Friday, August 31, 2012


Congratulations to....Entry #152: CHRIS B.!! You've won a copy of Gold, by Chris Cleave!

Thank-you to everyone who entered and keep checking back for more giveaways in September 2012.

Thursday, August 30, 2012


Just a reminder, only a FEW HOURS left to enter to win GOLD by Chris Cleave!!

Codley and the Big Storm: Together We Can!, by Lisl Fair and Michaela Grace (illustrations by Ismedy Prasetya)

Lisl Fair is back with another Codley adventure (my daughter is still hoping for a followup to her Lexi Fairheart story). This time Codley the octopus and his friends must rebuild Codley's home in a shipwreck when a storm on the ocean surface causes havoc on the ocean floor (not sure how realistic that is--does that actually happen?). Each of the various sea creatures helps with the cleanup in their own way. The manta rays, for instance, are very good at sweeping up debris. The book is cute and has a clear message about cooperation. Plus it shows a number of sea creatures exercising their unique talents which young children are sure to enjoy.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

UPDATE: A Hundred Flowers, by Gail Tsukiyama (audiobook narrated by Simon Vance)

Buy Now on
Buy Now on
Thanks to the folks at Macmillan Audio, I have an audio clip to share from the audiobook edition of A Hundred Flowers, by Gail Tsukiyama. Thanks Macmillan! Scroll down after the jump to hear the clip and to read my original review of the book. But here are my thoughts on the audio version:

An audiobook narration can make or break a story for me. A good narrator can elevate the story and bring it to life but a poor one can ruin my entire enjoyment of the book. That's why I rarely listen to an audiobook unless I've already read the text. I don't want to miss out on a fantastic story because I couldn't sit through the audio narration. Luckily, I had nothing to worry about when I saw that Simon Vance was the narrator for A Hundred Flowers from Macmillan Audio. I absolutely love Simon Vance! 
Simon Vance, looking very British and proper...
or well, British and casual, I guess
(Source: IMDb)

I first heard him when I listened to the audiobook of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale. It was the first time I had read anything by Ms. Summerscale and I was unprepared for the level of detail and disparate references and asides she includes in her non-fiction. When I started the book, I was a little lost in the barrage of information. I may not have continued on if I hadn't discovered it in audio format, read by Simon Vance. His narration provided a focus and helped me keep track of the story being told, rather than getting lost in all the footnotes. I felt like he was simply telling me a story, albeit a complicated one, and because of that I stuck with the book and Kate Summerscale is now one of my favourite writers. Such is the power of truly outstanding narration. It's often his voice I hear when I read other stories set in Victorian England (he would be perfect for the narration of Alex Grecian's The Yard!).

Having said that, I wasn't sure what to expect with this audiobook. I mean, A Hundred Flowers is about China under Chairman Mao in the 1950's. It's certainly NOT about Victorian England. I wasn't picturing Simon Vance's upper class British accent when I read it. If anything, I was picturing the voice of Joan Chen, the actress who also narrated some of Amy Tan's novels (like The Bonesetter's Daughter, which was fantastic). I was definitely picturing a woman. But, as I've stressed, I LOVE Simon Vance, so I was more than willing to go in with an open mind.

Simon Vance did not disappoint. Sure, the novel took on a different tone than what I was picturing when I first read the text, but I didn't mind that. If anything, it actually made me appreciate the male characters a little more than I originally had. It does feel like an "outsider looking in" because he's so very British, but he still does the story justice and is fantastic to listen to, as always. He handles the different character voices deftly, without overacting or adding too much affectation (one of my pet peeves with audiobooks is when the narrator tries too hard to distinguish the characters' voices by making some of them sound cartoonish). Overall, it's lovely and compelling, just like the book.

Hit the jump to listen to a clip, available from Macmillan Audio, and to read my original review of A Hundred Flowers.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Too sick to blog, but also less than a week left of the giveaway

You may have noticed that Cozy Little Book Journal has been fairly quiet lately. Well, in addition to it being a crazy busy August for me, I also have a flu that's making me cranky and unwilling to leave my bed, even to blog. But I thought I'd crawl out from under my blankets and fans (how is it so hot and so cold at the same time??) to remind you that there is less than a week left of the August giveaway: Gold, by Chris Cleave. So click on the "WIN GOLD" tab to enter! (I'd link it, but I'm on my way back to bed.) I'll be back soon, I promise!!

BONUS: Can you name the book that the above picture comes from?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Time Keeper, by Mitch Albom

Buy Now on
Buy Now on

The Time Keeper is a fable about time and what it means in our lives. There was a time before clocks, before sundials, before we divided our days and our lives into measured divisions, yet we still felt that we needed more time--maybe not in hours and minutes but in moments. Mitch Albom's latest book follows the lives of three individuals who are all affected by time. The first is Dor, the now immortal inventor of the first time keeper who has become Father Time. He cannot escape the curse of his own immortality until he faces the cries of those most affected by his invention of time. He focuses on Victor--a wealthy and terminally ill man who wants to freeze his body so he can outlive death, so he can have more time to live--and Sarah, a suicidal teenager who is ready to take her own life because she can't live with the mistakes and torments of high school cruelty. The three stories are told in a series of fleeting moments that finally intersect and connect in an instant of frozen time. The story is mythical, lyrical and fleeting, like looking through a peephole into someone's life and seeing in a glimpse everything you need to know. I loved it. It reminded me of Albom's other works, particularly The Five People You Meet in Heaven, but even more than that it reminded me of one of my favourite books, Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams. It's lovely.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Destined to Play: An Avalon Novel, by Indigo Bloome

Buy Now on
Buy Now on

Dr. Alexandra Blake is an academic, a wife and a mother. When the opportunity arises to spend time away from her family giving a series of out-of-town lectures, she is excited for the adventure. But the real adventure comes when she ends up spending the weekend with Dr. Jeremy Quinn, a colleague and former lover. He entices her to spend forty-eight hours with him, completely under his control. The result is an erotic novel marketed for fans of Fifty Shades of Grey.

To be fair, I haven't read Fifty Shades so I can't make comparisons. I know that the Fifty Shades series is hugely popular, despite being criticized for poor writing. That doesn't surprise me, since people continue to enjoy other forms of erotica (like, uh, films) despite notoriously bad writing. So when I started reading Destined to Play, I was prepared to reserve judgement for things like repetitive speech, odd word choices ("knickerless arse"), and silly expressions ("hot with a capital H!") as long as the book itself fulfilled its goal of being "erotic."

And I suppose it places. When we first encounter Dr. Jeremy Quinn he's going on about how little research there is on the female orgasm (which isn't true--apparently he hasn't heard of the Kinsey Institute) so it's clear that his "psychological research" is going to be sexual in nature. Soon he has Alexandra blindfolded and at his mercy. Despite the setup, the results are pretty mild. Alexandra spends as much time being annoyed as she does being turned on, which made it seem less erotic for me. Plus, she's cheating on her husband and the father of her kids which--for me--makes her less likeable.

The second half of the book takes a more "clinical" turn which I enjoyed in places, even if it was a bit strange. When Dr. Quinn starts going on about the evolutionary properties of people with AB blood type (a nonsense notion based on the naturopathic "blood type diet") it's hard to keep taking the premise seriously, even a little. 

So it's silly, mild and somewhat erotic. It's a book you could easily skim and just linger on the parts you find most appealing and skip over the other parts without worrying that you're missing anything.

Disclaimer: I received a digital galley of this book free from Edelweiss (Above the Tree Line). I was asked to write an honest review, though not necessarily a favourable one. The opinions expressed are strictly my own.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The End of Sunshine Street, by Johanna Constance Hunt

Buy Now on
Buy Now on

If there's one thing more difficult than creating a great literary hero, it's creating a great literary anti-hero: a protagonist who is morally corrupt, who the reader may actively root against, yet who remains compelling and relevant. Unfortunately, Johanna Constance Hunt's debut novel, The End of Sunshine Street, doesn't quite deliver in that department.

Judy Haite is a middle-aged wife, physical therapist and possible sociopath. She has fond memories of her childhood and maintains active friendships with her neighbours, even opening her home up to several family members of one neighbour after a hurricane hits their Palm Beach community. Yet she claims to be virtually incapable of making real human connection. The term "loved one" makes her laugh because she can't conceive of loving anyone, not even her husband, Sam. She is, at times, generous to a fault--putting up with verbal abuse from ungrateful guests in the name of hospitality--and at other times so selfish that it stretches credulity--disregarding others' physical and emotional safety completely if it means avoiding even the slightest personal discomfort.

But therein lies the problem.

A Fatal Twist of Lemon: Wisteria Tearoom Mysteries Vol1, by Patrice Greenwood

Buy Now on
Buy Now on

Ellen Rosings is the slightly fussy owner of a Victorian tearoom in Sante Fe, New Mexico, who finds herself thrust into the role of amateur sleuth when a woman is murdered in her dining room. I say "slightly fussy" because she agonizes over what her staff should call her because she doesn't want them to address her by her first name, claiming she cannot give in to "modern casualness," and also because she is irritated when police officers intrude on her tearoom to investigate the murder because "cops like coffee" and therefore cannot possibly understand anything that goes on in the world of tea, even a murder. A Fatal Twist of Lemon has all of the elements of a standard cozy mystery: a female amateur sleuth, an unusual murder weapon (the victim is strangled with her own strand of lemon agate heishi beads), Victorian fussiness and, of course, tea. Some of my favourite cozies are ones that involve tea and tearooms. This one is certainly good enough to check all of the boxes of things I look for in the genre, but there are a few things that I think could have made it great, instead of just good. 

First of all, the murder takes place in the first few pages. There is absolutely no preamble or setup. I prefer a little lead up to the murder, a chance to care about the characters, to anticipate the murder, to get to know the main character who will eventually do all the "sleuthing," and a little scene setting so I can try to guess who the killer might be. This book had none of that, and I really felt the lack of it. I had a hard time connecting to the characters or caring enough about the murder to want to see it solved.

Second, the murder weapon is a heishi necklace, which is probably ubiquitous in New Mexico, where the story takes place, but is not something that evokes an immediate image in my own head. I had to look it up to find out what a "heishi necklace" even was. So I think a lot more description would have been helpful.

Hit the jump for a picture of an example of heishi beads...

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Falstaff's Big Gamble: A Strange Worlds Story, by Hank Quense

Buy Now on
When I was younger I set a goal for myself that I would read all of Shakespeare's plays before the time I was forty. There's still time, but I'm nowhere near that goal. Is it wrong that I'm considering amending that goal to just reading all of Hank Quense's Shakespeare parodies instead? This book was so fun! It included just enough references to Shakespearean characters that I felt smart just for getting them, but it was a fun stand-alone tale that could be enjoyed with no prior literary knowledge, provided you're willing to give yourself over to a little whimsical absurdity.

Differentiation That Really Works: Math (Grades 6-12): Strategies from Real Teachers for Real Classrooms, by Cheryll M. Adams, Ph.D. and Rebecca L. Pierce, Ph.D.

For this review I defer to the professional opinion of my partner Mike, who is a substitute teacher for grades 6-12 and often has to take over classrooms with students of vastly different skill levels, usually with very little notice.

Mike: This book is really written with teachers in mind. I recognize a lot of strategies as being applicable to the Maine Learning Results (where I did my degree) but also easily adapted to the Nova Scotia Provincial Outcomes (where I teach now). The contract with the student, in particular, could be used to reflect whatever academic goals were required.

Oceana: A Love Story, c.c. lindh

Buy Now on
Buy Now on

Oceana: A Love Story is not a typical novella. It's somewhere between a love letter and a poem, with lyric, often deliberately repetitive, prose that mimics the movement of the ocean tides.

The story is about Oceana, a middle-aged surfer and former model who supports herself by making wax for surfboards, and Guy, a pro-golfer. The two meet and fall in love, rocky at first (a little) and then deeply and comfortably, only to discover that Oceana is not entirely well.

Sword Mountain, by Nancy Yi Fan

Buy Now on
Buy Now on

What an absolutely charming and delightful book! I originally entered a giveaway to win this book (thanks Goodreads!) because the cover art looked fantastic and I figured I could give it to my daughter when she's older. I still will, but now I think I'll tell her she's "borrowing Mommy's copy." Nancy Yi Fan has created a world of sentient birds living--and warring--atop a mountain kingdom. The golden eagles from the mountaintop look down upon (literally and figuratively) the valley eagles. The eagle owls threaten to disrupt the eagles' rule (they can attack at night!). And a golden eagle prince brings shame to his family when he reveals he'd rather be a songbird. 

All Sales Fatal: A Mall Cop Mystery, by Laura Disilverio

Buy Now on
Buy Now on

Sometimes when I'm picking out a new cozy mystery, I choose one because it looks so ridiculous, not despite that. The cover of this "mall copy mystery" shows a tableau of a deflated Easter Bunny costume lying on the floor in front of stores that include "Legendary Lola's Cookies" and "Fernglen Fuzzy Friends." How could I NOT read it? 
Still, if I was going to make it past page 25, I was going to have to do some serious suspension of disbelief. 

First of all, do I believe that a mall in Vernonville, Virginia (which I think is fictional?), would be able to afford to hire former military police and decorated veterans to work as mall security (at what I assume would be a salary much higher than mall cops make where I'm from) AND have them drive around on Segways (Segways? Seriously??) but would not be able to have working security cameras due to budgetary constraints? How about lose the SEGWAYS?! Also, is there really a major Mexican gang war going on in this mid-size town in Virginia? Does seeing anyone wearing red, green or white (or is it all three at once?) really send panic into the hearts of these quiet Virginians? It just seemed a bit of a stretch to me. 

But like I said, if I was going to get through this book I was going to have to shut off the part of my brain that asked these questions (or had been to a mall). 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Thy Neighbor, by Norah Vincent

Buy Now on
Buy Now on

I'm surprised more reviews of this book don't start with "I didn't finish this book." I know I almost didn't. It isn't that it isn't good, it's that the beginning is SO hard to get into. At least it was for me, mostly because of the main character/narrator, Nick.

Nick Walsh is possibly the least heroic character in recent literary memory. His back story reads like the origin story of a superhero. His parents died in a gory murder-suicide, leaving him behind to live in their family home and wallow in his grief. Except that a superhero would have wrapped up his wallowing at some point and become a vigilante do-gooder, bent on justice. Nick spends a decade as an aimless boozehound whose self-obsessed ramblings read like the early drafts of a graduate thesis about himself.

He eventually turns to his own kind of vigilantism in the form of wire-tapping his neighbour's houses and listening to their conversations. Not surprisingly he discovers some scandalous things about his neighbours but he's not exactly Batman. He's still just a dickhead determined to make his life as meaningless as possible.

I'm still not sure how to feel about this book. Sure the plot wraps up in ways that are skillful and, from a literary standpoint, I want to say that the "ends justify the means." But do they? The character of Nick Walsh does discover secrets about his parents' deaths by listening to his neighbors, but I'm not sure that's enough for me to get over how unlikable he is at the start of the novel. 

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher through GoodReads and NetGalley in exchange for an honest (though not necessarily favourable) review. The opinions expressed are strictly my own.

Road to Valor: A True Story of World War II Italy, the Nazis, and the Cyclist Who Inspired a Nation, by Aili and Andres McConnon

Buy Now on
Buy Now on

If there's one thing I learned from watching the 2012 Olympic Games it's that every athlete has a story. Some have overcome personal tragedies to train for their sport. Others come from war torn countries to which it may not be safe for them to return. Still others have no country at all but have come to the Olympics in the spirit of international competition.

For Gino Bartali, the international competition was not the Olympics but the Tour de France. And the war torn country he came form was Italy during World War II. Bartali won the Tour de France twice--once before the war in 1938 and again after the war in 1948--earning him a place in history as the cyclist with the longest time span between victories. But what made him an Italian hero and an international inspiration was not just his racing ability. It was how he used that ability in the time between his victories. Although he didn't identify as a "political man" Bartali used his speed and skill to help smuggle counterfeit documents for Italian Jews who were in danger without them due to Italy's Racial Laws and the Nazi occupation. His actions undoubtedly saved lives.

 "Medaglia d’Oro al Merito Civile" for Gino Bartali, posthumously conferred by the President of the Italian Republic on April 25, 2005
Road to Valor is personal, inspiring, heart-wrenching and strangely uplifting. It's a story of personal triumph, of doing what seems impossible by sheer force of will. But more importantly it's the story of humanity, of doing what is right int he face of seemingly insurmountable oppression. 

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program in exchange for an honest (though not necessarily favourable) review. The opinions expressed are strictly my own.

You Be Sweet: Sharing Your Heart One Down-Home Dessert at a Time, by Patsy Caldwell (recipes) and Amy Lyles Wilson (stories)

Buy Now on
Buy Now on

"You be sweet," advised Amy Lyles Wilson's mother, a piece of universally applied wisdom that could indicate that her daughter should play nicely with others, introduce herself to new neighbours, or volunteer in her community. It wasn't just about behaviour but about attitude. Likewise, You Be Sweet: Sharing Your Heart One Down-Home Dessert at at Time isn't just about food. It's about how we use food to strengthen our communities. The Southern-inspired dessert recipes (which look like heaven on a plate!) are arranged not by type but by event. A section entitled "Sip and See the Baby" offers ideas for what to bring for an afternoon visit or a baby shower.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

I Know I Am, But What Are You? by Samantha Bee

Can we just all agree that celebrity memoirs MUST include photos? No exceptions! Yes, I know that some celebrities write funny books that aren't strictly memoirs but rather books of funny sayings or jokes (like Ellen Degeneres' My Point...And I Do Have One) and maybe they don't need photos. But for everyone else: INCLUDE PHOTOS! At the low end of the spectrum of celebrity memoir photos are those tiny, grainy black-and-white photos that you pulled off your phone (Mindy Kaling) or from your blog (Jenny Lawson), usually interspersed within the text. These are only okay, but they're better than nothing. At the high end of the celebrity memoir photo spectrum are those multi-page inserts (or even two or three separate inserts!) of glossy colour photos from the author's childhood, early years and--of course--fabulous celebrity life. Those are the best. You know what's NOT on the spectrum? NO PHOTOS AT ALL! Not even on the spectrum, Samantha Bee!

There, I'm glad I got that off my chest.

Otherwise, though, Samantha Bee's book is very funny. It's a proper memoir, with childhood stories, tales of teen rebellion and doomed relationship details. If it only had PICTURES it would have been fantastic! I learned that she has a slightly checkered past, which included some light auto theft as a teen, and that she and husband Jason Jones did NOT meet on The Daily Show as I had assumed, but when they were both cast in a live action travelling Sailor Moon show in Ontario. Wow!

I also really liked that she didn't edit out all the Canadian references, like eating Timbits and shopping at The Running Room. Yay Canada! I GET those references, Samantha!

Though I feel compelled to mention that my favourite Canadian female Daily Show correspondent did include one interesting photo in her book...or at least on the inside back cover. Behold her (naked) author photo:

Saturday, August 11, 2012

A Hundred Flowers, by Gail Tsukiyama

Buy Now on
Buy Now on
In 1956 Chairman Mao declared that China should, "let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend," ostensibly to promote a new liberation of thought in China. One year later this policy was abruptly changed to include "re-education camps" for those who expressed thought that opposed the regime. Gail Tsukiyama's novel, A Hundred Flowers, explores the way in which one family was torn apart by these re-education camps.  

The Pleasures of Men, by Kate Williams

Buy Now on
Buy Now on

London 1840. A madman is murdering young women, cutting them open and stuffing hair into their mouths to resemble a beak, prompting him to be known as The Man of Crows. This is before the Ripper murders rocked Whitechapel. This is before Sir Robert Peel's police force (or "bobbies") have started patrolling the streets. London's East End is running scared and anyone could be the next victim. Women are told to stay off the streets and not to go anywhere at night, especially not alone.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012


Enter to win GOLD by CHRIS CLEAVE!!
To celebrate the London 2012 Olympics, Cozy Little Book Journal is giving away one copy of Gold, by Chris Cleave (you can read my review here).

Gold tells the story of two world class cyclists, two women who have been friends and rivals since they were teens, training for London 2012, their last Olympics. One is worried that she'll lose her lucrative endorsement deals. The other is worried that she'll lose her child. From the author of Little BeeGold is Chris Cleave's most compelling novel to date!

Enter below and GOOD LUCK!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

I Suck at Girls, by Justin Halpern (audiobook narrated by Sean Schemmel)

Buy Now on
Buy Now on

Like his previous book, Sh*t My Dad Says, Justin Halpern's writing in I Suck at Girls is funny, heartwarming and really shines when he's describing his father's salty wisdom. My only complaint is that narrator Sean Schemmel seems to think that everything he needed to know about audiobook narration he learned from watching South Park. His character voices are so ripped from South Park that it borders on copyright infringement. But his characterization of Justin Halpern's dad is worth the price of admission.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa, by R.A. Scotti (audiobook narrated by Kathe Mazur)

Buy Now on
Buy Now on

The theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911 from the Louvre in Paris is a fascinating story. It revealed the shocking lack of security at one of the world's most prominent museums. It amplified the public's hunger for great art and for scandal. It agitated the already heated contemporary debate over what constitutes "great art." It implicated many parties in the scandal, including Pablo Picasso. And it solidified the Mona Lisa's place as the world's most famous painting.

Unfortunately, all of these facts take up only a few chapters at the beginning and the end of Vanished Smile. The rest of the book is a seemingly endless barrage of facts and conjecture about the painting itself: how it was painted, who its subject might be, how it has been received and appraised over the years. These matters have been handled--and more deftly at that --by so many previous authors that I wished Scotti had condensed them and focused on the theft itself, even if it made for a shorter book.

Just a note on the narration: Kathe Mazur does a lovely job. Her voice is clear and even, and contains just the right balance between enthusiasm and professional detachment. The way she pronounced "Leonardo" bugged me a bit, but that's a minor detail. I would definitely seek out audiobooks read by her in the future.

The Street Sweeper, by Elliot Perlman

Buy Now on
Buy Now on
Leaving no blank unfilled, Elliot Perlman unambiguously tells readers exactly what they should think and feel with characters who communicate almost entirely through a series of lectures. There's Adam Zignelik, a history professor and son of civil rights lawyer, who, when not busy delivering lectures, spends his time thinking back fondly on lectures he has heard in the past. There's Lamont Williams, who has just gotten out of jail and would be the most sympathetic character (read: the one who delivers the fewest lectures) if it weren't for the fact that he spends most of his time being lectured. And I don't mean this in the colloquial sense of "lecturing" as in "speaking down to in order to correct behaviour." I mean these characters deliver pedantic, heavy-handed educational essays to one another on every page, like they're in a university classroom (and often they are). Elliot Perlman wants us to care deeply about racism and injustice, but he doesn't seem to be able to leave anything up to the readers' interpretation. These characters did not stay with me when I closed the book, because there wasn't anything left unsaid, nothing left to linger. Everything I was meant to think and feel about these characters was written on the page. It's a novel with passion and a point of view (and how!) but with very little art or poetry. Perlman demands little of his reader other than

Tigers in Red Weather, by Liza Klaussmann

Buy Now on
Buy Now on
Nick Derringer and her cousin Helena grew up spending their summers at their family beach house in Martha's Vineyard, dubbed Tiger House. During the Second World War, the pair toughed it out together, using ration books to buy food and painting lines onto the backs of each other's legs when they couldn't get nylons. When the war ended Nick resumed her married life as her husband Hughes returned from war. Her normal, boring, married life. Nick was convinced she was destined for so much more. Helena, on the other hand, longed for nothing but a normal, boring life. When the war ended she married her second husband, Avery Lewis, who moved her to Hollywood and continued to follow his own dreams, or perhaps obsessions. When the cousins return to Tiger House in 1959, each with an adolescent child in tow, their lives are irreparably altered when their children--Daisy and Ed--discover a body near Tiger House, the victim of a grisly murder.

The story is told from each of the characters' perspectives separately, skipping back and forth from the 1940's, 1950's and 1960's (although each chapter is clearly labelled with the date and character, so there's no confusion whose version of events one is reading). It's not a mystery, though some mysteries are certainly revealed. It's more like a portrait of a family, one that reveals hints of darkness beneath an otherwise pleasant facade. It's a slice of upper middle class American life on the brink of the 1960's, with secrets bubbling just below the surface and everyone struggling to assert themselves within the confines of "normal" suburban life.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Book of Vice: Very Naughty Things (and How to Do Them), by Peter Sagal

Buy Now on
Buy Now on
I was introduced to this book by my partner Mike and, while I didn't love it as much as he did, it is pretty cute. The author is an NPR host (and he writes like one...he's very academic and square, but in a nice way) who has decided to see how "the other half" lives, if the other half is comprised of sex addicts, gluttons and gamblers. He visits sex clubs, swingers clubs, high stakes casinos, ultra gourmet restaurants, usually with his wife in tow (including to the sex clubs). The result is an oddly quaint account of the world of naughtiness in which Sagal and his wife come off less as prudes and more as just very nice people who have no idea how they came to find themselves being propositioned by swingers or asked to sample food made entirely out of flavoured air. The conclusion is equally sweet, that all of us are really just looking for the same thing: a happy life. But for most of us, Sagal concludes, it's perfectly okay if our quest for happiness involves more movies on the couch with a loved one than kinky wife-swapping leather clubs.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken: From the Files of Vish Puri, India's Most Private Investigator, by Tarquin Hall

Buy Now on
Vish Puri is a lovable, weight-conscious, gourmand private detective in Delhi who will solve any crime, big or small. Someone has cut off the whiskers of the man with India's longest moustache? Vish is on the case. The father of a professional cricket player is poisoned at a VIP dinner? Vish can handle that too.

I've been struggling to describe the quirky and delightful tone Tarquin Hall achieves in this book. It's like Slumdog Millionaire meets Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. No, not quite. It's like Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency meets Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger. Closer. Actually it's like a cozy amateur sleuth mystery, the kind with the busybody lady who drinks tea and solves murders in her small Southern town. Except replace "busybody lady" with "busybody private detective" and "small Southern town" with "Delhi, India" and "drinks tea", actually there's still tea. But there's also naan and betel nut and masala and butter chicken. Not to mention international scandals, illegal gambling, blood diamond trading and secret operatives known only by code names. And yet, it's still cozy!

My Year of Flops: The A.V. Club Presents One Man's Journey Deep into the Heart of Cinematic Failure, by Nathan Rabin

Buy Now on
Buy Now on

Nathan Rabin writes movie reviews for the website The A.V. Club, a sister site to The Onion. And over the past few years his mission has been specifically to review movies that, for all intents and purposes, are flops. Movies that were box office poison, that cost a ridiculous amount to make but brought in next to nothing, movies that were uniformly panned by critics or reviled by audiences. Movies that everyone--except for perhaps a small cult following--agreed were just plain bad. His goal? To find out what all the anti-hype was about, to see for himself if these cinematic disasters were really that bad or if perhaps there were a few hidden gems. Or, at the very least, to warn the rest of us once and for all.

The whole project started with his raging hate of the movie Elizabethtown. It's a, let's say, romantic comedy starring Orlando Bloom as a brooding sad guy and Kirsten Dunst as a "manic pixie dream girl," as Rabin puts it. His review has the hilarious quality of someone who needed so badly to rant about this movie that if you were sitting next to him on the train he'd probably be talking your ear off about how awful it was. He hated it so much that his editor even asked him to re-watch it and write a new review for the book. He does, including both reviews, and he finds that after several years have passed, he doesn't hate Elizabethtown QUITE as much as he once did, but it's still pretty bad. Plus he can now say he's watched the movie three times, making him fear that he has become its primary "cult follower."

Not all of the "flops" in My Year of Flops cause Nathan Rabin so much psychic pain. In many cases he manages to find the hidden wonder (or "secret success") of some of the world's least successful films. Joe Versus the Volcano, for example, is one that Nathan Rabin (like my partner Mike) concludes is very underrated. In a lot of cases, though, his reviews serve as a welcome relief that he's already watched these movies so I don't have to.

I particularly loved the cover art of the book and think it deserves a special mention. I think I've finally figured out every film represented, but I could be wrong. Hit the jump to see how many you can name:

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

10 Recent Books About England You May or May Not Have Heard Of

Olympic Games have you wishing you could visit London? Opening Ceremonies have you longing for the Britain of days gone by, with chimney sweeps and roving bands of Sergeant Peppers? Here are some books recently reviewed on Cozy Little Book Journal that take place in Merry Old England.

It's part of our new "Read the World" series. First instalment: Read the World: ENGLAND.

Princess Alexandria--aka Mink--is an Indian princess and daughter of the late Maharaja of Prindur who finds herself in dire straits after her father's death in 1897. Luckily she and her trusty Indian maid, Pooki, are invited to move into the grace-and-favour housing of the Hampton Court Palace. After dispatching with her father's menagerie of exotic pets--including porcupines, flamingos that have turned yellow from eating goldfish, and a red-trousered monkey named Albert--the pair move into their new home, surrounded by other down-and-out aristocrats. Before long they find themselves embroiled in a murder mystery (involving, yes, a pigeon pie) that threatens to land Pooki in hot water. Fortunately, Mink is on the case and is determined to find the real culprit.

Noughties is a "student novel" in that it revolves around a group of university students on their last night of school (in this case Oxford). It's meant to be a comment on the times (a fact that is mentioned on nearly every page), a "voice of a generation" (as the insufferable lead character on the TV show Girls might say) for the British young people finishing university at the beginning of this century. Ben Masters is not without talent, but I'd be happy to wait for his fifth or sixth novel before reading him again.

A sophisticated and subtly complex debut novel by Benjamin Wood, The Bellwether Revivals begins with a house full of dead bodies and a severely injured young man named Eden Bellwether. The story then pulls back to a few months prior so the reader can try to figure out how it all led up to that point. The character of Eden Bellwether is presented as an arrogant, charismatic but sinister Cambridge student who is obsessed with philosophy and music theory, but even more obsessed with himself. He leads his sister, Iris, and a small group of loyal friends further into his own cult of self, while Iris's new boyfriend Oscar--a townie--observes with discomfort and concern. Can Eden be trusted? Does he have special healing powers, as he claims, or is he perhaps mentally ill? And why does everyone around him seem to bend to his will?

Eva Beaver (nee Eva Brown-Bird) has just said goodbye to her twins as they start university. Her husband, astronomer Dr. Brian Beaver, is having an affair with a co-worker and would rather spend his time gazing at the stars than gazing at her. Eva decides she would like to go to bed. So she climbs into her bed, shoes and all, and stays there for a year. The character of Eva is not always sympathetic but she's oddly relatable. And the writing is flawless. It hits just the right tone--not too philosophical or pretentious, but with a slightly ethereal quality that reminds the reader that it isn't just about being in bed, it's about life. It's clever, British and very female.

Kate Summerscale's previous work, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, read like a novel, one that would be at home on a shelf between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins (Summerscale really likes Wilkie Collins, judging by how often she quotes him). Her new work, Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace, shows a similar talent for turning historical documents into riveting, edge-of-your-seat reading. Of course, this one is more like a Jane Austen novel than a Conan Doyle, what with the torrid details of love, adultery and betrayal. It's like a true life Pride and Prejudice. Or, perhaps, given that the titular Mrs. Robinson's first husband died after contracting a mysterious disease of the brain that caused him to be sickly and violent, it's like a real life Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Either way, it's impossible to put down.

Grow Up is the sort of novel people refer to as "coming of age" because it's about teenagers about to graduate from high school (or finish A-levels, since they're British kids). It's also the sort of novel that gets very mixed reviews because the characters, particularly the main character, is equally charming and despicable. In other words, he's a teenager. Jasper Wolf is a naif (in some ways like his idol, Holden Caulfield) in that he believes he is completely self-aware and worldly but his own immaturity and bravado prevent him from accurately seeing the world around him. Ben Brooks has not created a world in which there are no consequences for Jasper's actions; he has created a world in which Jasper does not always see what those consequences will be, and one in which Jasper himself is not always the one who will have to pay for his own bad behaviour. And I think in the end I believe that Ben Brooks was successful in creating precisely what he set out to: an unreliable narrator.

Sidney Chambers is an Anglican priest living in England in the 1950's who keeps finding himself tied up in the middle of criminal investigations (but in the coziest of ways), which he then discusses with his best friend, a police inspector, over beer and backgammon. Oooh! It's so cozy I almost can't stand it! Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death is actually a novel in several short parts, each "chapter" being a stand-alone mystery of about a hundred pages each. I don't love that format, as I do prefer a novel to just be a novel, but I loved the characters and the writing so much I simply didn't care. It was, for me, near perfection.

A murder mystery set in London in 1889, a few years after the Jack the Ripper case has gone cold, The Yard (a reference to Scotland Yard) could easily be the first in a series. The only problem I found when reading it was trying to guess which of the fantastic police characters could be the subject of future books. Since there are several candidates, and since this book is not labelled as "first in the so-and-so series" I found myself not knowing which characters would survive until the end of the book. At least if it had been subtitled "An Inspector Day Mystery" or " A Nevil Hammersmith Mystery" I would have thought, "Ah, at least that's one character I know will make it to the end!" As it was, I was terribly worried about all of them, right up to the end.

Surprised by Oxford is a beautiful, elegantly written memoir of author Carolyn Weber’s spiritual journey as she embarked on her academic journey through Oxford University. Her writing, at once sincere and yet delicate, will appeal to academics, agnostics and Christians alike. I myself found my university experience to be one of spiritual awakening as much as academic fulfillment—I did my undergraduate studies at McGill University in Montreal, where I earned a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies—though I did not leave with the same conclusions as Ms. Weber, nor did I articulate my experience quite so eloquently! But I think that’s the trick of a truly absorbing memoir: one does not have to agree with the author’s conclusions, nor share in her point of view, nor even be able to relate to her personal experiences, in order to find oneself hanging on her every word and completely immersed in her world, if only for a short time. If you liked the idea of Eat, Pray, Love but found it a tad gimmicky and self-indulgent (as I did) perhaps this book will redeem the spiritual memoir in your view.

This is definitely just as delightful as any in the series, and perhaps even more fast-paced, but the one thing that perplexes me about the last few books in the Flavia de Luce series is the character of Dieter. He's a former Nazi soldier and recent prisoner of war who decided to remain in Britain after the war. The series takes place in 1950, so the atrocities of the war would be all too present in the characters' minds, yet none of them has a problem with welcoming a Nazi into their home. He's even considered a likely--and suitable!--candidate to become a member of the family by courting one of the de Luce sisters. Why the Nazi sympathy, Mr. Bradley? It's the one thing that bothers me in an otherwise flawless series.

Grant: Savior of the Union, by Mitchell Yockelson

Grant: Savior of the Union is a biography of Ulysses S. Grant, part of The Generals series edited by Stephen Mansfield. The book begins with an elegantly written editor's note from Mansfield, warning us against lionizing our heroes too much, or conversely demonizing them too greatly. He writes:
We have had our seasons of hagiography, in which our commanders can do no wrong and in which they are presented to the young, in particular, as unerring examples of nobility and manhood. We have had our revisionist seasons, in which all power corrupts--military power in particular--and in which the general is a reviled symbol of societal ills.

I have to say, that's a pretty strong beginning. I also believe that it's important not to rely too heavily on a "great man" vision of history, in which heroes emerge--faultless and magnificent--to carry us all forward on their shoulders. Even great leaders have bad ideas as well as good, have qualities we may despise as well as admire, have legacies that may in some cases be tarnished by wrong choices. But I think it's important for us to learn the full history of those we admire so we can really learn from those people, good and bad. Otherwise, we're doomed to think of our heroes as ideal men (and women, but in the case of American Civil War and rue the fact that "there are no heroes anymore," finding ourselves longing for a bygone era that never was. I'm glad that the editor, at least, seems to be seeking out a more objective approach to this series.

On the other hand, the book IS called Grant: Savior of the Union.

UPDATE: I looked into it. The editor writes the exact same introduction for every single book in the series.

Before I read this book, I'll admit, I didn't know very much about Ulysses S. Grant. Before you jump to any conclusions about deficiencies in my public school education, I would like to point out that I'm Canadian so it's not that strange. I knew he was a general in the American Civil War, that he later became president, that he famously defeated Robert E. Lee, that he was instrumental (along with Lincoln) in ending slavery, and that the "S" didn't stand for anything. See? I knew some things. But this was the first biography of Grant I had ever read.