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March 6, 2011

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A whole new world

February 13, 2011

I’m delighted to introduced yet another guest blogger, Miss @BookLover73. One of the reasons I wanted to ask these two ladies to contribute was because I knew they could both provide some insight into novels I wouldn’t have considered myself. I don’t usually read fantasy fiction, so here to provide it for you is Raisa!

Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman

Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (Aug 21 2003)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0060557818
ISBN-13: 978-0060557812





Before I begin, let me say how thrilled I am to be writing for @LindsayReads’ blog. Thank you, Lindsay. You’re the best!

This is a book I read several years ago and instantly fell in love with. Unbeknownst to me at the time, it was a companion book for a television series of the same title written by Neil Gaiman and Lenny Henry for the BBC. Needless to say, I’m now dying to see this show! It is Fantasy at its very best. The novel begins with a likable but unlikely hero who embarks on a dark and dangerous adventure with odd and fanciful supporting characters that he meets along the way.

Like the series, the novel opens with Richard Mayhew, an Englishman who starts anew in the city of London. One evening his ordinary life becomes extraordinary when he helps someone in need. The oddly named girl, Door, has lost her family and now is hunted by two cold-blooded killers by the names of Croup and Vandemar. Door convinces Richard to seek out the Marquis de Carabas, the only person who can rescue her from the two assassins. When Richard does finally manage to find the Marquis, both he and Door vanish leaving Richard in the worst of situations.

There is a dreadful consequence to Richard’s good deed. He discovers he has become invisible to those around him. His friends, coworkers and even fiancée don’t recognize him. The only way to recover his “normal” life again is to enter a London few know about named, Neverwhere. It is a fantastical place filled with an array of characters that are both friendly and frightening. London landmarks become otherworldly, such as the Floating Market at Harrods and a royal court held in the underground subways. Londoners have unique gifts, like being able to communicate with animals and open secret doors. It is in the Floating Market that Richard reunites with Door and the Marquis. He has no other choice but to help Door uncover why her family was murdered all the while trying to regain the life he has lost.

What is most intriguing about this novel is its main character. Despite the fact that Richard’s life has been turned upside down he is determined to help his new friends. This, in my opinion, is why I love Neil Gaiman’s writing. He takes the ordinary, run-of-the-mill person and brings out the hero or heroine in them.

The story is about a man finding his true self and how one minor event can alter the course of his life altogether. In the end Richard has outgrown his old life. The one place he struggled to leave was the one place he longed to go back to.

I beg Neil Gaiman for a sequel!



February 7, 2011

I asked my lovely Twitter friend @ConstansFidei to write a guest post for my blog and was delighted when she agreed. So without any further ado….

The Best Laid Plans, by Terry Fallis

Paperback: 336 pages

Publisher: Emblem Editions (Sep 5 2008)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0771047584

ISBN-13: 978-0771047589




When my dear friend @LindsayReads asked me to write a book review for this blog, it only took me a day to figure out which book I wanted to write about—The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis. I love this book for not only the great read that it is, but also for the story of how it got published. When Terry Fallis was unable to find a publisher for this book, his first book, he turned to the power of iTunes, turning it into a free podcast where he read it himself, chapter by chapter. As his podcast proved popular, he decided to take the plunge and self-publish the book. It was this self-published version that won him the Stephen Leacock Award in 2008. (For those of you who are not familiar with the Leacock Award, it’s been recognizing the finest in Canadian literary humour since 1947.) It was only after winning the award that he got a publisher for his book. Most recently, The Best Laid Plans was selected as one of the books for CBC Radio’s Canada Reads 2011 program.

I was lent this book by a colleague at work two weeks after losing my father to cancer in 2009 and despite my grief, I found myself laughing out loud at several places as I devoured this book in mere days. It has since become of my most recommended books to friends and colleagues. Fallis weaves together lovable characters into a wonderfully creative story. Even when you can sometimes see things coming, it’s still brilliantly funny when they do happen.

The book tells the story of Daniel Addison, a political insider working on Parliament Hill, who after a betrayal by his fellow insider girlfriend, attempts to restart his life and career in non-political spheres. One last promise, extracted from him by his soon to be former boss—the leader of the opposition—to find a candidate to run for the party in a riding held by the über popular Minister of Finance leads to a series of extraordinarily funny situations. A deal struck at the last minute with his curmudgeonly landlord Angus McLintock has him on the campaign trail yet again with no real funding, a candidate that won’t campaign and only a rag-tag handful of volunteers. And it only gets more zany after election night. I won’t tell you more lest I ruin the surprises it has in store for you, but I will tease you with the fact that a hovercraft plays a key role in the story. You don’t have to be interested in politics to enjoy this book. As proof of that, I offer the following excerpt from the book (with the permission of the author). Enjoy.

For me, Centre Block is hallowed ground. I’m reluctant to defile its image with tawdry descriptions of infidelity. On the other hand, what happened that night gave me the strength to reject the path of least resistance and get the hell out of that netherworld. So I’ll recount the story, but out of respect, I’ll take care to honour the strictures of parliamentary language.

Rachel, my Rachel, was on her knees in front of the Opposition House Leader. Let’s just say she was rather enthusiastically lobbying his caucus. Stunned and devastated, I turned away—to get a better view in the lee of the well-endowed rubber plant. Rachel jumped into her advance work with both hands before moving to what seemed to be his favourite part of the proceedings—Oral Questions. Eventually he pulled her up off the floor and onto the desk where he begged leave to introduce his private Member’s bill. Clearly, there was unanimous consent as the cut and thrust of the debate started immediately—well, mostly thrust. By the look on her face, the second reading was proceeding satisfactorily with just a few indecipherable heckles thrown in for good measure. The House Leader occasionally shouted, “hear, hear” and slapped her backbench in support. At one point, she amended her position on his bill, and debate continued.

They were hurtling toward royal assent when I regained my faculties. I considered rising on a point of personal privilege, but abhorring confrontation of any kind, I simply threw up on the rubber plant and stumbled back out into Centre Block’s arched and awe-inspiring main corridor.


Thanks Jessica! This one’s definitely on my TBR list now.

History in a nutshell

February 5, 2011

At Home: A Short History of Private Life, by Bill Bryson

Hardcover: 512 pages

Publisher: Doubleday Canada (Oct 5 2010)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0385661630

ISBN-13: 978-0385661638




This book was written for me. I was an English major (duh!) who couldn’t commit to a minor because there wasn’t another subject I was as interested in. I took a few history classes, but a history minor requires taking a two-semester course in Canadian history, which I was NOT going to do.

The bottom line is that while I find history fascinating, I don’t really want to do the research. I needed someone to give me all the interesting facts and gory details in a neat little package—enter: Bill Bryson.

Reading non-fiction is a rarity for me. In fact, I can’t remember the last one I read. The downside of non-fiction is that the lack of a plot means it took me much longer to read it than a novel of the same size. This point should be moot for those of you who don’t have a book blog and a personal commitment to post at least once a week.

According to the introduction, Mr. Bryson and his wife moved into a former Church of England rectory in Norfolk, built back in 1850. Living in such a historic old building started him thinking about the history of the private realm. Room by room, he tells us about how the way people lived there has changed over the centuries.

In the kitchen, Bryson tells us that someone in the nineteenth century spent up to 80 percent of the household budget on food, and about 80 percent of that on bread:

Because bread was so important, the laws governing its purity were strict and punishments severe. A baker who cheated his customers could be fined £10 per loaf sold, or made to do a month’s hard labor in prison. For a time, transportation to Australia was seriously considered for malfeasant bakers. This was a matter of real concern for bakers because every loaf of bread loses weight in backing through evaporation, so it is easy to blunder accidentally. For that reason, bakers sometimes provided a little extra—the famous baker’s dozen.

Now, I think it’s obvious that people rarely came back from Australia or the authorities would have realized that sending criminals off to such an awesome climate is no punishment at all. I do think that’s an interesting fact, and the book is full of interesting facts about concepts, items and people I had never considered before.

In the drawing room, Bryson concludes that the history of private life is a history of getting comfortable slowly. Ever wonder why the couch was so slow to come in to fashion and how furniture was arranged prior to its introduction? Do you know why coffee tasted so terribly when it was first served in England?

If you want to know why beds used to be so uncomfortable, or which sexually transmitted disease went by the name of “the French Pox,” “the Spanish disease,” “the Celtic humors,” “the Neapolitan pox” and “the Christian disease,” you can find out in the bedroom chapter.

There are hundreds of thousands of history books about wars, discoveries, revolutions, inventions, royalty, etc. If you’re interested in a text that combines many of these topics and includes only the really interesting material, you’ve found it.

FYI, this was another Kobo read. The few informative images in the book did show up on my eReader, which was a nice surprise. On the downside, the footnotes were presented as endnotes, meaning I finished each chapter trying to remember back to what the original subject of the footnote was.

If you’re at all squeamish, I recommend you skip over the section on diseases carried by rats and mice, or the section on vermin like bed bugs. Other than that, I highly recommend this book.

To be or not to be…

January 23, 2011

Veronika Decides to Die, by Paulo Coelho

Paperback: 224 pages

Publisher: Harper Perennial US; 5th edition (May 7 2001)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0060955775

ISBN-13: 978-0060955779




Here’s another book club pick, this time chosen by Book Club Member Melissa, who says that it’s one of her favourite novels. Warning: If you haven’t seen Black Swan, please see it before reading this blog post, since there is a spoiler coming up.

As the title suggests, the book is a study in existentialism. Veronika is a 24-year-old Slovenian woman who feels only indifference toward her life and believes she’s accomplished all she can. She takes a fair dose of sleeping pills and waits for unconsciousness, which comes rather slowly.

Instead of dying, however, she wakes up in Villete, a notorious eastern European asylum in every historical sense of the word. Staff refer to patients as “inmates” and perform cruel, outdated, and even experimental treatments on them. The head physician, Dr. Igor, tells her her heart has been fatally damaged by her suicide attempt and that she has, at most, a week to live.

Veronika, starts the week wanting to find a way to make another attempt at death, wondering why she needs to wait a whole week. Soon she finds herself lowering her sexual inhibitions, making friends with other patients and playing the piano—something she hasn’t done in years. She suffers a heart attack but wakes up to live another day.

Book Club Member Michelle didn’t like this book, but telling you why would reveal the ending, which I’m not prepared to do. Part of the reason is because the author positions himself as a character in the novel and as a writer Veronika aspires to meet, making him seem rather full of himself. He also includes some details that are totally irrelevant. I agree with her, but it didn’t ruin the novel for me.

Veronika’s rediscovering of what makes life worth living—love, sex, and everything else—only when it’s nearly too late reminds me of a quote from the beginning of The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough, one of my favourite books:

“There is a legend about a bird which sings just once in its life, more sweetly than any other creature on the face of the earth. From the moment it leaves the nest it searches for a thorn tree, and does not rest until it has found one. Then, singing among the savage branches, it impales itself upon the longest, sharpest spine. And, dying, it rises above its own agony to outcarol the lark and the nightingale. One superlative song, existence the price. But the whole world stands still to listen, and God in His heaven smiles. For the best is only bought at the cost of great pain… Or so says the legend.”

Those of you who have seen Black Swan will recognize this theme as well. Ballerina Nina has spent her life aspiring to perfection, even as she descends into madness, and only achieves it as she’s dying.

What would you do if you had a week to live?

Well, you could read a guest blog post written by Ms. Jessica Richardson, a.k.a. @ConstansFidei, on The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis. It will be up later this week!


Androgyny defined

January 18, 2011

Annabel, by Kathleen Winter

Hardcover: 464 pages

Publisher: House of Anansi Press Inc. (May 31 2010)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0887842364

ISBN-13: 978-0887842368





I’ve read a lot about this book in the last few months, pretty much since it was short-listed for the Giller Prize last year. Now, I haven’t yet read the other books but I think this should have won. (Note to self: read other nominees.)

In Labrador (the latter and western half of Newfoundland and Labrador, for those of you who aren’t familiar with Canadian geography) in the late 1960s, a baby is born part boy, part girl. The first person to notice is his mother’s friend, Thomasina. (I say “his” because “its” sounds disrespectful and male is the sex assigned to him for the duration of the novel.) The baby is named Wayne and his mother, Jacinta, doesn’t immediately reveal the baby’s anomalies to her husband. Treadway, however, who has spent years honing his intuition and instincts in the Labrador wilderness, senses the difference in his child.

Jacinta takes the child to the nearest hospital where a specialist determines that the child is more and performs the necessary surgery. Of course it turns out that if the doctor had done an external scan rather than simply measuring the phallus, he’d have known that Wayne was more female than male inside. The surgery leads to complications in adolescence including an ectopic self-pregnancy, which, apparently, is possible though rare.

Wayne experiences the usual problems associated growing up and a few others thrown in to make his life a little different and more difficult. He gains friends and loses them, and decides to move to St. John’s, Newfoundland to start over.

In St. John’s Wayne is faced with the reality of the cost of the hormones he takes on a daily basis to provide his body with the bulk and shape of a man, especially as he reaches the age of majority. He decides to quit taking the pills and set free the woman inside him.

It’s clear that Wayne has felt a connection with his feminine side all his life even while being raised male. My favourite part of this book is that when he goes off the medication and begins seeing signs of femininity in his body, he experiments with makeup and women’s clothing but doesn’t fully become female. The author is making the point that Wayne doesn’t need to be male or female to be happy, or to belong in society; it’s only when he accepts both sides of himself that he can see a future for himself.

It’s just a shame we don’t have a pronoun for “him.”

Shades of grey

January 11, 2011

House Rules, by Jodi Picoult

Paperback: 560 pages

Publisher: Washington Square Press (Nov 9 2010)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 145161120X

ISBN-13: 978-1451611205




Confession: I’m starting to think of Jodi Picoult as the John Grisham of family law. Those of you who’ve read my review of Picture Perfect will know I’ve been a fan of Jodi Picoult’s for a few years now and, to be totally honest, she’s really one of those authors who just gets better and better. She has a formula, but it works.

The heavy issue in this novel is Asperger’s syndrome, a condition on the autism spectrum. Jacob wasn’t born with AS but developed it, and according to his mother, developed it within a week of an intensive round of vaccines when he was a toddler. After that, Jacob refused to make eye contact, didn’t know how to play with other children and suffered from a number of other socially crippling phobias. He can’t read faces emotionally, but instead memorizes facial expressions and their meanings, causing him to misread situations and get into trouble. His world is completely literal, meaning he doesn’t understand common expressions or how to tell when someone is joking.

When his social skills teacher goes missing, and her body is found a few days later, all signs point to Jacob as the culprit and an incredibly fragile individual who needs to adhere to a strict schedule is made to stand trial.

The story is told from the alternating perspectives of Jacob, his mother, Emma, his brother Theo, his lawyer, Oliver and the detective, Rich. The contrasting narratives of the same story really highlight the differences between Jacob’s psyche and everyone else’s.

I often wonder at the sheer volume of metaphors in Picoult’s novel. She’s got a point to make? Throw in a metaphor. How to end a chapter? Why not a simile, just to change it up? I’m not criticizing. They’re really effective.

For example, both Jacob and Emma remember the time when her father died. She was very upset and Jacob only made the situation worse by not being able to empathize. To his credit, he really did try to make his mom feel better. The best way he could help himself understand the pain of losing someone is this: “When someone dies, it feels like the hole in your gum when a tooth falls out. You can chew, you can eat, you have plenty of other teeth, but your tongue keeps going back to that empty place, where all the nerves are still a little raw.”

Conclusion: another slam-dunk for Picoult! (Alright, I know that metaphor is totally out of place, but it’s late. Give me a break.)