Review | Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d (Flavia de Luce 8), Alan Bradley

28814726Flavia de Luce is back, and Bradley has finally recovered some of the magic that made me fall in love with the series in the first place! I’ve never been a fan of Bradley’s decision to take Flavia to Toronto and involve her with the spy organization Nide, so I’m thrilled to see her back in England discovering a body in her hometown.

Flavia goes to a reclusive woodcutter’s house to deliver a message from the vicar’s wife, only to find him dead, tied spread eagled and upside down to his door. The clues: a lottery ticket and a collection of Crispian Crumpet children’s books. The witness: a tortoiseshell cat. Flavia’s investigation takes her around the village and into London as she digs into the decades-old death of an author and meets a colourful cast of characters, including a neighbourhood witch, a teenage aspiring singer, and the real-life Crispian Crumpet. The mystery is full of twists and turns, and while I figured out one of the big mid-book reveals pretty much off the bat, I certainly never saw the ultimate big reveal coming, nor the bad guy’s motivation.

 

Brinded Cat gives us a more mature Flavia, still geeking out about chemistry and blood patterns, but slightly more subdued in her reproach. Rather than playing mischievous scientific pranks on her sisters and angling for her father’s undivided attention, this Flavia worries about her father’s health (he’s in the hospital and she’s unable to visit) and wonders about the seemingly irreparable rift between her and her sisters. Flavia’s relationship with Dogger and Undine really come to the fore in this book, with Flavia struggling to come to terms with the changes in her family while she was away and also with the fact that she’s no longer the youngest child in the household. In one scene, she scolds Undine for some mischief, only to learn that Dogger had helped her do it. Flavia felt betrayed by Dogger, not because he did anything wrong, but rather because Undine appears to have taken on Flavia’s role in Dogger’s life. It’s a really well-written moment, as is the part where Flavia looks at Undine with affection tinged with annoyance, a sort of maturation into the older sister mode.

The end of the book is just heartbreaking. Seriously, Alan Bradley, what was that for? I personally wish it had been moved earlier in the story, or at least that we had a bit more time to process it, rather than ending the book so abruptly, cliffhanger style.

Still, overall, a wonderful, captivating book, and I’m so glad to see Flavia back to form.

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Thanks to Penguin Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Blog Tour | Lily and the Octopus, Steven Rowley

27276262By page 3 of Steven Rowley’s Lily and the OctopusI knew this book would make me ugly cry, and I honestly wasn’t sure if I had the guts to keep reading. I tweeted my trepidation, and the author responded, “So much laughter, adventure and love in the pages ahead. If you cry, I hope the journey will have been worth it.” So I decided to continue, and I’m so glad I did. This book is one of the most emotionally affecting ones I’ve ever read. I ugly-cried like I hadn’t since Patrick Ness’s A Monster Callsand that’s a good thing. The best books rip right into your heart and make you feel as you’ve rarely let yourself feel before, and then stay with you long after you turn the last page. Lily and the Octopus was such a book, and I can say with full certainty that yes, the journey was beyond worth it.

The story begins with Ted on a typical Thursday night, debating with his dog Lily about which celebrity Chris was the cutest, when he notices an octopus gripping tightly to the top of Lily’s head. We realize what the octopus wants long before Ted allows himself to, and by page 3, you can probably tell where this story is going and whether you want to stay for the ride. Lily and the Octopus is a beautifully written story of love, of the fierce connection between us and our pets, and of how love can make us afraid to face the truth.

I love how Ted was afraid he was incapable of love until he met Lily:

When I held my new puppy in my arms, I broke down in tears. Because I had fallen in love. Not somewhat in love. Not partly in love. Not in a limited amount. I fell fully in love with a creature I had known for all of nine hours. (p. 22)

How beautiful is that? And how many of us with dogs or cats or other pets of our own can relate to that sense of instant, intense connection, that feeling that they have chosen us as much as we have chosen them and that we will from that point forward be inextricably bonded? This passage certainly rang true for me; I went from wary pet owner to crazy cat lady in the space of a few seconds, and knew exactly what Ted was talking about.

I also really love how absolutely full of joy and energy Lily is. Her conversations with Ted are hilarious, and her sheer happiness at the silliest things — a red ball, an inflatable shark — is just a joy to see. There is indeed much laughter and joy in these pages, and it was wonderful to see Ted and Lily together. Ted’s love for her shone through, and I couldn’t help but fall in love with her too.

The book faltered somewhat for me during a scene involving a boat. I wasn’t sure what was or wasn’t real anymore, and while Rowley may well have intended that ambiguity, I was too distracted by trying to figure it out to really lose myself in the scene, as I had throughout the rest of the book. That being said, for the most part, I was completely caught up in Lily and the Octopus’ roller coaster ride of emotions, and I’d never hated an octopus more.

I read the entire book in a single afternoon, mostly because I was unwilling to put it down and leave Ted and Lily’s story behind. Even while reading it, I knew I would be recommending it to all my friends, especially those who love animals. I did ugly cry in the end, and grabbed my cat for cuddles and a belly rub. I like to think the look he gave me wasn’t of puzzlement but rather of concern. I just didn’t want to be alone after reading this book, and am glad my cat was there to be with me.

This is a beautiful, moving book, and one I highly recommend. Read it, laugh out loud at its silliness, and let yourself ugly cry if you need to. Then put it back on your shelf and give your dog or cat a huge squishy hug. Just because.

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

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Blog Tour and Contest

This review is part of the Simon Schuster Canada Perfect Pairing Blog Tour. Check out the full schedule below.

Also: nothing pairs up better with a book than a cup of coffee, so heads up on an awesome contest: Simon and Schuster Canada is giving away a set of books AND one year of free coffee from aroma espresso bar! Enter at readchillrepeat.com.

Summer Fiction Blog Tour

Blog Tour | All the Missing Girls, Megan Miranda

23212667Nicolette Farrell returns home after ten years to care for her aging father. Shortly after she returns, a young girl Annaleise, goes missing. This is particularly creepy for Nic as the reason she left in the first place was that her best friend Corinne had disappeared when she was about Annaleise’s age, and the story behind Corinne’s disappearance had haunted Nic, her brother Daniel and her ex-boyfriend Tyler all the years since.

All the Missing Girls is a thriller told in reverse. After Nic returns home (Day 1), we jump in time to Day 15, when the town is searching for Annaleise, and Tyler had disappeared. The story unravels in reverse, counting down from Day 15 all the way to Day 1, and slowly elements of both disappearances emerge.

The mystery itself is fascinating (what happened to Annaleise, and is it connected somehow to what happened to Corinne?) but the structure felt too gimmicky and left me feeling confused and impatient throughout. I was more interested in what happened after Day 15 and moving the story forward rather than inching back day by day only to be left with the same questions I had at the beginning of the book, namely what happens after Day 15? Often, the significance of conversations in one chapter will only be revealed in the next chapter, with an incident from the previous day, but I felt somewhat cheated because I already knew what would happen next. There were certainly surprises, and the big reveals at the end were satisfyingly surprising, but the impact was somewhat lost on me as it just made me want to think back to Day 15 and what could have happened after.

I’m also glad that Miranda does provide a bit of an epilogue to let us know how things turn out after Day 15. Part 3, with its urgency contrasted with a sense of bleak resignation, wasn’t quite a happy ending, but it felt right.

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Thanks to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Blog Tour and Contest

This review is part of the Simon Schuster Canada Perfect Pairing Blog Tour. Check out the full schedule below.

Also: nothing pairs up better with a book than a cup of coffee, so heads up on an awesome contest: Simon and Schuster Canada is giving away a set of books AND one year of free coffee from aroma espresso bar! Enter at readchillrepeat.com.

Summer Fiction Blog Tour

Review | Invincible Summer, Alice Adams

27161851I love the idea behind this novel — four friends from college graduate and drift off into separate lives, the novel dipping into their stories intermittently over the next twenty years. I love coming of age stories, and I especially love stories where the “coming of age” chronicles the transition into adulthood and the various milestones (job, marriage, children) that come afterwards.

The main character is Eva, who is secretly in love with playboy Lucien in college and who graduates to become an investment banker. (Kudos to Alice Adams — I think an investment banker heroine is fairly rare in popular fiction, particularly with the amount of industry-specific detail included here. The author’s background in finance is evident, with so much financial terminology and dialogue that it reminded me of my experience watching The Big Short — slightly confused and slightly struggling to care about what are obviously very big and exciting deals.)

Secretly in love with Eva is Benedict, a physicist who, kudos to him, moves on to other women when it’s clear Eva isn’t interested in a relationship with him at that time. Lucien is a playboy in college who goes on to become a professional partier in adulthood, age turning him from charming to sleazy and from fun-loving to rather pathetic. Lucien’s sister Sylvie is an aspiring artist for whom adulthood is a harsh dose of reality.

I enjoyed this story, particularly as it chronicled the shift from the rather rosy expectations the characters have in college to the reality of adulthood, where your talent may not be enough to build a viable career, where the man who pined after you for years may no longer be available when you decide to reciprocate his feelings, where you can land your dream job and do everything right and still not succeed.

Sylvie really stood out to me as the most compelling character, with her descent from popular talented college girl to a woman who can barely make ends meet and can’t figure out what to do with her life. She and Lucien took a much smaller role as the story progressed, with the main focus being Eva’s career and her on-again/off-again will they/won’t they type of romance with Benedict, but I couldn’t help wishing Adams had given us much more of Sylvie’s story.

Invincible Summer is a good book and well-written, but it never quite latched on to me or made me feel so invested in the characters that I had to keep reading. I think it’s because the characters mostly fell flat for me. The character I found most compelling (Sylvie) was relegated to the backseat so ended up feeling flatter than she could have been, whereas the character who was the primary focus (Eva) was okay but a bit too bland to carry the novel. Lucien almost felt unnecessary — he was set up as Eva’s crush in the beginning, but never really stood out as all that appealing, even for a young woman in the mood for a bad boy, and after graduation, he mostly just seemed inserted into the story at sporadic moments, seeming more like the vaguely creepy guy you avoid on the subway than someone who is truly menacing, truly charismatic or truly pathetic. Benedict had potential to be interesting — he is on the team working on the hadron collider! — but his marriage seemed tepid at best, more an obstacle to his happily ever after with Eva than an actual emotional impediment.

Still, it’s a quick read, well-written, and an interesting peek into the lives of 20- and 30-year-olds. Fans of One Day may enjoy the format.

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Thanks to Hachette Book Group Canada for an advanced reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

 

Blog Tour | The Girls in the Garden, Lisa Jewell

27276357Eleven year old Pip, her thirteen year old sister Grace and their mother move into a cozy London neighbourhood flat where their neighbours have all grown up knowing each other. One summer evening, Pip discovers Grace lying unconscious and partially undressed in a hidden corner of the neighbourhood’s communal rose garden. The mystery around who did what to Grace drives the story, and Jewell takes us to the weeks before the incident and to the days in its immediate aftermath.

The Girls in the Garden is a gripping tale with a dark and twisty cluster of relationships among the neighbours. Jewell creates an entire cast of characters, and I admit that at times, it became a bit confusing to figure out the characters’ relationships and feelings towards each other. Grace and her peers are central to the story’s plot, and Pip is the narrator who observes everything, but the parents in the neighbourhood are just as entrenched in the developments. The attack on Grace somewhat mirrors a murder in the same garden years ago, and old suspicions and accusations surface.

Initially, the answer to the mystery seems obvious, even if the perpetrator’s identity is still to be determined. However, Jewell doesn’t give us the obvious. I found the reveal to be darker than I’d imagined, and the characters’ responses to the reveal made it even more disturbing. I felt like there was so much more to unpack in that reveal than we’re given, and I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about that ending. On the one hand, it felt deeply unsatisfying in its seeming neatness; on the other hand, I actually can imagine real people responding like this, particularly within a small, enclosed neighbourhood, and that itself is probably the darkest, twistiest bit of all.

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Thanks to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Blog Tour and Contest

This review is part of the Simon Schuster Canada Perfect Pairing Blog Tour. Check out the full schedule below.

Also: nothing pairs up better with a book than a cup of coffee, so heads up on an awesome contest: Simon and Schuster Canada is giving away a set of books AND one year of free coffee from aroma espresso bar! Enter at readchillrepeat.com.

Summer Fiction Blog Tour

Review | I’m Your Biggest Fan, Kate Coyne

27161824I’m Your Biggest Fan is a fun and funny collection of anecdotes about celebrity encounters from Kate Coyne, executive editor for People and formerly a reporter for Page Six of the New York Post and entertainment editor for Good Housekeeping. She begins the book with a story about her emotional first encounter with Robert Downey Jr, as a teenage fangirl who burst into tears at his autograph and later bumped into him with her eyes still puffy and her nose still swollen. The chapter is titled “Robert Downey Jr. Thinks I’m Emotionally Unhinged,” and that tone of self-deprecating humour sets the tone of hilarity for the rest of the book.

Coyne has what is arguably many readers’ dream job — the chance to hobnob with A-list celebrities and get paid for it. I can only imagine how awkward I would be face to face with RDJ, NPH and all the other celebrities she writes about, so it’s nice to read that someone who does this for a living is still just as starstruck as I would be, though admittedly more professional than I may have managed to act.

 

Coyne’s stories made my laugh (RDJ) or swoon (Tom Cruise, surprisingly, and Tom Hanks), and in one of my favourite chapters, served as a reality check that regardless of how friendly a celebrity is, the interview is still a job, and celebrity journalists are still an acquaintance at best and not necessarily a friend. In this particular chapter, Coyne interviews Mariska Hargitay and is blown away by how warm and friendly Hargitay is. Near the end of the interview, Hargitay makes an offhand suggestion that Coyne and her husband drop by sometime for a game of charades. I’ll be honest: I love Mariska Hargitay, and if she ever invites me over to charades, I may very well respond as starry-eyed as Coyne did, and will likely set myself up for the same disappointment she experienced when the follow up invitation never came. The punchline of the story comes years later when Coyne encounters Hargitay at the Emmys and blurts out something about the charades invitation apropos of absolutely nothing, and then proceeds to make it worse by babbling about the context for her comment. Coyne writes, “As I cackled like a lunatic, Mariska’s gorgeous Louboutin stilettos took two steps backward. She was physically trying to get away from me. She was slowly backing away from the scary stalker that I had become” (p. 67).

Coyne’s writing maintains its light and breezy tone. Listening to her stories felt like chatting with a friend who happens to be invited to amazing events with all the cool people in Hollywood. In another of my favourite chapters, this one featuring Tom Hanks, Coyne is feeling idiotic after a particularly awkward encounter with Neil Patrick Harris and Hanks notices her mood and kindly strikes up a conversation and makes her feel better. I’ve always loved Tom Hanks’ work, and this anecdote makes me just want to hug him.

Coyne also relates some more serious stories, such as her encounters with Kate Gosselin, who is really an object of sympathy unjustly maligned by the tabloids and with Michael Douglas, with whom Coyne shared a lovely moment reminiscing over a childhood encounter with his troubled son. There’s a chapter at the end about a bout with an eating disorder, which felt out of place with the rest of the book. Coyne keeps the tone as light as self-deprecating as ever but in this instance, the tone feels almost discordant with the content, and I wish that, if this part of the story had to be included, that it had been given a bit more space to unpack rather than treated as a throwaway amongst many other anecdotes.

I’m Your Biggest Fan is a fun, humorous look at celebrity journalism and having the dream of a lifetime chance to speak with celebrities you admire.

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Thanks to Hachette Book Group Canada for an Advance Reading Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, Ann Y. K. Choi

29218113Korean-Canadian teenager Mary is tired of having to manage her family’s convenience store. Part of her wants nothing more than to be modern and Canadian, but another part of her is unable to fully leave behind the expectations of her traditional Korean family. This dilemma plays out in different ways: she uses the name Mary but can’t help that her parents sometimes call her by her Korean birth name Yu-Rhee. She is in love with her English teacher, but her parents want her to set her up with a Korean boy named Joon-Ho. There’s also the unspoken family secret about her mother’s estranged sister, and how that may tie in to Mary’s own struggle.

Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety had its weaknesses — in particular, a scene of sexual assault felt tacked on, a tired coming of age trope that was added unnecessarily and then not fully explored. Mary’s crush on her older English teacher also felt cliche, and its outcome inevitable. That being said, I think these two things bugged me mostly because the rest of the book was so strong that any weakness really stood out.

I love how Choi writes about the immigrant experience. I love the sharp observations about feeling the need to represent an entire culture, simply because you are still a minority within the community. One character says of a fellow Korean: “He makes the rest of us look bad. Like we’re all a bunch of idiots who can’t make it here. Don’t you get it? People like him make them suspicious of all of us.” (page 198) Joon-Ho and his family do some really questionable, sometimes villainous things, but their struggle is also a really smart depiction of the pressure around immigration. I love how Choi portrayed Joon-Ho’s need to be as close to perfect as possible in order to achieve residency in Canada, and the additional stress of having your family’s hopes of immigrating lie on your shoulders.

I also love how Choi highlights the rarity of Asian representation in Canadian literature. When Mary’s mother asks her why she never reads books about Korean or Chinese characters, Mary responds that there aren’t any, or at least none that she’s aware of. This story was set in the 1980s, and thankfully today, there are a lot more options available for CanLit books featuring Asian characters. Still, Mary’s mother’s response resonated with me: “You want to know about feeling invisible? It’s always black and white in Canada. The Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, anyone from Asia are the true invisibles. Do you think anyone really sees us when they throw pennies at us for a newspaper?”

Overall, I really like how Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety portrayed the experiences of Mary, her mother and their family. I especially love how Mary realizes she can be Korean even without ascribing to traditions that don’t quite fit her: “I could claim my name myself. I could have everyone call me Yu-Rhee.” It’s a fantastic owning of identity, and realizing that one has the power to claim both sides of a dual identity for themselves, even with something as simple as a name.

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Thanks to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.