Armchair BEA – Literary Fiction

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a book snob. Sometimes I admit this with embarrassment and sometimes with pride. The truth is I only read literary fiction and the rest is crap. Now that’s not entirely true, sometimes I stray a little and sometimes a book that is literary fiction hits the mainstream (think Life of Pi by Yann Martel).

jetpackSo what is literary fiction? Well, you know it when you see it. The writing is often of a high quality, characters are well developed and in most cases plot is not of primary importance. That’s not to say that there isn’t a plot, just that it may not be that action packed.

The best way to hone in on literary fiction and what it is is to look at the short or long lists for some of the major book prizes. Among my favorites are the Man Booker, Giller, Orange (now the Women’s Prize for Fiction) and Whitbread/ Costa Book Award. Another good place to look is the New York Times List of Notable Books.

Oh yeah, and don’t forget my blog. It is jam packed full of literary fiction.

The Dark by Claire Mulligan

the darkI think The Dark by Claire Mulligan is going to be one of those books we hear a lot about this summer. Already it has received a fair bit of media attention in Canada, probably due to the fact that Mulligan was born in BC (that counts as Canadian, right?). I picked it up largely due to the fact that the story recounts the rise of the Spiritualist movement at the end of the 19th century. Though I don’t know much about it, the rise of spiritualism during this period has always fascinated me. Why did it become so popular at that moment? And why was it so popular among the well to-do classes?

In her story Mulligan focuses on the real-life characters of the Fox sisters – Leah, Maggie and Kate. They have been credited with starting the Spiritualist movement in the USA. However, there are many questions and mysteries in their lives that are left answered by the historical record, and this is where Mulligan so skillfully builds her story. True, Mulligan moves into the realm of unsubstantiated speculation, but that is why The Dark is fiction instead of non-fiction. Scandal plagued the lives of the Fox sisters and that translates into a pretty good yarn.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about The Dark is Mulligan’s use of language. It read as though it was written in the late 19th century. She completely falls into language that we have not used in a century and does it very consistently and convincingly. For me this was a bit much as I am not a fan of the 19th century style of writing and yet I can see her efforts as commendable.

The one real problem I had with The Dark was that it was long. Generally, I love a long novel, but in this case I was just waiting for it to end. In particular, so of the secondary story lines dragged for me. In hindsight I can see why they were necessary, but pushing them along a little more quickly would have been fine with me. Perhaps another reason I found it long is because I am not particularly a fan of historical fiction.

Who would like this book? As I said, I think this book will be talked about a great deal this summer, and I think it is likely that it will become a big book club pick. It has all the necessary ingredients: female protagonists, controversial beliefs, beautiful and skillful prose. The one thing that may make it a little ambitious for a book club is the length, but think of it as a challenge. It is definitely a book that will appeal to those who enjoy historical fiction and good writing. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see it nominated for a number of book awards.

Armchair BEA: Blog Development

Armchair BEA 2A collection of my random thoughts:

Blog development is something I’ve been wrestling with since I started blogging six months ago. I don’t just want followers, I want good followers, followers who care and comment. I know this is going to take time and dedication. I know I have a few followers who faithfully read my recommendations and appreciate what I have to say. They make it worthwhile.

In some ways as a reviewer of literary fiction I feel alone in the blogosphere. So many book blogs are almost fan sites dedicated to YA, fantasy and dystopian novels. As a result, it has taken me time to find like minded bloggers, who are dedicated to literary fiction. (It must be even more lonely if you are focusing exclusively on non fiction!).

Initially, I found Goodreads to be a great way of connecting with other readers. However, since it has been bought by Amazon I have abandoned it. Others I knew stepped back from it at first as well, but now they are drifting back (I think). Does anyone else have philosophic issues with Amazon mining their insights to sell books? I am thinking about switching over to BookVibe or LibraryThing. Does anyone have experience with either one?

As far as advice to offer, here is what I have:

  1. Social Media. It is crucial that you use it. Twitter, Facebook and even GoodReads (grrr) are no brainers. So far I have had problems figuring out how Pintrest can work for me, but that’s just me.
  2. Writing for the screen is different than writing for print. Keep things short and concise. People tend to skim more than read with a deeper and more critical eye. For this reason I like to keep my reviews down to 500 words.
  3. Clutter. A well organized blog is easier to read and will hold attention longer.
  4. Comment. Giving thoughtful comments on other people’s blogs will bring them over to your blog. If you genuinely share and interest, then you will like each others’ blogs.

A Brief Hiatus for Armchair BEA

Armchair BEA 2

Design credit: Sarah of Puss Reboots

I have always longed to go to Book Expo America (BEA) in New York, but alas, it does not seem to be in the cards for me. Instead, this year I am participating in Armchair BEA – not quite like being there, but a close second. As a result, it is unlikely that I will posting reviews this week. Instead I am dedicating my time and space to exploring the world of Armchair BEA.


1. Please tell us about yourself: Who are you? How long have you been blogging? How did you get into blogging?

My blog is fairly new – about 6 months old. I used to work in a bookstore and I miss talking about books all day long. I thought starting a book blog would fill that gap a little and keep me in touch with the world of book.

2. What are you currently reading, or what is your favorite book you’ve read so far in 2013?

Right now I’m reading The Dark by Claire Mulligan. My favorite book of 2013 so far is The Dinner by Hermann Koch. For the most part I read literary fiction and some non fiction.

3. Tell us one non-book-related thing that everyone reading your blog may not know about you.

I bought my first sewing machine last week. It’s purple.

4. Name your favorite blog(s) and why they are your favorite.

Literary Hoarders. We have fairly similar tastes in books and they feel like real people to me, friends even.

5. Where in the world are you blogging from?

I’m in Scotland, but I’m from Canada. I sometimes kind of pretend that I’m still there while I’m blogging.

Passing on the Love – The Liebster Award

liebster awardBefore I was nominated for the Liebster Award, I had never heard of it. But now I know about it and love the idea. It is all about spotlighting new and smaller blogs (less than 200 followers). For me it was great to know that someone other than my mom was out there reading and enjoying my blog.

Now I want to pass that love onto bloggers. It’s harder than it looks to find small, new blogs, but I’ve tried my best. I couldn’t find the metrics for everyone so some may have more than 200 followers. Here goes, 11 blogs with less than 200 followers that I think are awesome (in alphabetical order).

1. Annabel’s House of Books. Annabel has been blogging for longer than most of the bloggers I am recommending. She also posts from across the pong, that is, jolly old England. That is one of the reasons I like her blog so much. It gives a slightly different perspective and a heads up to what is hot over there. A word of caution: her site is undergoing some maintenance right now, but it is still pretty great.

2. Curled Up with a Good Book and a Cup of Tea. I really don’t have a clear idea about how many followers Shan has, but what I do know is that I like her blog. We read the same things and have slightly vegan leanings. It’s all good.

3. The Gilmore Guide to Books. Catherine reads many of the same books as I do, though we don’t always agree on what we think about the books. She doesn’t do sci-fi, YA, vampires and other genre literature, which is fine by me. Her reviews are balanced and insightful. The layout is clean and crisp.

4. Giraffe Days. Shannon reads widely and often. The reason I started reading her is because she has lived all over the world. I find that this gives her a broader perspective and she reads books from all over. Also her header graphic is great.

5. The Indiscriminate Critic. This is one of the first book blogs I started following. The critic is an indiscriminate reader and gives a fair and often thought provoking review of everything he listens to and reads. I have discovered some unlikely books from him.

6. Jules’ Book Reviews. I like bloggers who post frequently and Jules does. She breaks her reviews down into various headings so that you can find what you are looking for fast (like her rating). She also includes a monthly round up of books read and how she is faring in her challenges.

7. Literal Life. Jennifer’s blog not only contains book reviews, but also a fair bit of book related news. Sometimes this comes from large new agencies like the Huffington Post, but sometimes it is comprised of her own book related opinions.

8. Literary Hoarders. This is one blog that I love! Elizabeth, Penny and Jackie are three women with out of control book hoarding issues. They post often so there is always something new to read. They also often read the same books, giving you more than one opinion on a given book. That is something I especially like. I have found more than one hidden gem on their sight. They also sometimes do audio books.

9. The Misanthropologist. Besides having a great blog name, the reviews are pretty good too. She doesn’t always write as often as I would hope, but that is sometimes the case with well thought out reviewers. She often reads things that are news worthy (ie Inferno by Dan Brown) and that gives me an edge on faking that I’ve it.

10. Not My Typewriter. Ok, I’m showing my roots a bit with this one. Not a strictly book review blog, Not My Typewriter is quite often about Hamilton, Ontario and therefore may not be of interest to all. The photographs she includes, however, are stunning. She presents a picture of Steel Town that is quite different from what you are used to. Oh yeah, and she loves books.

11. Reading In Bed. I am a rather new follower of Laura. One thing she does on her blog that I think is a really neat idea is that she pairs books together with music. She’s also taking part in a Moby Dick read-a-long.

Born Weird by Andrew Kaufman

born weirdWhen I lived in India my friend and I believed that you either liked Rohinton Mistry (me) or Salman Rushdie (him). It was just another way of saying either you liked magic realism or you didn’t. I did not. That is why I have never read Andrew Kaufman before. I’ve heard him speak at various functions and gatherings and found him engaging and witty, but I couldn’t ever temporarily suspend my disbelief to give one of his novels a try … until now. Born Weird is wonderful, but you likely know that already because I have not seen one bad or even lukewarm review of it.

Born Weird is a simple story, a family saga. Angie is summoned to her grandmother’s deathbed to gather her siblings together for the grandmother’s death. You see, the grandmother, at each child’s birth, endowed them with a ‘blurse’ (a blessing/ curse). At the time of her death she wishes to relieve them all of their burden. It has been eight years since the siblings last saw one another, but Angie travels the country picking each one up along the way. Unusual happenings plague her journey. Some might call them coincidences, but not a Weird. Early on in the novel Grandma Weird declares,

Until you realize that coincidences don’t exist, your life will be filled with them … Everywhere you look there coincidences will be. Coincidence! Coincidence! Coincidence! But the moment you accept that there is not such thing, they will disappear forever and you will never encounter another.

I thoroughly enjoyed Born Weird in spite of the tidbits of magic realism (or coincidences?) that enter the story here and there. They are consistent with the over all tone and purpose of the story and do not overshadow the plot or characters in any way. RandomHouse has done a particularly good job in packaging the book. Each chapter is headed with a small illustration of a crown, shark, camera or some such thing as on the cover shown above. It’s a small thing, but it ties the work together.

Who would like this book? Born Weird is a quick, fun and entertaining read. It was nominated for the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour in 2013, so that lets you know the caliber of the writing and the level of the wit. It is also a truly Canadian novel, as the Weirds journey the breadth of Canada from the east coast to the west. From that point of view, it would be well suited to read during a great Canadian car trip. The focus on family could put it in a position to be compared to The Family Fang, though Born Weird isn’t nearly so dark. Overall, I would highly recommend Born Weird for a nice, quick summertime read (ideally read while lazing in a hammock with drink in hand).

The Leibster Award and Me

liebster awardCan I just say that I am thrilled, honored and shocked to be nominated for the Liebster Award. A huge thanks goes out to Katie at Doing Dewey for the nomination. To be completely honest, I had never heard of the Liebster Award until Katie (a complete stranger) came along, but now I am pretty excited about it.

The Liebster Award is an award passed on by bloggers to new blogs (less than 200 followers) worth reading.

Recipients of the Liebster Award must:

  1. List 11 Random Facts about you
  2. Answer the questions that were asked of you (By the blogger that nominated you)
  3. Nominate 11 other blogs for the Liebster Blog Award and Link to their Blogs
  4. Notify the bloggers of their award.
  5. Ask the award winners 11 questions to answer once they accept the award

11 Random Facts About Me:

  1. I’m pretty sure I was a cat in a past life and will likely be one in a future life. I’m just really good at sleeping.
  2. I can’t resist milk chocolate.
  3. I never finished my PhD even though I often claim that I did.
  4. I love to travel.
  5. I can’t not finish a book I’ve started no matter how much I dislike it.
  6. Besides English (duh!), I can speak French and Hindi.
  7. I don’t like meat other than bacon.
  8. Five year plans are impossible for me. I change my mind way too often.
  9. I just bought my first sewing machine. It’s purple.
  10. Every night at about  5:30 I wonder what in the world we will have for dinner.
  11. I hate taking showers.

Answers to Katie’s Questions:

1. How did you get started blogging?

Way, way back in the dark ages (2001) I had a blog about doing my PhD. It was a great way to procrastinate. When I abandoned my PhD, I abandoned my blog. I sort of thought blogs were passe until I was interning at HarperCollins Canada. After I moved to Edinburgh I wasn’t working for the first time and I thought that doing a blog would be a great way to keep in touch with the Canadian publishing industry and document my reading. So six months later, here I am.

2. Do you have a favorite genre?

Yes. Literary fiction. But really, I like anything that is well written. And I have a strong bias against YA and vampires.

3. What was the last thing you read, watched and listened to?

Born Weird by Andrew Kaufman, the season finale of Survivor and a podcast of This American Life.

4. What are your hobbies?

Reading goes without saying, as does writing. Also gardening and my new attempts at sewing.

5. Of the books you have read this year, which is your favorite?

Umm, that’s a toughy. Let’s go with Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann.

6. Where would you go for a dream vacation?

Probably Morocco.

7. Are you a cat person or a dog person?


8. Do you always match your socks?

No. I do well just to make it out the door most mornings.

9. Do you prefer chocolate or vanilla?

Chocolate. I don’t even know why vanilla exists.

10. E-book or hard copy?

Tough question. I do love a hard copy, and I love the way books look on shelves, but I would have to say e-book because I move a lot.

11. Do you play an instrument? If so, which one?

No. I am terribly unmusical.

A Dual Inheritance by Joanna Hershon

a dual inheritanceA Dual Inheritance by Joanna Hershon is a big book. At first it appears to be a rather simple story of two unlikely friends during their university years, but as the story proceeds it grows into much more. It spans two generations of two families and deals primarily with issues of money: how to get it and if you have it how it determines your life path. The perspective on money is quite unusual. For those who have it in spades it is almost seen as a limiting factor. The moneyed are expected to go to certain schools, have certain interests and work in certain fields, such as law, finance or medicine. But what happens when one steps outside of these prescribed roles?

However, A Dual Inheritance is more than just a university novel, a good chunk of it is set in for away places. In addition to good old America, parts of the narrative are set in Africa and Haiti. I am a sucker for stories about people in foreign places so this really appealed to me. In some ways it may have detracted from the major trajectory of the novel, but I think Hershon is a skillful enough writer to keep things in check.

Who would like this book? A Dual Inheritance has been compared to both The Marriage Plot and Rules of Civility. For me, these comparisons do not hold up. But having said that, I do not know what I would compare it too. Like The Marriage Plot, A Dual Inheritance takes place in an university setting for at least half the story. Aside from that I would argue that they are very different sorts of novels. I do highly recommend A Dual Inheritance. It took me some time to get into, perhaps 100 pages, but it was worth it. It will go down as one of my memorable books of 2013.

Dark Diversions by John Ralston Saul

dark-diversionsI am almost ashamed to admit that I have never read anything by John Ralston Saul before. Not his early novels, not his philosophical trilogy, nothing. So when I saw Dark Diversions at the library, I had to pick it up. I don’t really know what I was expecting from Saul, but this was not it. Dark Diversions is billed as a novel, but in essence is really more a set of loosely linked stories. It is unlikely that this would prove an issue for anyone other than me, but I have an unexplainable dislike of short stories. I think I was also expecting something a little denser and philosophical from Saul.

At its heart Dark Diversions is about the rich people of the world. I don’t mean well off or middle class people, but the truly rich. In each story or chapter our unnamed narrator happens to be visiting rich friends and acquaintances in far flung corners of the world. That some of these include dictators, political elites and fading aristocrats, as well as the new rich intrigued me. I thought we were going to get a taste of some of what Saul saw as the husband of the erstwhile Governor General of Canada, Adrienne Clarkson. I thought we were going to get something that was more overtly political.

Instead, the arc of the novel is more about how our narrator increasingly inserts himself into narrative. He starts out the novel being rather objective and hands off in his recounting of the facts. By the end of the novel his is thoroughly embroiled in the lives of those he is visiting. This gentle progression is pierced midway through the novel with a moment of self exploration or realization on the part of the narrator. He questions whether or not the writer is in fact the same person as the narrator. How are we to know either way?

Frankly, being stuck where I am, between the writer and you, is unpleasant and uncomfortable. I didn’t ask for the job. It’s not as we were soulmates, the author and I. For one thing, he is tall and thin. He eats like a pig and never gains a pound. I’m medium and have to watch my weight… I’ll tell you this much – I write better than him and faster.

Who would like this book? I am at a bit of a loss to say definitively who would like this book. It really did not leave much of an impression on me either way. It was just there. The writing, of course, is supreme, but we expect that from Saul. Obviously, any die hard fan of Saul’s other writings will be interested in reading Dark Diversions, but beyond that who is this novel meant for? It is not especially, or even remotely, ‘Canadian’ and I thought it might be. It does not court controversy and I thought it might.

VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 by Mark Bittman

vb6Full disclosure before I start this review, so you get where I’m coming from: 1/ I love Mark Bittman, long time food writer at the NYTimes and 2/ I was a briefly a vegan and I’m married to one. This style of eating does not scare me.

The basic premise of VB6 is that you eat vegan before 6pm, or whatever time you set for yourself. After that you can eat what you want and you will have a more healthy diet and loose weight. The impetus for Bittman’s approach was a trip to a doctor and numbers that he did not like to see. His cholesterol was high and he was pre-diabetic. His doctor suggested he go vegan – Bittman’s high numbers were due to dietary issues. Going vegan whole hog was not something Bittman thought he could do, especially given that he is a food writer, so he came up with a compromise – vegan before 6pm.

The main problem I have with Bittman’s approach is that he only goes halfway. He lets you slip up and make mistakes. He believes it is better for your body and the planet to move towards a plant-based diet, while still allowing room for treats. I speak from experience when I say this approach is very hard to maintain. I was a vegan who allowed occasional slip ups and look at me now, I’m not even a vegetarian. My husband, on the other hand, was 100% dedicated to a life style change driven by health concerns and 2 years later he remains a vegan.

That is not to say that VB6 is not filled with valuable information. In fact, explaining the biology behind what we eat is one of Bittman’s strong points. He lays out how different foods are processed by the body, giving you the information you need to make informed decisions. As with any diet that is premised on lifestyle change, Bittman argues for eating more plant-based food that is not highly processed. Simply put, that means nothing pre-packaged and nothing that you can’t pronounce. It means eating whole grains over processed grains, cutting down on sugars and turning towards legumes and tofu as major sources of protein.

The final portion of VB6 is dedicated to recipes. Not only does Bittman provide vegan recipes, but he also includes a wealth of recipes that use meat as a garnish. Those are there to help guide the reader in their after 6pm meals. Perhaps because I cook vegan meals on a daily basis I found many of his selections to be on the boring side. The key to eating vegan for me is good, tasty and exciting food. I’m not sure if he provides that, though Bittman certainly provides an easy step into vegan cuisine for the reluctant cook.

Who would like this book? VB6 is clearly meant for an audience who is already poised to make a significant change to their dietary lifestyle. That does not necessarily mean becoming a full fledged vegan, but more moving towards a plant-based diet. It is choke full of informative material that would be of use to anyone who is interested in cleaning up their diet and understanding what we need to eat in order to function. If going vegan is your thing, I would recommend something by Dr. Neal Barnard, such as 21-DayWeight Loss Kickstart (this awful title is clearly aimed at those who are prone to serial dieting, rather than seeing it as a lifestyle change). In the last few years an abundance of really good vegan cookbooks have come out as well.