Review | Off the Page, Jodi Picoult and Samantha Van Leer

23278280Off the Page by mother and daughter team Picoult and Van Leer, is a sequel to their earlier collaboration Between the Lines

If, like me, you haven’t read Between the Lines, here’s a quick overview (spoiler warning): shy and bookish Delilah falls in love with a prince, Oliver, in a fairy tale book. It turns out Oliver wants to escape the monotony of fairy tale life himself (he and the other characters have to act out the story each time someone opens the book). They track down the author of the fairy tale, who modelled the character of the prince on her own son Edgar, and by the end of the book, somehow manage to have Oliver and Edgar switch places.

Off the Page takes place a couple of months after. Delilah is thrilled to have her fairy tale prince as a real life boyfriend, until she realizes that the traits she finds so charming about him are also making him the most popular boy in school. The high school queen bee wants him for herself, and Delilah is beginning to wonder if bringing him into her world is worth having to share him with everyone else.

Other complications arise as well. The fairy tale begins sending Oliver messages to return home. Other real life and fairy tale characters accidentally switch places. And Edgar’s mother reveals something that may mean Edgar needs to return to the real world.

This is a fun, lighthearted read. It was entertaining to read about Oliver’s reactions to ordinary things in the real world, and it was easy to see why he was so immediately well-liked. Delilah was a bit more annoying. It seemed selfish of her to be jealous of Oliver’s social success, and her pouty jealousy over an on-stage kiss seemed petty. That being said, I do remember bouts of irrational insecurity as a teenager, so her responses are likely realistic.

What I loved the most was the relationship between Delilah’s best friend Jules and Edgar. They bond over zombies and oddball references, and while Jules’ prickliness could at times be over the top, I did find myself pulling for them even more than I was for Delilah and Oliver.

This is a great book for younger readers. I can imagine myself at ten swooning over the idea of a fairy tale prince coming to life and head over heels in love with me, and then getting all worked up about the circumstances that may keep us apart. The storytelling has a bit of a fairy tale feel as well — a straightforward, simple story line, beautifully illustrated, and featuring a flying dragon, a string of words taking physical form in the air, and a special star you can hold in the palm of your hand. The ending too has a nice, family friendly feel, with a son’s love for his mother being the driving force. There’s an almost Disney-like feel that sets this apart form the grittier, more realistic YA that are very popular these days.

It’s not a Jodi Picoult read by any means — if you’re a fan of her in-depth tearjerkers, this is more an escape from real life than a dive into it. Nor does it completely transport you into the idea of literature as magic — for that, Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart is far more magical.

But it’s a nice read, a great way to spend a lazy afternoon. And if you happen to know a ten or eleven year old bookworm who is a true blue romantic, this would be a great gift.


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

Review | Luckiest Girl Alive, Jessica Knoll

22609317Ani FaNelli appears to have the perfect life – a glamourous job at a glossy magazine, a gorgeous figure, and a handsome blue blood fiance. But beneath the facade are scars that she has worked for years to keep hidden, and a team of documentary filmmakers may very well bring the truth to light.

When I began Luckiest Girl Alive, I thought it was going to be just like Gone Girl. Ani reminded me of Gone Girl’s Amy in many ways — beautiful, cold and calculating. And right on the very first page, Ani is contemplating slipping a knife blade into her fiance’s stomach. So I figured, it was like Gone Girl, but  we know the woman is a psychopath from the beginning.

Fortunately I was wrong. Luckiest Girl Alive wasn’t the straightforward psychological thriller I was expecting, and it was a much better book because of that. Knoll takes great pains to make Ani seem like a coldhearted bitch, but slowly peels back the layers of her past to reveal a very vulnerable young woman. There are a couple of big reveals about her past, and we realize why doing the documentary is so important to her. I found the flashback scenes powerful, and I was impressed with the contrast between Ani at fourteen and the much more guarded, faux confident Ani in the present day.

As a whole, the novel doesn’t quite come together completely. Perhaps it’s partly because her supposedly “perfect” adult life never really feels perfect. As well, Ani the adult just doesn’t quite add up — she seems more a wannabe rich bitch than an actual one, yet doesn’t quite show the vulnerability that could make the wannabe aspect work. Ani as a teenager felt more real, and I’m wondering if the personality shift could have been better integrated.

I also wish we knew more about Ani’s fiance. As it was, I didn’t quite understand why doing the documentary was such a big deal. And later on, I was mostly confused about his responses to various situations. At times, it felt like he was there more as a prop for the plot than an actual character.

The ending as well seemed really sudden. Elements of it made sense, but the shift to get to that point seemed to happen really quickly, and there was a minor tidbit that was left hanging for some reason. Perhaps the author felt she didn’t have to explain how that tidbit turned out, but it felt like such an important part of the story that I wish it had been closed off more neatly.

Overall though, the segments about Ani’s past really made the book for me. These raised some powerful, timely and highly relevant issues, and I thought the author did a great job in presenting teenage Ani as a complex, multi-layered character. At one point, remembering a particularly traumatic moment, Ani confesses to some really dark thoughts, and to me, that bit of darkness is far more interesting than the bitchy facade the author uses to make her character seem evil and unlikeable. These are the most powerful moments of the book, and the ones that make the slow start very much worth it.


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

Review | Fatal Affair and Fatal Justice, Marie Force


If you love romantic thrillers, check out this awesome series by Marie Force. Nine titles are already out in ebook, but only the first two have been released in print so far (Book 3 Fatal Consequences and Book 4 Fatal Flaw hit shelves June 2015).


The series begins with the death of a US Senator. DS Sam Holland, just coming off a tragic assignment that jeopardized her career, is assigned to the case. The man who discovered the body is Nick Cappuano, the Senator’s Chief of Staff, and also the man with whom Sam had spent a memorable evening with years earlier. Their sexual chemistry is still off the charts, and Sam learns that what she’d perceived then as Nick’s loss of interest was actually the result of scheming by her controlling roommate and now ex-husband to keep them apart.

The mystery about the Senator’s killer is interesting, but it’s the chemistry between the leads that really propels this book forward. I love their bantering, and I especially love how they both respect each other’s boundaries given their respective careers. Nick sometimes tries to be alpha male and protective of Sam, but in this context, Sam is a trained police officer and Nick is a civilian, so she naturally pushes him out of harm’s way and is the one to chase after the bad guys. I love that, and while Nick at times has trouble accepting it, I love that he makes the effort.

I also really like the cast of secondary characters. Sam’s father in particular provides a rich story arc for the series, a former police chief who had been paralyzed by an unknown assailant while on the line of duty. Boyishly handsome straight-laced Catholic Freddie, Sam’s eager young partner, is probably my favourite — I love his mentor-mentee relationship with Sam, and I especially love seeing him get all flustered when one of the leads they have to interview turns out to be a beautiful woman heavily into kink.

This print edition also includes the novella One Night with You, which is about Nick and Sam’s first meeting and fateful night together. The chemistry in this was sizzling, and I felt bad thinking about how they would then be kept apart for years afterwards.


In the second book a highly controversial Supreme Court nominee is killed. Sam has been promoted to Lieutenant, Nick is now a US Senator, and their relationship is in the media spotlight, which means that both are even more embroiled in this case than in the previous.

I found the mystery in this book more compelling — the victim had family issues that added some interesting angles to the investigation. Sam and Nick’s relationship deepens, and despite some snags where one tries to keep some information from the other for whatever reason, I love the overall openness of their communication. Finally, Freddie gets his own romantic subplot, which I found very sweet and that I look forward to reading more about later on.


Overall, these are a promising beginning to the series. The author gives us enough of the characters’ lives beyond the mysteries to make them feel real, yet never meanders too far off course. The chemistry between the characters is fantastic, and I’m sure it will continue to propel the series forward.

More titles are available in ebook format, but if you prefer print and are willing to wait a bit, print versions will be rolling out later in the year.


Thanks to Harlequin Books for a copy of these books in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Boo, Neil Smith

23012503On the first week of school in 1979, thirteen year old Oliver “Boo” Dalrymple dies in front of his locker while reciting the periodic table. A shy, socially awkward aspiring scientist, Boo wakes up in Town, a bit of heaven populated by thirteen year olds. A few days later, he is joined by his classmate Johnny, a friendly popular boy who reveals that both he and Boo had been killed by a school shooter.

Despite technically beginning with death, Boo started out almost whimsically. It was fascinating to see Neil Smith’s vision of heaven for thirteen year olds, and it was great to see Boo, who was friendless on earth, fitting in with the other souls in Town. There’s something reassuring about having an afterlife that’s so similar to our own world, yet there’s also something disquieting about how the old souls (thirteen year olds who’ve been in Town for decades) act older (some of the female souls are referred to as “mothers), yet are still kept childlike in some ways, dependent on god (called “Zig” in Boo’s narration) to provide the basic necessities. Once in a while, something discordant arrives, like a photocopier, and the teens are left to wonder what Zig wants them to do with it.

This foray into a thirteen year old heaven is what I expected when I began the book, and if it remained on that storyline, with perhaps a romance or two sprinkled in, I would have called Boo charming, a fun, entertaining read.

But the story gets darker, much more disturbing than I expected from a YA book, and so much more powerful because of it. It begins with Johnny’s revelation that he and Boo were killed by a school shooter, who had then killed himself. Then the question: what if “Gunboy” had been reborn in Town as well? Haunted by nightmares of the shooting, Johnny becomes obsessed with this possibility, and takes Boo with him on a quest to track down their killer. The story then turns into a very Lord of the Flies type tale, with the Town residents cobbling together their own law enforcement and justice systems. In the afterlife, what could possibly be a fitting punishment for murder? And how far can a desire for revenge go before it descends into madness?

The search for Gunboy and the ensuing trial are among the book’s most disquieting scenes. The Town’s other murder victims see their own desire for justice in Johnny and Boo’s situation. In a particularly chilling moment, while discussing what to do with Gunboy, someone mentions that the other murder victims don’t just see Gunboy, they see their own murderers and abusers, the people in their own lives who caused their deaths and towards whom they are powerless to exact revenge.

And still the story progresses beyond this Lord of the Flies stage. We eventually do learn more about Gunboy, but more than that, we learn about Boo and Johnny and the lives they led before these were so violently cut short. We learn about inner demons, voices in people’s heads who say things people don’t want to hear. We learn about loneliness, and alienation, and all the things that at thirteen, we desperately want to believe “gets better” over time. And above all, we learn about friendship, about the power of a kind word to resonate with someone even beyond death.

Ultimately, I’m not sure what to say about Boo. It’s such a textured, multi-layered story, and I feel that if I read it again, I will parse something new each time. There’s not much going on in the plot, yet so much more happening between the lines, such that any pithy phrase I’d choose to describe it feels inadequate. I don’t even know how I feel about this book. I just know that it made me think, and that several days after I’ve turned the last page, I’m still thinking.


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

Review and Giveaway | Free Days with George, Colin Campbell

Heads up, dog and animal lovers! You’ll definitely want to check out Colin Campbell’s charming memoir Free Days with George, about how his giant Newfoundland dog George changed his life. I’ve been wanting to read this ever since I heard about it at the Random House blogger preview, where to my relief, I also learned that unlike so many dog books, George does not die at the end and in fact will be accompanying the author on his book tour.

According to Campbell’s grandfather,

A free day is when you spend a whole day doing things you love to do — like building sand castles, flying kites or going swimming. And when you do those things with people you love who love you, you don’t grow old that day. [p. 6]

Later on in the book, Campbell observes that he’d just spent a free day with his dog, and he didn’t quite realize it until that moment. Perhaps that’s another important aspect to note about free days as well — they kinda sneak up on you, and it’s only looking back when you realize how amazing an experience you’ve just had.

23209939Free days can sometimes be hard to come by, though. In Campbell’s case, his story with George begins when his wife leaves him for no discernible reason. He insists on couples therapy, but the truth is, she simply doesn’t want to be married, and there’s not much he can do about that. A friend suggests he gets a dog to help stave off the loneliness.

Enter George, a black and white 140 pound Newfoundland labrador with soft brown eyes and a deep-rooted mistrust of men. Campbell learns he may have been mistreated by former owners — likely men, as George has no problem warming up to women. Apparently, because Newfoundlands are such a large breed, many people want to train them to be guard dogs, not realizing that they are extremely gentle creatures. And once they learn that no amount of abuse will turn this type of dog vicious, they give them up to shelters. It’s a tragic situation, and it was almost painful to read Campbell’s first encounter with George — at the foster home, while all these other dogs frolicked and played with a little girl, George stood apart, alone, and watched.

Because of George’s past experiences, he is naturally wary around men, and at first even refuses to eat in front of Campbell. I loved reading about him gradually opening up, and learning to trust again. I love how something as simple as a hug could have such an emotional impact on both dog and human.

There’s also a really great scene at the dog training school, where the owners hide behind screens and their dogs have to find them. All the dogs in the class are having trouble with this exercise and, with George having the most trouble by far with the other lessons, Campbell isn’t too optimistic about his chances with this one.  The way that scene turned out actually brought a happy tear to my eye, and is quite possibly my favourite moment in the entire book.

The narrative momentum dips slightly in the second half. There are great scenes of George and Campbell surfing — yes, George can surf! — and it’s all very heartwarming, but the emotional intensity of their first few months together has definitely dialled down. And while the book ostensibly begins with the author’s need for emotional connection, and has some really strong, poignant memories of the author’s grandfather, the story ultimately doesn’t delve too deep into this beyond a few slogan-esque lines.

I think a big part of that is we don’t get much of a sense of the author beyond his relationship with the dog. Getting the dog to trust him was a huge emotional surge that peaked much too soon, and the part about surfing competitions, while entertaining, never really built up any narrative tension. I love how the author at times linked his experiences with his dog to his memories of his grandfather, who clearly was a major influence in his life, and I wish there had been a lot more of that in the story.

Still, this is a very charming read, and particularly if you’re a pet owner yourself or at least an animal lover, George’s story will certainly strike a chord. Read this book, and be sure to connect with George on Facebook or at



Want to spend your own “free day” with George and Colin’s story? Enter this contest for a copy courtesy of Random House Canada!


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

Review | The Knockoff, Lucy Sykes and Jo Piazza

23012475How could I not love this book? The Knockoff is Devil Wears Prada, All About Eve and The Social Network all in one hilarious, entertaining, utterly engrossing read perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon. The fashion editor protagonist lacks Meryl Streep’s charisma and the conniving upstart lacks Anne Baxter’s subtlety and charm, but the story itself certainly gets right to the heart of today’s digital obsession. If Miranda Priestly is the iconic boss from hell of the early 2000s, Eve Morton is the boss from hell of the immediate present.

When Glossy magazine editor in chief Imogen Tate returns to work after a six month hiatus, she finds her former assistant Eve Morton as the new editorial director, in charge of re-inventing the magazine as a digital app. Eve is a caricature of a millennial — completely addicted to social media, she interrupts her own wedding to update her Facebook status. (“It’s not official until it’s Facebook official!”) A Harvard MBA graduate, she has some great ideas for Glossy — Buzzfeed type lists and Buy It Now buttons that are guaranteed to boost traffic and improve conversion rate — but lacks the creative flair to take her vision beyond increasing ROI. Worse, she’s completely sociopathic and genuinely has no clue how clueless she really is.

In contrast, Imogen has no idea what a hashtag is, nor what a conversion rate means. She may have Alexander Wang on speed dial, but lacks the social media savvy and business background to understand the changes Eve is making to Glossy. In today’s world, does she still have a fighting chance, or is she, as Eve says, truly a “dinosaur”?

I had so much fun reading this book! I did expect a bit more about the real-life fashion world — Knockoff lacked the industry insider feel of Prada, and felt more like a story about office politics than fashion. There’s a subplot about Imogen’s daughter being bullied online, which Imogen compares to her own experience of bullying at work, and indeed, if you’ve ever had a school bully or a toxic co-worker, you realize how some people just never grow up. It’s a compelling tale, and seeing it from the perspective of a woman afraid of becoming irrelevant gives it an added emotional punch.

I also like how accurate the story felt in terms of how much of an asset tech skills are in today’s world, no matter what your industry is. When Imogen goes out for drinks with some of her new, younger co-workers, she learns that in their life beyond the office, many of them want to start their own web-based companies. A tech entrepreneur Imogen meets at a conference comments that many of today’s big businesses — Air BnB, Uber — are successful because someone identified a gap in a system, a need that isn’t being met, and simply capitalized on that. With websites and social media, almost anyone can raise capital and set something up.

What I loved about Knockoff is that the book doesn’t set up the conflict as a dichotomy between technology and heart, between digital app and print glossy. There are many tech savvy, digitally minded characters who are just as creative and talented as Imogen, and Imogen herself doesn’t waste time complaining about how much better things were “in her day.”

It’s a quick, entertaining read, with a deeply satisfying ending. The Glossy app didn’t quite strike me as particularly innovative, but a secondary character had an idea for a vintage fashion/thrift shop type app that I would love to see happen in real life. Someone tweet me if it does.


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

Review | Someone is Watching, Joy Fielding

22694047Private investigator Bailey Carpenter is attacked while working on a case, and her entire world falls apart. From being a confident, independent woman, she finds herself afraid to ride an elevator with a man and unable to sleep without having nightmares. Worse, she sees her attacker in almost every man she encounters — an obnoxious flirt at the gym, a man walking past her in the street, a narcissistic man in the apartment building across from hers. They all fit the frustratingly generic description of Bailey’s attacker: white male between the ages of 20 to 40 years old, average height, average build, wearing black Nikes.

I often find books involving sexual assault difficult to read — for example, Elizabeth Haynes’ Into the Darkest Corner kept me feeling claustrophobic, almost physically trapped, throughout. Fielding’s writing is a bit more detached that Haynes’, and while she did a good job of portraying Bailey’s fear and sense of paralysis after the attack, Someone is Watching felt more like an action-packed thriller than a psychological one.

Part of the reason may be that despite the attack that began the whole story, there were so many other things going on in Bailey’s life. A major subplot is the Bailey’s dysfunctional family — her father had had many children by different women, and left his vast fortune only to Bailey and her brother Heath. Bailey and Heath’s half siblings, led by high powered district attorney Gene, are suing for their share of the inheritance. This adds a touch of intrigue to the motives of Bailey’s half sister Claire, who stays over at Bailey’s apartment for days after the attack. Is Claire sincere in wanting to help Bailey heal or is Heath right and Claire is only after Bailey’s money? This is further complicated by Heath having issues of his own — a struggling actor who is perennially stoned, Heath also happens to be best friends with Bailey’s ex-boyfriend, who still wants Bailey back and who also happens to fit the description of her attacker. Then there is Bailey’s current boyfriend, a married man with children whose identity is glaringly obvious from the beginning and yet whom Fielding for some reason coyly refuses to name until Claire’s daughter susses it out. Finally, there is the man Bailey, Claire and Jade call Narcissus, the vain neighbour who parades naked in front of his open window and appears to know that Bailey is watching him.

There’s a lot going on, and while it’s easy enough to keep the characters straight, it can also be somewhat frustrating to see so many potential red herrings in the mystery. That’s actually a credit to Fielding’s writing, as it mirrors the frustration Bailey and other attack victims must feel themselves, where fear can take many forms, even among those familiar to you. That being said, there appears to be enough drama without adding so many subplots to the mix.

There’s a great moment near the end where Bailey realizes she may never know who her attacker is, and that she would just have to make her peace with that. I love that, because it shows an unfortunate reality of some victims, and it also takes the story back to Bailey’s psychological state rather than the physical investigation of potential attackers.

The ending as a whole felt overly convoluted. The first big reveal in particular seemed complicated, and while I admit it could have happened, the soap operatic nature of this twist detracted from the very real drama of dealing with an attack. The second reveal then felt anticlimactic, almost unnecessary after the dramatic impact of the first. That being said, I may be biased because I wasn’t happy to learn who the villains were, mostly because I had grown to like these characters earlier on. And that too is a testament to Fielding’s writing.

Someone is Watching is Joy Fielding’s 25th thriller, which is pretty awesome. If you’re a fan of her books, or of thrillers in general, this is definitely one to pick up. An entertaining read overall.


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