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Contest Alert: Win a Copy of ‘The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry’

2 Apr

he Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a really lovely novel. If you love books, reading and dream of owning a bookstore, I think you will really enjoy this novel.

From the book’s description:

A.J. Fikry’s life is not at all what he expected it to be. His wife has died, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. Slowly but surely, he is isolating himself from all the people of Alice Island—from Chief Lambiase, the well-intentioned police officer who’s always felt kindly toward him; from Ismay, his sister-in-law, who is hell-bent on saving A.J. from his dreary self; from Amelia, the lovely and idealistic (if eccentric) Knightley Press sales rep who persists in taking the ferry to Alice Island, refusing to be deterred by A.J.’s bad attitude. Even the books in his store have stopped holding pleasure for him. These days, A.J. can only see them as a sign of a world that is changing too rapidly.

And then a mysterious package appears at the bookstore. It’s a small package, though large in weight—an unexpected arrival that gives A.J. the opportunity to make his life over, the ability to see everything anew. It doesn’t take long for the locals to notice the change overcoming A.J., for the determined sales rep Amelia to see her curmudgeonly client in a new light, for the wisdom of all those books to become again the lifeblood of A.J.’s world. Or for everything to twist again into a version of his life that he didn’t see coming.

As surprising as it is moving, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is an unforgettable tale of transformation and second chances, an irresistible affirmation of why we read and why we love.

The book is featured in today’s edition of  The Afterword Reading Society, in the National Post.

To be entered in this contest, please leave a comment below. I will draw the winner at 6pm (EST) tomorrow, April 3rd. So, QUICK! Comment now to be entered.

Thank you, and good luck!

A Few Recommendations…

16 Mar

Illustration: Jane Mount

So…sometimes life can be a numbskull. We’ve all been there, haven’t we – unexpected emergencies; personal challenges; sad news; and loss. So many things make up life’s rich pageant, and most of us carry our own “stuff”,  as we make our way in the world.  So far, 2014 has been…difficult. I have not been able to pay much attention to this blog, but that does not mean I have been away from reading. While the chaos of life did send me into a bit of a reading slump (do you grapple with those sometimes?), I have been plugging along lately, and have enjoyed some wonderful books.  I hope to create new reviews soon, but until then I did want to share a few suggestions with you.  I found these following six novels to be wonderful, and I am happy to recommend them to you.

1. The Magician’s Assistant, by Ann Patchett.  This is one of Patchett’s earlier novels. I loved it – the story pulled me right in. If you have ever experienced the loss of a loved one, and been mired in the murkiness of grief, you may find this story interesting, and maybe even a bit of a balm.

From the book’s description: “Sabine– twenty years a magician’s assistant to her handsome, charming husband– is suddenly a widow. In the wake of his death, she finds he has left a final trick; a false identity and a family allegedly lost in a tragic accident but now revealed as very much alive and well. Named as heirs in his will, they enter Sabine’s life and set her on an adventure of unraveling his secrets, from sunny Los Angeles to the windswept plains of Nebraska, that will work its own sort of magic on her.”

2. The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride.   I enjoyed this novel so much. It won the 2013 National Book Award; the voice, time and place McBride brings to life in his story are wonderful.

From the book’s description: “Henry Shackleford is a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1857, when the region is a battleground between anti- and pro-slavery forces. When John Brown, the legendary abolitionist, arrives in the area, an argument between Brown and Henry’s master quickly turns violent. Henry is forced to leave town—with Brown, who believes he’s a girl.

Over the ensuing months, Henry—whom Brown nicknames Little Onion—conceals his true identity as he struggles to stay alive. Eventually Little Onion finds himself with Brown at the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859—one of the great catalysts for the Civil War.

An absorbing mixture of history and imagination, and told with McBride’s meticulous eye for detail and character, The Good Lord Bird is both a rousing adventure and a moving exploration of identity and survival.”

3. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin. This novel is utterly lovely and charming. If you sometimes just want to read a “nice” book – this is it! Plus — if you are any sort of card-carrying book lover with a heart, a novel that features: books, a bookstore, and publishing should really appeal. Zevin’s novel is like a book nerd’s most amazing dream.

From the book’s description: “Hanging over the porch of the tiny New England bookstore called Island Books is a faded sign with the motto “No Man Is an Island; Every Book Is a World.” A.J. Fikry, the irascible owner, is about to discover just what that truly means.

A.J. Fikry’s life is not at all what he expected it to be. His wife has died, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. Even the books in his store have stopped holding pleasure for him. These days, A.J. can only see them as a sign of a world that is changing too rapidly.

And then a mysterious package appears at the bookstore. It’s a small package, but large in weight. It’s that unexpected arrival that gives A.J. the opportunity to make his life over, the ability to see everything anew. It doesn’t take long for the locals to notice the change overcoming him or for a determined sales rep named Amelia to see her curmudgeonly client in a new light. The wisdom of all those books again become the lifeblood of A.J.’s world and everything twists into a version of his life that he didn’t see coming.

As surprising as it is moving, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is an unforgettable tale of transformation and second chances, an irresistible affirmation of why we read and why we love.”

4. Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent. This is a fantastic debut novel, from a young Australian writer. Kent has done a great job creating an evocative story. You may very well feel this one right to your bones.

From the book’s description: “A brilliant literary debut, inspired by a true story: the final days of a young woman accused of murder in Iceland in 1829.

Set against Iceland’s stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution.

Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes’s death looms, the farmer’s wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they’ve heard.

Riveting and rich with lyricism, BURIAL RITES evokes a dramatic existence in a distant time and place, and asks the question, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?

5. Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Adichie examines the ideas of race, identity and belonging. It’s edgy and it’s essential.

From the book’s description: “Ifemelu–beautiful, self-assured–left Nigeria 15 years ago, and now studies in Princeton as a Graduate Fellow. She seems to have fulfilled every immigrant’s dream: Ivy League education; success as a writer of a wildly popular political blog; money for the things she needs. But what came before is more like a nightmare: wrenching departure from family; humiliating jobs under a false name. She feels for the first time the weight of something she didn’t think about back home: race.

Obinze–handsome and kind-hearted–was Ifemelu’s teenage love; he’d hoped to join her in America, but post 9/11 America wouldn’t let him in. Obinze’s journey leads him to back alleys of illegal employment in London; to a fake marriage for the sake of a work card, and finally, to a set of handcuffs as he is exposed and deported.

Years later, when they reunite in Nigeria, neither is the same person who left home. Obinze is the kind of successful “Big Man” he’d scorned in his youth, and Ifemelu has become an “Americanah”–a different version of her former self, one with a new accent and attitude. As they revisit their shared passion–for their homeland and for each other–they must face the largest challenges of their lives.

Spanning three continents, entering the lives of a richly drawn cast of characters across numerous divides, Americanah is a riveting story of love and expectation set in today’s globalized world.

6. The Transcriptionist, by Amy Rowland. Another wonderful debut novel, from a very engaging writer. Rowland has a great way of shining a light on many absurdities of modern life.

From the book’s description: Lena, the transcriptionist, sits alone in a room far away from the hum of the newsroom that is the heart of the Record, the New York City newspaper for which she works. For years, she has been the ever-present link for reporters calling in stories from around the world. Turning spoken words to print, Lena is the vein that connects the organs of the paper. She is loyal, she is unquestioning, yet technology is dictating that her days there are numbered.

When she reads a shocking piece in the paper about a Jane Doe mauled to death by a lion, she recognizes the woman in the picture. They had met on a bus just a few days before. Obsessed with understanding what caused the woman to deliberately climb into the lion’s den, Lena begins a campaign for truth that will destroy the Record’s complacency and shake the venerable institution to its very foundation.

An exquisite novel that asks probing questions about journalism and ethics, about the decline of the newspaper and the failure of language, it is also the story of a woman’s effort to establish her place in an increasingly alien and alienating world.”

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I hope you will find some books of interest on this list. I think each of these novels will appeal to many readers, and that within these stories are characters and situations to which we can all relate. There is also much to be learned within each of these books. I always love gaining new perspectives and new knowledge while reading, and while many of these stories may have you looking within, they will also have you looking out, to the world beyond your own personal sphere. And that is never a bad thing.

If you have read something wonderful lately, I would love to hear about it. Please feel free to leave a comment, below this post.

Happy reading!

Winter Survival Contest – Simon & Schuster Canada

13 Jan

Simon & Schuster Canada – Winter Survival Contest

Simon & Schuster Canada would like to help keep you warm, cozy and entertained this winter. Beginning today, you can enter their ‘Winter Survival’ contest. Up for grabs? An excellent ‘ Stay Warm Kit‘.

Included in the kit are the following:

You can enter the contest by clicking here. The contest ends on February 9, 2014 at 11:59 p.m. ET.

(As well, clicking on either  of the above images in this post will take you to the contest’s homepage.)

Good luck!

Winter Books Bird, Illustration by Jieun Kim

The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey

8 Jan

From the book’s description:

In Eowyn Ivey’s magical debut novel The Snow Child, a couple creates a child out of snow. When she appears on their doorstep as a little girl, wild and secretive, their lives are changed forever.

SnowChildpaperback-bannerAlaska, 1920: a brutal place to homestead, and especially tough for a couple who have never been able to conceive. Jack and Mabel are drifting apart—he breaking under the weight of the work of the farm; she crumbling from loneliness and despair. In a moment of levity during the season’s first snowfall, they build a child out of snow. The next morning the snow child is gone, but they catch sight of an elusive, blonde-haired girl running through the trees.

This little girl, who calls herself Faina, seems to be a child of the woods. She hunts with a red fox at her side, skims lightly across the snow, and leaves blizzards in her wake. As Jack and Mabel struggle to understand this child who seems to have stepped from the pages of a fairy tale, they come to love her as their own daughter. But in the Alaska wilderness, life and death are inextricable, and what they eventually learn about Faina changes their lives forever.

I first read this wonderful novel at the beginning of 2013. I very much read to both my mood and the seasons, so being in Canada, in January – it seemed like the ideal time to read a book about a ‘snow child’, set in the Alaskan wilderness!   While it was the first book I read in 2013, it stuck with me throughout the entire year, and was one of my favourite reads.

Here we are now, in 2014. I find myself in a fairly pervasive reading slump. But, given my work, and involvement in a few online book groups, a reading slump can be a problematic situation.  Two of my book groups have chosen to read The Snow Child in 2014. One group is reading it now (CBC Books, on Goodreads), and I am leading the read/discussion). The other group will be reading it in March. So…I really had to get going on the re-read of this book.

eowyn-bioLuckily, the second time reading The Snow Child was just was great as the first. Ivey, using inspiration from classic Russian fable (The Little Daughter of the Snow), has created a truly wonderful fairy tale for adults.  Don’t let that description scare you or cause you to turn up your nose. Fairy tales, while beautiful and magical, often tell hard truths and share dark realities.

It is very easy to become swept up in the world Ivey has created in The Snow Child – it all seems so bleak, remote, challenging and nearly impossible. And yet, her characters are so full of life, as is the setting of the story. So much of human survival hinges on the natural world. And the natural world is a marvel. Some may even think mother nature magical. And here is where Ivey really shines as she balances her story between naturalism and the mythical.

There is an sadness that anchors The Snow Child, and Ivey certainly does not romanticize the Alaskan frontier. But the hopes and dreams that have long lured people to Alaska, the mystery of the place, are very present in Ivey’s characters. There is such a life force in this story – I really hope it will capture your imagination and heart, as it has captured mine.

Faina

“In my old age, I see that life itself is often more fantastic and terrible than the stories we believe as children, and that perhaps there is no harm in finding magic among the trees.” 

My Favourite Reads of 2013

1 Jan

 

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.”

~ T.S. Eliot, (from: Little Gidding)

While I am definitely thinking about all of the great reading ahead in 2014, I very much wanted to share with you my favourite reads from 2013. Lists are always subjective…I recognize this, but I read some truly wonderful books last year and I wanted to record these stand-outs. Maybe this list will help you discover some new reads, or prompt some interesting conversations; I hope it will do both!

I have broken out my list into four categories (but the books are not listed in any particular order):

  • Literary Fiction Published in 2013;
  • Contemporary Literature.;
  • Classic Literature; and
  • Nonfiction.

I. Literary Fiction Published in 2013:

1. Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, by Therese Anne Fowler. This is a wonderful novel of historical fiction. It is well-researched and Fowler has beautifully imagined (and, maybe, at moments recreated certain aspects of) the life of Zelda Fitzgerald, beyond just the wife of the famous/infamous F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fowler show Zelda forging her own identity while fighting her own personal demons and Scott’s, too? With brilliant insight and imagination, Therese Anne Fowler brings us Zelda’s irresistible story as she herself might have told it.

2. Kicking the Sky, by Anthony De Sa. I read this book in October, 2013, and shared my thoughts at that time. Three months later, I still find myself thinking about this story and wowed by De Sa’s talent.

3. The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner. This was my first time reading Kushner, and she blew my mind. I loved everything about this novel – it was tough, edgy and sensitive.

4. The Painted Girls, by Cathy Marie Buchanan.  This novel ticked all the boxes for me: ballet, belle époque Paris, Degas, Zola, La Figaro.  While fictional, I loved the way Buchanan wove the history of the real events throughout this story. I read the book quickly – two very late-night reading sessions that kept me up way, waaaay past bedtime. The subsequent daytime sleepiness was well worth it though.

5. The Crooked Maid, by Dan Vyleta. The Crooked Maid is many things – historical fiction, mystery, literary fiction, homage. Vyleta’s doing a lot with this novel, which could be a worry – but it’s very good, and Vyleta can really write. His ability with description is pretty stellar.

6. The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert. The only word that keeps rolling around in my brain, concerning Gilbert’s new novel, is: LUSH – this book is so lush and enveloping. It was pretty delightful from start to finish. And if you know me, you know I don’t really use the word ‘delightful’! This novel may have been my most surprising read this year.

II. Contemporary Literature:

1. Indian Horse (2012), by Richard Wagamese. I managed a 5 word review, after I read this novel in February, 2013: “Stunning. Beautiful. Heartbreaking. Required reading.” Wagamese’s book affected me very deeply. For all its heartbreak, it was also very much a hopeful story. This is a book that can, and should, be read by everyone.

2. The Wreckage (2005), by Michael Crummey. My love for Michael Crummey’s writing runs fairly deep – I think he is brilliant. He wowed me again with The Wreckage. Reading this novel made me want to spend some time in Crummey’s brain…or, at the very least, take a writing class with him.

3. Sweetness in the Belly (2005), by Camilla Gibb. I read this book for the third time in 2013, and man, it’s great!  Gibb is a fantastic storyteller and through her prose I could truly see, hear, smell and touch the places she created in this book – Lilly’s life in Harare, and her life in London were both so vivid.

4. A Complicated Kindness,(2004) by Miriam Toews.  Another third reading. (2013 was unusual in that regard, I don’t generally re-read much at all.) I LOVE THIS NOVEL SO HARD!  I think this books gets better with each reading. The way Toews captures the voice of 16-year-old Nomi is incredible. Sure she’s wise and precocious, but she’s also still a kid and Toews gets her voice so right.

5. The Round House, (2012) by Louise Erdrich. What a great novel! It’s evocative and hard but using a 13-year-old boy as the protagonist adds a layer of nuance that would be missing in an older main character (I think – given the arc of Joe’s story.) I really loved Erdrich’s perspective on family, love and justice. The supporting characters are all very interesting and well developed, and served to make this a very tightly woven novel.

6. Arcadia (2011), by Lauren Groff. I loved Arcadia a lot. i viscerally responded to the settings and people Groff created here, and i am kinda floored by Groff’s talent. I was totally caught up in Bit’s life. I loved the timeline and following him along life’s path.

7. The Snow Child (2012), by Eowyn Ivey. What a fantastic debut novel! It’s a magical and sometimes heartbreaking story, perfectly set for a wonderful winter read.

8. The Savage Detectives (1998), by Roberto Bolaño.

bolañover

bow-lah-nyoh-verr;  noun

1. weird physical and emotional effects caused by reading the works of Roberto Bolaño. symptoms may include: confusion; anger; awe; dry eyes; headache; idolatry; exhaustion; the strong desire for alcohol, drugs or both; feelings of filthiness and the need to shower to remove the grit; wonder; sadness; curiosity; the unexplained urge to pimp out a 1970s impala. symptoms may ease with time or they may worsen.

2. a thing that has survived from the past.

III. Classic Literature:

1. Two Solitudes (1945), by Hugh MacLennan. What a dense, wonderful important novel. This was a re-read for me, but I had lost so many details over the years it was like a new experience. Following the strands of story arcs concerning ‘two solitudes’, through this novel was amazing. MacLennan wrote about so many important issues and brought heart and humanity to the telling. Certainly a canadian classic, and a book that should continue to resonate for generations to come.

2. Persuasion (1818), by Jane Austen. Late in the book there is this quote:

“Minutiae which, even with every advantage of taste and delicacy which good Mrs. Musgrove could not give, could be properly interesting only to the principals.”

And when I read that line it made me think of the details in Austen’s writing and how, in fact, the minutiae present with her manner of storytelling sucks me right in every time. But…with Persuasion I feel this is very much a novel of Anne’s restraint and resolve, as much as it is a tale of different persuasions. So given Anne’s nature, though we aren’t privy to her inner workings in great detail, I was seeing everything through her eyes and completely immersed in her world.

3. The Grapes of Wrath (1939), by John Steinbeck. Oh for the love of humanity — is there any family as hard done by as the Joads??? The Joads’ humanity and hope, in the face of utter hopelessness, is incredible. And the way Steinbeck conveyed this balance throughout the novel is brilliant. The man was a genius. But i don’t really know what I could possibly say here that hasn’t been said earlier, and better, by others? Read it! Do it!

4. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), by Harper Lee. I made it all the way to page 317 without crying…even though I felt like I could a couple of times earlier on. But page 317 did me in, the bastard! Heh. (I am not really a person who cries while reading – though Grapes of Wrath last week (see above) and this book tonight are turning me into a liarface on this front.) Now, I am all teary and soppy, and I ugly-cried and I got the hiccups and I have to try and write something here that conveys how brilliant this book is to me. So how about this: Harper Lee is so freaking amazing she will make you ugly-cry!  Yeah? Cool!

5. Twelfth Night (1602), by William Shakespeare. A re-read (again with the re-reads!!) after many years, and still as great as I remember it to be. Shakespeare can be lots of fun.

IV. Nonfiction:

1. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012), by Susan Cain. I am an introvert. But I am not shy. So I have been trying to explain the difference to people for years. Instead, I should just carry around copies of Cain’s great, great book. Being an introvert and having a good and thoughtful understanding of what this means, I still learned a lot from Quiet. Cain’s research seems very well done (and so interesting), and her style is very engaging. I think this is one of those books that everyone should read as it will likely help open some eyes and minds, and allow people to better understand and respect one another.

2. The Truth About Luck (2013), by Iain Reid. Sometimes you read a book and it becomes something you connect with so personally and deeply that it becomes nearly impossible to detach from it to assess or review it constructively. That happened with this amazing book by Iain Reid. But, I  thought about it for quite a while, and i think – my personal attachment aside – the strength of Reid’s writing, the flow of the story, and his ability to make us care about what he and his grandma are up to make this book totally worth its 5-star rating. (I wrote about the book in more detail, in March, 2013.)

3. Belonging: Home Away From Home (2003), by Isabel Huggan. This book is wonderful – and was my #1 favourite read for 2013! The majority of the book is a memoir of place – the search for home. Not just the physical: the location and the structure, but also the feeling. Feeling one is home is a big deal. At least it is to me, anyway. And it’s something I have been hoping to find my whole life.  Huggan gives voice to this search, this sensation, and does it so beautifully and naturally. There’s a lot of excavation of memory that goes on in the telling, and it felt very much like I was just listening to Huggan in conversation. Also contained in the story are small snippets of Huggan’s writing life, something I really appreciated.

4. The Arctic Grail (1988), by Pierre Berton. What a great book!!! Pierre Berton is an excellent storyteller and, it would seem, he is also an impeccable researcher. But that’s not really a surprise!! Shamefully, this is the first time I have read a Berton book. OOPS!! He definitely came up during my time in elementary and secondary school, but we were never actually given any of his books to read/study. Weird, right?? I was so amazed by the overwhelming lack of preparedness with which the majority of the expeditions undertook their quests. The British expeditions were stubbornly and fatally wrong-headed in not learning from their inuit contacts, and judging the Inuit, while useful to them, ‘savages’ and ‘unintelligent’.

5. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997), by David Foster Wallace.  Each essay in this collection has its own strength (and each is fairly brilliant), but overwhelmingly evident, when taken as a whole, is DFW’s ability to assess and read people, and analyze a situation or instance in the context of a bigger picture. It’s uncanny, really.

6. My Ideal Bookshelf (2013), by Jane Mount & Thessaly La Force. Or, as I like to call it, porn for book lovers! This is just a beautiful book to look at, and it also gives great satisfaction on the ‘snooping the bookshelves’ front.

7. Bottomfeeder (2007), by Taras Grescoe.  LOVE THIS BOOK!! Seriously; it’s fantastic. It should be required reading for everyone. Grescoe has a wonderful ability with delivering the facts and science in a very engaging and approachable way. The structure of the book is fantastic: each chapter is like a little case study. A species is examined – the supply, the demand, the problems and the science – and explained. Grescoe travelled the world while researching this book and is clearly very passionate about the seafood industry, and about the choices he makes for his diet.

***************

So, there you have it – all of the absolute stand out books I had the pleasure of reading in 2013.  Altogether, I read 121 books last year. This was definitely not usual. Generally, I average somewhere between 60 and 70 books per year. I am not really clear on what happened in 2013 to cause my pace to double, but it was quite the adventure and I will look back fondly on ‘that one crazy reading year’.

A few stats:

  • Total books read: 121
  • Total pages read: 41,839
  • 71 female writers
  • 49 male writers
  • And 1 collection featuring male and female writers
  • 12 works in translation

You can view my full reading list on Goodreads.

Thank you for visiting Literal Life, and continuing to be interested in the books I am reading and talking about.

As always – please feel free to share your favourite reads with me – I would love to hear about them

Happy reading!

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