Category: Books

The Rule of Thirds – Chantel Guertin

Books November 20, 2016

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This is my first review of a YA novel. I’m embarrassed to admit that I used to be one of those foolish people that turned up their noses at YA. But no more! After befriending a highly talented YA writer my opinion changed drastically. On top of that, my friend Sarah Essak’s blog post for Tundra helped me realize my unfair bias as well (there is a lot of fluff out there–why just isolate it to YA). Now I embrace it whole-heartedly and will hopefully bring you more this year.

I happened upon the Chantel Guertin series by complete accident by attending the launch of the third book in her Pippa Greene series with my blogging pal Jessica Lewis. I think the only reason I agreed to go was because the launch was held at one of my favourite bars in Toronto, Get Well. I was also promised a visit to the new Harry Potter bar (The Lockhart) afterwards which didn’t disappoint (more on that later). I was naive and only picked up the first book in the series to be sure I would enjoy it and I’m certainly kicking myself now for not picking all of them up. I will definitely remedy this by purchasing Depth of Field and Leading Lines next time I’m back in Toronto. And how amazing are those covers! ECW Press always have such beautiful and thoughtful covers and the Pippa Greene series is no exception.

I think I fell in love with Pippa right away as she reminded me of a camera-toting friend in high school. Furthermore, Pippa as a character was just so believable, she made all the mistakes a teenager would make yet I never felt annoyed or in disbelief with some of her questionable decisions. I think the fact that her best friend is a model is a hyperbolized version of what most teenage girls feel about that glamorous friend, it’s certainly something I can relate to.

I’m going out on a limb and assuming a lot of the crappy things that happened (photos and electronics being stolen) will be resolved in the coming books so I wasn’t dissatisfied with the novel ending on a cliffhanger.

Perhaps this is vapid of me to point out, but I really loved meeting the beautiful Chantel Guertin. I’d remembered seeing her on the Marilyn Dennis show (yes…I’d catch an episode here or there while on the treadmill) and I think had even employed some of her makeup tips in the past with great success–and that’s saying something because I’m pretty hopeless with makeup. She was so gracious and didn’t seem remotely phased that I just walked up to her and gushed about her Maje skirt–for anyone who knows me, Maje is one of my favourite French brands after discovering them on an exchange in 2008. I can’t be blamed though, it was a pretty spectacular ensemble (how did I manage to cut off her shoes!?).

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I listened to the Julie Ruin a lot while reading this novel. It was apt seeing as I listened to so much Le Tigre in high school.

The Art of Creative Thinking-Rod Judkins

Books June 4, 2015

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I LOVED THIS BOOK. This is such a necessary book. Even if you don’t consider yourself a “creative” person, it might unleash some long dormant aspirations you’ve long forgotten about, or have you re-evaluate your approach to all sorts of situations in your life. Just the anecdotal accounts about famous artists such as Dalí, Alexander McQueen, Christian Marclay, Hans Christian Anderson, are enough if you’re not interested in ameliorating your creative flare. This book reminded me a little bit of the satisfaction I got from reading the book You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney. There’s a lot in this book to identify with. I’m a singer-songwriter on the harp and this book definitely got me thinking a lot more about my “process” and the ways I limit myself in both perspective and undermining my own capacities and abilities. It’s also given me insight about how to just let go of “goals” and instead just follow my passions and see where they lead me instead of confining myself to a certain target or destination in mind.

Here professor Rod Judkins from St Martin’s College of Art is a sort of curator of techniques to unleash creativity in any situation. This book definitely diminishes the myth that only creative people are geniuses and vice versa. It really emphasizes how much failure comes into play in the creative process and how to adjust ones attitude towards failure to fully embrace the inertia of the process, whether the result is success of failure. Be positive about the negative reactions to your art or your work in life—some sort of reaction is better than no reaction at all. People are generally resistant to new ideas and concepts and sometimes a negative reaction can be really telling (in that it might eventually be overwhelmingly accepted like Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 1).

The Art of Creative Thinking is all about the productivity found in breaking rules and getting out of your comfort zone. This may sound like really conventional wisdom but it examines the minds of creative thinkers and how to apply some of their mantras to your own thinking. In fact, the book recommends coming up with your own mantra, one that can connect you with your past, present and future self—something that I’m definitely working on for myself. I think it’s a really interesting concept to create a linear sense of purpose and motivation throughout your life that really rings true with who you are and what fulfills you (as cheesy as it sounds!).

The book also explores at length the need to doubt everything around you. This might seem intuitive but you wouldn’t believe how many things we accept because it’s the status quo. Reject the structures and forms you’ve been working with and start a new, try working in a way or in a setting you never have before and you might reap amazing results! There might have been something you overlooked if you keep going at it in the same way. Again, Judkins presents all sorts of fascinating and convincing anecdotal evidence about famous and successful artists that had me really excited about rejecting the sort of structures I had come to accept in my life and my work.

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There were parts of the book where I felt a little incredulous. I feel like Judkins underplays or elides over the dangers of the creative life (many of the artists he quotes suffered from addiction). I think, however, Judkins stays away from those caveats as it would be more a judgment on untreated mental illness’ (and the creativity that comes out of mental illness) than laying the blame on a creative life and creative sensibilities.

Probably the most valuable piece of advice for me was to not be afraid to copy and emulate other’s works. Obviously plagiarism is a different issue. All great artists have copied and re-worked others pieces. Through understanding their predecessors’ technique or approach, perhaps your own unique perspective will emerge.

The book also offers tons of fantastic quotes at the end of each chapter that definitely were worth scribbling down in a notebook for future reference. Reject logic, and indulge yourself and your curiosity friends!

The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton

Books May 29, 2015

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I was offered The Minaturist while seeing my old boss in London during her visit for the London Book Fair. She claimed she had read the first few pages and could surmise the kind of book it would be and decided it wasn’t for her. After I started reading it on the train back to Bristol I couldn’t understand what she meant. The prose was very facile and inviting and drew me in instantly. However, I found the characterization of Petronella, our protagonist, to be a little unconvincing when she’s first introduced as a very naïve young girl and then takes on the world like a fully-grown Woman. This was clearly a very deliberate transition but the extent of her worldliness and acceptance of human sexuality seemed like a bit of a stretch for the time period (Calvinistic and austere Amsterdam). I appreciated the 21st century feminism interjected into the sensibilities of the novel, but at times it made it seem a little too-good-to-be-true. However, expressed homophobia would likely be unacceptable in a modern novel as well so I think Jessie Burton’s sensibilities were on point. I think it’s a difficult dance balancing historical accuracy with modern values and I think Jessie Burton did an excellent job of this.

I also never felt satisfied with the story of the “miniaturist” and what her motivations were sending premonitory figurines to Women across Amsterdam, which is never truly resolved despite an interaction with the miniaturist’s father. Nor does Nella have any interactions with her at the end to complete that narrative arc. I feel as though perhaps this was an editorial decision more than one the author chose to elide. Despite my boss’ reservations about the novel, I still enjoyed it a great deal as I think the prose and detailed passages themselves were strong enough to keep me going. I’m really looking forward to what Jessie Burton produces in the future.

I hope it doesn’t sound as though I’m focusing too much on what I think is wrong with this book. I have a tendency to focus on the things I find unconvincing in a book when I think it’s a really excellent and worthy novel. As much as I found Nella to be at times “too-good-to-be-true”, I still felt very engaged and invested in her as a character.

Petronella arrives in Amsterdam, with her parakeet peebo, as a child bride of pedigree from her isolated life out in the countryside. Her new husband Johannes Brandt seems quite emotionally and intimately remote at the beginning until he produces a doll’s house in their front entrance one day. The cabinet is a diminutive replica of their house complete with lavish furnishings and textiles.

The accuracy of the cabinet is eerie, as if the real house has been shrunk, its body sliced in two and its organs revealed. The nine rooms, from the working kitchen, the salon, up to the loft where the peat and firewood are stored away from damp, are perfect replicas.

Petronella feels infantilized by the unexpected gift but proceeds to commission objects from a miniaturist who starts sending eerily predictive miniatures from Nella’s life.

Chairs, a cradle—perhaps the usual things a woman might ask for a replica of her house—but I didn’t. I definitely didn’t. She rips apart the wrapping on the third package, and beneath another layer of blue material is a pair of miniature dogs. Two whippet bodies no larger than moths, covered in silky grey fur, with skulls the size of peas…On one of the dog’s bellies is a small black spot, in exactly the same place as Dhanas.

The city of Amsterdam is in its golden age of trade and commerce and Johannes Brandt is portrayed as an asset to the city as a merchant. He’s sitting on a large amount of sugar belonging to a long-time acquaintance and due to their history is reluctant to move the produce, which inevitably invokes the ire of said acquaintance leading to a disastrous situation.

Petronella has a difficult time navigating her new and puzzling situation in a grand house. Her new sister-in-law Marin proves to be a very austere and impenetrable Woman whom has little patience for her, though their burgeoning relationship creates some tension and interest in the novel (and was perhaps, in my opinion, the most rewarding relationship in the novel). Furthermore, Nella develops compelling relationships with the house’s two servants Otto and Cornelia—unsure and hesitant in her new position. This stands a little more convincing that the very limited interaction she has with her husband, which somehow results in a throbbing sense of compassion and feeling for him, making it a bit difficult to believe.


I thought I’d add some pictures of doll’s houses I took recently. The first is from a shop in Bristol and the second from an estate house in Tipperary.

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The Buried Giant – Kazuo Ishiguro

Books May 1, 2015

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This is actually the first Kazuo Ishiguro novel (I lament to admit) I’ve ever read. I’ve seen film adaptations of his books but obviously that’s no supplement for the “real deal”. I saw him interviewed on the BBC one morning and though his description of the narrative was a little vague (or I was otherwise occupied with my cereal) I was interested enough to go and pick it up. I think what piqued my interest is that it was literary fiction with a dragon at the heart of its plot. I’m not really sure where the line is to be drawn. Is it because there are greater themes with mimetics and loss at play? Or is it the illusion of the prose being more “elevated”. But surely many fantasy novels are capable of all these things as well. Perhaps it’s because it’s a pastiche of older tropes like Sir Gawain and the Arthurian legends that sets it apart (though George RR Martin makes use of allusions to Hadrian’s wall and the War of the Roses so I don’t know what makes that any different). I’m not well read enough in fantasy to conclude as to what I think about it all. Once I’ve drawn a proper conclusion I’ll be sure to share it regardless.

Though our two protagonists Axl and his wife Beatrice live ostensibly in a human-sized warren, there’s nothing about this settlement that reminds me of Hobbiton or Lord of the Rings. In fact, I can confidently say that Ishiguro has created an environment that I’m little able to draw any comparisons to despite the presence of ogres and the like.

“Icy fogs hung over rivers and marshes, serving all too well the ogres that were then still native to this land…But such monsters were not cause for astonishment. People then would have regarded them as everyday hazards, and in those days there was so much else to worry about.”

Perhaps it’s the prose that is so easy and unassuming compared to the tone of other historical fiction and fantasy novels that made it seem more like a work of literary fiction. When I do read fantasy novels I immediately feel transported and firmly rooted in the world I’m engaging with, though distinctly passive in them. In the Buried Giant, I sometimes felt like I was reading something modern and then a reference to the iron age would be made that would wrench me back to the time it was intended to be set it. Furthermore, I felt as though I would be addressed in a way that insinuated that I too was from that time. It was an interesting narrative device since it made it seem a little more interactive than passive. Nevertheless, I never found this to be too distracting from the plot despite how much I found it dragged in the first hundred pages or so. Despite this, I still absolutely loved this book and would highly recommend it.

A mist has enveloped the land greatly affecting people’s memory as Axl and Beatrice begin to remember a lost son whom is waiting for them in his neighbouring village. They set out on journey to reunite with their son and encounter various characters along the way. This includes an aging and Don Quixote-esque Sir Gawain who seeks out the she-dragon Querig who turns out to be the source of the mysterious mist. I’ll try not to spoil too much but I think the subtlety of this novel is amazing in how it answers very few of the questions it poses. I did find some issues with verisimilitude when a young Saxon that gets bitten by the dragon is ostracized by his community and sneaks off with Axl and Beatrice to avoid the death penalty. Later, we find out the dragon would have been little capable of biting the boy and we’re given no explanation or justification for this. I found this lack of credibility in the plot line quite disconcerting. However, I love when a book leaves me thinking about it for weeks afterwards (which sadly with my memory seldom happens).

On a final note, I often find myself listening to one particular album with a novel. With this particular book I was drawn to Olafur Arnalds and Sara Ott’s new album The Chopin Project. It’s a fantastic re-imagining or pastiche of some of Chopin’s works. It’s a much more creaky, ambient sound-scape then one is normally accustomed to from a classical album and it ranges from nuance to overtly melancholic. If you compare some of the tracks to older more structured recordings you definitely get the sense that they are a motif more than a replication. I think it’s a really fascinating approach to classical music and I hope it becomes more of a trend. Even if you’re not a classical music fan in the slightest this album is definitely worth a listen.