Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Moments ago, the CBC announced the nominees for this year's Canada Reads contest, and one of those books is Fruit, by Brian Francis! (I'm time traveling right now, by the way... I'm writing this in the past to you readers in the future, and setting the post to reveal itself after the CBC has unveiled the books.)

I was the acquisitions and developing editor on this book, and it's still one of my favourite books of all time. Brian was a dream to work on, and despite having to read the book 7 or 8 times, I laughed out loud every time I did. I adore this book, and I'm thrilled that this has happened for Brian.

How Canada Reads works is this: five people are chosen, and they nominate one book each. The books are unveiled to the general public on November 25 (today) and then Canadians have a little over three months to read the books. Then, the week of March 6, the five people who are championing the books will defend their books in daily debates, with one book being eliminated every day until a winner is chosen.

You can go to the Canada Reads blog daily and see podcasts, blogs, and hear audio of the authors reading from their books, and there's a chance to vote for your favourite. But the main thing is getting Canada to read these books. These are five fantastic books that have been chosen, but if you want to read a book that will not let you down, Fruit is it.

The book is about Peter Paddington, a 13-year-old overweight boy who is being let down by his body, and one day he swears his nipples, which have popped out like overripe cherries, are talking to him. They become his sense of doubt, whispering that the other kids will find out his secret, that he's hiding this "fruit" beneath his clothes that they're going to discover. Meanwhile, he tries to be a good kid, hanging out with his hilarious friend Daniela, who swears like a trucker, and doing his paper route while having naughty fantasies about one of his customers coming to the door wearing nothing but a red Speedo.

The inner life of Peter Paddington is at once hilarious, sad, and sweet, and I cannot recommend it enough. If you grew up in the 70s and 80s, the nostalgia will take you back to those times (Peter sits behind a girl who carves Adrian Zmed's name all over her binder). If you ever thought your body was less-than-perfect or other kids were making fun of you, you will be right there with Peter as he worries about what the others are thinking of him. If you've ever thought your family was destined for the loony bin, you'll sympathize with Peter dealing with his two older sisters, his worrying, nervous mother, his mostly absent father and his friendly Uncle Bernard.

So come on, Canada, it's time to read!! And what better way to start than with the best book of the bunch. (No bias here.) You can get the book here. Enjoy!!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Custodian of Paradise by Wayne Johnston

Not recommended... by Anne-Marie

Having read Colony of Unrequited Dreams a few years ago, I finally picked up this latest book with expectations of being transported to a part of Canada I still have not yet visited (but do have it on my list of place to go before I die). When I read Johnston’s previous book, I thoroughly enjoyed myself and felt better for having had the experience.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure I can say the same for Custodian. While still a good read, it’s certainly not going to be one that will be hanging out on my shelf for many years to come.

The book focused on the story of Sheilagh Fielding, a girl who always seems to be marching to her own drummer regardless of how it hurts the people around her. At the beginning of the book, Sheilagh is living with her father, the town doctor, who has been a shell of his former self since his wife ran off to New York when Sheilagh was only six. Day after day, year after year, he never misses an opportunity to tell his daughter he’s not even sure if he is indeed her biological father (a cruel joke the rest of the town seems to be in on), and he never seems to support or try to understand Sheilagh.

Not that she makes it easy. She has a big mouth, apparently matched only by her big stature – six foot three inches for most of her life. She’s cruel. She’s cold. She’s spiteful. And she never misses an opportunity to speak her mind.

She gets thrown out of school and takes up drinking.

Then she commits the worst sin of all. She becomes a journalist (and gets paid to speak her mind).

Throughout the entire book, Sheilagh never endears herself to one character that passes through her life. Having had to live as some kind of specimen on display whether because of the abandonment by her mother, the crooked leg she acquires following an illness, or her never –ending quest to tell things as she sees them regardless of who she might hurt in the process, Sheilagh never undergoes a miraculous transformation.

And as always with Johnston, his favourite character makes an appearance. While not much more than a character on the outer edges of the story, Joey Smallwood passes through Sheilagh’s life briefly to serve as her one connection to her life and points Sheilagh in the opposite direction to Smallwood just so she can continue to suffer and be miserable.

Her one true regret seems to be a teenage pregnancy, which is kept very quiet and handled very properly by Sheilagh’s mother and father – who are more interested in status than in the feelings of their daughter. While in some ways Sheilagh becomes colder in the face of a cold world, her occasional reflections on her pregnancy and what could have been show there might be a shred of decency in her somewhere.

Unfortunately, this becomes nothing more than a tantalizing morsel that could have perhaps become something. When I reached the end of the book, I felt empty.

But perhaps that was the point. To feel as empty and alone as the character herself. Because I can tell you that when I finished this book, I certainly didn’t feel better for the experience.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

A Thousand Splendid Suns

Recommended by Fionna

i want to recommend khaled hosseini's follow up (not a sequel) to the kite runner, a thousand splendid suns. i finished it this afternoon and i can't get it out of head. i'm notusually one to tear up in books or films, i can almost always distance myself in fiction, but this book had me in tears on the go train!

if you've read the kite runner, this is similar in nature: two characters born into very different families are tied together through circumstances beyond their control, and the novel examines the way their relationship evolves over a couple of decades. it's set inafghanistan, and the backdrop of terrorism and brutality plays a large part in the characters' fates. unlike the kite runner, however, the two main characters in a thousand splendid suns, laila and mariam, are female and thus their story takes on even darker and crueler twists. it would be easy to simply see them as victims of their circumstances,and in the hands of any other author, theirs would be a maudlin and depressing story, however hosseini colours laila and mariam with so many shades that while you do feel sorry for them, you also marvel at their spirit and their strength and, most of all, their courage.

mariam is the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy man with three wives, who has been secreted away with her mother (the maid) in a shack on the outskirts of town. her mother is mentally ill and very bitter towards her father (and mariam, too), whom mariam has built up into near-heroic proportions in her mind. when mariam goes off to visit herfather's house against her mother's wishes, it is the catalyst for a tragedy, the consequences of which change mariam's life forever.

laila is the only daughter in a middle-class family. her father adores her, while her mother ignores her, instead doting on her two elder brothers who have gone off to war. laila is secretly in love with tariq, her next-door neighbour. as the war takes its toll, laila findsherself in a desperate situation and makes a drastic decision that will affect herself and mariam for years to come. it is mariam, however, whose own decision ultimately frees one of them and dooms the other.a thousand splendid suns is a story of mothers and daughters, betrayal and sacrifice, oppression and freedom. it is a devastating read, but also beautifully written -- hosseini has a way of describing the simple delights of nature and the everyday, as well as the horrors of war and abuse, that creates a striking and jarring contrast. i cannot recommend it enough!

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Beethoven's Hair by Russell Martin

Recommended by Jen

This past summer I read Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, and despite some of it being a bit of a slog, I became very interested in popular science books. When I found this one, I bought it immediately, because it's a pop science book while also being a bit of a suspense thriller, and a great biography. Beethoven has always been my favourite composer. There's something about playing his music that just transports you somewhere else. The fiery passion of the Waldstein; the quiet beauty of the Moonlight; the glory of the Ode to Joy... there's no other music that makes me feel the way Beethoven's does. Yet his is a sad story as well. I've read a ton of biographies on him, because I'm fascinated by this man who was gruff, not exactly friendly to anyone in any way, mostly because he suffered from a plethora of ailments. The worst, of course, being his hearing. I remember seeing the film Immortal Beloved years ago, and while the movie was totally made up (the woman the movie claimed was his immortal beloved was not the actual one) there was something devastating about the scene where Gary Oldman, playing Beethoven, is so desperate to hear his own music that he lays his head on the piano while playing the Moonlight Sonata, hoping that the vibrations will allow him to hear it. In this book Martin tells the legendary story of Beethoven conducting the glorious 9th Symphony, and at the end the opera house completely erupts, with the audience shouting their praise, standing on chairs, throwing their programmes into the air, and bringing down the house... while up on the podium, his back to the audience, a completely deaf Beethoven quietly closes his music, and has no idea his symphony has had this effect on people, until someone finally runs out from the side of the stage and turns him so he can see the audience whooping it up. It's a moment that almost makes you cry.

This book has three threads of story that it follows: There's the story of Beethoven himself; the story of Hiller, the man who, when he was 15 years old, was brought in to see the corpse of Beethoven the day after he died, and was allowed to clip some of his hair as a keepsake, and how that lock of hair falls into several different hands over time; and the two men in the present who eventually buy it at Sotheby's and put it through forensic testing to once and for all find out what caused Beethoven's deafness and all of his ailments (among them: gout; edema that swelled up his feet and belly to enormous proportions; diarrhea and serious gastrointestinal ailments; migraine headaches; and many, many more). Over several years musicologists and scientists have speculated it could have been syphilis or any number of ailments. But what the scientists finally find out is surprising.

The writing in this book is superb; as Martin is telling the gripping story of this lock of hair changing hands, at one point ending up being involved in saving Jews from the Nazis during the Second World War, you're on the edge of your seat, following this legendary lock of hair as it goes from one person to another, and each new person discovering how important it is. Alternating chapters are on Beethoven himself, where he takes the information they find out in the present and tell the story through the new information. And the remaining chapters are about the two men who buy the lock of hair and how they decide to go forward with the testing, and the resistance they encounter along the way.

I thought this book was absolutely fascinating: if you love Beethoven's music, you'll love this book, and if you're just interested in the power of science allowing us to understand the life of someone who died in the early 19th century, this book is also one you'll like. I can't recommend it enough.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Winkie by Clifford Chase

Recommended by Jen

At the beginning of August, my husband, daughter, and I went up to cottage country for a week to hang out, read, swim, golf (you figure out who did what). I brought books. We stayed in two hotels. I left the books in the first one. D'oh. So we ended up in a little bookstore in Huntsville that had a great little selection, albeit it one with a clerk who had no social skills (my husband tried to engage her in a conversation about his own book, which they had featured as a highlighted title near the front, and she just stared at him, then said, "Did you write it? Huh." and went back to what she was doing, which was staring out the window). It was one of those great little independents where they'd gone through the thousands of books available and narrowed it to the ones they really liked.

And that's how I found Winkie. The premise? A teddy bear comes to life, is immediately labelled a terrorist, and is thrown into prison where he is tried as an insurgent and threat to the American way of life. It's a satire on the current war on terrorism and how anyone who looks a little different can become a suspect. It had a ton of reviews on the front and back and inside covers, all saying the same thing, "Hilarious!" The front cover was a blurb from Entertainment Weekly, one of the most trusted outlets for me, since they always seem to find quirky little books to recommend, and so far I haven't disagreed.

As you can see at the top, I recommend this book. However, not for the reasons those dozens of blurbs suggest. Maybe I'm too sensitive, or loved my teddy bears a little too much, but this book is not hilarious. The premise is definitely humorous, and there's a scene near the beginning where they are interrogating a woman about her involvement with Winkie, and because she's a lesbian they think they had some weird kinky sex thing going on (the authorities are convinced Winkie's a female because there's a single seam running through her crotch) and I laughed out loud at how preposterous this scene was, complete with the woman's eye-rolling and calm, "you are such idiots" demeanour, which was brilliant.

But the book is mostly Winkie's reminiscences in prison. He remembers the children who loved him and tossed him aside, being handed down from one generation to the next, the humiliation he'd endured, how he'd willed himself to life because he was conscious yet gathering dust on a shelf, the wonder he had when he finally did come to life, the death of someone close to him and how it made him feel, and his utter confusion and heartbreak at ending up in prison, with no one believing him. Does that sound hilarious to you? It certainly wasn't to me.

After the initial jarring sensation that this was definitely not a funny book, I enjoyed it a lot. It's a fantastic satire of the current political state worldwide (sadly, not just in the U.S.), and Winkie's memories of being loved, then not loved, are poignant and beautifully handled. Winkie tells his story in a quiet, sad manner, and it's a book unlike any I've ever read.

That said, maybe you'll find it hilarious. After all, I'm the same person who picks up my daughter's dolls every night and apologizes to them that she'd stuffed them in some inappropriate place during the day, so maybe I believe in these things a little too much to find them hilarious. ;) I would love to find out if the author felt the same way, since he actually enters the story as a traitor to Winkie's cause, or so Winkie believes.

You can buy online at Indigo, Amazon.ca, or Amazon.com.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Secret by Rhonda Byrne

Not recommended by Kulsum

The Secret is a horribly materialistic meditation on life. I have been reading it on the toilet. While it may contain some pearls of wisdom (like our body is an energy mass that we can use in a positive manner to effect positivity around us), it contains other long sections of utter tripe, like visualizing that you have money will make you get it. Er. . . there's something called "work"?

The ideas of effecting positivity by thinking positive and being proactive aren't new. Scores of self-help books are devoted to this matter. In fact, there's an entire sect of Buddhism devoted to this very ideal, and believe me, they do it better. Much of The Secret absorbs other people's ideas, rehashing them into a pastiche of anecdotes and dropped pearls of wisdom that read like cliches. It's hard for me to accept that Rhonda Byrne is the author of this work. To me, she is a washerwoman of words. She strung together a few paltry sentences of her own and hung them out like a line on which she pegged other people's ideas. Not a single original thought in this book comes from her own mind.

None of this to say that the book can't help people. It has some great ideas and techniques to handle stress, think positive, and reduce anxiety. However, the book operates on a tacky system of wish fulfillment and exploits the vulnerabilities (and stupidity) of magical thinkers, offering the most absurd promises of tangible riches and rewards for some deep breathing. All The Secret really has to offer, at the end of day, is one germ of truth: meditation. Meditation helps people focus. Focus helps us to go after our goals with a sense of greater purpose. Going after our goals helps us attain them. The end. It's no big secret.

The book is available online at Amazon.ca or Indigo.ca, or in the US at Amazon.com.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

(I posted this on my site already, but wanted to put it here as well because we're always talking about Harry in this group.)

NO SPOILERS (in this section):
I finished Book 7 a couple of days ago and really wanted time to let it sink in. The book is 600 pages long, and there’s just something about the Harry Potter books — they FLY. I read them so quickly, and yet I always feel like I’m not reading them quickly enough. I remember the climax of Prisoner of Azkaban, in the Shrieking Shack, where I was willing my eyes to move more quickly, wishing I knew how to skim (I don’t skim; I read very carefully and slowly, always have. It truly sucked when I was taking Victorian lit). By the time I got to the climax of this book, I had that same feeling.

The book has its slow moments; by page 450 I was starting to stress out that certain key things weren’t going to be resolved, but I was being silly. Just as I never lost faith in Joss Whedon even when Angel and Buffy weren’t quite going the way I wanted them to, I shouldn’t have lost faith in J.K. Rowling. The ending was spectacular. I always say writers have a horrible time of it when it comes to series — whether it’s books or TV — and they’ll never satisfy everyone when it comes to the end. But even though my bets were on it finishing completely differently, I loved it. She satisfied me.

Now, SPOILERS AHEAD. Please don’t read on if you haven’t finished the book.

What I LOVED about the book:
So many people speculated that Harry was going to die in Book 7, to the extent that psychologists were making LOTS of money selling their advice to anyone who would listen on how parents would be able to help their child deal with the grief. Stephen King and John Irving begged Rowling last year at a charity event NOT to kill Harry. Yet when I thought it through, it seemed like the only way it could end. Good can triumph, but sometimes major sacrifices have to be made. I thought anything less than Harry’s death would be a cop-out. And then… she didn’t kill him. He survives at the end of the book. And it worked. Yet Rowling still gave us the scene of what would have happened if Harry had died, for Voldemort hits him and he appears to die to all around him, even though he’s conscious and only pretending. We read about poor Hagrid picking him up and sobbing his giant tears all over him, carrying him back to Hogwarts. We see Voldemort proclaim victory, and feel the dread fall over everyone that not only is Harry dead, but the world has suddenly become a dark and awful place. All of the death that happens at the end of the book seems like a horrible waste to everyone, and they stand there, shocked at what has happened, losing faith by the second. In including this scene, it was like Rowling was saying, “See? This is why I couldn’t have killed him. It wouldn’t have worked.” Of course, in my vision, both of them died, but I was much happier having Harry live.

The huge battle scene at the end. It is EPIC. You can just imagine it on the movie screens, as the former members of Dumbledore’s Army show up in the Room of Requirement one by one, followed by the Order of the Phoenix. Then the battle raging on while Harry is trying to maintain his focus, with the portraits on the wall screaming their encouragement, McGonagall enchanting everything she can — including the desks — and screams and sparks from wands flying everywhere. The battle was amazing, and we can feel Harry’s dread as he realizes what he must do, and walks quietly away from this incredible war to his own inevitable death.

When I read Half-Blood Prince, there were two things I predicted for this book, and they both came true (so I don’t feel too badly about being wrong on the Harry dying thing). I believed that Harry MUST be the final Horcrux, and I believed that when Dumbledore said, “Snape, PLEASE” that he was begging him to kill him, and Snape did it against his will. By about halfway through the book, I began to lose hope on the latter, at least. But it all turned around in the end. Snape’s final act is to pull out his memories for Harry so he can see what really happened over the past several decades, showing how Snape was actually with the good guys all along, just as Dumbledore had been letting on. (It also seems clear now that the reason Dumbledore kept refusing to let Snape become the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher was that he knew Voldemort had levied a curse on the position so no one could hold it for more than a year, and he didn’t want to risk anything happening to Snape.) Snape was a good person, but he was also an angry and resentful person because he’d been bullied by the person most like Harry — Harry’s father, James. So his resentment of Harry and his bad treatment of him make sense, yet it also makes sense that we’ve been seeing him protect Harry all along, because for as much as he hated James, he loved Lily with all his heart. When the doe Patronus appeared in the snow, I was convinced it was Lily (if James was a stag, she must be the doe) and it was so perfect to discover the twist that it was actually Snape’s.

Neville being a hero. I’ve always loved Neville, especially since we found out in Goblet of Fire what had happened to his parents (one of the movie’s omissions that I thought was a terrible shame) and why he lives with his grandmother. Suddenly he went from being this bumbling bit of slapstick to a serious character who felt deep pain and had been through a fate that was probably worse than Harry’s. Neither one had parents they could actually talk to, but where the deaths of the Potters had been quick, the Longbottoms had suffered greatly. I LOVED that of all the people around, Harry tells Neville to destroy the last Horcrux. (Also the scene of him rushing through the halls carrying screeching mandrakes was pretty funny.)

Harry finally getting a hold of the stone, and his parents appearing. I cried. That scene was SO beautiful, with Sirius looking so young, his parents telling him how proud they are of him… it was SUCH an amazing scene and finally brought all the sadness of the previous six books to a different conclusion, I was very sad when they suddenly disappeared as Harry faced Voldemort. Why make these people go away when he needed them most? But I suppose Harry had his reasons.

Mrs. Weasley being the one to take out Bellatrix. WICKED. (Though I could have done without her calling her a bitch, as much as the moniker fits.) Loved that scene.

What I didn’t like about the book:
The loooooooooong section of them wandering aimlessly trying to remain unseen, Apparating and Disapparating and Ron and Hermione having a lover’s quarrel and Harry starving and moping and on and on. While I’ll admit my attention never wavered, it was in this section that I REALLY missed Hogwarts and all of the other people in the book. It was here I began to worry that Snape really was a horrible person who’d taken over Hogwarts and was being awful to the students in the name of Voldemort, that we’d never see Neville and Ginny again, that this was going to end in a forest and not on the school grounds. But then again, having been through that doubt, it made the ending all that much sweeter.

Dumbledore not telling Harry about most of the stuff and making him figure it out. Yes, it was character-building and blah blah blah, but come on, the fate of the wizarding world rests in Harry saving it, couldn’t Albus have given him a little bit of help?

Dudley showing remorse and Harry suddenly thinking he’s a good guy. Readers LOVE to hate Duddikins, so please let us continue to despise him. Don’t make it all lovey-dovey when it comes down to it. Saving him from the Dementors or no, it doesn’t make sense that Duddy would wait until the moment he’s saying goodbye to act all in love with Harry, when he’s had all summer to do it, even if it were in a subtle sort of way.

The quick deaths. I know that’s the reality of war, but we find out Lupin dies when he appears to Harry, and then there’s a line near the end where the narrator says that Harry was sad about Lupin and Tonks, and until then I don’t remember reading anywhere that Tonks was dead. (I could have missed it, though.) It felt a little too much like Anya’s death in “Chosen.” Quick, with no chance to mourn it, even though we were very close to these characters.

The Epilogue. It was vague and weak and all happy-happy-joy-joy look at how lovely we all turned out… yet it told us pretty much NOTHING. We don’t know where they all ended up working, we don’t really know anything about them at all. JKR has said she wanted it that way, but I would have preferred the book ending before it. Until then, it was gorgeous. It’s not nearly as bad, but reminiscent of that movie A.I., which was a perfect perfect film right up until Osment’s character goes underwater and stares at the Blue Fairy, and you imagine this little boy staring at her for eternity. The screen goes dark, and I was in tears thinking, “What an awesome ending.” And then… the movie comes back up and we have to suffer through another 40 minutes of robots and aliens and CRAZY stuff that completely ruined the movie. The epilogue didn’t ruin the book for me, not by a long shot, but it was just entirely unnecessary.

NOW… if the epilogue disappointed you as much as it did me, then check out this article, where JK Rowling talked to a bunch of kids on The Today Show and revealed what, in her mind, actually happened to the characters. It’s WAY more interesting than what she wrote in the epilogue, making you wonder, Geez, Lady, why didn’t you just write this stuff out in the epilogue instead? Luna and Neville possibly being together? Harry and Ron as Aurors?

So what did you think? Let's talk about it openly in the comments, so if you haven't read the book, don't read the comments. :)

I’m dying to hear what everyone else thought!