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Harcourt Books

Sunday, March 04, 2018

The Muse by Jessie Burton | Book Review


Description: Bestselling author Jessie Burton delivers! This novel weaves together two stories: one set in 1967 in London and the other in 1936 Spain, just before the Spanish civil war. Odelle Bastien is a new immigrant from the Caribbean and lands a job as a typist at the prestigious Skelton Institute of Art. Her boss Marjorie Quick is a bit like the boss in The Devil Wears Prada. Odelle’s boyfriend inherits a painting that is rumoured to be the work of a Spanish artist who thrilled the art market in the 1930s but then disappeared. The story running in parallel to Odelle’s is that of the painting’s creator. This is a great novel about women in art, and modern working women. Peggy Guggenheim makes a brief appearance as well.

Favourite Moment: The dialogue scenes between Odelle and her friend Cynth are really fun, but so is Odelle’s commentary and observations about her new country and workplace.

For nearly the whole of the first week the only person I spoke to was a girl called Pamela Rudge. Pamela was the receptionist, and she would always be there, reading the Express at her counter, elbows on teh wood, gum poppin gin her mouth before the big fellers showed and she threw it in the bin. With a hint of suffering, as if she’d been interrupted in a difficult activity, she would fold the newspaper like a piece of delicate lace and loop up at me. ‘Good morning, Adele,’ she’d say. Twenty-one years old, Pam Rudge was the latest in a long line of East-Enders, an immobile beehive lacquered to her head and enough black eyeliner to feed five pharaohs.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Book Review: The Group by Mary McCarthy

Mary McCarthy’s most celebrated novel follows the lives of eight Vassar graduates (Class of ‘33), known simply to their classmates as “the group.”


The tangled stories of eight different lives are united by the pivotal figure of Kay Strong—the first of the group to break from the traditions of society by getting married without parental guidance.

The social history presented here, pre-World War II, is equal in period quality to that presented in the tv show Mad Men (if not moreso).

The girls are all middle-class or upper-middle class, growing up during a revolutionary period in American life where women are forming an identity beyond their social class, beyond their parent’s social aspirations.

They work outside the home, they travel abroad alone, they philosophize, they use birth control, they buy this new thing called margarine.

All eight are in some way breaking with the past and forging a new status quo while at the same time falling into prescribed roles.

The language choice is striking and the novel’s structure of twists and turns reveals layers of insights into each character through the commentary and interior monologues of other characters. 

McCarthy’s novel was published in 1963, thirty years after the time described in the novel, but the picture she paints of the times seems complete as well as insightful. (I particularly enjoyed the incredibly rich word choice and complex sentence structure. This is a novel written in a different time and its structure is reflective of the times represented.)

It was plain to Polly that many of her married classmates were disappointed in their husbands and envied the girls, like Helena, who had not got married. In June the class would have its fifth reunion and already it had its first divorcees. These hares were discussed wistfully by the tortoises of the class. It was felt that they at least had ‘done something.’ Norine Blake’s divorce—she had gone to a ranch outside Reno and now called herself ‘Mrs. Schmittlapp Blake’—had earned her a place of renowned in alumnae affairs equal to that of Connie Storey, who had become a model for Bergdorf, or of Lily Marvin, who dressed windows for Elizabeth Arden, and outranking poor Binkie Barnes, who was working as CIO organizer, and Bubbles Purdy, who was studying to be a preacher.

“A witty, moving, instructive and wise novel—a gem of American social history as well as very good fiction.” —The Nation

I concur.

Monday, March 16, 2009

SXSW: No Think for Old Publishers

New Think for Old Publishers panel at SXSW drew a lot of frustration from the crowd of book lovers and supporters.

The official description of the session was:

This is not a discussion of whether ebooks are killing treebooks, or whether it’s possible to get cozy with an Amazon Kindle. It’s about how participatory culture and the online world interact with good olde book publishing.Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, Deborah Schultz, and fellow panelists will share with the audience a variety of perspectives on what’s going right and what’s going wrong in publishing, assess success of recent forays into marketing digitally, digital publishing, and what books and blogs have to gain from one another. Penguin Group (USA), which houses some 40 plus imprints and publishes an extremely broad variety of physical and digital products everything from William Gibson’s first ebook in the 90’s to Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food to Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels (the source for HBO’s True Blood) is deeply involved in exploring ways that old and new media might better collaborate. Audience members are invited to speak up about what they think book publishers could/should be doing to better provide relevant information and content to blogs, websites, and online communities. Come tell old media what you want and how you want it.

Clay Shirky ITP
John Fagan   Mktg Dir,  Penguin Group (USA)
Deborah Schultz   Founder/Chief Catalyst,  deborahschultz.com
Peter Miller   Dir of Publicity,  Bloomsbury USA
Ivan Held   Pres GP Putnam’s Sons,  Penguin Group (USA)

They certainly told publishers what they think. The summation was “you suck at this is the biggest way possible.”

I think it’s unfair to attack the folks on that panel but as representatives of the industry they do have to go back to their houses and understand that they need to convey, not that bloggers are an unruly bunch, but that publishers need to get off their asses and get involved with social media. Enough is enough.

BookSquare says
If you’re going to hold a session called “New Think for Old Publishers”, you gotta come with some new thinking. Either that or tell the audience that it’s a research session…and the audience is supposed to bring the new thinking. Good idea, needed better execution. Nobody read the panel description to mean “we want the audience to tell us what we’re doing wrong and how we can fix it”.


The publishing people on stage said, essentially, tell us what we’re doing wrong and how we can fix it. You have 300 people who give up an hour of their lives to hear the cool things the traditional publishing business is doing…and you can ask them to consult on your business?

Watch a video of the panel here.

Other links to conversation about this panel:
Medialoper has a fairly neutral assessment of what unfolded.

Twitter stream of comments on this panel #sxswbp

Monique’s summary
What went wrong is this:
* Publishers have not listened to the crowd for a long time.
* The crowd is restless.
* Publishers wring their hands about the web.
* The crowd offers options publishers don’t like.
* Publishers weep into their hands.
* The crowd wants to help and offers other suggestions.
* Publishers act like deer in headlights.
* The crowd plows down publishers and reinvents the industry without them.

What this panel really came down to is that the wisdom of the crowds is not being tapped. The crowd is now sick and tired of trying to help people who won’t help themselves.

Hold me to this: I’m going to organize a panel in Vancouver. We’re going to create a model for publishing and marketing books. We’re going to move forward as an industry. Leaders will be identified. Roles will be assigned. If you’re not open to totally change everything you’re doing, then you are not ready for this revolution. Don’t come.

Who’s in?


Peter Miller Glibness. “Do As I Say, Not As I Do: Tips from a panelist who barely survived” in Publishers Weekly.
Read the article.

Michael Tamblyn of BookNet Canada on 6 Things That Revolutionize Publishing

Friday, September 19, 2008

Book Review: Graceling by Kristin Cashore

imageHarcourt continues to publish some of my favourite children’s books. In fact I would happily read any of their teen and young adult titles, especially anything by Ursula K. LeGuin (who’s coming to the Vancouver writers’ festival) and Kristin Cashore.

Kristin Cashore is the author of Graceling, a fantastic first novel about a land of seven kingdoms where only a few people are born graced. A Grace is an extreme skill, i.e., Martha Stewart would be graced with domesticity, Usain Bolt graced with speed. Of course there are graces that are frowned upon: killing being one.

Katsa is a Lady in the Kingdom of Randa, and she is graced with killing. Which makes King Randa pleased. He can be a brute to his citizens and neighbours. Katsa must do his bidding. That is until Prince Po comes along. He is graced with fighting (or so it first appears) and he reveals to Katsa that her skill is really survival.

Graceling is a fantasy books in the same vein as Ursula K. LeGuin’s Gift trilogy. I recommend it for the fast pace, adventure and solid writing.

Graceling by Kristin Cashore is published by Harcourt Books.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Book Review: Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin

book review: Lavinia by Ursula K Le GuinLavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin is the story of the King’s daughter who Aeneas fights to claim in Vergil’s The Aeneid. I know this sounds heavy, but it’s not. Le Guin does a fantastic job of bringing a tertiary character to life.

Lavinia is about the war that takes place for Lavinia’s hand in marriage (which is really about the amount of land and goats the boy gets). Lavinia is a head-strong girl who grows up during the peaceful reign of her father and has to endure the trials and tribulations of suitors, her crazy mother who wants to marry her off to a cousin (ok in those days), and the war that takes place when a foreigner (Aeneas) arrives on the scene just after an oracle declares that Lavinia must be married to a foreigner. Despite seeing the guy once from a hilltop, Lavinia is super keen to follow orders. I think she’s looking for an escape from the cousin.

Trojan horses, Vergil’s The Aeneid, ancient Italy, prophecies and quick witted maidens: Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin offers a lot to like.

I give it a 4 out of 5. High entertainment value. The beginning was a little difficult to get into. I was having troubles figuring out who was narrating, Lavinian, Vergil? I’m sure the blame rests with me and not with Le Guin.

Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin, published by Harcourt Books.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Chronicle Book Reviews: Picture Books for Art Lovers

One of the great things about reviewing books is getting a chance to look at books that I wouldn’t normally choose for myself. For example, picture books. I have a small collection of picture books that I’ve bought because of the incredible artwork but these are not books I actively seek—unless I’m buying for my friends’ kids. (Ok, I secretly look at lots of picture books because I like illustration. I even hang out at “Make Things Night” with friends who are illustrators I just a hanger on.)

Raincoast Books recently sent me a couple of new Spring books from Chronicle Books that fall under the “beautiful artwork” category. They also have lovely stories.

Grandma Calls Me Beautiful: picture book from Chronicle BooksGrandma Calls Me Beautiful by Barbara M. Joosse and illustrated by Barbara Lavallee
Team Barbara is well known to me because they previously published a very popular series called Mama, Do You Love Me and Papa, Do You Love Me. These were simple story books about a parents unconditional love. Barbara Lavallee’s watercolour illustrations are spectacular. In this book the setting appears to be Hawaii. I love the way she depicts Hawaiians and Alaskans in her paintings.

Wave by Suzy Lee
No text in this book. It’s a great graphic story book about a little girl playing in the waves. This is a fun book. Simple, beautiful. Black, white, blue and fun all over. I wanted to play in the waves after looking at this book. If I’m not mistaken this is the same Suzy Lee who published a very cheeky book called The Black Bird.

Little Hoot by Amy Krouse Rosental and Jen Corace
Amy and Jen are the creators of Little Pea, one of my favourite picture books of all time. Little Pea is about a little pea whose parents force him to eat all his candy. It’s horrible: candy for breakfast, sweets at lunch, treats at dinner. Little Pea just wants his veggies. Little Hoot has a similar problem. He’s a little owl and his parents won’t let him go to bed early. Owls stay up late! And that’s that.

Only in Dreams: a Paul Frank Book by Parker Jacobs
Julius the Monkey is brought to life in the Paul Frank Books. I love this monkey. Who doesn’t love monkeys? The colours are bold! In this story Julius is off to dreamland. My favourite page is Julius paddling down a strawberry-milk river, near a frosted-cupcake village. I like this dream a lot.

Chronicle Books isn’t the only publisher with great picture books that take an irreverent approach to kids books. Harcourt Books has a fab book this season too.

Help Me, Mr. Mutt: Expert Answers for Dogs with People Problems by Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummel
“Are you always in the doghouse? Don’t yelp, get help! Write to Mr. Mutt, Canine Counselor ... Speedy replies guaranteed, complete with diagrams and tips. Help Me, Mr. Mutt is a hilarious collection of letters from dogs seeking advice. Totally brilliant.

Enter the Harcourt Books Contest for a chance to win a copy of Help Me, Mr. Mutt.

Janet and Susan has have an interview about writing the book. Get the inside scoop. Mr. Mutt is super cute. Find out if he or any of the other pups are based on Janet or Susan’s pets.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Book Review: I Have the Right to Destroy Myself by Young-Ha Kim

Young-Ha Kim has published four novels and numerous short stories. His latest novel is I Have the Right to Destroy Myself.

I’m not certain that we do have the right to destroy ourselves, but the narrator of Young-Ha Kim’s novel feels so.

I don’t encourage murder. I have no interest in one person killing another. I only want to draw out morbid desires, imprisoned deep in the unconscious.

The unnamed narrator is a bit of a contract killer, but the contract you take out is on yourself instead of on someone else. He wanders the city of Seoul, looking for the lonely. There he finds Judith and Mimi, both women who happen to become in some way involved with the same man, C.

In the Judith story, C and his brother K both fall for Judith. Judith uses them both and eventually leaves them both. In the Mimi story, Mimi is a performance artist who becomes involved with C, who is a video artist. As with Judith, C is unable to connect with Mimi and she too eventually leaves.

The subject matter of the novel is a tad sketchy, especially since it’s being recommended for older teen reading. I’m not sure that I’d want teens reading this type of novel and identifying with any of the characters. At the same time, the writing is highly dreamlike and cinematic. There’s a certain dark brilliance in the writing and how Young-Ha Kim has captured the tone of these listless characters.

I Have the Right to Destroy Myself is well worth reading, but I’d be careful recommending it to anyone lacking strong convictions. It’s not a glorified suicide book, but the intensity and aimlessness of the characters is alarming and the ease with which they seem to destroy themselves is unnerving.

The cover is gorgeous.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Book Review: A Crooked Kind of Perfect

Zoe Elias dreams of playing the piano.

The piano is a beautiful instrument. Elegant. Dignified.
With the piano, you could play Carnegie Hall.
People wear ball gowns and tuxedos to hear the piano.

Instead of buying her a piano, Zoe’s dad gets conned in by the Perfectone salesman and brings home an organ instead of a piano.

I play the organ.
A wood-grained, vinyl-seated, wheeze-bag organ.
The Perfectone D-60.

The organ isn’t Zoe’s only problem. Wheeler Diggs has started following her home from school. He’s become a fan of her dad’s baking. Mr. Elias, having troubles with the outside world, prefers to stay in the safety of his home, acquiring Living Room University certificates. So far he has 26 framed diplomas for courses such as “Roger, Wilco, Over and Cash! Learn to Fly Like the Pros” and “Rolling in Dough: Earn a Dolla’ Baking Challah”.

With dad and Wheeler in the kitchen baking cookies, Zoe is left alone to master the Perfectone D-60, in preparation for the Perform-O-Rama.

When you play piano, you don’t go to Perform-O-Ramas. You give recitals.
A recital is a dignified affair.
There are candelabras at a recital.
People site in velvet chairs and sip champagne and look over the program. There are always programs at a recital.
At a recital, you play Mozart and Beethoven and Strauss and Bach.
You do not play Hits of the Seventies.

Zoe is too funny for words, my words any way, Linda Urban has managed to perfect capture the sense of hilarity in all of her words.

A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban is perfect for readers 8-12, but I say Zoe’s perfect for anyone with a sense of humour and a recollection of the Perfectone organ. If you’re from the Prairies, you’ll know what I’m talking about for sure, boom-pa cha-ka, boom-pa cha-ka.

Zoe in A Crooked Kind of Perfect is the next Little Miss Sunshine.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Book Review: The Nature of Monsters by Clare Clark

Clare Clark is the author of two very fine novels, both of which deal with elements of the underground and unsavoury human behaviour. Her first novel The Great Stink is set in Victorian England, more specifically in the labyrinthine London sewer system. Hence the great stink. But Clare’s writing far from stinks, it is tight and interesting.

Yes, The Great Stink is a historical novel, but not one with a familiar setting. The Great Stink deals with a sewer engineer, William May, and the solstice his finds in cutting himself in the solitude of the sewers. That is until a murder is committed in the underground and he is implicated.

See what I mean? Underground and unsavoury.

Don’t be dismayed by the setting though, the details of the sewer structures, their repairs and the times of Victorian England are in perfect harmony with the strange and complex story of William May.

Not only do I highly recommend The Great Stink, I’m a fan of Clare’s latest novel, The Nature of Monsters.

In 1718, pregnant Eliza Tally is packed off to London. She is to work as a maid for apothecary Grayson Black, have the child or get rid of it, and do so while protecting the perception of her own virtue and the good name of the father of the child. What transpires instead is a tragic and twisted tale of scientific experimentation on mothers and unborn children. Eliza and a second maid, Mary, are psychologically tortured by the apothecary and his wife in hopes that they will bear monsters instead of healthy babies.

Eighteenth-century England is a time of deep interest in science, medicine and literature, but it is also a time of home remedies and superstitions. A pregnant woman caught in a fire can expect her child to be born with a red birthmark. If a hare runs across a pregnant woman’s path she can expect the child to be marked by the animal—perhaps it was a hare that created half-moon Mary.

Half-there or not, Mary charms Eliza, who discovers the apothecary’s goal and is driven to save Mary. It is too late for her own child.

Both novels are visceral. There is the putrid smell of the sewers in The Great Stink, the descriptions of cutting and the horrors of murder. In The Nature of Monsters it is the monsters of the novel—Grayson Black, his wife and the apothecary’s assistant, along with Eliza’s lover and her mother—who act as monsters. Betrayal and sacrifice for science are the elements of horror here.

Most horrifying to the reader are the descriptions of leeching, bleeding and opium use, which are counter to our modern-day understanding of medicine. We have 250 more years of discovery under our belt, and yet it is the many scientists of this time whose experiments inform today’s understanding of the mind and body. So it is the readers’ good fortune to have such an adept storyteller and historian weaving the tale of Eliza and Mary with the medical curiosities of the day.

I am a fan of Clare Clark. Both novels are great and I truly think readers of The Great Stink should seek out The Nature of Monsters and vice versa. My only caveat for newbies to Clare’s work is to be prepared for the world she transports you to, it is inevitably underground and unsavoury, in the best of ways.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Book Review: Third Class Superhero by Charles Yu

Third Class Superhero is the title story of this collection from Charles Yu, and it is by far my favourite.

Moisture Man receives a rejection letter.

Dear Applicant, not a good sign, the number of qualified candidates this year blah blah far exceeded the number of available blah.

Moisture Man has his good guy card, but he’s not even made it to third class superhero. Some of those he graduated with have climbed the ladder quickly and are already positioned to be first class superheroes.

It’s difficult to compete against the usual assortment of strong and beautiful superhero lads and lassies. The fireball shooters. The ice makers. The telepaths. The shapeshifters. Moisture Man is able to make two gallons of water from the moisture in the air and shoot it in a stream or a gentle mist. Or a ball. “Which is useful for water balloon fights, but not all that helpful when trying to stop Carnage and Mayhem from robbing a bank.”

Yu’s stories all full of anti-heroes, tragic figures and the absurd.

Disclaimer: Third Class Superhero is published by Harcourt and distributed by Raincoast in Canada so I have a vested interest in this book. But I can assure you that I’m not making up my enthusiasm for Yu.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Book Review of Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow

I just finished reading an advance copy of Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow. It is by Faiza Guene, a child of Algerian immigrants, who grew up in the public housing projects of Pantin, outside Paris. This is her first book and I believe she wrote it as a teenager, she’s now in university.

Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow was originally published in French and this is the translated version. There are a couple of references to North American TV that I hope are the author’s original references and not the translator’s attempt to Americanize it for a US audience. That aside, Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow is a brilliant insight into the teenage mind, the mind of a girl who is bullied because of her not-right, bargain sale clothes, her learning skills, and her poverty. This isn’t just the story of an immigrant experience in the Paris projects, it’s the story of growing up and the displaced teenage years. I particularly enjoyed the Paris references though. The current student protests and the riots last summer make a little more sense to me—the volatility, the insecurity, the pressure of those on the fringe.

Laila Lalami of MoorishGirl.com reviewed it and said, “moving and irreverent, sad and funny, full of rage and intelligence. Her voice is fresh, and her book a delight.”

Here’s an excerpted quote from Amazon.ca
He thought I’d forged my mom’s name on the slip. How stupid is that? On this thing Mom just made a kind of squiggly shape on the page. That jerk didn’t even think about what he was saying, didn’t even ask himself why her signature might be weird. He’s one of those people who think illiteracy is like AIDS. It only exists in Africa.
—from Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow

I really like the cover of this book, check it out on Amazon.ca.