Review | Nine Women, One Dress, Jane L. Rosen

27245903Nine Women, One Dress is the perfect rom com of a novel, an utter treat I’ll definitely be dipping into time and again, and will probably stock in a place of honour beside my Devil Wears Prada DVD. Not that the story is anything like Devil Wears Prada; with its lightly interconnected stories of love and life, Nine Women, One Dress is more reminiscent of Love Actually than anything else. But like both movies, it’s a fun, lighthearted experience with unexpected moments of depth. It’s a comedy with heart, and I absolutely fell in love with its characters.

The story revolves around a single, classic little black dress that became the designer It dress of the season. A young model wears it on the runway and lands a magazine cover on her very first gig. An unemployed Brown graduate creates a fake life of success using Instagram photos yet the dress adds an unexpected twist to her career path. A teenager in a traditional Muslim household tries the dress on and gains a better understanding of her sister’s desire for a different life.

The main story lines are about love. Bloomingdale’s saleswoman Natalie is invited to be the beard for a movie star who needs to dispel rumours that he’s gay. She wears the dress to his movie premiere, and it’s just the cutest love story ever. Another highlight for me is a fairly minor but multilayered subplot about the dressmaker Morris, an almost-90 year old who has been cutting dress patterns all his life. I love the story of his immigration to America, and I love how the story comes full circle with the dress becoming instrumental in his grandson’s love life.

But my favourite story by far is that of Felicia, a middle aged executive assistant who has been secretly in love with her boss for almost twenty years. The little black dress and a matchmaking Bloomingdale’s salesman give her the chance of a lifetime, and I admit at times wanting to skim over the other stories just to find out how hers turns out. (As an aside, the matchmaking salesman is Natalie’s co-worker Tómas, and I’m thrilled that he too gets a mini-love story of his own.)

As can be expected with such a story structure and with less than 300 pages, we get mere snippets of these characters’ stories, and with the exception of possibly one or two, we barely get a chance to dive deep into their lives and how things turn out for them. In some cases, this feels a shame; for example, I would have been interested in learning more of the Muslim teenager’s story after she tried the dress on. But on the other hand, the dipping in and out of people’s lives is also a huge part of this structure’s appeal. You do still end up caring for many of these characters, and in a way, the bite sized snippets of their stories are just the perfect snack.

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

 

Review | Here’s to Us, Elin Hilderbrand

27161845An Elin Hilderbrand Nantucket novel has become for me one of the hallmarks of summer. Always entertaining and lighthearted, with some heartfelt emotions, Hilderbrand’s novels are perfect for staycations, beach reads and sitting on your porch / balcony with an icy drink.

Her newest book, Here’s To Us, is no exception. Three women, all in love with the same man — the passionate, temperamental celebrity chef Deacon Thorpe — are drawn to his Nantucket house after he dies. All three women hate each other, and maintain a love/hate relationship with the man they all married and eventually divorced/planned to divorce. Adding to the drama, as Deacon’s best friend and executor Buck is reluctant to reveal, Deacon died heavily in debt so instead of splitting an inheritance or fighting over the proceeds from the Nantucket house, the women instead will need to figure out how to shoulder / split the financial burden he has left behind.

The novel appears ripe for a sitcom or a soap opera-ish drama, but Hilderbrand manages to balance both tones while keeping it all fairly lighthearted. I especially love the characters of the women, how richly drawn each of them is, and how much we glimpse into their lives with Deacon and beyond their relationship with him.

Laurel, Deacon’s childhood sweetheart and first wife, is probably my favourite, or at least the character I could most relate to. Supportive of her husband up until he left her for an actress, Laurel is a wonderfully rich character. A social worker, she is ironically (and tragically) unaware of her own son’s struggles with addiction, and she is understandably reluctant to begin a relationship with Buck, who has secretly held a torch for her for years. I love how, even if she is the oldest among the wives, she is also described as “effortlessly beautiful,” and her low-key beauty is viewed as more impactful than Belinda’s more glamourous style.

Belinda, the second wife, is a Hollywood actress who snapped him up at the height of his celebrity. She appears easy to hate, but on the other hand, is touchingly vulnerable as well. Her relationship with her daughter Angie is strained, and she is ever increasingly aware that she is getting older, and that this is particularly bad in the career she’s chosen.

Deacon’s third wife Scarlett, former nanny to Angie, is mostly portrayed as vapid and spoiled, a bit of karma for Deacon’s womanizing and drug use. Still, I love that she ends up choosing the safety and well-being of her child over a comfortable and wealthy life with Deacon, and also that one of her most extravagant purchases turns out to be an attempt at helping Deacon with his finances.

Angie, Deacon and Belinda’s daughter, is another really vivid character. A chef who apprenticed with her famous father, she is struggling with how best to continue his legacy, and to build her own life. Adding to the complication is that she is in love with a married man, and having to navigate a weekend with her estranged mother and the women her mother hates the most.

Hilderbrand’s strengths have always been her characters, her descriptions of Nantucket, and the relationships that bring all the elements together. The women are crafted so vividly that I can almost imagine being friends and having conversations with them, and urging Laurel in real life to go ahead and find a second chance at love with Buck.

Even Deacon manages to be a sympathetic character. Even if he was a jerk to the women he loved and not much of a father to two of his three kids, he was still a wonderful father and mentor to Angie, and in fact appears most sympathetic and likeable when we see him through Angie’s eyes. We also get a glimpse into his childhood, one of the happiest days of his life which turned into the day his father pretty much destroyed all of his childhood illusions. Deacon’s love and desire for Nantucket are rooted in that childhood incident, and for all his faults, you can’t help but feel for him and wish that for his sake, he is able to recapture the magic from that one day.

Nantucket, as always, is as much a character as the people in Hilderbrand’s stories are, and the elegaic tone of parts of this novel make me long to visit this place all the more. Here’s to Us is a bit heavier than some of Hilderbrand’s other beach reads, but it’s still a wonderful book, and a thoughtful story about love and family.

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

 

Blog Tour | In a Dark, Dark Wood, Ruth Ware

23783496Within the first few chapters, I knew I was going to absolutely love this book. The stage is set for a classic Agatha Christie-style mystery: a group of strangers is brought together in a house deep in the titular dark, dark wood where there is no cell reception, no easy way to escape, and where the characters are all bound by dark secrets from their past.

In Ware’s take on this classic trope, the characters convene for a bachelorette party organized by a rather obsessive perfectionist maid of honour named Flo for her BFF Clare. The main character is Leonora “Nora” Shaw, who is surprised to be invited since she hasn’t spoken to Clare since a falling out years ago. She decides to attend anyway, and as any mystery lover can attest, this cannot end well. What follows is a hilariously awkward weekend with people who mostly can’t seem to stand each other, and then someone is murdered. The novel opens with Nora in a hospital bed, trying to piece together what had happened.

In a Dark, Dark Wood is a classic mystery thriller. I couldn’t put it down, and I felt compelled to keep reading not only to find out what actually happened but also to find out how the various relationships develop. There are some aspects that stretch belief somewhat, for example that a bad breakup when Nora was just 16, could still have this much effect on her ten years later (why hasn’t she moved on yet?!), and also some twists and revelations that felt more convenient that believable. The motive behind the crime also felt odd, and I almost wish Ware had set it up a bit more like Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley character, which will possibly help us understand better how someone’s psyche can be so messed up that murder seems a sensible response to this motive.

That being said, I absolutely loved this book. I’m a sucker for classic Agatha Christie whodunnits and I think Ware captures this feel wonderfully. The house in the woods is a perfect setting for such a creepy mystery, and I absolutely love the twisted interlocking webs of messed up relationships that drove this story forward. Finally, I think the cover is just beautiful.

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Author Q&A with Ruth Ware

  1. I love the classic Agatha Christie whodunnit feel. How much was And Then There Were None an influence on this book, and how much is Agatha Christie herself an influence in your writing?

I loved Christie as a teen – well, classic crime full stop, really – so it’s definitely something that was there in the back of my head. However it wasn’t really a conscious decision to channel those influences into In a Dark, Dark Wood, but when I’d finished writing it I handed it to my agent who immediately said “you know, this has a very Agatha Christie-ish feel” and I realised she was right, and Christie’s influence had definitely seeped through into the text. The reference to And Then There Were None in the text is my little acknowledgement of that!

  1. What inspired this story? Where did the idea come from?

The original seed was a conversation with a friend who said she’d never read a thriller set on a hen night and would love to read one. And I realised in that moment that I’d never read a thriller on a hen night either, and would love to write one! On the tube on the way home I couldn’t stop thinking about the idea, and eventually it became In a Dark, Dark Wood.

  1. Why do you think the name change (from “Lee” to “Nora”) is so important to Leonora? Why is Clare so insistent on calling her “Lee”?

Well, one of the themes of the book is identity and self-image, and the way we choose how we to appear to others. Often the person we are at school is radically different from the person we are when we grow up – and Nora’s name change is a way of her owning that, I suppose – acknowledging that she’s more than Clare’s best friend (Clare was the person who bestowed the “Lee” nickname on Nora and it’s something she’s ambivalent about.) I suppose for Nora, making people use her grown-up name rather than her teenage nickname is a way of asking them to acknowledge that she’s not the same person she was back then, whereas Clare is maybe trying to do the opposite – remind Nora of who they used to be to each other.

  1. Will you be involved at all in the motion picture adaptation? How well do you think your story will translate to screen?

I know that some writers adapt their own books for screen, but I can’t imagine doing that. I’m not sure I’d know how! I think (I may be biased!) that it could be a great film, it’s certainly very visual and I think the dark woods and the glass house could make a great setting. A lot of the action takes place in Nora’s head though, and the tension comes from inside her. You’d need a good actor and director to convey that.

  1. Clare pretty much ends up having the bachelorette party from hell. What has been your most memorable (good, bad or simply hilarious) bachelorette party experience?

I’ve not had any really hideous experiences myself, but I did have a lot of friends unburden themselves to me after they read the book. I think the worst anecdote I heard was a party where the stripper failed to turn up, so the bar tender offered to make a few calls and find a replacement. Eventually a guy turned up, but the first clue that all was not quite well was that he folded his clothes neatly as he removed them! There followed an excruciating quarter of an hour as he got naked. When he had finished he turned and put them all back on again and quietly left. It turned out that he was the bar tender’s nephew or something, and an accountant and had never stripped before!

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review, and thank you to Ruth for participating in the Q&A!

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Blog Tour and Contest

This review is part of the Simon Schuster Canada Perfect Pairing Blog Tour. Check out the full schedule below.

Also: nothing pairs up better with a book than a cup of coffee, so heads up on an awesome contest: Simon and Schuster Canada is giving away a set of books AND one year of free coffee from aroma espresso bar! Enter at readchillrepeat.com.

Summer Fiction Blog Tour

Review | I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Iain Reid

28450159I absolutely loved Iain Reid’s memoir The Truth About Luck, about a road trip with his grandmother, and I was really excited to read his debut novel I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Reid is a wonderfully talented writer, and the way he subtly builds up the suspense and dread throughout this book is masterful.

A young woman goes on a road trip with her boyfriend Jake– their first trip together. They’re on their way to meet his parents, and she is thinking of ending the relationship. Talk about awkward. The tension increases with the revelation that the woman has been receiving calls from an anonymous man, sometimes as many as twelve calls in one night, and as if that wasn’t creepy enough, the calls all appear to be coming from her number. The caller appears interested only in leaving her messages; whenever she picks up the phone, the man hangs up.

“There’s only one question to resolve,” the caller says in her voicemail. “I’m scared. I feel a little crazy. I’m not lucid. The assumptions are right. I can feel my fear growing. Now is the time for the answer. Just one question. One question to answer.”

What that one question is, the caller never says, and that mystery just about drove me mad while I was reading. Often, I wanted to scream at the mysterious caller myself, just ask the f*cking question already! The caller also leaves a second voicemail, one that reveals he knows her inside and out, and ends with the chilling proof: “You shouldn’t bite your nails.”

Interspersed with this woman’s story are chapters of dialogue between unnamed characters, discussing an unnamed “horrible,” “scary” and “disturbing” act committed by a man who was “standoffish” and “kept to himself.” Sadly, many current events can help us imagine what this “horrible” act of violence could have been, and as we read on, the mystery deepens as to how Jake and his girlfriend are about to become involved in whatever had happened.

After the initial creep factor of the mysterious caller, and the introduction of the two main sources of tension (the mysterious “horrible” incident and the girlfriend’s intention to leave Jake who doesn’t seem like the type to handle it well), the story slows down a lot. I was bored for a bit because nothing seemed to be happening, and it’s only later that I appreciated all the little bits and pieces that Reid has so carefully set up.

The story picks up again once Jake and his girlfriend arrive at Jake’s parents’ farmhouse. There’s a vague feeling of rising disquiet, of encroaching dread, in those scenes, and Reid’s mastery lies in the fact that I could never quite put my finger on why. I just know that something feels off, that Jake’s parents aren’t acting quite right, and that something bad is going to happen, though I had no idea what. The story gets progressively better (read: odder) from there, and with the big reveal, all the puzzle pieces fall into place.

I closed the book and sat for a while, unable to move, just absorbing what I’d just read. It was a slow burn throughout and ended with a wallop, and I just felt like applauding the author for what he’d accomplished.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things isn’t my favourite Iain Reid book — nothing, but nothing and no one can compare to his absolutely loveable grandmother and the story of their road trip. As well, while I imagine there’s a pleasure in picking up the clues in the details Reid has so carefully scattered throughout, I’m not sure how well this book will hold up in re-reads, now that I know how it turns out. But still, bravo Mr. Reid. Well done.

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Blog Tour | Author Q&A with Steven Rowley

I absolutely love, love, love Steven Rowley’s Lily and the Octopus, a heartbreaking novel about a man and his dog. If you have or have ever loved a dog, cat or [insert pet here], Lily and the Octopus is a must-read. Fair warning: it’s not an easy read, and will take you apart emotionally, but it’s so very worth it.

Steven was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book. Check out the Q&A below, and read my experience with the book here.

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  1. This book feels intensely personal to me, and I know from the author’s note that this was inspired by personal experience. How did it feel to put it all down on paper?

While Lily and the Octopus is very much a novel, there’s no denying that it’s very personal. I did have a dog named Lily who succumbed to cancer in 2013. When I first sat down to write, I started by making a list of memories. Silly memories, happy memories, harrowing memories. Meals we shared. “Conversations” we had. This was about six months or so after she died. Enough time had passed that I could reflect back on our time together with a smile. Before then it had been to painful. Once I knew I could sit with these memories and could include them in my writing, I was off to the races.

The final product is a joy for me to have. Snapshots of our life together sandwiched between two hardcovers. When I first received my copies of the book hot off the printer, I felt like I had finally brought her home.

  1. Why do you think it takes Ted so long to call the octopus out for what it really is? What is it about thinking of it as an octopus that helps him deal with the situation?

I’m fascinated by the brain’s ability to create these elaborate constructs to keep us from having to see what is right in front of us. Sometimes it’s a selfish denial, other times it’s self-preservation. There’s some part of Ted that knows he has to face letting go. Not just letting go of a loved one, but of anger, of ways in which he feels he’s been wronged. But he’s not quite ready to do that when we meet him; having an octopus as a foe, something with tentacles and suction cups that can have a stranglehold, steels him for a fight. The ultimate lesson for Ted is when to stop fighting.

  1. Have you always been a dog person, and if not, what made you fall in love with dogs or pets in general?

I grew up with dogs and cats – I remember five dogs and two cats from my youth – but it wasn’t until I had Lily, until I raised a dog of my own, that I considered myself a dog person. I think as a young man I had a problem expressing emotion. I think cats also have trouble expressing emotion (or perhaps not, and I just don’t like the emotions they express). But dogs, dogs are pure emotion and I just instinctually knew I had something to learn from them. From that realization on I was enamored.

  1. Who are your favourite writers, and is your writing influenced by anyone in particular?

I think Lily and the Octopus is influenced by Joan Didion, certainly Kipling (quotes from The Law of the Jungle serve as the book’s two epigraphs), as well as other writers of fables. Opening the book with a quote from The Jungle Book helps underscore the fable elements of Lily and the Octopus. I also am a huge fan of blurring lines between prose and poetry, building a rhythm and cadence through word choice, sentence length, repetition, and other literary devices that Kipling excels at.

Other writers who have inspired me include John Steinbeck (East of Eden is a particular favorite), Michael Chabon, Donna Tartt, Jonathan Franzen, Richard Russo and Francesca Lia Block, whose book Weetzie Bat (another prose poem) was handed to me at a critical moment in my life.

  1. I love Ted and Lily’s conversations about celebrity crushes. If this story were to be made into a movie, who do you think Lily would choose to play Ted, and what will Ted think of that choice?

There are particular actors I imagine in the role of Ted, actors who have an inherent sadness to them and can convey a lot by doing very little. A certain stillness is important. Ewan McGregor and Jake Gyllenhaal are two actors who I think are wildly underappreciated. Paul Rudd, I think, has untapped dramatic range. Jude Law. I think dog’s see their humans a bit starry-eyed, so I think Lily would think the bigger the celebrity wattage the better. She does suggest including Chris Pratt in their conversations right from the opening chapter. So let’s go with him as Lily’s choice.

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review, and thank you to Steven Rowley for responding to my questions!

This Q&A is part of the Simon and Schuster Canada Perfect Pairing Summer Fiction Blog Tour. Check out , the full schedule below, join the discussion on Twitter with the hashtag #ReadChillRepeat, and check out readchillrepeat.com for a chance to win Lily and the Octopus, the other books featured on the tour, and a year of free coffee from aroma espresso bar!

Summer Fiction Blog Tour

Read-Along | The Light Between Oceans, M.L. Stedman

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Join me and Simon and Schuster Canada for a summer read-a-long of M.L. Stedman’s bestselling book The Light Between Oceans! The book was a bestseller when first published in 2012, and the read-a-long coincides with the movie’s upcoming release in September. Starring Michael Fassbender (OMG heart-eye emoticon!), Alicia Vikander (IMHO the standout performance in The Danish Girl) and Rachel Weisz (The Lobster, The Mummy), the trailer looks like a major tearjerker about love and family.

Michael Fassbender plays Tom, a lighthouse keeper whose wife Isabel (Alicia Vikander) is unable to bear a child full-term. When a baby washes up onshore, it appears that fate has made their dreams of a family come true, and against Tom’s better judgement, they decide to raise the child as their own. Fast forward a few years later and they meet a woman (Rachel Weisz) whose husband and baby daughter were lost at sea years ago. “[Her daughter] would have been your girl’s age by now,” the woman’s sister tells Isabel.

What should Tom and Isabel do? “I’m her mother,” Isabel tells Tom, in a scene that just about broke my heart, but how can they refuse to give the biological mother the chance to reunite with her daughter? There is no easy answer, no way to give everyone a happy ending, and however the story turns out, I’m definitely planning to bring Kleenex into the theatre.

Simon and Schuster Canada’s read-a-long is taking place on Goodreads, and began on July 8. Join the discussion!

This week’s read includes the Preface and Chapters 1 – 5. Full Read-A-Long schedule below:

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Thanks to Simon and Schuster Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for participation in the read-a-long.

 

Blog Tour | Lily and the Octopus, Steven Rowley

27276262By page 3 of Steven Rowley’s Lily and the OctopusI knew this book would make me ugly cry, and I honestly wasn’t sure if I had the guts to keep reading. I tweeted my trepidation, and the author responded, “So much laughter, adventure and love in the pages ahead. If you cry, I hope the journey will have been worth it.” So I decided to continue, and I’m so glad I did. This book is one of the most emotionally affecting ones I’ve ever read. I ugly-cried like I hadn’t since Patrick Ness’s A Monster Callsand that’s a good thing. The best books rip right into your heart and make you feel as you’ve rarely let yourself feel before, and then stay with you long after you turn the last page. Lily and the Octopus was such a book, and I can say with full certainty that yes, the journey was beyond worth it.

The story begins with Ted on a typical Thursday night, debating with his dog Lily about which celebrity Chris was the cutest, when he notices an octopus gripping tightly to the top of Lily’s head. We realize what the octopus wants long before Ted allows himself to, and by page 3, you can probably tell where this story is going and whether you want to stay for the ride. Lily and the Octopus is a beautifully written story of love, of the fierce connection between us and our pets, and of how love can make us afraid to face the truth.

I love how Ted was afraid he was incapable of love until he met Lily:

When I held my new puppy in my arms, I broke down in tears. Because I had fallen in love. Not somewhat in love. Not partly in love. Not in a limited amount. I fell fully in love with a creature I had known for all of nine hours. (p. 22)

How beautiful is that? And how many of us with dogs or cats or other pets of our own can relate to that sense of instant, intense connection, that feeling that they have chosen us as much as we have chosen them and that we will from that point forward be inextricably bonded? This passage certainly rang true for me; I went from wary pet owner to crazy cat lady in the space of a few seconds, and knew exactly what Ted was talking about.

I also really love how absolutely full of joy and energy Lily is. Her conversations with Ted are hilarious, and her sheer happiness at the silliest things — a red ball, an inflatable shark — is just a joy to see. There is indeed much laughter and joy in these pages, and it was wonderful to see Ted and Lily together. Ted’s love for her shone through, and I couldn’t help but fall in love with her too.

The book faltered somewhat for me during a scene involving a boat. I wasn’t sure what was or wasn’t real anymore, and while Rowley may well have intended that ambiguity, I was too distracted by trying to figure it out to really lose myself in the scene, as I had throughout the rest of the book. That being said, for the most part, I was completely caught up in Lily and the Octopus’ roller coaster ride of emotions, and I’d never hated an octopus more.

I read the entire book in a single afternoon, mostly because I was unwilling to put it down and leave Ted and Lily’s story behind. Even while reading it, I knew I would be recommending it to all my friends, especially those who love animals. I did ugly cry in the end, and grabbed my cat for cuddles and a belly rub. I like to think the look he gave me wasn’t of puzzlement but rather of concern. I just didn’t want to be alone after reading this book, and am glad my cat was there to be with me.

This is a beautiful, moving book, and one I highly recommend. Read it, laugh out loud at its silliness, and let yourself ugly cry if you need to. Then put it back on your shelf and give your dog or cat a huge squishy hug. Just because.

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Blog Tour and Contest

This review is part of the Simon Schuster Canada Perfect Pairing Blog Tour. Check out the full schedule below.

Also: nothing pairs up better with a book than a cup of coffee, so heads up on an awesome contest: Simon and Schuster Canada is giving away a set of books AND one year of free coffee from aroma espresso bar! Enter at readchillrepeat.com.

Summer Fiction Blog Tour