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10-pages-in book review: Sweetland

by DaniGirl on February 17, 2015 · 2 comments

in 10-pages-in,Books

Waaaaay back in the day, I used to write what I called “10-pages-in” book reviews. The idea behind the 10-pages-in review is that early in a book there’s often a tipping point where you decide whether a book is worth the effort. At 10 or 20 pages in, you can still comfortably walk away and not feel like you’ve invested too much to quit. Or, you know you’re so hooked that you start canceling playdates and dental appointments just to make more time to read.

I’m more than 10 pages in to Michael Crummey’s Sweetland, but by the time I’d hit the 10th page I was in love. It’s one of those books where you keep checking to see how much is left so you don’t gorge yourself and read it too quickly – you want to slow down and savour it, but you also want to gobble it up in one big feast.

The Goodreads synopsis for Sweetland sums it up well:

For twelve generations, when the fish were plentiful and when they all-but disappeared, the inhabitants of this remote island in Newfoundland have lived and died together. Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, they are facing resettlement, and each has been offered a generous compensation package to leave. But the money is offered with a proviso: everyone has to go; the government won’t be responsible for one crazy coot who chooses to stay alone on an island.

That coot is Moses Sweetland. Motivated in part by a sense of history and belonging, haunted by memories of the short and lonely time he spent away from his home as a younger man, and concerned that his somewhat eccentric great-nephew will wilt on the mainland, Moses refuses to leave. But in the face of determined, sometimes violent, opposition from his family and his friends, Sweetland is eventually swayed to sign on to the government’s plan. Then a tragic accident prompts him to fake his own death and stay on the deserted island. As he manages a desperately diminishing food supply, and battles against the ravages of weather, Sweetland finds himself in the company of the vibrant ghosts of the former islanders, whose porch lights still seem to turn on at night.

I am utterly enchanted by this book. I love the way the dialogue perfectly captures the rural Newfoundland idioms without reducing them to caricature. I love the gentle quirkiness of the characters. I love the way past and present are layered so they bleed through each other. I love the protagonist and his obstinate ways. I want to crawl inside this book and live there.

It’s more than a little ironic that given the book is about relocating people off the tiny rural island, a huge part of my heart yearns to move to just such a place. Between reading Anne’s House of Dreams to the boys and this book, I’ve practically packed our bags and moved us to Canada’s easternmost coastline. I’m not sure why PEI and Newfoundland suddenly call to me so strongly, but they do, and these wonderful books with their roots deep in a sense of place are only throwing gasoline on the fires of my imagination.

I’m already dreading the ‘tragic accident’ that’s mentioned in the synopsis, but even more I’m dreading the end of this book. I don’t want it to be done, and have already lined up Michael Crummey’s previous novel, Galore, as my next book.

Have you ever read a book that made you want to crawl inside and live there? What books have captured your imagination like this? To be reading two at the same time is rather dizzying. It also means I’m spending a rather alarming amount of time casually perusing real estate listings on PEI…


It wasn’t so much that I was resisting getting an e-reader of my own up until now. Beloved got a Kindle way back in the day when they first came out, and I’d use his every now and then, but it was attached to his credit card and it was always a bit of an inconvenience to get him to buy books for me. Besides, I’ve always been loathe to pay for books when the library has stacks of them for free. Then, my mom upgraded to a Kindle Fire and I inherited her old Kindle loaded with hundreds of books, and that kept me busy for a while.

Still, while there is a lot of overlap between what my mom likes to read (Stephen King, John Sandford, Janet Evanovich, John Grisham, Kathy Reichs, just about any of the good mystery series out there) and what Beloved likes to read (everything from classics to comic books), it just seemed easier to get a Kindle of my own so I could cater to my own eclectic tastes without having to be 357th on the waiting list for interesting new books that come out.

So that’s what Santa, erm, I mean Beloved, got me for Christmas. Hello 2008, I have a Kindle of my own! Of course, now I have to fill it up, which is where you come in.

Thanks to Goodreads, here’s what I’ve been reading lately – although it’s not incredibly accurate. For one thing, it’s got all the books I’ve read out loud to the boys. For another, it’s missed a few that I’ve tagged as read. I know for a fact we read Anne of Green Gables last year as well as at least one or two others in the Hitchhikers trilogy, and I’m sure I read at least one more Neil Gaiman and Gillian Flynn – and yet they’re not showing up here even though they’re on my Goodreads shelves. Who knows with my Swiss-cheese memory what else could be missing? Weird thing is they show up individually, just not in this list. *shrug*

Covers of books I have read recently

I’ve just started reading The Rosie Project, which seems cute but I’m having a hard time not hearing Sheldon Cooper as the narrator. People have raved about it, though, so I’m curious to see where it goes. I’ve been meaning to read Terry Fallis’s The High Road for quite a while now, so that might be next in the queue.

What say ye, bloggy peeps? What do I need to read in 2015?

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Remember when I found out my photo of Lucas playing hopscotch had been turned into a book cover?

I’ve already told you a little bit about how I found the book and started a casual correspondence with the author, and what a truly kind and interesting person he seems to be. But just as the proof of the pudding is in the eating, the proof of the book is in the reading, and when I cracked the cover of Take This Man by Brando Skyhorse, I so dearly wanted it to be a good book. I wanted it to be good because I liked the author, I wanted it to be good because I was curious about the story, and of course, I wanted it to be good because that’s my Lucas on the cover.

It was not simply a good book. It was a harrowing, heartbreaking, funny, tragic, compelling and utterly unforgettable book. It is, I tell you without bias, a story that will rattle around in your brain and your heart long after you turn the last page. It has been called a “most anticipated book of 2014“, (right there under Diana Gabaldon and Stephen King!), a best book of summer 2014, and listed as a “next great indie read” for June 2014, among many other reviews. Pretty serious buzz, right? And I can tell you without reservation or bias, it is worth the read.

Brando Skyhorse has lived a life that is incomprehensible to me, and his memoir moved me deeply. Brando’s Mexican-born father leaves the family when Brando was a toddler, leaving Brando with no real memories of his father. Shy of neither imagination nor chutzpah, Brando’s Mexican-born mother Maria capriciously decides to reinvent herself as a Native American named Running Deer and tells young Brando that his father is an incarcerated Native activist named Paul Skyhorse – someone neither Maria nor Brando has ever met. This abrupt reinvention and declaration marks the beginning of a pattern that repeats throughout Brando’s young life: a father figure is discovered, declared and brought into the family without question, usually without attention to such details as divorcing the previously instated father figure, not once or twice but five times through Brando’s childhood and adolescence.

Dysfunctional doesn’t begin to cover Brando’s convoluted childhood. His domineering and delusional mythmaker mother seeks new husbands in the personal ads in the backs of magazines, and Brando and his mother become co-conspirators of a sort in this ongoing quest to find a suitable surrogate father figure. Brando describes the pattern in the introduction to the book:

Life with each of these fathers followed a similar path. First I was forced to accept them, then slowly I trusted them, then I grew to love them.

Then they left.

“Some boys don’t have any fathers in their life,” my mother would say, bucking me up. “You’ve had five. Plenty for one boy.”

This cavalier obliviousness defines Maria’s relationship with Brando, and the mother in me at more than one point in the book wanted to reach into the pages and throttle Maria for her casual cruelty. One father gets arrested at Disneyland, another steals coins from Brando’s piggy bank. One after another, they fail to live up to even the most meagre expectations of a father figure. Time and again, the circumstances of Brando’s life conspire against him, yanking the metaphysical rug out from under him. And yet, this is neither a maudlin nor a bitter story. Brando’s voice is often dryly witty as he recounts the absurdity of his childhood circumstances. Only toward the end of the book does a sense of defeat and anger begin to outweigh the undercurrent of dark humour, and it was at this point that I found the story hardest to read.

This is truly an unforgettable story, brilliantly told. I held my breath in anticipation at times, cringing and practically reading through fingers splayed across my eyes for fear of what twist might come next at others. Dark comedy melds seamlessly into tragic pathos and back again, and by the middle of the book I was so deeply invested in Brando’s story I wanted to skip ahead to the end to make sure the final twist was a happy ending. Just when I really thought I was going to have to stop reading because I didn’t think I could handle the stress of reading about one more loss in the young man’s life, Brando finds his way through his personal darkness and begins to weave together the frayed ends of his life. As much as a memoir of a living person can’t really have a definitive ending, I can tell you at least (no worries, no spoiler alert here) that you won’t be disappointed with the where the story ends.

This is not just a good book. This is an extraordinary book. So maybe, just this once, it’s okay to judge a book by it’s cover. ;)


A tale of three books

by DaniGirl on April 26, 2014 · 7 comments

in Books,Photography

Once upon a time, and for quite a long time, I harboured secret dreams of being a writer. When I was in school, I wanted to be a journalist and even applied to the journalism program at Carleton. Over the years, though, I discovered blogging, and developed a little bit more self-awareness, and fell in love with photography. The blog allowed me to write in fits and starts when the mood moved me without committing to the long form of a book (I always saw myself as more of a short story writer anyway) but still scratch the itch that was my need to tell stories. The self-awareness revealed that not only do I have the attention span of a flea, while I love the act of writing, I am not really a writer in my soul. The photography gave me an outlet even more powerful and more intoxicating than writing to tell the stories I wanted to tell.

I hold books to be sacred things. If I were to think of a single thing that has most influenced who I am, what I believe, how I dream and what I love it do, that thing would be books. While I am content with the idea that I will probably never actually write a book, I am deeply and madly honoured to have been associated with not one, not two, but THREE books in the last month or so. You’ll have to pardon the hyperbole. I’m so excited that I’ve even regressed to typing two spaces after my periods.

The first book I want to tell you about is a book of poetry. It’s being published by a small literary press in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the poet is a young New Englander named Brian Simoneau. The publisher found my photo of Watson’s Mill on Flickr and sent me a note asking if they could use it. It’s not represented by Getty, so I negotiated a fair price – including a vanity copy for me and one for the Mill! – and we had a deal. I haven’t seen the final layout yet, but this is the photo they will be using:

Foggy Mill

Neat, eh? The publisher has promised me a mock-up of the cover soon, and the book will be available in September. I’ll share when I have them.

The second book was written by the person who posted the very first ever comment on this blog. Dean Dad, recently linked to his alter-ego Matt Reed, has been blogging just a little bit longer than me but has engaged a huge audience over the years with his blog Confessions of a Community College Dean. We became friends and kept in touch over the years, bonded by a shared appreciation of the wonders of parenting and the absurdities of working in a bureaucratic environment. Or maybe it was the wonders of bureaucracy and the absurdity of parenting?

Regardless, I just found out recently that Matt wrote a book based on his experiences called Confessions of a Community College Administrator. I was delighted for him, and when I congratulated Matt on his accomplishment, he casually mentioned that he had thanked me by name in the acknowledgements. (!) How cool is THIS?

Thanks again Dean Dad – erm, I mean Matt. It’s been fun bumping along this bloggy road with you over the last decade. :)

And last but not least, of course, is the book I first told you about in January. When I found out that my photo of Lucas drawing a hopscotch on the driveway was being used as a book cover, I was so excited I did a little dance around the room. It’s something I have hoped to see for as long as I’ve been licensing my photos through Getty Images. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine it might be used on a book that has been touted as one of the “most anticipated books of 2014” or a Publisher’s Weekly starred review.

What I really love about the story of this book, as opposed to the story IN the book, is how I have forged a connection to the author, Brando Skyhorse. As I mentioned back in January, I found the book cover using a Google Image search, and when I found it I tagged the book on Goodreads as ‘to read’ and commented ‘this is the book with my photo on the cover’.

To my surprise and delight, I received an e-mail a few days later from the author himself. He said,

Hi Dani -

I’m Brando Skyhorse, author of Take This Man. I just discovered today via Goodreads (which led me to your blog) your stunning picture graces the finished book jacket.

This book was an incredible challenge for me to write. Often times the only thing that kept me going was trying to visualize what the final jacket (and title) would be. I could never see it, though. When my editor emailed cover samples we had close to a dozen wonderful designs to choose from yet I kept returning to your image. Something about the child – whose name I now know is Lucas – drawing on pavement with chalk felt absolutely right. Maybe you’ll see what I mean if you read the book.

In short: THANK YOU. Your picture is an incredible gift that’s made my book complete.

Isn’t that wonderful? I swear I smile every time I read it. Not only is my book on a jacket cover, but the author is a REALLY NICE GUY. We’ve corresponded through the past few months, me telling him how honoured I am to have my photo on his book and him giving me status updates along the lines of ‘”Our” book got some great news this week!’

So my photo is on the cover, it sounds like it’s going to have a pretty impressive release later this spring, and the author is incredibly kind. What could be better? Oh yes, it’s an absolutely breath-taking book, one I promise you will never forget. I’ve gone a little rambly on this post (quelle surprise!) and I want to do the book justice with my review, so stand by and I’ll get that posted soon(ish) in a separate post.

But seriously, a photo on a book of poetry, name credit in the acknowledgements of another book, and Lucas on what sounds by all accounts to be a barn-burner of a best seller. Who needs to actually WRITE a book with all of that?!?


Had you told me before I had kids that I’d be reading aloud each night to my kids beyond the age of ten, I’d have laughed. I mean, sure, we’re a bookish family, and reading is sacred – but I would not have imagined that they would still not only enjoy but actively request out-loud reading at the end of every day.

From the Hobbit to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing to Harry Potter, it’s been fun revisiting some of my favourite books with them. We’ve also checked a few off my own “must read” list, including A Wrinkle in Time and most recently, Anne of Green Gables. (I seriously never could have imagined that two 21st century preteen boys could be so engaged by a 100 year old book about a spunky girl as they have. Truly one of my finer parenting moments!)

They are just getting to an age where they are starting to have more sophisticated tastes in their individual reading. They’ve both read two of the three Hunger Games books, and are racing to finish Mocking Jay before the first movie comes out this fall. With the hype about the new Divergent movie and a recommendation from a camp counsellor, Simon now wants to read that. I waffled – he is only 10, and I don’t know how mature the themes in the book are, even though it is purportedly for a young adult audience. There is a lot of ground between 10 and 17!

At first, I was going to hold him off until I could read the series myself first. At the very least, I thought I would skim the interwebs to see if I could get an idea if there was anything questionable in the books. However, I was nine when I picked up my mom’s copy of Stephen King’s Firestarter and I’ve been reading adult novels just about ever since.

304:365 Antique books

After reflecting on it a bit, I decided that they’re now pretty much okay to read whatever they want. I couldn’t think of anything I wouldn’t want them to read, although I do still want to know what they’re reading so we can talk about it. I think I’d still be careful about what movies we watched together, but there’s something about books and the engagement of your imagination that makes me willing to give them a longer leash.

I tried to think of what would make me restrict a book, and I suppose the violence would be the biggest red flag for me, although they are a little naive for any overt sexuality. Truth be told, if they are smart enough to find that stuff and learn something, more power to them! As if we weren’t all reading everything from Tiger Eyes to Tropic of Capricorn looking for the racy bits back in high school.

What do you think? Are you concerned about what your pre-teen or teen is reading? Do you monitor their reading? Are there some themes that worry you more than others? Are there any books you would forbid outright? (And how long do you think it would be before they found a way to subvert you?)

I’m thinking I may at last soon be able to do something I’ve been waiting years to do: read one of my all-time favourite books out loud to the boys. Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, here we come!

(Thanks to Kerry and her family for inspiring this blog post with a random Facebook conversation!)


I have two blog posts I’ve been noodling away at in stolen moments this week, one on skating lessons and one on Instagram. So it makes perfect sense that I drop everything and write a post about Alice Munro, right?

Well, it does because I just heard the lovely news that she has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. She is first Canadian-based writer to win the world’s most prestigious literary prize. Remember when I used to blog about books? I’ve been pining for those days lately, and when one of my lifetime idols wins the Nobel freakin’ Prize, that’s defintely worth blogging about!

I’m sure it speaks to my rather scattered sensibilities and curiousities when I tell you that the three most influential authors in my life (so far) have been Alice Munro, Stephen King and Douglas Coupland. I “discovered” Alice Munro way back in my teen angst years, and gobbled up everything she had written to date. I was entranced in large part because many of her novels and stories are set not just in Canada but in the part of the country where I grew up (in London, Ontario). I recognized the sleepy villages, the rolling farms, the verdant fields, even when she didn’t call them by name.

But on a deeper level, she also wrote about the experience of being a woman in terms to which I could strongly relate. Her characters are quirky and thoughtful, leading ordinary lives that occasionally break open to reveal the extraordinariness woven into the fabric of all of us, just below the surface. It was through Alice Munro that I learned to be open to and observe and love the beauty in minutaie.

It was also in reading Alice Munro that I learned about magic realism, a style I have come to love over the years. Once upon a time when I wanted to be a writer (that would be for most of the first three or four decades of my life!), I imagined that if I were to write stories they would be short stories in the style of Alice Munro – spare of superflous words, but with resonating insight into the human experience. And perhaps that’s why it’s best that I have turned in recent years to telling stories more with photographs than words – because perhaps emulating the best in her genre is a goal too lofty even for the pathologically enthusiastic. And I dont’ think I could ever restrain my innate verbosity.

When I went back to school in my mid-20s, I took as many courses in Canadian literature as I could. (Turns out that’s three, if you’re just doing an undergraduate degree.) I wish I still had a copy of what I remember to be my very favourite academic paper ever, an essay I wrote called “Pearls of Existence” and it compared the way Douglas Coupland and Alice Munro reflect the transformative experience of growing up through the lens of minutaie and everyday experiences. I loved writing that paper, and I got a (very rare indeed!) A+ on it.

I absolutely love this quote that the Globe and Mail picked up and included in the article I linked above. I think it captures exactly what I love most about the work of Alice Munro. In the author’s own words:

“I want to tell a story, in the old-fashioned way — what happens to somebody — but I want that ‘what happens’ to be delivered with quite a bit of interruption, turnarounds, and strangeness. I want the reader to feel something is astonishing — not the ‘what happens’ but the way everything happens. These long short story fictions do that best, for me.”

Are you a fan of Alice Munro, too? Which stories or novels did you love – or not love?

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Flashback faves: BOB books

29 January 2013 Books

Almost six years ago, I wrote this sponsored blog post for MotherTalk books, which eventually became Mom Central Canada. Tristan was five and a half at the time, and I still remember how he gobbled up the BOB books for beginning readers. Last week, we dusted them off for a-week-shy-of-five-years-old Lucas, and watched the same [...]

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Our favourite kid books of 2012

2 January 2013 Books

Before I became a parent myself, I’d have been surprised to know that I’d still be reading aloud to the kids as they enter the double-digit years. The big boys will turn 9 and 11 this winter, and they still insist on nightly reading time. Beloved and I take turns reading to two big or [...]

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Books I read in 2012

28 December 2012 Books

Way back in 2005 or so, there was a fun widget for the blog called Library Thing. It helped you keep track of and share your books. I loved it and used it for a couple of years, but lost track of it over time. For the last couple of years, I’ve been using excellent [...]

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100 best kids’ books

19 February 2012 Ah, me boys

I honestly don’t know how I missed it. I mean, I’ve always *meant* to read Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time, but I just never got around to it. So when I read a reference to it in the Ottawa Citizen earlier this week, it was top-of-mind when I was at the library yesterday and [...]

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