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Vintage Canada

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Summer Reading Recommendations

Here are the last 3 books I devoured.


The Light of Amsterdam by David Park
A novel that often reads like interwoven short stories about misunderstandings and miscommunication. A December flight from Belfast to Amsterdam brings together the otherwise unconnected characters of this drama. We have a father and teenage son who are at odds, a single-mother and a spoiled daughter on her hen party (dippy girlfriends in tow), and an almost-retired couple who are losing touch with each other. The trip to Amsterdam changes them all for better or worst. Author David Park has written 7 books, including the hugely acclaimed The Truth Commissioner. I think Darren will like this novel. The book has a very European feel to it, complete with Irish slang and descriptions of Amsterdam’s nooks and crannies.

Opening lines:

The ink was black, the paper the same shade of blue as a bird’s egg he had found a week before. In their balanced elegance the capital G and B mirrored each other. Unlike most of the soccer signatures he collected which were largely indecipherable hieroglyphics — the bored scribbles of fleeing stars — this name was readable and perfectly formed.

The Light Of Amsterdam by David Park, published by Bloomsbury


The Demonologist by Andrew Pyper
A thrilling, and terrifying read, with lots of Milton’s Paradise Lost insights for the book nerds. A major departure for the bestselling author of Lost Girls, The Demonologist has the same literary prowess as Pyper’s other novels but is more like a literary version of Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code. Professor Ullman is a world-renowned expert in Milton’s Paradise Lost. He’s a scholar but not a believer, until he witnesses demonic acts with his own eyes, including the possession of his daughter. An advance copy crossed my desk in early 2013 but since I was pregnant at the time, I waited until now to dip into the shadows of this book. I recommend it for Kiley who said she was looking for page-turner summer read. This is Canadian, literary, and creepy-crawly.

Opening lines:

The rows of faces. Younger and younger each term. Of course, this is only me getting older among the freshmen who come and go, an illusion, like looking out the rear window of a car and seeing the landscape run away from you instead of you running from it.

The Demonologist: A Novel by Andrew Pyper, published by Simon & Schuster


The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Winner of the Man Booker Prize. Add this to the classic school-boy novel list. Four boys meet during their formative years at school. One boy standout. One boy dies. One boy, now grownup, tells the tale. Barnes’ novels are so smart that they make me feel smart. This is a bit of a snobby book and I loved it. In some ways it reminds me of Fifth Business by Robertson Davies in that the reader must beware of an unconsciously unreliable narrator. I’m afraid to recommend this one for fear of identifying the snobby readers among us, but you know who you are.

Opening lines:

I remember, in no particular order:
– a shiny inner wrist;
– steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it;
– gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house;
– a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torchbeams;
– another river, broad and grey, the direction of its flow disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface;
– bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door.
This last isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, published by Vintage Canada

Friday, August 12, 2011

Book Review: The Tiger by John Valliant

Amur tiger

There is no dispute that John Valliant is an excellent writer, and The Tiger is just another example. This nonfiction story is about a man-eating tiger on the prowl in Russia’s Far East. The main plot is about Yuri Trush, lead tracker, and his work to investigate the killing of Vladimir Markov by a tiger. It is a grizzly affair, and Markov is not the tiger’s last victim.

The background story is of Russia in the 1990s and 1980s, as well as some historical vignettes, that help readers understand Russia, the Far East, the culture of Russians in the Far East, and the poverty of this remote village and what has led many of its residents, including Markov, to become poachers and involved in the illegal trade of tigers with their Chinese neighbours across the border. 

The tiger-Markov story is by far the more interesting thread in the book, but the cultural and historical information help the reader gain perspective and a deeper understanding of the characters involved and their motivations. The story begins in December 1997, with Markov making an arduous trip through the heavy snow back to his cabin. Unbeknownst to him, and not detailed in the story until much later, a tiger is waiting for him, not just waiting, but has plotted his demise with a vengeance.

As readers learn through the tale, tigers are incredibly adaptive to their environment and highly intelligent. They have a memory, which makes them master hunters, and are able to operate in stealth mode, making themselves invisible until they pounce. The male amur tigers of this region (aka Siberian tigers) can grow to ten feet long, weighing more than five hundred pounds. They are the world’s largest cats and there’s only about 400 of them left in the wild.

Valliant has a couple lines that are imprinted on my mind. The amur tiger can leap across a residential street in a single bound. And tigers are some of the few animals whose roar is like the thundering of god. He paints an unforgettable portrait of the amur tigers, and his depiction of the native tribes who’ve worshipped tigers for centuries reinforces the tiger’s reputation as the “czar of the forest.”

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival is about a showdown between Markov and the tiger; the tiger and Yuri Trush who must destroy him, Trush and the poachers he is meant to stop in order to conserve the tiger population in this area, the poachers and the Russian government that has left them destitute, and tiger conservationists against the Chinese, whose appetite for the medicinal and spiritual uses of tiger parts is insatiable.

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival
by John Valliant
published by Viking Canada

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Book Review: Notwithstanding by Louis de Bernieres


This book is as charming as its cover! De Bernieres’ collection of short stories showcases the eccentrics of a fictional English village named Notwithstanding. It’s a wistful look at the village’s inhabitants, who, according to the afterword, are based on De Bernieres’ childhood neighbours in Surrey: “the belligerent spinsters, the naked generals, the fudge-makers, the people who talked to spiders.”

One of my favourite characters is the “hedging and ditching” man who is constantly reflecting on the objects he discovers in the muck of the ditches. “The generally credited rumour was that he was the wealthy scion of an aristocratic family, who hedged and ditched in order to escape the fathomless tedium of an idle life filled with scones and trivial conversations.” Eye roll. Of course. He couldn’t just be a hedging and ditching man.

Then there’s Mrs Mac, who talks to ghosts, and Peter, who catches the Girt Pike, and the auspicious encounters of the famous Notwithstanding wind quartet.

I’m a fan of short stories and these interconnected tales tell a charming and witty history of a handful of quaint villagers who are a curiosity to everyone but themselves.

Notwithstanding by Louis de Bernieres (author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin)
Published by Vintage

Monday, November 22, 2010

Book Review: Her Fearful Symmetry


Fans of The Time Traveler’s Wife will not be disappointed by Audrey Niffenegger’s latest novel Her Fearful Symmetry.

Julia and Valentine Poole are 20-year-old sisters who are mirror twins. They are identical but also mirror images of each other. Valentina’s organs are even in the wrong spots. The twins are the daughter of a twin and the story opens with them inheriting the aunt’s apartment in London.

The English aunt, Elspeth, has very specific instructions. The girls must live in the flat for 1 year before selling it and under no circumstances is their mother Edwina to enter the apartment. 

The flat borders the vast Highgate Cemetery, where Robert, Elspeth’s lover works. He also happens to live in the flat below theirs.

To say the least, without giving things away, this is a modern-day ghost story with twins. Smart, eerie and a nice page turner.

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
Published by Vintage Canada
Read an Excerpt

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

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Book Review: Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky was recommended to me in 2006 when the hardcover was released. The book was on all the major bestseller lists. It was picked up by countless bookclubs. It was a Heather’s Pick at Indigo. For these very reasons, I avoided reading it.

Books to me are not like movies. I don’t want to read what everyone else is reading. I do like bestsellers, but I like to read them before they become bestsellers. That’s why I love getting advance review copies from publishers. I like to determine before the book hits the market whether it’s great or not. Stuck up, I know.

But I also like to read books that are never going to make a bestseller list but should. The small, quiet books that find a place in the market because someone recognized their greatness.

Suite Francaise was one of those books that I missed reading at an early stage, and once it became big, I wanted to wait until the hype died down.

In many ways, I think Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky became such a hit because of the back story.

When I teach online book marketing, I always talk about publishers and booksellers being storytellers. We have to go beyond the book. The book itself is not the product we’re selling. We’re selling entertainment, education, storytelling.

Here’s the story.

Irene Nemirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903. In 1918, her family fled the Russian Revolution and ended up in France, where she later became a bestselling novelist. When Germans occupied France in 1940, Irene was in the precarious position of being Jewish and Russian. It did not matter that her children were born in France, that they were baptized as Catholic, that Irene had no sentiments towards her Jewish heritage or the Bolshevics. No matter. She was arrested on 13 July 1942, deported to Auschwitz and sent to the gas chamber.

What remained of Irene’s last novel was carried across France and eventually to North America by her two surviving daughters. What they thought was the personal diary of their mother ended up being the notations for a novel in 5 parts.

Irene intended for the novel to be composed much like a piece of music, hence the name Suite Francaise. She wanted the experience of reading about the occupation of France to be like music “when you sometimes hear the whole orchestra, sometimes just the violin.”

Irene was writing about the history of the world, in particular the relationship between charity and greed that befalls even the best of us in dire times. The 2 parts of the novel that exist portray the mass exodus of refugees from Paris. The mass invasion of France by the German army, and the tyranny that followed. That tyranny was, for the most part in the novel, amongst the French. The betrayals in the war that interest Irene are of the government to the people, the army officers to the soldiers, the greedy boss to the impoverished servant, the wealthy landowner to the tenant farmer, the mother-in-law to the daughter-in-law, the pious neighbour to the anti-German neighbour.

Suite Francaise is the beginnings of a masterpiece. It is unfinished. There are chapters that Irene, no doubt, would have continued to modify, and there are 3 sections missing. What makes it a masterpiece are the appendices that fill in the missing sections, that show the parallels in the novel to Irene’s life, and that give us an insight into Irene as a character in this great epic novel.

The appendices by far are what make this book feel whole.

I will likely read Suite Francaise again in a couple of years. It’s almost too much to think about after only one reading.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Book Review: The Good Husband of Zebra Drive

The Good Husband of Zebra Drive by Alexandre McCall Smith is book 8 in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.

This is a series I particularly love. The characters are incredibly charming, the adventures and mysteries are secondary to the human-behaviour stories being told, and at the end of a long day I can depend on Mma Ramotswe to give me a good laugh.

These are just fun, well-written books.

Often with a series there is the risk of the author running out of steam or of the plots losing their shine, not so with this series. Thank you Alexandre McCall Smith.