A Canadian book blog: Publishing, marketing, books and technology from a Canadian perspective

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Book Review: Boo by Neil Smith

As part of the Vancouver Sun’s book club, I’ve been discussing Boo, a new novel by Neil Smith. It’s about Oliver “Boo” Dalrymple, a 13-year-old boy who narrates the book from the afterlife. The jacket blurb’s proclamation that this is “Lord of the Flies without pig slaughter and privation.” 
Read more: http://www.vancouversun.com/news/book+club+year+protagonist+quest+meaning/11151629/story.html#ixzz3fr3fwphy


One of my favourite discussions was about the 1970s cultural references in the novel. Here’s what I said:

Until our conversation last week, I did not pick up on the fact that the book is set in the 1970s because there are so many hipster trends today that allude to that period. It’s obvious now, and so overt, that it’s embarrassing to admit that I glazed over this aspect of the novel. As I started compiling a list of the cultural references, I couldn’t stop so this is not an exhaustive list, just want sprang to mind.

First off, I loved the Napolean-Dynamite visual I got when reading about Boo or Johnny wearing the white and blue striped gym socks and sweat bands. That alone brought levity to the underlying story of two boys dead in a school shooting. The peace symbol and style of clothes really do set the story in the 70s for me but Town/Heaven is presented as Salvation Army so, again, I didn’t initially understand the setting to be the 1970s. My assumption then, since there are no computers or video games, is that Town’s culture is that of America in current day.

The clothes especially made me laugh and Boo’s criticism of the cashmere sweater and egotism of 13-year-old girls reminded me of that all-about-me phase. It’s funny, especially, if the 70s was the Me decade, to end up in town with generations of 13 year old Americans. You would not feel so unique, which is maybe why some townies identify as gommers, or portal seekers, or find other ways of segmenting themselves off.

The other prominent 70s references for me were the Hardy Boys references, especially the building named Frank and Joe, the music references, and I immediately thought of the do-good council as the Brady Bunch.

I wonder if there are no cars in Town because 13 year olds can’t drive, or if that’s a reference to the oil crisis? Likely the former. And I don’t know enough about the history of the periodic table but there’s obviously an interesting study of those elements and their function within the storytelling.

What I don’t recall are references to Star Wars. But Boo is certainly aware of the starscape and Zig only changes it on occasion. I wonder for people who saw the moon landing first hand, if it was underwhelming. It’s cool, but there’s nothing there. Was that a letdown and made people wonder about heaven? If you imagined the moon as this great place then saw its pocked surface, did you question what you’d imagined about heaven?

The mental health building, Johnny’s behaviour, and the sense of being in purgatory or sentenced to 50 years in town reminded me of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There were several places in the novel when I wondered who the crazy actually was.

You can read the full discussion among all the book club members here: http://www.vancouversun.com/entertainment/books/book+club+References+1970s+abound+afterlife+novel/11132081/story.html

Boo was a fascinating novel and an interesting philosophical experiment on what the afterlife holds for us.

Boo by Neil Smith
published by Knopf Canada


Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Book Review: The Parrots by Filippo Bologna


I discovered this book in the Rathmines Public Library, displayed in a section for nominees of the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. It’s billed as a smart novel, and it unveils the aspirations, and vanity, of three unnamed authors competing for a prestigious, unnamed prize. I enjoyed the irony of that. For background, this is Italian Filippo Bologna’s second novel and the first was well regarded. Indeed he may be one, or all, of the characters in the book.

It’s important to note that the characters live in Rome and there’s a dark undertone to the competition and the vote rigging or schmoozing required by authors in order to win. And winning is important as it increases sales and can firmly establish an author. So how far is each willing to go?

The three men are The Beginner, The Writer and The Master. The Beginner is the hot, young thing. He’s good looking and loved by the critics. A win means instant fame. Neither the Master or Writer want to be beaten by the novice. Plus they both deem his novel unreadable. The Writer assumes he’s the sure win, but he is the most nervous of the lot. His last book wasn’t very good. He is onto The Second Wife already and needs to win to not be dumped by The Publisher as the lost could strip him of his fabricated identity and posh lifestyle. The Writer has everything to lose. For him the win is security.

As I mentioned, the dark satire throughout the novel is about how far each author is willing to go to win. The Master is the most disheartened. He’s stuck with a small press throughout his career and has never quite got the recognition he deserves. A win means money. Plus he now has prostate cancer. Will he lose his dignity and use his cancer diagnosis to get the sympathy vote or is he above it all?  The other two have their own twists of fate but I don’t want to spoil the read for you.

The novel is black, in a sullen artisty way. There’s a thread of humour throughout. And overall it was an enjoyable read. Not a page turner but I did want to see it through to the end. You’ll like this novel if you’re also a fan of The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq, caustic humour and insider look at fame in the art world, or The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman, a satirical look at an English-language newspaper in Rome.

Oh, and what’s with the title, The Parrots? Well there is a rather nasty parrot that taunts the Beginner. Also there is a parrot at the end with the Writer. It’s unclear whether this is the same parrot or not. But as soon as I read the title and the opening scene with the parrot and the Beginner, I thought we were dealing with Flaubert’s Parrot, and surely there’s a connection. Here’s a snippet from Wikipedia on Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes:

One of the central themes of the novel is subjectivism. The novel provides three sequential chronologies of Flaubert’s life: the first is optimistic (citing his successes, conquests, etc.), the second is negative (citing the deaths of his friends/lovers, his failures, illnesses etc.) and the third compiles quotations written by Flaubert in his journal at various points in his life. The attempts to find the real Flaubert mirror the attempt to find his parrot, i.e. apparent futility.

The Parrots by Filippo Bologna
Published by Pushkin Press
View it on Amazon

Monday, June 08, 2015

Book Review: Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie


In December 2010 I read and reviewed Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie. I haven’t read all of Rushdie’s works but I have loved the ones I have, including Luka and the Fire of Life, which is the sequel to Haroun and the Sea of Stories.

There was once, in the country of Alifbay, a sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name…
And in the depths of the city, beyond an old zone of ruined buildings that looked like broken hearts, there lived a happy young fellow by the name of Haroun, the only child of the storyteller Rashid Khalifa, whose cheerfulness was famous throughout that unhappy metropolis, and whose never-ending stream of tall, short and winding tales had earned him not one but two nicknames. To his admirers he was Rashid the Ocean of Notions ...
to his jealous rivals he was the Shah of Blah.

In Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Haroun is upset that his mother has run away with the weasly clerk from next door and his father, the famous storyteller, seems to have no more stories to tell. The latter being a result of the former. When Rashid, the most famous storyteller of the land, is called into service by a gangster politician, Haroun is beyond worried that his father’s dried up gift for gab is going to get them imprisoned.

A sleepless night in a peacock bed result in Haroun riding a mechanical bird right into a story war. He’s accompanied by a water genie, a floating gardener, some talking fish, the mechanical bird and a host of other magical creatures. Of course Haroun is the hero of this tale and is awarded a happy ending.

I bought this book in the ancient book market in Argeliers, France, while looking for a happy ending. The Shad of Blah certainly delivered a delightful holiday read. He knows how to spin a frown upside down.

If you liked Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, or any other quirky tale then give this one a go. 

Monday, June 01, 2015

So Misguided in Dublin: Month 1

On Apr 24 James, Finlay and I moved to Dublin, Ireland. Moving house is no small feat but moving countries, my goodness. I have a whole new appreciation for people who come to Canada.

We stayed at a great 2 bedroom Airbnb in Donnybrook near Muckross Park College, which is close to Ranelagh village and Donnybrook and Herbert Park.

Our first park visit beyond the neighbourhood was downtown to St Stephen’s Green.

And, of course, we checked out Herbert Park, which was recommended by all of our Irish friends now living in Canada. It’s a big park with a playstructure and football and cricket fields on one side of the road and on the other a duck pond and more playing fields.

Our first weekend day trip was on the DART to Dún Laoghaire (pronounced DunLeary). There’s a weekly farmers market, which is more artisan stands than food market but still had some noteworthy attractions. The town also has a well-regarded ice cream shop but, by the time we found it, the queue was quite long and the weather had turned so we carried on home.

Here’s the famous ice cream shop (or infamous queue to get ice cream).

On the second weekend we went on the DART to Bray. Our intention was to go to the castle in Malahide but there was construction on the North line of the track so one of the station workers suggested we go South to Bray. Not a bad destination. There is a boardwalk and playstructure plus a nice hillside walk to Greystones.

The big victory was that we found a house to rent in Ranelagh. Our move in date was May 5, just in time for James to go back to work. We had 3 suitcases and our carry-on bags so moving in wasn’t onerous. The tricky part was figuring out the heating for the house, which is done via the Rayburn Nouvelle stove in the kitchen. And we had a few snags with the vacuum and washer/dryer not working, which made cleaning the house a challenge. The next step was Dunne’s and Argos to get some bedding and bath towels, a few kitchenwares and some photos printed to make it feel like our home.

James got the internet set up so we could make some calls home. And we settled into our daily routine.

The exciting, aren’t-we-living-like-Kings-now moment, was meeting the Taoiseach, Edna Kenny. i.e., the Prime Minister of Ireland. Slack announced the European office opening and the Taoiseach and an MP were on hand with speeches and smiles for the cameras. James did a bang up job with his speech and soundbites for the press. And I even got in on one of the photos with the man himself.

Darren and Julie introduced us early on to their friends Ger and Karl, and we had dinner twice with them and their 3 kids (and really making friends is as important as meeting the Taoiseach, if not moreso).

Homemade apple crisp to mark the occasion. Made with Golden Rose, Irish apples.

Ranelagh village is a nice spot with lots of amenities, including two parks that we regularly visit.

Belgrave Square

Ranelagh Gardens

And there is a Luas stop in Ranelagh, which whisks us out to Dundrum (shopping mall) and Milltown (park and pub), or the opposite direction into the city centre where there are fab parks like St Stephen’s Green and Merrior Square.

Merrion Square

I have found a few storytimes and playgroups. Finlay and I have been twice to the Pearse Library, which is also where you can do all the research into your family tree, and then we take the DART back to Aviva Stadium and walk home.

The international news in our first few weeks was that Ireland voted YES to Equality and gay marriage. There were lots of smiles and a general good sense about the results, plus Dublin was blessed with a big rainbow on the day of the vote count so it seemed like a done deal as far as Mother Nature was concerned.

We made our first trip to Temple Bar, during the daytime. The weekly market there has some great local cheese and meats, as well as food vendors like the crepe van and the apple cider stand where you can get a shot of Irish whiskey with your cider. Not a bad way to spend a chilly Irish morning!

James treated me to a ticket to see the 50th Anniversary production of John B Keane’s The Field, which had a run at the Gaiety Theatre. The Field is a well-known Irish play about a farmer “Bull” McCabe and his love for the land he rents. The land comes up for sale and Bull is a hardnose about claiming it as his and bullying the townsfolks into letting him be the only bid. A city slicker puts a wrench in that and ends up murdered. As I understanding it, owning and working the land is a deep-rooted Irish need so the play is a reflection of that, but also an interesting morality question about the value of preserving the land vs. developing it. The city slicker, played by Aidan McArdle of Mr. Selfridge’s fame, wants the land for his concrete plant. That doesn’t mean it’s right to murder him, but it means the murder and halt to that plan isn’t as day and night as it might otherwise be for the townsfolk.

The cast I saw was Michael Harding, Aidan McArdle, Ian Lloyd Anderson, Catherine Byrne, Geoff Minogue, Maria McDermottroe, Arthur Riordan, Fiona Bell, Stephen O’Leary, Mark O’Regan, Conor Delaney,Terry Byrne, and Seamus O’Rourke.

The biggest personal victory in our first month was finding Fin a playschool for weekday mornings. Being a full-time mom is not my strength and my patience for playgroups and other parents was fully tested in the first 4 weeks. Happy mom = happy kid. Finlay loves his school and playing with new toys and things that are obviously for kids, which is to say that our lovely house doesn’t have a lot of kid-friendly furniture or play areas. We are working on it. In the meantime, we have 4 bliss-filled weeks at this playschool. Then hopefully we’ll be able to find some help over the summer and a regular spot for him somewhere in the fall. 

The tedious, bureaucratic task we completed was the GNIB registration, which is our immigration stuff. Next up we have to queue for our social service numbers. James got up one morning and queued at 7:30 am at the GNIB office to get our place in line to register. Then Finlay followed, arriving at 9:00 and waiting to go through the processing which happened around 9:30. Then we took a short break while waiting for the next step, which was fingerprinting, and then we waited in another line to get our actual cards. All in, it was a 7:30-12:30 task. The GNIB card lets us come and go over the next year, then we have to renew. Joy.

Taking a break from the overly hot GNIB office.

Other logistics that were possible once we had a permanent address were getting our joint bank account and my library card. Hooray for the library!

Overall Dublin is a nice, walkable city. There are tons of parks and green spaces. That is a pleasant surprise because I was told to expect fewer parks than Vancouver. In fact we have more options here than we did in Vancouver. Also I have found a ton of storytime options at the libraries, swimming times and other activities. The hard part is getting the childminding underway so that James and I can do adult things like going to the gym or finding other activities where we can meet other adults.

And the weather.

As Finlay says, “it’s a lovely day.”

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Book Review: The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg

79-year-old Martha Andersson dreams of escaping her care home and robbing a bank.

Well I was worried about taking this book cover through customs but Martha Andersson’s luck was on my side. This old bird is a spring chicken when it comes to planning the perfect crime. Martha and her cronies are fed up with budget cuts in their retirement home that have led to reductions in the amount of coffee they can have per day and the elimination of biscuits with their tea. It’s simply outrageous and, what is even more insulting, the prisons in Sweden look like luxury accommodation in comparison. Something must be done.

When the old foggies can’t get improvements at home, they form the League of Pensioners and rob an art gallery. It’s the perfect crime. Even the police and newspapers make that claim. But what these seniors want is time in prison so they turn themselves in and figure out a way to keep the ransom money, return the paintings and be the Robin Hoods of their day.

If you liked The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson or The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce then you’ll enjoy this funny heist.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Things to Do with a Toddler in Vancouver

Visiting Vancouver with a toddler or just trying to figure out what to do with your day? Here’s the weekly itinerary my little guy enjoyed from 15 months to 2 years.


8-9:30 Get some coffee! Try the JJ Bean on Granville Island or grab some breakfast snacks or grilled cheese sandwich in the market and watch the pigeons outside or walkaround inside. Usually first thing in the morning is pretty quiet during the winter months. We also like to play at the kids park near the Kids Market on Granville Island or watch the ducks.

9:30-12:30 Granville Island Playgym (or Mini Gym) at the Falsecreek Community Centre is especially great for rainy day toddler activities.

Parent and Tot Gym at Granville Island
Mon, Wed, Fri, Sun 9:30am–12:30pm
False Creek Community Centre (Google map)
1318 Cartwright Street (enter Granville Island and turn right at the Kids Market, continue along the road to the Community Centre).
$1 drop in
Ages 0-5
Includes play toys, riding toys, balls, bouncy castle

For up-to-date info: Search vancouver.ca False Creek Recreation Programs

Lunch and Nap on Granville Island and then play at the waterslide in the afternoon or walk along the seawall to either west to Kitsilano Beach Park or east to Charleson Park

Need dinner in Kits? The Boathouse usually has space for kids or the food stand offers beach fare like burgers and hot dogs. Up Arbutus St. is The Nook, which isn’t great for dining with kids but does do take out. The Sunset Grill can usually accommodate little ones. Along 4th Ave is Sushi Bella or Indian Oven. And of course on 1st at Cypress St. is the mecca for kids dining, Rocky Mountain Flatbread. Nut-free. Delicious. Craft beers on tap. Play kitchen for the kids.

Panne from Heaven or the Epicurean have quick take away options. And the little corner store at 1st and Cypress is surprisingly good for produce, meats, sweets and treats.


Westside Family Place is a great option Monday to Thursday mornings or you can venture further afield.

Westside Family Place Drop-In $2
2819 West 11th Ave @ Macdonald St
The drop-in times may vary: http://www.westsidefamilyplace.com/drop-in/

“Play and Learn” Drop-In Hours:
Morning Drop-In: Monday to Thursday: 9:30am to 12pm (Circle Time 11:30am)
Afternoon Drop-In: Wednesday: 1pm to 4:30pm (Circle Time 2:30pm – subject to change)

The 1st visit is free and thereafter the drop-in fee is $2 per family per visit with an annual membership. Pre-paid Drop-In tickets can be purchased in bulk.

There is also Eastside Family Place and South Vancouver Family Place, depending on your location.

If you’re visiting Vancouver, I recommend renting a bike with a toddler seat at one of the shops just outside Stanley Park (at Denman & Georgia). Then you can cycle through the park, stop at the Vancouver Aquarium, and then carry on along the seawall to Second Beach or Third Beach where there are great play structures, in addition to beach access and an outdoor community pool.

If you head to Vancouver Aquarium, then behind is a massive park and play structure. It’s mostly for Ages 5+ up but a toddler would still find some access to the play spaces.

The Vancouver Aquarium is also good for kids 5 and up but little ones can still have fun. It’s a bit of an expensive outing if your toddler doesn’t have a long attention span.
Opening Hours are 10 am to 5 pm
Booking tickets to the Vancouver Aquarium online will save you a bit of money.
$29 adults, $15 kids 4-12, free under 4

During winter hours, the quietest times to visit are on weekdays or prior to 12 p.m. or after 2 p.m. During summer hours, the quietest times to visit are prior to 11 a.m. or after 4 p.m.

Check the showtimes when you enter and go to see the shows first, then wander around. if you time it right then you can watch the show above ground first and see it from below while wandering through the exhibits.

Bring snacks.

Once you’re done at the Aquarium, venture over to the Stanley Park miniature train. There are usually activities or seasonal events as well (Easter, Halloween, Christmas)

Easter Train at Stanley Park

An alternative outing is a visit to Science World in the morning and then visit the Family Play Gym at Creekside Community Centre in the afternoon. It’s open 1:30 to 5:30 pm on Tuesdays (Check the schedule. Link below.)

Science World
$22.50 per adult, $15.25 kids ages 3-12
kids under 3 free
Open 10-5 on weekdays and 10-6 on weekends and holidays
It’s actually fun for 15 months and up. There are lights and buttons to push and the space is very kid friendly.

Creekside drop-in, open gym schedule
Family Play Gym
Monday 9:30-11:30
Tues 1:30-5:30
Wed 9:30-12:30
Thur 1:30-3:30
Fri 9:30-12:30


The middle of the week was never my time to experiment so we basically stuck to Family Place in the morning and afternoon. You have to pay the drop-in fee twice to attend both sessions but it’s worth it on rainy days. Otherwise, I recommend a visit to Family Place in the morning and then the Kitsilano Branch Library in the afternoon, or Kidsbooks. Both are ideal locations if baby is sleeping and you have to get out of the rain.

Kidsbooks on Broadway
9:30 to 6 most days. Location and hours: https://www.kidsbooks.ca/locations.htm
Kidsbooks on Broadway
3083 West Broadway
Ph: 604-738-5335

If you’re in the neighbourhood then Almond Park at Alma and West 12th Ave is great and often there are lots of abandoned toys to play with here.

Every other Wednesday at 11:30 am (doors at 11am) is Movies for Mommies at the Dunbar Theatre. Awesome popcorn.
Location and What’s Playing: http://www.moviesformommies.com/locationsweeklyscreenings
4555 Dunbar St

The volume is turned down during these film screenings, there are change tables and an area to park a stroller. It’s ok if baby cries and for the most part people are very forgiving of talking toddlers.


Thursday is swimming day. We enjoyed Aquaventures swimming lessons but if you’re just looking for some one-off pool time then Hillcrest is the place to go.

Hillcrest Pool public swim is 6 to 9:45 am. Enjoy the lazy river and pool toys for kids.

We were also super lucky to have some great friends in the neighbourhood so Thursday afternoon was playtime at the Kitsilano Dog Beach, behind the Maritime Museum. If it was windy then playing at the Museum of Vancouver was also a fun time, and more sheltered.

Maritime Museum on Thursday nights 5-8 pm is admission by donation.
You can board the St Roche and view the other exhibits. The ship, of course, is the highlight. Adult admission is otherwise $11 so if you’re only going to wander around the ship quickly with a toddler then Thursday night is a good opportunity to do that at a donation rate.

And again, Thursday night pizza party at Rocky Mountain Flatbread is a recommended treat.


Best to cool your heels at the end of the week with the Playgym at Granville Island. Maybe ride the False Creek Ferries for a few stops. Beware that the rainbow boats are a different company than the blue boats. My vote is for blue because one of our friends drives the boat. 


If it’s summer time then try the Farmer’s Market at Trout Lake. There is a playstructure there, lots of picnic spots and a little sandy beach. Although swimming is hit and miss because of duck and goose poop. Jericho Beach is a better spot for toddler swims, and there’s the Jericho Sailing Centre upstairs in the club where you can get ice cream, salmon burgers, nachos, beer and other goodies. It’s open to the public and a great patio spot.


Park near Jericho at Alma and Cornwall


Playgym. Granville Island. Otherwise relax. If you’re a foodie then the Kitsilano Farmer’s Market at the Kitsilano Community Centre is a good spot to wander. There’s an enclosed playstructure that is fun for all ages and a small water park.

Other Parks

Wobbler to Toddler Parks


  • Tatlow Park off Macdonald has two play structures and the small one is perfect for wobblers. Also there is a large grassy area and little paths with bridges over the creek so there’s lots to look at too. And there are tennis courts here, which are great for kids learning to ride bikes. Although you can’t ride if there are tennis players.
  • McBride Park at Waterloo also has a playstructure that is ok for wobbler to toddler.
  • George Wainborn Park in False Creek, just opposite Granville Island (almost directly across from the cement plant), has a tiny park that is just up from the waterfront walkway. It’s small but perfect for littles who’ve just started walking.
  • Second Beach and Third Beach have some great playgrounds and also beach or grass areas for picnics.
  • Richards & Davie Street downtown has a nice little park area with lots of playstructures for kids, and some water features.

Adventures & Activities

  • Maplewood Farm in North Vancouver is open 10-4 year-round and has animals and fun things for kids. http://maplewoodfarm.bc.ca/
  • Check out the Vancouver Public Library site for the Central Branch storytime. And the Kitsilano Library Branch does “Man in the Moon”, which is a storytime for babies and their dads: Saturdays at 10.15 am
  • Kitsilano Pool has a good, gradual decline entry which is great for toddlers. The Maple Grove pool is suppose to be even better. http://www.kerrisdalecc.com/maple-grove-outdoor-pool.htm

Other Events & Classes

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Book Review: Barker by Wayne Tefs


Harlan runs away with the circus, becomes a barker (the guy who calls in the crowds) and eventually ends up in bed with the knife-throwers’ wife. You can imagine where it goes from there. Harlan is one of those guys who is always on the run. He runs away to the circus. He runs away from the circus. He runs away to the army. He runs and runs but he can’t run away from the voices in his head.

This depression-era saga follows our man Harlan from prairie homestead with an SOB dad to the traveling circus and into the army. He’s almost fodder in the Pacific theatre but the war dries up and he finds himself in real estate. “I coulda been a contender,” comes to mind. Funny enough Harlan finds his way in the most unusual way.

This is the last book by Wayne Tefs, award-winning author of nine novels, a collection of short stories and two memoirs. I have always enjoyed his writing and he is one of the prairies noteworthy authors. I felt very sad reading this book and also very pleased to have a personal connection to him.

Barker by Wayne Tefs (published by Turnstone)

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Book Review: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green


A heart-breaking, yet uplifting, book about two teens who fall in love after meeting at a Cancer Kid Support Group. Maybe you’ve seen the movie or read the hype about this book, either way, it’s all the wonderful things said and none of the bad. Hazel’s cancer is stable but she has never been anything but terminal. The wait is on. A fellow support-group kid named Isaac is her companion when it comes to sighing and eye rolling during the support group sessions and one day Isaac brings his friend Augustus to the group. Augustus is missing a leg due to his cancer but is in all respects a heartthrob. Former basketball star, instant charmer and class clown, Augustus has it all and only eyes for Hazel from day 1. Admittedly he is staring because Hazel reminds him of an ex-girlfriend, or rather of a former girlfriend who passed away from her cancer.

It’s love in the cancer ward and, although author John Green has made up many of the medical aspects, he seems so spot on with teen malaise and irony that you might think he is still a teenager himself.  I found this book more funny than sad and it’s definitely raw as well as raucous. There are lots of big questions in this book and the story acts as a pleasant philosophical examination of living, loving and taking risks.

Amazon.ca: The Fault in Our Stars ,by Green, John ( 2013 ) Paperback

Monday, April 06, 2015

Book Review: The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy

imageA quaint love story, or rather unrequited love story. Rachel Joyce’s first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, is the story of a saintly pensioner who walks, in yachting shoes, across England to say goodbye to a friend from long ago who is in a hospice. This is the other side of the story. Miss Queenie Hennessy is the friend who is waiting for Harold Fry, and while she waits, she writes out her confession and goodbye to Harold.

And I mean, really, the woman is dying. You’d think the man could get on a train or bus. But no, he is walking and she is waiting. The time gives them space to build themselves up for the visit, I suppose.

Anyway this companion book, since it’s not really a sequel, is about the burden of guilt Queenie has been carrying since leaving Kingsbridge 20 years ago. The novel is her letter to Harold about her recollections of first seeing him, dancing to himself under falling snow, and then meeting in the canteen at the brewery. She mentions, often, that Harold always remarks to everyone that they first met in the stationery cupboard. Miss Queenie Hennessy, however, was balling her eyes out so perhaps she’d rather remember it as the canteen. No matter. The “where” is the least of her deathbed worries.

Instead it’s that she met, danced with, and became friends with Harold’s son and never said a word about it to Harold. More than that, Harold’s son David stole money from her, along with her love poems and egg whisk. The egg whisk being the most irritating item to go astray. She lent David books, let him sleep on her couch, gave him money and offered up friendly advice about staying in touch with his parents. But David was as troubled as he was troubling.

Despite Queenie’s efforts to befriend him, David lied to her, mocked her, and eventually disappeared. His sudden death put Queenie on the spot. She couldn’t confess. She couldn’t tell Harold about her involvement with David because she feared the betrayal would be too great. She ran away then, but now she’s determined to say the things she wished she’d said then.

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy is her declaration of love and her confession. If Harold Fry’s pace is slow, Rachel Joyce’s writing just clips along at a good measure, which makes this 300-pager feel like a zippy read.

imageThe Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize and longlisted for the Man Book Prize. Read them both, why not.

See Books by Rachel Joyce on Amazon.ca

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Book Review: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton


The Miniaturist: “There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed…” When the newly married Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam on a brisk autumn day in 1686 she is expecting to be warmly embraced into her husband’s household. Johannes Brandt is a wealthy merchant trader who is well respected, and Amsterdam is a glittery new start for Nella who comes from the country with a suitcase and her ancient, respected Oortman name. She soon discovers that her family name is likely the only reason she is there. Johannes’ sister Marin is a younger version of Downton Abbey‘s Dowager Countess, and she certainly runs the household, not a role Nella the new wife is going to assume.

Johannes is kind, but mostly away travellling, and his affections, when home are showered on his dogs, not Nella. The one gift he presents to her is a cabinet-sized replica of their home. Nella finds a miniaturist to furnish the rooms but, as cryptic package after package arrives, Nella’s wonderment shifts to eerie suspension. The miniatures of the household are exact replicas of the furniture and family members, and they are lovely at first. But then unrequested items like a small cradle arrive. It’s like the miniaturist knows the family’s deepest desires and secrets.

When Johannes’ favourite dog is killed and a long-time servant disappears, the artistry seems to turn to witchcraft. Nella is left wondering if the packages are benign predictions of the future or warnings of things to come. The whole experience is all the more alarming given that Nella is living in Amsterdam at a repressively pious time: puppets are banned, and even man-shaped gingerbread is forbidden. But false idols end up being the least of her concerns when Johannes is betrayed by a friend and arrested.

The Miniaturist is a beautifully written fairy tale with all the witchcraft and sugar plums you could possibly want. It’s beguiling. Fans of the Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern will enjoy this story. I think readers of historical fiction, Sarah Waters or Markus Zusak (The Book Thief) will like it too.

Or check out what readers say on Goodreads

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Book Review: A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett

This shocking and disturbing account of a journalist’s capture and torture in Somalia in 2008 was one of the most celebrated books of 2013, making the Globe 100 and hitting all the notable lists. A House in the Sky reads like a novel, which allows the reader to step away from the narrative a little bit and pretend that this is a fictionalization (you need this survival technique to make it through the book). The strength of the harrowing adventure is in the authors’ ability to slam the reader back into reality at just the right moment.

Here’s the general rundown: Amanda Lindhout grows up in Red Deer, moves to Calgary, works as a cocktail waitress and raises enough money to travel the world. She’s got the travel bug and moves quickly beyond the minor inconveniences of the backpacker lifestyle and into the major challenges of being a fledgling journalist in Iraq then Somalia. Her solo travels across Sudan, Syria and Pakistan do not prepare her for the full-blown war in Somalia or for the captivating power Osama Bin Laden will have on Somali militant groups. She’s not safe the second she lands and by day four she has been abducted along with a photojournalist from Australia. The two are held captive for 15 months, and Amanda is starved, raped, beaten and tortured. Initially the violence is moderate, a way to show who’s boss, but as the months drag on and the families refuse to pay the ransom demands, life gets much, much harder.

The journey is unimaginable. Amanda’s fortitude is amazing. And I never, ever want to read this kind of story again and think “well, they chose to go there.” The bigger question is “why the hell do people do this to each other?” The answer is money. And that is a very sad answer.

Amanda’s story is certainly about personal mistakes and wrong turns but it’s also a reminder that the stories we hear on the news about journalists who are captured, tortured and sometimes beheaded on camera are just one small fraction of the madness going on. There is a deeper story about survival and sacrifice, both for the captors and the captives.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Book Review: The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson

A hilarious novel about a South African woman who knows too much, twin brothers (one of whom knows too little) and the foibles of the sanitation department, nuclear weapons programs, the Mossad, the Chinese, and the Swedish royal family. Think Airplane meets National Lampoon meets The Butler.

The Girl Who Saved The King Of Sweden: A Novel by Jonas Jonasson was a delightful read over the holidays. It’s ridiculous in a believable way.

Book description: On June 14th, 2007, the King and Prime Minister of Sweden went missing from a gala banquet at the Royal Castle. Later it was said that both had fallen ill: the truth is different. The real story starts much earlier, in 1961, with the birth of Nombeko Mayeki in a shack in Soweto. Nombeko was fated to grow up fast and die early in her poverty-stricken township. But Nombeko takes a different path. She finds work as a housecleaner and eventually makes her way up to the position of chief advisor, at the helm of one of the world’s most secret projects.

The highlights are that Nombeko is super smart and is in a shitty position (literally) as an assistant in the sanitation department in South Africa. The idiot managers can’t count and she has powerful math skills. Through a series of events involving self defence and a pair of scissors she learns to read. I can’t reveal too much! She inherits a jacket lining full of diamonds and accidentally gets run over. She is found at fault and is basically sold into servitude to a drunk who’s in charge of South Africa’s nuclear program. He can count but barely. His father has paid off the university to get his son the engineering degree that’s landed him in this position. Nombeko saves the day and her own skin by helping him develope six nuclear missiles in the 1980s, then voluntarily dismantle them in 1994. Unfortunately the counting part means there is a seventh missile that only a few people know about, including Nombeko and the Israeli secret service. She masterminds a plan to escape to Sweden but a misdirected package of antelope meat turns out to be the seventh missile, which she manages to safeguard in Sweden for over 20 years, with the help of twin brothers, one of whom has a vendetta against the King of Sweden and the other who doesn’t exist since his father never declared his birth to the state. Honestly it’s all terrifically unbelievable but the writing is fantastically funny.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

2 Cookbooks, 2 Novels

Four books that I loved and haven’t had a chance to review:

Pucker by Gwendolyn Richards
Canada’s Julia Child brings citrus fans a melody of recipes from breakfasts to mains, drinks to sweets. It’s is tart and tangy with recipes like Lemon Bourbon Sours, grilled grapefruit, Citrus-Braised Pork Shoulder Tacos, and Lime Sugar Cookies. Yum yum yum. 

Dirty Apron Cookbook by David Robertson
Fans of this Vancouver-based restaurant and cooking school will recognize many of the recipes in this amazing cookbook that features 80 of the school’s time-tested signature dishes. The pulled pork is delish and I barely managed to take photos of the dish before we gobbled it up.

Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald
Spend a week with this stressed out mom and all will look well in your world. Mary Rose, aka Mister, is home alone for the week with her two young kids while her wife travels for work. It’s a mix of family drama, swimming class, personal reflection, parenting of aging parents and general stress management. My comments on this title for the Vancouver Sun Book Club are here and there are 4 weeks of book club discussions plus our chat with author Ann-Marie MacDonald.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
A delightful, and sad tale, about two young people whose paths cross during WWII. Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. He create miniatures of their neighbourhood so that Marie-Laure, who is blind, is able to navigate her way around. He also makes small puzzles for her and in one is a gift that she cannot reveal to anyone. In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. The love of this radio and its mechanics draw Werner into Hitler’s service. As the two are drawn from their homes, their lives intersect in a really lovely yet tragic way. 

Book Review: Mr. Jones by Margaret Sweatman

Mr. Jones by Margaret Sweatman is a Canadian spy drama set in the 1950s and 60s when McCarthyism and paranoia was rampant, the Cold War was well underway, John Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson shared the political stage in Canada, and the CIA was reaching its long arms into every country. This is the story of Emmett Jones, war vet, Japanese expert and member of External Affairs, who suffers the indignation of being investigated by the RCMP and the FBI, repeatedly. The question for the reader is whether he’s a spy or just idealistic.

Emmett Jones is a Canadian born in Japan, who fought in WWII with Bomber Command, and was disillusioned by his involvement in the bombing of German citizens. Post-war he meets a young idealistic man named John Norfield whose Communist ideals are of interest to Emmett. Smart but directionless, Emmett appears to be “trying on Communism” but still questioning the merits propounded by the zealous supporters he encounters. Plus there’s a woman he’s hot for who is in the mix so his intentions are opaque.

Norfield disappears and Emmett gets the girl. Emmett has joined External Affairs to focus on Japan, and I’d love to say they live happily ever after but Emmett is recalled from his post in Japan, is accused of espionage and later investigated. 

As the book description says: “Evoking the classic works of le Carré and Greene, Sweatman’s novel is a shattering exploration of a past where world governments threaten annihilation while training housewives in the proper techniques for sweeping up radioactive dust.”
Sweatman’s setting for the novel is a fascinating part of Canadian history that is often under taught in schools in lieu of America’s more colourful involvement in the Korean War, Vietnam, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. But it’s also the early days of NORAD, the construction of the Berlin Wall and the arms race. Pearson’s involvement in the peace process is noteworthy and an interesting backdrop to the personal drama of Emmett Jones.

“Set in the 1950s and early 1960s, a period of rampant paranoia, Mr. Jones peels back the polite veneer of Canadian society to reveal a nation willing to sacrifice its own. A time of fear, a time of ‘peace’ at the onset of the nuclear age — it is the era of McCarthyism, when governments alleged there was a communist under every bed and a traitor in every friend.”

Is Emmett a spy or not? Is his wife? Is his bestfriend? Is the Japanese man who he befriended a spy? Will that man reveal the great secret they share? The wonderful thing is the tension Sweatman creates with the what ifs but also the layers of possibilities infused in the writing. Emmett Jones is a man with two lives. He has two families: a son in Japan born to his lover, and a daughter born in Canada to his wife. The birth of his son predates his marriage but remember this is the 1950s and things certainly would not have been easy for his son. Do his scruples in love reveal duplicities elsewhere in his life?

Mr. Jones is a fantastic piece of historical fiction, and a top-notch spy drama, set in Canada.

Buy it from Goose Lane Editions: http://www.gooselane.com/books.php?ean=9780864929143

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Guest Post: Many Paws Author Susan DeGarmo on “The Change”

Many Paws is a light-hearted, interactive pop-up book about menopause that readers can alter for themselves or to give as a gift to the wonderful women in their lives who might need a good laugh between hot flashes. Below is a guest post from altered book artist and author Susan DeGarmo.


When I was about 47 years old, I put some eggs on the stove to boil. I went downstairs to my office to grade papers and before I knew it, I heard explosions coming from my kitchen! I ran up and saw exploded boiled eggs sitting in a pan with no water. Exploding because I left them in there and totally forgot to take them out.

That year when I had my yearly check-up, I told my doctor I thought I was going crazy! I couldn’t remember the simplest things. I was starting to leak when I laughed, I sweated in bed, had hot flashes in the day, my eyesight was getting worse and my middle was spreading! She patted my hand and told me that I was going through the change. I couldn’t believe what she was saying! At 47 years old I started getting “old”. She handed me a paperback book that she said would help me understand what my body was doing.

That night I relaxed in the tub and picked up the book and began to read. The words were sweet and delicate. “You’re still a woman even though you can’t have babies anymore.”
I couldn’t take it! I tossed it in the trash.

My doctor wouldn’t give me anything to get rid of the symptoms. “It’s perfectly normal”, she said. So, every day became a new adventure with the symptoms of menopause. Thank God my family still loves me!

Since I couldn’t find a book that shared the in-your-face experiences of menopause and getting older with a bit of humor, I decided one day while teaching my altered book class at a local design college, I would make an altered book on the subject and it would be about my experience. Why did I come up with that idea? It was freezing cold outside, my head was beet red, sweat was dripping down my face and my students looked at me like I had a third eye! I just shrugged and pressed on.

I found an old book that had a by-line…the years of change. I took that book and altered it to create “ManyPaws, the Years of Change”. Each week I did a spread in the book.  Depending on what challenges I was going through, that is what I wrote about. We had a show-n-tell in the class every week to show off the work we did in our books. I showed mine to the students and there were lots of “yuck”, “my mom’s doing that”, and sometimes laughter. I wasn’t trying to appeal to them, just critiquing the pages.

At the end of the semester, we had an Altered Book Show. The students and myself would have our altered books on display for the faculty, staff , family and friends. Of course, my whole experience with menopause was there for the whole world to see. It wasn’t long before we heard laughter. Not only from the moms and older women of the college, but from their husbands! Oh no. I was totally embarrassed, but come to find out, they liked it! They started telling their stories and wanted a copy for themselves or to give to their girlfriends. So that’s how all of this started.

imageSusan DeGarmo is a truly creative spirit. Born and raised in Memphis Tennessee, Susan “was always makin’ something’ from nothin’,” according to her grandma. While teaching an altered book class at a local college, she had a hot flash and decided to create Many Paws.
Her book and greeting cards are available for sale on manypawsforwomen.com or Amazon.com