The Wonder by Emma Donoghue [Review]

I received a copy of The Wonder in exchange for an honest review by the publisher.

I sit here wondering what the last Donoghue I read was. I read Room shortly after it was published in 2010. Goodreads tells me that I never made it Frog Music, so I think it would have been Astray, a collection of short stories based on historical events published in 2012. At the time, I would have been reading for a Canadian award committee, and I believe it did make it to the shortlist that year. I wonder these things, because for some reason, I forgot that Emma Donoghue can write one hell of a story.

The Wonder is the story of Lib Wright, an English nurse trained by Florence Nightingale who is brought to Ireland to watch over 11-year-old Anna O’Donnell. Since her last birthday 4 months previous, Anna and her family swear she hasn’t eaten any food, and instead is subsisting on “manna from heaven”. A local committee wants to test the veracity of her claims by having a respected nurse either confirm or deny a miracle.wonder.jpg

Once I had finished reading the story, I noticed that not a whole lot had actually happened. There was a resolution to the plot, and there were some anxious moments throughout, but what Donoghue does so well is get into her characters and develops her narrative through them. Anna is a fully-formed devout child who, for all her conviction, sees the world as any child would. Lib struggles at times to reconcile her training with what she’s observing and feeling first-hand. The story is really about the relationship between these two characters and how the influence and change the other.

What I enjoyed more than this relationship was the setting and the feeling of Ireland a hundred-plus years ago. Donoghue captures all of the superstition, religious fervor, and political history of a people in her small town personalities. The potato famine, the relationship to England, and the continuing power of the Church are all there, but it never felt heavy-handed to me.

The story is based on the phenomenon of “fasting girls”, a largely Victorian phase, but with roots hundreds of years previously. Young girls would claim to go months or years without eating anything, and they quickly became local celebrities. I didn’t know much about the topic prior to reading this novel, but have since poked around and read about some of the most famous cases from the period. This BBC article about Sarah Jacobs was great, though hold off if you want to read the novel spoiler-free.

Overall I liked this book. The writing was phenomenal, and Donoghue really manages to capture a time and place through her characters in a way that doesn’t bog down the pacing or plot of the story. I’m glad that it wasn’t any longer, as there were already a few parts that dragged a little bit for me, but that’s a minor grievance. This would make a great book club selection, or a cozy weekend read as we move through fall and into winter.


The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from my life by John Le Carré [Review]

*I received The Pigeon Tunnel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Penguin Random House Canada Limited-The Pigeon Tunnel_ Stories f
The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life – John le Carré (CNW Group/Penguin Random House Canada Limited)

I have a confession to make before we really get into this. The only Le Carré I have read is The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. And I liked it, I really did, but spy novels aren’t really my thing. I love spy movies, and non-fiction books, but I’m by no means an expert on Le Carré.

Luckily for me, this is a memoir, told like a short story collection. This isn’t a chronological retelling of a life, but rather a collection of recollections that shed light on a fascinating life and a history of Cold War politics and espionage. It’s an incredible story as a whole, and I had to remind myself throughout the book that this wasn’t fiction, and more amazingly, the story of a single life, lived large.

Le Carré humbly presents his stories with a real sense of historical perspective, and is open and honest about what he’s willing to share, and what he will take to his grave. He’s a master story-teller who remains tight-lipped and conscious that his words could have consequences, and this grounding only serves to make the book all the more compelling.

I think I valued this book the most as a bridge between Le Carré the author, and Le Carré the former spy. His books have been, and continue to be, successful because they read as plausible, gripping stories that I think we all assume have some grain of truth to them. The fun is always trying to sort out how close the reality the fiction might be, especially as we’re armed with the knowledge of Le Carré’s former career. This collection taunts us with tidbits of real-life encounters with major Cold War players, and is full of secretive meetings and exchanges that can only serve to fuel our desperate desire to know the truth, once and for all. Le Carré keeps us engaged and invested by never really giving us a clear answer, and so we read on.

As a librarian, I try to classify books. I don’t mean by Dewey number or shelf location as you might think, but when I finish a book, I put it on a shelf in my brain about who I might recommend that book to. There’s a book for every reader, after all. When I tried to do this with The Pigeon Tunnel, I was happy to note how many readers would enjoy it. If you like Le Carré and his novels, this book is for you. If you’re interested in a history of espionage, this book is for you. If you want to learn more about the Cold War and its global implications, this book is for you. If you love a well-written and thoughtful memoir, this book is for you. If you like short stories, this book is for you.

Recommended Reading:

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre

Nutshell by Ian McEwan [Review]

*I received a copy of Nutshell from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Here goes.

nutshellIan McEwan is one of my favourite authors. Last year I made plans to read his entire back list, but bailed quickly because I didn’t want to run out of stories to read. Atonement is perfection, and last year I really enjoyed The Children Act, so I was thrilled to see another new release this year.

Nutshell tells the story of Trudy, who has left her husband for his brother, and now, from her marital home, is plotting to get everything she ever wanted. But someone is watching and listening to every detail of her plans – her unborn child, 9 months in the womb. The narration is astute and mannered, and McEwan commits wholeheartedly to the POV which I really appreciated.

The thing that struck me most about this book was the quality of the writing. McEwan never disappoints, but I noticed how good the writing was on every single page to the point of distraction. The novel is quite short, and every word packs such a punch and every metaphor really lands and makes you think. Because the narration is so unique, McEwan is really able to investigate the choices people make and the consequences of those decisions in a really profound and new way.

I am writing this review nearly a month after reading the book, and I’m trying to remember how it ends. Turns out, it doesn’t really matter. I do remember wanting to hear what happens next while reading the book, and turning the (digital) pages at quite a pace, but in hindsight what really stands out is the writing. Nutshell was incredible and proves that McEwan continues to write outstanding stories that speak to us.


The Masked City by Genevieve Cogman

*I received a copy of The Masked City from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This is the second book in The Invisible Library series. It will not contain spoilers from this book, but will assume the reader has read Book 1, The Invisible Library. Here goes.

Publication date: September 6

The purpose of the Library is to preserve humanity from either absolute reality of absolute unreality. And you will do this by collecting nominated books, to maintain the balance.

The Student Librarian’s Handbook

There are writers out there who really know how to sell a story to readers. As a reader, I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I love books about books, about loving books and being surrounded by books, and I know what power a book and the story it contains can have. So when an author writes an entire series about collecting and maintaining a collection of powerful books, it’s almost like there is a built-in audience waiting around with grabby hands for the next installment.

I loved The Invisible Library, Book 1 in this series a whole lot, and ran around the internet with muppet arms telling people about it. And now that the next installment is here (at least in North America – the U.K. is ahead of us with this series) I have another excuse to ramble on incoherently about how great the series is and why everyone should read it.

The Masked City continues the story of Irene, a Librarian who works for The Library out of an alternate-London with her assistant Kai. Not long into the story, Kai is kidnapped by a dangerous fae faction and Irene desperately begins the search for who exactly has taken him, where they have him, and why. With seemingly-infinite number of alternate worlds that he could be in, Irene has her work cut out for her. Oh, and in case you missed it from Book 1, Kai is a dragon, and royalty, so shit will get real (by which I mean a lot of people will die) pretty quickly if anything happens to him.

The story has the same great narrative flair, packed full of adventure and witty dialogue, and I was completely invested in Irene’s struggles and her desperation to get Kai back safely. Likewise, Kai is a great character, and in this book we get to see other members of his family and learn more about dragon culture, which is all fascinating. One of the problems I had though (and it’s not really a problem, frankly) is that the best parts of the first book were seeing Irene and Kai interact, and because they’re separated for most of this story, we as readers don’t get to enjoy that. I think it’s a great setup for the next book, and develops their relationship further, but it does mean that something is missing from this book for me.

Another sticking point for me was the ending. Having Irene and Kai separated for the book set my expectations for their reunion very high, and I did find the ending to be somewhat abrupt and unsatisfying. I do immediately want to read the next book (The Burning Page, likely 2017 for North America) because we ended on a bit of a cliffhanger, but it’s left me feeling like I was in the middle of a story and had the book ripped from my hands. I really appreciate stories told in series that can also wrap things up nicely between books without giving up the anticipation of what’s next.

Those things aside, there was so much to love. These books are smart and fun and Cogman does such a good job of creating entire worlds whenever the narrative demands it without them feeling flat or empty. I had such a sense of excitement when I got to the first scene in The Library, and could maybe read a hundred stories centered around it. It looks like she has 5 books planned, so I’ll take what I can get.

Speaking of, The Burning Page has finally shown up on NetGalley, so I’ll be over there begging for a copy…

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch [Review]

*I received a copy of Dark Matter from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Here goes.

Have you ever wondered what your life would have been like if you had made a different decision? Maybe you’re thinking of a time when you were at a real crossroads and the choices you made had a significant impact on how you’ve lived your life. But what about the small decisions, the daily and mundane options you’re given: what to eat for lunch, where to go shopping, what movie to watch. And what if instead of choosing one thing over another, you did both. What if every single time this happened, a version of you in a parallel world was created and they continued on their own path.

Welcome to the multiverse.

Novels featuring plots driven by the multiverse theory fascinate me, and are quickly becoming a thing I look for in new releases. Dark Matter by Blake Crouch tells the story of Jason Dessen, a husband, father and college professor who has happily given up a promising career in physics to have a fulfilling life with his family. It also follows Jason Dessen the physics superstar who has walked away from his pregnant girlfriend to focus on his career and a new obsession with the possibility of traveling between worlds in the multiverse.

Let’s get it right out there that I loved this book. The best science fiction stories (in my opinion at least) have a strong basis in science fact, and can take theories or ideas and draw a complete narrative from them. The multiverse theory is mind-boggling, and I can’t pretend to really know anything about quantum physics, but the beauty of successful novels like this is that you don’t have to. Enough is explained to the reader so that you can understand what’s going on in the plot, but you aren’t bogged down in the details. This isn’t to say that the book is light on fact or real science, but instead is a seamless blending of fact and fiction that only theoretical physicists will be able to untangle.

The novel read like a thriller, with plenty of action and suspense, but also very quickly established my sympathy for Jason. I’m only recently getting into thrillers, but I think what makes or breaks these stories for me has to be connection I feel (or don’t) to the predicament that the protagonist is in. It’s all well and good to have your lead running around to trendy and interesting places, but for me, the setting is much less important than the character development. In other genres, I might say the reverse is true, but thrillers can fall really flat for me if the how and why of it all is not presented throughout the story.

All of that being said, I raced through Dark Matter. Plot and pacing are not sacrificed, and I was much more interested in finding out what happened next than I have been for a long time. I still haven’t decided if I found the end satisfying or not, and I don’t want to include any spoilers, but I think Crouch had to work himself out of a corner and did what he could to make it both emotional and convincingly logical. More often than not, I find myself not really judging the choices that authors have made. I don’t think books should be longer or shorter, and I don’t spend a lot of energy trying to sort out how I would have done it differently. The choices an author makes are theirs alone, and I don’t get too riled by any of it. This does make it harder for me to really judge books and come up with a Goodreads rating, but I muddle through. (For the record, this was a 5-star book for me.)

I know this one has been making the rounds and is getting generally positive reviews already, and I couldn’t be happier for a book about physics. Readers are smart and want to be engaged, challenged, and presented with new ideas. I think for a lot of readers, science isn’t always a subject they gravitate towards (judging by the undergraduate degrees held by most librarians and avid readers I know, myself included…) so I love finding stories that are able to make hard-to-understand concepts fun and genuinely enjoyable.




I Am An Audiobook Junkie. You Can Be One Too.

I am a recent convert to audiobooks, and it sounds like I’m not the only one.There are a ton of articles out there talking about where to get your audiobooks, suggestions for when to listen, and recommendations for the best books. Here’s my story.

The convenience of being able to consume a book while driving, cooking, cleaning, bathing, working, etc., is too good to pass up, but for me, it wasn’t an easy thing to add to my routine. I often just forgot to press play and the wasted opportunities piled up. My commute went from a solid 40 minutes to about 5, (which is great, don’t get me wrong) and so I felt like I just didn’t have a lot of opportunities to listen.

The key to introducing audiobooks into your life is to make it a habit. I suggest starting your day with spoken word entertainment. I know I’m talking about audiobooks here, but my day always starts with a podcast. It was the easiest time to remember to press play and helps me wake up. I switched from having my phone alarm scare me into an upright position to using a S.A.D.-busting light-up alarm clock complete with chirping bird noises. It’s been great, and starts my more relaxed morning routine. Once I’m up, I grab my phone and turn on a podcast. Most of the ones I’m subscribed to are between 30 and 50 minutes, which is perfect. I can get one complete episode in while I’m getting ready (including time I’m in the shower) and it’s better than the radio. After this I’m happily grinding coffee beans, packing my lunch, and I’m out the door.

For the next 8 hours, I’m at work. Your job will likely be different than mine. While I’m often at my desk, I interact with a lot of people throughout my day. There are meetings, phone calls, and emails. I run reports, compare statistics, read articles, write articles, etc. You would think that as a librarian, nothing could be more natural than listening to an audiobook while working. And some days that is true, but often I find that I can’t concentrate on what I’m hearing while also trying to do basic math or sentence-wordifying (case in point). So some days I have my headphones in, and others I don’t. It’s just the nature of the beast. If you can make use of the time you’re at work to take in a good book, then all the power to you. If you work 7 hours a day, and an audiobook lasts anywhere between 7 and 25 hours, that’s a heck of a lot of reading you’re getting done.

Here’s a tip. Have an audiobook in your car. I find that books on disc work best because then I don’t have to fiddle with any of my devices, but you do you. The point is that if you have something there, every time you get in the car, you’ll listen to it. I don’t listen to anything but my audiobook in the car (with a few k-pop exceptions) and even with my 5 minute commute in mind, I can easily finish a book in a single 3-week checkout. Pick something that you can do in small chunks if your drive is as short as mine. I tend to pick something lighter, usually written by a celebrity. Nick Offerman’s Paddle Your Own Canoe is highly recommended.

If you take public transit or work from home, you’re laughing.

Now that you’re pesky work day is done, think about all the opportunities you have for audio. Cooking dinner. Doing dishes. Folding laundry. Walking your dog. Cleaning whatever else in your house needs it. Grocery shopping. Gardening. Shoveling. The list goes on and on. If you’ve gotten to this portion of your day having listened to something in the morning, and at work, and in the car, pressing play now will come naturally. Lather, rinse, repeat for 2 weeks, and science tells us that you’ve likely developed a new habit.

Now that you’re an audiobook junkie like I am, you’ll need a stable source of content. Obviously I recommend using your local library. They should have books on disc, perhaps Playaways, and almost certainly a digital collection of eAudiobooks, likely through OverDrive or 3M. Just ask. Staff will be happy to help.

If you can’t find what you’re looking for there or don’t want to worry about holds lists or due dates, I would recommend Audible. There are other services out there, this just happens to be what I use. For around $15 a month, you can get 1 audiobook per month. There are also packages for 2 or more per month, but check for sales and Daily Deals to help build your library.

If you still need more, have I already mentioned podcasts?! They are great. Subscribe to a few or many. There is something for absolutely everyone, they’re free, and new content is usually added weekly or bi-weekly. Stuff You Should Know, Book Riot, Serial… the list goes on and on. Check them out.

It’s possible there are typos, missing words, and/or grammatical errors in this point. Apologies, but I was listening to an audiobook while typing.

Ender in Exile by Orson Scott Card

enderinexileI haven’t been in the Ender universe for some time now, but I thought I would get back into the series. I’ve read pretty much all of the full-length novels published, but I don’t remember a lot of details. Anyway, I picked up Ender in Exile which is one of the books I had missed. It actually takes place between Chapters 14 and 15 of Ender’s Game, which sounds like a bizarre premise, but it covers a really important period for Ender Wiggin and then people closest to him. Ender’s Game spoilers ahead.

Ender has managed to defeat the Formics in an epic final battle, but the ramifications of discovering his victory in what was supposed to be a simulation but was actually the annihilation of the species, has left him full of remorse. Hyram Graff returns to Earth to face a court martial, while Ender is never allowed to set foot on his home planet for fear that the United States will use him as the ultimate weapon. Instead, he is forced into a heroic exile, and plans to travel to a new colony on a former Formic world to become its governor. The novel follows his departure and the journey that he makes to the colony, which he names Shakespeare.

Along the way, he faces the very real threat of impending mutiny from the Captain of the ship, who is likely to try to seize control of the colony upon arrival. Though in real time, the ship will take 40 years to reach Shakespeare, in relative time, it’s a two year journey. Only a few colonists, Ender and his sister Valentine included, choose to remain awake during the voyage.

One of the things I really enjoy about the Ender series is how quickly it changes pace as it progresses. Ender’s Game is a great classic work of Science Fiction. A young boy is chosen by his slightly crazed government to train in military tactics and then the final battle happens and he saves them all. But instead of the sequel jumping to another big battle, or other epic events, it immediately slows down and becomes very personal to Ender and his struggle to come to terms with what he’s done. Not only did he orchestrate the death of an entire species, but there were vast human casualties as well. He doesn’t just swallow these losses and move on. He really works to understand what exactly happened, and feels a responsibility towards the Formics. This quest informs the rest of the Ender Quintet Series, starting with Speaker for the Dead.

Next up for me is Earth Unaware (The First Formic War Book 1) which takes place roughly 100 years before the events in Ender’s Game. It has a co-author, Aaron Johnston, which makes me sceptical, but I’m going to give them a try. I imagine that it will not only cover the introduction of the Formics to humanity, but the specific events that led to the extreme fear and prejudice that we see in Ender’s Game. I tend to prefer near-future Sci-Fi, so I’m interested how it is interpreted.

Packing For Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach

PackingForMarsTwo of my favourite things in one book – Mary Roach and space. Roach’s writing is informative, hilarious, and unlikely anything else I’ve read. I finished Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers sometime last year, and despite the numerous times I felt like vomiting, it was an outstanding book and made me a Roach fan for life. I’m trying to spread her books out so that I’ll always have something to look forward to, but I couldn’t help myself from racing through this one.

Ever since man decided to venture to the stars…wait. Let’s be honest.  Ever since the world was on the brink of disaster and two nations with nuclear weapons decided they hated each other, we have had a fascination with the possibility of life beyond our planet, even if that life was just us humans flailing about in orbit above the Earth. The Cold War advanced our understanding not only of space, but of the impacts that space has on the human body.

Roach investigates all aspects of space exploration, from the technological requirements, the toll it takes on our physical bodies, the emotion repercussions, and a smattering of history. Like a true investigative journalist (which she is), she throws herself in all manner of awkward and trying situation to be able to report what things are really like. This included on the vomit comet (to simulate micro-gravity), a northern expedition to a remote Canadian island, and visits to various NASA sites where she wasn’t afraid to ask the awkward questions we’ve all been thinking.

Refreshingly, she doesn’t ignore the contribution of the Russians. She gives them equal treatment, and gives credit where credit is due. Too often, histories of space exploration focus entirely on NASA, and their struggles with the former U.S.S.R. serve as a dramatic backdrop to the heroism of the Americans. As not an American, I find this really annoying and often downright rude. But that’s a whole other topic of conversation.

Other than the main topics she covers, Roach’s work has so many interesting details about the intricacies of her subject matter.  I struggle to come up with an example off the top of my head, but they’re the sorts of things that you wouldn’t even think to ask unless you were already immersed in this world. On that note, her footnotes alone make this book worthwhile.  They’re usually comic asides, but do yourself a favour and don’t skip them.

I’m going to leave it there lest I turn fan girl on you.  But seriously, the book was fantastic. Highly recommended.

Rapid Reviews – 3-in-1

I’ve finished a couple of books recently that I don’t really have a lot to say about, so instead of droning on, I’m going to 3 mini reviews all in one post.  Here goes.

KillingPilgrimKilling Pilgrim by Alen Mattich

This one sort of took me by surprise. I haven’t read the first book in the series, nor am I a fan of mystery/thrillers. I picked this up because it had a Canada sticker on it (though the author wasn’t born here, nor does he currently live in the country) and I have to read a number of Canadian titles every year.  I started in on it and was hooked almost immediately. The story alternates between Sweden in 1986 where the Prime Minister has just been assassinated, and “modern day” (1991)  where intelligence agent Marko della Torra is getting drawn into an American investigation to find the assassin.  Now that I think back on it, not a lot really happened, but it was still a great read.  I found the whole atmosphere to be strangely engaging and enlightening, especially for people like myself who are unfamiliar with the ethnic conflict that was about to erupt in this region following the breakdown of Yugoslavia. Recommended.


WitchWraithWitch Wraith by Terry Brooks (Dark Legacy of Shannara Book 3)

I’ve been reading Terry Brooks for as long as I can remember.  He was my introduction to the genre of Fantasy, and to adult fiction in general.  He’s the kind of author that I read because I always have, not because I find his books to be extraordinary.  He continues to write in a well-developed world, and there are always elements that feel old and used.  But it’s comforting just to be back in familiar places and check in to see how the locals are doing. That being said, this trilogy was one of his better offerings of the last few years in my opinion, and I finished the book excited to see where things go next.  Brooks has announced that the end of Shannara series is in sight, with just 3 more books to come.  It will be sort of the end of an era for me, but I’m happy to hear that there will be a planned conclusion to the larger narrative. And with any loved series, there’s always the excitement of going back to the beginning and living it all again.

PoisonPoison by Sarah Pinborough (Tales from the Kingdom Book 1)

I bought this for my Kindle app a long time ago it seems, and never really got around to reading it.  Last night, with a terrible headache, I decided to dull the lighting on my iPad and give it a go. It’s a short re-telling of Snow White, but like all fairy tale stories these days, Pinborough has added a ton of awkward sex and profanity.  I’ve seen it done really well, where these additions serve to update the story and made it more complex, but in this case, it just fell flat and I always felt like the plot was there just to get us to next bit that would make me sit back and say, “Oh…racy!”. Except that it wasn’t. It was just weird. If re-tellings are your thing, then maybe you want to check this out, but then again, maybe not.

Shakespeare: The World As A Stage by Bill Bryson

bryson-shakespeareI’ve been going through a Shakespeare kick with The Hollow Crown (Richard II, Henry IV Pt. 1, Henry IV Pt. 2, and Henry V) starring most of my favourite British actors, but instead of just reading some straight Shakespeare to get my fix, I picked up Bill Bryson’s short biography of William Shakespeare himself.  Short, because as Bryson quickly points out, we know almost nothing about the greatest playwright of the English language.

The biography follows life as you might expect.  Where and when Shakespeare was born, where he lived, who he knew, what he did for a living, troubling moments he had to overcome, and where he died.  The problem of course is that we know so little for sure, but there are many theories and alternatives out there that people can subscribe to.  So instead of providing the reader with a tidy history of a man and his work, Bryson’s tale reads like an essay where every probable version of the truth is included.  This may sound unreadable, but the result is a refreshing take on a controversial issue.  Instead of one side just presenting the evidence to support their argument, all (reasonable) sides are considered, albeit with a healthy dose of typical Bryson wit.

You may be thinking that this sounds all fine and dandy, but the last thing you want to read is an academic diatribe about the minutiae of Shakespeare’s life.  Pause for a moment and consider this.  We aren’t just talking about the subtleties of writing styles or lost manuscripts found in an attic that may or may not be in his handwriting.  We are talking about the big stuff:  How he spelled his name;  Which version of his portrait is the most accurate, if any; Where in the world he was for a significant portion of his life. The result is a highly accessible conversation on the enduring mystery surrounding Shakespeare that only seems to add to the marvel that is his surviving work.

I don’t have much else to say about this one.  I really enjoyed it.  It’s accessible to readers who don’t know a whole about Shakespeare, but it also has enough depth to please readers who already know the basics.  Bryson is a fantastic author and I’ll read anything he writes.  I hope you like it as much as I did.