Review | The Blackbird Season, Kate Moretti

32895536A flock of starlings falling from the sky kicks off this novel about a juicy scandal in a small Pennsylvania town. Beloved math teacher Nate Winters is accused of raping a troubled student, Lucia Hamm. An unpopular goth and perceived witch, Lucia disappears shortly after someone sees Nate with her, and the investigation uncovers uncomfortable truths about the town’s residents. Lucia’s prickliness may hint at bullying and abuse on multiple fronts. Nate’s friend and fellow teacher, Bridget Harris, becomes his sole supporter, using Lucia’s class journal and tracking down her friends and family to prove Nate’s innocence.

I didn’t quite find it a novel of “nerve-shattering suspense” that the blurb promised, nor did I think that the twists and turns were all that surprising, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Rather, I think Moretti has crafted a really good character study that delves deep into the psyches of its characters. The ultimate twist was a big reveal not because it was difficult to identify the villain, but because it cast a harsh light on some troubling situations that are likely happening in real world high schools.

Many of us can probably remember having a teacher like Nate. He’s like Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society — charismatic, passionate, and with a finger firmly on the pulse of his teenage students. Part of me finds his interest in his students’ lives a bit creepy, e.g. setting up social media accounts just so he can follow all of his students on social media and keep tabs on their lives. But I can also imagine myself back in high school, and how flattering I may have found that kind of attention from a handsome, young male teacher. So I can see why Lucia would have been drawn to him, and why Bridget would have carried a secret torch for him for so long. He’s probably the most thinly drawn of the characters, and possibly deliberately so. We’re not quite sure what lies beyond his charisma and overall nice-ness, but there is no undercurrent of darkness that makes us believe he could commit the crimes of which he’s charged. He probably becomes most interesting when stress gradually peels off his veneer of perfection, and reveals his resentment at the lack of support from his wife and the town in general and at his lack of agency in determining his son’s care.

I can also understand the frustration of his wife Alecia, who I found the most compelling and nuanced character in this book. Alecia’s a Type A personality, who takes the lead on caring for their autistic son. Unlike Nate, who advocates to let their son simply be himself, Alecia takes him to one therapy session after another, and refuses to heed the therapist’s warning that her son may not be ready for kindergarten yet. When a reporter confronts her about Nate’s affair with a student, her carefully constructed world crumbles, and her fear over the outcome is palpable. While Bridgette was clearly the heroine of this novel, genuinely supportive of Nate and caring about Lucia’s fate, I thought Alecia was the most relatable character.

Despite being the linchpin on which the entire plot turns, Lucia probably was the least interesting of the characters for me. Rebellious goth, emo girl fascinated by death and poetry and blackbirds, a bully who may also be being bullied herself… we’ve seen this character before and multiple times. While she does go through some horrible experiences in this book, she’s still ends up being pretty flat as a character, and I cared about what happened to her only in a general way I would care about any teenage girl who goes through what she did.

Overall, Blackbird Season is a pretty good read, and a glimpse into how a small town deals with a scandal.


Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Runaways Vol. 1 – 3, Brian K. Vaughn and Adrian Alphona

At one point or another, many teenagers think their parents are evil. In Brian K. Vaughn and Adrian Alphona’s Runaways series, these teens happen to be right. At their families’ annual gathering, they witness their parents committing a ritual sacrifice. They learn that their parents are actually part of a super villain group called The Pride, and that they themselves have inherited some super powers of their own.

I got hooked on this series after my sister, a fan of comic books and Brian K. Vaughn’s work in particular, lent me the first book. How amazing is this series? First, I absolutely love the diversity of the main cast. I don’t want to detail all the characters and their powers, as discovering their powers was part of what made Volume 1 so much fun, but I love that we have an African American lead (Alex), a badass Japanese girl (Nico), and a plus-size purple haired girl (Gert). Book 1 is all about them discovering their own powers and coming to terms with who their parents really are. As an origin story, it’s pretty much sheer joy just to see these teens test the limits of their strengths and see how their powers measure up against their parents. The ending also reveals a mole amongst the Runaways, who leaves an anonymous note supporting their parents’ vision.

Volume 2 takes a slight detour from the teens-vs-parents storyline, and takes the Runaways on a series of mini-adventures. A food run turns into a chance for the Runaways to become friendly neighbourhood superheroes, and this in turn leads to an encounter with handsome teen Topher, who claims to be running away from super villain parents just like them. Topher also creates some fun competition for Alex (and I think Karolina as well?) as he totally charms the pants off Nico. I’m still fully shipping Alex and Nico, but I found this love triangle an entertaining diversion from the large Pride story and Topher was honestly a welcome break from Alex’s super seriousness. Much like the way the Pride storyline as a whole touches on teenagers’ conflicted feelings about their parents, Topher and Nico also end up having some very real conversations. While the Runaways may feel alone in their battle against the Pride, Topher makes some good observations about teenage life in general, and the things we often long for as teenagers.

“B-list” Marvel heroes Cloak and Dagger also make an appearance in Book 2, as heroes sent by a cop on the Pride’s payroll to track down the Runaways. I’m not familiar with their story but I thought they, and their reactions to being called “B-list”, were hilarious. I also found the glimpse into Cloak’s human identity revealing, as was the results of Dagger unleashing her powers on Nico and some other Runaways. Their battle forced characters on both sides to confront themselves in uncomfortable ways, and that too felt like a very real part of a coming of age story.

Volume 3 is a solid enough ending to this arc, but it didn’t quite live up to the promise of Volume 1. I almost wish this storyline had been extended quite a bit more, as Volume 3 felt very much like an info dump followed up a bunch of loose ends being tied off. The mole is finally unmasked. Their identity was fairly easy enough to guess, and I thought their motivation made a lot of sense, but I’m disappointed with how this storyline ended. At the risk of spoilers, I would have loved to see the big reveal launch the next story arc, with the mole becoming the next big villain for the Runaways to face, but instead, this plot thread just somewhat fizzled to a close.

The Pride’s motivations also made sense, and I like the moral ambiguity of the selfish yet also somewhat noble reasons for what they did. The backstory wasn’t quite as strongly defined as it could have been, and felt more a convenient catchall to explain their odd actions. I’m also kinda sick of the Molly ex machina plot device, especially since her use of her powers feels very ad hoc. Finally, a cameo at the end may delight some fans, but I found it unnecessary, and worse, I thought it weakened the image of the Runaways as badass superheroes, which were built up so well over all three volumes, only to have them plummeted back to ultimately being just kids who need adults to step in.

Volume 3 ends with the promise of further adventures, and while I found Volume 3 disappointing, I still love these characters and am still curious about what they do next.

There’s also a TV show in the works. I’m imagining the on-screen version would have been more appealing to myself when I was younger, as I can imagine it being a CW/Disney channel type show, but the cast image looks pretty awesome.

Have you read any of Brian K. Vaughn’s work? I hear his other series Saga is really good, so I may give that a try next.


Review and Author Q&A | Deer Life, Ron Sexsmith

32799293A hunting accident leads to a young boy being turned into a deer in Deer Life, an ‘adult fairy tale’ by Canadian musician Ron Sexsmith. The story is less about the boy, however, and more about his village, as the witch who cursed him sets her sights on the father of a beautiful young girl and the boy’s mother falls in love with a man who had his own encounter with the witch when he was younger.

Deer Life was originally intended as a children’s book, and I think it would have worked really well as such, particularly will full colour illustrations and live readings at schools. Deer Life reads very much like a tale meant to be read aloud. The story is filled with puns (characters named Hedlight, Tourtiere, and Eleanoir with an ‘i’), punctuations (lots of ellipses and exclamation marks) and fourth-wall-breaking comments that would play very well when read aloud. For example:

Maggie wasn’t the least bit afraid of Tourtiere. She saw him as little more than an overfed bully long overdue for a smack in the behind from a wooden spoon. (Come to think of it, she had brought one with her just in case!) [p. 43]

One can almost imagine the author pausing with a sly grin for surprised laughter.

There are shades of Roald Dahl in Sexsmith’s writing, like in his description of Tourtiere:

To see him approaching down a narrow street could give one the impression that an actual meat pie was coming toward them. Roundish and pasty looking, he had the appearance of steam rising from his forehead at all times. [p. 25]

The story also reminds me somewhat of Sondheim’s Into the Woods, with the characters’ desires leading them into peril in a mysterious forest. Sexsmith doesn’t quite pull off biting humour with as much ease as Dahl, nor are his observations as pointedly insightful as Sondheim. At times, the story’s cues for laughter can be almost painfully obvious, and one almost wants to ask the narrator to relax and just tell the story.

Because the story itself is lovely. Deer Life is a charming tale with a lot of heart. Villagers form unlikely friendships to protect their loved ones, and you actually want these characters with their silly names to find their happily ever after. Witches with violet eyes curse young children, and there’s a hint of a larger story there, about witches needing to claim a place to call home, that piqued my curiosity. Finally, the cover art is absolutely beautiful; much kudos to the artist who designed this!

Q&A with Ron Sexsmith

1. What is it about fairy tales that make them so compelling for adults as well as children?

I think because we’re all a product of our childhood there are certain feelings and themes that resonate with us in some deep way. For most people, the things that worried us as kids or brought us joy remain the same.

2. What was your favourite fairy tale growing up, and why?

I always loved  The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen because it spoke of an evil in the world that could change people and tear friends apart which seemed like a very real threat to me.

3. How would you compare the process of writing a book to that of writing a song?

It was completely different. I felt out of my element every step of the way. The thing that I enjoyed about it though, was how thoroughly immersed in it I became. I was in the town, I could see all the characters in my mind and if one their arms went up,
my arm would go up too. It was almost like being in a trance. It’s actually a very personal story and the closest thing I ever get to writing my memoirs.

4. If this story were to be adapted to another medium (e.g. stage play, musical, TV show, cartoon), what would you like it to be, and who would you want to be involved in the adaptation?

My original thought for it was that it could make for a great movie/musical and in fact I’m actually writing the songs for it as we speak, although it may never see the light of day. I’m a “build it and they will come” sort of person.

Blog Tour

Check out the other stops on this blog tour below!



Thank you to Dundurn for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review, and thank you to Ron Sexsmith for the Q&A!

Review | Belief, Mayank Bhatt

30149694A Muslim family in Mississauga, Ontario has their lives upended when they come across an email with details of a terrorist plot on their son Rafiq’s computer. Scared yet trusting in the Canadian justice system, they turn to a trusted friend for advice, only to have Rafiq arrested.

Belief is a timely novel that brings to light the discontent and disillusionment some immigrants face when their new life in Canada isn’t quite as equitable and free from racism as promised. This is certainly true for Rafiq and his sister Ziram, who struggled to fit in at school — I especially love the scene where Rafiq figures out the ‘Canadian’ voice and teaches his sister to use contractions. It’s also true for their parents Abdul and Ruksana, who came to Canada to escape the 1993 violence against Muslims in Mumbai — there’s a poignant scene where Abdul comes to terms with the fact that, despite taking ESL classes and joining networking circles, he’ll never have a lucrative career in Canada, and that his children’s future is worth this sacrifice.

Despite the broader scope of its plot involving the terrorist who tries to recruit Rafiq to his team, the book feels very personal with its focus on Rafiq’s family. We learn about their immigration to Canada and about how they deal with the fallout of Rafiq’s arrest. We also see Rafiq’s growing discontentment and how his desire for connection drew him to Ghani Ahmed and his plot to blow up various spots across the Greater Toronto Area. At one point, Rafiq realizes he doesn’t agree with Ghani Ahmed’s methods, yet he isn’t quite sure how to get out of it. Particularly affecting is a moment when he looks around one of the proposed sites, a food court at a mall, and realizes just how many people will be hurt, and how many of these people look like him.

Belief is a slim volume, but a dense story, and one not often told in CanLit. The ending doesn’t provide quite as much closure as I would have liked, but I do like that it takes a realistic view of the situation Rafiq’s in. It’s not an easy read, but it’s a thoughtful one, and a welcome addition to Mississauga Can Lit.


Thank you to Mawenzi House for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | White Bodies, Jane Robins

32920301White Bodies is a chilling psychological thriller that makes you think it’s going in a certain direction but manages to pull the rug out from under you at the end. The big reveal comes as a surprise, though when it happens you wonder why you didn’t see it coming. Robins does a great job in creating a troubling undercurrent of unease throughout the story, so that even when you think you have a handle on what’s happening, there’s a part of you twigging that something’s not quite right.

I’ve long been a sucker for stories about twins, and this book plays around with the tradition of the good twin/bad twin dichotomy. Tilda is the Jessica Wakefield of the pair — beautiful, glamorous, and irresistibly attracted to danger. Callie is mousier than Elizabeth Wakefield ever was; shy and unassuming, she is obsessed with her sister’s glamour. Her obsession goes beyond a Single White Female desire to be her twin, however, and is almost a desire to consume her twin — in a rather disturbing reveal, we learn that Callie ate her sister’s baby teeth, which is just really gross.

I love how Robins depicts the complexity of their relationship. There’s something definitely off about Callie’s feelings for her sister, so when Callie expresses concern that Tilda’s boyfriend Felix is abusive, it’s hard to tell how much of it is genuine love and how much is jealousy or something more sinister. We experience the story through Callie’s perspective, and the unreliability of her mental state keeps us off-balance throughout.

Tilda as well is a fascinating character. She withdraws from her twin, purportedly because Callie and Felix don’t get along, but it sometimes feels like her desire for distance is rooted in something deeper than that, and I wondered how much she intuited of Callie’s feelings. We mostly see her as Callie does — a victim of domestic violence who needs to be rescued — but again, Robins does a great job in hinting at what lies beyond Callie’s notice.

Felix’s death on the very first page plunges the reader immediately into a traditional murder mystery. Callie’s fear of police knocking on her door on page 4 makes us think we know what this mystery will be about. But as we read on, Robins uncovers layer after layer from these characters, and it’s a taut, compelling ride to the finish.


Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advanced reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Event Recap | Penguin Random House Canada Fall Preview


Last Thursday, Penguin Random House Canada invited booksellers and book bloggers to get a sneak preview of some of their must-read titles this season. It was an evening of pure bookworm nerding out, and a chance to meet some of their authors.

#CanLit Author Encounters

Lynn Crawford, Michael Redhill, Linda Spalding, Anthony Lacavera and Sam Turnbull all came to talk to us about their books.

  • Farm to Chef: Cooking through the Seasons by Lynn Crawford (Sept 12) – an absolutely gorgeous cookbook with recipes that, at first glance at least, sound delicious and seem simply enough to make. Recipes are arranged by season and featuring key ingredients (e.g. apples and mushrooms in Fall, cabbage and squash in Winter, asparagus and strawberries in Spring, and berries and tomatoes in Summer).
  • Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill (Sept 19) – a literary thriller set in Toronto about a young woman who investigates the mystery of her doppelganger being seen in Kensington Market. This book was already on my TBR list even before this event, so I’m very excited to have met the author and dig right in!
  • Fuss-Free Vegan by Sam Turnbull (Oct 17) – comfort food vegan recipes with no kale, no quinoa, no smoothies and no energy balls! We got a recipe card for 15-minute Peanut Noodles. I love peanut butter and noodles, and I especially love making meals in 15 minutes or fewer, so consider me sold on this vegan dish.
  • How We Can Win by Anthony Lacavera (Oct 3) – did you know the lightbulb was invented by Canadians? This book, by the founder of Wind Mobile, is about the need for Canadians to step up, own our successes and go for the gold rather than settling for bronze.
  • A Reckoning by Linda Spalding (Sept 26) – a novel inspired in part by Spalding’s own family history of her Quaker ancestors moving to Canada and taking with them their pet bear.


Already Read, Highly Recommend

  • The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne – one of the best books I’ve read this year, a Dickensian coming of age story of a gay man in 20th century Ireland. Carve out a staycation to immerse yourself in this.
  • Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin – a Congressional intern has an affair with her boss and reinvents her whole identity to move on from the fall out. Told from the perspectives of the intern herself, her mother, her daughter and the Congressman’s wife.


My Top 5

  • The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman (Oct 19) – I remember being absolutely blown away by The Golden CompassLa Belle Sauvage is the first in a new trilogy set in Lyra’s world, and I can’t wait to revisit that world.
  • Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (Sept 12) – a family story that begins with the main character’s daughter setting fire to their house on purpose. I love Ng’s earlier book Everything I Never Told You, and @ReederReads describes this book as being “like a really good episode of The Good Wife.
  • Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks (Oct 17) – Tom Hanks wrote a book! Hanks’ love for typewriters is well-known, and each of the 17 short stories features a typewriter.
  • We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Oct 3) – Coates’ essays about the Obama White House years. I need this book.
  • God by Reza Aslan (Nov 7) – I loved Aslan’s take on Jesus in Zealot and can’t wait to dive into this.

Fiction Highlights

  • The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce (Nov 7) – how beautiful is this cover? Described as AJ Fikry meets High Fidelity, this story is about a record store owner with a knack for finding people the music they need, rather than the music they think they want.
  • Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn (Oct 3) – the newest instalment in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, a contemporary re-telling of King Lear, with Lear re-imagined as the head of a global corporation.
  • Bonfire by Kristen Ritter (Nov 7) – grip lit by the star of Jessica Jones!
  • A Column of Fire by Ken Follett (Sept 12) – book 3 in the series started by The Pillars of the Earth, which I loved. Follett does a great job creating an immersive world for his historical epics.
  • Artemis by Andy Weir (Nov 14) – a heist story on the moon by the author of The Martian. Recommended for fans of The Expanse.
  • The Rooster Bar by John Grisham (Oct 24) – this is a nostalgia pick, as I was a huge fan of Grisham’s early work but haven’t really loved his more recent titles. But this story sounds like the kind of book I would have devoured as a teen — law school students learn their school is a scam and look for a way to escape their student debts and defeat the system.
  • Smile by Roddy Doyle (Sept 12) – a whodunnit psychological thriller, this intrigued me because of its comparison to Herman Koch’s The Dinner, which I loved.
  • Christmas at the Vinyl Cafe by Stuart McLean (Oct 31) – this is another nostalgia pick for me, as the Vinyl Cafe stories were among my earliest introductions to Canadian culture. Stuart McLean passed away earlier this year, and this volume collects his Christmas stories.
  • The Boat People by Sharon Bala (Jan 9) – a group of Sri Lankan refugees come to Canada only to face the threat of deportation of accusations of terrorism in their new land.

Non-Fiction Highlights

  • The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin (Sept 12) – I remember taking the online quiz to find out if I’m an Upholder, Questioner, Rebel or Obliger, and being disappointed by my result. This book is about how you can make the most of your personality type and influence others.
  • The Wolf by Nate Blakeslee (Oct 17) – about a powerful wolf in Yellowstone. Someone at the event said it’s like Dynasty or Game of Thrones, but with a wolf.
  • Endurance by Scott Kelly (Oct 17) – remember the twin astronauts who participated in a NASA study on the effect of space on the human body, where one lived on the space station for a year and the other stayed on Earth? Scott Kelly is the twin who lived in space, and this is his story.
  • I Can’t Breathe by Matt Taibbi (Oct 24) – a timely book about the roots and aftermath of Eric Garner’s killing by police.
  • The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve by Stephen Greenblatt (Sept 12) – beautiful cover! Greenblatt’s a great go-to if you want to geek out about Shakespeare or anything historical, and I’m curious to see his exploration of the Adam and Eve story.

Movie and TV Highlights

  • Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (Aug 29) – I haven’t read the book, but I love this TV tie-in cover and am so excited for the CBC series (Netflix in the US)! (Trailer)
  • The Snowman by Jo Nesbo (Sept 26) – I love Nesbo’s thrillers and this one stars Michael Fassbender! (Trailer)
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (Jan 30, movie tie-in cover still to be revealed) – I absolutely loved this geeky tribute to 80s video games, and can’t wait to see it on-screen! (Trailer)
  • Fifty Shades Darker by E.L. James – the movie tie-in edition includes James’ photos and caption commentary from the making of the film. The Fifty Shades Freed movie comes to theatres next February!
  • Voyager by Diana Gabaldon – Outlander Season 3 launches on W network this Fall! (Trailer)


Thanks to Penguin Random House Canada for a great evening!

Review | Court of Lions, Jane Johnson

31951238Court of Lions is a rich novel, steeped in history and alternating between two time periods and two points of view. The first is Kate Fordham in the present day. On the run from an abusive and maniacally religious husband, she is living under an assumed identity in Granada as her twin sister keeps her son safe. She discovers a note tucked away in a wall, written in an old language, and her love of codes leads her to try to decipher what it says.

The note was written by Blessings, the other half of the story and a boy living in the palace of 1476 Granada as companion to the sultan’s son Momo. Momo has been prophesied to cause the downfall of his kingdom, and to anyone familiar with the history, it may be evident that the Spanish Inquisition is just around the corner.

Blessings’ half of the story is by far the stronger piece. I knew of the Inquisition and of Ferdinand and Isabella’s crusade to colonize the entire world and convert everyone to Christianity, so I very much enjoyed reading about this period in history from another perspective. Momo, who grew up to become Sultan Abu Abdullah Mohammed, in this book was a tender hearted man who couldn’t bear to see his people suffer and starve. Some may have considered his eventual capitulation weak, but Johnson presents him in a sympathetic light. Reluctant to engage with the brutality of the Spanish forces, Momo wants only to negotiate for his people to live in peace and free to worship as they choose. I wish we could’ve delved a bit deeper into his thought process. While we get a clear sense of Momo’s pain and regret as negotiations don’t go as planned, we don’t get as clear a sense of any kind of strategy on his part to defeat Spain, and while that may be part of his pacifist character, he’s often a passive figure in the battle. Part of that may be because we read this part of the story from Blessings’ perspective, and his main interest isn’t the political climate or the country’s welfare so much as it is his unrequited love for the prince. It’s a sympathetic tale and Blessings goes to great lengths for his love, even losing his leg at one point, but the broader political piece could’ve been explored deeper.

The present-day narrative just felt distracting. There is little to link Kate’s story to Blessings, other than the location and possibly a familial link to one of the characters she encounters. The mystery around the piece of paper she discovers leads to her meeting new friends, but the mystery is solved mostly off-page, and the primary focus is her escape from her husband. Thematically, her husband’s bigotry and religious fervour parallels that of Ferdinand and Isabella’s, but to make any further comparison of the storylines is tenuous at best, and insulting at worst. As a result, the two stories feel completely disconnected, and I felt that Kate’s story had enough going on in it to be an entire book. Things like self-harm and PTSD and told mostly in passing, and I know her fear only because she states it. Most of the major action (assault, a kidnapping) happens in flashback or off-page, and as a result, it loses some of its urgency. (One key exception is a rape scene, which was just creepy.)

Overall, this is a good read, and an interesting new perspective on the events in Granada during the Spanish Inquisition.


Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.