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The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce: A Review

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce, Bond Street Books (Random House), 2012, 336 pp.

I miss England (particularly North Yorkshire). It’s been three years now since I was there, though I remember it with uncanny precision, something completely uncharacteristic of me but indicative of my being present in every moment I was there. It was a short but life-changing two weeks.

I spent the majority of my time there walking, dressed in gaiters and waterproof clothing and hiking shoes. I drank most of my tea from a thermos. With the absence of stress came clarity, and I found myself examining my ordinary life in Belleville. Walking will do that to a person, apparently. And after several day-long hikes in the dales, I wanted to do the longest walk in Great Britain, from Land’s End to John o’Groats. It’s about 1,900 kms and takes a couple of months at least, on foot, in unpredictable weather. I remain optimistic and undaunted. I once walked for three days, from Paris to Chartres in France, which is 72 miles, through woods and fields and over blacktop highways and up and down country roads, carrying all my supplies on my back. I camped out in forests and miraculously did not suffer any blisters or ailments. So of course I feel invincible. What’s another few hundred kms?

Like me, Harold Fry lives a small life. Unlike me, he’s recently retired. He sits around or mows the lawn, and that’s about the extent of his activities. Also, he is in a loveless marriage to Maureen, who mostly says in response, “I think not.”

Thankfully, sometimes opportunities come about to make an ordinary life extraordinary (this is actually happening to me, too):

The letter that would change everything arrived on a Tuesday. It was an ordinary morning in mid-April that smelled of clean washing and grass cuttings. Harold Fry sat at the breakfast table, freshly shaved, in a clean shirt and tie, with a slice of toast he wasn’t eating. …

“Harold!” called Maureen above the vacuum cleaner. “Post!”

… They both looked at the letter as if they had never seen one before. It was pink. …

Harold studied the mysterious envelope. Its pink was not the color of the bathroom suite, or the matching towels and fluffed cover for the toilet seat. That was a vivid shade that made Harold feel he shouldn’t be there. But this was delicate. A Turkish Delight pink. His name and address were scribbled in ballpoint, the clumsy letters collapsing into one another as if a child had dashed them off in a hurry: Mr. H Fry, 13 Fossebridge Road, Kingsbridge, South Hams. He didn’t recognize the handwriting.

So begins the story of what a difference several hundred kilometres can make, of how Harold Fry’s life drastically changes. He writes a short response to the devastating contents of this pink envelope—a letter telling him a former coworker, Queenie, to whom he hasn’t spoken in twenty years but to whom he was close, is dying of cancer—and when he goes to drop off his note at the post box, Harold finds he can’t deposit it. So he continues to the next one, and then the next. Feeling liberated as he walks, it occurs to Harold to just keep going, all the way to the letter’s destination, Berwick-upon-Tweed, about 500 kms away. So long as he is walking, he comes to believe, Queenie will live. Come on: it’s a beautiful, endearing sentiment; sometimes I too think things like this.

The journey, either metaphorical or literal, is probably one of the oldest and simplest devices in literature to facilitate a character’s development and change in circumstances. Nevertheless, I find the idea for this particular journey rather magical, as hope often is. And it really isn’t your typical story. Yes, Harold is on a type of quest. Yes, along the way he encounters help and hindrance. And of course there is internal conflict and growth as Harold examines his traumatic childhood, turbulent relationship with his son, and his difficult marriage. But Harold is not your average journeyman. As the title suggests, he’s definitely not one whom you might expect would on a whim decide to traverse the country, being elderly, not especially fit, and dressed in only a light jacket and yachting shoes. As many of us have perhaps wished to do, maybe from work, say, Harold leaves with no plan, without saying goodbye or telling anyone. He simply passes by his initial destination and rather than being equipped with anything reliable to guide his way, is running solely on hope.

Much like a person on a quest, though, Harold is a man we feel deeply sympathetic toward, from as early in the book as the first few pages, during which he responds to Queenie’s letter. I was taken in right here:

[Harold] said nothing. He drew up tall with his lips parted, his face bleached. His voice, when at last it came, was small and far away. “It’s—cancer. Queenie is writing to say goodbye.” He fumbled for more words but there weren’t any. Tugging a handkerchief from his trouser pocket, Harold blew his nose. “I um. Gosh.” Tears crammed his eyes. (5)

So we approve of and accept Harold’s decision, even though we haven’t a clue who Queenie really is yet and even though it is indeed so unlikely a pilgrimage. And we commit even further as we become privy to his inner workings, mentally, emotionally, and even physically, all of these appropriately, intimately revealed as the journey progresses. We learn of his past, about his deteriorating relationship with Maureen, the truth about their son, David, and of course about Queenie, the friend whom he’s determined to visit. The unravelling of this history is masterfully done, though at times I felt the device of revealing backstory through memory overused. Still, how else to tell it in this story? “He no longer saw the distance in terms of miles. He measured it with his remembering.” While you’re walking, particularly alone, time to reflect is unlimited. This is indeed what you do—you continally remember things. Add to that the meeting of various characters along the way who remind you of your past, and there’s a lot of reflecting going on. What makes it readable in this book and in fact compelling is that you find out more truths as the book progresses, and sometimes these truths are shocking twists. Joyce is careful in her writing not to acquiesce to possible expectations.

There’s also a captivating tone to Joyce’s storytelling, emphasized by title chapters like “Harold and the Barman and the Woman with Food,” and “Harold and the Physician and the Very Famous Actor,” “Maureen and the Telephone Call,” “Harold and the Dog” and “Maureen and the Publicist.” Fairy-taleish is how best to describe it, I think, and also slightly mysterious, and this, along with the way we come to know the backstories, sets a good pace for the book and the walk itself.

A strange thing: being on this journey with Harold made me feel reluctant to close the book, as though doing so would leave him alone, lying awake under the stars or sitting in a tearoom, not only lonely but detrimentally paused. Time is of the essence here, after all; we’re racing against Death. So when I had to stop reading, which I was reluctant to do, as it felt as though turning the pages kept Harold moving, I actually never closed the book; I always left it lying open. Harold and his walk struck me as so three-dimensional that closing the book was acknowledging they weren’t, in fact, real. I would have felt, as I did at the end, rather like Bastian, closing the Neverending Story.

As a reviewer, though, I can’t just read for pleasure. I paid attention also to balance of the journey, and whether elements were unrealistic or not (they were not), whether characters Harold met along the way were too conveniently placed. But they were not. While one or two offer shelter, more often, Harold is burdened by these meetings, as people confide their troubles to him and he learns that the encouragement on his journey needs to come as much from within as from others. The focus in this book, both for Harold and Maureen, is less on external influences and more on introspection, and the contrast between Harold’s extreme actions and Maureen’s cloistering herself at home while both move forward is a wonderful way to say that anyone can change, regardless of where they are.

I also questioned when Harold’s walk seemed too easy for who he was and as unprepared as he was. But just as any questions arose, Joyce answered them. And when hard times fell on Harold, most heart-breakingly near the end, they seemed to mirror exactly how life goes. Sometimes we experience smooth sailing, and sometimes everything becomes so frustrating you could cry or give up. When a group of well-meaning but misunderstanding and waylaying pilgrims decides to join Harold on his mission to Queenie, I feared the book would be utterly ruined if they didn’t disband or Harold was unable to escape them, and I thought of them as intruders, as one might feel when one is interrupted while reading something good. But this turned out to be an appropriate response, and thus could not be a criticism, because their overlong stay and my desperation to keep moving were exactly the intention. As much as I remained vigilant, I could find nothing, really, to complain about.

While it is a rather feel-good story, it is tempered by tragedy and conflict. Thankfully, it doesn’t give way to cheesiness or unrealistic predictability. And Harold, but also Maureen and Rex and the silver-haired gentleman (oh, that chapter!), is so sympathetically portrayed, you must grieve a little that he is only a character in a book. The way he observes and interprets his surroundings fleshes out both him and his journey.

A cracking of branches sent him scurrying forward, only to look back, with his heart wildly beating, and discover a pigeon regaining its balance in a tree. As time passed and he found his rhythm, he began to feel more certain. England opened beneath his feet, and the feeling of freedom, of pushing into the unknown, was so exhilarating…. He was in the world by himself and nothing could get in the way or ask him to mow the lawn. [...]

Life was very different when you walked through it. … There were so many shades of green Harold was humbled. … Far away the sun caught a passing car, maybe a window, and the light trembled across the hills like a fallen star. How was it he had never noticed all this before? Pale flowers, the name of which he didn’t know, pooled the foot of the hedgerows, along with primroses and violets.

(Later, Harold actually buys a guide to wildflowers so he can identify the ones he comes across on his walk. How can you not love this man?)

While sometimes the writing betrays that this is a first novel, in general it is like molasses in your mouth. Joyce often found new and wonderful ways to say ordinary things (and I’m annoyed at myself for not remembering what they were. Something about a nose pulling at the air, for example…). I admit, too, that her English way of phrasing things made me love the writing all the more.

One might perhaps accuse the book of being too precious, but I argue that it is, rather, a deeply compassionate tone that might be mistaken for such sentimentality. The end in particular may be thought of as too neat and happily-ever-after, but it is not an easily attained end nor an unlikely one. The Unlikely Pilgimage of Harold Fry is charming, yes. But it’s much more than that. In it we encounter both humour and pain. It is an insightful exploration of regret, grief, and marriage; also joy, benevolence, and compassion for others (family, friends, and even strangers). It is about human weakness in its copious forms, happiness in the many, often quiet or seemingly small acts of bravery. Ultimately, this novel is beautiful, and deceivingly complex, and while it may not end a Man Booker winner (I say that based only on past winners), it’s not difficult to see why it has been longlisted.

The Journey of Harold Fry to Belleville

Dear Steph,

Attended this Chatelaine Book Club event tonight (Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry), & thought it sounds just like your kind of book. So I just snagged you a copy and got it signed. Also stuck in a button (“badge” as Rachel called it before correcting herself) that they were also giving away.

[...]

In the meantime, hope you enjoy this book! I’ve been wanting to read it since RHC compared it to Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, one of my go-to handsells at NH. Rachel is absolutely lovely in person & Harold Fry has just been longlisted for the Booker. So—enjoy!

[...]

In other news—the event featured fish & chips in paper cones. Super greasy goodness & very, very English. :)

Love,

Jaclyn [@jacqua83] [literarytreats.wordpress.com]

Thank you, Jaclyn, for your thoughtfulness and overwhelming kindness, which added to my enjoyable experience of this book and makes me treasure it, and to Chatelaine Books and Random House for your generosity. 

LitBits 28

My sincere apologies for not posting more regularly. I do have two reviews coming, once I finally write them: one of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce (Random House), which I quite enjoyed and feel rather tender about, and one of Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Arrested Development writer Maria Semple (Hachette). A hilarious and fast read! I couldn’t put it down. I’ve also done a couple of reviews for the Quill & Quire, one for Rock Reject, by Jim Williams, and the other for Emma Donoghue’s new collection of short stories, Astray. I think Rock Reject is either out now in the current issue or coming soon, and the review for Donoghue is supposed to appear in the November issue.

I also have been working on my own story writing, and that’s admittedly made me feel less inspired to write here, particularly reviews. They’ve become so hard, as though I have reviewer’s block. I’ve recently discovered that writer’s block doesn’t really exist, or rather that it’s just another word for me, so reviewer’s block, I’m sure, is something similar. I stand in my own way now, I’ve developed some sort of fear around it, which has meant it takes me five-plus hours to write a single review. Ridiculous! I admit to feeling some dread, no matter how enjoyable the book. Luckily, I’m not quiet about the books I like, so they’re still getting promoted.

So, what are you guys reading lately? Or what’s the most recent book you bought? A few weekends ago I bought Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You (which won the Frank O’Connor short story award, was named one of the top ten fiction books of 2007 by Time mag, and was named a favourite  book of 2007 by the Seattle Times, though I didn’t know any of that until after I bought it). I hadn’t heard of Miranda July before finding this book at my indie, and I looked her up. She is freaking accomplished, yo. The NOBHMTY website is the most fun I’ve ever been on; she writes everything about the book in dry-erase marker on her stove. You keep clicking the arrow and a new message comes up. Try it.

I also bought Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Stories, which I’m very excited about. I loved her in university, and as it turns out, she’s the one who’s influenced almost every one of my favourite writers. I always read interviews of writers I admire, and they keep crediting O’Connor. It all seems like a message that I’m on the right path. An inukshuk in writerly code.

Anyway,  just a bit of chat. On to the literary tidbits!

1. Let’s start with a laugh. Some of you may already have seen this, but here is a day in the life of Iain Reid, author of the funny and genuine One Bird’s Choice. This piece made me laugh out loud, but it actually pissed off some people. My guess is those people haven’t read OBC, don’t understand Iain’s humour, don’t get this is obviously not how he lives every day, and perhaps take themselves and the writing life and possibly everything else far too seriously. Enjoy!

2. These are absolutely gorgeous illustrations of quotes from well-known writers. (Click through to here for more.) While the Woolf illustration is pretty cool (they’re all cool!), my favourite is Whitman’s “All truths wait in all things,” not just the quote but the illustration, too. I’m still waiting for that perfect copy of Leaves of Grass to cross my path. “Leaves of Grass, my ass,” said Homer Simpson, but Gale Boetticher said it better:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and
measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much
applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars. —Walt Whitman, 1900

So beautiful in cadence and syntax and words, I become teary. I was practically bursting when Gale quoted it so wonderfully on Breaking Bad. A lovely juxtaposition to the cruelty he faced.

3. Some publishing news. It’s big! Patrick Crean, formerly publisher at Thomas Allen, now has his own imprint with HarperCollins. Very curious and excited to see where this goes!

4. More funny stuff… Young (28) writer Simon Rich, a New York Times contributor (along with dad and brother), writer for SNL, and author of two collections of short stories and two novels, gives us an irreverent look at God—and his girlfriend—in this two-page story called “Center of the Universe.” His latest novel, What in God’s Name, was just out last month. Jaclyn at Literary Treats has already written a review.

5. Katerina Ortakova over at Random House collected a bunch of lovely book nook photos (click on the image and it will take you to the next). Ah, readerly bliss! Which is your favourite? As usual, I stretch the word favourite so that it becomes plural. Mine are the DIY closet, “this will be your favourite,” “sound of swaying grass,” “how enchanting,” and “porch swing.” If I was allowed to pick only one…well, I can’t. But I guess it would be between the second and third choices. The title of the second gives a strong hint. :)

6. If you’re a fan, you probably already know that The Hobbit film is now not two but three films. I’m the only one I know who’s excited about this. I mean, not keen on having to wait three years (what if something happens and I don’t get to see all three?!), but I’m so confident in Jackson, Boyens, and Walsh’s abilities and decision-making skills, that I’m sure it will be best to have it in three. I can’t wait!

7. Have you guys heard of these yet? They’re popping up everywhere, though they’ve been out for a little while now (this article is from July…). Little free libraries. Take a book, leave a book! I love the idea!

8. If there’s one thing I hear from book lovers everywhere, it’s that they need more bookshelves. If money is tight, and when isn’t it, maybe you can make your own! Here are a bunch of nifty ideas for DIY bookshelves.

9. Dinah Fried is a graphic designer currently working on a thesis called “Novel Reading.” Here are her photos of fictitious dishes. Grilled cheese and a milkshake à la Holden Caulfield, anyone?

10. Ten cool converted bookstores. A manure tank! An Airstream! A ship! A funeral home? (How wonderfully ironic…) I must go the Hay Castle one in Wales!

11. Slightly Foxed is a new and second-hand-book shop in London, England. I love the name. They even have their own editions: “beautifully produced and irresistibly collectable little hardback reissues of classic memoirs that have been allowed to slip out of print, each available from us in a limited and numbered clothbound pocket edition of 2,000 copies”—and they’re handcrafted in Yorkshire. They also have the Slightly Foxed Quarterly, which you can read about on their site and of course subscribe to.

12. Oh, I love Julian Barnes. I enjoy his writing but also adore his reading voice. Here is a delicious essay he wrote, featured in Guardian, called “My Life as a Bibliophile.” It comes from a little pamphlet called My Life with Books, which was available only in independent bookstores and the proceeds of which went to Freedom from Torture charity.

13. Did you guys see the news back in July about Jane Austen’s turquoise ring selling at auction for £152, 450? It’s a sweet ring; the turquoise stone is one of my favourites. I would love to own it. Imagine! A ring that sat on her fingers! Such a personal item. I always thought I’d want the writing desk or typewriter of a favourite author. But jewellery is just as, if not even more, appealing.

14. More word art: unusual words rendered in bold graphics. Scripturient, yonderly, jettatura, and more. All fascinating, and the designs are excellent. Also, if you haven’t wandered through Brain Pickings before, do. It’s very interesting! I follow it on Twitter, too.

15. This kind of stuff makes me glad. Back in July two young sisters had the idea to start a book drive for Nishnawbe Aski Nation youth. Their motivation? ‘“What surprised us is that the major issue [in those communities] is reading and literacy. They’re four-to-five years behind in our literacy skills and the suicide rates are really high,’ Julia said.” Read here for more of the story.

16. Reading between the sheets.

17. The Ten Worst Book Covers in the History of Literature. An overambitious title, but you get the idea. These covers are pretty bad, and hilarious! They claim these covers are real. I raised an eyebrow at the vagina colouring book, but guess what? It’s legit. It’s even listed on amazon.com.

18. Because laughing really is the best medicine: drunk texts from famous authors. Hahaha!

19. A glimpse of the author, on the receiving end of a review (from an interview with Kristen den Hartog, author of Trillium nominee And Me Among Them):

KRISTEN DEN HARTOG: I read reviews very quickly with my heart racing. I try not to let them take up too much space in my mind, but I don’t ignore them altogether either. I value good criticism — but by the time a book is out there, I have been through a long process with a wise editor and some trusted readers. So the book is where I want it to be, and whether others agree is something I have no control over.

This is one reason I take as much time as I do with my reviews, but also answer as honestly as I can.

20. I did a test once, out of curiosity, to see which Simpsons character I was most like. I really thought I’d be Marge, so I did the test twice, but I’m Lisa (both times). Of course I am. Here’s a fun Tumblr: The Lisa Simpson Book Club. That show is rife with literary references and I love it so much because I know many of them.

21. On that note, the Top 10 Literary Quotes from The Simpsons, as featured on BookRiot. And, I can’t help it! I enjoy these, a Visual History of Literary References on The Simpsons

22. A book review hub. Reviews by various sources on a large variety of books, in one place: idreambooks.com.

23. Bella’s Bookshelves was featured on OpenBook Toronto! Pretty cool, eh?

24. The amazing altered book art exhibit. Unfortunately not well presented, in my opinion; nevertheless interesting.

25. David Mitchell has captured readers the world over with Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, especially. And now Cloud Atlas is being made into a movie and people are rereading and purchasing the book like mad (for some reason, my copy’s been on order for over a month now. Hmm). If you haven’t already seen it, here is the impressive trailer for the adaptation of Cloud Atlas. Ah: “A half-finished book is, after all, a half-finished love affair.” I won’t miss it. And what a cast!

26. IFOA is coming up! I’m so excited. I’ve never been to a Toronto event, since I don’t live close, but one of the most fortuitous things ever, for me, is that they extend all the way to little ol’ Picton in Prince Edward County! That’s a mere half hour for me, and last year I went for the first time. It’s hosted at Picton’s Books and Company, one of my favourite indies, and this year, I’ll be meeting Joanne Harris (again! YAY!), Grace O’Connell (hope she doesn’t mind signing an ARC), and Arno Kopecky. The event costs $10, if you’re coming up this way! And if you are, let me know. I’ll meet you!

27.  OMG. “Bella’s Bookshelf,” for real, on Design Sponge! Artist is Bella Foster. (Okay, so my shelves have way more books. But this is Mediterranean blue, to me, and it also looks like something I would own. It speaks to the Maltese in me.)

28. Lastly, who’s going to BookCampTO this year? It’s a free event and a great place to network and meet in real life the friends you’ve only read! Last year we sat in sessions on bookselling (hosted by yours truly and Mark Leslie Lefebvre), blogging, social media, women in publishing, freelancing, editing, agenting, and so on. This year, it’s more unstructured and we’re all allowed to come up with our own panel ideas and have discussions on them in the various rooms. There’s also an “afterparty,” where drinks and hors d’oeuvres are served and we can better chat with people. Come, it’s great fun! PS. That photo they have, where they’re all sitting at laptops looking like they’re in a lecture? Misleading. You can take notes if you want, but this is really all about community and dialogue and ideas and lots of laughter.

Hope you’ve enjoyed these litbits, all! Any time you want me to share something, contact me. Happy long weekend!

LitBits 21

The weekday after a long weekend is always extra hard for me, and I imagine it is for others, too. So let’s start off with some amazing news!

1. The Governor General Literary Award nominees were just announced today, and the fiction nominees are: Patrick DeWitt, for The Sisters Brothers, Esi Edugyan, for Half-Blood Blues, David Bezmozgis, for The Free World, Marina Endicott for Little Shadows, and Alexi Zentner, for Touch. This is only the second time ever that two authors have been nominated for all three major Canadian literary awards. All this overlap makes it pretty easy for those who want to read all the nominees of the various awards, eh? My hearty congratulations to all the publishers, authors, and staff who made these books the best they could be! UPDATE: Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table was up for consideration, but the author respectively requested that his publisher not submit the book, as he feels he’s won the award a fair number of times already (that is, five times). The Cat’s Table does remain on the Giller shortlist.

2. Some of you may be interested in the Guess the Giller contest going on now till Nov. 8. You may be pretty excited about potentially winning a copy of each of the shortlisted titles, for instance: that is, Esi Eduygan’s Half-Blood Blues, Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, David Bezmozgis’s The Free World, Lynn Cody’s The Antagonist, and Zsuzsi Gartner’s Better Living Through Plastic Explosives. Doesn’t tempt you enough? How about a Kobo Touch e-reader and a $50 gift certificate from Chapters/Indigo? Still not enough incentive? Okay: how about the grand prize for guessing the winner:

• A visit from the 2011 Scotiabank Giller prize-winning author to contest winner’s home town, courtesy of Scotiabank. The hometown or residence of  the contest winner must be in Canada
• A restaurant meal for the contest winner and four (4) guests with the 2011 prize-winning author (maximum value: $500 CDN ), courtesy of  Scotiabank. The restaurant will be selected in the sole discretion of the sponsor and all decisions made by the sponsor are final.
•A set of the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlisted books
•A Kobo eReader, courtesy of Kobo, with a $50 CDN gift certificate to Chapters Indigo, courtesy of Scotiabank
Approximate value of the prize is $5,000.00

Off to enter!

3. Since I was a teen, I’ve counted Raymond Carver among my favourite short story writers. Last week the hubby and I enjoyed a movie called Everything Must Go, based on Carver’s very short and quite different story titled, “Why Don’t You Dance?” Read the story (link will take you there) and watch the movie—the trailer is below.

4. I couldn’t help but spend quite a bit of time scrolling through this site: Awesome People Reading. What is it, exactly, about seeing someone read that makes other readers so happy? I’m always dying to ask people what they’re reading if I can’t already tell, and when I’m looking at magazines or pictures, I always try to discern what the title is in the subject’s hand. The other day there was a kid in the shop totally sprawled out in one of the leather chairs, reading a dinosaur book.  My first thought was, I need a camera!

5. Emily Gould and Ruth Curry have begun Emily Books, an indie bookstore that, according to them, is more like a club, and they sell only ebooks. They’re just getting started, but here is their campaign. They can also be found on Twitter. Will we see more of these ebook stores in the future?

6. I want this book. I love this book. This is an example of a beautiful book, and I’m thinking Jen Knoch would love it, too. It’s called Farm Anatomy: Curious Parts and Pieces of Country Life, by Julia Rothman. It took her almost a year to create!

7. “This Cake is for the Party,” the prequel, “The Lightest One I Could Make”: a new story by Sarah Selecky in the Walrus, November 2011 issue. I’m sorry if I’m coming across as a major fan girl. It’s embarrassing, but I can’t help it. It’s a good story!

8. Jessica Westhead‘s short story “Community,” from her collection called And Also Sharks, has been dramatized for radio! My computer is having problems right now, which is VERY ANNOYING (everything I do is delayed, whether it’s typing letters or clicking on another site, or whatever), so I’m not getting to listen to this without it constantly skipping. I hope it doesn’t do that for you. Maybe it just needs some time to download and buffer or whatever. I hope you can listen!

9. Watch how a book is made, from the Middle Ages (love those illuminated manuscripts!) to the present—actually, even now, the process is evolving. I personally find this history fascinating. Has anyone read Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book? That novel will increase your appreciation for the dear ones on your shelves, too! (Thank you to For the Love of Bookshops for “making books” links!)

10. For you children’s book lovers: Have you read Plain Kate by Erin Bow? It just won the $25,000 TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award. I was quite happy when I read this news; the book is magical, well worth your time. In fact, I’d say it’s an autumn read, so here’s my review of it, to get you motivated!

11. I’m sure that by now you all have heard of The Night Circus? In the last LitBits I posted an article about the marketing aspect of it. This week, something interesting is happening: Thursday, October 13th marks the date that Erin Morgenstern’s “circus of dreams” was born. On October 13, 1886, at the stroke of midnight in London, the first circus doors opened to the public. This upcoming Thursday marks the 125th anniversary of this event. I have to admit, okay, that in general, I’m not cool with circuses, at least not animal or freak ones. Cirque du Soleil is different, and I’d love to see that some day. Anyway, I approach circus books with a degree of caution. This book, like Water for Elephants, has met with rave reviews for the most part, though one recent article in the New York Times had a different stance. Nevertheless, you can be sure that Random House has some neat stuff planned for this anniversary, like this free game, for instance. I haven’t yet read the book, but I plan to—because the story idea intrigues me. Erin is also coming to my area, for anyone interested. She’ll be reading as part of the International Festival of Authors in Picton, at Books and Company on October 28, 7pm. Tickets are $10.

12. Any Poe fans here? I love Poe, though studying him in university burst my bubble a little. By now, though, I’ve forgotten the underlying meanings and can just enjoy his stories as the wonderful gothic creations they also are. And now, one of my favourite male actors, John Cusack, is playing the author himself in a thriller of a movie called The Raven, to be released in 2012. I’m excited about it! Watch the trailer.

13. While you’re in Poe mode, there’s also this movie coming out called Twixt, about a hack horror writer visiting a small town in which he ends up investigating the murder of a young girl. Poe appears in the movie, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, who said this: the story is “inspired by the eerie writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe” and came to him in a vivid dream he had while on a trip to Istanbul. The trailer for Twixt is spooky!

14. Switching gears here, the CBC is celebrating 75 years of featuring CanLit, from interviews to reviews to stimulating discussion. I have always loved browsing the CBC archives for old stuff with Atwood and for Halloween files (that I posted last year), and they’re taking a look back in the celebrating, too. They’ve started with Alice Munro, who’s got about 20 collections of stories to date but at the time of her interview had only three. Whoa. Have a listen to Alice Munro and Don Harrow on Morningside in 1978.

15. You’ve read writer’s blogs, but have you ever read a character‘s blog? Always Under Revision is the blog of Kate, a character in Leona Theis’s novel in progress. In her posts, Kate details what it’s like being written, as well as chats about her author’s progress and daily happenings. I thought it an interesting, creative spin on the typical author’s blog. I’d say it’s a good (but potentially dangerous when I think about it, if you’re in any way unstable!) method of getting inside a character’s head, let alone a writer’s!

16. I was reading the Saturday Toronto Star this weekend and to my surprise saw a few book covers I recognized on the front page of the Entertainment section. I always read that section but don’t see much on books. This time, there was an entire page and a bit, an interesting article called “Shortchanging the Short Story,” mainly but not solely about Zsuzsi Gartner’s recent collection Better Living Through Plastic Explosives making the Giller shortlist, and what she has to say about that and short stories. What do you think after reading it? Are short story collections shortchanged? Should there be no distinction between novels and short stories—should we just have, as Gartner wishes, books? I’ve written about short stories here before, and I’d love to know what you guys think about this article.

17. Want to win a copy of Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table? Go to Random House’s BookClubs page! They have a biweekly contest to win books, so while you’re there, sign up for the newsletter. It really is possible to win: I’ve done so twice!

18. I’m looking at Margaret Atwood’s newest book, called In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, published by McClelland & Stewart, and you know how books often list the author’s other publications? In this book, Ms Atwood’s previous books take up TWO pages. There are 21 books of fiction, 14 books of poetry, 9 non-fiction books, and 6 kids books. And that’s just books. Kind of makes my “I can’t write” whinging really pathetic!

19. Check this out, this is so cool! Trevor Cole’s award-winning Practical Jean…in photos:

20. I’ve waxed poetic about my artist sister, Thérèse Neelands before (by the way, she’s joined Twitter), and Oliver Jeffers as well, who also happens to be one of my sister’s sources of inspiration. So what do you get when you combine the two? A Christmas ornament that T made and forgot to give me last year and instead presented me this Thanksgiving weekend: I give you Boy, of Oliver Jeffers’s Lost and Found (the short film of which I posted for you in LitBits 19), Up and Down, How to Catch A Star, and The Way Back Home:

Boy, from Oliver Jeffers's The Way Back Home (also featured in How to Catch a Star, Lost and Found, and Up and Down. Ornament by Thérèse Neelands.

Believe me, you have to see this dude in real life (and we have to do something about that little bit between his legs, which is, of course, where the twine comes through. It’s too hilariously placed). Seriously, though, in real life, this little guy is amazing. My photos are shite. Also, she made Penguin, and my other sister got him. I demand him next Christmas. Also, I want the Martian from The Way Back Home. I hope you’re reading this, T. Oi, Oliver, if you’re reading this: thank you!! Also, you and my sis should get together and do something artsy.

Anything you want posted in LitBits? Contact me or send me a tweet!

LitBits 20

Holy moly, we’re at number 20 already! And what a perfect day for it. Cold and grey and rainy, perfect for reading a blog and drinking tea and getting lost in a great book or magazine and wearing fleece and cuddling up with pillows and blankets and the lovely warm cat or dog. Ah, I love autumn. Happy October, readers! It’s my favourite month of the year. When else do you get Thanksgiving and Halloween? As Homer Simpson would say, Woohoo!

Something for everyone, then:

1. Most readers who read a book they really love wish for more like it, and there are several sites that allow you to punch in a title and come up with results of similar books. I haven’t found them to be all that accurate, really. Nothing can be as great as an enthusiastic bookseller, a competent library assistant, a book lover friend, even a stranger who asks you what you’re reading. This new site, however, is pretty neat: Booklamp is part of an exploratory project (called the Book Genome) that measures book DNA, so to speak. You can read the short version here, on Giraffe Days, or explore the Booklamp site. Publishers take note: they need your help in promoting your books!

2. Heed my warning, copyeditor and proofreading friends: reading manuscripts can cause death! Is it ironic that these particular manuscripts were medical texts?

3. This is so encouraging to me! I’ve always been under the impression that Canada didn’t care enough about its literary culture. Sure, things are being done, but I always think there could be much more. This week, Project Bookmark Canada started following me on Twitter, prompting me to check them out. Project Bookmark Canada creates plaques to install in the very places that an author writes about in their book. For example, there’s a Bookmark plaque for Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces located in Toronto:

Up Grace, along Henderson, up Manning to Harbord I whimpered; my spirit shape finally in familiar clothes and, with abandon, flinging its arms [to?] the stars.

From Fugitive Pieces, by Anne Michaels, published by McClelland & Stewart. Bookmarked at College and Manning Streets, Toronto on October 28, 2010.

(If you haven’t already read Fugitive Pieces, I highly recommend it. As you can tell, Michaels is a poet, and her prose demonstrates it just as well as her poetry.)

So, “a Bookmark can be found in the exact physical location where the literary scene takes place, so that the visitor can read the story or poem while standing just where the narrator or characters stand.” There are currently six bookmarks across Canada and this fall they’re installing more. Isn’t this exciting? I love it! It’s such a wonderful, supportive idea. I think we definitely need a Purdy Bookmark, an Atwood one, a Shields one…but whoa, when I think of how many of our Canadian authors mention particular sites, we could have plaques everywhere! Better than a multi-coloured moose, I say. No huge surprise to see the member organizations, including the forward-thinking, hand-dipped-in-all-the-pies HarperCollins, and I like seeing small publishers on there as well, but I’d love to see far more on the list.

4. For some reason this week on Twitter it was all about hot guy book lovers. This site is kind of cute: Hot Guys Reading Books. The voyeur in me who cranes her neck at weird angles to surreptitiously see what others around town are reading loves this. But my idea of hot differs from many of the photographers. Or perhaps it’s not the guys in particular but that they’re reading that’s hot? :) (Just kidding, boys. Well, sort of: it is pretty hot seeing guys read.)

5. For the coffee drinkers among you readers (ahem, Jaclyn!), I give you Atwood Blend Whole Bean Coffee. Sold at Indigo and participating cafés, and with an environmental and arts agenda. You can read about the Atwood Blend in more detail here. I’m telling you, the woman is everywhere, it’s amazing. Apparently, she’s got something in this month’s Playboy, too!

6. A bookish site called Pages Worth Remembering posted a tee-shirt image I love, called Why is an owl smart? (You can see the image much better on the PWR site.) First off, I love owls. For Christmas last year my sister and brother-in-law gave me this tee to wear to work. I wouldn’t mind adding this new one to my wardrobe! Whoa, I could really waste time looking up literary gifts. For my coworker who reads mostly classics, I’d get him a shirt that says, “I read dead people.” Ha! Have a look at the rest of the cool stuff at cafepress by typing in “bibliophile” for your search. Christmas is coming, as they’re already starting to say!

7. In the tee-shirt vein, mentioning Margaret Atwood again, and speaking of dead people, here are some dead author shirts, illustrated by none other than Perfect Peggy herself. My favourite is the Shakespeare primary source image, the first one. If you click on accessories and the tote bag, you’ll see the image better. By the way, a while ago I posted where these illustrations came from—“Margaret Atwood gives us a taste of the publishing pie,”—a humorous, interesting presentation on how publishing works.

8. Earlier I mentioned HarperCollins being a forward-thinking publisher involved in many new projects. Recently, I read on Mark Leslie’s blog that they are the first mainstream publisher to “get it,” meaning, to really understand what the changes in the publishing world mean for everyone, including customers, right now. As you’ll read on Mark’s blog, HarperCollins has signed a partnership with On Demand Books, the creators of the Espresso Book Machine (EBM), to provide customers, both online and in stores with the machine, with instant copies of Harper backlist trade should the book not be in stock. Mark, who brought the Espresso Book Machine to the McMaster University bookstore, Titles, writes:

The program will allow any physical bookstore with an Espresso Book Machine the ability to offer thousands of backlist trade paperback titles from HarperCollins to their customers. This means that the vision of walking into your local bookstore only to find the title out of stock and a wait of one to three weeks for that special order to arrive, a thing of the past.

Print on demand is the wave of the present as stores are decreasing inventory to save costs and customers are eager to have backlist books immediately. Personally, I’m not that instant; if the book’s not in stock, I can wait for a publisher’s copy or find it second-hand if it’s out of print. As a bibliophile, I’m all about quality, and the reading experience is optimal when I read from a finished book from the publisher. I’m not knocking Espresso books, by any means, because I haven’t a clue what the quality is actually like, but you’re not going to get the lovely cover in its intended form, or the deckle edge pages. Still, as a bookseller, whose priority is to get you what you want when you’ve asked for it, I pronounce the EBM a dream machine. It’s making a significant difference in the livelihood of indies.

9. I’m a sucker for jewellery—for almost anything literary, really. The Book Keeper is an indie bookstore in Sarnia, ON, which also happened to win bookseller of the year this year. They sell more than books, like any smart indie, and particularly these bracelets and necklaces. My favourite? The Charlotte’s Web necklace. Though the Harry Potter book and train necklace is pretty cute, too. I did contact the store by email to see if it was possible to order the jewellery online since I’m nowhere close to Sarnia, but unfortunately I never heard back.

10. Into the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books? I haven’t read them yet but I have good reason: I prefer to read a trilogy when I have all the books, and until Penguin publishes the mass market copy of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, so my books can match, I won’t be buying the third one. Until I have that one, I won’t start reading. Anyway. Those of you who are waiting for the American version of the film to come out will be excited to see this trailer! Why they show so much, I don’t know. I almost feel as though I don’t need to see it now, but that’s because I did see the original. Still, this trailer seems to make a bit more sense storywise to me, and it does look pretty compelling, not least because of the actors. However, nothing will substitute for the book, I’m sure.

11. Here’s a pretty neat endeavour, hosted by three blogs called She Known As Jess, The Rest is Still Unwritten, and Eleusinian Mysteries, which are working in conjunction with the Kmart Wishing Tree. The project is You Give, We Give, and basically invites readers to give books, in the lead-up to Christmas, to those less fortunate. Alternatively, you can donate money to buy books. In return, you’ll be entered to win “seriously great prizes.” I love the idea; it’s a lovely gesture. The prizes are a bonus, really, aren’t they? As booklovers, we want to spread the love! There are more details, such as what happens with the books and how they are distributed, what kind of books they’re looking for, etc., on Jess’s site (the link I provided under the project name).

12. Because of the copious exclamation-pointed tweets surrounding Random House‘s phenomenon of a book The Night Circus, I wanted to offer this article on Open Book Toronto, called “The Circus is in Town,” just to calm everyone so we can get something more rational than raving—and for some balance. I can get pretty excited about a book, too, but I don’t trust when everyone acts as though there isn’t anything as awesome as this book, right here, right now. That’s a major feat for a debut novel. What else is going on here, then? I liked Toyne’s article; aside from her personal opinion of the book, she offers perspective, which kindly brings us back from the dizzying heights to more solid ground. Now, I haven’t yet read the book, but I have it (and it is gorgeous, I must say) and plan to read and review it. I’m very curious and the story is certainly appealing. And I’d love nothing more than for the book to live up to the enthusiasm its being met with.

13. I give you The Brothers McLeod, animating Shakespeare searching for play ideas, and his pet pig Francis. Need I say more? Also, it’s these McLeod brothers who have humorously illustrated the cover of the lovely Jen Campbell’s highly anticipated book, Weird Things Customer Say in Bookshops, which I’ve posted about several times before. It’s enthusiastically endorsed by Neil Gaiman and available for pre-order if you live in the UK. I’m not certain when the book will be available for us Canucks, but I look forward to it!

14. I love animals. I’m very close to my dog, Lucy. Extremely close. People-worry-about-me close. So when I come across a post called Literary Pets, I’m on it. Somehow writers who don’t have pets, or don’t want them, make me a little wary. It’s like people without books. *shiver*

Lucy and Me.

This is not unusual.

 15. I’m totally of the mind that we don’t get enough holidays. I may feel this because this is my 15th or so job in this town (for the record, I’ve never been fired and I’ve always left for valid reasons) since 2001, so I haven’t built up holiday time, ever, and usually take off fewer than ten paid holiday days a year. I have been on only two vacations ever, to Malta in 1999 and to England in 2009, and I’m not counting a week or weekend once a year camping in Algonquin (because that’s always work, and usually it’s been with family, which makes it even more work). So now that I work in a bookshop and know there are several literary holidays, you think I can plead some of them and get paid time off? I mean, it’s literary! And educational! And when I’m rested I’m much more pleasant and productive! I’m especially up for holidays 2, 3, 5, and 7. Some of them tell you to celebrate by reading or writing a tidbit, but I think book lovers really ought to get the whole day off to celebrate, you know, Limerick Day. If countries let people take days off when their soccer team is playing in the World Cup, surely we can take a day in the name of art?

16. Speaking of art, here’s my sister Thérèse Neelands‘s latest print, called “Margaret and I, Monday Afternoon.” Maggie is the dog she and her husband rescued off the scary streets of TO, and is so named after my sister’s favourite author, Margaret Atwood. I told you that woman was everywhere, didn’t I?

"Margaret & I, Monday Afternoon," Thérèse Neelands, watercolour, ink on paper, 2011

Natural Order by Brian Francis: A Review

Natural Order, by Brian Francis, Random House, Aug. 2011, 374 pp.

Some of you may remember that I had Brian Francis‘s new book Natural Order with me when I went to BookCamp TO, and that, on remembering I had it in my handbag, I pulled it out as a fine example of a lovely book during the booksellers panel. Random House did themselves proud with this one. A gorgeous and appropriate jacket design (oh, that spine) by none other than CS Richardson, of course, who also designed the layout, the fonts of which you can read about in the back. (I love it when they include a note about the type! I used to design layouts, one of my favourite jobs at a custom-book publisher.) The boards are mustard yellow, accented with complementary red type, and the pages have deckle edges. And the signatures are flexible; the book will lie open wherever you leave it, say, on the bathroom counter while you’re tying your hair in a ponytail or putting on aftershave.

It’s a pretty book, then, and that’s partly why I chose to read it over others I’ve got in my tbr pile. The other reason is that when I pulled it out of the envelope it came in and began reading, I found I couldn’t stop.

Once upon a time, there was an acerbic old woman named Joyce. Joyce was 86 years old and lived in a nursing home. Her husband Charles was already dead and so was her only child, John. John had died at the tender age of 31. And not of cancer, as Joyce had told everyone. Because if John, being gay, couldn’t have followed the natural order of things in life, Joyce thought he could at least be normal in death. But that’s not how things really were.

Joyce Sparks, now close to death herself, is finally going to tell us the truth. And so begins Natural Order—with a standard obituary for John Charles Sparks, son of Charles and Joyce. It’s not only an intriguing way to begin but also a telling way to start the novel. What matters most is that John is dead and it’s too late for “I’m sorry. I love you just the way you are.” If this book is about anything, it’s about our need to seek out second chances, and Joyce is no exception. Living in a nursing home and looking back on her life, she finally comes to terms with the truth she’s always known about her son, and at the same time, she looks for redemption in her acceptance of a young man, Timothy, who visits her.

Joyce’s acerbic voice and sarcastic wit grab you first, even before she reveals her story. It’s a strong beginning to the novel, and Brian Francis (author of the critically acclaimed Fruit), who is obviously not a senior or a woman, did well in imagining his narrator’s voice; it’s quite concrete, sometimes almost involuntarily nasty, especially to the nursing home staff, but also funny and excruciatingly, finally, honest. Joyce’s portrayal of herself is far from flattering. And at this point, I should warn you: it’s been a long time since I was so emotionally invested in a novel and it’s for this reason I’ve been struggling for days to write this review. I’m afraid of not being fair, because what if my review is clouded by and too focused on these emotions, as well as personal issues I have with certain personalities?

I will admit that at times I was pulled from the narrative by things other than my reactions, when the narrative itself or dialogue came across as stilted, when I felt that characters were sometimes too stereotypical or contrived, most surprisingly the gay men, I thought, but especially Joyce with her butterfly-themed kitchen and date-square baking.

At the same time, Francis, who also significantly writes a site called Caker Cooking, seems to have a good handle on “this type” of Canadian woman (she’s so recognizable), and I wonder if perhaps Joyce was purposely constructed this way, since it helps us place her sense of propriety and homophobia. I wonder, too, searching myself, if what caused my impression of the elderly as stereotypical was my mild impatience with how seniors all seem the same (I know, I know, I’m sorry; in general, I rebel against typical foods, events, activities, people. I like variety). For the record, I never liked Hagar or Daisy Goodwill, either.

That said, as a young woman with a serious crush on her friend Freddy and then at 86 in the nursing home, Joyce was wonderfully convincing. These are both times when she was not only more likeable but also more interesting—and less judgemental, at one stage naive and at the other seeking redemption. But Joyce at the varying times in between seemed much diminished, reduced mainly to the overriding trait of fearful meddling. I wanted more redeeming qualities from her with regard to John and Charles, a break from her helicopter parenting (interesting question: would I have felt as repelled by her if she was the mother of a daughter? Mother–son relationships really get to me), from her preoccupation with propriety, from her paranoid rooting through her husband’s pockets and drawers for evidence of an affair, to the extent at which she was examining his underwear for starchy stains. She was almost all villain all the time.

Yet, importantly, perhaps the harsh way Joyce is portrayed is a reflection of how she regretfully remembers herself, alienating, fearful, and unforgiving. Let it be known that in no way did I feel Francis had any bitter agenda. Still, poor Joyce is almost impossible to like; at times her voice caused me such rage and fits of dislike I felt it difficult to continue. While she’s not wholly horrid—her relationship with Mr. Sparrow, her elderly next-door neighbour she watches out for, is an example of the small variance in her personality; he’s the only one who doesn’t receive her characteristic nastiness—she’s pretty close to it throughout the book and I absolutely needed space from her, which, I’ll admit, is likely a testament to Francis’s skill in portraying her as the smothering, narrow-minded person she was, and how much of an accomplishment, then, is her genuine attempt at redemption in the end. Character development is definitely evident, and ultimately it was what drove me to the end of the story.

Now, I’m not a mother (of children, anyway). I don’t want to be a mother, either. But I don’t think that’s why I felt the way I did about Joyce’s special brand of parenting. A mother may say it was not meddling but concern, not intolerant but protective, not overbearing but love. Certainly Joyce was not without her moments that made me feel for her, and there were indeed times when her stubborn struggle against the truth caused me less impatience and more empathy; I myself am not immune from desperately wishing the truth was something else. I have an imagination; I can conceive what it must be like to want your kids to be “normal” so they’re not subjected to pain. I got the sense, though, that this had more to do with Joyce’s idea of natural order and other people’s perceptions of her and her son. I simply could not get past the fact that it was ultimately selfishness, her own stubbornness and concern with the “natural order” of things, that drove Joyce to do and say the awful things she did, things as tragic as alienating both her husband and her son and allowing them to die first before admitting the truth or her transgressions. As deeply as she loved her son, more important to her was the fact that he was just “not right.”

As I say—and I apologize if I doth protest too much—it’s difficult to like such a woman.

But contrary to how I’ve made it sound, this book is not just about a mother’s issues with her gay son, or her relationships with any of the three other gay men who cross her path. It’s about, as I said, the difficulty in facing a truth you don’t want to admit, in seeking forgiveness by proxy, redemption when it seems too late. There’s not one of us, I’m willing to bet, who hasn’t wished for a second chance to make things right with someone, who hasn’t regretted the way they handled a certain situation, who doesn’t wish it wasn’t too late. If only we could all have a Dr. Tom!

So while I was often incensed reading Natural Order, I was also compelled to keep reading. I did laugh, much to my enjoyment, at some of the things Joyce or others came out with, and I was also deeply sad. One truly does feel Joyce’s underlying love for her son both at the time he was alive and also couched in her elderly regret, especially when she’s relating the tender moments they shared between them (while I sometimes felt they were a bit implausible I will not steal them from her), the hurt she felt when he told her he never wanted to see her again. Her overprotectiveness, her obsession with how things appeared, her need to have things be normal, her refusal to see herself in another mother who faked her gay son’s death—even though these things ruined her relationships, her struggle was always as a loving mother. Regardless of how I felt about Joyce, I never lost sight of this, and to me it’s for this reason Francis ought to be proud of his latest work.

At the risk of sounding preachy, there are lessons in humanity to be learned in this book, reminders, about understanding, acceptance, remorse, vulnerability—both in the example of those who are “different” and those who struggle with themselves to move past convention. If we come away from this successful, challenging novel with many things, which we will, let the main thing be a new or renewed openness to those we feel don’t fit in our personal moulds of “just right.” We are not, after all, bowls of porridge, chairs, or beds.

***

A special thank you to Lindsey Reeder at Random House, who sent me this book for review!

There Is No Dog, by Meg Rosoff: A Review

There Is No Dog, by Meg Rosoff, Random House, Aug. 2011, 256 pp.

Every now and then there comes a book that quiets the lament that there’s nothing new under the sun. There is No Dog by Meg Rosoff is such a book—at least, of all the authors who’ve asked what if, I don’t think there’s anyone else who’s asked: What if God were a (lazy, careless, self-obsessed, sex-mad) teenage boy?

Now if you’re at all religious or were raised as such, this may come across as blasphemous. I was raised by very strict Catholic parents, but I’ve never been one to censor my reading, and thanks to books like Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage, and shows like The Simpsons, and, worse, Family Guy, in which both Jesus and God often feature, I’ve become somewhat used to deconstructions of Christian master-narratives, as well as more human-like, sexed-up members of the Holy Trinity (er, was that a pun?). Sometimes the stuff leaves me slack-jawed and not amused, but otherwise I often find the statements being made either sadly accurate or interestingly thought-provoking.

In any case, although Rosoff admits she’s an atheist, she doesn’t necessarily set out to trash the Christian creation story or make you question whether or not there really is a God;  instead, she creates an interesting and often funny answer to the serious questions we have about why the world is the way it is—messy, catastrophic, and often difficult, but not without its moments of innovative brilliance (doesn’t this sound like the work of a teenager?).

So. God is a typical teenage boy, of whom we already have a pretty apt description above. We typically know God as infinite, having no beginning and no end. But in this story, Bob, aka God, was given the position of All-Powerful by his doting, gambling lush of a mother, who won it in a poker game. In six days (only six days, which apparently partly explains why things are so messed up) Bob created the world and everything in it—except the whales, which were thought into being by Mr B, God’s long-suffering, hardworking assistant.

Mr B, an older and wiser man who had previously applied for the position of God but did not get it, is damage control. His job is to remind Bob/God to pleaseforDog’ssakefixtheworld’sissuesbecauseit’sallgoingtohell, and also try to keep things from getting worse. He works on the numerous files of supplications—please heal my rabid son, please save the environment, please give the opposing team some horrid affliction that doesn’t show up until the seventh inning so we can win the game, etc., etc. He acts as God’s voice of reason and wisdom, reminding him of his mistakes through the ages and of his current responsibilities, straightening out the mix-up when God gets continents confused.

Bob/God, who is entirely self-absorbed and cocky, wants nothing to do with his responsibility, is in other words a negligent God, and thinks only that Mr B doesn’t care about him and that no one wants him to be happy, least of all his mother, with whom he has an understandably rocky relationship. In short, picture the teenage boy you have to coerce out of bed in the morning, the one who pulls his pillow over his head and effectively shuts you out, the one who thinks about sex every 7 seconds, the one who shirks responsibility, and you have God. Alas, poor Mr B, who has a tender heart and cares much for the world, is overwhelmed, overtired, and under-compensated; he wants to resign and be transferred to another planet.

Lucy is a beautiful young girl who wants to fall in love. Once in a while, Bob/God overhears a prayer, and this one he decides to answer personally. Unfortunately, God’s love is not so everlasting and Mr B knows from experience that God’s relationships with human girls usually mean bizarre, unseasonal, and unrelenting weather, things blowing up, and people dying, all according to his raging hormones.

It is in everyone’s best interest, then, that Bob/God does not fall in love with Lucy. But this is not what happens, and things become complicated when the two start dating and Lucy begins to ask questions, like where God works and what is his last name and what his number is so she can text him the next day….

I admit that this is a rather anaemic and very incomplete summary of an extremely imaginative, bright, funny, and original book. In fact, that’s the main plot, not the only plot; the other major one is positively heartbreaking but has a splendid end. Anthony Horowitz called There Is No Dog “genius,” and indeed there is much more depth and cleverness than one might assume. This is not merely some quick and hilarious read, and unlike too many YA novels, it’s refreshingly very well written. Amid the chaos are moments of touching beauty, and significant questions and piercing insights delivered often through tongue-in-cheek humour. A conversation between a depressed and discouraged Mr B and the local vicar while they sit together on a bench is particularly notable.

While the book is labelled juvenile fiction, the topics are undoubtedly mature. Perhaps I underestimate young adults, but I think this will appeal more to and have greater effect on adults, particularly those who enjoyed Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips, a wholly different book (her gods are Greek) but with a similar tone. And if you delight in a bit of irreverence every now and then, There Is No Dog will certainly not disappoint.

Thank you very much to Lindsey at Reeder Reads, who also works at Random House, for sending me a copy for review! It was exactly the book I needed to take on a week’s camping trip.

 

Win Books!

Okay, I don’t know if you’ve noticed but it’s crazy how many free books are floating around the Internet all the time! Now that I’m on Twitter I see giveaways by publishers and book bloggers all the time. It’s overwhelming but it’s a lot of fun, too, for people who love to read and review but can’t afford to support their voracious appetites.

So I thought I’d post some contests here for you to enter if you’re interested:

1. Check out Booklover Book Reviews, where in celebration of her one year of blogging, you can win one of five great books. The contest ends on October 18th and is open to all readers, wherever they are. It’s unusual, I’ve found, to see such literary books being given away on a blog, and I’m happy to enter the contest myself! The five books are:

LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN – Colum McCann (literature)
SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE – Alan Bradley (cosy mystery, quirky)
LIFE OF PI – Yann Martel (literature)
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO – Stieg Larsson (crime thriller)
CROCODILE ON THE SANDBANK – Elizabeth Peters (cosy mystery, historical, funny)

2. 2010: The Year In Books is giving away the much-coveted ROOM by Emma Donoghue! Enter to win until September 24.

3. HarperCollinsCanada is also hosting a contest: you can win a fantastic prize pack of twelve current and bestselling literary books by

Emma Donoghue
David Bergen
Jonathan Franzen
Louise Welsh
Anne Fortier
Michael Cunningham
Richard B. Wright
Jess Walter
Paul Harding
Ken Finkleman
Charlotte Gray
Katherine Govier

4. I have to say I’m losing hope about winning Penguin’s 75th anniversary prize pack of books, 75 of their bestselling paperbacks to be exact!! Can you imagine? You can enter only once but they pick a new winner every month until the end of the year. So far I haven’t had a call and I entered long, long ago.

5. Still dying for a copy of Ape House by Sara Gruen? The contests for this book are not over yet at Random House, even though I already won my copy!! (Woohoo!)

For example: Tea Forte contest today on Facebook: win the adorable Pugg teapot!

6. And if you want tea and tea accessories to go with those books, make friends with Tea Forte on Facebook, who are always having fantastic contests for their lovely merchandise (all you ever have to do is click the “like” button on their contest post)! When I have Biblio one day, I’m going to carry their stuff. I swear tea tastes different in it!

If you’re a book blogger and would like to advertise your giveaway contest here, just leave a note in the comments. I’m happy to help you promote!

And don’t forget, comment on my Plain Kate interview and giveaway post, and you’ll be entered to win a hardcover copy of Erin Bow’s YA novel Plain Kate, based on Russian folklore, but unlike any book you’ve read.

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Book Share

Listening to: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5; Weather: cloudy and fresh, 15°C

One of my three sisters lives in Yorkshire, in a country where books are valued like nothing else. She and I meet up on Skype usually on the weekends, and I not only get to live vicariously through her (my dream is to live there), but also I get read to. To my chagrin, she’s a far better reader than I am, aloud.

Usually our chats (this one over two hours!) consist of discussing food (today was Italian apple pie, roasted veggie pizza, and baked macaroni), weather (over there lovely: sunny and breezy and dry), National Trust places (too  numerous to list), and books (and pheasants; I’m in love with pheasants). We’re always each talking over each other, pulling books off our shelves and reading bits aloud, telling each other we must read such and such, and OH! This one…

On her part, several antiques were proffered (she much prefers second-hand, and while I appreciate them, I’m a new-book lover): a children’s book my mom used to read as a child (can’t remember the title now, from 1934); one by Enid Blyton about her nature walks called Nature Lover’s Book, with gorgeous sketches of flora and fauna; one by P.G. Wodehouse, whom she absolutely enjoys and recommends because of the hilarity (which I did get a sample of); and then also one by dear old Roald Dahl, God rest his perfect literary soul (it’s Roald Dahl month, did you know? The 13th is his birthday), called My Year. I can’t believe I haven’t read it, am mortified to admit I haven’t read any of his adult books. I need to read more of him, since I do love his writing so much.

From My Year she read me a section on apple picking and why children no longer climb trees to pick apples (Dahl speculates this is because they have too much pocket money to spend on crisps and Coke and it’s all thus made them sluggish and disinclined to do things like climb trees for apples.) The section was excellent and funny, typical Roald Dahl, and of course I’ve added the lovely book (illustrated by Quentin Blake, of course) to my wish list, which you’ll see on this site to the right in the sidebar.

It’s funny and earnestly sweet, when I think of it, how we carefully hold up covers and pages to the screen in an effort to show each other what the other must experience. That’s why we end up reading aloud, because web cams just aren’t that good.

I also added Howard’s End is on the Landing by Susan Hill to my wish list. My sister read a section from that one as well, a book about a year of reading. Like many of us, Hill had a bunch of books she owned that she hadn’t yet read. Ambitiously, like many of you (forget me, I know I’ll never succeed), she imposed on herself a book-buying ban, but for a year (imagine!!), and pledged to read the books on her shelf instead. Howard’s End is her voyage through those books. From what my sister read, it sounds quite good.

Lastly, while looking up another book she’d mentioned, I found BookBrowse (which I think I’ve been on before), on which was featured this gem: The Vanishing of Katharina Linden. It’s a mystery by Helen Grant. This is what Random House has written about it:

Not since The Elegance of the Hedgehog [which I just bought but haven't yet read] has a book arrived in America from Europe on such wings of critical praise and popularity. The Vanishing of Katharina Linden is an unforgettable debut—at once chilling and endearing, haunting and richly insightful—the story of one girl’s big heart and even bigger imagination, and of a world full of mystery, good, and evil.

It isn’t ten-year-old Pia’s fault that her grandmother dies in a freak accident. But tell that to the citizens of Pia’s little German hometown of Bad Münstereifel, or to the classmates who shun her. The only one who still wants to be her friend is StinkStefan, the most unpopular child in school.

But then something else captures the community’s attention: the vanishing of Katharina Linden. Katharina was last seen on a float in a parade, dressed as Snow White. Then, like a character in a Grimm’s fairy tale, she disappears. But, this being real life, she doesn’t return.

Pia and Stefan suspect that Katharina has been spirited away by the supernatural. Their investigation is inspired by the instructive—and cautionary—local legends told to them by their elderly friend Herr Schiller, tales such as that of Unshockable Hans, visited by witches in the form of cats, or of the knight whose son is doomed to hunt forever.

Then another girl disappears, and Pia is plunged into a new and unnerving place, one far away from fairy tales—and perilously close to adulthood.

Marvelously morbid, stunningly suspenseful, and exceptionally winning, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden is a new coming-of-age classic, and the most accomplished fiction debut in years.

Check out this first sentence: “My life would have been so different, had I not been known as the girl whose grandmother had exploded.” Sounds excellent, yes? Enough that I wanted to share it with you and thus had the idea to write this post. Read from the book by following the link I gave you above on the title. I dislike the cover on amazon and this book, the one I’m showing you, looks much nicer in all, cover and typesetting. To a large extent, that’s important to me, to my reading experience.

Oh. Doesn’t today feel like an especially perfect day for book buying? I WANT TO SHOP!!

So. What books have you found while browsing that you’ve recently added to your wish list?

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Mailbox Treats and Upcoming Reviews

I have a pile of books to read to review for this site, and I thought I’d just give you a taste of what’s to come. Now, I’m working three jobs right now, so don’t hold your breath, but I will do my best. I will be trying to fit in my reading before work on Mondays and Wednesdays, during lunches, and before bed. No matter what’s going on, reading must be a priority, both because I want it to be and I love it and also because I want to be fair to the publishers who so generously sent me ARCs or published copies. Every time I receive something for free, I’m in awe. Considering how tough times are for bookstores and publishers, it’s such a privilege to find these books in my mailbox, and one for which I am deeply grateful.

Without further ado, here is what my immediate to-read pile looks like. (Otherwise, I have at least a hundred that I own still to be read. It’s crazy. But don’t tell my husband, though I know he wouldn’t force me into a non-book-buying agreement till I’ve caught up. That would be totally cruel.) These aren’t necessarily in the order I’ll be reading them. Sorry! I read what suits my mood. I should also mention that all of these authors are Canadian except for Kat Falls and Barbara Kingsolver.

Dark Life by Kat Falls. May 2010, pp. 3041. Sent to me by Scholastic Press. Kids' book, about 8-12 years. Currently reading and loving it! It is not, as my boss at the clinic said it looks like, a book about aliens. See the link at the end of this post to find out what this original novel is about!

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. HarperCollins, June 2010. This is not what my book looks like; this is the much more attractive UK edition. (I think it's so cool to see different covers for the same book. Maybe I'll do a post on that soon.) I've been meaning to read this forever and just haven't. It won the Orange Prize, and was given to me by HarperCollinsCanada.

February by Lisa Moore. Anansi, May 2009. This novel has one 8 awards and is shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize and the 2010 ReLit Award. I have been looking forward to this one for a long time! Sent to me by Anansi.

Far to Go by Alison Pick. Anansi, Aug. 2010. ARC sent me by Anansi. Pick won the 2002 Bronwen Wallace Award for most promising unpublished writer under thirty-five in Canada!

Every Lost Country by Steven Heighton. Knopf, May 2010. ARC sent me by Random House. I did start this one but became distracted when I couldn't decide what to read and started a few at once. I did love what I read, though. Fun tidbit: the author lives 45 mins away from me!

Fauna by Alyssa York. Random House, July 2010. ARC sent me by Random House. I can't wait to read this. I saw the published copy at the bookstore where I work and it is a gorgeous hardcover with soft pages and an irregular size. If I love it as I expect, I'll probably end up buying it, although even the ARC is quite lovely. I do read books more than once, and I'd rather experience the better-smelling and -looking final copy!

The Ghost Brush by Katherine Govier. HarperCollinsCanada, May 2010. Sent to me by HarperCollinsCanada. This book comes highly recommended to me by several people, not least the owner of the bookstore where I work. Another I look forward to, since it also seems I can do some armchair travelling in both time and place!

Sandra Beck by John Lavery. Anansi, Sept. 2010. ARC sent me by Anansi. I wish you could see a better, bigger image of this cover. It's so attractive! But my camera is unreliable so I had to pinch this off the website. I admit I've never heard of John Lavery, but apparently he's one of "Canada's most virtuosic stylists." It's said that "no writer in Canada today is more in love with the English and French languages than acclaimed author John Lavery." Sounds promising!!

Player One; What is to Become of Us: A novel in 5 hours by Douglas Coupland. CBC Massey Lectures, Anansi, October 2010. ARC sent me by Anansi. I just received this one today, along with Sandra Beck, and it was a pleasant surprise! I've been anticipating this book since I saw it was coming out, especially since it's a Massey Lecture in novel form. Coupland's statements on today's society, like Atwood's, are always honest and rather in your face. I like that.

The Carnivore by Mark Sinnett. EWC Press, Sept. 2009. This is an absolutely beautiful hardcover. The design is attractive but the smell of the book, too—oh my God! When i received it on Monday I started flipping through it and already found myself reading pages. Jen at ECW Press sent it to me so I can participate in their upcoming book club!

For a synopsis on each book, which I highly recommend because they do the books better justice than my spare comments here, please visit Dark Life, The Lacuna, February, Far to Go, Every Lost Country, Fauna, The Ghost Brush, Sandra Beck, Player One, and The Carnivore.

Have you read any of these books? If so, tell us what you thought or leave a link to your review.

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More Beautiful Book Covers

A while ago I did a post showcasing book covers I find attractive. I do, after all, judge a book first by its cover. I really love paying attention to design work, and I’ve come to recognize certain book designers now, like one of my favourites, C.S. Richardson, who works with Random House. Unfortunately, I can’t find a list of books he’s worked on anywhere. I just recognized one this week but I forget the title. Richardson is also multi-talented: he is the author of the excellent short novel The End of the Alphabet.

Anyway, since I’m always browsing books, I come across quite a few I like the looks of. Here are some more of them.

The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt. More than for any other reason, I admit I bought this book because of its irresistable cover, the trade cover version of which features textured paper. Yum. I do look forward to reading it.

I think I might like this design even better!

How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall. Harper Perennial. pp. 320, 2009. Longlisted for 2009 Man Booker.

I’ve read a bit about Sarah Hall ( click here for one article I read) and she sounds like a very talented writer (from the excerpts I’ve read but also she’s been nominated for and won all sorts of awards) as well as very appealing because of where she grew up, in Cumbria, next door to North Yorkshire. North Yorkshire is my favourite place on earth, so reading about the area is always a lovely bit of escape for me. Oh, also Hall is my age and this is her fourth successful novel. Grrr.

Light Boxes by Shane Jones. Penguin reprint, 2010. pp. 160

I knew by this cover that I’d be in for something strange. Strange attracts me. I didn’t buy it, though, and when I picked it up again I was with my new boss, the owner of the indie bookstore where I’ll be working. She didn’t enjoy the book at all and basically told me not to waste my time. The idea still sounds interesting and I still like the cover. Maybe I’ll pick it up one day and read it on my lunch if it’s still there.

The Long Song by Andrea Levy. Hamish Hamilton, 2010. pp. 320.

This is out in paperback now and I think the cover uses the same textured paper as Byatt’s The Children’s Book. The design is done in a sort of metallic bronze colour. I keep coming back to this book and may pick it up one day soon.

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones. John Murray, 2007.

Winner of the 2006 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book, shortlisted for the 2007 Booker, and New Zealand’s bestselling book of 2007. I have this novel (but not with this cover; mine is the Vintage edition) and have been meaning to read it for a long time now. It just keeps getting pushed back, like many others, because I want first to review the ARCs publishers have so generously sent me. There are many designs for this book (this week one of our patients was reading yet another edition [Dial Press, Random House] other than the one I own and this one above) but this is my favourite. I also like the one below.

Penguin edition, New Zealand

Surfacing by Margaret Atwood. Little, Brown, 2009.

I think this cover is pretty cool. Little, Brown UK released a new look in 2009 for Atwood’s backlist that I’m thinking would make a really nice-looking set of books on my shelves. Click here for a peek at the rest of the designs. I often prefer UK editions of books, actually, like my awesome copy of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, which my sister got in England and gave to me. That cover is far superior to the North American one with dominoes on it. Actually, I’ll include it below because it’s another of my very favourite novels. Anyway. Surfacing is my favourite of all of these Little, Brown designs, and it’s one of my favourite Atwood novels. I have a lot of favourite books, I know.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Doubleday, UK edition. 2007. pp. 592

PS. Apparently, this novel is being made into a movie!! However, the trailer I watched has confusing, suspicious shots interspersed throughout, taken from Pan’s Labyrinth, if I’m not mistaken. I doubt it’s legit. I can’t really find any info on it, even on the imdb page.

The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels. Emblem Editions, 2010. pp. 352

I loved Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces, which we read in uni, and I met her in 1997 at the grand opening of the first Indigo store, in Burlington. She was very kind, I remember, wishing my husband and I a happy marriage in her inscription, since we’d just got hitched. Unfortunately, we split and he took the book with him, along with several others that were signed and which I dearly miss. Anyway. Last year, I won a galley copy of Anne Michaels’s The Winter Vault and I still haven’t read it because reading galleys is not as fun as reading the beautiful finished product. My copy is drab, while this edition is so attractive I pick up the book and examine it almost every time I’m in a bookshop even though I don’t need it. I can’t even explain why I love this cover so much. The colours, the girl’s beauty, the font, the overall design, I don’t know. I just feel drawn to it.

Enough for now. I don’t want this post to be too long, seeing as you’ll likely get more of this since I will be starting at a bookstore soon and will for certain be taking note of gorgeous designs to post here, along with other news.

Got any book covers or designers you especially love? Do share!

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Man Booker Longlist is Out!

The longlist has been announced for the 2010 Man Booker Prize, which will be awarded on October 12. The prize is a cool £50,000. Imagine!

The list:

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey (Random House Canada)
Room by Emma Donoghue (HarperCollins Canada)
The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore (Penguin)
In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut (McClelland & Stewart)
The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson (Bloomsbury)
The Long Song by Andrea Levy (Hamish Hamilton Canada)
C by Tom McCarthy (Knopf Canada)
The Thousand Autumns of Zacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (Knopf Canada)
February by Lisa Moore (House of Anansi Press)
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray (Hamish Hamilton)
Trespass by Rose Tremain (Random House)
The Slap by Chris Tsiolkas (HarperCollins Canada)
The Stars in the Bright Sky by Alan Warner (Random House)

The shortlist will be announced on September 7.

I haven’t read Peter Carey yet but I’m becoming increasingly curious, since he’s already won the Man Booker twice. February by Lisa Moore (Anansi) is also on my list of to-read novels; it’s come so highly recommended by many people that I can’t resist the timely opportunity. I’ve also picked up The Long Song, and I just recently received a copy of HarperCollins’s The Slap, and that’s the book I’ll be reading next (I’ve peeked at the first chapter already!), after I finish the one I’m currently reading, Annabel by Kathleen Winter (Anansi). Annabel is excellent so far, and I’m going back to it right now so I can do my review here soon!

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Books in the Mail

My idea of heaven is having all the free time—wait, having only free time!—to read all the books I want. I’m so honestly afraid of dying before I get to read each book on my shelves, let alone those tempting me outside our home. Good books just keep getting released—and guess what? I’m experiencing a bit of book heaven on earth because of it!

Over the last few weeks, I’ve received twelve novels in the mail (and I didn’t pay for them!) and I have to say, things can’t get much better than this. Here what’s been keeping me busy:

The Ghost Brush by Katherine Govier. Sent to me by HarperCollins Canada.

I haven’t started The Ghost Brush yet, but I look forward to it as well as to writing the review because it’s come highly recommended. In a nutshell, this is a “colourful journey into 19th-century Japan and the hidden life of one of the world’s great ‘lost’ artists.” Click on this link to HarperCollins Canada for a peek at the book through their Browse Inside feature.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. This year's Orange Prize winner. Sent to me by HarperCollins Canada.

Another I haven’t started yet, but another I really look forward to. I’m always excited about award winners because I like to think awards are given to exceptional writing as well as great stories. In this book, “Kingsolver takes us on an epic journey from the Mexico City of artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo to the America of Pearl Harbour, FDR, and J. Edgar Hoover…a poignant story of a man pulled between two nations as they invent their modern identities.” Sounds good, eh? Click here for a more detailed description of the novel on HarperCollins Canada’s site.

The Truth About Delilah Blue by Tish Cohen. Sent to me by HarperCollins Canada.

As you probably know, I’ve already read this engrossing novel, a story about a young woman who struggles to determine the truth of her past as well as find her place in the world. Click here for my review of the book and here for my interview with author Tish Cohen. This link will take you to HarperCollins’s site for a browse inside the novel.

Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker. Sent to me by HarperCollins Canada.

Sorry about the image; I couldn’t seem to find a larger one. This lovely little gem of a novel is the perfect size for your handbag to take with you wherever you go, which is exactly what I’m doing now. I’m nearly halfway through Bruno (follow the link for a browse), and quite enjoying the delightful, humorous read, even though it’s sort of formulaic, but it works for the setting. Part of HarperCollins’s attractive HarperWeekend imprint, the 273-page trimsize novel is the story of a shocking murder that takes place in a sleepy town called St. Denis, in the rural Dordogne region of France. The book reminds me so far of one of my favourite mystery series, the Inspector Montalbano books by Andrea Camilleri (though I think Camilleri’s books better).

Good food, rich atmosphere, and a cast of colourful characters make Bruno a trip down memory lane for me (I lived in France for a year a long time ago.) While there is a Saint-Denis in Paris (which incidentally has an incredibly high crime rate), this Saint Denis is fictional. Read about the little town here, and check out the rest of the site while you’re at it! I’ll buying the sequel, I’m sure, called The Dark Vineyard.

Every Lost Country by Steven Heighton. Sent by Random House because I won it!

The cover of this book is gorgeous, isn’t it? Every Lost Country is Canadian author Steven Heighton‘s eleventh book. Heighton, who lives about 45 minutes from here, in Kingston, ON, is probably best known for his novel The Shadow Boxer, released in 2000 by Knopf. I started Every Lost Country when it arrived and was immediately taken in by both the writing and the setting, but I have such a difficult time reading more than one book at a time, and thought it best to finish the short one, Bruno, first. At the same time, the writing is quite beautiful (to match the cover!) and the story very intriguing: “Inspired by an actual event, Every Lost Country is a gripping novel about heroism, human failings, and what love requires.” Yum. EVC will likely be next on my list to read and review after Bruno.

Dark Life by Kat Falls. Sent to me by Scholastic for review.

I really enjoy YA and children’s books. Dark Life by Kat Falls is a futuristic novel for ages 9–12 or so. “Set in an apocalyptic future where rising oceans have swallowed up entire regions and people live packed like sardines on the dry land left, Dark Life is the harrowing tale of underwater pioneers who have carved out a life for themselves in the harsh deep-sea environment, farming the seafloor in exchange for the land deed.”

I really look forward to this book; it sounds original and like something that could end up a movie. Another reason I’m interested is this: “As a lifelong animal lover, [Kat Falls] feels a deep sense of reverence for all of the earth’s creatures, even the slimy and scaly ones.” My kind of person! Click here for further summary of Dark Life on Scholastic’s website.

Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater. Sent to me by Scholastic because I asked nicely.

The last time I was in Chapters with a friend, a bookseller recommended Shiver to me. I opened its pages to see cool blue ink starting back, and saw that the YA book was a love story between a werewolf and a girl, and was hooked. My friend was not impressed, but I can’t help but love the supernatural. I passed up buying the book, however, not because it was pricey (it certainly isn’t at $11.99) but because I had other books I wanted to choose from first. I did want to read Shiver, though, and after much deliberation I wrote to Scholastic and asked if they’d kindly send it and the now newly released Linger to review. And they did! Another occasion for jumping around the kitchen with books clasped to my chest! All this certainly relieves the pressure of trying to come up with blog post ideas. Anyway, you can see what I thought of Shiver here. And may I say here, too, that I am in love with the author, Maggie Stiefvater, who has accomplished so much before she’s even thirty. She’s a cool girl! For her site, click here. From there you can also check out her blogs.

Linger by Maggie Stiefvater. Galley copy sent to me by Scholastic.

Ah, Linger, the sequel to Shiver and the second in the Wolves of Mercy Falls YA trilogy. The third book, rather cheesily titled Forever, is scheduled for release in July 2011 (we’ll see). Linger is even better than the first, and you can see why I felt that way if you go to my review, which Stiefvater herself read and (if I can toot my own horn) liked. She said, “I am terribly in love with your review of Linger, in particular. Thank you—I love people who really analyze the books.” Woohoo! That’s quite warmed the cockles.

I have to add here that my copy is a galley and the release date for this book was set for July 20th. However, it appears that some large chain stores think release dates are for the birds and don’t apply to them. Thus, they have sent out the novel to eager readers all over, and consequently pissed off me as well as, I assume, a bunch of indie bookstores who have kept to the date. GRRR. I understand the hype and I comprehend the excitement. But this sort of jumpstart on sales is  just plain wrong.

Now, I haven’t yet seen any explanation for this, not on Maggie’s blogs or her Facebook page, but the word out today was that the official official release date has been moved from the 20th to the 13th, at least in the US, and that includes indies. Last time I checked, today was only the 8th of July, so this still does not explain why some large chains (cough Barnes & Noble cough) have released and continue to release the books to readers before the 13th. If anyone knows what the scoop is, do tell so I can update this post!

Annabel by Kathleen Winter. Sent to me by Anansi Press because I signed up to be part of their review crew.

This book has been getting quite a lot of hype of late, and it was a lovely surprise to receive it in the mail only yesterday, along with two advance copies from Anansi. Although I did sign up to be a part of the publisher’s review crew, I never picked out any books; they choose and send them to you, so I was happy to get this one.

Anansi’s produced some gorgeous, notable books (see Lisa Moore’s February, for example), and this one is no exception. The hardcover beneath the cool wintery jacket is Tiffany blue, and the pages are soft and perfectly bound. Annabel tells the story of a “mysterious child,” “a baby who appears to be neither female nor male, but both at once. Only three people are privy to the secret—the baby’s parents, Jacinta and Treadway, and a trusted neighbour, Thomasina. Together the adults make a difficult decision: to raise the child as a boy named Wayne. But as Wayne grows to adulthood within the hyper-masculine hunting culture of his father, his shadow-self—a girl he thinks of as ‘Annabel’—is never entirely extinguished, and indeed is secretly nurtured by the women in his life.”

Wow, eh? I really can’t wait to read this book, even though for some reason Jeffrey Eugenides’s Pulitzer Prize winning Middlesex (2002), to which Annabel is compared, doesn’t interest me. The endorsements on Anansi’s page for Annabel are powerful and compelling, as is Galore author Michael Crummey’s, which appears on the back of the novel and calls Annabel a “beautiful book, brimming with heat and uncommon wisdom.” Will this one beat out Heighton’s for what I read next? Ah, decisions!

Far to Go by Alison Pick. Set to me by Anansi. Due out August 2010.

I received this galley along with Annabel yesterday and had never heard of it or Alison Pick before that. But it does look very interesting, and peeking through it I can tell the writing is quite good. It’s going to be a page-turner, I think! Anansi describes Far to Go on their page: “Inspired by the harrowing five-year journey Alison Pick’s own grandparents embarked upon from their native Czechoslovakia to Canada during the Second World War, Far to Go is an epic historical novel that traces one family’s journey through these tumultuous and traumatic events. A layered, beautifully written, moving, and suspenseful story by one of our rising literary stars.”

I admit that while I find these stories utterly fascinating, I shy away from them, afraid of the intense emotions I know I’ll feel. Aside from topics like the one Far to Go explores, John Grogan’s Marley & Me is a book I’ve actively avoided, and so is John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, even though I bought it in England in a charity shop, and so is the recent Boy in the Moon, the Trillium Book winner, by Ian Brown. But what’s wrong with a good cry while reading a book? Absolutely nothing. In fact, it’s a huge achievement on the part of the author, wouldn’t you agree?

Queen of Hearts by Martha Brooks. Sent to me by Anansi for review. Due out November 2010.

I haven’t yet read Martha Brooks, who also wrote True Confessions of a Heartless Girl, which won the Governor General’s Award in 2002, and Mistik Lake, a CLA Young Adult Book of the Year, along with four other novels. And as I said, I do enjoy YA fiction for the most part. Queen of Hearts takes place in Canada in 1941. When Marie-Claire, fifteen, headstrong and full of life, contracts tuberculosis, she is exiled to a sanitorium, where she “discovers that the sanitorium is a world unto itself—a world in which loss can be survived, and friendship, and love, can be found in unexpected places.”

I’ve neatly condensed the synopsis on the back here, but with characters such as the seemingly indomitable Marie-Claire, fun-loving and hard-living Uncle Gérard, irritatingly cheerful roommate Signy, and Jack Hawkings, the nineteen-year-old musician with the heart-stopping smile…well. I think this will be a fun read! At only 208 pages, it’s a good choice for a day out at the beach or for cuddling up with tea on a rainy day (which we expect tomorrow to break the 40-degree temperatures here!).

Fauna by Alissa York. Galley sent me by Random House because I won it! Due out August 2010.

This came as a huge and pleasurable surprise in the mail today. This time I was outside filling the bird bath when I heard I’d received yet another novel in the mail and, yes, I jumped up and down and clapped my hands with delight. And again when I saw which book it was! Only recently I was checking out Fauna online and thought it looked intriguing so I added it to my wish list. I haven’t yet read Effigy, which was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2007, the year it was released, though it’s been on my list of books to read.

Fauna is compelling for several reasons, not least because animals are the main subjects along with a few interesting human characters. I’m going to include the whole synopsis here from York’s site, because it’s so good:

After years spent busting smugglers of exotic pets and banned animal parts, federal wildlife officer Edal Jones is on stress leave when she happens upon the unusual community that will change her life. Situated between a half-wild ravine and Toronto’s Chinatown East, Howell Auto Wreckers is a modern-day sanctuary for injured souls. Handsome proprietor Guy Howell offers refuge to animals and humans alike: a half-starved hawk and a brood of orphaned raccoons; a soldier whose heart failed him during his first tour of duty; a teenage runaway and her massive black dog. Guy’s a rare kind of man—well-versed in the delicate workings of damaged beings, he might just stand a chance at capturing Edal’s heart. Before love can bloom, however, the little community must come to terms with a different breed of lost soul. Known to the blogosphere as Coyote Cop, nineteen-year-old Darius Grimes may have taken on a new name, but he can’t seem to shed his brutal past. His backwoods childhood is catching up with him, and he’s taking it out on the creatures that call the neighbouring valley home.

I’m a very emotional animal lover. I love animals more than people, I have to say, and I can love people fiercely. It cuts me to the quick to hear a dog cry, to see a cat paw repeatedly to be let inside from the cold, to see an animal suffer tied outside in the heat or to hear it locked inside, stressed. I can’t stand a dog’s yelp of pain, to see an injured seagull, to find yet another smacked squirrel or toad. I cannot abide animal cruelty, whether its forcefeeding, neglect, torture, or disinterest. It breaks my heart and makes me cry, all of it, and more. (At the same time, I have a fascination with dead animals I find, like the seagull on the beach last Sunday that appeared to be sleeping and must have died only hours earlier, or a large, washed-up fish, say.)

So I have to say I’m afraid of Fauna, too, but because there are characters who love the animals and shelter them, and because I imagine Grimes will get his come-uppance, I think I will bear it. It sounds like an important novel. As Jim Lynch, author of Border Songs (yet another on my wish list!) says, “Fauna is the sort of rare novel that can change the way you see your world.” We don’t need proof of any more cruelty, so I can only hope and feel rather confident that this book will show the flip side—kindness and redemption.

And there you have it. My immediate lineup of reading for the summer. In addition to the gargantuan galley copy of Justin Cronin’s The Passage (already released), Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, and so many more on my “immediately following” list….

Oh, had I but world enough, and time! (Which, allow me to add, comes from one of my favourite poems: “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell [1621–1678], who certainly was short on time.)

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