Book Event and Giveaway | Philippa Gregory in Toronto

Ecard_KingsCurse

Fan of great historical fiction and the Tudor era? Check out this awesome event from Simon and Schuster Canada coming to Toronto on September 22! Philippa Gregory, author of a number of historical fiction bestsellers (including my personal favourite, the classic The Other Boleyn Girl) will be doing a lecture and book signing at the Al Green Theatre, Toronto, to promote her new novel The King’s Curse.

About The King’s Curse:

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author behind the Starz original series The White Queen comes the story of lady-in-waiting Margaret Pole and her unique view of King Henry VIII’s stratospheric rise to power in Tudor England.

Regarded as yet another threat to the volatile King Henry VII’s claim to the throne, Margaret Pole, cousin to Elizabeth of York (known as the White Princess) and daughter of George, Duke of Clarence, is married off to a steady and kind Lancaster supporter—Sir Richard Pole. For his loyalty, Sir Richard is entrusted with the governorship of Wales, but Margaret’s contented daily life is changed forever with the arrival of Arthur, the young Prince of Wales, and his beautiful bride, Katherine of Aragon. Margaret soon becomes a trusted advisor and friend to the honeymooning couple, hiding her own royal connections in service to the Tudors.

After the sudden death of Prince Arthur, Katherine leaves for London a widow, and fulfills her deathbed promise to her husband by marrying his brother, Henry VIII. Margaret’s world is turned upside down by the surprising summons to court, where she becomes the chief lady-in-waiting to Queen Katherine. But this charmed life of the wealthiest and “holiest” woman in England lasts only until the rise of Anne Boleyn, and the dramatic deterioration of the Tudor court. Margaret has to choose whether her allegiance is to the increasingly tyrannical king, or to her beloved queen; to the religion she loves or the theology which serves the new masters. Caught between the old world and the new, Margaret Pole has to find her own way as she carries the knowledge of an old curse on all the Tudors.

Check out a chapter excerpt from The King’s Curse at http://issuu.com/touchstonebooks/docs/the_king_s_curse.

Win a copy of The King’s Curse:

Thanks to Simon and Schuster Canada, I’m giving away a copy of The King’s Curse to one of my readers! This contest is open to Canada only.

Click here to enter the Rafflecopter giveaway.

Meet Philippa Gregory:

Meet the author in person at the Al Green Theatre, Toronto! Information and tickets here.

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for a copy of the book for the giveaway.

Review | Hush Now, Don’t Explain, Dennis Must

21528969This must be my season for jazz novels. Almost immediately after reading 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas, I receive Dennis Must’s Hush Now, Don’t Explain for review. Unlike Cat’s Pajamas, Must’s novel takes a starkly realistic view of history — racism, sexism and class relations, all within the framework of jazz.

The story follows Honor, an orphan, at the end of Word War II, as she leaves her dead-end town of DeForest Junction on a quest to learn about her birth mother. With her is her friend Billy, a mixed-race boy looking for the man he believes is his birth father, and shanty store owner Augustus Willard.

There are some powerful moments in this book, such as when Billy gets attacked and branded on his chest for his skin colour and when one of the characters decides to turn back for love. I also like the cadence of Must’s writing, which draws the reader into how the characters speak.

Overall, however, there’s a lot going on in Hush Now and I don’t think it all necessarily came together. There’s a heavy-handedness to the story, a desire to explore so many different issues and make a strong statement about each one, that at times, it just felt crammed. At its heart are some very personal, individual conflicts — Honor and Billy’s search for their past, Augustus’ search for a certain kind of future — yet only Augustus’ story, and to a lesser extent Billy’s, has a satisfying payoff. Honor is the main character, but her story felt the least authentic. I like how she had to dress up as a man to stay safe, but given how easily some other characters saw through her facade, it seemed more a metaphorical gesture than anything else. Possibly because her story felt the most heavy handed, she never felt real, and when she experiences something horrific later on in the story, it lacked emotional impact.

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Thank you to Coffeetown Press for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas, Marie-Helene Bertino

18815488Madeline Atimari is a rebellious nine-year-old and aspiring jazz singer. The eve before Christmas Eve, she decides to track down Philadelphia’s legendary jazz club The Cat’s Pajamas, and make her onstage debut. On the same day, her fifth grade teacher Sarina Greene is preparing for a dinner party that will reunite her with a high school crush. And at the Cat’s Pajama’s, club owner Lorca needs to raise $30,000 to keep the club from closing. Marie-Helene Bertino’s 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas is an uplifting, feel-good story of these three lives as they intertwine.

The book reminds me so much of the movie Love Actually or any one of a dozen holiday movie specials that my initial reaction was surprised that its publication wasn’t timed for a holiday release. I don’t mean that as a slam — it’s a charming, sweet read (the ending was downright sugary), and if you allow it to draw you in, it will make you feel good by the end. The characters were a bit difficult to keep straight at first, and I loved the schoolteacher storyline so much I sometimes wanted to skip over the club owner scenes. Still, despite some pretty sobering shots of reality, there’s such a fairy tale feel about the whole story that we can pretty much see where it’s all going, and how all the characters’ stories will intertwine at the end anyway.

It’s not quite magical enough to make a lasting impact on me, but it is a lovely tale that can sweep you away if you let it. In my opinion, it’s best read with a cup of hot cocoa with marshmallows.

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Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell

20819685How can I even begin to talk about David Mitchell’s The Bone ClocksTouted as Mitchell’s most ambitious, most “Mitchell-esque” novel ever, this massive beauty of a book kept me enthralled for an entire weekend. I devoured this book, unable to put it down. I took it with me as my sister and I went around Toronto, lugging the 600+ pages just for the briefest snippets stolen on the subway, or the blissfully long wait for a movie to begin… and the weight was so worth it.

First: major, major kudos to Peter Mendelsund and Oliver Munday for this beautiful cover. All respect for the UK cover, but this one has such ethereal beauty that I would encourage purchasing a copy just for the cover art (something that in the past, I’ve only really suggested for Chip Kidd covers).

Then, the story itself is a series of layers that spans about a century, with all of the stories delicately, intricately intertwined. I wish I were more familiar with Mitchell’s body of work, as I’ve heard he includes a lot of characters from previous books in this story, and it would have been pretty mind-blowing to recognize them as they appeared. The story begins with fifteen-year-old Holly Sykes, who runs away from home after an argument with her mother. As a child, she used to hear what she called “the radio people,” mysterious figures who we barely understand till much later in the book. A psychologist “cures” Holly of these visions, but unfortunately, she can never truly escape. The story follows her journey, and the lives of the people she touches — a Cambridge scholarship boy, a war journalist unable to connect with his family, a middle-aged writer who goes too far in beating down his rival, and so on. Each of these figures narrates a section of the story, and each of them encounters “the radio people,” at times with horrifying results.

The story reminds me of Stephen King’s books, with its creepy, surreal feel, and also of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life in its epic sweep yet intimate tone. While I felt that Atkinson’s Life After Life fell short of its promise, Mitchell holds the narrative together well, and I found The Bone Clocks to be a much better constructed book. The book jacket describes the novel as “kaleidoscopic” and that’s a great way to describe it. Every time I felt like I was just beginning to grasp the story, something else happens, and it always felt like I was just glancing off the edge of what the story was really about.

Around three quarters of the way into the novel, we finally learn what the mysterious radio people are about, and the story settles pretty firmly into supernatural thriller mode. We learn about an age old battle between good and evil, with Holly and the other characters merely innocent pawns. I was expecting the stakes to be somewhat higher and the battle to be somewhat more epic, but I still love how all the threads came together, especially the significance of the image on the US cover.

My only real disappointment with this book was the final section. I’m sure Mitchell had his reasons for extending the story that far into the future, but after such a fantastical, epic, sweeping narrative in the previous sections, this one just felt like a letdown. It was a return to a feeling of reality, and a way to tie up remaining loose ends, and I just felt about it like I did about the epilogue of Harry Potter.

Still, overall, a beautiful, fantastic story. I love David Mitchell’s Ghostwrittennumber9dream and Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – a wide range of stories that demonstrates how versatile this author isThe Bone Clocks, by many accounts, is his most ambitious yet, and in true David Mitchell form, he pulls it off with flair.

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Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Playing with Matches, Suri Rosen

20578768When her sister’s heart is broken, 16 year old Raina Resnick decides to set up the anonymous matchmaking service “Match Maven” and help her sister find true love. Leah, after all, is twenty-three and unmarried, and as Raina points out, this is a big deal because “you have to think in dog years when you’re single in a traditional Jewish community” (page 31).

Playing with Matches is a hilarious tale of matchmaking, filled with increasingly ludicrous scenarios and yet anchored throughout by Raina’s very real desire to reconnect with her sister. The Match Maven dates are hilarious — a scene involving a Porta Potty is just so over the top that all you can do is laugh. For anyone who’s tried online dating and had some pretty horrific experiences, this book will make you feel better about your love life. And yet there is also the story of Esther, an elderly woman who lost her husband to a brain aneurysm years ago and is now looking for a second chance at love. Just as Raina does, we can’t help but feel invested in these singles asking for help, and just like Raina, we want them to find their perfect match.

However, it is Leah’s search for a match that really propels the story. As the anonymous “Match Maven,” Raina is able to offer advice and connect with Leah at the same time as Leah is pulling away from her sister in real life. Honestly, Leah’s conversations with Match Maven made me really uncomfortable — it’s Leah’s decision whom to trust with her feelings, and she was really being tricked into revealing them to her sister. I understood why Raina felt she had to do it, and how because of her persona as Match Maven, Raina couldn’t really do much to stop it. Still, it felt like an invasion of her privacy, and despite the way things eventually turn out, it still felt like a betrayal of trust. More a criticism of a character’s actions than a criticism of the book itself, but I do wish this aspect of it had been explored a bit more.

The novel also stretches credibility, though that might just be my unfamiliarity with Jewish matchmaking customs in the 21st century. If a matchmaker is supposed to broker the deal from the first date all the way to the wedding, and if, like a wedding planner, she must be on hand to help deal with disasters as Raina is, is it believable that the matchmaker remain anonymous? Also, do matchmakers render the service for free, or are they usually paid? None of Raina’s clients ever enquire about fees, or, if she is anonymous, about methods of payment. Given the level of commitment required and the significance of the task, I’d think matchmaking would be a profession, and therefore a paid service, rather than something one does for strangers just out of the goodness of their hearts. I of course know nothing about traditional Jewish matchmaking rituals — for example, I didn’t realize it was still so prevalent in the 21st century — and this book makes me want to learn more.

Still, Rosen speaks of Jewish customs with an ease and confidence that Eve Harris lacks in The Marrying of Chauni Kaufman, an “Orthodox Jewish Pride and Prejudice” that struck me as presenting an expertise on a culture without adequate understanding. I don’t know how accurate Rosen’s portrayal of Jewish customs is, but her book is at least much more natural in tone and affectionate about these customs. Playing with Matches is also less concerned with detailing all the various aspects of the traditions — rather, it concerns itself much more with the story, providing enough details that I knew what was going on but not bombarding me with so much information that it felt like more like a Wikipedia article than a novel.

Playing with Matches is a great book for the weekend. The book blurb describes Raina’s matchmaking service as a cross between Jane Austen’s Emma, Dear Abby and Yenta the matchmaker, and that’s pretty much on point. Some of the plot threads were too neatly resolved and at times, Raina’s streak of bad luck felt like a ploy by the author to garner sympathy for the character. But overall, the story was a lot of fun to read, and featured a cast of characters you want to succeed in their search for true love.

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Thank you to ECW Press for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review | Project Superhero, E. Paul Zehr and Kris Pearn (illus.)

20578719I have to admit, the minute I saw this cover, Project Superhero went right to the top of my TBR pile. I also have to admit that I mistakenly thought it was a graphic novel about a young girl who creates actual superhero powers for herself. The actual premise of the story is somewhat similar, though much more grounded in reality and real-life heroes than the caped crusader teen my mind had conjured up from this cover.

13 year old Jessie and her classmates are given a year-long research project on superheroes, which culminates in the Superhero Slam, a head-to-head debate about which superhero reigns supreme, given a set of characteristics like agility, recovery and teamwork. A shy comic book nerd, Jessie is both thrilled by the subject of the assignment and terrified at the need for public speaking at the end of the project. She decides to champion Batgirl, who doesn’t have superpowers but rather relies on training and hard work to achieve great things. Through the year, Jessie documents her work on the project, which involves training in karate to become as strong as Batgirl, and which also connects her with real life heroes such as Olympian Hayley Wickenheiser, NASA astronaut Nicole Stott and Batgirl writer Brian Q. Miller, among others.

According to the advance reading copy I received, author E. Paul Zehr is known for using superheroes as a metaphor to communicate science. The book does a good job of teaching scientific principles, using both Jessie’s research on superheroes and her karate lessons. For example, an observation about how karate lessons are affecting her mentally as well as physically leads to a brief description of the cerebellum and the 100 billion neurons in the brain. Because the science is presented in line with something tangible like karate training or Batgirl powers, it’s a fun, easy way to learn. Heck, I learned things I don’t even remember taking up in school.

I love the premise behind this book, particularly the question on what makes a hero, and the vibe that girls can do anything, because science! Even a shy comic book nerd like Jessie can become a physically strong karateka with the confidence to debate her classmate in front of the entire school. I love that real-life heroes took the time to contribute to this project, and practically every other chapter is a brief interview or note from a notable name that inspires Jessie (and therefore the reader) to have confidence in her ability to achieve her goals.

The book is most valuable as an educational resource and a source of inspiration from these real life individuals, rather than for the story itself. The idea of the Superhero Slam held promise, but the debate itself wasn’t exciting. Part of me wishes Jessie’s class had been allowed to create their own superheroes rather than use ready-made DC and Marvel characters. If you could be any kind of superhero, what would you be and why? I believe those answers will be much more interesting, and much more revealing, than a canned debate on why Ironman isn’t as agile as Captain America. As well, due to the format of the story, superheroes other than Batgirl herself are given fairly short shrift — we learn next to nothing about the actual superhero characters, and so Jessie’s nervousness about some of her match ups fail to register any actual impact. And the way the debate ended made no sense to me. The framing device helps target the message towards its readers, but almost feels superfluous by the end.

Jessie is 13, but the book itself seems to skew more towards a younger demographic. The illustrations are absolutely awesome, and will definitely keep readers turning the page. The premise is inspiring, and I hope the letters from familiar names will inspire young readers to become real-life heroes themselves.

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Thank you to ECW Press for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

Scotland in Toronto, men in kilts and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander on screen

Photograph courtesy of Showcase and Sony Pictures Television

Outlander preview party at The Caledonian, Toronto. Photograph courtesy of Showcase and Sony Pictures Television.

A Scottish-themed cocktail party on a weeknight — how could I resist? Throw in a special preview screening of the first episode of Outlander and an image of Jamie Fraser on the invitation practically commanding you to come — just see that smouldering gaze and outstretched hand! — well, yes, I’m there.

Also, well, men in kilts. Because kilts.

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Why yes, there were men in kilts at the party. Photograph courtesy of Showcase and Sony Pictures Television.

Outlander is based on the first book in a best selling series by Diana Gabaldon, and the TV adaptation premieres in Canada on Showcase Sundays at 10pm ET/PT, beginning August 24. The show begins at the end of World War II, when combat nurse Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) travels to Scotland to reconnect with her husband, professor and genealogy geek Frank (Tobias Menzies). While in Scotland, Claire is mysteriously transported two centuries back in time, and ends up falling in love with hot young warrior Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan). Claire is torn, between two vastly different men and two vastly different lives.

Photographer: Ed Miller/Sony Pictures Television

Caitriona Balfe as Claire Randall. Photograph by Ed Miller/Sony Pictures Television.

I’d heard this show touted as a “feminist Game of Thrones” and I’d also read several articles praising this show as a ground breaking feminist gesture. A science fiction/fantasy show aimed at women with a strong female protagonist is definitely something I support, and with Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek: The Next Generation) at the helm, this show was high on my list to check out.

I deliberately refrained from re-reading the book before the screening. From what I remember, I wasn’t a big fan of the book — I mostly thought Frank got a really raw deal, and I didn’t remember Claire being particularly strong or ground breaking. I wanted to give the TV show a chance, watch it with fresh eyes, and I’m glad I did.

The first episode is powerful, compelling television. I was hooked from the very first scene — after treating a soldier with a leg wound, Claire meets a crowd of men and women cheering and celebrating the end of the war. Claire doesn’t smile or cry in relief, or do any of the things I expected her to do. Instead, without changing her expression, she pulls out a bottle and takes a long drink. I had no idea what was going through her mind at that moment, and that was when I knew this show was going to be special. With all she’s seen, and all she’s gone through during the war, what is there to be said?

What makes a female protagonist strong? Examples range from Katniss Everdeen to Hermione Granger to Cersei Lannister, and I always love it when a female character breaks the “strong woman” mould and still manages to be kickass in her own way. In the case of Claire Randall, she mostly struck me as being real. Here is a woman who is skilled at a demanding career, yet who is haunted by the horrors she’s seen and by the need to settle down into a kind of domestic idyll. It’s a complex role, and kudos to Caitriona Balfe for bringing just the right mix of strength, vulnerability and humour to the role.

Frank and Claire. Photograph by Sony Pictures Television.

Tobias Menzies and Caitriona Balfe as Frank and Claire Randall. Photograph by Sony Pictures Television.

Claire is also wholly in charge of her own sexuality. In one scene, Frank leans in to kiss her and Claire grabs his head and pushes it down between her legs instead, and all I could think was, “You go, girl!” It seems odd that this feels new in 2014, but with so many TV shows and movies focusing on male sexuality, it is refreshing to see a woman on screen taking the lead. Sex is also key to the story — in a voiceover later on, Claire confesses that sex is how she and Frank reconnect.

Photographer: Sony Pictures Television

Catriona Balfe and Sam Heughan as Claire Randall and Jamie Fraser. Photograph by Sony Pictures Television.

I was pulling for Frank in the novel, and I love Tobias Menzies in the role. Many may remember him as Catelyn Stark’s brother in Game of Thrones (the man who shot several flaming arrows at his father’s barge and kept missing each time), but I mostly remember him as Brutus from HBO’s Rome. Here he portrays both the dashing yet adorably geeky Frank Randall and the brutish, violent Black Jack Randall, Frank’s ancestor in 1740s Scotland.

This episode as well made me realize why Claire and so many readers are in love with Jamie. Sam Heughan manages to be both smouldering and adorable in the role, and so intense in this episode that I’m hoping to see a bit more of his lighthearted side later on. There were quite a few Jamie Fraser fans in my audience: at one point, Jamie asks Claire, “Do you want me to pick you up and throw you over my shoulder?” To which a woman in the audience responded, “Yes!”

Inspired by Jamie Fraser, the lovely team at Showcase treated us party-goers to a fantastic Scottish-themed affair. There was whisky tasting at the back, where the bartender taught us how the taste of each whisky is influenced by its region of origin. It ranged from a light whisky that got its taste purely from the barrel in which it was kept (very spicy to my untrained tongue) and a peaty drink from an area with a craggy landscape, high winds and raging storms (tasted like smoke, again to my untrained tongue).

Whisky tasting station. Photograph courtesy of Showcase and Sony Television

Whisky tasting station. Photograph courtesy of Showcase and Sony Pictures Television.

The food was amazing, featuring Scottish eggs (eggs in sausages), vegetarian haggis balls (I know, right? but it was yummy), shrimp on crostini, and a whole lot more that I can’t name, but all tasted really good.

Scottish eggs. Photography courtesy of Showcase and Sony Pictures Television.

Scottish eggs. Photograph courtesy of Showcase and Sony Pictures Television.

It was great meeting up with Chatelaine Books Editor Laurie Grassi and Toronto book bloggers Christa, Michele and Liz.

Chatting with Laurie after the screening. Photograph courtesy of Showcase and Sony Pictures Television.

Chatting with Laurie after the screening. Photograph courtesy of Showcase and Sony Pictures Television.

Thanks to the organizers for a fantastic goodie bag, which came complete with a Pocket Jamie.

Swag bags. Photograph courtesy of Showcase and Sony Pictures Television.

Swag bags. Photograph courtesy of Showcase and Sony Pictures Television.

And of course, men in kilts.

Lindsey and I with the kilted men. Photograph courtesy of Showcase and Sony Pictures Television.

Lindsey and I with the kilted men. Photograph courtesy of Showcase and Sony Pictures Television.

Thank you to Showcase and Sony Pictures Television for a lovely evening. I was hooked by the first episode of Outlander, and I’ll definitely be following along.

Outlander airs on Showcase Sundays at 10pm ET/PT, beginning August 24. You can join the conversation on Twitter @showcasedotca and the hashtag #Outlander. See www.showcase.ca/outlander for more information.