Book Reviews

Plank’s Law | Book Review

imagesLast month I reviewed a poetry collection Thin Places by Leslie Choyce which will be released July 29. I received Plank’s Law from LibraryThing Early Reviewers and Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

This story follows a teenage boy named Trevor who has lived a sheltered life and now has only one year left to live. He has been diagnosed with Huntington’s disease when he was 10 years old and it has recently aggravated. In a moment of reflection he finds himself on the side of a cliff imagining that he would just jump when an elderly man named ‘Plank’ stops him and starts talking to him. Trevor is having a Hamletesque experience, he says:

 “I think about doing things, but that’s about it.”

Plank tells Trevor that there are two parts to ‘Plank’s Law’ or his own way of living. The first is: “just live” and the second: “Brains don’t count. Imagination is what counts.” Trevor thinks about what Plank has said, and creates a list of all the things he wants to do. As an adult I had to take a step back and understand his choices as a young teenage boy because I don’t think “to drive a Lamborghini” and “get arrested” would be on my bucket list.

Trevor has many moments of reflection where he narrates about his family, and makes various lists like: the primary bucket list, secondary smaller goals, the many factors that shaped his life, and lists about people he meets. As a character his is a little different. He broods a bit more than he does activity, refuses to take too many chances, is intrigued by religion and thinks of himself as a Buddhist and Christian, and loves to watch Sci-Fi films. Trevor’s life changes even more-so when he meets a girl named Sara. Every time he feels lost he revisits the elderly man Plank and is set straight by Plank’s matter-of-fact attitude about life.

The book has a good message and a good premise but I found the vocabulary to be a bit simplistic, especially for its intended audience. There’s also a lot of telling and not enough showing. The first 50 pages are filled with “but before I move on let me tell you about my mom…my dad…my grandpop.” This is a bit too much because no one does this even in real life, you find things out as you go along. This book also contains a lot of profane language especially when Plank needs to come across as a ‘cranky old man’: a lot of “bullshit” and “fuck offs.” Those components irked me a little as a reader.

What I did enjoy was the premise. It’s a good message to stop overthinking, to prioritize imagination, to just live, and take each moment in your stride. There are some great lines scattered through the book from time to time like: “the best parts of your life are the ones you share with someone else.” I also enjoyed the ending in that it wasn’t a cartoon ending, nor was it world-shattering. It was just right and realistic. I prefer realistic endings so hats off in that respect. I also appreciated that Choyce decided to shed some light on Huntington’s disease because I’ve rarely encountered it in young adult fiction. If I were to recommend this book, I would hand it to people who are having a bit of a crisis and need some perspective (teens and adults alike).

The book will be published in September by Orca Book publishers.

Gork, the Teenage Dragon | Book Review

“For inside my scale green chest, there beats a grotesquely large and sensitive heart.”

32766443I hope this book gets turned into a children’s cartoon series because I would watch it with a lot of passion. Gork: the Teenage Dragon, is Gabe Hudson’s debut middle-grade fantasy novel. The narrative follows a dragon named Gork who, you guessed it, is a teenager. What’s particularly charming about this novel is its snappy humour. Gork narrates his story and in the first chapter he establishes himself as:

“My first name is Gork, my middle name is The, and my last name is Terrible, and like I said, I’m a dragon, plus I’m a poet”

But not before criticizing Beowulf and Tolkien to no end for their bad portrayal of dragons. He says:

“Mr. Tolkien was a real low-hearted sonuvabitch.”

Gork is in high school at WarWings Military Academy where he is a little different than the other dragons. He is afraid of heights, and really does have a large heart. His nickname is: Weak Sauce. His main purpose in this novel is to find himself a queen, for if he fails to do so he will become a slave forever.

Maybe I read Spinster, and All the Single Ladies too closely together this year and only in the last month, but this ‘despair’ that young Gork has throughout this novel really resembled for me the pressures society put on women in the past. You must find a husband or be ridiculed as a ‘spinster’ or enslaved in various other forms. I hope I’m not reading incorrectly into this children’s book, but this is the first time I’ve read a book where the male character is forced, nay, obliged and in ardent despair to find himself a partner. While other books have shown this dynamic from a male perspective, never with such urgency, and I’ve personally never encountered it in children’s literature. Well done Gabe Hudson!

Politics aside, I must return to the humour. This book is so funny. I found it funny as an adult who is quite in love with dragons and I wonder how the children would take this same humour. There’s something in his voice that echoes Lemony Snicket for me, though his publishers insist that it’s ‘Harry Potter meets Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.’ Either way, I suggest we, the readers, allow Hudson to have his own voice through Gork. I also enjoyed the ways he doesn’t shy away from swearing a little bit (never vulgar though). Highly recommend! I would also suggest that parents read this book aloud to their children, or librarians to their students at circle reading time. It’s a great bonding book! I look forward to Hudson’s future novels.

This book is scheduled for publication on July 11, from Knopf Publishing Group.

Matter & Desire | Book Review

“love is the principle of a fulfilling equilibrium between the individual and the whole”

34956703Matter and Desire is not a book about navigating in nature, an analysis of the natural realm, nor a biology book in any way shape or form. I read this text as a love letter to nature. Andreas Weber is a German academic, and scholar who holds degrees in Marine Biology and Cultural Studies. In this text he explores the ways in which humanity, unity with the larger ecosystem, and love as experience connect with nature and all things around us. In the foreword John Elder writes:

“He [Weber] focuses throughout on the ways in which sensory contact with our fellow creatures, as well as with air and water, light and gravity, can deepen our capacity to identify with all of life.”

Weber connects our psychology and experience of nature with ecology, as well as acknowledging writers before him who have managed to do so successfully—like John Muir for instance. In fact, Weber brings together philosophers and writers from Antiquity to present merging their writings with contemporary anthropocenic discussions, exploring how our human identity ties in to nature.

Weber begins his book by defining ‘eros’ as he will use it in the entire text as well as a brief history of the word itself. He writes:

“The Eros of matter counterbalances the physicists’ basic assumption that ‘entropy’ in the universe is constantly increasing, meaning that everything in the cosmos is trending toward a uniform condition of the lowest thinkable level of energy. Fires burn out. Life-forms die. Our bodies break down. Even the sun will collapse someday.”

He brings together all the components of this experience: touch, desire, and death as well as separating the contextual experience of nature in terms of relativity between ‘I,’ ‘you,’ and ‘we.’  Weber also explores the poetic imagination, poetic materialism, philosophy, psychology, and freedom and the ways they fit into the discussion of desire and nature, as well as the many conversations sparked by each separate field.

This entire text is so well written and almost every line is quotable. Here’s an example:

“the feeling of the soul in ascent is the feeling that the desire for aliveness that fills the cosmos to the point of overflowing is being realized.”

Weber also includes in each section of his work an anecdote from his personal experience and relates it to the topic discussed in a theoretical way examining how it applies.

This work is a love letter to nature, and it is first and foremost an academic text. I would recommend this to readers who enjoy Carl Jung, Thoreau, Octavio Paz, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, John Muir, Sigmund Freud, and Classical Mythology, as well as new emerging discussions about the Anthropocene. This work is demanding of its readers but it is worth the effort because it’s extremely rewarding. Every line is so well written and beautiful. This will no doubt become a crucial text on nature in future literary discussions.

This book will be released on August 3rd from Chelsea Green Publishing.

Drinks with Dead Poets | Book Review

“Every word, phrase or sentence spoken by the literary figures in this book is drawn verbatim from their letters, diaries, journals, or essays.” – Preface

33011553The main character is a professor by the name of “Glyn Maxwell” (name of Author) who finds himself in a dream-like, quaint, rustic, village school. There’s a pub, a church, all like in the old days. He must teach a semester-long course on poetry.  He is charismatic, funny, and passionate–a bit like Mr. Keating from Dead Poets Society.

He is given this syllabus to teach: “Reading List for Elective Poetry Module” featuring a week on each one of these poets: Keats, Dickinson, Hopkins, Brontes, Coleridge. Poe (on Halloween), Clare, Yeats, Whitman, Browning, Byron.

Each lesson feels like you, the reader, are present in a small seminar at University where the students can freely joke with the professor and also become fully engaged with the material—and the professor is passionate, and charismatic as he decomposes poems, discusses the poet(s), and asks thought-provoking questions. The lecture is followed by a vivid ‘hallucination’ or imagining that the narrator is meeting the poet in discussion. This whole book is a dream-like state. The dead poets talk to the narrator, get invited to class where they are publicly interviewed and they share anecdotes. They also explore parts of this town like the library, or pub. I enjoy the ways in which the whole text is full of literary references. For example if a student jokes a bit too much the teacher announces that ‘Yorrick’ is in the class. Simultaneously it merges the past with the present. Students for instance pick up that Bob Dylan songs have Poe references, as do Hitchcock films. I was more intrigued by the poets I genuinely like (Dickinson, Poe, and Whitman) because I was curious what Maxwell would do with them, and what new things I might learn about them. I found there were many funny parts, like when the narrator/author tries to write a letter to Walt Whitman but he just can’t get it right, because it sounds too much like something a teenage fan-girl would write, so he crumples up every draft thanking his lucky stars he didn’t ‘send it.’

Here are some of my favourite lines

Keats Lecture:

“poems that stay stay because the body feels them”

Dickinson Lecture:

“You can’t teach Emily Dickinson, you can’t write like her either. You no more have to write in her stanzas than you have to write limericks or clerihews. But you do have to absorb that she wrote about everything else she could think of—herself, others, life, death, God, Time, being here, being gone—in little quatrains shaped like hymns, rhymed or half rhymed, mostly four beats then three beats, four, three, stanza-break, and she barely left her bedroom…what you owe to such a poet is a true pause for thought.”

The visit to the library (with Emily):

“There are old books on every stall, twelve stalls, volumes and volumes, and great swathes of canvas thrown back behind the hardwood frames as if to protect them when needed.”

(A draft) Letter to Whitman:

“There’s more Life than there is Art, your poems seem to say, and the glory is in the reach, the stretch, the straining ever upwards like plant-life in the sunshine.”

I really enjoyed this book, and it really comes across as a work of passion. I wish I would have spread it out and read the poet alongside each chapter so that it feels like a real course. One can see that the author is well-versed and well-acquainted with the poets he teaches. The whole work felt like a love letter to these poets. I hope that if this work gets worked into an audiobook there will be more voices for each student and they find suitable voice actors for the dead poets because the whole work is mostly in dialogue and it would be fascinating to experience it that way—something like the way they recorded Lincoln in the Bardo. I thought it was well written, and captures the poets spot on because as the preface mentions the words, the attempt to reconstruct them, and capture their spirit comes from the poets’ archives and is probably as close as we will ever get to them.

I strongly recommend this book to readers who enjoy poetry, have liked studying poetry, want to learn any more about the poets listed, and who like 19th century literature from the Western Canon. Again, the feeling I had reading this was akin to sitting in a University lecture taught by a great professor…and that is a very pleasant feeling.

The book is scheduled to be published in August by Pegasus Books. Click here for link.

The Excursionist | Book Review

33973204The Excursionist was released today.

Book advertisements need to stop comparing new coming books to old ‘successful’ ones because it’s damaging to the emerging author. Readers automatically come to the book with an exact expectation, and I found that so far on Goodreads the book has received somewhere between 2-3 stars simply because readers’ expectations were not met. The first line in every one of its ads is as follows: “The anti-Eat Pray Love – A darkly comic novel about travel.” My mind automatically went to cynical of: ‘travelogue,’ ‘self-discovery’ or in a way convince us that traveling isn’t all that it’s hyped up to be. I wanted wanderlust travelers to be exposed for being as empty as the rest of us (just for a different take on it). I’m angry as a reader for two reasons: one that the ads for this book let J.D. Sumner down, and two: that readers (who should know better) changed their answers on Goodreads. I tracked some of the linked reviews and they gave this book 4 or 5 stars and as soon as they got on Goodreads and saw some cranky first reviewers changed their answers to 2-3 stars. Stand by your first instinct and trust your own opinion!

So here’s what this book is actually about:

The main character, Jack Kaganagh, wants to visit 100 countries so that he may enter the Travelers’ Century Club all before he turns 45. His fiancé had been an enthusiast for traveling and they had gone on some adventures together, yet recently his fiancé has disappeared, in fact everything about her has an aura of strangeness around it. For his final choices of destinations he has chosen to go to the ‘Coronation Islands’ which are between Madagascar and Sri Lanka: Placentia, Kilrush, and Fulgary. Although there is a Coronation Island near Australia, the locations Kaganagh travels to are fictional.

Sumner begins the novel with this lovely quotation from When The Going Was Good by Evelyn Waugh:

“at the age of thirty-five one needs to go to the moon or some such place, to recapture the excitement with which one first landed at Calais.”

However, the quotation starting part two, is much more suited to our main character:

“I am free of all prejudices. I hate everyone equally.” – W.C. Fields

3fb1b6fd6fcdc12d5085b3aac5cc715cThe novel isn’t dark and comic but the main character is. I found it easier to imagine someone like Dr. House to be on this trip (seriously, House even said: “It’s nothing personal, I don’t like anybody” in Season 1).

A cranky, cynical person, who has had so many life experiences that he’s resistant to many things and won’t take too much attitude from people. He’s obviously privileged (100 countries by 45) and an Englishman. I do think this book is a critique of the people who travel for traveling’s sake rather than feeling drawn to true adventure. Traveling to tick of check marks, or put notches down – or share it on social media for others to know and see that you have done it is not the same as fully enjoying the place and having a real adventure. Jack spends his mornings sleeping in, and taking interim naps, he reads the preface to another author’s book In Placentia (also fictional) and falls asleep. He just wants to get to that 100 Countries club. Jack is not enjoying anything, he’s clearly depressed from losing his fiancé and adventure buddy. He kind of reminded me of the Cohen Brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davies. I also think there are opportunities to read closer into the names he gives places, books, and authors.

J.D. Sumner graduated from The Oscar Wilde Centre, Trinity College Dublin and has a Ph.D. in Satirical Travel Writing from Royal Holloway College, University of London. His thesis explores the history of British travel writing and examines how the literature of exploration, which initially presented itself as factual, evolved into the fictional use of travel writing.

I for one enjoyed his constructions. This story has so many layers and there are so many “books” that Jack is reading that don’t exist. I liked it.

I recommend this book to people who are fans of studying travel literature and can see past an “easy” read. This is NOT a real travelogue, or a ‘finding yourself’ kind of story.

Ewan Pendle and the White Wraith | Book Review

covShaun Hume is a young emerging author with a unique voice. He is Australian-born and has self-published three works, Ewan Pendle and the White Wraith, The Girl in the Blue Shoes, and Tightrope Walker. All three works involve elements of speculative fiction, however, Ewan Pendle and the White Wraith is the only work that is written for a younger audience—perhaps 10 to 12 years old. Hume shares his writing experience and process in his literary blog which can be found here. One particular line that got my attention in his blog made me want to read Ewan Pendle and the White Wraith (2013):

“Writing can be an emotive and immersive experience sometimes. And when the scene is set right, there’s no greater thing to do than be lost in the world of one’s creations”

Ewan Pendle is a strange boy. He is an orphan who has been through numerous foster families—so much so the parents might as well be named John and Jane Doe—which funny enough they are. What sets Pendle apart is that he has vivid visions and can see monsters. Because he sees such creatures, he is labelled many things under the umbrella of ‘weird’ and must suffer the consequences by being bullied, and thrown around various families. The confusion of not knowing who he is, and his strangeness, is soon explained as he finds that he is part of an ancient peoples, the Lenitnes, who can see the truth. The monsters that regular people cannot see are actually there and the rest of the world is ignorant to their existence. He is then taken in a school called the Firedrake Lyceum where he learns the ways of the monstrous creatures he sees with other children just like him. Ewan is told in ‘orientation’:

“Firedrake Lyceum is a place where other Lenitnes children such as yourself go to learn to develop that gift, as well as how to put it to best use. The monsters you have been seeing are called Creatures. We as Lenitnes have been charged, for thousands of years, with the task of protecting other humans from these Creatures. And as the situation may arise, to protect the Creatures from some humans as well.”

Ewan befriends Mathilde and Enid and together they solve the ‘case’ of the White Wraith—threatening the royal family.

As mentioned above, this book is self-published, thus there will be instances of evident lack of editorial work. However, I found that it was very easy to read and the plot and characterization make up for that several times over. On Goodreads and Amazon, this work is labeled as “an antidote for Post-Potter Depression.” I myself missed out on the Potter fandom growing up, though I did thoroughly enjoy the series as an adult. I can see this label being both useful and problematic for an emerging author like Hume. In a way it’s a flattering comparison, and simultaneously it raises expectations where the reader approaches the work with a skeptical eye. I would urge readers who try Hume’s work to refrain from such expectations. As a person who has read both later in life I found the two works to be different in pleasant ways, and I think there is room for both works to exist. That said, the work contains magical creatures, and fantastical elements one may find in any other works post and pre-Potter like The Magicians, The Inheritance Cycle, or Wizard’s Hall. I was personally reminded of the children’s film ParaNorman. I would recommend this book to children around ages 10-12. Hume’s closing remarks give readers something to look forward to. He writes:

“If any of you fine and well-dressed people out there are keen to hear more of Ewan, Enid, Mathilde, and all the rest, then you may be pleased to know that the second volume of this monstrous tale (of which you have been witness to just the first part of ) is planned, and so are others”

This book is available for purchase on Amazon in both digital and paperback format and on Kobo in eFormat.

Other Resources on Ewan Pendle and the White Wraith:

Scion of the Fox | Book Review

34014624Scion of the Fox is a YA Fantasy Novel following Roan, who is an orphan with few memories of her parents. Roan is a lone-soul in an empowering way—to be honest it’s someone I would have loved to have as a friend in high school. She enjoys her time alone, she is a big fan of Wuthering Heights, and she sometimes talks to a stone menagerie made up of animals. Her grandmother, Cecilia, is a mysterious Fae-like, world-traveler (who kind of reminded me of Moana’s grandmother). Roan’s grandmother falls into a deep coma, whilst traveling, and her final wishes among being brought to Winnipeg no matter what state she is in, also included being preserved ‘alive’ until she expires on her own, and that her next of kin must reside in her home. I don’t want to spoil too much but I will say that this book is very much in tune with nature, mysticism, and spirituality. Roan cheats death as she is aided by a fox spirit and this leads to a series of fantastical events. The fox, and the moths are reoccurring symbols throughout this book. I thought this book was well-written and it got my attention immediately. The main character is well-rounded and likable, and I must add that it’s refreshing to read a YA novel that does not have a romantic relationship (or lack of) at its core. It deals with ancestry, battles, family traditions and history, and is very much entwined with the natural realm. This book is heavy with symbolism and I love the ‘Canadianness’ of it. I don’t generally read YA fantasy but this book got my attention and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I look forward to the next two books as this is the first in a trilogy.

I would recommend it to anyone who likes young adult fiction and the elements listed above. On Goodreads the synopsis portion compares this book to American Gods and Princess Mononoke which I think is an apt comparison. Other words that come to mind is ‘fae-like,’ ‘gothic,’ and ‘sublime’ sprinkled with ‘Canadian.’

The author, S.M. Beiko (Samantha Mary) is from Winnipeg Manitoba. Her first novel, a young adult fantasy set in rural Manitoba called The Lake and the Library, was nominated for the Manitoba Book Award for Best First Book, as well as the 2014 Aurora Award. Scion of the Fox is the first book in what will be a trilogy. ECW press will release one book per year. This first book will be out on October 17, 2017 and is currently available for pre-order.