Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett

Possibly a tiny bit spoiler-y ahead… just the next few lines, before the first quote.

Chekhov’s gun! Chekhov’s gun!! Seriously. Checkhov’s. Gun. And I almost fell for it, but just kept questioning the device too much to be fully blindsided by the inevitable twist. She’s clever, that Ann Patchett!

But she is up to something far more subtle, startling and painful than that. There is nothing inevitable or fated here, unless it is that actions have consequences, most of which are unintended. A person might seem “unbearable”, but then the narrating mind suggests, “maybe that’s the real problem”, that a person who seems unbearable may rather be “emblematic of what can never be overcome”. When the whole tragic power of her story hits the reader, about two-thirds of the way through, the effect is physically breathtaking. Patchett sucker-punches you, but leaves you feeling you had it coming – whether for underestimating her, or her characters, or humanity, is hard to say.*

Okay. Now that that is out of my system…

About the book (jacket description, from the publisher):

y648The acclaimed, bestselling author—winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize—tells the enthralling story of how an unexpected romantic encounter irrevocably changes two families’ lives.

One Sunday afternoon in Southern California, Bert Cousins shows up at Franny Keating’s christening party uninvited. Before evening falls, he has kissed Franny’s mother, Beverly—thus setting in motion the dissolution of their marriages and the joining of two families. 

Spanning five decades, Commonwealth explores how this chance encounter reverberates through the lives of the four parents and six children involved. Spending summers together in Virginia, the Keating and Cousins children forge a lasting bond that is based on a shared disillusionment with their parents and the strange and genuine affection that grows up between them.

160906_boork_ann-patchett-crop-promo-xlarge2When, in her twenties, Franny begins an affair with the legendary author Leon Posen and tells him about her family, the story of her siblings is no longer hers to control. Their childhood becomes the basis for his wildly successful book, ultimately forcing them to come to terms with their losses, their guilt, and the deeply loyal connection they feel for one another.

Told with equal measures of humor and heartbreak, Commonwealth is a meditation on inspiration, interpretation, and the ownership of stories. It is a brilliant and tender tale of the far-reaching ties of love and responsibility that bind us together.

I love Ann Patchett. So much. I tend to go into her books hoping I will love them, but I do try to keep my expectations in check, and approach each book freshly and with an open mind. of course, as a patchett fan, it was near-impossible to not be excited about this new novel. heck, it’s been one of my most anticipated reads for 2016. And my curiosity (or anticipation) was heightened further through interviews AP has given, noting this is her first autobiographical novel. That did add an interesting layer to the reading, along with the whole meta thing going on — the novel features a novelist who has written a new work of “fiction”, based on the life of the main characters of AP’s book. His novel is also called Commonwealth. Are you with me still? Excellent! This all worked wonderfully for me because I am basically a sucker for any works of fiction which feature writers and writing. (I’m not predisposed to automatically liking them all, but i am predisposed being intrigued by these kinds of books and throwing them onto Mt. TBR.)

What I find Patchett does exceptionally well are the nuances and dynamics of family (She didn’t know how to hate her mother yet, but every time she left her father crying in the airport she came that much closer to figuring it out.), and the excavation of the idea of responsibility. (Actions have consequences.) She’s an insightful writer. she’s also very funny, albeit sometimes it’s a dark-funny (The priest, whose mind was wandering like the Jews in the desert… or …people moved to Brooklyn to fall in love and write novels and have children, not to get old, and she couldn’t go to Holly, though she imagined dying in the Zen centre might come with spiritual advantages.), which I can fully appreciate. And when themes can get heavy or sad, those moments of levity are terrifically welcome moments. I hugely respect how Patchett creates complicated, messy characters. I feel as though she is writing openly and realistically when she creates characters who could be hard to embrace by some readers, but I also feel she has tremendous empathy for those she is creating.

My only real criticism of the novel is that I would have loved a bit more depth/story from each of the members of the Keating-Cousins families. Jeannette, for example, who completely intrigued me. And Albie. Oh, Albie. But, really, apart from Franny who functions as the novel’s centre and presented as a more complete character (save for one thing that was really left dangling), I would have been down for so much more on this whole family. But — that is just my very minor quibble. I was so engaged with the book, and fairly tore through it as I had a hard time putting it down. So, I hope you will read this book, and that you will let me know what you think when you do. I believe this will be a book I recommend to many people.

* — excerpted from Sarah Churchwell‘s uber-gushy (in the best way) review in The Guardian.


I mentioned that Commonwealth will be a novel I recommend to many people.  I would love to know if you have particular books that serve as go-to recommendations for you – books you never hesitate to recommend, no matter the reader?

Here are 10 books I love to suggest, and feel work for any type of reader:

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Penguin Shop Opens in Toronto



If you are a #BookNerd like me, this might be some pretty exciting news for you!

Penguin Random House Canada has opened a Penguin Shop at their Front Street headquarters.

From the press release:

 The shop features limited and special editions of reader favourites, book-related merchandise, and sought-after branded swag, including Penguin Classics mugs, notebooks, and tote bags. Penguin Shop also provides access to the people who create its books: it will launch with a robust Penguin Picks program that features favourite titles from authors and from the company’s editors, designers, and other staff.  Moreover, the store’s unique location also offers customers the chance to cross paths with their favourite authors, who may be passing by en-route to the company’s office. Visit us at 320 Front Street West, Toronto or visit for more information.

Here are some wonderful photos, to give you a glimpse of this great new space:






You can find the Penguin Shop on these social media channels, and by email:

Instagram | Facebook | Twitter | @penguinshopTO |

To visit in person:

Monday – Friday
11 – 7
The Atrium, 320 Front Street West, Toronto, Canada, M5V 3B6



Let me know if you visit!! I hope to get there very soon, to acquire a few small goodies.

Happy reading!



Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

“You must always ask yourself, whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story, too.”

Half-sisters Effia and Esi are born in (what is today) Ghana, in the 18th century. The half-sisters are unknown to one another. Their lives create the two divergent paths we follow, as debut author Yaa Gyasi navigates between Africa and the US, and from the mid-18th C. through to present day. Effia’s family line remains in Africa (until the 2000s) and endures tribal wars, colonialism, missionaries trying to bring Christianity to the continent, and the struggle for independence. Esi’s family line is in America, the consequence of her capture by slavers in the mid-1700s. Esi’s descendants struggle and fight through slavery, the Jim Crow south, the civil rights movement, and the war on drugs. Along with the epic historical sweep of the story, the social commentary is an important part of the book, and Gyasi viscerally presents the deeply rooted damages and vileness that has continued for hundreds of years because of slavery. In any discussions or work on race, class, and reparations in the US, this book is a strong and important statement.

2117741Gyasi is quite clever with how she has structured this book – it is an interesting approach to an epic story. Though it did cause me a bit of frustration while reading – because this is such an emotional book and we are not always given conclusions for characters to whom we have become attached. (Not that I need tidy endings at all… I just felt like I was missing out on some of the arcs as characters from the next generation came up to take over from their predecessors.) While I suppose it shouldn’t matter, I feel as though I would have fared a bit better with the structure coming into this book thinking of it as connected stories, over a novel. As we move through the generations, reading the chapters felt very much like experiencing vignettes, moments captured in time. Gyasi’s writing is so strong and evocative; I was left with very vivid images and feelings as I read. So this vignette approach worked for me even though I felt I floundered a bit with the continuity. Honestly, I would have read a meaty 800-page epic from Gyasi quite contentedly, and I would have appreciated a bit more time with each of her characters.🙂

Concerning tidy endings…  this was a (very) small issue for me in Homegoing as it did feel a bit too neat. I just didn’t love how it ended, after such a strong and affecting experience with the rest of the story. But Gyasi’s talent is hugely evident, this is a truly impressive and powerful debut, and I will definitely read whatever she publishes next. I highly recommend this wonderful book.


Many thanks to Penguin Random House Canada for an e-pub review copy through NetGalley.

Barkskins, by Annie Proulx

barkskins-9780743288781_hrBarkskins, the big, new novel from Annie Proulx, is possibly my most anticipated new release for 2016.  It is out today (14th June), and I hope you will find this as exciting as I do.

Simon & Schuster Canada was incredible enough to provide me with an advanced copy of this novel – I am very, very appreciative.  Since receiving the book, I have been saving it, and the reason will perhaps sound a bit silly: my birthday is coming up this week. Knowing Barkskins was happening (seriously – it’s an event, this book) around the same time, it’s been in my mind as a special birthday treat and I have been fantasizing about completely unplugging and becoming a temporary recluse (though really that’s not much of a stretch) with this book! SO, THANKS, ANNIE PROULX!😀  (The fact I love a chunky novel, and this one clocks in at 736 pages, has really helped amp up my excitement even further!! Nothing like a great epic read in the summer!)

About the book:

From the Simon & Schuster Canada website:

In the late seventeenth century two penniless young Frenchmen, René Sel and Charles Duquet, arrive in New France. Bound to a feudal lord, a “seigneur,” for three years in exchange for land, they become wood-cutters—barkskins. René suffers extraordinary hardship, oppressed by the forest he is charged with clearing. He is forced to marry a Mi’kmaw woman and their descendants live trapped between two inimical cultures. But Duquet, crafty and ruthless, runs away from the seigneur, becomes a fur trader, then sets up a timber business. Proulx tells the stories of the descendants of Sel and Duquet over three hundred years—their travels across North America, to Europe, China, and New Zealand, under stunningly brutal conditions—the revenge of rivals, accidents, pestilence, Indian attacks, and cultural annihilation. Over and over again, they seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource, leaving the modern-day characters face to face with possible ecological collapse.

Proulx’s inimitable genius is her creation of characters who are so vivid—in their greed, lust, vengefulness, or their simple compassion and hope—that we follow them with fierce attention. Annie Proulx is one of the most formidable and compelling American writers, and Barkskins is her greatest novel, a magnificent marriage of history and imagination.

Okay, I know that book cover descriptions can sometimes dabble in the realm of hyperbole, but did you catch the bit at the end “…her greatest novel…” ?  If you already know and love Proulx from her earlier works, like Shipping NewsAccordion Crimes, or Bird Cloud, then you are probably also drooling in anticipation of her new work being touted as her greatest!  (I am working so hard to keep my expectations in check!)

In a terrific interview with The Guardian, Proulx says this about Barkskins:


“It’s kind of an old-fashioned book,” Proulx says. “It’s long; it has a lot of characters; it takes a big theme. It isn’t a navel-staring, dysfunctional-family thing that’s so beloved of most American writers. It’s different, but I think people probably miss those books that were written some time ago – the big book that was written with care.”

Do let me know if this book is on your radar for the summer, or if you have already read it – I would love to hear your thoughts!  To me, and Proulx seems to be touching on this in the quote I excerpted, this book may have broad appeal to fans of literary fiction, historical fiction, and classic literature. Certainly Proulx’s quote called Charles Dickens and his epic works to mind in me.

Happy publication day to Annie Proulx, and happy reading to you all!

Nightfall, by Richard B. Wright

From the the publisher’s website (many thanks to Simon & Schuster Canada for the review copy of this new novel):

nightfall-9781476785370_hrFrom the acclaimed writer of the beloved Clara Callan comes a memorable new novel about first loves, love-after-love, and the end of things, set during summer in Quebec City.

James Hillyer, a retired university professor whose life was evocatively described in Wright’s novel October, is now barely existing after the death of his beloved daughter in her forties. On a whim, he tries to locate the woman he fell in love with so many years ago on a summer trip to Quebec and through the magic of the Internet he is able to find her. But Odette’s present existence seems to be haunted by ghosts from her own past, in particular, the tough ex-con Raoul, with his long-standing grievances and the beginnings of dementia. The collision of past and present leads to violence nobody could have predicted and alters the lives of James and Odette forever.

Nightfall skillfully captures the way in which our past is ever-present in our minds as we grow older, casting its spell of lost loves and the innocent joys of youth over the realities of aging and death. The novel is skillfully grounded in observation, propelled by unforgettable characters, and filled with wisdom about young love and old love. Drawing on the author’s profound understanding of the intimate bonds between men and women, Nightfall is classic Richard B. Wright. 

I found Nightfall to be a very thoughtful and contemplative novel.  I enjoyed the exploration of memory, and the perspective on life offered by both James’ and Odette’s arcs, and the idea that our past and present are never really that far away from one another.   I also found strength in Richard B. Wright‘s portrayal of starting over (and second chances) for his two characters, both who are in their 70s. They have come to their renewed relationship with a lifetime of experiences and hurts (so much baggage!), but also with a hope and optimism for love and happiness at a time when it had not really seemed possible.  (If you have ever experienced the joy of a wonderful summer crush/love, and wondered about that person years later, you might really enjoy the vicarious experience offered by this novel!)

5966127I would love to make one suggestion: if it is not fresh in your mind, or you have not previously read it,  check out Wright’s earlier book October first. It’s a terrific read and very connected to Nightfall!

While Nightfall does totally work as a stand alone read, thanks to the many excerpts from October, I feel I would have had a far deeper appreciation for Wright’s new novel had October been more fresh in my mind. Good intentions, and all that – I had planned a re-read of October, but things didn’t work out to allow me that time near enough to the publication of the new book.

At moments while I was reading Nightfall, I found myself thinking about Elena Ferrante, and her wonderful 4-book series, the Neapolitan Novels, which examines life in various stages, from childhood though adulthood.  It may seem an unusual comparison to some readers, but I feel Wright has the same keen observational skills and heightened sensitivity to the world around him. There are some truly beautiful moments in Nightfall.

Happy reading!