book last month that I’ve been meaning to talk to you about. It is a great book. A super fun read!

A little under a year ago I stumbled across a completely wonderful member of the Twitterverse, an aspiring author with a heart of gold: @InkMuse, Rebecca Hamilton to those of you still refusing to reduce your thoughts to 140 characters or less.  After a few mentions and one or two direct messages to each other, Ms. Hamilton excitedly offered to send me the first two chapters of her upcoming book to take a look at.  I admit, though excited to read her work (I am always curious and up for reading new and virtually unknown writing), I took this with a dash of salt.  An unpublished author querying a complete stranger via social media?  I knew better than to get my hopes up.  Of course, it would turn out that I was completely off base and that I would wind up in thrall and so, so eager for the actual book.  It did take me a little longer than I would have liked to get a hold of the book, as I was holding out for an actual print copy that I could order from my local independent store – but when I had it I was hooked!

Hamilton’s The Forever Girl is an outstanding first offering from a promising new author, and just what the Urban Fantasy realm needed.  In this coming-of-age tale we meet Sophia Parsons, a twenty-two year old Wiccan waitress with religious prejudice and a difficult family life looming overhead.  As if that weren’t enough, Miss Parsons also suffers a mysterious and not-entirely-natural affliction.  Then we meet Charles, a smouldering centuries-old shape-shifter with sharp tongue and rock-hard abs. Could Sophia’s life get any more challenging?  Why yes, of course it could.

One of The Forever Girl‘s most striking attributes is the language found within it.  Hamilton’s mastery of language, especially descriptive language, is nothing short of impressive.  From the “wasping” sound of Sophia’s supernatural disability to the “dawn’s russet sky – a shepherd’s warning, some said” that Sophia awoke to on page ninety-one, Hamilton treats her readers to a bright, intelligent and altogether fun narrative.  A personal favourite quote comes from Sophia’s love interest Charles as he discusses his long life with her (on page one-sixty-nine): “You must understand: immortality is not an escape from death.  It’s an accumulation of loss.”  Poignant.

Another huge boon is the story’s mythology.  While The Forever Girl certainly contains shades of vampires and shifters, it is a story with a new perspective entirely.  Hamilton took traditional myths and legends, popped them into the blender and hit purée.  This new take on a somewhat tired subject is hugely refreshing and the addition of Hamilton’s title focus, the forever girl, helps to make this a can’t-put-it-down read.

Particularly endearing, an absence of glitter-free fanged creatures notwithstanding, is the care and respect Hamilton has taken in her creation of a Wiccan protagonist.  Not Wiccan herself, Hamilton did a great deal of research to ensure the validity of Sophia’s spiritual voice.  From all accounts – testimonies from Wiccan readers – Hamilton hit the nail on the head with the utmost consideration to the religion and its followers.

There are, however, two discernible downsides to this novel: Sophia and Mrs. Franklin.  Hamilton’s protagonist is a phenomenal character; she’s intricately woven, dynamic, fun, challenging and unbelievably insecure.  While a very common trait, especially in young women, hyper-insecurity in literature needs to stop.  Hamilton did redeem Sophia by feeding her challenges to overcome that would help to build her waning self-confidence and gave her a cheering section that was not solely populated by dark, dangerous and lip-bitingly handsome Charles – that was lovely to read, as so often we are confronted by a strong, formidable woman who withers to a shade of her former self when not near her (supernatural) counterpart.  Hamilton allowed Sophia some weak(-in-the-knees) moments, but was, for the most part, consistent in providing a fierce, independent, introspective role-model for her readers.

The Mrs. Franklin storyline also left me wanting more.  This was a secondary plot, something extra to help build more depth to the new, supernatural world Sophia is discovering in The Forever Girl.  It is also the point of antagonism I prefer and would have loved to read more into.  This could easily have been a novel unto itself.

Fans of romantic Urban Fantasy will love The Forever Girl.  It’s vibrant, it’s refreshingly different and our boy Charles is just too wonderful to pass up – you will develop a crush, there’s simply no avoiding it.  Fans of good writing will love The Forever Girl.  It is wonderful to see a book this well written in a genre that is beginning to become dishearteningly sloppy.  With authors like Hamilton at the helm, there is hope yet!

Happy reading, ladies and gents!

Santana – Black Magic Woman

UNT

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This post brought to you by your friendly neighbourhood Kim “G-Unit” G: former Books & Co. bookster, current UNBC bookster and constant reader.
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Book Review: The Taste of Ashes by Sheila Peters

Sheila Peters’s novel, The Taste of Ashes, does not feel like a first novel.  It’s carefully crafted, multi-layered family narrative is complex and lyrical in a way that reveals Peters’s history as a poet and short-story writer.  The three primary narratives, that follow Isabel, Álvaro and Janna’s individual stories, are interwoven in such a way that even a few convenient coincidences – which could have seemed contrived and artificial – feel genuinely spontaneous and natural.

Each of the three main characters, Isabel, Álvaro and Janna, is flawed and complicated, but ultimately sympathetic.  Isabel, the heart of the novel, is a study in duality.  Her sensuous – in the most literal sense of the word – nature makes her an excellent mother when she is present, but also causes her to frequently fall off the rails and into the arms of random men.  Because we meet her after she’s sobered up and calmed down, her rift with Janna seems unfair and undeserved, but as we learn what ultimately precipitated their separation, Isabel becomes a more complete, if not more likeable character.

Álvero’s history is the most complex and his broken psyche and body, the result of brutal torture at the hands of Guatemalan authorities, are what bring The Taste of Ashes out of the realm of the ordinary.  Peters’s masterful description of the aftermath of torture, the anger and shame and fear that Álvero still feels creates a character that readers will find both frustrating and sympathetic.  His interactions with the other priests in his brotherhood, his questions about faith and God’s role in his life and the stages of his healing are fascinating and have an air of authenticity.

The third story, Janna’s thread in this narrative tapestry, is just as complex as Isabel and Álero’s and her character is just as flawed.  Peters wonderfully captures the voice of a very young woman with Janna’s aggravatingly know-it-all stubbornness.  Readers will be exasperated by her self-reliance, even when what she really needs is help and care, but that’s what gives her such verisimilitude.  We know women, particularly young women, who take the hardest path simply because help, especially from their mothers, makes them feel as if they failed.  Janna is not particularly likable but she is ultimately sympathetic and it’s refreshing that Peters does not have her change dramatically when the three stories are brought together.

Place plays a very important role in The Taste of Ashes and where the characters are from is as important as the characters themselves.  Peters intertwines small town northern British Columbia – which every northern reader will recognize as Smithers, BC– with the Vancouver of UBC students, the Vancouver of oblate priests, and exotic and turbulent Guatemala into a detailed and complex web.  Where the characters are from shapes them in subtle and significant ways and their individual histories in each place, especially the small northern town creates a narrative depth and beauty that few debut novels can achieve.

The Taste of Ashes, isn’t just the complicated history of one small town family, it’s a lyrical, richly detailed saga that draws the reader into the complexity of family relationships and ultimately reveals that redemption and healing are always possible.  The Taste of Ashes is a novel to savor.

Nicole Larson

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Book Review: Player One: What is To Become of Us, A Novel in Five Hours by Douglas Coupland

When I came across Douglas Coupland’s Player One in our Literature section, I was certain it was a mistake. I only knew Coupland for his science-fiction works, and was completely unaware that he had a CBC Massey Lectures side to him. It was this shocking (to me, at least) departure from his most popular genre that lead me to purchase Player One.

A novel in five hours, Player One is a real-time story taking place within a seedy airport cocktail-lounge. Inside the lounge are 5 vastly different people, and outside the lounge, the world is ending. This story proposes that our world, which has taken millennia to evolve, devolves almost completely in just 5 hours. For these 5 desperate people, these hours will prove to be the most enlightening hours of their lives. While the world around them comes to an end, the characters of Coupland’s story slowly reveal the truth about themselves and how they see the world.

It would be impossible to not identify in some way or another with at least one of the 5 voices in Player One. Whether you see yourself in Karen, the single mother looking to find love; Rick, the beaten-down airport cocktail-lounge bartender who is desperately searching for a way to make himself new again; Luke, the pastor who lost his faith and became a fugitive; Rachel, the beautiful girl who is incapable of true human contact; or finally, the mysterious and omniscient voice of Player One, you will see more of yourself in this story than you would have thought possible. It is this personal sense of identification that fully hammers home the realizations that Player One brings you to.

Coupland’s voice is one reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s, and any fan of Slaughterhouse-Five will feel right at home in Player One’s universe. Just as Vonnegut so aptly managed to, Douglas Coupland forces his reader to examine the modern crises of our time, our society, and our own humanity. This novel posed more questions than it answered, which was sometimes frustrating, but oddly, the challenge simply became part of the reading experience.

Player One opened my eyes to what the back of the book suggests is “a new phases of existence as a species” and left me believing, without a doubt, “that there is no turning back.”

Reviewed by Jordan Stewart

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Book Review: I Suck at Girls by Justin Halpern

Justin Halpern is funny.  It’s that simple.  And fans of Justin Halpern’s Sh*t My Dad Says will be happy to have another book in the same vein.  I Suck at Girls is a self-deprecating memoir of his experience with women from the first girl he liked – and tormented – at age seven to the day he proposed to his wife Amanda.

Unlike Sh*t My Dad Says, I Suck at Girls focuses solely on Justin, and only includes a few of his Dad’s classic bon mots (“do you realize I’m a crazy son of bitch who owns a shotgun and hates shadowy figures walking around in his fucking house?”) but that shouldn’t dissuade readers.  In fact, the longer, more in depth recollections are hilarious and touching and give an insight into one man’s struggle to understand women and his relationship to them, which until he met Amanda was usually terrible.  I Suck at Girls makes it clear that Halpern does not need to rely on his father’s one liners to get a laugh and that his own life, and his willingness to expose its most embarrassing elements, is enough to keep readers entertained.

I Suck at Girls is not high art.  It’s not going to go down in history as one of the classics of English literature, but not every book needs to be an emotionally complex, angst filled literary masterpiece.  It’s funny, really funny and that’s enough to make it one of the best books in the Humour Section here at Books & Company and one of the funniest memoirs in the Biography Section.

Nicole Larson

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Book Review: Broken Harbour by Tana French

Broken Harbour¸ the latest psychological thriller by Irish novelist Tana French is as pitch-perfect as her other three books (Into the Woods, The Likeness and Faithful Place) and may very well be her most subtle and intense work.

As anyone who’s read her other novels knows, Tana French paradoxically makes Ireland both familiar and exotic.  Her descriptive powers give you the flavour and texture of Ireland, provide you with the scent of the air and the sound of the wind and make you feel as if you too share a history with the locations.  You feel like you know the landscape as intimately as you know your own hometown whether you’ve been to Ireland or not. But, Ireland is also a lovingly described exotic location, with a complex history and unique terms and sensibilities.  She captures the milieu of Ireland.  As well, her subtle integration of the boom and bust economic reality of Ireland into the plot and setting of her novels gives her narratives a layer of credibility and authenticity that is often missing in less complex novels.

Broken Harbour begins with Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy catching the Spain murder case and, to no surprise to readers familiar with Scorcher as the over-confident, slightly unimaginative, by-the-book detective who investigated the murders in Faithful Place, pronouncing himself the best detective for this horrific crime.  Taking a bit player from a previous novel and making him or her the narrator of the next novel is a Tana French hallmark, and here she masterfully connects Broken Harbour’s Kennedy to the Scorcher described in Faithful Place.

The true beauty of Broken Harbour is the way French integrates Kennedy’s own past into the narrative.  His relationship with his sisters, his own memories of Broken Harbour before it became the Brianstown housing estate where he investigates the murder of the Spain family, and the veiled hints to the case that was the centre of Faithful Place, all combine into a nuanced and carefully constructed narration.  French’s narrators are never completely reliable because they, like actual people, are influenced by their own prejudices and past experience; however, it’s only as the novel progresses that you realize just how much Kennedy’s own past and family influence how he investigates these murders.

Tana French is a master of intricate relationships.  The other, minor characters in Broken Harbour are well drawn and complex and their relationships with Kennedy and each other are believable and complicated.  Richie, as Kennedy’s new, green partner, is fascinating as a naturally intuitive rookie detective and all of the players in the murder from the victims to the suspects are multifaceted and interesting.  When the murderer is finally revealed, you can see the steps French used to get there, but at no point was it glaringly obvious.

The only flaw I can find with Broken Harbour has to do with Richie and Kennedy’s ultimate fate within the Murder Squad.  I felt Richie’s future was especially difficult to stomach, but his actions that lead up to that eventual fate were interesting and the results were not, even if unsatisfactory for a reader who felt close to this character, overly harsh.

Broken Harbour is a match for French’s other novels and I think, after rereading them all, could be her best work.  The relationships and characters are multilayered and extremely authentic.  The mystery at the heart of the novel isn’t easily solved and French’s Ireland provides a rich landscape for everything to play out.

Broken Harbour will be available at Books & Co in June 2012.

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Book review: The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins

I finally did it folks, I jumped on the Hunger Games bandwagon.

Absolutely outstanding.

In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded y twelve outlying districts.  The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV. 

Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives alone with her mother and younger sister, regards it as a death sentence when she steps forward to take her sister’s place in the Games.  But Katniss has been close to dead before – and survival, for her, is second nature.  Without really meaning to, she becomes a contender.  But if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that weigh survival against humanity and life against love. (The Hunger Games book jacket.)

A post-apocalyptic, dystopian tale beginning with the incredible, macabre The Hunger Games and ending with the shocking, appalling and encouragingly hopeful Mockingjay.

The Hunger Games trilogy is written from the (first person) perspective of heroine Katniss Everdeen, District Twelve candidate and champion of the seventy-fourth Hunger Games: a brutal fight-to-the-death between twenty-four children, televised for mandatory viewing by all citizens of Panam.  The sixteen-year-old daughter of Panam’s mining district finds her life turned upside down when her beloved young sister, Primrose (Prim), is chosen as Hunger Games tribute for their district.  Though wisely fearful of the Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to take Prim’s place in them without hesitation.

While intended for a young-adult (fourteen to twenty-two-year-olds, roughly) audience, The Hunger Games trilogy has something for everyone.  Collins has given us an opportunity to study the fall and subsequent recreation of her imagined society: a post-apocalyptic world where Nineteen Eighty-Four meets Lord of the Flies, with hints of A Brave New World.  If you take a look beyond the horror and gloom of cataclysmic themes, this series is about hope.  Here you have a collection of characters, surviving an unforgiving world, who are heaved into unimaginable trials.  The major players in these books – Katniss Everdeen, Peeta Mellark, Gale Hawthorne, Haymitch Abernathy and even Finnick Odair – travelled the road from innocence to experience.  Sure they had all witnessed cruelty, tragedy and tyranny, from the get-go, but they were also always distanced from it.  The Hunger Games changed that, for those directly involved in them and for those whose loved ones were directly involved in them.  All the same, they fought on.  Katniss, despite her inner turmoil, is an incredibly strong, capable and independent woman who did not give up and did not stop finding ways to thumb her nose at despotic Capitol even when she knew that such egregious insult could cost her her life.  Even Peeta, while suffering grievous injury, neither slowed nor backed down in the face of adversity.  In both of these character cases tucking tail and running would result in pain to their loved ones and would strengthen Capitol’s hold on the districts and their people.  Katniss, Peeta and their family and friends fought because they believed it would help.  They loved, they lost, they grieved and, ultimately, they hoped.  Not a bad lesson.

My only real objection in this series is static nature of several of Collins’s characters.  She spent a great deal of energy, understandably and rightly, on Katniss, so much so that some of her other principles felt a little hollow.  Most glaringly, and unfortunately, Peeta and Gale.  Where they should have been just as dynamic and sympathetic, they were a bit too “Edward and Jacob” for my liking.  Though inherently more valuable (and considerably better written), these men seemed to act as little more than love interests for Katniss (neither of whom she was terribly passionate about) or plot drivers.  Miss Everdeen stands in the ranks of Princess Cimorene and Hermione while Peeta and Gale stumble to keep up.  It’s a terrible shame, they have great potential.

All in all?  An amazing read.  I can’t recommend the series enough.  It makes a fabulous gift for your favourite reader or a wonderful treat for yourself!  Pick up a copy . . . at Books & Co.  Then have a soup and a Panini, or a muffin and a coffee.  And read.

PS. The Hunger Games is going to be released as a feature film this month (March 23, 2012)!

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This post brought to you by your friendly neighbourhood Kim “G-Unit” G: former Books & Co. bookster, current UNBC bookster and constant reader.
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