Film Review | Listen Up Philip, Opens Today at TIFF Bell Lightbox, Toronto

Listen_Up_Philip_posterListen Up Philip is a hilarious sendup of the pretentious capital-W Writer type. Jason Schwartzman plays Philip, a literary novelist awaiting the publication of his second book, and an utterly miserable human being.

In the opening scene, he meets up with an ex-girlfriend and, after she (rightly) calls him out on keeping the conversation all about him, declares that he will no longer give her a galley of his new book, even though he’d even written a personalized note on her copy. The next scene shows him accusing a college friend on giving up on his dream to be a writer too easily and tossing the writer’s pledge they’d written into his glass of beer. “It’s harder for some people,” his friend retorts, before exiting the bar and revealing his wheelchair. None of this fazes Philip’s air of superiority and he fishes out the crumpled, beer-soaked pledge.

Writer and director Alex Ross Perry plays it straight, imbuing the film with the mock gravitas fitting to a character of Philip’s ilk. Perry even includes a narrator, a portentous voice detailing characters’ inner thoughts. In a later scene with Philip’s girlfriend Ashley (Elizabeth Moss), upon Philip hearing good news about Ashley’s career, the narrator intones that it was hard for Philip, being reminded how proud he could feel for Ashley. Schwartzman then delivers Philip’s spoken response with such perfect dickishness that you wonder just how reliable the narrator really is.

Fortunately for Philip, he meets Ike (Jonathan Pryce), a Philip Roth-type writer he idolizes, and who is essentially an older, grizzled version of Philip. Ike’s latest novel is called “Audit,” he confesses having been unable to write another page since his move to New York, and he invites Philip to his country house, where the quiet will allow him to write. The quiet does indeed provide Philip with some inspiration, though as Ike’s daughter (Krysten Ritter) rightly points out, her father has simply provided a substitute to take over his moping duties.

Listen Up Philip is sharp, witty and brilliant. Parts of the middle dragged a bit for me, particularly Philip’s stint as a creative writing teacher, possibly because just as with pretentious, narcissistic bores at parties, there is only so much I can take of Philip at one time. Despite insight into Philip’s inner thoughts, there is little redemption to the character, and deliberately so. The ending was pitch perfect.


Listen Up Philip opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox today, October 24. Schedule and tickets here.


Thank you to TIFF for a screener of this film in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, Rachel Joyce

20890479I fell in love with Harold Fry in Rachel Joyce’s novel about his Unlikely Pilgrimage. How could I not? Here was a quiet, non-adventurous man setting off to walk the length of England to see his old friend Queenie Hennessy before she dies. I can never forget that scene: Harold on the phone to the nurse at Queenie’s hospice, saying “As long as I walk, she must live. Please tell her this time I won’t let her down.”

And now we get to see him through Queenie’s eyes. In this companion novel, Joyce tells us Queenie’s story, partly how she waits for Harold to arrive, and also partly how she lived before the whole pilgrimage began. Love Song is a wonderful novel, one that may make you tear up, and one that will make you fall more in love with Harold and Queenie than ever before. I read it in a weekend and though I didn’t cry like I thought I would, I did enjoy returning to Harold and Queenie’s world. I didn’t like it as much as Unlikely Pilgrimage, and I think it’s because this was a dose of reality that, for me, took out some of the charm of the earlier book.

One of the things I loved about Unlikely Pilgrimage is how Joyce refrained from the typical love story and kept the relationship between Harold and Queenie purely platonic. I was fascinated by the stocky, plain featured woman who’d made such an impact on a man’s life without any romantic feelings involved. In this book, we find out that Queenie was in love with Harold since they first met. They still are friends, and being in love does not make Queenie any weaker as a character, but the story just felt more traditional, and that disappointed me. I also wish she’d somehow moved on beyond Harold, not necessarily falling in love with anyone else, and again, there’s nothing wrong with being in love with someone who doesn’t love you back, but it just made me feel sad.

Another thing that I was too caught up to think about while reading Unlikely Pilgrimage was how nonsensical Harold’s plan was. While walking with Harold, the idea of walking across England seemed romantic, a true giving of oneself. Now, with Love Song, reading as patient after patient dies while waiting alongside Queenie, I ended up asking myself multiple times why he didn’t just take a train. Harold’s pilgrimage inspires Queenie’s fellow patients, and several of them found waiting for him as a reason to go on living and celebrating. So it’s still a beautiful act. It’s just that, coupled with the harsh reality of people dying while they wait, the impracticalities of the plan kept coming into focus for me.

That being said, there are a lot of other things to love in this book. For example, we get to meet Harold and Maureen’s son. A focal point of tragedy in the first book, David becomes a more complex, well-rounded character in this one. There’s a lot going on with him that we never really get to fully explore, and a much richer, more complicated family life that we didn’t realize until now.

We also learn a bit more about Queenie’s life, and Joyce teases us with details of a complicated pre-Harold past. I wish I’d learned more about it — what kind of child was she, and who was this man who screwed up her life before she took the factory job and met Harold?

I also love the other patients in Queenie’s hospice. They are such a colourful cast of characters, and each death dims the story the slightest bit. I especially love the description of their drinks — nutrient-rich shakes that taste disgusting despite supposedly having flavours like vanilla and raspberry. I remember having to drink a concoction once for a medical procedure — it was supposed to taste like strawberry and it kinda did, but it was also like gulping down cement and was utterly disgusting overall. I’m sure their shakes were much more vile, but that concoction was what I was thinking of when I read about the patients raising their cups in a toast and celebrating Harold’s pilgrimage with a serving they deem extra delicious. Such scenes feel poignant, and just because of what I once had to drink, it was those party scenes that remain most memorable to me.

Queenie’s story is told through the conceit of a second, longer letter to Harold Fry, where she confesses everything — her feelings for him, her role in David’s life, the true story of how she and Harold first met, and so on. I have mixed feelings about the ending. On one hand, there was a twist that seemed unnecessary and confused me more than anything. What was the point of that? On the other hand, there’s an added touch of poignancy to that twist that I kinda really liked. So, quite fitting for a tale of such complex human emotions, I finished the book not knowing quite how I felt about it.

Overall though, I did enjoy the book. Joyce’s writing is as beautiful as ever, and her gift for making characters leap right off the page remains strong. If you love Harold Fry, do take a moment to see him through Queenie’s eyes.


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


Blog Tour | Review: Gottika, Helaine Becker

9781770863910Helaine Becker’s Gottika is a powerful retelling of an old Jewish legend about the golem, a magical humanoid being made from clay who is brought to life to protect Jewish towns from anti-semitic attacks. The world that Becker creates in Gottika bears many similarities to Panem and other contemporary YA dystopias, but the reference to Jewish legend turns the into an unsettling allegory for the horrors of the Holocaust.

Fifteen year old Dany is a Stoon, in Western Gottika where Stoons are treated as second class citizens and killed for no reason under the tyrannical rule of Count Pol. Unrest is brewing, and Dany’s father must decide if he must stop trying to keep a low profile and use the secret knowledge he possesses to bring clay to life and transform it into a weapon against Count Pol.

There’s a lot going on in Gottika, multiple plot threads that, though resolved, rarely ever take off. What’s the “staring sickness”, why do all the families in town only have one child each, why is Count Pol kidnapping teenage girls? The final question in particular does have a pretty big significance in the story, but the question feels so tangential, and buried beneath so many other plot points, throughout the story that the payoff feels disjointed.

More powerful are the encounters between Stoons and Count Pol’s soldiers. In one particularly memorable scene, Dany and his father are swimming when soldiers order them out of the water and castigate them for not wearing their hats. The casual injustice, coupled with Dany and his father’s powerlessness to resist, is difficult to read. In another scene, soldiers storm Dany’s house to confiscate his family’s books. The novel breaks from text narration then, switching over to graphics and demonstrating how some horrors are beyond just words.

While more of the main characters are male, I love that the female characters seem to have more complex motivations for their actions. While most teenage girls fear being kidnapped by Count Pol, Dany’s cousin Dalil welcomes it. She is attracted by Pol’s lifestyle, and manages to turn a blind eye to his faults. Later in the story, she is forced to face the truth of Pol’s tyranny, and becomes instrumental in the resistance against it. I love her character arc, how her desire for comfort initially outweighs her loyalty to her people, until she is forced to realize just how much she is condoning by her actions. Dany’s mother as well, quiet and unassuming at first, later reveals a dark secret she’s had to live with for many years. In contrast to Dany and his father’s more traditional heroic roles, I love the nuances and  questions raised by Dalil and Dany’s mother’s more problematic arcs.

The horrors of the Holocaust are difficult to discuss, particularly in fiction for children. Gottika isn’t exactly a simple allegory for that, but it does speak to the oppression experienced by certain groups of people. The story is futuristic, but the tone is that of a classic fairy tale. There’s a timelessness to Dany’s story, and despite the supernatural elements, the sense that there have been, and continue to be, far too many Count Pols throughout history.


Thank you to Dancing Cat Books for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review, and for inviting me to take part in this blog tour.

Book Event and Giveaway | Philippa Gregory in Toronto


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

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.


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.


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.


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.


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