Book Review: Leaving Tomorrow by David Bergen

So as my hosting gig draws closer, I  have quickly realized that I should be getting these reviews up quicker than I have been in the past. In my defense,  I am taking a professional writing class this fall, so the majority of my online creativity is going towards my course work, rather than this blog. Don’t get too concerned about me though, I’m still taking the time to read books, just not as fast as I would like.

This weekend I finished reading David Bergen’s Leaving Tomorrow, and not surprisingly I enjoyed it. Bergen is a beautiful writer, and many of you may be familiar with his work already because he won the Giller Prize in 2005 for his book The Time in Between. Like many avid readers, I cannot remember if I’ve actually read this book or not, which is why I keep a list of what I’ve read in the past for times like this. I’ll have to refer to it later to jog my memory.9781443411387

Anyway, the book focuses on a boy named Arthur, who dreams of living in Paris, becoming a writer, and leading a very romantic life in general. What’s surprising about this story is Arthur’s background. He lives in a very small (fictional) town in Alberta called “Tomorrow”, and he grows up on a ranch, assisting his father with training horses and various other farm duties.

So, with the heart of a poet and the body of a farmer, Arthur moves to Paris for a year to find himself. I know what you’re thinking-this sounds like the beginning of a Harlequin novel. And of course, a follow up movie starring Zac Efron. But it’sbergen-photo not! Bergen is too fine a writer to let his work spiral into something as cliche as that (not that there’s anything wrong with that, the Harlequin publishing model is one of the most successful in the world, fyi).

This novel is more about self-realization and soul-searching than it is about action. I will be the first to admit that nothing much happens throughout the plot, but it’s strength lies not in what happens, but what doesn’t happen. Arthur is a character of dichotomies-both physically and emotionally, and it’s fun to follow him in his French adventures, even if many of them end in despair or loneliness.

I’m not sure I’ve done this book justice in this review, so you best attend Books and Afternoon Tea to hear Bergen read from and speak about this book himself. In the meantime, pick up a copy of Leaving Tomorrow, start reading it before Sunday and bring it with you to the event so he can sign it for you!


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Book Review: The Last Days of the National Costume by Anne Kennedy

I am lucky enough to be hosting a Wordfest event this year, which means I was the giddy recipient of a box of books a few weeks ago.  The festival sends each host a copy of the book(s) that will be included in the event they are managing, so in my case, I was sent six books in total, including The Last Days of the National Costume by Anne Kennedy.

I chose to read this book first because Kennedy is a New Zealand author living in Auckland, and I had some guests staying with me this past weekend who had been living in Auckland for the past four years, so I thought I could ‘get to know their experience a bit better’ by reading some of their literature from down under. Other than a few strange words that I wasn’t used to, it read much like North American literary novels do, which was of course a great relief to me!

Now to the book. This is a scandalous novel. It’s not erotica by any means, but it does delve into the dicey world of extra-marital affairs, lies between couples, and people just being altogether naughty. Have I piqued your interest yet? If that doesn’t sound appealing enough, the narrator and protagonist “GoGo” is an absolute hoot. She’s got fun little quips and observations about everyone around her, and she talks directly to the reader as if you’re also a character in the book, so you really feel like you’re a part of the story, even though you’re only an observer.

If you’re in the Calgary area on Sunday, October 19 you should be making plans to attend Books and Afternoon Tea. What could be better than listening to six different authors from around the world read from and discuss their latest books? Nothing, that’s what. So buy your tickets now!


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Book Review: Riel Street by Colette Maitland

thumb.phpAlthough this book is described as a novel in the press release, I think of it as a book of short stories, as each chapter can easily stand on its own. Taken together, the chapters are not cohesive enough to create one story, but I don’t believe that is a negative thing, each section is a wonderfully detailed look into the Bouchard family, whom I enjoyed getting to know.

Maitland grew up on a variety of army bases, which acted as part of the inspiration to write this book. Riel Street centers on a small military street in Kingston with a cast of characters all eager to gossip about and with each other. Many of the chapters are told from the perspective of one of the four Bouchard children, some are from their mother Shirley’s voice as well.

Shirley is featured prominently throughout the book, and she was by far, my favourite character. Her no-nonsese parenting provided quite a bit of comic relief throughout the story, which I also admired about her. I hope that I when I have children, I can trot out a fraction of the sass that this woman exhibits each and every day. I suspect that her personality is not something that she was born with however, it has come from a lifetime of taking care of others, and is a general product of being over-worked. For instance, her husband was sent overseas for the majority of one of her pregnancies and subsequent birth, all while she was still expected to take care of their other children  and living on a meager budget. How did women do it back then? Although probably not the main intention of authors like Maitland, whenever I read a period piece like this, it always makes me thankful for our modern-day technologies and conveniences.sassy-pants

Some tragedies do occur throughout the stories, but these are all treated with a light hand, never getting bogged down by too much emotion and drama. Some may see this as too cursory a treatment for these kinds of situations in a book, but I simply see this as a realistic depiction of that time period (1960’s). When you have little money and time, there is no room for drama, and this is reflected in Maitland’s stories. Yes, horrible things happen and they affect everyone differently, but for people like Shirley who are just struggling to keep her children healthy, there is no time to dwell on difficulties of others, or even difficulties of your own. You pick yourself back up and move on-just like the military teaches you.

One last observation-men are generally described as lazy and philandering in this book. They drink too much, don’t trust their wives with their cars (if they even allow them to drive them) and could care less about helping out around the house. Is this an accurate description of men on army bases at that time? Who knows? I’m not sure whether this was intentional by Maitland or not. If she doesn’t want to focus in on male characters in her book, she doesn’t have to, and creating a balanced depiction of all people at that time is not the sole responsibility of one fiction writer. So what if she doesn’t focus on any men in her book? Male characters have always been a dime a dozen in literature, lord knows we could do with a small break from them every once in a while (how am I doing with that sass?).



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Book Review: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

I know, I know. It’s been way too long since I’ve posted a review of a book on here. It took me an entire month to finish this last one, which is quite unusual for me, even though the book was 700 pages long. I don’t want you to misinterpret my tardiness for a dislike of it though-in fact I gave it five out of five stars on my goodreads account, so I really did enjoy A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. I knew I would like it before I even opened up the front cover-it’s won numerous literary awards, but has also been chosen as an Oprah’s Book Club pick, so when published, it appealed to all literary snobs and unpretentious book club readers alike. That is the sign of a good book indeed!

The story takes place in India, during the political turmoil of the 1970s. It features four main characters whose lives become entangled throughout the plot. The majority of India’s population had it rough at that time (understatement of the year, I realize), so not surprisingly this book is filled with sadness, misfortune, and disgusting unfairness. Some of these characters seemed to never catch a break, while others succeeded by taking advantage of others, which seemed to add to the balancing act that Mistry creates within the story.rohinton-mistry-giller-all-gillers-584

The genius in Mistry’s writing is found in these comparisons between characters. People who have lived lives of nothing but struggle and destitution are depicted in a humanizing, and compassionate yet realistic way. When sadness touches those that don’t struggle to the same extent, they react differently. However Mistry is not  assigning blame, or placing one person’s efforts above the other-he is simply painting a picture, leaving the reader to form their own opinions. Other than deep distrust of the government and politicians, very few emotions are black and white in this novel.

Moments of joy are simple and fleeting in the narrative, but when you come across them, you learn to savour and enjoy them that much more, just like some of the disenfranchised characters in this book. The horrific things you read about are never easily forgotten, yet the optimistic scenes are a well-earned reward that the reader receives after passing through the terrors that riddle the story. I know how cliche this seems, but Mistry truly teaches you the beauty in everything, which makes those 700 pages well worth the read.


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Book Event: Back to (Writing) School with Author Ian Williams

Last night at the Barley Mill Pub in Eau Claire, I had the pleasure of attending another successful and educational Writers Guild of Alberta event. Recently named University of Calgary writer-in-residence Ian Williams gave a thought-provoking yet still entertaining presentation on writing. Although I don’t consider myself a formal writer,  he still gave me some useful tips, and I’ve decided to start calling myself a ‘creative non-fiction’ writer rather than a blogger, as this sounds much fancier.

Ian Williams, speaking to a rapt crowd at the Barley Mill last night

Ian Williams, speaking to a rapt crowd at the Barley Mill last night

When the event began, Williams announced that his talk would be focused more on us, the audience, rather than himself. He wanted us to leave the event learning a bit more about our own writing styles, which in all my years of attending literary events, came across as a rather creative approach. Understandably, we were all a bit hesitant when he said this, as most writers don’t like the limelight, and horrific images of people standing up and discussing their books-in-progress danced through my head. However, quite the opposite happened, and I believe the objective of the evening was reached. What revelations did I have?  I realized that I don’t take my writing as seriously as any poet, and my particular ‘style’ of writing includes getting a bunch of crap down on the page, and editing it all afterwards. So, very useful soul-searching was done on my part.

Williams also encouraged us to challenge ourselves: if you’re the type of person who does all their writing in the morning, try writing at night! If you’re the kind of person who only writes fiction, try writing non-fiction and see where that gets you. I’m about to embark on an online writing course, so I hope to take advantage of this advice and try out my very rusty fiction-writing skills to see if this improves overall communications. Williams also emphasized the fact that writing a bunch of stuff that never sees the light of day is a good exercise, which is a difficult pill to swallow for multi-taskers like myself (“what a waste of time” I thought in my head) but I do see his point.

Who says writing workshops have to include the same, old boring advice? And isn’t it better to take in these words of wisdom while in a pub, sipping a glass of beer and munching on some yam fries? I thought so too, so stay tuned for the next WGA event, you won’t want to miss it.



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My Favourite Kids Books

My Dad is coming to visit me here in a few weeks, which always makes me a bit nostalgic for my childhood. Living far apart from my family is hard, so when I have people come to visit, it inevitably brings back memories that I’d forgotten since I moved away from home. Other than relying on family taking pity on me and flying out here to visit, I can also use my childhood books as a way to connect with my past. When you become an avid reader like myself, there’s a good chance that you devoured a ton of books when you were a kid, and I’m no different. Below are a few of my favourite kids books.

The Balloon Tree by Phoebe Gilman is a beautiful book. It’s got a nice (short) story and the pictures are stunning. You may also remember the “Jillian Jiggs” books that featured cute little pigs-this is the same author. And get this: Gilman was not only the author, but the illustrator as well. This author is what people in the publishing industry call a GOLDMINE.I suspect one of the main reasons I liked this book so much as a kid was because it featured a balloon tree that was rainbow, and I had a particularly love of rainbows from the age of 5-13, as I’m sure many young girls did. My friends can attest to this.

Pearl is checking out The Balloon Tree

Pearl is checking out The Balloon Tree

Another favourite book of mine was The Jolly Postman series, by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. There were three books in this series, and they were amazing because each page was its own little envelope that held a letter or small package that the postman was delivering. The Jolly Christmas Postman was great because some of the envelopes contained little puzzles or games that you could play with. Never underestimate the power of an interactive book, it clearly did wonders for my childhood imagination, and is the main reason I’ve saved this book for 25 (plus) years.m is for moose

The last children’s book I wanted to highlight was a very important book to my adulthood-or should I say, the beginnings of it. M is for Moose by Charles Pachter was the first book I worked on as a book publicist. Because it was wildly successful, I was thrown into a world I knew nothing about, but immediately loved. A world of television shoots, radio shows, cold-calling producers and pitching to crotchety book reviewers was something I will never forget, and I have Cormorant Books to thank for this trial by fire introduction into the Canadian book publishing industry. Pachter was also a lovely author to work with, and I’ll never forget his generosity and humor. So in closing-the point of this post? Turns out kids books aren’t just for kids!


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Book Review: California by Edan Lepucki

Smokey is checking out California in hardcover

Smokey is checking out California in hardcover

Does anyone else have a sneaking suspicion that the world’s population is headed straight for a major disaster, and every day we get closer to the eventual annihilation of our species? No, I don’t really believe that either, but a lot of people do (a lot of them are living in Montana and having bunkers built on their property, according to my inside sources) so dystopian novels such as California have a ready-made audience just itching to get their hands on another person’s theory of how it’s all going to end.

Edan Lepucki doesn’t get too specific. We know that a lot of people have died, but not everyone, and the standard of living declined slowly, rather than in a great ball of hellfire, sweep of a major storm, etc. She alludes to global warming quite often, which creates insane weather patterns that slowly kill people (starting to sound a bit familiar?) and she also alludes to the increasing discrepancy between the rich and the poor, which can do just as much damage in first world society.

So, the book focuses on a young couple, Cal and Frieda, who venture off into the woods of California to start a new life on their own, living off the land. The fact that there is so much forest left, and big enough that they go months without seeing other people, leads the reader to assume that large amounts of people have died, or are simply too afraid to leave the cities, which sound quite terrible and dangerous the way they are described.

Anyway, while living their (somewhat crappy) life off the gird, they come across a community of people who have rules about accepting new people into their space, and their inclusion into the village is put to a vote. However, Frieda has just discovered she is pregnant, and with any children being conspicuously absent from this community, Cal and Frieda are too scared to tell the other villagers their secret, so the suspension builds, etc. The community they’ve stumbled upon is no Eden itself, but it’s significantly better than the life they were leaving on their own, and they both crave some company.

The majority of the story takes place in this new community, leading up to this dilemma of the vote, and whether or not to tell people about the pregnancy. My favourite parts of the storyline were the descriptions of their daily life, and how they got along each day on such limited resources. I couldn’t help but imagine what the poor saps in Canada were struggling with-the communities down in California had fairly mild temperatures to deal with, so I assumed that those in Calgary had died off long ago, or migrated south permanently.g133252315370634087

There are a few specific things I like about dystopian novels. The first is learning the reasons of the world’s demise, this is always interesting, and you learn quite a bit about the author’s political leanings just though this one point. But even better than that are the inevitable questions and feelings that these plots raise in the reader. It really makes you imagine your life in a completely different way, and forces you to look at yourself honestly. Would I be strong enough to go on in this new world, or would I have given up once things got hard? Big questions right? I tend to look at these books as a negative fantasy, but when I finish reading one, I usually gain a better appreciation for the life I currently live, and the world I’m lucky enough to be a part of. So, in that sense it is a positive exercise to read a book like California, because you’ll be glad it’s fiction when you put it down.




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CBC Books’ Writers to Watch: the 2014 Edition

I have some observations on the most recent “Writers to Watch” list from CBC Books:

  • Not surprisingly, it is a diverse list in both authors and their publishers. I would expect nothing less from the CBC.
  • I have heard of none of these writers. A few years ago, when I worked in publishing, I’m sure I would have recognized the majority of these names (at the very least, the new face of fiction from Random House) but alas, I glean all my book information from blogs such as these, just like everyone else now so I’m sufficiently out of the loop.
  • None of these books looked particularly interesting to me, but they are all very typically “Canadian”, which the CBC seems hell-bent on reminding us of, every chance they get.
  • I can guarantee you that all of these authors are struggling to make a living from their writing, and will continue to do so, well after their books are released and highly lauded by critics, which most will inevitably be.
  • At least one of these authors will probably find themselves on the Giller longlist this year, but I can guarantee they won’t win it. Yes, I know that without reading any of the books themselves, or even thoroughly reading the blurbs that were included in the article.
  • The book I want to read the most is New Tab by Guillaume Morissette because his headshot includes a picture of him holding a beautiful cat.

    Obviously, this is the best author on the list

    Obviously, this is the best author on the list

To some, my list above may seem like I’ve given up on Canadian book lists, or the CBC. I’ve done neither, I assure you. I listen to the CBC all the time, even when I’m sick of how Canadian it sounds, and I still eagerly click on these book ranking lists, if only to see what I do and do not recognize. I am however slightly jaded when it comes to identifying these ‘hot new writers’. Why are these books supposed to be interesting to us, other than the fact that they’re new, and the CBC says they’re good? I suppose that’s what us book bloggers are for, an unbiased opinion to let book enthusiasts know what’s worthwhile, and what isn’t.

I’d also like to point out that in the comments section of the site, the visible diversity of the authors was also noticed by a fellow reader, so obviously I’m not the only one who is aware of the CBC’s attempt to include as many skin colors as possible on this list. Of course there is nothing wrong with that, in fact they probably have a mandate to do this, it’s just so …Canadian!



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Book Review: Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

Find me one person that doesn’t like Richard Wagamese’s books. Seriously, that person doesn’t exist. In the can-lit book circles, talking badly about Wagamese’s writing would be sacrilegious. And really, just plain stupid, because he is amazing at what he does. If I was an aspiring writer wanting to read a book that universally praised, I would pick up a book that Wagamese has written, because it is one of those prime examples of a well-written story. And it’s not one of those books that everyone says is great, and then you pick it up and don’t like it, but are too embarrassed to tell others that you don’t like it because you’re worried you just didn’t understand it. You will understand his books, and you will read a particular sentence that is so powerful that it will force you to look up from the page and stare at the wall for a few moments because it was so affecting. Richard-Wagamese

I had the pleasure of meeting Wagamese a few years ago when his last book came out: Indian Horse. He read a portion of his book for a Freedom to Read Week event, and for the few people in the room that didn’t have tears running down their cheeks, the remainder sat awestruck in their seats, too stunned to look at anything in particular. It was one of those moments that I felt lucky to have experienced, and after suffering through many terrible readings in my life, this one confirmed for me why I bothered even attending them anymore; because every once in awhile, you’ll come across a gem like this, which makes it all worthwhile. This is why the arts are so important to people, why the telling of stories is so important to every culture-because it brings us together, even when we least expect it.

Medicine Walk is a focus on stories as well. It’s about a 16 year old boy, forced into manhood early as he was raised in a foster home, on a farm. His biological father Eldon contacts him throughout his childhood, however the few times they do see each other typically end in disaster because Eldon is an alcoholic, and cannot keep his promises to his son Franklin. When Eldon summons his son to him for the last time, it is a request to take him deep into the bush, and bury him like a warrior (sitting up) as his death draws near from liver failure. As they travel through the wilderness together, Eldon tells Franklin the story of his own life, and eventually the story of Franklin’s mother. index

So, not exactly a light read. Wagamese’s books are always pretty heavy, but based on his childhood experiences (getting taken away by Children’s Aid and moving through foster homes), it’s not surprising that serious topics are something he prefers to write about. However, the healing balm of nature is also a common theme in a lot of his work, and like many of us, he turns to the outdoors for solace and comfort. That’s another wonderful aspect to this book-the beautiful descriptions of the mountainside the two characters travel.

Writing that will move you, descriptions that will paint a vivid picture, and character descriptions that will leave you haunted and wanting more-those are just a few  reasons to pick up this book, but don’t take my word for it-buy it and find out for yourself.



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Book Review: The Cat Who Could Read Backwards by Lilian Jackson Braun

Books, cats and murder mysteries: three things that I love, all wrapped up into one. The Cat Who Could Read Backwards by Lilian Jackson Braun was practically written for me! Other than the fact that it was written back in 1966 of course, a bit before my time. I had never heard of this particular series before (probably because of its age), but when I picked up the book at the Calgary Reads book sale, I realized that this bestselling series was meant for me.

This is a Smokey and Pearl approved book

This is a Smokey and Pearl approved book

This series is from a favourite genre of mine, called ‘the cozy mystery’. Nothing is too gruesome in this story, and an intelligent Siamese cat named ‘Koko” is helping a journalist solve the mystery, so there’s a sense of lightness that is woven throughout.

Something that I found funny, that certainly wasn’t meant to be at the time of the book’s release 50 odd years ago, are all the aspects of the 60s that we no longer think of, or take for granted in 2014. For instance, when the protagonist Qwuilleran is interviewing a welder in her studio she brushes off a pile of asbestos on a bench so they can sit down together. Asbestos????? Yikes.

Or the time when a group of men are eating at a restaurant and one of them makes sure to compliment the waitress on the narrowness of her waist, as if he is being a gentleman by mentioning this to her, and it would be rude not to. My favourite was probably the time when one man borrowed another man’s plane ticket to hop on the flight-didn’t matter that he had a different name and bore no resemblance to the person whose name was on the ticket! Could you imagine? These things made me laugh out loud, similar to the way Mad Men makes a point of showing the ridiculousness of things in the 50s compared to today. The clip below is a perfect example of this.

It’s a short book, and when I picked it up, it was obvious that it was a well-loved paperback, the pages yellowed and curled at the edges. In fact, this book is one I’m considering keeping for my collection, simply because I fancy the idea of acquiring each book in the series. I can already tell I’ll like them all, and like my delight at discovering a new television series on Netflix, I’m already itching to read the next one.


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