About Jaclyn

I'm a total bookaholic! Fiction, non-fiction, mysteries, YA, science fiction, I read practically anything and everything. I also love talking about books, and chatting about books with people who love them as much as I do!

Event Recap | Simon and Schuster Canada Fall 2015 Preview

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One of the best parts about being a blogger is finding out what great titles are coming up from your favourite publishers. So when Simon and Schuster Canada invited me to a Preview Party for their Fall 2015 children’s / middle grade / young adult titles, I jumped at the opportunity.

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As befits a children’s book party, Simon and Schuster Canada treated the little kid in all of the attendees by providing a table full of candies inspired by the various books in their catalogue. My favourite was the “pigeon poop” Oreo-chocolate-candies inspired by Kevin Sands’ The Blackthorn Key. They also had a selection of pop and a snow cone station.

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We got to hear about the various titles in their Fall 2015 catalogue. I was particularly intrigued by R.J. Anderson’s A Pocketful of Murder, mostly because I’ve always been a sucker for magic and mysteries, but also because of the book’s beautiful, whimsical cover. art.

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Another highlight is the new Kevin Sylvester book MINRS, about a twelve year old boy and his friends fighting for survival in a mining tunnel when their space colony is attacked. Sci fi, action and adventure are all my cup of tea, so I was glad to have been able to pick up a copy at the event.

I was also able to get a copy of Kevin Sands’ The Blackthorn Key, about an apothecary’s apprentice who has to deal with a cult killing the apothecaries in his city. I’ve just finished this book and it’s fantastic. Sands sprinkles his novel with codes and puzzles that his teenage protagonist Christopher must solve to get to the bottom of the mystery, and the answers are simple enough that we can somewhat solve right alongside Christopher, yet require just enough arcane knowledge (e.g. Latin, apothecary symbols) that we wouldn’t be able to solve it ourselves.

Also introduced at the preview is Erin Bow’s The Scorpion Rulesabout a world where the children of royalty are held hostage to the various countries’ treaty of peace. I was able to read an advance reading copy from the Ontario Book Blogger Meet-Up, and I absolutely loved the book. The ending complicated my enjoyment of it somewhat, but I think it’s ultimately a testament to the author’s talent that she has crafted such a dark and complex world where there are no easy answers. The most mature of all the titles in this preview, and certainly one that I think will give university students and adults in general so much to chew on. My full review on Goodreads here.

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Finally, the publisher also presented two children’s books. Rob Gonsalves’ Imagine a World is just beautifully illustrated, and Adam Lerhaupt’s Please, Open this Book! is a highly imaginative take on what happens to characters in a book after you close the covers. Fair warning: you may not dare close another book again.

Review | Hungry Ghosts, Peggy Blair

HungryGhostsI’m a fan of Peggy Blair’s Inspector Ramirez series, as well as a fan of art mysteries, so when I learned that the third instalment in the series involved an art world crime (the marketing campaign included an art exhibition inspired by passages from the book), well, colour me intrigued!

Hungry Ghosts was more about a series of murders of prostitutes than about the art world crime, but it still definitely did not disappoint. Having established her world building in the first two titles, Blair now seemed freed up to focus on the intricacies of her mysteries. The characters fit in more naturally with each other than before, and the dual mysteries investigated by Ramirez and Canadian First Nations detective Charlie Pike seemed more seamlessly integrated than before.

That being said, the strength of Blair’s mysteries has rarely been about the actual case so much as it was about the political commentary these cases brought forth, both about Cuba and Canada. I particularly love how Charlie Pike was invited on a case, literally as a token First Nations representative — his experience as a detective was less valuable to his colleagues in this case than his background. This to me highlights the tense relations that still exist between the Canadian government and First Nation tribes, and while Ramirez and his Cuban mysteries are presumably the focal point of this series, Blair’s interest in and passion for First Nations issues in Canada comes through loud and clear, particularly in this story. Part of me wonders if she’ll ever do a spinoff story just on Charlie Pike, a full novel to explore the intricacies of Canadian First Nations politics.

I also love how Ramirez’s gift for speaking to the dead has become almost second nature in this story — it is still mentioned as a plot device, but much like it must be for Ramirez, it becomes here simply another tool in his arsenal rather than a defining characteristic. I love how his concerns over it tie in to his family history — bits like this flesh him out even more as a character, and make him more real.

Finally, I absolutely love the character of Hector Apiro. He is a wisecracking pathologist with dwarfism who, when asked what he’d want people to say at his funeral, quipped, “I’d like someone to lean over my casket and shout, ‘Oh my God, he’s alive!'” The mystery in this book is personal for Apiro, because of his relationship with a prostitute named Maria. Their love and affection for each other shines through, and they have some wonderful scenes of tenderness that belie the usual tough shell Apiro presents at his autopsies.

The mysteries themselves were resolved fairly neatly, and while part of me wished the art mystery was given a bit more prominence, I was mostly just glad to spend time once again with Blair’s characters.

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

Review | Smoke, Catherine McKenzie

SmokeMcKenzieI’m usually a fan of Catherine McKenzie’s work, but try as I might, I just could not get into this book. The subject matter is a bit more sombre than what my previous McKenzie reads — a wildfire threatens a small community, and the story focuses on two women who live in that town. Elizabeth is an arson investigator who has been tasked with finding out how this fire started, and her ex-friend Mindy is drawn to help a man who has lost his home to the fire. The man also happens to be Elizabeth’s chief suspect, and the story presents a mixture of mystery as to how the fire started, and the various domestic dramas of Elizabeth and Mindy’s families and their community.

I love mysteries and I love small town dramas, but for some reason, this story and these characters failed to draw me in. The pace felt slow, with multiple subplots that I didn’t find confusing so much as uninteresting, and so were a struggle to keep track of. There were also a lot of characters introduced throughout the story, who weren’t really fleshed out enough to make me invested in what happened to them.

I enjoyed Arranged and Hiddenbut I struggled to get through Smoke. There were threads that intrigued me — Elizabeth’s attempt at a quiet family life, the teenage bullies, the small town corruption — but all just felt like disparate elements that ultimately fell flat.

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Thank you to the publisher for sending me an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Better than Before, Gretchen Rubin

betterthanbeforeApart from a brief stint of Dr. Phil fandom, I’m not a big fan of self-help books. They usually strike me as saccharinely optimistic at best, and rigidly authoritarian at worst. This may explain why I was both intrigued and slightly turned off by Gretchen Rubin’s Better than Before.

Rubin explores the idea of habit formation, and proposes that we all fall into one of Four Tendencies, depending on how we respond to obligation: Upholders stick to both external and internal obligations, Questioners do things only when it makes sense to them, Obligers need external accountability, and Rebels do what they feel like. According to Rubin, each of these tendencies can lead to success — the trick is to understand your own tendency and structure your habit formation along those lines.

I admit bristling at these classifications when I first read about them, mostly because I realized I was a textbook Obliger. In North American society, today, where individuality and self-governance are so highly prized, it seemed to be that Upholders were the most suited to success, and being an Obliger was the surest path to failure. Ironically, just a few pages after I felt this, Rubin writes that of the four Tendencies, Obligers are the most likely to dislike their own tendency.

Fortunately, as I read on, Rubin spoke at length about her sister — an Obliger — who is diabetic and who succeeded in getting her blood sugar down by changing her eating and exercise habits. For Rubin’s sister, it helped for her to tell co-workers that she no longer ate cupcakes, because they then helped hold her accountable to that resolution.

Rubin also gives various examples of friends and family members with other Tendencies, who successfully formed new habits based on her techniques. Honestly, I think her friends and family were a lot more polite than I would have been, if someone offered to make me a “guinea pig” in their habit formation theory. Rubin claims to understand that what works for her (an Upholder) will not work for most other people (most people are either Questioners or Obligers), but apart from a nominal split second of reluctance, she seems to have no problem dictating habits that her friends and family should form. Still, it is gratifying to know that even Rebels and Questioners can be successful at forming habits.

Also of interest are other classifications Rubin posits. One can be a Lark or an Owl (work best at daytime or at night), as well as an Abstainer or a Moderator (give up chocolate entirely or limit oneself to a square of chocolate a night). Again, alongside the Tendencies, these are useful in determining how to form new habits. For example, Rubin’s sister couldn’t commit to giving up all carbs to help her blood sugar, but she committed to abstaining completely from French fries, and that in itself has improved her health.

Rubin also calls us out on relying on loopholes — e.g. the “tomorrow” loophole, where we plan to begin a new habit “tomorrow” and in the meantime, splurge for today. Or the “false choice” loophole, where we set up a false dichotomy between two competing values that may not necessarily be in opposition (e.g. I can’t exercise because I work so hard).

I wish Rubin had spent more time talking about strategies for the other Tendencies, rather than relying on personal anecdotes sprinkled throughout. I also wish she had expanded the scope of the habits she chose to speak about — she mostly focused on habits she deemed important for herself, e.g. a low carb diet and exercising.

Finally and most problematically, I thought that at times, she framed concepts and redefined terms in a way to suit her arguments. For example, she says we can’t use rewards to help us with our habits because then we’re doing things for the reward and not viewing the habit itself as a reward — this strategy may work for Upholders, but likely not for everyone. Worse, she then says we can have treats, as long as they’re not tied to a particular habit or seen as a reward — this strikes me as just semantics, and is disingenuous. For example, when someone suggests that Rubin give up her diet soda habit to be healthier, Rubin emphatically declares that diet soda is her treat, and because she doesn’t smoke and barely drinks, she is entitled to it. I couldn’t care less if she drinks diet soda or not, but her tone struck me as defensive, and makes me wonder why her drinking diet soda as a treat is justified whereas her sister eating carbs beyond French fries is given the side eye.

Still, I thought the classification of Tendencies was useful, as were the details on loopholes and strategies we use that may hinder our habit formation. Rubin’s strategies for herself will definitely not work for me — she may thrill in structuring her days to such an extent, but I would chafe under such rigidity (e.g. scheduling a time each night for her and her husband to talk about their day) — but understanding that I’m an Obliger will definitely help me with my own habits. For example, it now makes sense why my whole strategy of going to the gym without a fixed schedule didn’t work for me — I enjoy the solitude of working out alone, but may need the accountability of a group class where people know me and would know if I skipped a class or two. Whatever your Tendency is, you can form a strategy for success, and Rubin’s book — particularly the first few chapters — can help you form that strategy.

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Thank you to Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book ine xc

Review | Six Impossible Things by Fiona Wood

23250087Dan has been having a hell of a summer. His dad came out as gay and walked out on his family. HIs mom is depressed and unable to get her wedding cake business off the ground. His family has lost their money and has to move into a fixer upper of a house. And he has an unrequited crush on the girl next door, Estelle. He’s come up with a list of goals for the year, six impossible things beginning with kissing Estelle and ending with being a better person than his father.

Six Impossible Things is a fun read. Dan is a witty, self-deprecating narrator, who starts out pretty bitter at the state of his life, yet really develops throughout the course of the story. There’s a scene near the end where his mom comments on how much he’s changed, and while he initially brushes it off with his sarcasm, it’s such an on point observation. It’s to the author’s credit than Dan’s growth is so subtly done that I almost didn’t realize it happening, and didn’t really appreciate how much he’s grown until now, when I’m writing this review and remembering how he was like at the beginning of the novel. Dan is far from a perfect boy — he’s pretty much a jerk to his mom in the beginning, and he straight-up spies on Estelle at some points — but he’s also sweet and lonely, and the kind of boy you want to hug and reassure that it will all work itself out somehow. His development feels real, and his challenges and emotions throughout – both positive and negative – feel real as well.

The book’s weakness is that, with the exception of Dan, the other characters are all pretty flat. Estelle is the standard quirky beautiful crush next door, Dan’s best friends are fairly typical snarky outsiders, and even the man who lives in Dan’s shed — a mysterious, cool older brother type — doesn’t end up being memorable. Dan’s mom is probably the most interesting secondary character, and it was amusing to see the her story arc progress with Dan being so completely clueless that he was blindsided by a revelation near the end. I especially loved the depiction of why her wedding cake business was doing so poorly — the reason is both hilarious and moving, and made me wish her story was more in the forefront.

Still, overall, this is a funny and endearing book. It’s easy to get caught up in Dan’s story, and it’s fun to see how the things that seem so impossible to him at the beginning of the tale turn out to be quite possible after all.

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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.

Event Recap | Fourth Annual Ontario Book Blogger Meet

One of my favourite things about being a book blogger in Toronto is having so many other book bloggers in the area attending the same events. Here’s the thing: squee-ing over the once in a lifetime chance to see Judy Blume in person is pretty amazing. Seeing half a dozen familiar faces in the same room all squee-ing along with you is even better.

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So how awesome is it that five book bloggers banded together and decided to organize an event just for book bloggers to squee over books together? I remember hearing about the first Ontario Book Blogger Meet and thinking it was the best idea ever. Scheduling conflicts kept me from attending previous years’ events, so I’m really glad I was able to attend this year. I’ve heard a lot of great things about the event over the years, and I can say now — it was definitely worth the hype!

Organizers Book Blog Ontario posted a pretty comprehensive recap of the event, and you can read it here. It was held at The Ballroom, in downtown Toronto, which had yummy food, cute staff, and a relaxed vibe perfect for mingling and chatting about books. I got to meet and mingle with book bloggers from around Ontario, and chatted with awesome authors Sally ChristieErin Bow, Danielle Younge-Ullman and Leah Bobet. To give you an idea of how many bloggers turned up – I swear I probably got to talk to only about half the people in the room, and missed out on meeting authors Kevin Sands and K.A. Tucker. No clue about actual attendance numbers, but it’s pretty incredible to see so many people so passionate about books in one room…and to know that we represent just a tiny fraction of the entire book reading, book loving population in Ontario.

Mainly though, what I remember most from the event is being overwhelmed with gratitude. I feel unbelievably lucky to be a book blogger in Ontario, and to be part of such a warm, welcoming community.

So thank you, first and foremost to Angel, Wendy, Michele, Christa and Liz — the hardworking women behind Book Blog Ontario, who must have spent hours (days / weeks / months) putting this event together. They coordinated the author appearances, worked with publishers to put the swag bags together, booked the venue, and basically did all the hard work so the rest of us bloggers could have a great time. They did a great job, and you can read more about them here.

Books in the swag bag

Books in the goodie bag (not pictured: tea and other swag)

Thank you as well to the publishers who generously provided us with more than enough reading material for the rest of the summer. Thank you, Simon & Schuster Canada, Penguin Random House Canada, Scholastic, HarperCollins Canada, Harlequin, Raincoast, Hachette Canada, Dundurn, PGC, and Quirk Books.

I won a prize pack! (Awesome Book Nerd tote courtesy of Raincoast Books.)

I won a prize pack! (Awesome Book Nerd tote courtesy of Raincoast Books.)

Thank you to all the authors who attended, particularly to Leah Bobet and Erin Bow who kindly signed my copies of their books. It may be cliche, but it’s still always a thrill to realize that authors are regular people too, and you may fangirl like mad over their books but still have enough poise to eat a nacho dripping with guac in front of them.

I haven’t had a chance to read Leah Bobet’s An Inheritance of Ashes yet, but Erin Bow’s The Scorpion Rules kept me captivated from the very first page. Incredible world building.

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Finally, a heartfelt thank you to my fellow bloggers. It was so much fun hanging out with all of you and talking about books, the weather, and I’m pretty sure someone mentioned otters at some point. A special shout out to Jen, whom I haven’t seen in years — it was awesome geeking out with you again!

And thank you, fellow bloggers Michele, Hayley, Chandra, Gisele and Wendy, for the books, and an extra special shoutout to Lynne, who I think may be my book twin because we have such similar tastes in books.

Some book recommendations: Lindsey Kelk’s Always the Bridesmaid (so much frothy fun!), Melissa Clark’s Bear Witness (good, not great) and Frances Brody’s A Woman Unknown (really good British cozy!).

This has been a pretty incredible week of reading for me, mostly thanks to this event, and I’m getting giddy just thinking of which bit of bookish goodness I’ll pick up next.

Any suggestions?

Review | A Robot in the Garden, Deborah Install

23995237This book caught my attention at the Random House Canada Blogger Preview because it was marketed as “like if Up and Wall-E had a baby.” I love Up, and while I never watched Wall-E, the premise of the book sounded too intriguing to miss: 34 year old Ben Chambers discovers a robot in his garden and embarks on a journey around the world to find out where it came from and return it home.

A Robot in the Garden is an endearing, feel good story. Ben’s quest to find the robot’s home adds a sense of purpose to his generally aimless life, and teaches him about love. The robot Tang is indeed written to be loveable — a child-like total innocent who latches on to Ben and comes to rely on him for everything. I personally found Tang annoying after a while — his helplessness at times struck me as neediness and his wonder at the simplest things was at times cloying. So I wasn’t completely in love with Tang, as I expected I was meant to be, but to be fair, his behaviour is fairly realistic given the world the author built.

To be honest, I was somewhat disappointed that the story took place in a world where robots were everywhere, and that the problem with Tang is that he’s practically obsolete as a model. I suppose when I heard the promo pitch at the Blogger Preview, I’d imagined a world like ours now, and Tang as a rickety, patched up robot that was truly alone in the world because humanoid robots haven’t hit the mainstream yet. (I was about to say that they haven’t been invented yet, but then I remembered this pretty awesome sounding hotel in Japan.) Tang being an obsolete model in a world full of robots makes the story feel a bit more predictable, and the themes raised feel more standard.

That being said, Install’s story is as charming as you’d expect it to be. There’s a hilarious chapter about an android hotel, and a nice subplot about two secondary characters finding love. My favourite part was a scene near the end where Ben goes to a family affair and runs into his ex wife, and it is she who most clearly notices the change that Tang has brought about in him. I love that, because it encapsulates what the whole journey to find Tang’s home has been about: a man finding the humanity in a robot, and a robot helping bring out the humanity in a man.

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