Friday, February 28, 2014

"How to Get a (Love) Life" by Rosie Blake

Nicola Brown has always played it safe.  Everything from her home to her diet is neatly ordered and her dating life is no different.  If by neatly ordered you mean non-existent.  Her colleague Caroline thinks it’s time for a change and so she takes a strong stand by daring Nicola to go on as many dates as she can so she can finally spend Valentine’s Day in a relationship.

But Valentine’s Day is only three months away and well, the men she’s been meeting aren’t exactly who she would consider to be true love material.  But Nicola quickly finds out that dating isn’t as bad as she thought it would be, even with the dodgy dates.  In fact, it’s actually quite fun.  And it turns out, she may not need to look too far to find love.

How to Get a (Love) Life is the debut novel from Rosie Blake.  With a cast of characters that includes cringeworthy guys, the amazing friends you want in your life, and a heroine who is oh so loveable despite her quirks, this book is a fantastically fun read.

I got pretty lucky when it comes to dating.  I met my husband at a fairly young age so I didn’t have to experience many horrible dates.  But I can see why someone like Nicola would decide that maybe she’s just better off not dating.  And many of the men she meets along the way definitely do a good job at proving her right.  In fact, I’m sure many people will be able to identify with the dates Nicola went on.  And that’s what is so great about this book, Nicola’s dating life is mad and crazy but it’s real.  Blake uses the craziness of the real life dating world for the best bits of the book, rather than writing something that feels made up for the sake of being funny.

I adored Nicola’s relationships in this book especially with her brother Mark and her boss James.  All of the characters rounded out the book really well and though they had their own stories, they didn’t take over the novel.  But where this book was able to shine was the dates.  They had me shaking my head and laughing out loud.  My only wish was that more pages were given to the end of the book.  It all wrapped up a little quick for me and I think it definitely could have been given a few more pages so we are really satisfied with the way things ended up.  

Overall, this is a fantastic debut from Rosie Blake and I can’t wait to see what is next from her.  If you’re looking for a fun, romantic novel, you won’t go wrong with this one.  Any woman who has ever been on a terrible date is going to absolutely enjoy this book.

About Rosie

Rosie spent her university years writing pantomimes based on old classics.  The 2003 production of The Wizard of Odd: Search for the Ruby Strippers enjoyed critical acclaim.  This was followed a year later with a successful showing of Harry Potter: The Musical (complete with moving opening number, In my Cupboard I will Stay).

Rosie went on to write a winning short story in the La Senza/Little Black Dress Short Story Competition and was shortlisted in a few others including competitions run by Women and Home and The Daily Mail.  Her first full-length novel, How to Get a (Love) Life, will be published in January 2014 by Novelicious Books.

Buy the book

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

"The Bear" by Claire Cameron

Five-year-old Anna and two-year-old Alex (aka Stick) are camping on a remote island with their parents when the unimaginable happens - a rogue black bear attacks their campsite.  Through quick-thinking, Anna and Stick are saved by their father but unfortunately, their parents aren’t so lucky.  When Anna and Stick emerge from their hiding place, their dying mother urges Anna to get herself and Stick in the family canoe and paddle away.

But very quickly the canoe runs aground and the two children are left to fend for themselves in the wilderness.  As they battle hunger, the elements, and the looming presence of the black bear, Anna does all she can to stay brave and save her family.

The Bear, by Claire Cameron, is a heartbreaking novel of family, love, and survival.  Told in the voice of Anna and reminiscent of Emma Donaghue’s Room, it will have readers glued to the pages, unable to put it down.  A difficult book to read, it will pull on your heart, have you an emotional mess, and haunt you even after you turn the last page.

In October of 1991, a pair camping in Ontario’s Algonquin Park were attacked and killed by a black bear.  This sort of thing is extremely rare and there was absolutely no reason that could be given for the attack.  Cameron was personally affected by this as she was a summer camp counsellor in Algonquin at the time.  This incident is the catalyst for the book, though Cameron took it upon herself to add the children.

When I started this book, I wasn’t sure how I was going to handle it.  I knew the topic would make for a very interesting book but I wasn’t sure how I would be able to handle it through the eyes of a child.  And at first, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to handle the five-year-old voice the whole way through the book.  But Cameron proved me wrong.  

Yes, it was difficult to follow two young children through this sort of story.  But that’s what makes the situation so real and alive.  To read from the viewpoint of an adult, it would have been straightforward, a tale of getting out of the woods.  But children don’t see the world the way we do, they don’t understand the magnitude of the situation, but know that something needs to be done.  In terms of reading through Anna’s voice, Cameron captures it perfectly, the way a child thinks, how her thoughts go all over the place, and how she sees the world before her.  My only criticism of the book would be that I thought it could be longer, that there was more to the story of the children in the wilderness, that the return to the spot could have had just a bit more to it.

This is a tough book to read, especially if you have children.  Anna and Stick reminded me so much of my own children, right down to how Anna understands what Stick is saying when others don’t (my son has a speech delay and often my daughter was the only who knew what he was saying).  These moments brought the situation way too close to home - what if these were my children?  And I have heard people say they don’t want to read the book for that reason.  

However, this isn’t just a story about two children trying to survive in the wilderness, it’s about family, determination, grief, reality and fantasy.  It’s difficult but it’s worth the read.  As someone whose sole reason for never going camping is “bears,” I recommend putting aside whatever hesitations you have about the book and giving it a chance.

I received a copy of this book courtesy of Random House of Canada.  The opinions expressed above are my own.

Friday, February 21, 2014

"Radiance of Tomorrow" by Ishmael Beah

The civil war in Sierra Leone has ended and people are beginning to head home.  Two of these people are Benjamin and Bockarie, who arrive in Imperi to find nothing but ruins and bones.  But as more villagers come back, a community springs up in its place.  Both Benjamin and Bockarie return to their former jobs as teachers but they quickly learn that it’s not so easy to return to the way things were.  

A foreign mining company has set up in Imperi and while they promise to bring good to the town, they are bringing the opposite.  The towns water supply has been ruined and the streets are strewn with electric wires.  Rape and death have become common, the locals who go to work for the company are treated as expendable.  But for people like Benjamin and Bockarie, working for the company becomes the only option for survival.  

Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah is a beautiful, lyrical novel about post-war nations and the trauma of those who lived there.  Beah first came to our attention in 2007 with his powerful memoir A Long Way Gone in which he shared his life as a child soldier in Sierra Leone.  He turns his attention to after the war through the lens of fiction, though as you read this book you understand how heartbreakingly true it all is.

This novel is just so beautifully written.  Beah mentions in the author’s note how he didn’t want to write another memoir but felt that this post-war story needed to be told.  Putting this account into a novel was a great idea.  He also shares that his native language, Mende, is an expressive and beautiful language and he finds it difficult to find the English equivalent when writing.  There is absolutely no sense of that in this book.  The first paragraph drew me right in and told me that this wouldn’t be an ordinary novel:

She was the first to arrive where it seemed the wind no longer exhaled.  Several miles from town, the trees had entangled one another.  Their branches grew toward the ground, burying the leaves in the soil to blind their eyes so the sun would not promise them tomorrow with its rays.   It was only the path that was reluctant to cloak its surface completely with grasses, as though it anticipated it would soon end its starvation for the warmth of bare feet that gave it life. (pg. 3)

There is nothing in this book I can criticize.  When it needs to be descriptive and lyrical, it is.  When it needs to be straight-forward, it is.  It will make you smile, it will break your heart.  Most importantly, it will inspire.  Few of us will be able to understand the horrors of war or the struggle to build a life after it.  But through that, Beah shows us the strength and determination that lies in us all.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

"Never Google Heartbreak" by Emma Garcia

Vivienne Summers is heartbroken when her fiancĂ© Rob breaks off their engagement for a third time.  Miserable and alone, she does what any heartbroken girl would do - she Googles heartbreak.  But when faced with the depressing results she receives, she decides to start her own self-help website for the broken-hearted.

Even though Vivienne is trying to help others get over their heartbreak, she is determined to win Rob back and won’t let something like his new fiancĂ©e get in her way.  But when she finally gets what she wants, she realizes that maybe Rob isn’t the one, and her true love was right there in front of her all this time.  Will she be able to find her happiness or will she experience heartbreak once again?

Never Google Heartbreak is the debut novel from Emma Garcia and is a fun chick lit novel full of craziness, laughs, and heart-warming moments.  This book had so many laugh out loud moments for me, and I found myself reading parts aloud to my husband many times, and they had him laughing, so I know that’s a sign of a funny book.

I really liked the character of Viv.  The main characters of chick lit books are often frustrating for readers, oblivious to what is going on around them and making the silliest decisions.  This is perfect for creating crazy moments in the book but it often makes the character annoying and they aren’t always likeable.  Emma Garcia has managed to make Vivienne one of those frustrating characters who are still likeable and endearing to the reader.   So even when she made terrible decisions and wasn’t the nicest to people around her, you aren’t put off by her, which is an important thing in this sort of novel.  The rest of the characters in the book make up a great group of people, some you will absolutely love (every woman needs a Max in her life and a friend like Lucy) and some you will love to hate.

There are a couple of things that kept this from being a five star read for me.  One is that the website theme isn’t much of a theme at all.  The website plan sort of takes a backseat to Viv’s life, whereas I was expecting it to be the main part.  As well, there was a bit more swearing and sexual language than I prefer in a chick lit novel.  But seeing as that is a personal preference, and the plot of the book is fun and enjoyable, I’m sure this will be a five star book for many readers.

Fans of Sophie Kinsella and Lindsey Kelk, meet Emma Garcia.  Vivienne Summers may very well become your next favourite heroine and the one you will want to keep visiting over and over.  Thankfully, it looks like she will be back soon.

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher through Netgalley.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

"Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad

A journey along the Congo River in search of a mysterious man known as Mr. Kurtz, Joseph Conrad’s novella The Heart of Darkness takes readers on a descent into madness.  Eerie, troubling, difficult, not words one would typically use when first describing a classic novel but it fits for this one.  The narrator Marlow goes in search of Mr. Kurtz, a man he has built up in his mind as the epitome of the white man saving colonial Africa.  But along the way he discovers that he had things the wrong way around.

I liked the premise of this book, I liked the way it made me reflect on the history of European colonialism and I liked the way it depicts the attitudes that shaped this world.  I did not like the writing style.  For me, it just didn’t flow the way I had hoped.  Like others who have read the book, I found the use of metaphors a little much. 

This is a story of greed, morality, racism, and the human capacity for evil.  What I like about this book compared to other classics I’ve read is the way it radiates the thinking of the time.  It’s a horrible topic, a horrible time in our history and is difficult to read, I can only wonder about its reception and how convicting it was for many people to read at the time.  Yes, it comes across as racist and some of the language may be harsh for some readers.  There is a tendency to want to excuse that with the fact of “that’s what things were like at the time” but for me, I think it set out to magnify the reality and inaccuracy of these attitudes rather than perpetuate them.  

This book was a mixed bag for me, one I should have read for a university course but took the opportunity to skip.  While I’m glad I finally read it, it’s not going to become a favourite of mine.  That being said, I think it takes an interesting look at the prevailing attitudes of the time and definitely adds to the discussion of morality.  Set in a time when European colonialism ran rampant through the African continent, Heart of Darkness takes us deep into the interior and what lies at the heart of human nature.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Sunday Headlines

A few stories that caught my eye this week

*J.K. Rowling says the Harry Potter ending may be wrong (I'm sure EVERYONE has heard this already.)

*The Toronto Public Library has chosen Steven Galloway's The Cellist of Sarajevo as their One Book for the 2014 Keep Toronto Reading Festival.

*Retreat by Random House asked Canadian Olympians what they will be reading while in Sochi.

*No matter where you live in the world, you've probably heard about our "illustrious" mayor, Rob Ford.  Toronto Star reporter Robyn Doolittle has written a book appropriately titled Crazy Town and was on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart this week to talk about it.  You can watch it here.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

"The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris" by Jenny Colgan

Anna Trent had a job she enjoyed as a taster at a chocolate factory.  But an accident at work left her in the hospital for months and recovering from a traumatic injury.  While in the hospital, she found herself back in touch with her French teacher Claire, who was able to recognize that thirty-year-old Anna needed a change.  And so Claire offered her the opportunity of a lifetime.

Against her better judgment, Anna found herself off to Paris, living in a tiny flat and working with a master chocolatier.  But this little Parisian chocolate shop was a far cry from the factory back in the UK and there was a definite learning curve for Anna.  And when her boss Thierry fell ill, Anna found herself on a mission to reunite him with his former sweetheart Claire, all while falling in love herself.

The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris by Jenny Colgan is a lovely, sweet chick-lit novel that knows just how to grab attention - with chocolates and Paris.  Going back and forth between the present and the 1970’s, readers will fall in love with the characters, the food, and the setting.

The biggest strength of this book is the descriptiveness of both the surroundings and the food.  Sometimes in chick lit books you can find the setting acting as the background to the characters but in this case, it is a character itself.  Colgan pays so much attention to the city that if you have never been to Paris (like me), you can find yourself discovering it through Anna’s eyes.  It really allows you to put yourself in the place of the character.  The same goes for the way the process of chocolate making and the shops are described in the book.  Again, it doesn’t serve as a background but takes on its own life in the book.  

I will admit, when I first began reading the book I did not think it needed Claire’s story.  I wondered why it was necessary to share Claire’s story as a teenager in Paris.   And I kind of felt this way through most of the book.  Until the end, until the beautiful end when it all came together.  This book is more than just your light-hearted, escape chick-lit book.  It is a story of two women, of learning to live and love, and making sure you hold on to what you want.  Even the secondary characters have beautiful stories of being who you are even when others don’t want you to be that.  This book has its fun but it also has its seriousness and there are some heartbreaking moments.

This is the first book I have read by Jenny Colgan though she has written over 15 books.  Many of her more recent books centre around the business of baking and if they are anything like this book I will be more than happy to read them all.  And if you’re a baker, you will go crazy over the recipes that are included at the end of this book!

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book through Netgalley.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

"Perfect" by Rachel Joyce

In 1972, to balance the clock with the movement of earth, two seconds were added to time.  Eleven-year-old Byron Hemming found out about the two seconds from his friend James at school, and though he assured him it wasn’t a big deal, Byron worried about what effect these two extra seconds would have.  Until the day it happened and Byron's life changed forever.

His mother Diana was driving Byron and his younger sister Lucy to school when Byron saw the second hand of his watch go backwards.  It was at that moment that the accident happened and their perfect world shattered.  As Byron and James tried to make it right, things began to spiral out of control even more.

Perfect is the latest book from Rachel Joyce, author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.  A tender and heart-breaking novel, it is a story of the human spirit, the quest for perfection, how much control we really have over life, and the effects one moment can have on the rest of your life.

The book goes back and forth between 1972 and the present time.  In 1972 we meet Byron, James, and Diana, see the fall-out from the accident and watch how they all move forward in the aftermath.  In the present time we are introduced to Jim, a man with crippling OCD who has spent most of his life in a mental health institution.  It isn’t clear how the two are connected.

I was really looking forward to this book given how much I enjoyed Harold Fry.  But I must admit that I didn’t take to this novel right away.  About 100 pages in I considered giving up.  For me, the story was just moving at a pace that was a little too slow for me.  But, after reading the reviews of a few other bloggers who really liked it, I decided to continue reading.  And I’m glad I did.

I liked how this story was told through the eyes of Byron, rather than through the eyes of adults.  There is a sense of innocence that only a child can bring to it.  As well, you are able to see the effects of the moment more through Byron than I think you would an adult.  Joyce does a fantastic job of developing all of the characters, though I especially took to the character of Diana.  Her story was very emotional and I think readers of all walks of life will understand her.

The plot did unfold a little slow for me and like many other readers I found that it was the story of Jim that made it this way for me.  I think maybe if there had been a little less of his story it would have kept the book moving.  

However, when everything comes together at the end it is a truly incredible ending that will stick with you for a long time.  For all of my hesitations at the beginning, I can truly recommend this novel.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Sunday Headlines

The stories that caught my eye this week:

*BookRiot lists 10 reasons why you should (re)discover CanLit in 2014

*CBC Books shares 10 Canadian women you need to read.

*Eric Walters has written 92 books in 20 years.  It’s book #82 that might actually make him a household name.

*Novelicious shares 10 of the most dramatic Sweet Valley High Covers (and thankfully, this is the just Part 1)

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Favourite Reviews of the Week

Here are two of my favourite reviews from the past week:

Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas

From 52 Books or BustIt is edgy, political, and somewhat controversial, but Barracuda is also highly readable. That Tsiolkas is a great writer is without a doubt...Tsiolkas takes the reader into the working class of Australia and shows many of the biases and racial prejudices that exist in Australia today. 

This is a book I came across but I wasn't sure if I wanted to read it.  Now that I know that it examines class and bias in Australia, I do want to read it.  I love exploring cultures in this way, and the competitive swimming part also has my interest.

Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh

From Leeswammes' BlogA strange, but interesting book.

This comment sums up exactly what I've been thinking every time I come across this book.  At first I wanted to read it, then I wasn't sure, now I want to read it again.  Judith gives it 4 out of 5 stars, so I think despite her comment that it was a little slow in the middle, I'll give it a go.