Radio Segment: Autobiographies

This week, I spoke about the genre of autobiographies on The Homestretch. I like to shake things up every once in awhile, so I chose two VERY different books to talk about. The first made me cry, literally. The second made me laugh because its numerous Beyonce references were fabulous. A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold, and Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes couldn’t be anymore different from each other, but surprisingly, both dealt with the very serious issue of mental health, so they were a fitting but unlikely pair.

Me, looking quite smug with Chris

Me, looking quite smug with Chris

If you listen to the clip all the way through, you’ll also notice that I’ve accepted the very generous offer from the CBC to come on all year round to talk books. So, I’ll be on once a month to chat about what I’m reading with all the wonderful Homestretch listeners, and I’ll be sure to share those conversations here on my blog so you can ‘tune in’ even if you don’t live in Calgary.

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Book Review: I’m Your Biggest Fan by Kate Coyne

So this isn’t technically a book I would normally read. Celebrity culture is a low priority topic for me; I don’t read tabloid magazines (where the hell would I find the time?), and I avoid looking at blogs that focus on famous people. I will state up front that I don’t judge other people who do though, because at least they’re reading…

Therefore,  my review of I’m Your Biggest Fan, Awkward Encounters and Assorted Misadventures in Celebrity Journalism by Kate Coyne may come as a surprise to some. But something that many of you will already know is even if you don’t follow the lives of celebrities, it’s still fascinating to read about them. Who hasn’t gotten sucked into a VH1 special “The Fabulous Life of…”? Which is why I still enjoyed this book; it’s good fun, especially for the summer.

Smokey is showing unprecedented interest in this book

Smokey is showing unprecedented interest in this book

Kate Coyne is currently the Executive Editor of People Magazine, but the book follows her climb to this position from her beginnings as a contributor to the New York Post to an editor at Good Housekeeping. Her career path is one of the most interesting things about her story actually, although her writing is mostly self deprecating, you can tell she must be an extremely hard working and intelligent woman to have gotten where she is. So although this may not be seen as an underlying theme of the book, I really picked up on the feminist undertones of her story.

Coyne takes us along with her as she interviews and socializes with some of the top celebrities in the world: Tom Hanks, J-Lo, and Tom Cruise just to name a few. But she never loses her ‘fan girl’ mentality. Although she works with celebrities each day, she still gets nervous when meeting them, and her awkwardness is great fun to read about. We also learn some very surprising facts, one of them being that Tom Cruise has an extremely good memory!giphy

I’m Your Biggest Fan is a great book to pack along on your next vacation because it’s not very long, and no question there will be others on your trip who want to read it as well so you won’t have to pack it home either. And each chapter reads like its own story, so you can put it down and come back to it whenever you feel like you’re in need of a good chuckle.

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Book Review: In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

Here’s  a good book buying tip for you: when a major actress like Reese Witherspoon has blurbed a book, you can generally assume it’s going to be worthwhile. Now I know what you’re thinking; “But Anne, aren’t we just buying into the publicity plan that the publisher has laid out for us?”. The answer is yes, you are. But Hollywood actresses don’t just willy nilly blurb books, they’ve got better stuff to do than lend a helping hand to the publishing industry. So clearly, Simon and Schuster has gone out of their way to get this blurb, which couldn’t have been easy, even if Reese is making a movie of the book. And publishers aren’t stupid, they wouldn’t waste their time on a dud of a book, they clearly thought In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware was worth the effort. Not surprisingly, I’m on board as well.

Smokey trying to look spooky

Smokey trying to look spooky

The story is about a small, intimate bachlorette party taking place in completely glass house in the middle of the woods over a weekend. That alone is creepy right? They could have played board games the entire time and I still would have been nervous for them. But of course, someone ends up dying, and there are drugs and alcohol involved, so it’s difficult to say who is really doing what. What else makes this book freaky? The party attendees (four girls, one guy) all play with a Ouija board, and scare themselves silly when an unexpected message comes up.

Ware uses a common tactic in her plot development where she starts off the book in the future, with one character in the hospital, injured, and recently discovering that a murder investigation is taking place. So, before we even get into the woods, we know something bad is going to happen. As the book progresses, we return to that hospital room every few chapters to learn another tiny piece of information while the story also unfolds in the glass house. Slowly, we start to put the puzzle together of what happened that weekend, along with the protagonist. My only complaint about this book is Ware’s decision to jump back and forth in time like that. The atmosphere of this book is so important; we need to be creeped out about the situation as much as the characters on display in their glass cage, but the scenes in the hospital are an interruption to this build-up of the creep factor. It returned the reader to a ‘safe place’, whereas Ware would have been better off leaving us to squirm in the woods.

Despite that, I still really enjoyed this book, I raced through its pages, so take a page from a famous Hollywood actress and pick it up.

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Book Review: Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Pretty sure I’ve mentioned that I’m a nervous flier before on this blog before. I wouldn’t call myself a bad flier, because I do it quite often (one of my life’s greatest ironies unfortunately), but I’m a white knuckler for sure. I care how big the plane is, I refuse to sit in the back few rows because I KNOW it is bumpier, and I absolutely hate turbulence. I most recently confessed to a friend that I would rather endure a non-life threatening surgery than get on a plane; yes, that is how much I hate flying.giphy So why would I read a book about a plane crash you ask? Quite simply, I knew that Before the Fall by Noah Hawley would be good, and if I don’t let my fear of flying get in the way of my travelling, why would I let it affect the books I read? Luckily, I was right, I really enjoyed this book. Plus, the actual plane crash isn’t really described in detail, so I was spared that trauma.

I would call Before the Fall a perfect summer thriller-it’s a great beach read because most of the characters are either beautiful, rich, or both. Hawley is also a television writer, so his plot line is extremely tight. The pace of the book is fast, there is always something new and exciting happening, and there are great twists that kept the pages turning.

Smokey has never flown on a plane before, but I can only guess she would be white knuckler too

Smokey has never flown on a plane before, but I can only guess she would be white knuckler too

The book begins with the unexplained crash of a private plane carrying a few very wealthy people,  two kids, and a random painter that befriended one of these rich gals and got on the flight last minute. He ends up surviving the crash with one other person, the 4-year-old son who inherits millions as he is the only surviving family member from the crash. The majority of the book details the last few days (and relevant backstories) of everyone else on board that flight, including the crew and flight attendant. We even get the perspectives of a few of the investigators working on the case, all in an attempt to explain what really happened because there are many theories: mechanical malfunction, terrorism, etc.

One of the spookiest scenes in this book is when the divers find the remnants of the plane on the bottom of the ocean, and they have cameras strapped to their heads that are sending the video feed back to the investigators on land. This situation perfectly highlights the benefits of Hawley’s television writing; he paints an extremely vivid picture for us, it’s like he’s beaming a screen right into the reader’s brain. That’s why I found this book so easy to read, it was like watching television.

But Hawley also made us care about the characters, and there are many of them. As we continue through the chapters, we realize that almost every person on that plane may be the reason it went down. So, it’s a wonderful thriller and whodunnit in one. Have I convinced you to read this book yet? It’s set to be made into a movie as well, so although I won’t be watching it (seeing a plane crash on screen is too much for me, I learned that by foolishly watching Alive), I know lots of people will be.

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Book Review: Fishbowl by Bradley Somer

Wow, I’ve made a big mistake. I waited way too damn long to read this book. Fishbowl by Bradley Somer came out in 2015, has won a bunch of awards since then, and I still didn’t read it until last week, right before I was slated to talk about it on the radio. What was I thinking? I even talked to the author myself a few months ago, and in my head I thought “I really need to read that book” but other things just kept getting in the way. Well thankfully I picked it up a few days ago, and I’ve ripped right through it once I realized how amazing it is.

It’s got a really interesting premise; it takes place over the span of about half an hour (with a few flashbacks thrown in for good measure), and details the lives of a select few apartment dwellers in a particular building. It’s all brought together by the fact that a goldfish named Ian (love that name!) is falling from the top floor balcony of the building, and is witnessing each character for a split second within their apartments. Each story spins off from there, and we cycle through each story in short chapters, many of them ending with exciting cliffhangers that keep the reader pushing through the pages.

Somer-the Calgarian!

Somer-the Calgarian!

I’m so impressed with this book for a few reasons. One is that the writing is really good, it’s fun and descriptive, but doesn’t get in the way of the story, because plot is a big player in this book. Second is that the characters are thoroughly fleshed out, and we finish the book caring deeply about each and everyone one of them. Third, Somer has chosen just enough story lines to keep us engaged, but not too many to confuse us. Fourthly (is that a word?) the storyline itself has something for everyone; there are sexy times, there are sad times, there are really funny times, there are quirky times that made me secretly smile on public transit, the list goes on.

I’m so embarrassed that it took me this long to read this book because Somer lives in Calgary, he’s a member of the Writers’ Guild of Alberta, and so many people told me how great the book was, but I still didn’t pick it up. It’s been sold in a bunch of countries, and people in Poland are reading and enjoying Fishbowl, but it still took me over a year to read this, even though it was written right in my own city. This is why reading local is so important, because supporting the authors that live around you benefits not only them, but your whole community, especially when amazing books like this are being written in your own backyard. Seriously, I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t like this book, and I don’t think I’ve ever stated that on this blog before, so you know I mean business. What are you waiting for???? Go buy this book now.

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Book Review: The Pain Tree by Olive Senior

I had never read anything by Olive Senior before, but I had heard of her, and I knew she was a good writer, so picking up The Pain Tree was an easy decision for me. As was recommending her, and gushing about her publisher Cormorant Books on the radio last week.

Smokey pondering the serious subjects addressed in this book

Smokey pondering the serious subjects addressed in this book

If you’re looking for a collection of well-rounded, well-written, and well thought out stories, this book is for you. As a fan of this genre, I’m always excited to see how different authors have put their collections together. With some books I’ve read, it’s clear the stories were thrown together to just get the book published. Many authors write short stories sporadically over the years, so sometimes these collections are simply put out once the author has written enough to fill a book. The Pain Tree is different, because you can tell the stories are carefully curated to evoke particular emotions in the reader:personally, I felt wonderment at reading them.

The one and only Ms. Senior

The one and only Ms. Senior

The stories vary widely in tone, theme, and perspective. One story is told from the view of an old man fearing the progress of his community, scared that the future will punish him for his dealings with the devil during his lifetime. Another is told from the perspective of a woman returning to her childhood home, tearful and full of regret after realizing how poorly she treated the house keeper that raised her from birth. One of my favourite stories, “The Country Cousin” details the fairy tale life of a young woman brought into a household, taken advantage of, and then kicked out again, but landing in the lap of luxury with a rich, loving husband.

Some of the pieces have a fun, even supernatural storyline attached to them, while many others are quite somber. All the stories deal with serious issues; slavery, sexual assault, gender politics, even class discrimination are dealt with in the 190 pages of The Pain Tree. So why did I feel ‘wonderment’ at reading this? Senior is an amazing writer, drawing us into a world where we don’t feel entirely comfortable, but still enjoying our experiences within it. Race seems to be at the forefront of many issues in the U.S. these days, so reading a book that explores the complicated relationship between different classes, races, and genders is a very timely and worthwhile activity for us all to participate in.

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Radio Segment: Focus on Alberta Writers

My fixation on Alberta writers comes with good reason. I’m on the board for the Writers’ Guild of Alberta yo! Their mission is to connect, encourage, inspire, promote and support Alberta writers and their writing, so it would be a down right travesty if I didn’t feature them on one of my radio segments this summer. So yesterday, I spoke about the three nominees for the George Bugnet Alberta Literary Award, click here to listen to it.

Behind the scenes with the ol' Mr. Dirks

Behind the scenes with the ol’ Mr. Dirks

Although the ceremony already happened in June (remember I blogged about it before?), I thought it was important to revisit the three nominees because they represent some of the finest fiction that come out of this province in 2015. Fishbowl by Bradley Somer won, but Tracey Lindberg’s Birdie and Richard Van Camp’s Night Moves were all worthy opponents, so no matter which of the three you pick up, you’re guaranteed to enjoy it.

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Book Review: The Butcher’s Hook by Janet Ellis

Is this book literary? Yes. Is this book a thriller? Yes, of sorts. Is this book a worthwhile piece of historical fiction? Definitely! The Butcher’s Hook by Janet Ellis is a lot of different things, it’s very unique in so many ways that it will appeal to many different audiences. But before I get into all the reasons I loved it, I wanted to state a few things up front.

The suspense of this book really kept Smokey on her paws

The suspense of this book really kept Smokey on her paws

Ellis still has some work to do in her plot development, I found the book to move a bit slow at the beginning, but the dangling of the protagonist’s misdeeds to come was enough to keep me going. Also, a few of the scenes were a bit repetitive, it seemed as though the same things were happening over and over again, so the lack of action needed some extra attention as well. However, even with these faults, The Butcher’s Hook is worth your time, and here’s why;

“His fingers trail over the book, stroking the patterned page as a snail marks its path with slime.” (p. 96)

and this;

“Hearing him speak is like stepping barefoot on a slug” (p. 107)

I absolutely loved Ellis’s writing. Just by quoting those two lines above, I’m sure you can see why: how perfectly she has evoked this terrible character Onions! The protagonist Anne is a fiery young woman whose terrible merchant father has promised her to Onions, an older, disgusting man who is well-placed to be a socially acceptable husband. However, Anne has fallen in very passionate love with the butcher’s boy Fub. As the novel progresses, the reader quickly realizes that Anne is capable of more than you initially think, and she will literally stop at nothing to make sure Fub is hers alone. Dum Dum Dummmmmmmmm… (insert scary piano music here).

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Anne is the other reason this is such a great book, and not just because she has the greatest name in the world. (I was hoping to use that joke on air last week, but I didn’t get the chance, so it gives me great pleasure to use it here). She is probably one of my favourite fictional characters I’ve read this year. She’s sassy, intelligent, and doesn’t suffer fools. For those of you who have read the wonderful Flavia de Luce series, she’s like Flavia, but grown up, and kind of evil. For those of you who have no idea who Flavia de Luce is, just trust me on this one, you’ll love Anne, and you’ll love The Butcher’s Hook.

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Radio Segment: Focus on Historical Fiction

All summer long, I’m appearing weekly on CBC’s Homestretch to talk about new books worth reading this summer. Each week, I’m focusing on a different genre, and yesterday I spoke about historical fiction. You can hear the segment here if you are interested. I don’t intend on listening to it myself, because hearing your voice on the radio is PAINFUL.

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Anyway, I spoke about two books, the first my blog readers will already be familiar with: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. You can check out my full review of it here. The second book I talked about (which I plan on posting a review of soon), was The Butcher’s Hook by Janet Ellis. Both are very different, but very worthwhile reads in the category of historical fiction. Next up: short stories! But those of you who follow my goodreads account will already know that.

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Book Review: White Elephant by Catherine Cooper

This is one effed up family. White Elephant by Catherine Cooper follows mother Ann, father Richard and son Tor as they struggle to navigate their new world in Sierra Leone at the beginning of the civil war there. I found this a really fascinating premise for a novel; three white people are transplanted from their middle class life in Nova Scotia to a treacherous, poverty-stricken part of Africa, and as you would probably suspect, it’s difficult for them. It’s not difficult for the reasons you would expect though; everyone in this family is severely unhappy, so when they add the daily challenges of living in a place such as Sierra Leone, their problems only multiply.

Originally,they move for a positive reason, because Richard is a doctor and has set up a hospital to help treat the poor along with a classmate from school. But when he gets there, he finds people unwilling to drop their cultural beliefs (female circumcision, herbal treatments, fear of witches, etc.) in exchange for the acceptance of modern medicine, so Rich is disgruntled with his situation at work. His home life is not much better because his wife Ann is convinced the house they live in is making her sick, and she’s still bitter about Richard’s affair back in Canada. On top of this, their son Tor is a real asshole (I can say this now, I’m a parent!). He’s gone on a hunger strike to try to force his parents to move back to Canada, and other than being insanely bored, he’s found a sick pleasure in causing animals pain. Richard is so fed up with Tor’s behaviour that he’s begun physically abusing him.  So…not an ideal situation all around.

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What I found very unique about this book was Cooper’s focus on the family. There are so many plot lines that could have come out of the Sierra Leone setting, but she only uses their environmental strife every once in a while. Flashbacks to the family’s past is what gives us the larger context here, and it provides tiny clues to why these people act the way they do.

I was lucky enough to read this book in the beautiful setting of Muskoka! Again, no cat accompaniment unfortunately

I was lucky enough to read this book in the beautiful setting of Muskoka! Again, no cat accompaniment unfortunately

I’m racking my brain trying to come up with a theory on what Cooper is trying to say by marrying these two situations; what is she trying to say about this family, and the affect that a place like Sierra Leone has on them? This move of theirs hasn’t destroyed them, it’s simply moved their destruction along at a faster pace. As I take a few days to absorb everything I read, something I can say definitively is that the change of lifestyle for all three characters simply stripped away all distractions for them, which cast the family into a darker place, but allowed them to see things more clearly in the end. Without giving anything away, I will say the book ends with some hope, although more so for the family, than the country of Sierra Leone. 

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