Spring and summer in Toronto for book lovers

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There’s one month left of spring, and the May long weekend is the unofficial start of summer. Temperatures have been a little unstable in Toronto lately, but warmer weather is coming. If you’re in the city, here are some ways to make the next few months a bit more literary.

Go on a bookshop crawl

Step outside your comfort zone of your local indie and explore more of Toronto’s independent bookstores. Devote a day to walk or bike to as many as you choose.

Two of my favourite Toronto bookshops are Ben McNally Books in the financial district and Book City on the Danforth. The city’s newest bookstore, Queen Books in Leslieville, may also be of interest.

Need some help planning your route? BlogTO has a handy list of the city’s best bookstores that includes a map showing their locations.

Arrange a picnic for your book club

Book clubs often meet in a member’s home or in a pub or coffee shop. But when the weather’s nice, the options for meeting places increase. Sure, you can enjoy the sunshine on a patio somewhere, but there are also lots of beautiful parks to gather in. Organize a potluck picnic for your book club and sprawl out on some blankets.

If it weren’t for the recent flooding, I’d suggest going to the Toronto Islands. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look that that will be an option for a while. Luckily, there are lots of great parks in the city–High Park, Trinity Bellwoods or Withrow Park, to name a few.

Take your book outside

I know this one is obvious, but it can’t be omitted: Read outside. Go to a park, the beach, a patio or simply find a bench to occupy or a tree to sit under. Some of Toronto Public Library’s branches have outdoor reading gardens where you can hang out.

Spend some time alone with a book or try going on a reading date with a friend or romantic partner. (Tip: Break for ice cream or lemonade and discuss what you’re each reading.)

Use rainy days to your advantage

Sometimes the weather won’t be ideal to be outside. On those days, you can head to the Toronto Reference Library to do some exploring. While you’re there, stop by Page & Panel to pick up a literary T-shirt–perfect to wear when the sun comes out again.

If you want to enjoy some refreshments in a literary atmosphere, go to Famous Last Words to enjoy a book-inspired cocktail, or to Bookworm Coffee, where you can check out their library with a caffeinated beverage in hand.

Another option: Stay home. Sometimes there’s nothing better than curling up on the couch with a cup of tea and a good book, listening to the rain and thunder. No matter what the weather’s like, there’s never a bad time to be reader.

Iain Reid’s debut novel is suspenseful and smart

20170430_121112What I read

I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid

What it’s about

An unnamed narrator and her boyfriend, Jake, have been dating for a short time, but things are going well. They are driving out to Jake’s parents’ farm for dinner and to make introductions. From the very beginning, the woman tells us she’s having doubts, that she’s thinking of ending things. But she’ll at least make this trip and see if it changes how she feels.

The story takes place over one night, covering the drive to the farm, the dinner, and the beginning of the ride back. But when they take a detour on their way home, the road trip takes a terrifying turn.

This novel explores themes of individuality and connection with others. It asks questions about how relationships may change us and the benefits and harm that come with solitude. Are we our best selves when we connect with other people? Or can we only truly understand ourselves when we are alone?

Why I picked it up

I read Iain Reid’s other two books–both are memoirs–before he published I’m Thinking of Ending Things. His first book, One Bird’s Choice, tells the story of Reid moving back in with his parents when he was in his 20s. I loved this book and lent it to both of my parents. They enjoyed the book, too.

When I heard that Reid had published his debut novel and that it was a thriller, I thought it might make a good birthday gift for my mom, as I know she enjoys a good thriller and because she liked Reid’s first book. She read it quickly, and lent it to me the next time I saw her.

What I liked about it

This book is filled with discussion and ideas, but it doesn’t feel heavy or weighed down. In fact, the pacing is rather quick. The narration and conversations reveal information about the woman’s past and her relationship with Jake. There was just enough detail provided to keep me hooked, to keep me wanting to know more. Eager to have it all revealed, I read the novel in one day (and I bet it would have been in one sitting if I hadn’t had to work that day).

You’ll want to read it if…

This book is perfect for fans of psychological thrillers or readers who want a suspenseful novel they can read in one sitting.

Recommended refreshments

A lemonade from Dairy Queen, just like the drinks Jake and his girlfriend pick up on their drive home.

4 ways to get more from the books you read

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The act of reading is a rewarding experience, but there are ways you can get even more out of any book you read, even after you’ve finished it. Here are a few methods I recommend giving a try.

Take notes

Keep some notes about the books you read in a journal. Write down your general impressions, any questions that were left unanswered, aspects of the book you particularly liked or hated–whatever you feel is worthy. Not into journaling? Underline or write in the margins as you read. Writing down your thoughts about the book can get you to articulate how you feel about it.

Write a review

Here’s your chance to elaborate on some of the notes you took. If you can get something published in an established publication, that’s great! But you can also post it on a blog/website or on a social media site, such as Goodreads. And you don’t have to publish the review if that’s not your thing. You can write it and keep it for yourself and still benefit from forming your thoughts into a review.

Read reviews

Book reviews are great for helping to choose what to read next. But reading reviews can also help you think about a book after you’ve finished it. You may or may not agree with the various comments and interpretations you’ll come across, but considering them can broaden how you think about the book.

Check out some book-industry publications, such as Kirkus Reviews and Quill and Quire, or read the books coverage in newspapers like The Globe and Mail and The Guardian. There are also lots of people posting reviews on social media sites, such as Goodreads and Instagram.

Join or start a book club

A book club doesn’t have to have a lot of members. In fact, a smaller group can lead to more in-depth discussion. Even if you’re just reading a book with one other person–a family member or a friend–it can be beneficial to discuss what you’re reading with another person.

Of course it’s nice when everyone loves the book so that you can gush about it, and it can also be fun when everyone hates the book, so you can all tear it apart. But it’s also great when there are differing opinions. It helps to see other perspectives, and it might make you appreciate that you book you hated a little more (or at least help you understand why someone else would like it).

So the next time you finish a book, don’t be so quick to put it back on the shelf. Think about if you’d like to spend more time with it first, because there are lots of ways you can.

Exit West: a book worthy of its buzz

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What I read

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

What it’s about

Saeed and Nadia meet and fall in love while living in an unnamed city, in an unnamed country, in the midst of civil war. The couple are opposites in many ways, with Saeed being more conservative and Nadia being fiercely independent, but their differences complement each other.

As the violence in their country increases, the couple escapes by passing through a magical door. They’ve heard about these doors and know that by going through one, they will end up in another part of the world, but they won’t know where until they’ve reached the other side.

The novel is interspersed with scenes of others who are fleeing conflict via these magical doors, arriving in places unknown to them, where there is no wartime violence.

This is a story of migration, both in a geographical and in an emotional sense, of the search for a place of belonging,  for a home. It’s about how people and places change, how people can change places and how places change people.

Why I picked it up

I’d heard a lot about Exit West before I read it. I saw several reviews and noticed the title popping up on many “best new books” lists.

When books get a lot of attention, I sometimes get wrapped up in the excitement and can be disappointed by a book that couldn’t possibly live up to my unreal expectations. I thought this might happen with Exit West, and so I hesitated to read it right away.

Then I went to see Hamid discuss the book at the Toronto Reference Library. Hearing the author talk about the concepts and themes solidified my interest in reading this book, and a friend kindly lent me her copy.

What I liked about it

Saeed and Nadia are interesting characters. They are clear individuals, with their own distinct personalities and voices, but together their bond makes them a strong unit. I liked that Hamid plays with gender expectations, with Nadia the independent one living on her own, who tries to convince Saeed to have sex with her, while Saeed lives with his parents and wants to wait.

But my favourite part of this book is the way that Hamid writes. The voice of the narrator has such wonderful rhythm and pacing. The prose is filled with long sentences which are punctuated perfectly so that they wind and flow but never lose the reader. And then there are descriptions of a life in a conflict zone, which I am grateful I do not have personal experience with, but the writing here touched me as if I were looking through a window into that world.

You’ll want to read it if…

One of the reasons this book is getting so much attention is because of its timeliness. Hamid didn’t plan this, of course, as the book was written before Trump and Brexit were dominating the headlines. But this well-written story about refugees and globalization makes it a book everyone would benefit from reading right now.

However, this is also a love story. It’s the story of the relationship between Saeed and Nadia. Readers who enjoy literary fiction about romantic relationships between two characters should read this book.

This is a great novel for a single sitting. If you have an afternoon to dive deep into a book–and perhaps also have the evening available to give the story some thought–Exit West is an excellent choice.

Recommended refreshments

Chinese food, just as Saeed and Nadia shared on their first real date.

Kelly Luce’s Pull Me Under: a hypnotic debut novel

20170322_200754What I read

Pull Me Under by Kelly Luce

What it’s about

Chizuru Akitani is 12 years old, living in Japan with her American mother and her Japanese father. Shortly after the sudden death of her mother, Chizuru stabs a classmate, killing him. The rest of her youth is spent in a detention centre, and it’s while she’s there that she becomes estranged from her father. When Chizuru gets out, she is eager to start over, to begin a new life in a new place. She moves to America and changes her name to Rio.

In America, no one knows about Chizuru–not even Rio’s husband or daughter. But when Rio gets a package in the mail after her father passes away, she returns to Japan, where she has to face her former self and her secrets.

This is a story about identity, about how while we may reinvent ourselves, we can’t run away from the past. It’s about learning how to move forward. It’s also about the journeys we take–physical, mental and emotional–to get to where we need to be.

Why I picked it up

When I first heard about this book, I was drawn in by the premise of a child killer. I was interested in reading about the motivation behind the stabbing but also in how that action taken as a child would affect the life of an adult. I placed a copy of this book on hold from the Toronto Public Library.

What I liked about it

One of my favourite aspects of this book is its structure. There were dips into the past so that motivations and events were slowly revealed. While this structure creates suspense, it also helps to illustrate a protagonist who has been suppressing memories and how she must face them in order to move forward.

You’ll want to read it if…

This book is for fans of literary fiction who enjoy elements of suspense and adventure stories. At the core of the novel is Rio coming to terms with her past, and her return to Japan to find answers makes this a sort of quest narrative as well.

Recommended refreshments

One word: onigiri. This Japanese snack is a rice ball, often wrapped in seaweed, that can contain a variety of fillings (pork, tuna, etc.). Luce’s descriptions of this food had me salivating. I have never been to Japan, but I have eaten onigiri that a Japanese friend made for me, and this book reminded me of how delicious they were.