Monday, October 26, 2015

Kid Lit

A Collection of Books My Kids Are Reading

 Reading Together
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

A1: Age 8
Escape from the Overworld: An Unofficial Minecrafter's Adventure by Danica Davidson
 Mini-Souris: Reine Du Monde by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm

A2: Age 6
Pat le Chat: J'adore aller à l'école and Pat au Baseball by Eric Litwin

ABC of Toronto by Per-Henrik Gurth

Friday, October 23, 2015

"How to Be a Grown-Up" by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus

Rory McGovern has what many people would consider the perfect life.  Forty-something, she has a creative freelance job, two beautiful children, and is married to an actor.  She is in the prime of her life and loving it.

Until one day, her husband Blake returns home from auditioning, despairing over losing out on another part, and announces that he needs a break.  In other words, he’s leaving.  Just like that, Rory is a single mother in need of a job.  

When a colleague tells her of an opportunity at a digital media start-up, Rory jumps at it because she has no other options.  But this new job is a high-end lifestyle website - for kids.  Rory now has to spend her days sourcing furniture and home decor for toddlers.  On top of that, her bosses are girls barely out of childhood themselves.  Can Rory navigate this new, foreign world of millennials while holding her marriage and family together?

How to Be a Grown-up is the newest novel from Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, authors of the wildly successful The Nanny Diaries.  Funny and entertaining, this is a novel that will resonate with any woman trying to navigate the digital age.

I always enjoy the books that McLaughlin and Kraus write.  They’re not always stand-outs for me, but they are consistently enjoyable that whenever I see a new book from them, I pick it up.  However, I was hesitant at first about this book because it sounded a lot like The Knockoff by Lucy Sykes and Jo Piazza.  And while it definitely took a different path from it, I was comparing it to that book throughout the entire thing.  

This sort of story is always fun.  A main character that is starting life over again, in a world that is completely new to them.  And what better place for them to find their way than in the new digital age.  I love the way that this book pokes fun at this world, especially with the lifestyle site for kids and the kids (because that’s what they are) who run it.  This is where I felt the strength of the book was because it was so much fun to be a fly on the wall of this absurd workplace.

The book lacked for me in the parts of Rory’s personal life.  She just didn’t live up to the title for me, I never felt like she understood how a grown-up was to behave.  I had a hard time relating to her because I had a hard time believing she would put up with her husband and his antics.  

As I mentioned, it was hard to read this book without comparing it to The Knockoff and in that comparison I feel that this book didn’t come out on top.  It is still an enjoyable read in its own right and is a great book when you’re looking for something fun.  It just wasn’t as well-rounded as it could have been.

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher through NetGalley. The opinions expressed above are my own.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

"Between the World and Me" by Ta-Nehisi Coates

How does one live in a country that was built on the false notion that you as a person are less than others?  In a nation where the ruling powers have used the colour of your skin as an excuse to enslave, segregate, lock up, and murder?  How does one move forward with hope and optimism in a world that so often places little value on you?  

In Between the World and Me, writer and editor Ta-Nehisi Coates addresses these issues through a letter to his adolescent son.  A son who is growing up in a world that claims to be progressive, that claims to be past racial issues and yet everyday bombards us with images of Eric Garners, Freddie Grays, Trayvon Martins, Sandra Blands, Tamir Rices, Michael Browns, and so many more.  

From the streets of Baltimore in the 1980’s to Howard University in the 1990’s, Coates shares his story of growing up Black in America to help his son understand the world into which he was born.  As a young boy he quickly learned the ways of the world outside his door, one where what you say or which street you live on can be a matter of life or death.  As a young man at Howard University, he discovered a place populated by different faiths, cultures, beliefs, and experiences that was united in the same struggle he fought as a child.  

Now, as a father, he is passing along the lessons he learned about the history of his nation, the falsity of race, and the current crisis faced by Black Americans, to help not only his son navigate this world but every young Black man and woman.

This is a powerful book.  I’m not the intended the target for it but it says so much about a writer when his subject matter can transcend audiences and touch everyone who reads it.  It’s not a book that is going to tell people “this is the way we can go forward, this is what you can do to make things better.”  It is a book that will make you see that the values upon which America were built continue to harm and destroy a group of people.  It takes you inside the experience of a group of people who are in a struggle to live within their world.

And it could be easy to say that this is just one person’s experience.  Which it is and isn’t at the same time.  Yes, this is Coates’ story but whether you grow up on the South Side of Chicago or in a gated community in Florida, the colour of your skin determines your experience in this world and that is something no one can escape. 

It is often repeated that it is so difficult to believe that in 2015 we are still having conversations about race, about the plight of Black people in America.  But why is it so difficult? In a country that was built up through slavery, that segregated and denied people their basic human rights for so many centuries, where Black people are disproportionately incarcerated, why are we shocked that after a few decades of “change,” we still need to talk about race?

A must-read, no matter who you are.

Monday, October 19, 2015

"All Inclusive" by Farzana Doctor

Working at an all-inclusive resort sounds like a dream job for most people who live in countries where winter exists.  Who wouldn’t want to live and work in paradise? But with the endless paperwork, quotas to meet, and tourists who think that she is always on call it isn’t what Ameera, a Canadian working at a Mexican resort, would call paradise.

To get away from the hassles of her work, Ameera spends her time in the resorts swingers’ scene.  There are always couples on vacation looking for a single person to join them and Ameera fills that spot easily.  She is able to hook-up without having to worry about the person becoming attached or ever having to see the person again.  

But while Ameera thinks she is being discreet, someone knows exactly what she is up to and has anonymously informed her supervisor.  She needs to find out who is spreading the rumours about her before she loses her job.  Meanwhile, one of her encounters is with someone who can help her solve a mystery that has plagued her throughout her entire life - the identity of her father.  

All Inclusive, by Farzana Doctor, is a unique and moving novel that blends real life and the afterlife to tell an incredible story of love and loss.

This book blew me away.  Right from the start I found myself heavily invested in Ameera and the story of her father Azeez.  The book goes back and forth between their two perspectives, though the two do not intertwine until the end.  At first I wasn’t sure if I would like Azeez’s story running parallel to Ameera’s but by the end of the book I found myself wanting more of it.  I don’t want to spoil any of the novel for future readers so I won’t say how it all happens but it wasn’t what I was expecting and I was amazed at how well it worked.  

There is so much to admire about this book. Ameera is a character that is bisexual and involved in the swingers’ scene but there isn’t a big deal made out of it.  It’s who she is and we explore that side of her as she does.  There is no judgment in the book of her sexual choices and the book isn’t about her struggle with it.  This was very refreshing.  

The supporting cast of characters is also wonderful.  Doctor touches on a lot of issues in this book without going into them fully - transgender issues, being bi-racial for example - but you don’t feel as though they need to be delved into further.  They’re parts of the story but don’t need to be the whole story and that makes this book work because it’s not trying to do too much.  The focus is right where it should be and while one may wonder why it was included when it isn’t explored further, it is nice to see things added not as oddities but simply as how people are. 

Heart-breaking, moving, funny, and at times erotic, this novel that represents the amazing diversity of Canadian literature. A beautiful and powerful story.

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher through Netgalley. The opinions expressed above are my own.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

"Martin John" by Anakana Schofield

Martin John is the man you don’t want to be sitting next to on the subway.  He’s trying his best to keep his impulses under control.  But when you have the urges that Martin John has, can you really stop?

Martin John is not a good person.  His mind does not work the same way as other people.  This leads him to do things to other people.  He touches them.  His mother has tried to stop him but the only thing she could do was to send him far from home.  He’s sought help, he has his coping methods, but can it actually help?

Martin John, by Anakana Schofield, is a bold, brave, and disturbing novel that takes you inside the mind of a man every woman tries to avoid.  It is a footnote to Schofield's first novel, Malarky, with Martin John a character in that book, but it is not necessary to have read that book first.

One of the best words to describe this book is uncomfortable.  How can this subject matter not be?  Schofield takes you inside the mind of a man who is an abuser, whose urges compel him toward unwanted touching.  It can be a brush up against a woman on crowded transit or it can be lunging at a woman in an alley.  It is all disturbing.  And yet, it’s a book that you will call a good read, something that also makes the reader feel uncomfortable.

This book is so well-written, which is needed for this subject matter.  It is not written as a typical novel, it happens in pieces, jumping around through time and events, a novel that is broken the same way its character is. What I appreciate the most about the writing is that the book actually isn’t judgmental.  Nothing in the book screams “look at how horrible this man is, look at the horrible things he does, you must agree with how horrible he is.”  And yet, it doesn’t try to make excuses for him and it doesn’t try to make you feel sorry for him either.  It’s just an honest look inside the mind of a man who struggles with mental health issues, a man who is a sexual deviant.

Everything about this book is unique. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up given the subject matter had it not been long listed (now shortlisted) for the Giller Prize.  And it’s a hard book to recommend because you feel strange saying “it’s a fantastic book.”  The subject may be difficult for some. But it is so well-written that it is a must read and it is very deserving of its nomination this awards season. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

"Outline" by Rachel Cusk

Faye, a British writer, is spending a part of her summer in Athens teaching a writing course.  But it is the people she meets along the way that define her trip.  

There is something about Faye that people want to tell her their stories the moment she meets them.  It begins with the passenger sitting next to her on her flight.  He tells her of his childhood, failed marriages, and the boat he owns in Greece, which he offers to take her on.  And from there, she continues to meet people who tell her of their loves and loss, their hopes and dreams, their pasts and presents.  And though Faye is mostly the listener, her story slowly begins to emerge amongst the others.

Outline, by Rachel Cusk, is a collection of stories all told to the same person. It’s not a book that is plot-driven, but rather character-driven, told through conversations.

Upon beginning this book, I really didn’t think it would be a book for me.  I didn’t think I would care much for characters who just tell you their story, nor did I think that their stories would hold my interest.  Boy, was I wrong.  It’s a testament to Cusk’s writing that I was pulled into the book and quickly became invested in the characters even though they were people I would never care to meet in my own life.  In fact, if I were stuck next to them on a plane and had to listen to them, I would go crazy.  But here, it works.  Cusk is able to take you behind the words, behind the lives that the characters paint for themselves, and show you what is really going on.

Okay, yes, I did feel that there was a lot of pretension to this novel.  It’s one of those books that people are going to either love or hate.  Many people will sit and wonder just what is the point.  Many people will rave about its ability to capture our lives. But when you look at it from the standpoint of the teacher, Faye, who asks her students what they observed that day on their way to school, it makes a fantastic point.  What are we noticing of the world around us?  What is really happening around us?  Stories are everywhere, whether we realize it or not.  They’re there in the little things, in the monotony.  Everyone and everything has something to say.  At least, that’s what I took away from this book.

I thought the writing in this book was beautiful.  Cusk’s talent is something a lot of people would love to have.  Straight to the point, her ability to capture the surroundings of Greece using very little description was a highlight for me.  

As I mentioned, this is a book that people will either love or hate.  I can see why people love it and I can see why people hate it.  For me, it was an exercise in writing that I found myself caught up in.  For that, it was definitely worth the read.

Monday, October 12, 2015

"The Illegal" by Lawrence Hill

Keita Ali has been running all of his life.  Hailing from Zantoroland, an island in the Indian Ocean that produces some of the fastest runners in the world, he is a rising star in his homeland with the chance to travel the world competing in the biggest marathons.  But the political instability of his country makes it a dangerous place to live and after his father, a journalist, is killed, Keita knows that he must escape.  

While running a marathon in a neighbouring country, Keita goes into hiding.  He heads to AfricTown, a community in the wealthy Freedom State where many other refugees before him have sought shelter.  But the government of Freedom State is determined to deport the refugees, and will go to great, clandestine, and terrible
 lengths to do so.  And Keita isn’t just running for his own life anymore, he’s running to save the life of his sister who is in trouble back in Zantoroland.  He needs to win money from races to secure her freedom, all the while eluding the authorities.  

And it's not just Keita.  There are tens of thousands of people living illegally in Freedom State. Tens of thousands of people, running for their lives in various ways. 

The Illegal, by Lawrence Hill, is a timely novel about people fleeing their homeland and seeking refuge in a country that doesn’t want them.

All you have to say to me is “new Lawrence Hill novel" and I am all over it.  I have read both his fiction and non-fiction work and will continue to read anything he puts his name to.  While this book wasn’t what I had pictured in my mind, his work has once again exceeded all of my expectations.

Hill doesn’t just writes stories, he crafts them.  He is able to develop characters in extraordinary ways, giving them a backstory that is an incredible story in itself.  By creating fictional countries of Zantoroland and Freedom State for this book, he is able to weave this novel together in any manner he wants and the result of that is a story that crosses borders and captures hearts.  

This is not just the story of one person.  The supporting characters are rich, each with their own connection to the plight of refugees.  You have journalists, politicians, athletic coaches, teens, older people - everybody’s lives are touched by this, just as it is in real life.  Hill puts to the page the stories of people we really only think of in passing.

Given the situation our world is in right now, this is such an important novel.  The mass exodus of people from volatile situations is the most important issue we are facing right now and it’s on the minds of everyone (if it’s not, it should be.)  This is why I love reading - it puts you in the middle of a situation you may otherwise not experience, and it gives a human face to what you would otherwise know only through media.  This is something we need to be talking about and a book like this will help you to understand it.

If you’re reading this because you’re a fan of The Book of Negroes, know that it is a different kind of book.  But it is just as good.  Hill is brilliant at giving voices to those who can’t speak for themselves and opening our eyes to both our past and our present.  

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

September Birchbox Review

My second Birchbox! So far, I'm very impressed with this service.  I like the products I'm receiving and it's so much fun to open the box and be surprised by what is in there.

(I have a better camera, now I need to work on my photography skills)

100%Pure Organic Coffee Bean Caffeine Eye Cream
An instant pick-me-up that reduces the appearance of fine lines and dark circles.

I was very excited to try this out because I've been thinking it's time I start using an eye cream.  The smell of this one put me off a bit, it's a familiar smell and reminds me of a place but I can't quite put my finger on what that place is (obviously that's just a personal thing, but the smell is different.)  Am I noticing a major difference under the eyes? Nothing that I can say would make this a miracle cream but I definitely feel like it's working especially on the circles.

Briogeo Blossom & Bloom Volumizing Blow Dry Spray
This ginseng and biotin-infused spray stimulates follicles and encourages healthy growth.

I love product. The smell is absolutely amazing and it leaves my hair so soft and shiny.  Often products that say volumizing in the name don't really do much in that manner for my hair but this left my hair looking very healthy.

Cynthia Rowley Beauty Liquid Liner - Cobalt
From the fashion designer's makeup line: an ultra precise, smudge proof liner in a rich, cobalt blue.

Liquid eyeliner is something I have never tried because I've always assumed I don't have a steady enough hand to do it.  I still don't but I think with a little bit of practice I will be able to, and definitely with this one. I'm impressed with how well it goes on.  The colour is nice but it's a bright blue and definitely isn't an everyday liner for me, it will definitely be for really special occasions.  A different, more muted colour and I would use this product more often.

POP Beauty POP Portfolio Eyeshadow Trio - Sugar Plum
A trifecta of long-wearing, bendable eyeshadows in bold, pigmented purples.

I can't wear eyeshadow, something about the powder against my eyelid reacts and my eyes swell up.  So I gave this to my friend and she said that she really liked the colours and it goes on really well.  Her only hesitation is that it comes off easy, it can be removed only with water but this also means that it easily comes off during the day on its own.

TOCCA Crema de Mano
Loaded with natural oils, this grapefruit and cucumber lotion absorbs in a flash.

Absorbs in a flash is right. When I first put it on I thought it would be too greasy but that went away very quick and it feels very light. I have eczema on my hands and I have a hard time finding good lotions.  While this one doesn't cure it, it doesn't make it worse. This is a lotion I would definitely use when I don't have flare-ups.  And the smell is gorgeous.  

What I Would Buy: The 100% Pure Eye Cream, Briogeo Blow Dry Spray, and TOCCA Crema de Mano. 

What I  Wouldn't By But Look for Other Products From This Company: Cynthia Rowley Beauty and POP Beauty.

Monday, October 5, 2015

"Confidence" by Russell Smith

A landlord who cannot get rid of his loud and violent tenants, a man whose wife blogs about motherhood insulting him in the process, women at a bar desperately seeking husbands.  These are just a few of the “so-hip-it-hurts” characters in Russell Smith’s newest short story collection, Confidence.

I was instantly drawn into this collection and I quickly realized why. This segment of Toronto’s population - the overly-hip, upper middle class, young and privileged - is the one that people love to hate.  And Smith does a fantastic job at capturing exactly the reasons why we dislike them.  

My favourite stories:

Crazy - a man who is dealing with the aftermath of a wife who thinks he is cheating on her and has tried to commit suicide.  While she is in hospital awaiting her release, he heads to a massage parlour.

Gentrification - a man and woman rent out their basement apartment to two women who are often loud and violent.  They are trying to find a way to evict them, but at times he thinks he hears a baby amidst all the noise and can't bring himself to do it.

Raccoons - a man, whose wife writes a mom blog that isn’t exactly painting him in the best light, is searching through his raccoon infested garage for a box of old video tapes he desperately needs to give to someone else before his secret is exposed.

Every time I review a collection of short stories (which usually only happens at Giller Prize time, as it is now) I comment on how I do not read much of the genre and therefore don’t feel like I have much to comment on.  But I can say this about Confidence, this is the first time I’ve read a collection where I have truly felt a theme running through the stories and that really kept my interest.  

A satirical look at a part of the population who probably won’t get that this book is about them, this is a book that will have you both laughing and shaking your head at how ridiculous it all is.  And yet, the author never makes the reader feel as though they are above these people.  Rather, his eye for detail and sharp observations can actually make you feel pity for some of these characters while you give thanks you don’t have to live in that world.

Friday, October 2, 2015

"The Reason You Walk" by Wab Kinew

Sundancer, academic, musician, chief, activist, journalist.  In the public sphere, Wab Kinew carries many different titles.  In his private life, he also carries many titles, and one of those is son.  Born to an Anishinaabe father and a non-Native mother, he grew up on a reserve in Northern Ontario and in urban Winnipeg.  His father was a traditional chief, a respected leader engaged in politics at every level, and a residential schools survivor.  But to Wab, he was a man who found difficulties connecting with his children which put a lot of distance between them.

When his father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Wab decided to put his career on hold and spend a year reconnecting with his father.  As Wab learned about his father’s experiences at the residential school, his activism, and his role in reconciliation, they grew close. They confronted their pasts and together looked to the future.  

The Reason You Walk, by Wab Kinew, was born out of that year they spent together, but it is so much more than that.  The story of a father and son, residential school survivors, reconciliation, activism, this book brings readers of all walks of life a comprehensive understanding of the experiences of Aboriginal people in Canada.

My first introduction to Wab Kinew was through Canada Reads.  I came to know him as a journalist and media personality and was very impressed by him but I never knew his story.  So when I heard he was writing this book, I knew that I would have to read it as soon as it came out.  

Despite my studying history throughout the my school career, I always felt as though I had barely scratched the surface when it came to the history of Aboriginal people in Canada.  And I’m pretty ashamed by that.  I wanted to read this book because I wanted to get to know Wab but with it came more understanding of that history and culture than I ever thought I would get.  

I am amazed that Wab managed to fit so much material into a book of this size (less than 300 pages.)  He shares his own life - the stories of his childhood, cultural experiences, wife and children, education and career.  He shares his father’s life - his childhood, experiences at a residential school, relationships, determination, and traditions.  And he shares Aboriginal life - the history, struggles, pain, triumphs, activism, and future.  Page after page, this book teaches readers about their shared history, one that is filled with pain and shame but is not completely unredeemable.  Kinew’s hopes and dreams for his people are moving and inspiring.  I hope that this book will be read by all and that from it we won’t shy away from the conversations we need to have in our country.

I won a copy of this book from the publisher through a GoodReads giveaway. The opinions expressed above are my own.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Month In Review

September is always a great month to be a reader here in Canada.  Two of the big three literary prizes were announced and the Word on the Street book and magazine festival took place (click here for my post on the day.)  It's also a month where I tend not to read as much because I'm working on getting back into the routine of everyone being in school.  After a few months of not reading any Canadian books, now it's pretty much all I will be reading for the next two months and I'm loving that.

Here is what I read in September with my GoodReads ratings:

The Reason You Walk by Wab Kinew *****
The Mistake I Made by Paula Daly ****
Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis ****
If You Don't Know Me By Now by A.L. Michael ****


Diversity on the Shelf (2), Canadian Book Challenge (2)

What I'm Looking Forward to in October

Amazing CanLit.  I'm working my way through the Giller Longlist right now and I also have two more books on the Writers' Trust shortlist to read.  Plus, the Governor General's literary prize list will be announced this month.  So it's looking like it will be ALL CanLit this month.