The Lotterys Plus One: A Top Book of 2017 Pick!

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Yes, I know my last Top Book of 2017 pick was only last week, but today’s book completely earns the badge by being utterly original and beguiling and packed with such diversity it would make a conservative Christian’s head explode.

That got you interested, didn’t it?

We received The Lotterys Plus One by Emma Donoghue (author of adult novels Room and The Wonder amongst others) from PanMacmillan Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Meet the Lotterys: a unique and diverse family featuring four parents, seven kids and five pets – all living happily together in their big old house, Camelottery. Nine-year-old Sumac is the organizer of the family and is looking forward to a long summer of fun.

But when their grumpy and intolerant grandad comes to stay, everything is turned upside down.How will Sumac and her family manage with another person to add to their hectic lives?

Internationally bestselling author Emma Donoghue’s first novel for children, with black-and-white illustrations throughout, is funny, charming and full of heart.

the lotterys

Although I have bestowed a TBo2017 title upon this tome, I will admit that it took me a chapter or two to get my bearings within this unconventional family.  Sumac is the middle child (ish) of seven.  She has two fathers – PopCorn and PapaDum – who are a committed couple.  She also has two mothers – MaxiMum and CardaMum – who are similarly in a committed relationship.  All four adults co-parent the brood of children who comprise biological children (of various of the parents) and adopted children, of which Sumac is one.  The cultural backgrounds of the family members include Indigenous Canadian, African, Indian, Caucasian and Filippina. The family live in a century-old house and are home schooled because the parents had the good fortune of winning the lottery – hence the family’s surname (The Lotterys) and the name of their dwelling (Camelottery).

You may be getting a bit of an idea by now as to why this book may not appeal to readers of a more conservative political bent.

The first thing you will have to get used to in this unusual book is that everything has a nickname.  As well as the parents’ nicknames, the children are all named after trees (and then their names are often shortened), and every room in their house has a punny name of its own.  Even the unsuspecting grandfather who is drawn into the organised chaos is given a fitting nickname – Grumps.  Because we are dumped straight into the fray from the first chapter, it was a little disorienting trying to sort everyone out into their proper place in the family, although this did turn out to be a good narrative device to demonstrate the busy nature of the family’s life.

Essentially, this is a book about a family dealing with an unexpected new arrival and having to work together to restore equilibrium to all their lives.  When PopCorn’s father, who is estranged from his son, develops dementia and is deemed unable to live on his own, he is taken in by the Lotterys, despite his obvious dislike of pretty much everything to do with the place – his son’s decision to partner with a man,  the multicultural mix of residents, the fact that one of the children prefers to be addressed as a boy even though she’s a girl, the pet rat, the “exotic” food, ad infinitum.  The story develops through Sumac’s eyes as she tries her hardest to be the helpful and logical child that she thinks her parents expect her to be.

Sumac is a delightful narrator.  Through her experience the reader really feels what it must be like for a child who loves her family and its quirks yet is consumed by annoyance and, at times, downright anger that this interloper, her grandfather, has the power to unravel the wall of familial protection that Sumac has built around herself.  The siblings of the dwelling are well written, each with his or her own personality and a healthy dose of sibling rivalry and antagonism which stops the story from descending into an unrealistic depiction of siblings of various ages living together.  After a few eye-rolls related to (a) my jealousy of the luck of the parents in winning the lottery and living the dream and (b) some of the hipster antics that they get up to, I appreciated the difficulties experienced by the adults as they try to negotiate their responsibilities toward a family member who is making life difficult for everyone in the dwelling.

The original setting and the unique family unit in The Lotterys Plus One slowly drew me in and won me over and I found myself eager to get back to the story every evening before sleep.  I expected this book to be a stand alone, so complicated was the set-up of the family situation, so I was pleasantly surprised to see that a sequel is already planned and titled (The Lotterys More or Less).

If you want to be surprised, challenged, confused, bemused and amused by a children’s book, I can’t do better than recommend The Lotterys Plus One to you.

Until next time,

Bruce

YAhoo! It’s a YA Review: Optimists Die First…

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Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen combines craft, social anxiety and art therapy in a light-hearted tale of love overcoming fear.  We received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from GoodreadsGoodreads:

Life ahead: Proceed with caution.

Sixteen-year-old Petula De Wilde is anything but wild. A family tragedy has made her shut herself off from the world. Once a crafting fiend with a happy life, Petula now sees danger in everything, from airplanes to ground beef.

The worst part of her week is her comically lame mandatory art therapy class. She has nothing in common with this small band of teenage misfits, except that they all carry their own burden of guilt.

When Jacob joins their ranks, he seems so normal and confident. Petula wants nothing to do with him, or his prosthetic arm. But when they’re forced to collaborate on a unique school project, she slowly opens up, and he inspires her to face her fears.

Until a hidden truth threatens to derail everything.

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Having read and enjoyed Nielsen’s work before, I had a pretty good idea what I was in for going into this and I wasn’t disappointed.  Much like in Word Nerd, Nielsen combines a quirky hobby with a serious social issue – in this case, young people’s mental health – and manages to successfully blend seriousness and humour.

Petula is still grieving the loss of her younger sister and has developed a major generalised anxiety disorder partly from the guilt she feels about her possible role in her sister’s death. New boy in therapy group, Jacob, seems to take his prosthetic arm in stride and although he is secretive about the reasons he is in therapy group in the first place, is able to bring the group together in a way they haven’t managed before.  As the two become better friends, it will be the issue of guilt – perceived and actual – that may drive the two apart even as it brings them together.

Even though there is a bit of romance in this one, I still quite enjoyed Petula and Jacob’s road to friendship and the connections they make with the others in their therapy group.  There are a few twee bits here and there – particularly the ridiculous activities suggested by the leader of the art therapy group – but overall the book shows the growth of the characters and the group in a realistic (if simplistic) way.

I particularly enjoyed the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Cosmo, a character in one of Nielsen’s other books.  Despite the fact that the ending is pretty predictable from the outset, I liked spending time with these characters and I appreciate the way that Nielsen manages to address difficult issues without ever losing the ability to inject humour into the situation.

I’m also submitting this one for the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 in the category of a book by or about someone with a disability.  You can check out my progress toward this year’s challenges here.

Until next time,

Bruce

Mondays are for Murder: A Death at the University

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Ah, Murderous Mondays, you roll around so fast!

This time around I have the first book in The Bookshop Mysteries, set in Canada: Death at the University by Richard King.  We received a copy from Netgalley for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

For fans of Agatha Christie and Midsomer Murders, A Death at the University is the first book in a new cosy crime series, introducing Sam Wiseman. Sam Wiseman runs an independent bookshop in the heart of Montreal. He leads a simple life – until the day he apprehends a shoplifter and strikes up an unlikely friendship with Gaston Lemieux, the investigating officer in the case. Later, when Sam discovers the body of professor Harold Hilliard – a long-time customer of the store – dead in his office at nearby McGill University, clutching a special order form from the bookshop, he is implicated in the murder. With the help of Lemieux, Sam must investigate the murder, and clear his name.

a death at the university

Plot Summary:

Sam is an unassuming, laid back kind of a guy – so much so that he is happy to leave the business he owns for hours at a time in order to help the police investigate the murder of one of his clients. While detective Gaston Lemieux does the official business, Sam potters around trying to sniff out leads and find that extra bit of information that may prove crucial to the whole operation. While Sam’s involvement in the murder is dismissed quickly, the body count begins to rise (slightly) and as unsavoury rumours about the deceased circulate, it’s up to Sam and Gaston to unravel the threads and find the killer.

The Usual Suspects:

This one has the quirky aspect of featuring Sam as a suspect early on, but this is put aside almost immediately, which I thought was unfortunate because it could have added some much needed suspense to the plot. Apart from Sam, the murder victim’s colleagues, students and multiple lovers are in the firing line.

The Hunt for the Murderer/s:

Unfortunately, I found this to be tedium itself. There is very little in the way of danger in the investigation and Sam seems to be able to wander into any suspects circle of awareness, ask some questions, get some reasonable answers and report them back to Gaston. The ending is also a bit lacklustre, with only the most minor of minor twists, which I imagine will be pretty disappointing to avid murder mystery fans.

Overall Rating:

 

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 One poison bottle for the friendly warmth and hospitality of a bookshop run by Canadians

This book was a disappointing read. I would say “bitterly” disappointing, but I can’t even muster up enough emotion about it to be bothered being bitter. I was initially excited to read a murder mystery set partly in a bookshop in Canada, as I felt this was an interesting variation from my usual British cosy mysteries. The writing, and, it must be said, the main character, are as bland as the Americans would have us believe Canadians were born to be. There was far too much “telling” instead of showing in the narrative style and while Sam obviously has to have a big part in the investigation, being the protagonist, it beggars belief that a detective would let some ordinary Joe (or Sam, as the case may be), go around doing police work. One would think that this would prejudice the case somewhat.

I can’t really recommend this book simply because there are far more engaging examples of the genre floating around. If you have a specific interest in Canadian murder mysteries however, you might find something to enjoy here.

Until next time,

Bruce

An Exotic, Memoirish Double-Dip Review…with a side order of Alphabet Soup

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imageIt’s time to settle back with a fond-memory-inducing snack and enjoy today’s Double-Dip review that also features a side order of the Alphabet Soup Reading Challenge hosted by Escape with Dollycas.  We received both of today’s books from their respective publishers via Netgalley.  Both are memoirs of sorts, one featuring multiple road-trips in pursuit of knitting utopia, the other featuring the wacky world of one Pakistani-Canadian Muslim film-maker.  And on that appetising note, let’s get stuck in, shall we?

First up we have Laughing All the Way to the Mosque by Zarqa Nawaz.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Zarqa Nawaz has always straddled two cultures. She’s just as likely to be agonizing over which sparkly earrings will “pimp out” her hijab as to be flirting with the Walmart meat manager in a futile attempt to secure halal chicken the day before Eid. Little Mosque on the Prairie brought Zarqa’s own laugh-out-loud take on her everyday culture clash to viewers around the world. And now, in Laughing All the Way to the Mosque, she tells the sometimes absurd, sometimes challenging, always funny stories of being Zarqa in a western society. From explaining to the plumber why the toilet must be within sitting arm’s reach of the water tap (hint: it involves a watering can and a Muslim obsession with cleanliness “down there”) to urging the electrician to place an eye-height electrical socket for her father-in-law’s epilepsy-inducing light-up picture of the Kaaba, Zarqa paints a hilarious portrait of growing up in a household where, according to her father, the Quran says it’s okay to eat at McDonald’s-but only if you order the McFish.  

laughing all the way to the mosqueDip into it for…

…a two-parts funny, one-part serious and one-part bizarre foray into the unfamiliar (to me!) world of Islam in the context of a Pakistani-Bengali-Canadian family.  I’m in two minds about this book because I assumed that, sitting, as I do, on the shelf of a pair of Catholics, there would be plenty of situations here that would feel like the familiar frustrations and giggle-worthy moments of those of us raised and immersed in institutionalised religion…but for most of the book I felt like I was reading something completely outside my experience.  Apart from the many humorous situations described, including the “cleanliness” section described in the blurb – who knew about THAT?! Muslims, I suppose – and Nawaz nonchalantly taking on the role of hostess for over one hundred family, friends and neighbours for a major religious holiday, there are also some quite serious issues discussed as well – such as how the author’s family dealt with a neighbour reporting her father-in-law to the authorities soon after 9/11 for having a “suspicious” shipping container in his front yard.

Don’t dip if…

…you’re not prepared to embrace a story that flips from funny to unexpected to thought-provoking within a few pages.  If you are not a Muslim, and don’t know much about Islam, don’t dip if you aren’t prepared to discover rituals, theological points of contention and aspects of daily life that you never suspected existed.

Overall Dip Factor

While I did enjoy this book, I will admit to feeling an ever-present sense of slight discomfort while reading – mainly because it was during reading this book that I realised that while I thought I knew lots of “stuff” about Islam, I actually know VERY little about it.  I would certainly recommend this book as a fun, yet important, eye-opening reading experience about an ordinary family’s experience of their faith.   If there’s one thing I would have liked to hear more about though, it would be the TV series developed by Nawaz – Little Mosque on the Prairie.  How could this have gone for six seasons without me ever hearing about it? Bizarre.

Next, let us move on to Knitlandia: A Knitter Sees the World by Clara Parkes.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Knitting aficionado and notable artisan Clara Parkes delves into her storied travels with this inspiring and witty memoir on a creative life enriched by her adventures around the world.

Building on the success of The Yarn Whisperer, Parkes’s rich personal essays invite readers and devoted crafters on excursions to be savored, from a guide who quickly comes to feel like a trusted confidante. In Knitlandia, she takes readers along on 17 of her most memorable journeys across the globe over the last 15 years, with stories spanning from the fjords of Iceland to a cozy yarn shop in Paris’s 13th arrondissement.

Also known for her PBS television appearances and hugely popular line of small-batch handcrafted yarns, Parkes weaves her personal blend of wisdom and humor into this eloquently down-to-earth guide that is part personal travel narrative and part cultural history, touching the heart of what it means to live creatively. Join Parkes as she ventures to locales both foreign and familiar in chapters like:

Chasing a Legend in Taos
Glass, Grass, and the Power of Place: Tacoma, Washington
A Thing for Socks and a Very Big Plan: Portland, Oregon
Autumn on the Hudson: The New York Sheep & Wool Festival
Cashmere Dreams and British Breeds: A Last-Minute Visit to Edinburgh, Scotland

Fans of travel writing, as well as knitters, crocheters, designers, and fiber artists alike, will enjoy the masterful narrative in these intimate tales from a life well crafted. Whether you’ve committed to exploring your own wanderlust or are an armchair traveler curled up in your coziest slippers, Knitlandia is sure to inspire laughter, tears, and maybe some travel plans of your own.

I1342768.pdfDip into it for…

…a fairly self-indulgent lark around various knitting hotspots aimed at those who are deeply embedded in the US and International “Knitting Scene”.  The book is replete with vignettes of Parkes’ time in various places around the world, for reasons related to knitting conferences, teaching and general knitting-based travel.

Don’t dip if…

…you’re not a hardcore knitter.  Or if you cringe at name-dropping.  Or if you don’t want to read excessively wordy descriptions of various hotel foyers.  Or if you don’t particularly care about “famous” people in the knitting scene and Parkes’ deep and abiding friendships with them.

Overall Dip Factor

I was really hoping that this was going to be the perfect contender for a Utopirama post.  Knitting and travel – what else could one want in life? Well, plenty, if you don’t enjoy any of the factors I’ve just mentioned above.  While there were plenty of chapter headings to draw me in here, I found the writing overall to be such that it seemed to specifically aim to alienate readers who are not knowledgeable about the movers and shakers in the knitting and design world.  As a friend of a crocheter, I had very little knowledge, or indeed, interest, in Parkes’ name-dropping.  The first story relates how Parkes came to know a particularly well-known (to everyone but me apparently) hand-spinner and dyer, which I would have found interesting if Parkes hadn’t insisted on ramming home HOW famous and HOW selective this lady was with her friendships.  There was a section on a trip to Iceland that was reasonably interesting, but I suspect this is because Iceland is an interesting place, not because Parkes’ writing made it so.  **On a side note, in this section, Parkes mentions two Australian co-travellers who she reckons say “Perth” like “Pith”.  This nearly had me throwing my kindle at the wall.  Australians would not say “Pith”. Ever.  The vowel sound in “Perth” is a diphthong and therefore it would be ridiculous for anyone to use a short vowel in the word.  I could have handled it if she said they pronounced it “Peer-th”, even though that would be closer to a Kiwi pronunciation, but not “Pith”.  Being a linguist, I feel like I’ve got the knowledge to pull Parkes up on this oneAnd if you have been slightly irritated by my digression into minutesubject-specific analysis and assertions that I know more stuff than you about linguistics, then you’ve probably just developed a good sense of what I was feeling while reading this book.** Despite my early misgivings, I soldiered on and was unimpressed to discover that the name-dropping and self-indulgent “I’m more into the knitting scene than you” tone continued.  Shame really.  Approach with caution.

As I mentioned before, I am submitting both of these books for the Alphabet Soup Reading Challenge:

alphabet soup challenge 2016

If you want to see my progress so far in this challenge, click here.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

 

Death and Dentistry: A Double ARC Read-it-if Review…

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Morning me hearties.  Today we will journey together into the depths of the human soul…face deep philosophical musings about our very existence…question everything we know about what happens after death…and talk about a really cool book I just read.  It’s book number one in a new series and it’s called The Terminals: Spark by Michael F. Stewart.  I received a digital copy for review from the publisher via Netgalley – thanks!  After that, we’ll examine in close detail why it’s never been more important to get your teeth checked regularly, preferably by a Mormon dentist, with Extreme Dentistry by Hugh A. D. Spencer.  I also received a digital copy of this one for review from the publisher via Netgalley – again, thanks!

But let’s begin with death, shall we, and work our way up to the far more frightening world of dentistry.

The Terminals begins with a death. Well, a lot of deaths really, as we are first introduced to Christine Kurzow – Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army, recent accidental “murderer” of eleven of her unit’s finest, and even more recent suicide attemptee.  On her almost-deathbed, Christine is coerced into joining a secret government unit known as the Terminals, made up of terminally ill soldiers who are being kept alive in order to die at the right moment.  Working with the Terminals is Atilla, a young psychic who can form a connection with the soldiers after they embark on their final mission to glean important information from criminals, terrorists, secret-keepers and others who have also passed on.  Essentially, those in the Terminals elect to die in order to chase unsavoury characters into a given religion’s afterlife in order to …persuade…them to spill the beans on where they hid the body, when exactly that bomb they hid is going to explode, or where they left the car keys. Okay, maybe not that last one.

Just as Christine is brought into the unit, Hillar the Killer, a prolific serial killer who has stashed eleven (still living) children away somewhere meets an untimely demise.  The race is now on to find Hillar in the (Gnostic) afterlife and get him to give up the secret of the children’s whereabouts before their time runs out.  And after that….well, things get a bit complicated.  Do you have the ticker to jump in with the Terminals and ride this mystery out until the bitter, blood-splattered, eyeball-dangling end? Yes, I thought you might.

Terminals Read it if:

* you like your fiction filled with action…blood-splattered, eyeball-dangling, retch-inducing action

* you like your murder mysteries filled with the reckless pursuit of justice … and the promise of criminals being pursued even after they’re dead

* you like your paranormal filled with philosophical and ethical conundrums…like whether commiting suicide to chase a criminal into the afterlife to potentially save some children is more or less worthy than living out a few extra months of a terminal illness because…well, you quite enjoy breathing

Now for some reason, despite the look of the cover and the tone of the blurb, I was under the misconception that this book would be funny.  I have no clue why I assumed that.  Sure, there are some funny bits, but this is mostly a gritty, complex novel that has lots of layers.  There’s lots of action and violence, there’s a bit of philoshopy and religious debate, there’s ethical conundrums a-plenty, there’s romance (well, sex), crochety old bastards with dubious moral standards, gods and hells and pain and suffering, and there’s eyeballs. On strings. So you can tick that one off if it happens to be on your list of must-haves in your crime/murder mystery fiction.

This was a lot darker than a lot of the fiction I usually read, so while I was engaged throughout the book, I don’t think I’ll be going back for the next in the series.  Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this book because the premise is so different.  The paranormal aspect of the book allows for a whole range of afterlifes afterlives religious theories about life after death (or the absence of the same) to be explored and delved into.  The coupling of paranormal with what is essentially a murder mystery (not so much of a whodunnit, but a wherewasitdun) through world-building rather than through giving a character a particular power or gift is something that I haven’t come across before.  For those who read a lot of either crime or paranormal books, I think this will provide plenty of new fodder for the collective imagination.

One of the best aspects of the book is the way the author shifts the perspectives with each chapter so that the reader really gets a good chance to take in as much of both the paranormal and crime elements as possible.  In some chapters we get taken along with Christine as she attempts to make sense of her own life (or lack of it) and her efforts to find the missing children before it’s too late.  In other chapters we are dumped into the afterlives of various religions, following terminal agents as they try and get the information the unit needs.  It breaks up the book nicely and allows time for the reader to decompress between reveals so as not to suffer from plot twist overload.  It also provides a nice balance between the spiritual/paranormal and mundane action, so as to avoid becoming too much of one or the other.

Overall this book has a great new twist on your standard crime novel and I think it will appeal greatly to readers of crime fiction who are looking for something different that will leave them with something to think about long after the crime has been solved.

The Terminals: Spark was published on April 15 by Non Sequiter Press.

Now onto the really frightening topic – festering gum infections!

Extreme Dentistry follows the recent life experiences of one Arthur Percy, lapsed Canadian Mormon, as he undergoes some fairly major dental surgery and in the process, becomes acquainted with a race of parasitic alien beings sharing communal intelligence.  This exciting new race of predators is known as the Hive, and appear to latch onto their victims through the sharing of bodily contact.  After experiencing toothache of quite spectacular proportions, Arthur, through his new (non-lapsed Mormon) dentist Cal, discovers that he has been exposed to the alien race.  From this point forth, things get a bit weird, and it is up to Arthur, Cal and a range of other alien-whomping Mormons (and others, on a need-to-know basis) to take on the Hive and take back humanity’s retail and consumer outlets.

extreme dentistryRead it if:

* you believe that the only reasonable explanation for the exhorbitant fees charged by your dentist is that s/he is not merely placing a filling in that molar, but also protecting you from invasion by parasitic, shape-shifting, mind-absorbing aliens

* you are a Mormon (lapsed or otherwise), and were hitherto unaware of the role your church has been playing in the fight to keep humanity for the humans

* you like your tea warm, your beer cold and your science fiction utterly and completely bizarre

This was undoubtedly a weird reading experience.  I requested this one because the blurb sounded both hilarious and reasonably believable and on both counts the book has acquited itself quite well.  This is my first encounter with Spencer’s writing and I’ve got to say he knows how to keep you reading.  For some reason I couldn’t put this book down even though I had a hard time managing the format (which I’ll get to in a bit) and there were big chunks of the book that had me wondering about their relevancy to the overall plot.  More than halfway into the book I still only had a vague notion of what was really going on.  There were a number of sections in which I thought to myself, “Hang on, why am I being treated to (for example) an outline of the basic tenets of Mormonism?”  And yet I kept reading because even though I couldn’t see where these bits were going…they were pretty interesting nonetheless!  That’s got to be a mark of good writing.

So there are a few elements to this book that some people will love and others will hate.  Foremost amongst these is the use of multiple time periods and multiple points of view to tell the story.  The first bit of the book jumps around from Arthur’s experiences in various bits of the 1980s and 1990s as well as the time in which the story is currently unfolding.  About the first third of the book is told solely from Arthur’s point of view, and then without warning Cal is introduced as a co-narrator and from that point forward the story jumps back and forth between Cal and Arthur.  We’re also treated to a bit of Cal’s back story too, so there is a remarkable amount of jumping around and for some readers this may be enough to give up on the story, because in certain parts it can be quite difficult to follow who’s who and what’s what.

On the other hand, the book is funny, the premise is certainly attention-grabbing and the main characters are likeable, distinctive and fun to hang out with.  So I suppose that overall, this one is going to appeal to fans of Spencer’s work first and foremost, and then also to those who like a funny read that has lots of weird twists, a bit of rumpy pumpy, some treatises on the development of the modern shopping mall and a lot about Mormonism.  I suspect that I shouldn’t recommend this to Mormons (lapsed or otherwise) unless they’ve got a decent sense of humour.

Extreme Dentistry was published on April 4th by Patchwork Press.

Until next time,

Bruce

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