August 15, 2017

Fierce Kingdom - Gin Phillips

Random House Canada, July 4, 2017.


Four Stars


Fierce Kingdom is a terrifying novel about the lengths a mother will go to in order to protect her child. Joan and her four-year-old son Lincoln are spending a fun and relaxing day at the zoo, when they hear what sounds like fireworks in the distance. At the end of the long day, they head toward the front gates and encounter a shocking scene – there are armed gunmen at the exit, standing over bloody bodies on the ground.


Thinking fast, Joan grabs Lincoln and runs back into the labyrinth of the zoo – and she keeps running for the next three hours, right up until the novel’s thrilling ending. Luckily, Joan has spent a lot of time at the zoo, and she remembers an empty exhibit where they can hide until the police arrive. She has her cell phone and is able to contact her husband, who tells her that the police are on their way – but soon after she is forced to throw her phone away to distract the gunmen, leaving her at the mercy of the dark zoo at night.


Staying just a step ahead of danger, Joan encounters another small group of people who are also on the run – but working together puts her and Lincoln in more danger. Joan quickly realizes the sacrifices she is willing to make to save her child, and she is shocked by her own actions. The novel questions our duty towards other people in contrast to our animal instinct to survive with our own loved ones. The zoo setting is important because it shows the humans that are trapped there as nothing more than animals in a cage, desperate to survive – suddenly life is pared down to the essentials of food, shelter and staying alive.


Most of the story is told from Joan’s perspective, but we do meet some other characters, including one of the gunmen. Learning about his motivations for the attack is intriguing, and the behaviour between the men becomes increasingly animalistic as well. Each narrator also has flashbacks describing their life before the zoo attack, which are emotional and compelling, fleshing out these characters into three-dimensional people. The background stories increase the stakes, as we become invested in the survival of Joan, Lincoln and the others.


The events at the zoo aren’t always realistic, but it’s certainly a believable situation that could happen to anyone at any time. The difficult decisions of motherhood become clear and concise, as Joan sacrifices everyone and everything – even herself – to protect Lincoln. Fierce Kingdom is a thrilling story, difficult to put down and exciting from start to finish. This is a great summer read that will likely be one of the most popular books of the season, and well worth reading.


I received this book from Random House Canada and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

August 12, 2017

When the English Fall - David Williams

Algonquin Books, July 11, 2017.


Three Stars


When the English Fall chronicles the lives of the peaceful farmers in an Amish community in Pennsylvania. When a catastrophic solar storm leads to the collapse of the “English” (the Amish name for any non-Amish people), the community continues its self-sufficient way of life. Meanwhile, the world around them has effectively come to an end.


Modern life is at a stand-still – with no electricity and no way of trading, the English soon run out of food. In contrast, the Amish have storerooms full of meat and vegetables, as well as their ongoing crops in the field. It proves to be too much of a temptation to the people around them, who become desperate and invade the Amish farms. Instead of trying to work together, the English come with violence that they wreak on the peaceable community.


The story is told through the diary of a farmer named Jacob, who lives on the land with his wife, son and daughter. The daughter has had seizures in the past in which she foresees the fall of the English – where she was once an outcast for this oddity, she is now viewed as a prophet for the Amish community. I thought that the daughter’s role could have been a much stronger part of the story – there were some really good plot elements that were left unexplored.


The novel begins with the discovery of Jacob’s diary by the military, years after the apocalypse. Again, I thought this aspect of the plot would be developed much further – I kept waiting for the timelines to come together, but the novel ended suddenly and without resolution. When the English Fall has the potential to be an excellent examination of civilization and what is left when it is stripped down to its core – especially when a non-violent community must consider taking up arms to defend itself. Overall, it was just too short and lacking in depth. However, if the author chose to develop this plot further, I think it could be something great.


I received this book from Algonquin Books and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

August 08, 2017

We Shall Not All Sleep - Estep Nagy

Bloomsbury, July 4, 2017.

Three Stars

We Shall Not All Sleep covers the events of three summer days in 1964, on a small island in New England. Seven Island is shared by two wealthy families, the Hillsingers and the Quicks – although technically related by marriage, there is animosity between the families and they do not mix with each other. However, the events of these three days draw them together in unexpected ways.

Lila and Hannah are sisters that have married Jim Hillsinger and Billy Quick, respectively. The sisters hold the families together, although there is little communication between them. However, on the anniversary of Hannah’s death, Lila finds herself drawn to her brother-in-law Billy – especially as her husband Jim pulls away from her. Recently ousted from his career at the CIA due to allegations of treason, Jim is desperate to control his environment, and he begins by sending his twelve-year-old son Catta to neighbouring Baffin Island to “become a man.”

The story takes place at the height of the Cold War and McCarthyism, and the historical aspects of the novel were the most compelling for me. Hannah was once a member of the Communist Party, and before her death, her past came back to haunt her – her story is told in flashbacks as she is persecuted for something she never even really believed in. There is intrigue and mystery in Hannah’s story. Then there are the more literary issues of class, wealth and family conflict on Seven Island. Finally, there is also Catta’s boyhood adventure on Baffin Island. The novel jumps between these three plots and really three different genres, and it’s sometimes hard to follow.

There is also a very large cast of characters, who are often confusing and difficult to keep track of. The narration moves around rapidly, within each chapter, and I found it very distracting. There were a lot of good parts, but ultimately there was too much going on and too many separate stories – they would have been much more satisfying if taken separately and embellished on, instead of being forced to fit together. The writing is strong and ambitious, but the narration is messy and meandering. I think this novel would benefit from having tighter focus on the main plot, but Nagy is still a talented writer to watch in the future.

I received this book from Bloomsbury and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

July 31, 2017

All is Beauty Now - Sarah Faber

McClelland & Stewart, August 29, 2017.

Four Stars

In this debut novel by Canadian author Sarah Faber, the setting is the lush and vibrant landscape of 1960s Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. From the glamorous wealth of the Copacabana Club to the squalor of the neighbouring fishing villages, the contradictions of Brazil come brilliantly to life. The novel follows the privileged Maurer family as they prepare to leave sunny Rio for the cooler climate of Canada. However, as the date of departure approaches, one family member suddenly disappears without explanation.

Hugo and Dora Maurer have three daughters, but it is their oldest, Luiza, who is known for her ethereal beauty. One day, while at the beach with her younger sisters, Luiza goes out for a swim and never returns. Luiza is presumed drowned and, although no body is ever discovered, a funeral is held for the young woman. The Maurers stay in Rio for another year after her disappearance, but finally begin once again to prepare to leave Brazil.

Luiza’s father Hugo is a brilliant and charismatic man who is also bipolar – he suffers from thrilling highs and dark lows. Luiza has always been expected to care for her father, and yet she doesn’t resent him – instead, she idolizes his creativity and intelligence, and resents her mother for trying to keep him medicated. As a Canadian citizen, Hugo will receive free health care in Canada, which is why Dora is pushing to return there. However, Hugo and the girls wish to stay in Rio, where Hugo’s extreme moods are accepted and even encouraged in some ways.

Dora has always been loyal to her mercurial husband, although she once had an affair that still haunts her – and her family – in unexpected ways. The younger sisters, Evie and Magda, don’t always understand what is going on around them, yet they are still affected by the dark moods and ominous feelings that surround them. In the shadow of the loss of Luiza, the entire family struggles to move forward and make peace with the past. However, when Dora learns that there may be a way to find out more about her daughter’s final days, she embarks on her own journey and leaves the remaining family behind.

The flashbacks to Luiza’s last months are told in alternating points of view, allowing each family member to express themselves – and all the characters, including the children, are captured extremely well. All is Beauty Now explores the ugly reality of mental illness, and the price we pay for loving a person who struggles with it. This is a dark, intense story filled with lush, beautiful language, and I look forward to whatever Faber writes next.

I received this book from McClelland & Stewart and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

July 27, 2017

The Recipient - Dean Mayes

Central Avenue Publishing, May 1, 2016.

Four Stars

Casey is a bright and vibrant student, backpacking with friends when she contracts a deadly tropical disease. Her condition leads to cardiac failure, and she is in desperate and sudden need of a heart transplant. Casey’s parents are devastated, and begin to say their goodbyes to their only daughter – but at the last minute, a viable heart is found and Casey is given a second chance at life.

Healthwise, Casey is back to normal after completing the required rehabilitation – but emotionally, she is like a completely different person. Quiet and withdrawn, Casey begins to avoid her family. Her agoraphobia is brought on by fear and the violent nightmares that keep her awake at night. She resorts to extreme measures to stay awake, including drugs and other borderline criminal activities – even her job as a computer hacker straddles the line of legitimate work, catching the attention of local police. However, no matter what she does, the night terrors continue to get worse.

After Casey injures herself while in the midst of a nightmare, her grandfather comes to live with her in order to monitor her health. With his help, Casey decides that the only way the nightmares will stop is if she discovers their source once and for all. She begins a frantic search to get to the root of the problem, putting her health and wellbeing at risk once again. Along the way, Casey makes a shocking discovery about the donor of her heart, who was killed in suspicious and potentially violent circumstances. As she delves deeper, Casey realizes that her dreams may be based in reality, and she cannot trust anyone around her.

There’s not much else I can say without spoiling the fun of letting this thriller unfold for the reader. Casey’s story has great pacing – it’s plot-driven, but also has interesting characters, even in the background. The medical and technological issues are not completely explained in a convincing way, but it didn’t matter because the story was fun and exciting enough to carry me along. The novel is packed with intrigue, terror and villains, and even though there are paranormal aspects, it’s easy to suspend disbelief and just go with it. It also happens to have an Australian setting, and the backdrop of Melbourne and the surrounding areas are interesting while not distracting from the story. The Recipient has its flaws, but the entertainment value makes it well worth the read.

I received this book from Central Avenue Publishing and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.