Book Review: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Reading The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri was an experience. Whenever a book follows multiple generations of one family, it’s typically called a ‘saga’ because it explains to the reader that many years will pass within the pages of just one novel. For some, this may seem a bit daunting, and in the cases of some books, readers have good reason to be hesitant before diving into a saga as they are usually quite lengthy. The Lowland however, is a tightly-written saga, one that I never found myself growing bored with, even though it’s 400 pages long.

A lot of things happen in this book, and as many other reviews have pointed out, the foreshadowing is so deftly placed that it left me racing through the pages, dying to unlock the secrets that were referred to earlier. I’ll admit that the political background of the book went right over my head-I wasn’t familiar with the uprisings that it was referring to so I didn’t have existing knowledge to reference when it came to the the names of rebel groups, political figures, etc. However, any reader can relate to the environment and tone that these political situations can stir up, which is what made this narrative so powerful for me. index

Early in the book the one of two sons of the family is killed because of his political ties and this causes a ripple effect in all the character’s lives, continuing to cause pain for generations to come. Although you don’t have a lot of time to get to know the two brothers as a pair, you immediately sense their closeness when you introduced to them, so the loss of one brother is felt keenly by the reader, which further develops the complications of his death and makes it that much more believable.

The fragility and challenges of parenting is also another major topic in the novel; the brother’s parents shut down once their one son passes and effectively ignore their other son for the remainder of their lives, right up until their deaths. Surprisingly, the living son does not drag that resentment into his own parenting experiences once his daughter is born, he makes the effort to be a constant and supportive presence in her life, never once blaming his own parents for their shortcomings. Instead, he harbors the regular anxieties that new parents always fret over, which made me second guess my earlier assumptions about his character. This is just one example of  the depth in which Lahiri went to create her characters-they are all very unique and entirely believable, always keeping me guessing, which I really enjoyed. index1

This post has been unusually serious, but I really feel as though reading this book has forced me to look closely at why I really enjoyed reading it. It’s complicated yes, but worth the effort in slowing down and really taking in what was written on the page. Not surprisingly, this book was acclaimed by many different sources, and Lahiri herself won the Pulitzer Prize, so it’s no wonder I enjoyed reading The Lowland. In closing-clear some time in your schedule and sit down to read this book, you’ll thank me later!

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Literary Pun Names for Cats

BuzzFeed, you have done it again!!! You’ve taken two of my most favourite things-books and cats-and mashed them together to create a wonderful list of literary pun names for cats. Why is this important you may ask? I counter that question with another question-how is this NOT important?enhanced-3298-1405529451-8

I’m not sure if I’m focused on this inevitable connection between cats and books before in this blog, but I know I’ve mentioned it to my friends before, and I’m 100% sure I’ve mulled over it in my own head as well. This is a completely made up statistic, but I’m going to guess that 80% of book lovers are also cat lovers. At the very least,  I have the facebook friends to prove this.

Why is this such an obvious connection for people (largely woman, but some men)? Well, quite simply, and again these are my completely made up theories based on nothing but personal experience, I believe reading and interacting with your cat is something of a pastime,  I would even argue that doing one enhances the other, so it’s a natural connection for people to enjoy having a cat on their lap while they read a book. Other reasons that cats and books go so well together include:

  • Cat people and cats like sitting down. If we didn’t like settling into a reclining position, we would have dogs. It’s just as simple as that.
  • Cats are independent creatures, and so are readers. I’m not saying that all readers are shy people, because that certainly isn’t the case, but we do like being by ourselves for long periods of time, and we all know cats are the same way.
  • Cats don’t like being pet constantly. They like a few rubs every once in a while, but they’ll let you know (typically by biting you) that they’ve had enough, which is perfect for readers, because our hands are busy holding up a book and turning the pages.
  • Cats don’t take a lot of time to take care of. Which is nice, because readers would rather be reading.

Are those enough reasons for you? Because I’ve included two percentages in this blog, I feel as though I’ve dove into this issue deeply enough already.

My most dedicated readers will know that I try to include a photo of one of my cats with a book whenever I take a ‘shelfie’ for this blog, and it’s no coincidence that my views go up one those particular days that Pearl or Smokey make an appearance here. So, here you go-if my cat rant wasn’t enough to get readership, I’m sure these portraits below will be.

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Book Review: No Relation by Terry Fallis

Continuing the pattern of reviewing ‘nice guys that write great books’ that I’ve seemed to stumble upon, I decided to write about Terry Fallis’s latest book No Relation. This is Fallis’s fourth book, and just as good as his previous ones, so I’m glad I picked it up. It’s based on a really interesting premise: the main character is named Earnest Hemmingway, (spelled slightly differently than the Ernest Hemingway) who happens to be an aspiring writer as well. And, having just lost his job and girlfriend, he finds himself with lots of time to sit down and write that novel that he’s been struggling to complete for years, but he’s  run into a severe case of writer’s block. On top of that, his overbearing father is pushing him to enter the family business (men’s underwear manufacturing) even though “Hem” can’t stand the idea of doing just that. So, he begins a support group for people with other famous names (Diana Ross, Clark Kent, etc.) in an attempt to find meaning in the curse that is his famous namesake. Not surprisingly, hilarity ensues.

Smokey enjoying a nice summer read

Smokey enjoying a nice summer read

I read this book while on vacation in Belize, and it was the perfect beach/summer read. If you’re not familiar with his writing already, Terry Fallis is a humour writer, he’s won the Stephen Leacock award as well as the CBC Canada Reads competition, and one of his books was turned into a television miniseries, so I’m not the only one who thinks highly of him. He’s got that light style of writing that makes you look forward to turning the page because you know you’re going to feel good, before and after reading the book. Similar to the novel I just previously reviewed by Alexander McCall Smith, No Relation deals with difficult subject matter, but it does it in a light-hearted way that will leave you feeling optimistic. Who doesn’t want that from a book, especially in July and August?

If I had to point out one aspect of Fallis’s books that need improvement, I would say he should challenge himself a bit more in his protagonist’s character development. All four of his books have featured a different main character, however they differ in name only. They’re pretty much the same person; male, in his thirties, looking for love, a bit of a bumbling ‘nice guy’, etc. That being said, this shouldn’t prevent you from picking any one of these books-they are all great, and really well written. But, I really do think Fallis is talented, and can easily create female characters with depth, so I’m hoping that his next book will feature a female protagonist. If I had a twitter account, I would tweet this at Fallis, because I know he’s active on social media, so I’ll just hope that he has a google alert set up for himself and will eventually read this blog post (fingers crossed!).

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Book Review: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

My sincere apologies for abandoning this blog for the past three weeks,I have a good excuse for my absence though-I was away in Belize! As you will  see in the picture below, I had lots of time to catch up on my reading (9 books in total!) so I have lots of writing and reporting back owed to you dear readers. One of the books I read towards the beginning of my vacation and enjoyed the most (see my goodreads rating) was The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith.

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This is one of the books that can be classified as a ‘cozy mystery‘. Many of you are probably familiar with Smith’s books, they are international bestsellers, and for good reason-he’s fabulous writer, and has a knack of creating characters that you immediately find yourself caring for. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is the first in the series with the same name, and I fully intend on reading the rest (in correct succession of course) now that I’ve read and enjoyed the first one.

This book introduces the background of the main character, Precious Ramotswe, the lady detective of Botswana. She sets up a detective agency in the town of Gaborone, and immediately finds herself busy with requests from people in town: finding out whether one’s husband is cheating, discovering where a mysterious teenage daughter is spending her afternoons with, returning a stole car to its rightful owner, etc. The perfect adjective to describe this book is: charming. Mme Ramotswe drinks cups of tea to mull over her cases, and not surprisingly, she reminds me of Jessica Fletcher from Murder She Wrote with her personality-for those who are fans of the television series, you are sure to like The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency as well.

I had the pleasure of meeting Alexander McCall Smith a few years ago when he made an appearance in Calgary promoting one of his latest books. I can assure you that although we only had a few minutes alone together, he lived up to his reputation of being a kind and humble individual, despite his enormous success and grueling tour schedule. How does someone that travels that much for work maintain such a lovely demeanor? Beats me, but I was so thankful I had the chance to meet him in person, it led me to enjoy reading this book even more knowing he was such a great guy.Sandy McCall Smith

Some of you may be wondering-how did I bring 9 books on vacation with me? Well, I have a big suitcase, and they were all physical books (I don’t own an e-reader, and don’t intend on buying one any time soon) so it was tight coming down, but as I read them I left them at the various resorts we stayed at for future guests to enjoy. So, my luggage (physical and emotional) was quite a bit lighter on the way home.  If you’re heading to the Exotic Caye Beach Resort in Belize anytime soon, feel free to pick up my leftover copy of No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Or, you can always stay in the comfort of your own town and purchase a copy from your local independent bookstore, but that’s not as exciting is it?

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WGA Conference: The Writing Life Panel

Hilary McMahon, Me, Steven Galloway and Leanne Shirtliffe

Hilary McMahon, Me, Steven Galloway and Leanne Shirtliffe

I just love the picture above, it’s one of my favourites from the Writers Guild of Alberta Conference because it so honestly depicts how fun the event was to host. The crowd in the background of this photo were enthusiastic, supportive and asked wonderfully insightful questions. The panelists Hilary McMahon, Steven Galloway and Leanne Shirtliffe were all great presenters as well-they were honest, open, and had a great sense of humor, which made hosting this event that much more fun! In fact, they were all so talkative that my not-oft tested moderating skills were hardly necessary, much to my relief.

The title of the event was “The Writing Life”, so I asked a few questions around the current state of publishing, what’s expected of a writer these days, the role of social media in a professional writer’s life, etc. A discussion like this could easily slip into a depressing rant about the good old days, but thankfully the everyone’s jokes and optimism prevented this from happening.

Why do we look at the publishing industry as if it’s golden age that is slowly fading away?  I’m going to try to sum this up as short and simply as possible. The publishing houses are losing money because of major cutbacks in their revenue, mostly due to the fact that big box stores and corporations (Indigo, Amazon, etc. ) are paying less that they ever did for their stock, because they have the influence and market majority to do so. Oh, and e-books are a big part of this, because they are sold for a lot less than their hard copy counterparts, but they cost just as much to produce (the main cost in book production is the editing and typesetting of the pages). As you can see, the cost of producing books is still the same, yet publishers are making less money for the same product, which means they are pressured to cost costs elsewhere. This in turn gets passed down to the authors themselves, because they are being paid less for their writing, and being asked to essentially provide the marketing for their own books. So, not only are writers paid very little for what they’ve already written, but they’re being asked to write other things for free (like twitter updates, blogs and facebook posts).frabz-WRITER-What-my-friends-think-I-do-What-my-mom-thinks-I-do-What-s-24d512

Similar reasoning can be applied to the demise of the newspaper industry, but lord knows I don’t the the time or patience to argue on behalf of all paper industries, so I draw the line at discussing anything other than books on this blog.

You’re probably wondering why I’m going on about this-if it hasn’t become obvious enough yet, it’s something that I’m passionate about, which is why I’m a board member of the Writers Guild of Alberta. The WGA supports Alberta writers and is doing its best to protect the rights of writers in this province, which is something that is constantly threatened by the shrinking budgets of publishers big and small. So please do your part, buy some books and hug a writer when you see one, because when not appearing on a super fantastic panel as part of a conference, the writing life is not as glamorous as you may think.

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Book Review: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

I had really high hopes for this book, as I really enjoyed Joshua Ferris‘s last book The Unnamed, which was about a man who found himself compulsively walking days on end, therefore eventually destroying his life because he was unable to stop. Interesting premise right? Well, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour doesn’t have a hook like that-it’s essentially about a middle-aged, lonely dentist who has an existential crisis that lasts about 300 pages.index

Perhaps if I was a different person, one who enjoyed baseball (I don’t), theological discussions (I don’t) or ancient history (I don’t like that either) I would have found this book more compelling. But I didn’t, so when I look back on my experience of reading it, I generally recall being very bored.

I guess that isn’t entirely true-there are quite a few laugh-out-loud parts, because the protagonist/dentist Paul  O’Rourke is really funny. He doesn’t always mean to be, but he’s got some good quips throughout the narrative. And although it’s difficult to admit this, he did remind me of myself at times. For instance, he calls cellphones ‘me-machines’, because he dislikes people’s obsession with them. For those of you that know me personally, you would recognize the fact that I would wholeheartedly agree with this (see meme below). I’m of the opinion that people spend more time on their phones discussing their own life rather than simply living it, but I digress.

imagesThe dialogue in general is quite funny in this book, so it’s not all bad. Ferris uses this really interesting way of recounting a conversation between two characters by only recording what one person said, and then simply implying what the other character said, like this:

“Why must you always be reading your phone?” I’d tell her, she’d say “If you know it is merely a distraction from the many things you don’t want to think about, why let yourself be a slave to it?” I’d tell her, she’d say “That is the most blasphemous thing I have ever heard.” (p. 104)

Hilarious right?

This book focuses quite a bit on religion, its effect on people, the root of belief and ritual of religion. What I found strange about the storyline  is that Paul is surrounded by religion throughout his life, including very religious people themselves, and yet he doesn’t spent a lot of time really questioning whether he has his own religious beliefs, he simply follows what other people are doing so he can feel a part of something. Maybe that’s the irony that I’m just figuring out now, and Ferris created this dichotomy for that express purpose-so the readers would arrive at the same conclusion I just did. Is Ferris trying to say that religion is simply a comfort for those who want to belong? I have no idea to be quite honest, I feel like that kind of book analysis is a little too lofty for my tastes and intentions for this blog, but I will point out that it’s these questions and more that will get you thinking if you pick up this book.

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Book Review: The White House by JaQuavis Coleman

Sigh. That’s how I felt reading the pages of this 120 page novella. Not quite a novel, longer than a short story, but terribly written all the same. If you haven’t guessed already, I hated The White House by JaQuavis Coleman, and debated putting it down after the first few pages. Why did I have such a bad reaction to it? Well, the very first page put me off for starters. The author’s note at the beginning of the book essentially told me that I wasn’t the right reader for this book, and wouldn’t understand the underlying story of it. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the point of an author’s note to entice the reader, not dismiss them as not being the right kind of person to pick up their book in the first place? Coleman couldn’t have made himself any clearer, when he writes:

“I intentionally drop subtle gems for the people like me who came from where I came. There are always two layers to my books; not everyone will get the second layer but the ones who do…they feel me. You see, I talk to the readers but I whisper to the streets. The streets being people who grew up in the struggle and love to read books because it closely resembles their current or past lifestyles” (p. 7).

Let me be clear here-there is nothing subtle about this book. It opens with a raunchy sex scene that was rendered that much worse because I just finished reading another book that included sex scenes-ones that were much better written, let me assure you.18528294

I understand that because this book is an example of “street fiction”, the dialogue isn’t going to be high-brow, because many of the characters are un-educated and committing crimes in an attempt to make money. However, this doesn’t excuse the overwhelming amount of cliches and over-used sayings throughout the story. For example:

“Total pandemonium were the only words to describe the streets of Detroit. It was the most gloomy week for the city in recent memory. A well-respected OG was put to rest and days after a young man hung from a streetlight with a bullet-riddled body. The entire city was on pins and needles and the local officials were in a frenzy trying to hold everything together” (p. 91).

The phrase ‘pins and needles’ was used just a few pages before, and in my humble literary opinion, the use of such a cliched phrase twice in such a short time span is inexcusable. Why couldn’t a different term be used? I’m not reading a newspaper article, this is supposed to be enjoyable to read, so looking for variety in the text shouldn’t be too much to ask for.

Some have complained that the ‘urban street fiction‘ genre is glamorizing crime and life on the streets. My response to that is: so what? It isn’t any different than other more common forms of entertainment we enjoy (action movies, rap songs, etc.). If this is a popular genre,  and people like reading it, it should continue to be written if there is a demand for it.  What I do have a problem with is the terrible writing. There is no excuse for such unimaginative and cookie-cutter sentences in a published book. If you’re a bad writer, you shouldn’t have your stuff published on paper, especially by a reputable publisher that should know better. I enjoy Akashic Books, which is why I was so surprised that they put their brand behind something like this-I know they can do better, and I think they should expect more of their writers as well.

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Calgary Reads Book Sale!!!

I am forever indebted to my good friend Kayleigh for introducing me to the Calgary Reads Annual Book Sale. How did I not know about this before, and why has it taken me this long to discover it? The sight of walking into a big empty warehouse full of books and book lovers warmed my cold heart to its very core, and I was amazed to see people wheeling luggage filled to the brim with books!

I’ve included a photo here of what the room looked like, just to give you an idea of how many people were there. Who said the book industry was dead-it clearly isn’t! This is a great example of how publishing is shifting, and although used book stores aren’t as popular as some would like them to be, people are clearly still purchasing used books, and in this case, all the proceeds are going to a good cause.

My fellow book-lovers!

My fellow book-lovers!

And the variety of books! There was something there for everyone, and everything was meticulously sorted. Fiction was sorted into mystery, horror, historical fiction, beach reads, Canadian fiction, even a Governor General Award-Winning section was there. And of course tons of non-fiction: history, cookbooks, gardening, arts and crafts, self-help, travel books. Really, they had everything, even a section for children’s books and YA. Interestingly enough-they did not accept Harlequin romance novels as donations. I found that a bit baffling, because it’s such a popular genre that many people would have gladly picked it up should it be available, but who am I to judge?

I got all these for 20 bucks-yup, pretty good deal

I got all these for 20 bucks in total-yup, pretty good deal

The stack of books I brought home came to a measly 20 bucks-so a little less than the cost of one hardcover book. Now, I know that sales like this are the bane of booksellers’ existence, because it trains people to pay less for the books they want. However, what I like about this is that it brings the community together over something that’s important-reading! And I bet that the majority of people there make a habit of shopping for books all year long-this is just their chance to get a whole whack of them for next to nothing.  Most likely, they are also the people who visit their local independent bookstores, so you can’t blame them for wanting to save a couple of bucks. I got the first books of a couple of series at this sale, and if I really like them, I’ll probably go out and buy the second and third in the series, so I’m hoping that this sale will encourage more book purchases in the future, rather than stifle them.

If you missed it this year, now you know what to look forward to next year! Keep your eye on the Calgary Reads site for information about next year’s sale, because they’re a not-for-profit organization doing amazing work, and your support is greatly appreciated.

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Book Review: The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh

18007528 A quick synopsis of The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh: husband and wife go on vacation, step-daughter of wife joins her parents on vacation and brings her slightly older and very attractive boyfriend with her, chemistry ensues between wife and younger man.  A saucy summer read: that’s really all you need to know about this book. Ladies-I know you want to borrow this book from me, but you’ll have too much pride to post in these comments-feel free to shoot me an email directly!

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Book Review: The Blessings by Elise Juska

Have you ever read a book that features a family that makes you think “Hey, that’s kind of like my family”? I just had the pleasure of muttering that to myself as I turned the pages of this latest novel by Elise Juska. Now, The Blessings does not feature characters that resemble people in my own family, I want to be clear about that. However, the family dinners that act as anchor points for each character  reminded me of family dinners I attended as a kid (and still do!). Picture this: all the women in the kitchen, chatting with each other, putting the food together, cleaning up afterwards, while the men hang out in one big group talking in front of the t.v. or off in the back yard somewhere. This is a common scene many people can identify with, including myself. And the food that is eaten at these get-togethers is just as important to that ‘familiar feeling’-the food is generally not that healthy, but easy to make and freeze (casseroles, salads, cookies and dessert bars, etc.)index, comfort food basically. Juska uses these dinners in a strategic way throughout her narrative, and it acted as nice piece of nostalgia for me personally.

Strangely, although these family dinners happen throughout the book, and I recognized them from my own life,  I never really got that ‘cozy’ feeling that I thought I would. Why is this? It’s not a negative detractor from the book-far from it. In fact, it makes the narrative that much more realistic. Each chapter is written from a different character’s perspective and at a different time, so the reader is constantly kept on their toes, which also prevented me from getting too comfortable. I never knew what was going to happen next, The Blessings was definitely a page-turner. Each family member got a chance to give their own perspective on things, and it’s so interesting to read first-person perspectives about a close-knit group of people, mainly because it reinforces the “everything is not as it seems” saying that we’ve all heard. Especially when it comes to families, people are always assigning archetypes to people-the worrying mother, the weird uncle, the overly-sensitive sister, you get the point. But Juska blows these cliches apart, much to my delight.TheBlessings-Elisa-Juska

This book doesn’t follow the regular arc of a story either, as you probably guessed. There isn’t a clear beginning, middle and end. However, there is a ‘trigger situation’ that starts off the action of the book-a young father dies of cancer. Now, you would think that this would mean the rest of the book is a dire look at how each family member deals with this loss. But, like real life, this occurrence does not control people’s reactions, it affects them in a different capacities, in some cases, hardly at all.

So, those who know me well know that I love a good family book. I love reading about families, mainly because it confirms my suspicions  that my own family isn’t as weird as I first thought. In fact, the more books that I read about families, the more convinced I am that I lucked out with mine, the one I grew up with AND the one I married into. Regardless of the state of your family, you’ll enjoy this book because it’s well written, and above all believable!

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