Tag Archives: Fiction

Father’s Day Book Recommendations

9 Jun

Book Shop

I have been compiling a list of excellent books that would make wonderful gifts for Father’s Day. I think there is something on this big list for every reading father, or father-figure, in your life. (If you are stuck on what to get someone who says they are not a reader, you could always try to show them the bookish light! I have had success giving nonfiction books to people who claim to not be readers and it has been met with great success!)

Anyway, here…the giant list:

Fiction Recommendations:

Classic Literature:

  • My Antonía, by Willa Cather
  • East of Eden, by John Steinbeck
  • Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes – this Edith Grossman translation, as linked, is excellent!
  • Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley – this Penguin edition I have linked is awesome.
  • The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas (pére)
  • Moby Dick, by Herman Melville – Yes, seriously! And, again, advocating for this particular edition to which I have linked you.

Contemporary Literature:

Canadian Literature:

Graphic Novels:


So – as you can see, it’s a huge list. I do hope you find something of interest here and would love to know about the books you plan to give as gifts.

If you would like a personal recommendation, I would be happy to make one for you. Just give me three books you (or your dad) love(s) and I will offer an excellent suggestion. Or two. Or three. You can post your request in the comments below. :)

I have linked all the above books to Goodreads. It is a great place to read book descriptions, and see what others think. When it comes time to buy, I encourage you all to visit an independent bookseller for all your book shopping. These stores are vital parts of our communities and it would be wonderful for you to support a local business. (If you need a recommendation here, I would be pleased to help.)

Happy Father’s Day, and happy reading to you all!

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.


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!

Contest Alert – Jeannette Walls

18 Mar

Jeannette Walls hit the bestseller lists with her first book, the heartbreaking yet hopeful memoir The Glass Castle. She then repeated her success with her second book, Half Broke Horses. This book, labeled a “A true life novel”, is based on her grandmother’s life.

This coming June, Walls has a new book being released, a novel, called The Silver Star. From the book’s description:

From one of the bestselling memoirists of all time, a stunning and heartbreaking novel about an intrepid girl who challenges the injustice of the adult world—a triumph of imagination and storytelling.

It is 1970. “Bean” Holladay is twelve and her sister Liz is fifteen when their artistic mother Charlotte, a woman “who flees every place she’s ever lived at the first sign of trouble,” takes off to “find herself.” She leaves her girls enough money for food to last a month or two. But when Bean gets home from school one day and sees a police car outside the house, she and Liz board a bus from California to Virginia, where their widowed Uncle Tinsley lives in the decaying antebellum mansion that’s been in the family for generations.An impetuous optimist, Bean discovers who her father was and learns many stories about why their mother left Virginia in the first place.

Money is tight, so Liz and Bean start babysitting and doing office work for Jerry Maddox, foreman of the mill in town, a big man who bullies workers, tenants, and his wife. Bean adores her whip-smart older sister, inventor of word games, reader of Edgar Allan Poe, non-conformist. But when school starts in the fall, it’s Bean who easily adjusts and makes friends, and Liz who becomes increasingly withdrawn. And then something happens to Liz in the car with Maddox.

The author of The Glass Castle, hyper-alert to abuse of adult power, has written a gorgeous, riveting, heartbreaking novel about triumph over adversity and about people who find a way to love the world despite its flaws and injustices.

Simon & Schuster Canada has kindly provided me with an advanced reading copy of the novel and I am keen to jump into the read. I know many people have been deeply affected by Walls’ previous books, so I am happy to let you know that beginning today, and running until April 8th, you can enter to win one of ten Jeannette Walls prize packs from the publisher.


I wish you great good luck and let me know if you are one of the lucky winners!! I will have a review of the novel for you very soon.

My Favourite Reads of 2012

2 Jan

2012 was another wonderful year for reading so I thought I would share with you the list of books I really loved. I don’t claim this list to be comprehensive or exhaustive…it is just reflective of my reading over the past 12 months. Some of the titles were newly published in 2012 and others are not quite as recent. But, each of these titles resonated with me strongly. Whether through beautiful prose, memorable characters or compelling stories, each of these books found a place in my heart.


#10. 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. This is a dark, challenging and unsettling novel. Like David Foster Wallace, #3 on this list, Bolaño really challenged the idea of the traditional form of the novel with this book.

#9. The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Johnson. This novel was an unexpected gem. Fun and funny, this book made me hope for more Scandinavian translations coming to English markets. It’s a fantastic contrast to all the “noire” books Scandinavian writers have become more well-known for in recent years.

#8. The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler. Anne Tyler just gets human beings and hits readers in the heart.

#7. Wish You Were Here by Graham Swift. I reviewed this book for work nearly a year ago now and loved it so much. I feel like it really flew under the radar so like to tell people about it. Sure, it’s a difficult subject, but Swift’s prose is perfect.

#6. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. Okay, it’s a bit of a cheat because it’s two books — but I loved them both a whole lot and couldn’t choose one over the other. They really are as good as you keep hearing and I am suffering withdrawal waiting for the final book in Mantel’s planned trilogy.

#5. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. This is Harbach’s debut novel. It pretty much made me want to quit writing because I could never do anything this amazing on my first go. You do not have to have a love of baseball, or even a passing interest in the sport to appreciate the story and its beauty.

#4. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. I really don’t read Young Adult fiction very often at all. It’s all too supernatural, sparkly and fang-y for my tastes. BUT…this novel blew my mind. I read it to see if it would be appropriate for my 15-year-old niece (it is!!) and it ended up capturing my heart. Green treats his teenaged readers as smart, capable people. This novel is – in my mind – an elevated form of YA and gave me hope for the genre.

#3. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. BOOM! This novel is next to impossible to explain or summarize. It’s incredible and a big challenge for readers. I think it’s safe to say DFW was a genius and very interested in challenging narrative form and structure. Do not be afraid of the footnotes. And don’t even think about skipping them.

#2. Ru by Kim Thúy. What a quiet, beautiful story.

#1. In the Orchard the Swallows by Peter Hobbs. Hobbs’ novel has been sitting with me for months now. Another quiet, beautiful story, Hobbs accomplishes so much in a brief amount of space and with elegant yet simple prose. Another novel that flew under the radar, I would love for you to read this special book!


#5. Why Be Normal When You Could Be Happy? by Jeannette Winterson. Winterson’s early life was bleak but at no point is she trying to elicit our sympathies.

#4. Gold Diggers: Striking it Rich in The Klondike by Charlotte Gray. I loved the stucture of this book. Gray uses six different people to weave a bold picture of life in the Klondike.

#3. Every Love Story is A Ghost Story by D. T. Max. I read this right after finishing Infinite Jest and it really added to that novel. I knew a lot about DFW prior to reading this biography but Max adds humanity and compassion to the man and his very troubled life without straying into sensationalism.

#2. Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch. while this wasn’t the best written book, the access Gooch had to O’Connor’s archives and personal letters made this a fascinating read.

#1. Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature by Linda Lear. I love Potter and Lear did a fantastic job giving readers a big, full picture of Potter’s life – beyond her wonderful children’s books.

Honourable Mentions

* A History of the Present Illness by Louise Aronson – a short story debut collection from Aronson – an associate professor of medicine at University of California at San Francisco. I loved how the line between fact and fiction blurred for me while reading these stories.

* State of Wonder by Ann Patchett – now, I love Patchett and spend a lot of time wishing I was her. Haha — what’s not to love? She’s a tremendous author and, as of last year, owns and runs a successful independent bookstore in Nashville. This novel features some very thought-provoking subjects.


I am quite liking that all of my 2012 favourites have to do with connecting. Whether it was because of a fiction writer creating strong characters trying to find their way in the world or nonfiction works that served to help me feel a kinship with their subjects, all of my choices were very personal reads for me this year and huge for the heart in their stories. (Though i am puzzling over how Mantel’s books fit this, exactly. Haha!!)


I would love to hear your recommendations! What were the best books you read in 2012??

Ru by Kim Thúy

4 Nov

Ru: A NovelRu: A Novel by Kim Thúy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

We lost power for over 24 hours, thank to Super Storm Sandy, so I decided to re-read this beautiful book.

Kim Thúy’s novel, Ru was shortlisted for this year’s Giller Award. Released in its original French in 2010, it won the French-language Governor-General’s Award that same year, and has secured foreign rights in 15 countries. (Though according to a rep at Random House Canada, I have been told a U.S. publication date has not been established.) The English translation has been crafted beautifully by Sheila Fischman. While I was reading, I sensed the tenderness and integrity Fischman brought to this project. (But I would now like to read Ru in French!)

Ru is a fictional memoir told in beautiful vignettes that weave us through An Tinh’s escape from Vietnam to her time in a Malaysian refugee camp to her new life in Canada. The novel begins with a note on the meaning of ru. In French, it denotes a small stream or a flow – of water, blood, tears or almost anything else. In Vietnamese, ru means a lullaby.

The opening that follows, gives us a good idea of what’s in store:

I came into the world during the Tet Offensive, in the early days of the Year of the Monkey, when the long chains of firecrackers draped in front of houses exploded polyphonically along with the sound of the machine guns.

I first saw the light of day in Saigon, where firecrackers, fragmented into a thousand shreds, coloured the ground red like the petals of cherry blossoms or like the blood of the two million soldiers deployed and scattered through the villages and cities of a Vietnam that had been ripped in two.

I was born in the shadow of skies adorned with fireworks, decorated with garlands of light, shot through with rockets and missiles. The purpose of my birth was to replace lives that had been lost. My life’s duty was to prolong that of my mother.

I love the form this book takes and feel that the way Thúy tells us this story fully captures how we remember events from the past. Our recollections help form the big picture but it’s the snippets of memory, of moments along the way, that fit together like a puzzle and create the full portrait of a life. Even in its entirety life can be messy but whole, disjointed and connected at the same time. But from the chaos and uncertainty, physical and moral strength and endurance can emerge and sustain us.

Prior to the Giller Awards gala event, Thúy did a quick Q & A session with CBC Books.

I would suggest you take a few minutes to watch this video of Thúy, as she talks about writing Ru and the immigrant experience. Thúy has become my new favourite person. She’s bright, funny and quirky. Around these parts, we call that adorakable!

Read her book; won’t you? It’s one of my most favourite reads of 2012.

View all my reviews


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