Review | Yard Dog (Jack Palace # 1), A.G. Pasquella

38469700What does a man do when he gets out of jail? For Jack Palace, he plunges right back into a life of crime. Not because he wants to, but because he has to repay a debt to a gangster named Tommy, who saved his life in prison. Once the debt is repaid, Jack would like to retire completely from the criminal underworld and settle down to a peaceful life with his new bartender girlfriend Suzanne. Yard Dog is the first book in the Jack Palace series, so it’s probably not a spoiler to say that things don’t quite go as Jack plans.

I’ll be honest: when I received this book for review from the publisher, I wasn’t sure if I’d enjoy it. The whole ‘ex-criminal tries to go straight but gets sucked back in’ genre isn’t really my type of crime fiction. Cozy mysteries, grip lit thrillers, and Agatha Christie are more my speed. Still, as with all the books I receive for my blog, I decide to give it a try, and within a few pages Pasquella’s writing and fast-paced storytelling got me hooked.

From the synopsis, I was expecting a hard-boiled thriller with all the characters sounding like stereotypical tough guys. I was wrong. Pasquella’s narrative style is pretty straightforward, and he has created some really compelling characters that you just keep rooting for. I love Jack Palace. I love how badly he wants to just escape this kind of life, and how much it’s his sense of honour and morality that keep sucking him back in. I love that he’s given multiple chances to walk away, yet he chooses to dive right back into the fray simply because it’s the right thing to do.

The character of Suzanne was also a pleasant surprise. Again, from the type of story I thought this was, I was expecting either a drop-dead gorgeous damsel in distress or a drop-dead gorgeous superheroine who kicks ass and drops sarcastic one-liners without breaking a sweat. Instead, Suzanne’s a pretty complex character herself with a developed backstory that explains why she’s reluctant to hook up with Jack but decides to do so anyway. She can defend herself, but mostly because she’s smart and, because of the dangers of her job as a bartender, keeps a bat behind the counter. I also really like that she calls out a bad guy with a gun for talking to Jack about her in front of her, rather than simply addressing her directly, and more importantly, I also like that she quiets down almost immediately afterward. She demands respect, but she also doesn’t take stupid chances with her own life.

Overall, it’s an entertaining book with compelling characters, and I’m glad I gave it a go. Kudos as well to Laura Boyle, who designed the cover: it’s fantastic!

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Thank you to Dundurn Press for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Cowboy Brave, Carolyn Brown

40144455Cowboy Brave is a sweet city girl / cowboy romance. Emily Baker is the Programs Director at a seniors centre, and books a week at Justin Maguire’s ranch for a group of residents who call themselves “The Fab Five.” Justin is attracted to Emily pretty much from the get-go, but his mother is less enthusiastic about the relationship. And while Emily is attracted to Justin, she has also chosen to leave the ranching life behind for city living, and is reluctant to start anything serious with a cowboy.

The romance is really sweet. One of my favourite moments involves a Hallmark Valentine’s card with a heart-shaped lollipop attached. Basically, in each box of Hallmark cards, one card has a heart-shaped lollipop and is meant to be given to the most special person on your list, and boys in Emily’s and Justin’s respective schools would give that to the one girl they really liked. As a tall, curvy woman, Emily is used to being overlooked by men, and remembers how she’d never received the heart-shaped lollipop as a child. Justin has no idea about Emily’s history with heart-shaped lollipops, but when he buys a box of cards for Valentine’s Day at Emily’s seniors centre, he makes Emily’s Valentine’s Day extra special. Personally, because the significance of his gesture was unintentional, it lost a bit of its impact for me, but I love the effect on Emily.

While Emily and Justin’s relationship was nice, I found that the best parts of the novel were with all the stuff going on beyond the romance. The Fab Five were fantastic — I can totally imagine them having their own sitcom, and I’d love to see them have their own romances. I also love Emily’s best friend Nikki, who is pursuing her nursing degree and is dealing with some heartache of her own. I found her a compelling character, and I’m excited to see she has a romance of her own coming up. I also really loved the family dynamics, with both Justin and Emily’s families. While there are various sources of friction with both families, there’s also a very clear bond, and I love seeing such strong relationships amongst the siblings and with their parents.

Emily and Justin’s romance didn’t quite hit the mark for me. I think because it wasn’t quite angsty enough to be a dramatic romance, nor was it heartwarming enough to give me all the feels like a Hallmark Channel type movie. And while the book itself was funny, most of the comedy came from the side characters, and the romance itself was pretty straightforward.

I also didn’t quite understand Emily’s reluctance to re-enter the ranching life with Justin. She had initially left it because, as the only daughter in her family, she was expected to do the paperwork and not the physical jobs that she actually enjoys. But when she spoke about it with Justin, he was pretty chill about her doing the tasks she actually enjoys, and this was made clear pretty early on.

Still, overall, I enjoyed Cowboy Brave. The romance was solid, the main characters likeable, and the supporting characters fantastic.

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Thank you to Forever for an egalley of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

Review |Imagine It Forward, Beth Comstock with Tahl Raz

37811374Imagine It Forward by Beth Comstock, GE’s former Vice Chair and Head of Marketing and Innovation, is an inspiring read for current and aspiring change-makers. Comstock talks about her career, and how she uses her various roles to disrupt the status quo and create customer-driven change. She talks directly about coming up against old school thinking, slow-moving bureaucracies, and the profit- and numbers-driven measures of success in the corporate world.

This book will clearly resonate with business people, but as someone who works in the non-profit sector, I found a lot of parallels with my own work. I think that bureaucracy and deeply entrenched work cultures are a reality no matter what industry you’re in, and I love Comstock’s approach to putting the customer’s voice first when deciding what innovations to push through.

Some things that resonated with me are:

  • Comstock’s admission early in the book that she’s a naturally shy person. As a shy person myself, it helped me to read about how she managed to make herself speak up even when her comfort zone was in the background. More importantly, as the book went on, her shyness no longer seemed as big a barrier, and she was able to go head to head with powerful executives who tried to shut her down.
  • The stories about how GE’s engineers and scientists were so focused on innovating for the sake of innovation, but failed to consider what exactly they were innovating for. Their usual question was “What is possible?” when they should have been more concerned with “What do our users need?” Comstock took the completely opposite approach to marketing, and thereby shifted company culture. I love that because it shifts GE from a lab in an ivory tower to one that actually meets real-world needs.
  • I was also struck by a story about focusing on small and quick innovations at a time rather than waiting for a large-scale change. Basically, GE engineers were looking to develop an update that’ll take a couple of years to finalize, but when they focused on solving a problem for one particular customer’s needs, they were able to cut down the development time to six months. I love that because we’re often so focused on making a big splash that we neglect to consider all the little steps we can be making along the way.
  • And finally, Comstock talks about how there was a lot of push back from GE executives on customer-centred marketing, because they were a business-to-business company. But as Comstock rightly points out, the businesses they deal with are also trying to please their customers, so it makes sense to appeal to the customers directly. It reminds me of a business school project I worked on once where my group made the same mistake the GE executives did, and ended up with a project that would have worked well operationally, but didn’t at all push boundaries. I love how simply shifting your notions of what your company is can totally change your approach to business.

Comstock has a very readable writing style, and helpfully places significant points in large font sidebars that makes them easier to find.

Imagine it Forward is an informative and useful book that will give you ideas for how you can create change in your own workplaces. And if you’ve ever tried to create change or innovate in the past, chances are that you’ll find sections from this book familiar, and will get ideas that you can implement in the future.

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Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.