Review: The Wizard’s Dog by Eric Kahn Gale

The Wizard's DogAuthor: Eric Kahn Gale
Title: The Wizard’s Dog
Format/Source: ebook/Publicist
Published: 17 January 2017
Publisher: Crown Books for Young Readers
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Middle-grade fantasy
Why I Read: Light-hearted fantasy – something I needed!
Rating: ★★★½
GoodReads | Indigo | Amazon

I received a complimentary copy in exchange for my honest review.

Meet Nosewise. He’s spunky. He’s curious. And he’s a dog who can’t understand why his pack mates Merlin and Morgana spend all day practicing magic tricks. If it’s a trick they want, he’s the dog to ask! He can already Sit!, Stay!, and Roll Over! But there’s no way Nosewise is Stay!ing when his master and best friend, Merlin, is kidnapped. There’s nothing Nosewise won’t do to get Merlin back, even if it means facing the strange Fae people and their magic-eating worms, or tangling with the mysterious Sword in the Stone. But it may take more than sniffing out a spell to do it! Nosewise’s hilarious escapades and steadfast loyalty get him and his companions through King Arthur’s Dark Ages.

Arthurian legend is one of those literary fields I have always assumed would interest me, but it is one I have yet to properly pursue. (The Once and Future King has been on my TBR for longer than Goodreads has existed. My best knowledge of King Arthur probably comes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail…). It’s taken a tale told from a dog’s perspective to ease me into the literary retellings! 😉 The Wizard’s Dog stars Nosewise, a dog Merlin rescued who has an exceptional nose (even for a dog). The story describes Nosewise’s adventure in rescuing Merlin and Morgana, with the help of young Arthur. No spoilers, but this isn’t the most traditional retelling of how Arthur pulled the Sword from the Stone!

Nosewise is definitely the star of this tale. He is an easy character to love, sounding just like you might imagine a loyal dog would. His unique perspective as a dog infuses humour (ex. when the magical Asteria allows him to speak, he’s excited that he’s learned a trick no dog has learned before because that will impress Merlin [20]) and difficulties (ex. he’s a dog; he can’t open doors!) into an Arthurian fantasy that’s likely never been told like this before.

Speaking more generally, I haven’t read a lot of (any?) stories that have an animal speaking regularly with humans in a world where animals don’t speak. That normally doesn’t work for me (I prefer all or nothing), but I think The Wizard’s Dog balances the human-animal interactions well. Nosewise doesn’t chat throughout the whole book – there is a chunk where he has lost the Asteria and is without his voice.

Black and white shaded illustrations appear throughout the book. I like their style – not too cartoony or simplified. Nosewise’s silly expression on the cover is as animated as the characters get. My favourite illustrations are the darker ones depicting castles, magic, or fae. The story wraps up neatly, though not without leaving room for further adventures of Nosewise, Arthur, and the gang.

The Bottom Line:

A light-hearted tale narrated in first person by a dog, I recommend The Wizard’s Dog to those who might enjoy an ‘animalistic’ twist on Arthurian legend.

Further Reading:

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Review: Better Now by Danielle Martin

Better Now by Danielle MartinAuthor: Danielle Martin
Title: Better Now: Six Big Ideas to Improve Health Care for All Canadians
Format/Source: ebook/Netgalley
Published: 10 January 2017
Publisher: Allen Lane
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Non-fiction
Why I Read: Browsing NetGalley; topic I’m interested in
Rating: ★★★½
GoodReads | Indigo | IndieBound

I received a complimentary copy from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

DR. DANIELLE MARTIN see the challenges in our health care system every day. As a family doctor and a hospital vice president, she observes how those deficiencies adversely affect patients. And as a health policy expert, she knows how to close those gaps. A passionate believer in the value of fairness that underpins the Canadian health care system, Dr. Martin is on a mission to improve medicare. In Better Now, she shows how bold fixes are both achievable and affordable. Her patients stories and her own family s experiences illustrate the evidence she presents about what works best to improve health care for all. Better Now outlines Six Big Ideas to bolster Canada s health care system. Each one is centred on a typical Canadian patient, making it clear how close to home these issues strike.

A few days ago, I came across an expose by the CBC’s The Fifth Estate on “The High Cost of Pharmaceuticals: Canada’s Big Drug Problem.” A lot of what that investigation discussed sounded familiar. I had just read all about it in this book, Better Now. I had originally decided to read this book because I thought it would a good supplement to the books I had read last year – books by life and death professionals (ex. family doctor, crematorium technician) about their work and how to improve their field through anecdotal stories about their patients and their own personal lives (is that specific enough? haha).  As described above, Better Now, written by a family doctor who believes ‘in the value of fairness that underpins the Canadian health care system’, presents the following ‘Six Big Ideas’ to improve the system:

  1. Ensure relationship-based primary health care for every Canadian
  2. Bring prescription drugs under Medicare
  3. Reduce unnecessary tests and interventions
  4. Reorganize health care delivery to reduce wait times and improve quality
  5. Implement a basic income guarantee
  6. Scale up successful solutions across the country.

This book turned out to be even more personally relevant than I expected. I am currently searching for a new family doctor, as I found my old one unsatisfactory. I couldn’t pintpoint exactly why, but after reading about these ideas and some of the issues with our system, I see my relationship with my previous doctor reflected in them.  Idea #5 surprised me in a good way. I appreciated how Dr. Martin considers the bigger picture and explores social factors, especially in ideas #5 and #6. Her proposals are indeed ‘big ideas’. She acknowledges the potential difficulties in implementing them, but also presents them as actionable realities. She strikes an appropriate balance between support for the current healthcare system and addressing its shortcomings, which can be improved upon. One area she doesn’t explicitly address is the education of medical professionals, which is an area I imagine could use some changes.

Better Now is written in an accessible style, with straightforward prose. These are complex ideas, but there isn’t too much technical jargon or infodump – just enough so the reader can understand the ideas being presented. This is a short book and therefore largely a starting point. If one concept intrigues you, Martin provides many resources for further reading at the end of the book.

The Bottom Line:

Is it too trite of me to say ‘I recommend this book to any Canadian’? I could say, ‘I recommend this book to any Canadian with a stake in our healthcare system’ – well, isn’t that the same thing? But seriously, if you have any interest or care for your healthcare, check out this book.

Further Reading:

  • Author’s Twitter
  • Book website
  • “The doctor on a mission to heal medicare” @ The Star
  • “Toronto doctor who gave U.S. Senator a lesson on healthcare outlines her ‘6 big ideas’ for Canada” @ CTV News Health

Review: The Witches of New York by Ami McKay

Cover of The Witches of New YorkAuthor: Ami McKay
Title: The Witches of New York
Format/Source: ebook/Netgalley (hardcover since purchased)
Published: 25 October 2016
Publisher: Knopf
Length: 504 pages
Genre: Magical realism/historical fiction
Why I Read: Browsing NetGalley, cover caught my eye
Rating: ★★★★½
GoodReads | Indigo | The Book Depository

 

Is there a better feeling than when you accurately judge a book by its cover? I requested The Witches of New York on NetGalley solely because of the cover.  I have since purchased a copy. This is one of those editions that reminds me how beautiful books can be. If the image above intrigues you, then you probably don’t need to read the rest of my review – go grab a copy now and enjoy. Ami McKay has penned an excellent tale about three witches living in 1880 New York City. I am already crossing my fingers for a follow-up tale. Here are six reasons why this book is one of my favourites of 2016.

6 Reasons Why You Should Read The Witches of New York

  1. The witches, of course (Eleanor St. Clair, Adelaide Thom, and Beatrice Dunn) – I loved the characterization of these three ladies. They each felt deeply real to me, with their flaws and mannerisms and talents. I felt as though they were real people the author might have known. I rarely connect so well with one character, let alone three. I also appreciated how, despite their differences and disagreements, they always cared for each. It would be easy to reduce them to stereotypes in an attempt to briefly describe them, but Eleanor, Adelaide, and Beatrice are much more than that. (Plus, they all have charming names.)
  2. Feminine magic – I have recently discovered that I enjoy stories of feminine magic, where women have their own special power and work fight the patriarchy. That is not a sentence I would have written even just two years ago. I am a novice feminist when it comes to literature (see note after the list for more about feminism in this tale). But I do know that I loved the magic in this book. McKay differentiates the witch’s talents. Their magic felt real to me; I believe in it while reading the story (and I think that ties in to my point above about the realness of the characters).
  3. Historical context – McKay strikes the perfect blend of historical fiction and magical realism for me in this tale. The Witches of New York sits neatly in history, as McKay incorporates things such as the installation of Cleopatra’s Needle, the Victorian interest in spiritualism and science, and of course women’s rights. The witch’s magic fit snugly in the setting McKay crafts.
  4. Supporting characters –  I haven’t mentioned Dr. Brody, who wants to work with Beatrice to test her abilities and who may have a crush on Adelaide and who is an actually lovely man. The Reverend functioned well as the villain of the tale. (I get squirmy and angry when I think about the twisted logic people like him use to justify their actions.) He may be a one-dimensional character, but this isn’t his story. He symbolizes what’s working against women in society.  There are additional characters who we occasionally read passages about. I like stories like this where threads about seemingly unconnected people come crashing together.
  5. Additional texts  – Included throughout the book are bits of news, snippets of spells, excerpts from writings about witches, and other ephemera. These are nicely integrated into the text (both the physical book and the narrative) and give the story a little more flavour.
  6. Hints of more to come?? – While the story works fine as a stand alone, there were a few things not entirely explained that I would love to read more about. Not to worry, the plot is largely tied up in this volume, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a sequel! Adelaide features as her younger self Moth in McKay’s The Virgin Cure, so there’s always that to check out in the mean time.

I haven’t really discussed the feminist aspects of this story. Honestly, I hadn’t thought about how this book can be considered feminist literature until I attended an ‘Evening With’ event with Ami McKay. The area was packed with women. The discussion focused on the persecution of female witches by a patriarchal society,  and how relevant this book is today (especially in context of the US election, which happened two days before the event). I appreciated the discussion as it expanded my understanding of the story. I want to learn more about the role of witches and their treatment throughout history. Can you recommend any great books (fiction or non-fiction) about historical witches?

The Bottom Line:

Ami McKay is spot on when she describes her book as “historical fiction with a twist—part Victorian fairy tale, part penny dreadful, part feminist manifesto”. Eleanor, Adelaide, and Beatrice make The Witches of New York a 2016 must read.

Further Reading:

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Review: A Song to Take the World Apart by Zan Romanoff

Author: Zan Romanoff
Title: A Song to Take the World Apart
Format/Source: ebook/Publisher
Published: 13 September 2016
Publisher: Knopf
Length: 320 pages
Genre: YA with touch of magical realism
Why I Read: Cover + comparison to Leslye Walton and Jandy Nelson
Rating★★★½
GoodReads IndieBound | Indigo | Amazon
I received a complimentary copy from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Hanging out with Chris was supposed to make Lorelei’s life normal. He’s cooler, he’s older, and he’s in a band, which means he can teach her about the music that was forbidden in her house growing up. Her grandmother told her when she was little that she was never allowed to sing, but listening to someone else do it is probably harmless— right? The more she listens, though, the more keenly she can feel her own voice locked up in her throat, and how she longs to use it. And as she starts exploring the power her grandmother never wanted her to discover, influencing Chris and everyone around her, the foundations of Lorelei’s life start to crumble. There’s a reason the women in her family never want to talk about what their voices can do. And a reason Lorelei can’t seem to stop herself from singing anyway.

I have to admit, I was completely baited in to read this book by the comparisons to I’ll Give You the Sun and The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender. Those novels are two of my favourites in young adult, a category I’m very picky about. I didn’t expect A Song to Take the World Apart to stand up to those two books, but if it was even just a bit like the two, then I could see myself enjoying it. In general, I enjoy magical realism and mythical creatures and ocean settings, and I’m interested to see what can be done with them in a contemporary setting. At first, I wasn’t sure how the plot was going to go. The story starts out a bit slow and very much as typical teen romance. But as Lorelei’s abilities began to play into the plot, the story took on a more serious tone and became the kind of YA I adore.

What I liked most about this book is that the story isn’t just about first love. It’s also about love between friends and family. Lorelei’s best friend Zoe was one of my favourite characters in the book. She helps to ground Lorelei. Lorelei’s brothers, parents, and Oma also play a significant role in the story, just as important as Lorelei’s love interest Chris. Where the story is about teen romance, I appreciated how realistic it felt. I also appreciated how other characters reminded Lorelei that her high school romance was just that – a high school romance, of the sort rarely built to last. I’ve noticed some reviews crying ‘instalove!’ but for me, the development of Lorelei and Chris’ relationship was very natural and how I would expect a young relationship to grow, from my experience. I was so pleased they didn’t get a fairy tale ending. That relationship played out like I wanted it to. With regards to the relationships, I think that’s where this book finds some comparison with I’ll Give You the Sun. The relationships here aren’t as strong or striking but I think they’re just as real.

I also liked how Lorelei experiments with her ability and doesn’t fully know how to control it or use it. She gets caught up in it, as you might expect her to. She has darker moments of negativity where she allows her to use her abilities impulsively and selfishly, as she can’t really imagine the consequences. I thought this worked well as a something of a metaphor for growing up and realizing or learning how we can manipulate ourselves and others for our own greedy desires, even when we’re trying to be decent people. I think this is why I enjoyed the book. It’s not really a love story. It’s a story about growing and finding yourself.
 
When I think of Ava Lavender, I think of the particular and lovely prose. The prose here doesn’t really hold up to Ava Lavender. It’s standard contemporary YA stuff. But there are some great moments, particularly in 1) the descriptions of how Lorelei feels when singing and in 2) some dialogue that captured important concepts.  I wondered how the music scenes would play out, as listening to music can be such a unique and individual experience. Not to mention it’s a very physical thing! Reading a description of music is nowhere near the same as listening to that music. However, Romanoff doesn’t try to describe exactly how or what Lorelei sings. She instead describes the emotions of the experience, which she does very well. As for the dialogue, there were moments that touched on topics I considered important, things that maybe teens don’t hear or talk about enough. That being said, I was frustrated that Zoe and Lorelei (and Lorelei and Chris) don’t have any frank discussions about their relationships. Chris just becomes Lorelei’s boyfriend, without any talk about it. There’s a scene between Lorelei and Chris that I thought implied sex but later on when Lorelei speaks with Zoe, there’s talk about how Lorelei might be jealous because Zoe had sex before Lorelei, and Lorelei doesn’t comment on her own experience (of course the word sex is never actually used). I don’t like the dancing around the subject, though I suppose it is realistic. At that age everything is new and exciting and therefore a bit scary too.

The Bottom Line: Overall, Romanoff makes a solid debut with this contemporary YA tale and its good twist of magical realism. I recommend A Song to Take the World Apart for those who love high school setting YA but could use a little shake-up.

Further Reading:

Review: The Conjoined by Jen Sookfong Lee

Author: Jen Sookfong Lee
Title: The Conjoined
Format/Source: Paperback/Publisher
Published: 13 September 2016
Publisher: ECW Press
Length: 262 pages
Genre: Contemporary
Why I Read: Premise + setting intrigued me
Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound | Indigo | Amazon
Thanks to ECW Press for providing a complimentary copy in exchange for my honest review,

 On a sunny May morning, social worker Jessica Campbell sorts through her mother’s belongings after her recent funeral. In the basement, she makes a shocking discovery — two dead girls curled into the bottom of her mother’s chest freezers. She remembers a pair of foster children who lived with the family in 1988: Casey and Jamie Cheng — troubled, beautiful, and wild teenaged sisters from Vancouver’s Chinatown. After six weeks, they disappeared; social workers, police officers, and Jessica herself assumed they had run away. As Jessica learns more about Casey, Jamie, and their troubled immigrant Chinese parents, she also unearths dark stories about Donna, whom she had always thought of as the perfect mother. The complicated truths she uncovers force her to take stock of own life. Moving between present and past, this riveting novel unflinchingly examines the myth of social heroism and traces the often-hidden fractures that divide our diverse cities.

One might argue that the cover and jacket description tricks the reader into thinking this is a dark thriller in the vein so popular these days. That closing statement (underlined above), however, hints there’s more going on here than a gruesome murder mystery. For me, this is a story about family relationships and how they can break and fail. It’s also about identity, suffering, broken social systems, and understanding how the past forms us. There’s a lot going on here, but these themes organically engage and shape one another in The Conjoined, out next Tuesday (Sept 13).

Despite knowing that two young foster girls would end up dead in a freezer, I didn’t anticipate having my heart broken by Casey and Jamie. The story’s focus on family relationships and broken social systems makes for a tough read. Lee takes us inside the the girls’ family and shows us how their lives fell apart. This quote from the girls’ mother’s perspective especially got me:

No one would believe that she was a good mother. No one would think she had tried her best. She was on the verge of losing her girls, not to a bearded, smelly man in a rusty pick-up truck, but to a phalanx of people who would look at her and see her mistakes, the gaps of time that she had left her daughters alone, the frank conversations she might have started with them but didn’t. She had worried over the wrong threats. (81)

Prose like Lee’s makes me think about why I could never be a strong writer. It’s the little vignettes that always make me pause. Those small personal observations of thoughts, characters, events, etc., bring depth and beauty to the story. These sorts of things I would never think to write about. I’m not a close observer of the world around me (alas, one of my faults!). This is why I love reading. To see, experience, feel, things I might otherwise have overlooked. Example:

She didn’t know what she was crying about – her mother, Trevor, or the girls – but it didn’t matter. She knew that weeping was its own vortex. It spun and pulled until identifiable feelings were no more than fragments, like half-words that only hinted at meaning. She let her arms and legs curl until she was huddled, small, on the floor of the hallway. (26)

Please noteThe remainder of this review contains general spoilers for the conclusion.


I did wonder about the fact that neither Jess nor her father (let alone anyone else) ever went into those freezers for 27 years. The detective briefly addresses this conundrum at one point, but it’s a moot point. This not a whodunit. For those of us who like tidy stories with clear endings, we might find reason to be unsatisfied here. Personally, I felt only a small bit of disappointment. Of course I would rather know than not know, but not knowing didn’t spoil the ending, as it might have in a lesser story.  I understand that you can’t always get a neat little ending with all the answers (in life or in fiction).  This story is, to some extent, about how two girls wind up in a freezer – but it is not about the particular logistics; it’s about something more. And I’m sure this ties in, somehow, to Jess’s growth as a character and her acceptance with not knowing what happened and not knowing her mother as well as she thought. But that’s a bit beyond my literary analysis capabilities. 😛

Some final notes on things I liked: I liked Jess, mostly because I sympathized with her attitude toward her boyfriend and the detective… I also liked how personal recollections interweave with her present day perspective. Jess’ memories slip easily into her present day narrative, just as one might slip into a daydream while folding laundry. I liked the role Jess’s father, plays in the story.

The Bottom Line: Don’t read this for the whodunit side of the story. Read it for the considered exploration of ‘the myth of social heroism’ and the complicated relationships that factor into it.

Further Reading: