Blog Tour Review | Hey Canada! Vivien Bowers, illus. by Milan Pavlovic

Remember encyclopedias? Hardcover books with glossy, colourful pages. In my nerdiest moments, I had a great time flipping through them and learning random factoids about Elizabethan drama, far away places and whatever other topic catches my attention. Wikipedia is a much more efficient way to research, but there’s a certain charm in an encyclopedia’s glossy presentation of information.

Reading Vivien Bowers’ Hey Canada! reminded me of that experience. The story is simple: Gran takes nine-year-old Alice and eight-year-old Cal on a road trip across Canada. They visit all the provincial capitals, and learn about each one’s history and points of interests. It’s a fun, informative introduction to Canada for 7 – 10 year olds, a wonderful book for parents to read with their children to teach them about this country. As a recent immigrant myself, I would recommend this book to other immigrants, particularly those with children. Written in clear, easily accessible language and filled with photos of Canadian landmarks, Hey Canada! is a great way for a family to learn about the country together.

I enjoyed reading the facts and looking at the photos. I remember being in elementary school, and studying the dialects, cultural traditions and top industries of various regions in the Philippines. I imagine Canadian school children have studied the same about the various provinces. Hey Canada! is a great resource for this. I assume the plant and bird at each province’s chapter heading is the official plant or bird of the province (i.e. the osprey is the official bird of Nova Scotia and the mayflower the official plant), and I like that this was taught via a simple illustration in the chapter heading.

I liked the historical comic strips for a similar reason. Having not grown up studying Canadian history, it was fascinating to see small glimpses of each province’s history. For example in the chapter on Quebec, we see the British attack Quebec City in 1759, and the final panel shows the present-day Plains of Abraham as an idyllic park. I now want to visit the area, and perhaps read a bit more about this history.

The Find It! boxes are also particularly interesting as a teaching tool. It lists highlights in the chapter, and so, especially for parents reading with their children, it helps make the reading experience a bit more interactive. The only thing I didn’t like was that the list items sometimes referred to illustrations or text. Since they referred to highlights of the province, I would have preferred them to have referred to actual photographs. As well, and this admittedly is partly because I’m lazy, but I would have also liked the images to have labels, just so if I’m flipping through the book, I can immediately see what an image is, without having to search the entry.

Cal’s Tweets seemed designed to make the book seem more contemporary. Unfortunately, other than being labelled a tweet and, I’m assuming, consisting of less than 140 characters, it looked and sounded just like a regular Cal factoid rather than a tweet. I think using @ mentions, hash tags, and perhaps even formatting it to look like a tweet (with photos being labelled Twitpic or Instagram, and the Reply, Retweet etc buttons) would have helped these be more tweet-like. That being said, the primary appeal of Hey Canada! is its classic format, and the tweets just stand out as incongruous with everything else.

Hey Canada! is also very narrative in style, along with being informational. Gran and the kids joke around a lot, and there’s even a subplot about Cal’s hamster. The humour is very gentle, geared towards younger children and mostly about Gran’s singing and Alice’s snoring. It’s light family entertainment, and again, good for children or families reading together. With Canada Day coming up soon, it’s a great time to take an imaginary trip across the country with your whole family, and Hey Canada! is a fun way to do just that.

***

Thank you to Tundra Books for providing me with a copy of this book.

Review | The 500, Matthew Quirk

James Patterson compares Matthew Quirk’s The 500 to John Grisham’s The Firm and it’s easy to see why. Just like Grisham’s protagonist, Mike Ford is a fresh-faced hot talent who gets in way over his head in a high-powered career. Quirk takes the premise to Washington — “The 500″ refers to the 500 most powerful people in Washington, usually those pulling the strings from the sidelines. Mike Ford has been hired straight out of Harvard Law School to join the Davies Group, Washington’s most powerful consulting firm. The Davies Group mandate is to make things happen for their clients, and that usually entails convincing one or more of the 500 to agree to something. As an ambitious young man raised in poverty and with a con man for a father, Mike’s street smarts provide fresh perspective for the Davies Group, otherwise staffed with privileged intellectuals.

The 500 is more action-packed than I remember The Firm to be. While The Firm, from what I remember, dealt a lot with the protagonist’s loss of innocence and the development of his relationship with his wife, The 500 focuses on the mystery — what are Mike’s bosses hiding? What do they want with an alleged war criminal? Why are they shutting Mike out and can Mike trust them? Unlike Grisham’s protagonist, Mike begins this story no longer an innocent. He has been trained by his father to be a con man, and has since struggled to live on the right side of the law. Unfortunately, his employment at the Davies Group forces him to use his long-suppressed con man skills, first to succeed, then later on, to survive.

Davies Group founder Henry Davies has built his empire on the tenet that everyone is corruptible. There’s an interesting reversal here — the law-abiding “good guys” manipulate people into corruption, and Mike’s old law-breaking “bad guy” acquaintances may be the only ones he can trust. It’s an old notion, and one that I think Quirk hammered home far too much. At one point near the end, just in case we hadn’t gotten the point yet, the narrator makes just that observation. It turns an otherwise fascinating story into a morality tale, and I wish it had been handled more subtly.

I do love the relationship between Mike and his father. Mike has tried his whole life not to become like his father, yet we see early on how much his father has influenced his life. I love the way Mike’s understanding of his father develops — it felt more genuine than Mike’s romance with a co-worker, and added a nice touch of emotion to this thriller. The romantic subplot was okay. At times the love interest felt more like a kick-ass Angelina Jolie fantasy figure — the perfect partner for a con man, who may or may not be trustworthy — than an actual woman.

Overall, the best part of The 500 is the mystery. I love that I couldn’t figure out what the Davies Group was up to, nor could I tell who Mike could trust. More than the Davies Group tenet that everyone’s corruptible, the House M.D. idea that everyone lies holds true in this book. The mystery was fast-paced and exciting, with unexpected twists. A lot of the action scenes and coincidental twists were a bit far-fetched, and would probably work out better on a TV or movie screen than a book. As well, despite the Washington D.C. setting, I would not consider The 500 to be a political thriller — I know there are major political consequences to the actions of the Davies Group, but the narrative was too focused on Mike’s experiences within the company to explore the bigger political picture. That being said, The 500 is a fun read and hard to put down.

+

Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for a finished copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Fifty Shades of Grey: The Highlights

I can’t say I wasn’t warned. My sister told me about this awesome tumblr where someone live blogs her reading of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. Spoilers abound and yes, her reactions are pretty much spot on. Fifty Shades is as bad as people say, though the good news is, it’s often funny bad rather than boring bad. It’s best read out loud — gather a group of your best girlfriends, track down an available copy at the library (seriously, not worth spending good money on, unless perhaps there are a dozen of you and each only has to contribute a dollar or so), and make a drinking game out of it. Every time Ana bites her lip, every time Christian mutters darkly for no good reason, every time Ana’s subconscious primly purses her lips, every time Ana calls Christian “my Fifty Shades” — drink! You’ll be drunk within two chapters.

Reading Fifty Shades was, in turns, confusing, hilarious, infuriating, and most unfortunately, boring. Rather than write a long, well-thought-out review, I figure it most effective to just talk about plot points and passages that inspired a sticky note-level reaction from me. Fair warning: this post may contain spoilers and explicit material. Caveat: there isn’t much of a story arc to spoil, and there are more explicit scenes in Harlequin novels.

The first chapter (Ana interviews Christian for a school paper) confused the hell out of me. I could not understand Ana’s reactions at all.

[Christian says] “The harder I work the more luck I seem to have. It really is all about having the right people on your team and directing their energies accordingly.”
[Ana replies] “You sound like a control freak.” [page 10]

Huh? How is attributing your success to the people who work for you a sign of being a control freak? I see no reason for Ana’s reaction rather than to give Christian the opportunity to give the double entendre “I exercise control in all things, Miss Steele.”

In that same interview, Ana asks why Christian invests in farming technologies. He replies that it’s to feed those without enough to eat:

“It’s shrewd business,” he murmurs, though I think he’s being disingenuous. It doesn’t make sense–feeding the world’s poor? I can’t see the financial benefit of this, only the virtue of the ideal. [page 12]

Ana, you idiot. Yes, Christian may have a philanthropic side, but to seriously think there can be no monetary benefit to investing in farming technologies?

“Until we meet again, Miss Steel.” And it sounds like a challenge or a threat, I’m not sure which. I frown. When will we ever meet again? [page 15]

If anyone says that to me in a challenging or threatening tone, I won’t bother wondering when we’ll meet again. I’d be making sure we didn’t.

They do meet again, and Christian takes Ana to his home.

My mouth drops open. Fuck hard! Holy shit, that sounds so… hot. But why are we looking at a playroom? I am mystified. “You want to play on your Xbox?” I ask. [page 96]

This is a 22 year old college graduate. She may be a virgin, but she wasn’t raised in a glass bubble.

He steps out of his Converse shoes and reaches down and takes his socks off individually. [page 112]

Show of hands: has anyone ever tried taking their socks off any other way? I know this scene is supposed to be hot, but I kept imagining a male stripper whipping both socks off at the same time like some circus trick. Wheee!

So they have sex, and it actually is getting pretty good. Like Harlequin good. Then this passage:

Suddenly, he sits up and tugs my panties off and throws them on the floor. Pulling off his boxer briefs, his erection springs free. Holy cow… [page 116]

I couldn’t help it: I laughed. All I could think of was, ride ‘em, cowboy! Then it gets worse when he puts a condom on:

Oh no… Will it? How?
“Don’t worry,” he breathes, his eyes on mine. “You expand too.” [page 116]

I have to admit, it was a fun scene to read. So they continue to have sex, and it starts getting pretty hot again. Then:

“You. Are. So. Sweet,” he murmurs between each thrust. “I. Want. You. So. Much.” [page 121]

Seriously, imagine this scene for a moment. Never mind how sore Ana must be at this point, how sexy is this staccato speech?

Other things that drove me mad:

Ana’s constant lip-biting. Every other page, literally, she was either biting her lip or Christian was telling her to stop biting her lip. At one point, she smiles at another character and realizes she’d been biting her lip without noticing it. Here’s a fun exercise: stand in front of a mirror, bite your lower lip, then smile widely. You sexy thing. (I think I look like a deranged clown doing that, but apparently it turns Christian on.) By the third time or so that Christian “mutters darkly” that he wanted to bite her lip for her, I wished he would just chomp her lips off altogether and be done with it.

Christian’s obsession with food.

“I’m really not hungry, Christian…”
His expression hardens. “Eat,” he says quietly, too quietly.
I stare at him… his tone is so threatening. [page 155]

James eventually explains (kind of, like in one sentence) why Christian has such an issue about finishing food. But at this point, I was hoping for a plot twist where it turns out Christian was the witch from Hansel and Gretel. That would at least explain why he feels the need to threaten Ana to eat.

Ana whispers, bleats, murmurs, squeaks and, my personal favourite, mewls. Does anyone actually mewl in real life? How high-pitched is this girl’s voice? Worse, when she speaks, it’s always with a breathless, “oh my” quality that makes me think: wide eyed little girl. And yes, I meant girl — women, I believe, can speak up a bit more than Ana ever does. In contrast, Christian orders, mutters darkly and smirks. I’m imagining the Phantom of the Opera, except without the sexy singing voice. At one point, Ana wears pigtails, hoping that the girly look will keep Christian from being rough with her. All I could think was, dressing up younger to keep predators away? You can’t be that naive! Honestly, the way that infantilizing her turns him on, I’m thinking this book could’ve taken a much darker turn than James intended.

Ana and Christian’s flirtation over email is actually pretty good. Christian complains that Ana isn’t as forthright in person as she is over email, and I have to agree. Playful e-mail Ana is much easier to take than in-person Ana whose subconscious and inner goddess form a Greek chorus behind her.

I actually felt sorry for Christian. Little as I understand about the BDSM lifestyle, it works for some people, and clearly, for Christian as well. I don’t understand why he would try to fit Ana into that lifestyle when she’s so judgmental, calling him sick and wanting to bring him into the light. Why Ana would stick it out when she so clearly doesn’t enjoy the things that turn Christian on, and why Christian insists on being with her when she keeps making him feel like a total freak, make zero sense to me.

Finally, just for fun, Ana’s friend Jose apparently has a “dazzling toothy all-Hispanic-American smile.” It’s like E.L. James wanted to put the boy-next-door quality of “all-American,” then remembered Jose was Hispanic.

Seriously, if this book were meant as a parody of bad romance novels, parts of it would be downright clever. Instead, Fifty Shades is a parody of itself. I can’t imagine being able to parody a book that seems itself to be a parody, so I was curious how Andrew Shaffer did it with his upcoming Fifty Shades parody Fifty Shames of Earl Grey. His response:

If you’re interested in Fifty Shames, by the way, here’s a bit of added incentive to check it out:

Back to Fifty Shades: it’s not my thing. Granted, I haven’t read erotica before, nor have I read BDSM romance novels. I do read romance novels, and personally think Nora Roberts, Jayne Ann Krentz and Judith McNaught write better romances. For steamy romance, I’ve read better sex scenes in Harlequin Blaze.

Worst part about Fifty Shades is that, despite all the laugh out loud moments, the book becomes boring. The conversations, the flirtations, the sex scenes most of all, become redundant. Ana bites lip, Christian mutters darkly, Ana’s subconscious purses her lips, Ana and Christian have sex, Ana says “oh my,” Ana’s inner goddess dances the merengue or the salsa or the macarena, Christian wants to spank, Ana says “oh my,” Ana’s inner goddess hides behind a sofa. Rinse. Repeat. Over and over and over again. Funny bad tapers off into boring bad, and that’s the worst thing that can happen.

I am glad that I read Fifty Shades. It was mostly entertaining, and while I often wished I had a drink with me, there were enough funny parts to keep me turning the page. Erotic? In over 500 pages, maybe a scene or two. The BDSM scenes were especially un-erotic, partly perhaps because it’s not really my thing, but mostly, I think, because Ana so completely hates it (yet allows it to happen) that these scenes felt more uncomfortable than anything. Romantic? The email exchanges were fun and flirty, but overall, not very. Will I ever read Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed? Out loud, with a group of friends, a library copy and a lot of booze — then yes, possibly.

Personally, though, this may be a much more interesting read.

Or, check out Selena Gomez’s spot-on parody at Funny or Die. Not only did she mimic Ana Steele perfectly, but this video is much more entertaining than the book: