The FOLD 2016 #DiverseBooks Reading Challenge: The Final Chapter

The FOLD Festival of Literary Diversity recently released its Diverse Books Reading Challenge for 2017, which reminded me that I still have reviews pending for some of the titles I read for the 2016 Reading Challenge. (Recap: Blog Post 1 | Blog Post 2) And so, before I kick off the 2017 Challenge, here are other #DiverseBooks bookish highlights from 2016:

The FOLD’s 2016 Reading List

  1. A book you’ve had for more than a year.
  2. A book outside of your ‘favourite genre’.
  3. A book you buy at an indie bookstore.
  4. A book by a person of a faith (different from your own).
  5. A book by an Aboriginal author.
  6. A book by a Canadian LGBTQ author.
  7. A book by a Canadian person of colour.
  8. A book by a FOLD 2016 author.

#3. A book you buy at an indie bookstore

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I’m actually rather ashamed to admit I don’t remember which indie bookstore I bought this in. I visited a friend in Belleville last fall, and as we are both total bookworms, we went indie bookstore hopping in the area. We must have visited two or three that afternoon, and I remember buying at least one book at each store. A Disobedient Girl is the first Ru Freeman book I’ve read, and I love how beautifully she manages to evoke a sense of place. Set in Sri Lanka, the novel is about a young servant girl named Latha, who aspires to the wealthy lifestyle of Thara, her best friend and the daughter of her employers. A wilful act of rebellion leads to horrible, long-reaching consequences that threatens their friendship and brings realities of class and power to the fore. Parallel to Latha’s story is that of Biso, a mother of three who takes her children on a train to escape her abusive husband. As she fights to hold on to her freedom, her story unfolds to reveal threads that eventually intertwine with Latha and Thara’s story.

It’s a moving and beautifully told story that just completely transports you to the characters’ worlds. There are many beautiful passages, but one that stands out to me is from the very beginning, where Latha takes slivers from the family’s bar of Lux soap and rubs it into her armpits and the insides of her wrists. I remember Lux soap from childhood, and the image of such a young servant girl using such a strong flowery scent and having access only to tiny slivers, is such a potent image of wealth, privilege and the burning, heartbreaking desire to be part of that world.

Other books I bought on that trip are Margaret Atwood and Johnnie Christmas’ Angel Catbird (hilarious and fantastic, particularly for this crazy cat lady) and Anosh Irani’s The Song of Kahunsha (I haven’t read it yet, but I loved The Parcel).

#4. A book by a person of faith (other than your own)

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I’m not sure if Jonathan Safran Foer is Jewish, but his novel Here I Am delves a lot into Jewish experience. The novel is a compelling, thought-provoking family drama that asks what it means to be an American Jew. I grew up Catholic, and found a lot of the references to the Torah (Old Testament) familiar, and I enjoyed seeing how the familiar story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac is framed somewhat differently in Jewish tradition. The questions that protagonist Jacob Bloch asked about identity and one’s responsibility to their homeland resonated with me as an immigrant, and overall, I found Here I Am a hefty book, physically and mentally. It’s one to digest slowly, and well worth the effort.

#6. A book by a Canadian LGBTQ author

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The first in Jeffrey Round’s mystery series starring gay missing persons investigator Dan Sharp, Lake on the Mountain begins with a potential murder on a yacht then reveals a much bigger and more tangled mystery involving various members of a wealthy family. It reminds me somewhat of an Agatha Christie novel, with story being driven by characters and their secrets more than by the crime itself, and I will likely check out other books in this series next time I feel like a mystery novel treat for the weekend. I also really like the interaction between Dan and his son, and look forward to seeing that develop further in future books.

Books I Wanted to Read in 2016 But Didn’t Get Around To Reading

Alas, in the end, there just weren’t enough days in the year to finish the challenge. Or perhaps these happened to be the categories I found most challenging?

#1. A book you’ve had for more than a year

Octavia’s Brood is an anthology of science fiction stories from social justice movements that seems like something I’d love immediately, but I haven’t quite gotten around to it yet.

#2. A book outside of your ‘favourite genre’.

Short stories aren’t usually my cup of tea, but I’ve always wanted to try Octavia Butler, so I thought I’d give Bloodchild and Other Stories a try.

#5. A book by an Aboriginal author.

 

I heard great things about Indian Horse when it was on Canada Reads.

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Have you read any of the books listed above, or do you have another recommendation for any of the categories above?

 

Review | The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up + Spark Joy, Marie Kondo

Marie Kondo’s books on tidying up is a bit intense and sometimes unintentionally hilarious, but actually also full of really good tips for de-cluttering your life. Spark Joy is basically an illustrated guide to implementing the methods espoused in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I read Life-Changing Magic on audio, and Spark Joy is a useful companion volume, with a lot of visuals that I’ll use as a reference when I actually start implementing some of her tactics.

My main take-away from both books is that you should get rid of anything you own that doesn’t spark joy. That seems a pretty good rule of thumb when de-cluttering. Sure, it’s sometimes hard to look at a pair of socks and ask yourself whether or not it actually sparks joy, but certainly, when organizing my bookshelves (and piles of books that no longer fit on the shelves *ahem*) or my closet, this piece of advice makes a lot of sense.

This actually reminds me of a shopping trip with a friend a few years back. Every time my eyes didn’t light up instantly when I tried something on, he immediately recommended I return it to the rack. His advice has stuck with me since: “If you try it on and it doesn’t excite you or make you feel amazing, it’s not worth it.”

Before that shopping trip, I often bought clothes simply because they were practical, thinking only if they fit and not if they made me feel amazing. I’d always enjoyed shopping but when it came to certain kinds of clothes, such as those for work, I had a very utilitarian approach which, to be honest, wasn’t much fun. That friend’s advice was a game changer, inspiring me to trust my own instincts and try the most offbeat combinations just because. He made clothes a lot more interesting, and I learned how fun it can be to adapt my personal style to multiple situations.

So Marie Kondo’s advice to use the “spark joy” criteria in deciding whether or not to keep a particular item makes so much sense to me. It’s all about trusting yourself to know what is worth keeping. She also cautions against holding on to items that may have already served their purpose and no longer spark joy. For example, gifts from loved ones that you can’t actually use, or photos of scenery you can barely even place. She says that a gift’s purpose is to be received, a book’s purpose is to impart information, and so on, and you shouldn’t feel guilty about letting them go. This feels particularly relevant since as an immigrant, I’ve had to leave behind a lot of things when I moved. Part of me misses having those things around — old school projects, old toys — yet another part of me has come to understand that while the items themselves may be gone, the memories they represented remain and cannot be taken away as easily.

Her approach can sometimes be a bit intense. For example, I have no intention of thanking my socks for their work in holding my feet (sorry socks), but I see the benefit of not balling them up. (Kondo says it’s because they deserve to rest, I see it as keeping the fibres from loosening up/wearing out.) I also caution against throwing out all documents as she advises. I often throw things out when I’m stressed, only to realize later on that there are documents that would have been useful to keep. She’s also clearly a fervent advocate of living clutter-free, which to be honest, I can’t get as excited about.

Kondo says that for her method to work, it has to be a concentrated effort over a few months, and a rather severe cutting back on the items you own. I don’t know if I’m ready to commit to that quite yet, but certainly, I plan to do at least my closet and bookshelves and then take it from there. Coincidentally, clothes and books are also where Kondo suggests you begin, so I’m open to the possibility that I’m so excited by how I feel that I continue on with the rest of my apartment.

At the very least, I find myself already applying her principles to the books I read. If a book is not “sparking joy” by a certain point, I label it DNF (did not finish) and move on. Whereas I would have felt guilty before about not struggling through to the very end, I now trust that I’m making the right choice and freeing up my time for books I’ll actually enjoy. It actually feels quite liberating, and I’m having more fun reading.

Is the KonMari method for everyone? Possibly not, but I think there are some principles that many will find useful. And certainly, making decisions whenever possible according to what gives you joy seems like a good rule of thumb.

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Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of Spark Joy in exchange for an honest review.

Thank you to the Toronto Public Library, from whom I borrowed the audiobook of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I highly recommend reading Life-Changing Magic on audio, as it’s really good background for when you’re folding laundry or doing chores and will make you feel extra motivated to do a good job.

#RoadToRiverdale with Archie Comics and Penguin Random House Canada

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I love Archie Comics. I grew up on the classic stories, I love the new direction the company launched last year, and I was excited to see where the new CW series Riverdale took the characters.

So I completely geeked out at the invitation from Penguin Random House Canada to celebrate the launch of the new series with a 50’s themed party and advance screening.

The set up was pure treats and nostalgia.

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Coca Cola, jelly beans, celery and Cheez Whiz. Childhood afternoon snacks all over again. Not pictured: a Penguin bottle opener that was a challenge to use but super cute.

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Pop Tate’s Burgers! Jughead would have a field day!

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The falafel burger was my favourite, the chicken burger was delicious, and how awesome are the random Spam cans?

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The taro chips were really good. Alas, I never even got to try the brownies or macaroons.

Then came a treat I didn’t expect — a comic book Q&A panel with artists J. Torres, Ramón Pérez and J. Bone, and moderated by Evan Munday, co-creator and co-host of the Archie Comics podcast Radio Free Riverdale.

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Artists J. Torres, Ramon Perez and J. Bone, who have all worked on Archie Comics.

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Evan Munday as Mr. Weatherbee

Finally came the moment we all came for — the screening of the first episode of Riverdale!

The story revolves around the death of Jason Blossom, a Riverdale resident who according to his twin sister Cheryl, fell out of a boat and drowned. This show’s Betty Cooper is feeling the pressure to be perfect, and is working up the courage to tell Archie Andrews that she loves him. Archie has discovered a love for music, and wonders how to balance writing songs with playing football and working for his dad. Veronica Lodge has just moved into town, Reggie Mantle is a sleaze, Josie and the Pussycats are the town’s top band, and Jughead Jones is the thoughtful and observant narrator who captures the events in the town in his novel-in-progress.

I loved the episode, and can’t wait to see how things unfold throughout the series. Every character seems to have a secret, and while I have my theories on the truth behind Jason’s death, I’m also excited to see how these theories change as we get to know the characters better.

The main highlight for me is Camila Mendes’ Veronica Lodge, who is just capital-A Attitude and capital-A Awesome. She moves to Riverdale from New York with her mother Hermione, and just oozes style, sass and sophistication. A scene where she takes down Riverdale Queen Bee Cheryl Blossom with a mic drop-worthy speech just stole the show. Kudos as well to her stylist, because her outfits are amazing.

Casey Cott as Kevin Keller is another highlight. He’s hilarious, delivering zingers in practically every line of dialogue. He, Betty and Veronica make a good team, and I love seeing him and Veronica working together to draw Betty out of her shell.

One of the subplots, involving a new love interest for Archie, made me cringe, but otherwise, I really enjoyed the adaptation and thought it was a fun twist on the classic characters. Check it out for yourself — Thursday nights at CW in the US and Fridays on Netflix in Canada.

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Thanks to Penguin Random House Canada for organizing such a fantastic event!

Blog Tour | Juliet’s Answer, Glenn Dixon

32871158Juliet’s Answer is an entertaining, light-hearted travel memoir that may make you want to do at least one of three things:

  1. Visit Verona and see Casa di Guilietta for yourself.
  2. Volunteer as one of Juliet’s secretaries and answer some of the thousands of heartfelt letters sent to Juliet every year.
  3. Send your own letter to Juliet and possibly take that one big leap of faith in whatever romantic wish you may have.

I don’t usually consider myself a romantic, but it’s difficult not to get swept away by Glenn Dixon’s account of his time in Verona. I can almost imagine the house he describes, with the balcony added on for Shakespeare fans and with the dozens of letters stuffed in a red mailbox and stuck to the walls with Band-aids or gum. There’s a hope inherent in the very act of writing to Juliet, and a rather innocent belief in the kind of love Juliet represents. Dixon’s story reminds me of how beautiful that hope can be, and how much it reflects the hopefulness as well in Shakespeare’s tragedy, that a romance between two teens can be so powerful that it can end generations of hatred between families.

The letters Dixon writes about are lovely glimpses into the heartfelt longings of people around the world. There are young girls who worry about getting a cute guy to notice them, older women who wonder if they’ll have another chance at love, and in one of my personal favourites, a father and a daughter who wrote separate letters about dealing with the aftermath of a mother who walked away from her family.

Juliet’s Answer is similar to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love in that, like Gilbert, Dixon also travels to Verona to get some distance from an experience of heartbreak, though in his case it’s the unrequited love he feels for a close friend. Verona seems like a great place to lose oneself in, and while I’m not quite sure answering love letters is the best way to get over someone who doesn’t love you back, I think volunteering at the Juliet Club sounds like a lot of fun. The book includes images of Verona and an illustrated map one can use for a walking tour of the city.

Along with Verona, another major highlight for me are the sections about the students in Dixon’s Shakespeare class, who are studying Romeo and Juliet. It’s fun to read their unguarded reactions to the text, as teens around Romeo and Juliet’s age who are encountering the story for the first time. I also particularly enjoyed reading about the crush a student named Andy had for his classmate Allison, and loved Andy’s reaction when they had to perform a scene together. Another strong subplot was that of another student, Sadia, for whom Juliet’s story resonated on a personal level. I realize that the book is about Verona and the author’s own love story, but I couldn’t help wishing we knew how these students’ stories turned out (there’s a part at the end where he speculates about their futures, but I figure we’ll never know for sure). Did Andy and Allison ever end up dating? Who does troublemaker Devin eventually date? Does Sadia eventually find her own Romeo? Within their few scenes discussing a Shakespeare play, these students have come to life on the page, and I blame the author’s Verona for my desire to know they’ve all had their romantic happily ever afters.

Overall, Juliet’s Answer is a lovely tribute to Verona and to the numerous people around the world who believe in the kind of love Juliet personifies.There’s a part in the story where the author drafts his own letter to Juliet, admitting his doubt that he’ll find love himself. This book seems the perfect response to this letter. Juliet’s Answer is a love letter of sorts, a resounding yes to the existence of love, and to the belief that some version of a happily ever after is possible.

Glenn Dixon’s Photo Gallery

All images and captions courtesy of the author.

Verona

The beautiful and ancient city of Verona in northern Italy

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Author Glenn Dixon, answering the famous letters to Juliet, in Verona, Italy.

juliets-house

This house in Verona actually belonged to a family called Cappelli – which Shakespeare called Capulet – for more than seven hundred years.

Romeo's House

This fortified house belonged to another rich family in Verona, though we know now that it was not truly the Montague house – or Montecchi, as their real name was spelled. That family lived outside of the medieval walls of the city.

the-letterbox

The red letterbox in the courtyard of Juliet’s house is jammed with letters day after day.

Blog Tour Schedule

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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.

Review | The Girl Before, J.P. Delaney

28016509One Folgate Street has won architectural awards and is filled with state of the art technology for the ultimate living experience. There are only two catches: first, there’s a 200 question application form and interview, with the architect having veto power over potential tenants; and second, there’s a list of rules you must follow to remain a tenant. Leave no clutter on the floor, allow the architecture firm to track your biometric data to help them optimize the living experience for future tenants.

It sounds like the beginning of a futuristic sci-fi thriller, but The Girl Before is set in the present day, with an architect that’s super handsome and talented, but the most controlling and anal retentive man in fiction since Christian Grey brandished his leather whip. Unlike Mr. Grey however, there is nothing remotely seductive about Edward Monkford, and his demands seem more a pathological inability to deal with clutter than a desire to be dominant. It’s certainly not a house I can live in, architectural awards be damned. Even the Internet is controlled, with a customized browser that provides a more filtered list of search results than Google.

Yet it’s an irresistible lure to persons who desire to have more control. The Girl Before tells the story of two such tenants: Emma who was robbed at knifepoint at her old house and is reassured by the extensive security measures of One Folgate (you unlock doors with a cellphone app, and no one else — except for the architect — can enter without your approval); and Jane who recently lost a child. Jane then learns about the previous tenant’s mysterious death, and unknowingly falls into the same pattern of behaviour. As both women’s stories unfold, we see how the house and the men in their lives play a part in propelling them both to a potentially shared destiny.

The story starts off very strong. Delaney does a good job in establishing the creep factor with both Edward’s brand of charm and the house’s oppressive nature. As Jane works around the house’s security (read: censorship) features to learn more about her predecessor’s life and death, various plot threads twist and unravel, so that we gradually get a fuller picture of characters we thought we already knew.

The big reveal was a bit of a disappointment. I can understand Delaney’s decision as a thriller writer to turn the story in that direction, and I appreciate how the author shows multiple kinds of menace. But it almost felt anticlimactic and one of the characters seemed full of wasted potential. (See my thoughts on the ending below for more details. IGNORE if you want to AVOID SPOILERS.)

Overall, The Girl Before is an entertaining, fast paced thriller that’ll keep you turning the page and guessing about what happens next. The house with its oppressive set of rules and stifling fancy technology is a great setting and easily keeps the tension ratcheted up throughout.

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

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***SPOILER*** My Thoughts on the Ending

I felt the character of Edward Monkford was wasted at the end when it turns out that Simon was the murdered. Edward was set up as such a creepy controlling potential psychopath, and so having him turn out to be innocent (still creepy, but not a murderer) kinda just made him feel lame at the end. Simon as the bad guy wasn’t completely unexpected — many women know how dangerous that “nice guy” puppy dog type of man can be — and I actually appreciated that Delaney tackled this type of bad guy, but I wish we’d had more of a sense of menace from him earlier on, so that when he’s revealed as the killer, there’s a bit of relief at knowing he was unveiled. Instead, it felt somewhat anticlimactic.

 

Review | Overqualifieder, Joey Comeau

24694228Looking for a job has got to be one of the most stressful things to do. You’re selling yourself to dozens of companies, polishing your resume to an impressive sheen and trying to craft dozens of versions of the perfect cover letter that you know will catch the eye of prospective employers. How often have you written the nth cover letter and been tempted to just say, screw it, and pour out all your pent up frustrations on the page?

Overqualifieder is Joey Comeau’s response to that experience, a collection of job application cover letters by personas Comeau has created. Each letter is like a bit of flash fiction, where the letter writer begins by asking for a job then ends up veering off into venting about his personal life. Unlike the first volume, Overqualified, this book is simply a collection of letters without a hidden narrative. I personally would have preferred a hidden narrative — some of the letters are amusing, but after a while begin to feel repetitive. As a collection of unrelated letters, the book is likely designed to be dipped into once in a while rather than read from cover to cover, but even then, each letter feels like a one-off chuckle at best.

That being said, some of the letters are amusing. For example, a letter to “Security Services” starts off saying that the writer supports their policy not to hire convicted thieves, then ends up with the writer confessing to murdering a friend. Comeau writes:

I am a man of my word, and I have strong convictions. You will not find a more honest and trustworthy employee anywhere. I murdered Jimmy with a kitchen knife, and I would do it again. [p. 46]

In another letter, this time applying to be a freelance journalist at The Herald, Comeau writes:

My major publication credits include small pieces in the New York Times and the Observer. I worked as an intern with Forbes magazine for whatever you consider an impressive amount of time. I just recently finished a brief stint working as copy editor of [THE BIGGEST NEWSPAPER I CAN THINK OF — the Wall Street Journal? Will they believe that?] [p. 47]

Others fall flat, at least for me. For example, an application to Disney for any position, says:

Yesterday was my three-month anniversary of looking for work, and my dad says that I can’t find a job because I’m not a gay, crippled immigrant, so you can understand why it’d be nice to move out. [p. 9]

Comeau’s personas range from desperately under-qualified applicants to thieves and killers, and I found the letters mildly amusing overall, with a couple that are hilarious or incisive. This book will likely strike a chord in anyone who’s ever been frustrated while job hunting, but I think Overqualified may be a better read, just because a hidden narrative may make it feel less repetitive.

As an aside, kudos to the cover designer of this book. I love the cover!

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

Review | Barkskins, Annie Proulx

25111119I was really excited about this book because I loved “Brokeback Mountain” (movie and story), I’d heard Annie Proulx is an amazing writer, and I enjoy immersing myself in a sweeping historical epic. Unfortunately, Barkskins just wasn’t for me, and I ended up deciding not to finish a bit over a quarter through.

At over 700 pages, Barkskins certainly has the potential to be a book to lose yourself in. It begins with the story of two penniless Frenchmen, Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, who move to Canada to make their fortunes. They start off as woodcutters, making money for a seigneur for some time before being given land of their own. Sel accepts this role and has a difficult life as a woodcutter. He is also made to marry his boss’s lover, an older Mi’kmaw woman, who was probably my favourite character because she was always so practical no matter the situation. Duquet escapes the seigneur and becomes a business person, trading fur then lumber. The story continues on to their descendants, and the struggles they faced, and all their fortunes are somehow tied back to lumber. I figure if I keep reading, the Sel family’s indigenous heritage will play a big role, as will an environmental message around preserving our forests.

There are interesting threads throughout the story, and some interesting characters, but either they are simply mentioned then discarded or they are so buried from so many other threads and characters that it’s hard to keep track. For example, I was just becoming interested in a character’s life, when their life was abruptly summarized and ended in the space of a page, and I had to find another character to become invested in. I realize that is part and parcel of a multi-generational epic, but I ended up not being all that interested in how the stories turn out.

That being said, I can imagine this story completely enthralling other readers, who may perhaps be more interested in the topics it explores than I am. There’s also the possibility that it becomes more interesting past the part I’ve read. So if you’re a big fan of Proulx’s work, or something in the overview above totally piqued your interest, by all means, give this a shot. It’s a well-written book, and the very attention to detail that made this a struggle for me may very well be what makes another reader lose themselves in the text. It’s just time I move on.

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