Sunday, December 31, 2006

Best of 2006

Since I started reviewing books in March I have read 47 books. That works out to a little over one a week. Usually I don't formally rate books against each other, but I thought I would name my favourites and least favourites for the year.

Best Fiction:
Water for Elephants - Sara Gruen
(Runner-up: Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro)

Best Non-Fiction:
The Omnivore's Dilemma - Michael Pollan
(Runner-up: Japanland - Karin Muller)

Worst Fiction:
Nighttime is My Time - Mary Higgins Clark
(Runner-up: jPod - Douglas Coupland)

Worst Non-Fiction:
Confessions of a Video Vixen - Carrine Steffans
(Runner-up: The Oak Island Mystery - Lionel Fanthorpe)

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Little White Lies: A Novel of Love and Good Intentions - Gemma Townley

The Basics: Little White Lies: A Novel of Love and Good Intentions, Gemma Townley, 2005, 320 pages

How I found it: The first night I stayed at the my parents house for the holidays this book was left lying on the night table of the guest room. Since I was too lazy to root through my luggage to find something better to read, I ended up reading it.

What's it about?: Country girl Natalie moves to the city (London) and lives a boring and lonely month by herself. Then she decides to open the previous tenants mail and pretend to be her. This extends to her love life, her job and her friends.

Did I like it?: Like an episode of Full House this book creates all kinds of little problems and misunderstandings and then ties them all up nicely at the end. Natalie starts out in a not too bad situation and ends up all fluffy clouds, kittens and rainbows (Yay!). Like the other similar books in this genre, it revolves around a series of oh-so-predictable misunderstandings. On occaision I don't mind this sort of book (even though they rot your brain) and I got sucked in here too. But I find that the longer it takes me to read these sorts of books the worse I feel about reading them. In this case I had a lovely Jane Urquhart waiting for me so I felt very guilty. So in summary, I liked it a tiny bit, but I also hated myself for liking it even a little since it was such crappy drivel.

Will you like it?: Need a beach book? Have a free afternoon? Enjoy the Shopaholic series? Then read this book. If not stay away or you will be facing your own guilt.

But don't take my word for it: Readers at like drivel too, a review from another book review blogger, and a summary review from

Sunday, December 24, 2006

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius - Dave Eggers

The Basics: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers, 2001, 437 pages, paperback

Where I found it: I ran out of books on a day the library was closed (Quelle horreur!) so I had to rummage around in Greg's section of the bookshelf.

What's it about?: Dave Eggers is now the editor of the literary journal McSweeney's. This book is his memoir about his formative twenties. Both of his parents die within a few weeks of each other and he and his sister are left to care for their 7 year old brother. Eggers has to cope with being a father to his brother as well as becoming an adult and making something of his life.

Did I like it?: This book isn't like any I have ever read before. While reading it I kept having to say to myself: "This really happened to someone" - it was kind of surreal. The book is written in a quirky style that I mostly enjoyed. However, sometimes Eggers uses stream of consciousness narration. That helped to convey the sense of urgency and angst that the character was feeling, but the lack of punctuation drove me insane! Overall however, I thought it was a pretty good book.

Will you like it?: While I like this book I feel it takes a pretty specific sort of person to enjoy it. You need to have the struggles of someone in their twenties trying to make it fairly fresh in your mind or else Eggers will sound a bit like a whiny and self-entitled Gen-Xer (which is he, but in a good way). It is also a fairly literary book and is not for the John Grisham set.

But don't take my word for it: A collection of literary reviews from, some reader reviews that reflect the love-it-or-hate-it nature of the book, one from the UK's Richmond Review, one from the Guardian, and finally one from Salon written by Dan Savage of all people.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Nighttime is My Time - Mary Higgins Clark

The Basics: Nighttime is My Time, Mary Higgins Clark, 2004, 434 pages, paperback

How I found it: Remember how I got How to Win Friends and Influence People from a cereal box giveaway? Well that's where I got this one too.

What's it about?: At a 20th high school reunion Jean discovers that 5 of the 7 girls who used to sit at her lunch table are mysteriously dead. During the course of the reunion weekend the sixth girl goes missing. Jean and a likeable local cop have to solve the mystery of which reunion guest is behind the murders before it is too late for Jean (dum-de-dum-dum DUMMMM!). Surprisingly, it takes over 400 pages to catch the guy even though they only have a few suspects.

Did I like it?: This was pure crap. At first I couldn't believe I was actually going to read the whole thing, but I kept going in the end because I wanted to know who did it. Throughout the book Higgins Clark (the "Queen of Suspense" by the way) throws out little clues about which one of the suspects it might be, but then 50 pages later that clue is proven to be false. I won't tell you whodunnit, obviously, but it was a "shocker"! This book was not well-written, but then again, I didn't expect it to be since it is one of those books where the author's name is larger than the title of the book on the front cover and the author has a reputation as one of those people that churn out the same plot in different forms for years. In the end, it turned out to be one of those books that you read at the beach or at the cabin in a rain storm. Definitely not worthy of bedtime reading during exam period! I'm quite glad it was free!

Will you like it?: If you like suspense/mystery/crime novels, Sugarmilk Falls, which I read recently, was 100 times better than this one. If like me, you manage to get this book for free, are looking for something mindless to read, and are sick of the vapid Bridgit Jones knockoff books (Shopaholic anyone?) this might not be too bad. Otherwise, stay away, far far away.

But don't take my word for it: A mixed bag of reviews on (although I would have to say the one-star reviewers are the only ones who got it right), one from, and another from

Monday, November 27, 2006

Falling Off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World - Pico Iyer

The Basics: Falling Off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World, Pico Iyer, 1993, 190 pages, paperback

How I found it: Randomly browsing the travel section of my favourite Vancouver used bookstore, Bibliophile.

What's it about?: This a series of essays about countries that Iyer feels are "falling off the map". He has various reasons for classifying each of these countries, and generally I agree with him. The countries, or "lonely places", covered here are: North Korea, Argentina, Cuba, Iceland, Bhutan, Vietnam, Paraguay, and Australia. Each of the essays are an indepth look at what it means to spend time in that country, each people's outlook on the world, and a bit about the author's time there. In general though, Iyer uses great imagery to transport you there, understand how the people think, etc. These are less travel stories and more literary snapshots of countries.

Did I like it?: I quite like short prose, and essays like this since I think the format lends itself really well to bed time reading. I really liked Iyer's style of writing - I felt as if he had transported me to the place he was describing. Also, he really made me want to find out more about some of the countries and he made me want to visit Iceland even more than I already wanted to. My only complaint is that I didn't get the justification for labelling a place as "lonely place" in some instances.

Will you like?: This is some very well-written travel literature. It's not typical travel literature since it doesn't follow a journey and is not linear or plot-driven though, so unless you are okay with that, you might not like the book. However, if you ever have wondered about what life is like in North Korea, why Paraguay is so crazy or why people in Iceland are so uninhibited, this would be a good read.

But don't take my word for it: Mostly good reader reviews from, a review from a blog called FOJAZZ, Iyer's wikipedia entry,

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith - Jon Krakauer

The Basics: Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, Jon Krakauer, 2003, 372 pages, hardcover

How I found it: I have read two of Krakauer's other books (Into the Wild and Into Thin Air) both of which were quite interesting and well-written. When I saw a recommendation for this one on a book review thread for Into Thin Air, I got it from the local library.

What's it about: This book is about Mormons. It is mostly about how a break-away sect of fundamentalist Mormons got crazy-violent in the early 80s, but it is also about the history of Mormonism and fundamentalist Mormonism and the role of polygamy in the Mormon church. For those of you from BC always seeing the town of Bountiful on the news, there is a section on that too.

Did I like it?: I really liked this book. I know next to nothing about Mormonism (which is similar to my knowledge on any other Christian sect), so it was fascinating to find out what the religion is about and how much truth there is to those polygamy rumours. The examination of the violent aspects of the faith, including the Lafferty murders and the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping was well done too. The book was written like a long magazine article, or a series of magazine articles (which I guess is what Krakauer specializes in, so no big surprise there). I was really surprised that I couldn't put this book down.

Will you like it?: If you've heard about fundamentalist Mormons on the news you should read this book. It explains the background to all those polygamous and violent incidents in a fascinating way. For a non-fiction book, this was a great read.

But don't take my word for it: Mostly positive reviews from readers, the New York Times review, one from the Christian Science Monitor, and one from the Washington Post.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

How to Win Friends and Influence People - Dale Carnegie

The Basics: How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie, 1936, 276 pages, paperback.

How I found it: I bought some cereal because it advertised on the box that you could get a free book. From the selection they had available, this was my choice. I figured that I needed this sort of information since I am going to work in the field of law. Or something...

What's it about?: This is a self help book about how to deal with other people. It is separated into sections with names like: "Six Ways to Make People Like You", "How to Win People to Your Way of Thinking" and "Be a Leader: How to Change People without Giving Offense or Arousing Resentment". At the end of each chapter is the "principle" you are meant to take out of it. These are things like: "Call attention to people's mistakes indirectly" and "Talk in terms of the other person's interests". Really, they are all common sense things that you should do. The whole book can be summed up by saying: be considerate of other people. Each section is full of examples of how to use each principle.

Did I like it?: I really didn't enjoy this book. A disclaimer though: I hate reading self-help books. I always feel like there is more wrong with me after I am finished reading the book than I did before I started. Self-help books are like cosmetics commercials: they tell you what is wrong with you so that you will buy their products to fix it. As a result, I found reading this book to be tedious and I skimmed large portions of it. I think I found it so tedious because its use of examples makes it so repetitive. I am not an idiot. I don't need ten examples of one type of behaviour to understand the point being made. I also wasn't a big fan of the constant use of examples from men I am supposed to be impressed by, such as numerous old time US presidents.

Will you like it?: If you are totally incompetent and self-conscious about your behaviour in the business world, you might like this book. Otherwise I suggest that you just use common sense and the golden rule to govern how you treat other people and you'll be fine. I also think this book would be great as a pamphlet: each of the principles set out with one example. The whole book in under 10 pages. It would be great and not nearly as tedious.

But don't take my word for it: A bunch of glowing reviews from, and a summary of the principles from the book so you never have to read it. Other than that I can only find other glowing reviews from online bookstores and various business types touting the book as a miracle.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Sugarmilk Falls - Ilona Van Mil

The Basics: Sugarmilk Falls, Ilona Van Mil, 2005, 321 pages, paperback, winner of the Crime Writers Association's Debut Dagger Award (for Crime novels by previously unpublished authors). Apparently she is also a law prof at the University of Essex in the UK.

How I found it: My mom had it and lent it to me when I was visiting her. I'm not sure if she had it for her book club or not, but either way, she really enjoyed it.

What's it about?: A small francophone town in northern Ontario is shaken out of their usual routine by the murder of the local school teacher. The townsfolk, including the priest, a trapper, the local car dealer, and the resident aboriginal family form part of a great cast of characters. It's a "whodunit" type of mystery novel, but Van Mil writes rather well and makes it feel a little more like literature. Van Mil also manages to incorporate aboriginal and religious issues in a great way.

Did I like it?: It's been ages since I read any mystery or crime books. I usually dismiss them as pulpy, but this one was so well-written for the genre that I really enjoyed it. There is so much more going on here besides the murder. The only thing that I disliked is that Van Mil switches from narrating about one set of characters to another quite quickly at times and it can be difficult for a reader to get their bearings.

Would you like it?: For a first novel, this one is quite good. And for a crime book, it is quite well written and doesn't feel very formulaic. The twists aren't that foreseeable and they do end up making sense. All in all, a good read.

But don't take my word for it: A review from Shotsmag (a UK eZine for crime fiction), a review from the UK's The Independent, and one from Sarah Weinman's blog (she's a crime writer, among other things).

Monday, November 06, 2006

Hiking the Dream: A Family's Four Month Trek Along the Trans-Canada Trail - Kathy Didkowsky

The Basics: Hiking the Dream: A Family's Four-Month Trek Along the Trans-Canada Trail, Kathy Didkowsky, 2002, 292 pages

How I found it: While in Vancouver, I only had time to browse through the trekking and travel section of my favourite used bookstore, Bibliophile. This is one of three titles I picked up.

What's it aboout?: Kathy Didkowsky is a mother and part of the Nova Scotia Trans-Canada Trail Council. She takes her three kids on a hike across Canada to celebrate the Trans-Canada Trail as a project she calls Hike 2000. There is no fundraising or particular awareness goal and they aren't connected to any organization. Despite what is often written about this journey, they didn't hike all the way across Canada - they hike 20km a day, for 10 days in each province for a total of 2000 kms. As well, they rarely travel on the Trans-Canada Trail because it really doesn't exist yet - it is still in the planning and development stages. The book is written diary style and includes entries from Kathy, her kids, various friends and relatives that they hiked with and the many former railroaders they met while hiking old rail beds that have been turned into trails.

Did I like it?: I really expected to like this book since the idea of walking on trails across Canada seems pretty fun. Boy, I was quite disappointed. Didkowsky is a phys-ed teacher, not a writer and it shows. The journal-style entries from her and others aren't that interesting to read. The book seems to be almost a vanity published book, although I know it isn't. It is more a scrapbook of these peoples journey than a travelogue. I also didn't like the way the hike was organized. The 200km in each province is a bit of a cop-out in my eyes. As well, having no awareness goal or fundraising objective seemed a bit odd since as far as I know this is the first attempt of anyone trying to walk across Canada not on roads. Oh, but wait, they walk on roads quite a bit when they need to make up a few extra kms. That's another thing that bothered me. And for someone who apparently works part-time as a wilderness guide, Didkowsky didn't seem to have done much planning or obtaining of maps of the areas they walked in. I'm sure this was an incredible journey for the family and friends that did it, but as a book, it's really not that compelling and I struggled to finish it.

Will you like it?: Likely not. It is more about the personal lives of the people on the hike than the hike itself. If you are interested in railroads, you might like it however.

But don't take my word for it: Reader reviews from were quite positive, a blurb from Trails Canada, and the website for Spirit Adventures, Didkowsky's guiding company were all I could find.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Greener Than Eden - Michael Kohn

The Basics: Greener Than Eden, Michael Kohn, 2006, 253 pages, paperback.

How I found it: I read an article about this book in the July/Aug 2006 edition of Outpost Magazine and decided to put it on hold at the library.

What's it about?: A novel about a young man trying to escape trouble he has gotten himself into at university by going tree-planting for the summer. Noah is "green" at the job but quickly works his way up to a spot on the coveted "high-baller" crew making the big money. His summer is filled with inner struggle, love, conflict and all that usual good angsty stuff. As well, there is a great cast of characters to round out the mix. Oh yeah, and they plant a helluva lot of trees.

Did I like it?: This is Kohn's first novel, but it doesn't often show. He writes well without being obnoxiously poetic. I didn't really know anything about tree-planting before reading this book, even though I know quite a few people who do it every summer. In that respect the book was quite educational. I found the plot quite interesting, especially the interplay between the characters and Noah's personal struggle. Overall, it was a good fast read without being pulpy and formulaic.

Will you like it?: If you have ever thought about going tree-planting, this is a must read. If you are curious about it, that is another good reason to read Kohn's novel. Kohn is an emerging Canadian writer worth supporting; this is good contemporary fiction so go read it already.

But don't take my word for it: A reader review (and spoilerish plot summary) from an reader, a mixed review from the Globe and Mail, and one from This Magazine.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

jPod - Douglas Coupland

The Basics: jPod, Douglas Coupland, 2006, 516 pages, hardcover.

How I found it: I have followed Douglas Coupland's work since I read Generation X in second year English Literature. I really enjoyed that book and a few of his other ones, including Microserfs, which is a sort of companion book to this one. I though Microserfs was a little weak so I'm not sure why I was drawn to this one. (I really do enjoy his non-fiction stuff though, like Souvenir of Canada, Terry and City of Glass.)

What's it about?: Like Microserfs, jPod follows the lives on young computer programmers. This time in the dot-bomb era we follow video game programmers instead of employees at a startup. Coupland works in all the pop culture cliches he can in a not too thinly veiled parody of EA's Burnaby sweatshop. Along with all the programmer stereotypes, Coupland also includes plot points that tie in all kinds of other contemporary Vancouver archetypes, from biker gangs to Asian human-smugglers to mom and pop shop grow-ops. Coupland also gets all "meta" on us and includes himself as a character is in novel.

Did I like it?: I was willing to give this a book a shot because I had liked Generation X so much. Like every other one of Couplands books, however, this one disappointed me. Plainly put, the man can't tie up a plot to save his life. His plot devices are contrived and poorly thought out. Here, he is striving so hard to be hip and put in all kinds of up to the minute pop culture references that he begins to be annoying. This summer I saw an "art installation" of his at St. John's The Rooms (a museum and gallery complex). The installation consisted of stream of consciousness pop culture musing printed in 72 point font in a circle around the walls of a large room. The sign at the door to the exhibit mentioned that it was not suitable for children - maybe that is why when I looked at it only the dirty words and references to pornography stood out to me. There was also a smaller room with the walls covered in seemingly random numbers. Looking up to the top corner we noticed the sequence began with 3.14... Wow Doug, how unique and innovative! My biggest beef with this book, besides the crappy plot and Coupland's incessant desire to prove how cool and with it he is was the pages and pages of wasted space. In this space Coupland attempts to show in an avant garde way, how overwhelmed by words we are in our society. Therefore he devotes 155 pages (yes I counted, so you don't have to) to such fascinating sections that include a reproduction of a Nigerian scam email, the back of a Doritos bag, pi to 10,000 digits, etc. I'm glad I borrowed this book from the library since I would feel pretty cheated if I had bought the book and spent money on 155 pages of crap that doesn't relate to the book. Perhaps when I become a successful author my publisher will let me do whatever I want and waste money and trees in the name of "art".

Will you like it?: If you are a fan of Coupland's you may like this book. It is not that bad and is on par with some of his other crap, such as Microserfs and Girlfriend in Coma. If you are a computer nerd like so many people I know (and love) this book may be interesting since it attempts (and I think fails) to caricature your world. Otherwise, I warn the general public away from this book. I know Coupland is supposed to be a celebrated Canadian writer... but really the title is rather undeserving. Sorry, Doug.

But don't take my word for it: Some generally positive reader reviews on, a review from BoingBoing (a website that the characters of jPod might actually read), one from the UK's The Guardian, a fairly positive review from the Globe and Mail that calls Coupland a "superb comedian" (WTF?), and an amalgamation of reviews from metacritic, including one zinger from NY's Village Voice that sums up how I feel.

Monday, October 16, 2006

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals - Michael Pollan

The Basics: The Omnivores Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Michael Pollan, 2006

How I found it: I was buying Leave No Crumbs on and I needed another book to boost my total high enough to get free shipping. I discovered this in the new non-fiction section and it looked good. Unfortunately due to a backlog of library books, it's been neglected for a few months but I finally got around to reading it.

What's it about?: Pollan follows the path of four very different meals from their very beginning as they are grown to the end of the line where they are eaten. The four different meals are an industrialized agriculture meal, an industrialized organic agricultural meal, a "beyond organic"/sustainable organic meal, and a foraged/hunted meal. Along the way he explains how our culture and way of eating have changed agriculture, etc.

Did I like it?: I love this book. It was fascinating. For example, did you know that most of a processed food meal consists of corn? The meat you eat was fed corn, there is corn meal and corn starch holding it together, the sweetener in your pop is corn syrup... it's all corn! As well, did you know that cows can't actually digest corn properly? It's too acidic for their special stomachs and if they eat it for too long it will eat through the side of their stomach. That's why they are only kept on the feed lot for a limited amount of time. There are all kinds of interesting facts like these in the book, and more besides. The author also does a great job of examining the ethics behind what he eats. The discussion of industrialized organic vs. sustainable organic is really informative and interesting too, especially as it pertains to meat.

Will you like it?: If you care at all about what you put in your body, this is a great book to read. It is much more interesting and informative than Fast Food Nation as it presents a much more balanced view of things. I thought I already knew quite a bit about food production, but this book really opened my eyes to much more.

But don't take my word for it: Readers on seem to like it, the New York Times reviewer liked it (mostly), as did the one from the Washington Post, a review from the environmentalist website and an open letter to Michael Pollan from Whole Foods criticizing his coverage of their industrial organic supermarket model.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

How to Save the World in Your Spare Time - Elizabeth May

The Basics: How to Save the World in Your Spare Time, Elizabeth May, 2006, 207 pages, paperback.

How I Found it: I believe I saw it reviewed in Canadian Geographic, but I might be wrong about that.

What's it about?: This is a how-to manual on how to be an activist or run an activist organization. It includes tips on organization, media handling, public awareness, knowing when to sue, and lots of other stuff. It is written by Canadian Elizabeth May, current leader of the Green Party, former direction of Sierra Club, etc.

Did I like it?: This book was quite informative, but I feel that the title is a bit of a misnomer - it should be Called How to Save the World as Your Part-time Job, because the tactics May uses will consume your life and eat up much more than your spare-time. I found that the book had some good tips that I could even use in the small organizations and clubs I belong to, which is helpful.

Would you like it?: Even if you aren't part of an organization, May gives some good tips on things you can do by yourself, such as letter writing. If you are part of an organization, this is your new bible. May stresses moderation and being careful not to alienate the public or politicians and I think that is a very important message for groups to remember.

But don't take my word for it: a review from the blog, one from Geist Magazine (which is Canadian) and review from the Nature Canada website.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Water for Elephants - Sara Gruen

The Basics: Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen, 2006, 335 pages, hardcover

How I found it: I had been given a gift certificate to a local bookstore. I went in one day on a 30 minute break from work with the mission of buying a book since the gift certificate was about to expire. I found this one flagged on the shelf as being both Canadian and recommended by staff.

What's it about?: An old man in a seniors centre reflects on his life as a vet with a travelling circus. The story covers a few months in his early 20s when he finds his calling with exotic animals and also finds the two loves of his life, Rosie, an elephant, and Marlena, her trainer. It's a very plot-driven story about love and loss with lots of risks.

Did I like it?: I loved this book. Despite being super-busy, I read it in about three days. It made my cry more than once, which is almost without precedent. Gruen rights well and without pretention. She has done an incredible amount of research for this book and it shows. You are completely drawn inside the world of the circus and the mindset of an elephant. I was quite upset when I finished this book, simply because it was over and I had enjoyed reading it so much.

Will you like it?: I don't know how you could dislike this book. It is a great and touching story and a quick and easy read. This one comes highly recommended.

But don't take my word for it: A review from, a more negative one from, the usual reader reviews from, and one more from

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping - Judith Levine

The Basics: Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping, Judith Levine, 2006, 274 pages, hard cover

How I found it?: I think I ran across it ages ago on a bestsellers list and then put in a request for it on the public library's hold system. But that was months ago and I can't really remember.

What's it about?: A left-leaning writer examines various anti-consumerist ways of living and attempts to go a year without buying anything except the necessities. She has trouble balancing her high-brow way of life with not buying anything and the book is peppered with her questioning whether wine or symphony tickets are a necessity.

Did I like it?: I thought I would really like this book and was on a waiting list to get it from the library for months. I really didn't like it though. I skimmed parts of it and couldn't wait for it to be over. Levine alternates between giving details about her personal struggles with consumerism and journalistic sections detailing various anti-consumerist movements and theories. I understand that it would be hard to go a year without buying anything but the necessities, especially for someone who has a comfortable lifestyle like Levine, but it really seemed to me that Levine went at it in half-assed manner and didn't really come to terms with the reasons why she felt she needed to shop. I felt that she was preaching at me about the potential evils of consumerism while barely managing to practice what she preaches.

Will you like it?: I wouldn't recommend this book. While it is a tale of personal struggle, and I'm sure all of us struggle with our consumer choices at some point, I don't find Levine's particular struggle to be that compelling and I doubt you will either.

But don't take my word for it: A mixed bag of reader reviews on, and a review from Christian Science Monitor.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Hitching Rides With Buddha: Travels in Search of Japan - Will Ferguson

The Basics: Hitching Rides with Buddha: Travels in Search of Japan, Will Ferguson, 2006, 410 pages, paperback.

How I found it: This book has just been released as a paperback and I ran across it in the new non-fiction section of Chapters while debating how to spend my giftcard. I had read several of Will Ferguson's books including Beauty Tips from Moosejaw and How to Be Canadian (written with his brother Ian) and quite enjoyed them.

What's it about?: Ferguson writes about a trip taken when he was a young English teacher in Japan. His goal is to be the first person to hitchhike the length of Japan and his plan calls for him to follow the "sakura zensen", the advancing front of cherry blossoms that hits Japan every spring. Along the way he meets a varied cast of Japanese characters and of course, discovers a little about himself.

Did I like it?: How could I not? I love Will Ferguson, I love Japan and I love travel stories. Even without those factors, this book was actually laugh-out-loud funny at times. Ferguson provides great insight into the Japanese mindset and visits some sites off the beaten tourist track. Ferguson also has great insight into what it means to be a "gaijin" (foreigner) in Japan.

Will you like it?: Even those not interested in Will Ferguson, Japan, or travel stories will enjoy this book. It is quite humorous and often quite insightful. It is also a quick read with a chronological plot.

But don't take my word for it: editorial reviews from, a review of the abridged British version (from 2000) from the Guardian, a great review from the blog Postcards from the Mothership.

Friday, September 15, 2006

David Suzuki: The Autobiography - David Suzuki

The Basics: David Suzuki: The Autobiography, David Suzuki, 2006, 405 pages.

How I found it: I really don't remember. I think I wanted to read it because it was on the non-fiction bestsellers list and I have always been a fan of David Suzuki's work.

What's it about?: Suzuki has already published one autobiography, called Metamorphosis, in 1987, so this one focuses mostly on his life and accomplishments since then, although it does give a brief background on his younger years. This book mostly tells the story of Suzuki's life, but he does get off on tangents about environmental issues, nuclear war, politics, and lots more.

Did I like it?: I did really enjoy this book since I didn't know too much about Suzuki besides the work he has done with his environmental foundation. My only complaints are the length of the book, which makes it seem to drag near the end and the lack of organization in the book. The book is organized in a semi-chronological manner, but sometimes it jumps into being thematically organized, which gets confusing.

Will you like it?: If you are a fan of David Suzuki, it is a good read. Otherwise, I don't know if I would recommend it. Instead I would recommend that you watch The Nature of Things on CBC or check out the David Suzuki Foundation website.

But don't take my word for it: A review from the London Free Press, and another from the New Zealand Listener (a kiwi magazine).

Library Thing!

I recently heard about, a site that lets you catalogue your books, tag them, organize them, and compare them to what others have. If you are crazy about books the way I am, this is an awesome online tool.

I have taken the liberty of creating a profile on Library Thing to keep track of the books I read here. It can be found under the user name: ireadtoomuch. As you may know, I don't actually own all of the books I review here - many of them come from the public library, etc. so they aren't technically part of my library. However, they are part of the library in my head, so I thought I would put them up there.

Enjoy, and maybe send me your library thing profile as well?

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Queens Reigns Supreme: Fat Cat, 50 Cent, and the Rise of the Hip Hop Hustler - Ethan Brown

The Basics: Queens Reigns Supreme: Fact Cat, 50 Cent and the Rise of the Hip Hop Hustler, Ethan Brown, 2005, paperback

How I Found it: I can't remember. Perhaps it was one of the books that Amazon recommended to me?

What's it about?: The book begins with a section on the history of "hustlers" in the New York borough of Queens. It begins with the organized gangs of cocaine dealers in the 70s and continues through to the crack heyday of the 80s. The second half of the book explains the history of hip hop in Queens, starting with Run-DMC and culminating with the rise of Irv "Gotti" Lorenzo's label Murder Inc. This section of the book also details how the hustlers are connected to hip hop and explains how some of the gangsters even funded hip hop artists to use as money laundering schemes.

Did I like it?: I thought this book would be interesting as I wanted to know the history behind the boasts of many hip hop stars. Instead it was the same old same old glorification of violence and the lifestyle of the hustler. This is Brown's first book and it shows. He attempts to take a journalistic tone, but fails as he is obviously drawn in by his admiration for the lifestyle. The book also suffered from bad grammar and some very obvious editing mistakes. I was quite disappointed in it.

Will you like it?: You would have to be a big hip hop fan, and a fan of the acts discussed in the book to find it interesting. As a biography of Run-DMC, Jam Master Jay, Ja Rule, 50 Cent, and Irv Lorenzo, it's not bad, if a little brief. As anything else, it's not a great book. Not recommended.

But don't take my word for it: Editorial reviews from, reader reviews from (because no one in Canada has reviewed it), a review from, and a review from someone's blog.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

On Beauty - Zadie Smith

The Basics: On Beauty, Zadie Smith, 2005, 446 pages, nominated for the 2005 Man Booker prize.

How I found it: When I was researching for the review of Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, I looked up the other nominees for the Booker prize that year and Smith's book sounded interesting.

What's it about?: A story of a family in crisis. The novel follows the lives of a British professor, his African American wife, their three children, and various members of the university community to which they belong. The characters learn more about each other and themselves and they learn how to love each other, even when they make poor decisions. The main storyline focuses on the parents and their failing marriage.

Did I like it?: At first I liked it, but the more I read it, the more I started to dislike it. Perhaps the fact that the book is over 400 pages long had something to do with the way the story started to drag halfway through. This book was supposed to be good enough to get nominated for a prestigious award, but I really don't see it. The book was mostly well-written but a lot of the plot devices felt quite forced and some of the characters were quite one-dimensional. Smith also uses a third person omniscient narrator which I found to be annoying, though I wasn't sure why.

Will you like it?: The story itself is rather interesting and deals with race and politics in an admirable way, although I think at times it is a little half-assed. It is one of those Oprah-friendly books though, so women might like it. I didn't like this book, but I didn't hate it so I can still recommend it as an okay read.

But don't take my word for it: Readers on really liked it, editorial reviews were generally positive, the reviewer at Salon liked it, as did the one at the Guardian, and the one at the New York Times.

Outposts - Simon Winchester

The Basics: Outposts, Simon Winchester, 1985, 317 pages, hard cover. (However, there was an updated version of this book released in 2004 and that cover of that book appears above since I couldn't find the old cover on the internet.)

How I found it: Randomly browsing through my favourite section of the Dewey decimal system, the 900s, at the local public library.

What's it about?: In the early '80s Winchester visited each one of the remaining colonies in the British Empire. He writes about his experiences in each place plus gives a little history about each one. His book captures the world at an unusual time - it is just after the Falklands war and at the start of the negotiations between China and Britain for returning Hong Kong so the last vestiges of empire are on everyone's minds.

Did I like it?: I really enjoyed this book. I had heard of many of the colonies, such as Gibralter and Hong Kong, yet I didn't know much about them. Others, like Pitcairn Island and Tristan da Cunha I had never heard of. Winchester captures the heart of the people of each little colony and does a great job of recounting their history as well. As I was reading the book my only complaint was that I wished there was an updated version of the book since I wanted to know what had happened to these colonies, some of which had an uncertain future at the time the book was published. I was quite surprised to find out that Winchester had read an update in 2004, and I had missed it since my little library only had the old version. I'll be sure to pick up the new version.

Will you like it?: Although I haven't read the updated version, if it is anything like the 1985 version, it is a worthwhile read. It is informative, interesting and engaging. As a former British colony, Canada's future, or perhaps Newfoundland's, might not have been too much different than some of the colonies Winchester discusses and it is interesting to see how things might have turned out. Perhaps like me, this book will make you want to visit some of these odd little corners of the world.

But don't take my word for it: Reader reviews from, and a review from a blogger called The Llama Butchers.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Confessions of a Video Vixen - Karrine Steffans

The Basics: Confessions of a Video Vixen, Karrine Steffans, 2005, 205 pages, hardcover

How I found it: When I was looking up a book about the history of hip hop, Queens Reigns Supreme: Fat Cat, 50 Cent, and the Rise of the Hip Hop Hustler, which I haven't read yet, on, it said that people who bought that book also bought Steffans book. Then I remembered that I had seen a bit of an interview with Steffans on Tyra Banks' talk show where Tyra called her a whore.

What's it about?: It is an autobiography of Steffans' life. She grew up in a home where her mother beat her, was raped as a teenager then ran away and turned to stripping. She was in several extremely abusive relationships, one of which produced a son. Then she moved to L.A., hooked up with many of Hollywood's influential men (hip hop artists, producers, actors, NBA stars, etc.). She also acted, starred in music videos and lived the high life, eventually battling drug and alcohol addictions.

Did I like it: This book is a piece of crap. It is poorly written and very poorly organize, even though her story is interesting. At 205 pages it is a fairly short book, but Steffans still manages to tell the same stories twice in some instances. Steffans comes across as completely unlikeable. She is emotionally unstable, a negligent mother, a substance abuser, a battered woman and a very poor example to for women everywhere. I don't like to judge, but this woman is despicable. She used here sexual "talents" to get money and gifts from powerful men, but I think she was just being subjugated by them. As a feminist, I take offence at her lifestyle, but at the same time I want her to get counselling.

Will you like it: Please don't buy this book. It is a total waste of your money and really only got published because it has lots of tell-all information about Steffans' sex life with famous people (P. Diddy, Ja Rule, Ice-T, Vin Diesel, Fred Durst, etc.). Don't even do what I did and borrow it from the library. The romance-novel style sex scenes are not even redeeming in a gossip-page kind of way and she doesn't even really talk about the music videos. What a waste of time.

But don't take my word for it: Readers on both loved and hated it, a reviewer on the African American Literature Bookclub really liked it (as a cautionary tale though), a reviewer on AlterNet thinks that Steffans is adding a rarely heard female voice to the hip hop world.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Oak Island Mystery: The Secret of the World's Greatest Treasure Hunt - Lionel and Patricia Fanthorpe

The Basics: The Oak Island Mystery: The Secret of the World's Greatest Treasure Hunt, Lionel and Patricia Fanthorpe, 1995, 221 pages, paperback

How I found it: My dad and I had read a few books about Oak Island when I was a teenager and now that I live less than an hour's drive from Oak Island I thought I would pick up one of the many books about it.

What's it about?: On an island in Mahone Bay, on the south shore of Nova Scotia, two boys discovered a refilled shaft in 1795. Ever since various teams of treasure hunters have excavated parts of the island searching for some sort of treasure they believe is buried there. In the course of their excavations they have uncovered a complicated tunnel system that seems to flood any shaft that is dug to get at the suspected treasure. This book details what has been found so far, which groups of treasure hunters have operated on the island, and then goes into some of the authors far-fetched ideas about how the treasure came to be on Oak Island.

Did I like it?: For such an interesting topic, this book is pretty boring. It refreshed my memory about the ingenious tunnel system that exists on Oak Island, but other than that I didn't find it to be very credible. I skimmed the last third of the book since it dealt with the author's strange theories about the owner of the treasure. These range from pirates, to Sir Francis Bacon, to marauding Celts, to the Knights Templar and several others. I don't find much merit to any of these conspiracy theories. As well, the author intersperses details about these theories throughout the first part of the text, but then doesn't explain them until the end, which makes for a confusing read. Apparently the author is a British science fiction writer which might help explain why his writing style sucks!

Will you like it?: If you don't know anything about Oak Island this might be an okay place to start. While I can't recommend anything specifically, I can tell you that there are tons of other Oak Island books out there and perhaps you should start with something else. Or you can just check out this wikipedia article - it has the basic information.

But don't take my word for it: Most of the readers on agreed with me (and were even more harsh) but it seems that the few reviewers on that site who liked the book are personal friends of the authors' (how lame).

Sunday, July 30, 2006

A Good House - Bonnie Burnard

The Basics: A Good House, Bonnie Burnard, 1999, 283 pages, hardcover, winner of the 1999 Giller Prize

How I found it: I believe I was browsing Wikipedia's list of Giller nominees and winners, then reading plot summaries for nominated books on I picked A Good House because it sounded interesting. When I picked the book up at the library the cover looked familiar and as I read it I realized I had read it not long after it first came out because my mom had a copy lying around her house.

What's it about?: It is the history of one family from small town Ontario. We follow them through births and deaths and into the next few generations until there are so many characters (grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and their spouses) that it becomes difficult to remember who is who. Each character has their own storyline and at times those storylines end up being truncated or rushed as Burnard scrambles to pack it all in.

Did I like it?: It was not a bad book, but it's not my favourite. Burnard has introduced way too many characters and included many useless details that don't lend anything to the story. She writes as if she is preparing the story to be converted into a screenplay for a movie that countless women will cry at and which will feature Julia Roberts or Michelle Pfeiffer. It's that kind of story. The book is touching, I will give it that, but I really don't think it is great literature and I can't believe it won the Giller.

Will you like it?: This is obviously a woman's book (sorry - I always hate saying that). It is a pleasant and engaging read but it is nothing special. Anyone who has grown up with lots of family around, or who wishes they had, will enjoy this book - a simple story about people who love and support each other.

But don't take my word for it: Readers on both loved and loathed it, and a reviewer from the University of New Brunswick student newspaper had a similar reaction to me.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women - Michael Gross

The Basics: Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women, Michael Gross, 1995, 524 pages, hard cover

How I found it: Gross was actually a guest judge on a recent episode of Canada's Next Top Model. As part of his appearance he helped prepare the contestants for the tougher aspects of modeling and his book sounded interesting.

What's it about?: This book is basically a history of modeling from it's beginnings in the early 20th century up to the early 1990s. Gross goes into meticulous detail about every event of importance in modeling in that period. There are lots of interesting behind the scenes stories and lots of gossip. The book is definitely a history of the business aspect of modeling so there is a lot of focus on the rise and fall of various modeling agencies and not as much focus on the actual models themselves.

Did I like it?: If the book had been more about the models and less about the agencies I would have liked it a lot more. I found the business dealings between the agencies to be quite dry and found myself skimming through those sections. I didn't mind this book but it wasn't that exciting because all the gossip is about models that I am too young to remember. Since the book was finished in the early 90s, the models that are familiar to me today don't even make it into the book and there is no gossip or history about them.

Will you like it?: Unless you are a die-hard fashion industry worshipper you should skip this one. I'm sure there are better introductions into how the modeling industry works than this huge history volume. Or you could just go watch Top Model for the reality TV version of modeling - much more entertaining.

But don't take my word for it: Readers on all seemed to like it, and otherwise I can't seem to find any reviews.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

The Sea - John Banville

The Basics: The Sea, John Banville, 2005, 195 pages, hardcover, winner of the Man Booker prize for 2005.

How I found it: When I reviewed Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go I discovered that book was nominated for the 2005 Booker so I checked out the list of other nominees and decided to read the winner for that year, Banville's The Sea.

What's it about?: Max, a middle-aged Irish man, loses his wife to cancer and doesn't know what to do with his life. He heads back to a resort town where he spent an important childhood summer to try to figure it out, get away from his pain, and write an art book. The book is told primarily through Max's memories of his wife and of the events of that fateful summer. Max rarely exists in the present and it seems he prefers it that way.

Did I like it?: While this is a short novel, and a well-written one, for me it seemed to drag in places and I skimmed through some of Banville's prose. The story itself, as remembered by Max, is not that interesting (although there is a big revelation at the end of the book about why that summer was so important). I just didn't relate to Max, which is probably why I didn't love this book. I understood his pain, but couldn't relate to why he acted the way he did.

Will you like it?: This book is quite well-written and well executed. I had never read any Banville before, but he seems to be a talented writer. While I don't exactly recommend this book, I won't warn anyone away from it either. It is a good book, I just didn't really enjoy it - if that makes sense.

But don't take my word for it: Readers on liked it, the Sunday Times reviewer had a reaction similar to mine, but the reviewer from the Washington Post got sucked in by Banville's mastery of the English language.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Dead Air - Iain Banks

The Basics: Dead Air, Iain Banks, 2002, 485 pages, paperback.

How I found it: I was randomly browsing through the shelves of the local used bookstore a few months ago and for some reason I picked it up. I'm really not sure what it was that called to me - I can't remember anymore.

What's it about?: The protagonist is Ken Nott, a left-wing radio shock jock who is muddling through life in London in a post 9/11 world. The many-threaded plot centers around Ken's relationships with women and his friends, and the trouble his big mouth gets him into.

Did I like it?: Not really. It started off well with lots of carefully-crafted dialogue sections. The paint by numbers plot soon got me down, however. Banks only seems to introduce plot elements and characters so that he can create a very obvious story arc with them that is neatly tied up further on into the novel. As well, Ken's big-mouth ways and rants just seem like an excuse for Banks to give his opinion on 21st century politics under the guise of a character.

Will you like it?: Apparently Banks mostly writes science fiction and this is one of his few 'regular' novels. Perhaps that should have been my first clue. The book is not terribly written, but it does suffer from some hideous plot devices. In my opinion, the last 200 pages are hideous and wouldn't even make a good B movie. Things really go downhill after Banks includes yet another idiotic plot situation for his protagonist to scramble out of. This would be a good beach book, but other than that, I'd say avoid it.

But don't take my word for it: Some readers on have the same sentiments I do, while others are literary idiots, a reviewer from seems to share my views, as does one from the Guardian.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Everything About Me Is Fake... and I'm Perfect! - Janice Dickinson

The Basics: Everything About Me Is Fake... and I'm Perfect!, Janice Dickinson, 2004, 260 pages

How I found it: Janice promoted her first book, the autobiography No Lifeguard on Duty, on America's Next Top Model, and after reading that book, I wanted to read her next one.

What's it about?: The book is a random hodge-podge of stuff. It is supposed to be a self-help book about how women should love their bodies and realize that the models they see in magazines are totally fake and digitally and surgically manipulated. The book sticks to its self-help purpose slightly but is more a vehicle for Janice's whacky celebrity tell-all stories and fanatical beauty tips (more laxatives anyone?).

Did I like it?: Not really. There isn't much substance to the book and besides Janice's scandalous stories and crazy narrative, it would be pretty boring as well. I liked her autobiography because it showed that she is not just some cracked-out washed-up has-been - she has drive, is a business-woman and has overcome a lot in her life. This book showed none of that - it is just a cash-grab on the part of her publisher to ride on the success of her first book.

Will you like it?: Unlikely. You'll only like her first book if you thought she was funny on Top Model (which many didn't) and you'll only like this book if you are a Janice-fanatic (which many aren't). If you are only mildly interested in Janice read No Lifeguard on Duty or maybe just go watch some Top Model re-runs. Skip this book.

But don't take my word for it: Readers at didn't like it either, a review from

Monday, July 03, 2006

The Leave No Crumbs Camping Cookbook - Rick Greenspan & Hal Kahn

The Basics: The Leave No Crumbs Camping Cookbook: 150 Delightful, Delicious, and Darn-Near Foolproof Recipes from Two Top Wilderness Chefs, Rick Greenspan and Hal Kahn, 2004, 232 pages, paperback

How I found it: It was recommended to me by a MEC employee at a member seminar on back-country cooking.

What's it about?: This book is both a recipe book and a book about how to be a chef in the back country. It will give you ideas and recipes to help you move beyond pre-packaged freeze-dried cardboard tasting backpackers food or the standard spaghetti with pesto. The book draws heavily on the use of a dehydrator and lots of at-home prep, which will appeal to the ultra-liters but also has some recipes for canoe-trippers or car-campers willing to carry more and spend more time cooking.

Did I like it?: I loved this book. I got a copy from the library but I loved it so much that I have ordered my own from Chapters. The recipes all seemed yummy (unlike a lot of the more traditional backpacking cooking books where the recipes seem too healthy - I don't want brown rice in the backcountry - I want restaurant-type food!). As well there were lots of ethnic dishes to tempt me including recipes for backcountry sushi (it involves dehydrating and rehydrating the fillings), pad thai, Chinese dumplings, matzo balls and chala bread you bake in your camping pot. The book is also hilarious! The two guys who wrote it have an awesome sense of humour and I actually laughed aloud at some of their tips and jokes. (I do have to offer a slight disclaimer though: I haven't actually cooked anything from this book yet - haven't had time. But from reading over the ingredient lists and instructions, it looks pretty foolproof and mighty tasty. I promise to come back and edit this review if the recipes suck but I really doubt I'll have to.)

Will you like it?: If you backpack and own a dehydrator you will be in heaven with this book. Even if you don't own a dehydrator you will still be excited to own this book. Anyone who is serious about eating something tasty at the end of a long day on the trail should own this book as it will help you avoid the pasta and pasta and more pasta backpackers rut. (Did I stress how much I love this book?)

But don't take my word for it: Reader reviewers on loved it, an article from Stanford Magazine (where Greenspan is an alumnus).

Monday, June 26, 2006

Bud Inc.: Inside Canada's Marijuana Industry - Ian Mulgrew

The Basics: Bud Inc.: Inside Canada's Marijuana Industry, Ian Mulgrew, 2005, 287 pages, hardcover, nominated for the National Business Book Award 2005.

How I found it: It was recommended to me by because I purchased The Golden Spruce (very good book, I recommend it). I also noticed it on the Halifax library's recent non-fiction acquisitions.

What's it about?: It is supposed to be an expose of what the marijuana industry is really like on the inside, and to some degree it accomplishes that. However, I'd say it is more a book about the fight for legalization or decriminalization of pot. Either way, it is a fascinating look at an industry that most Canadians know little about.

Did I like it?: Yes, I liked it. I'm generally for the decriminalization and regulation of the marijuana industry, which might explain why I sympathized with Mulgrew's arguments (though I'm not nearly as voracious about it as he is). I found the whole book rather interesting since it presented an alternative view the one the mainstream media gives us. The part I found most interesting was the section of the book devoted to the scandal surround the Da Kine Cafe, a cafe that openly sold marijuana on Vancouver's Commercial Drive in 2004. I lived on the drive at the time so hearing the inside story of what when on with that cafe was fascinating as an alternative to the media coverage the event received at the time.

Will you like it?: If you don't support decriminalization, you probably won't like this book. Mulgrew consistently refers to the illegal status of pot as "prohibition" and makes comparisons with the prohibition on alcohol in the 1920s. As well, Mulgrew doesn't touch on the violent side of marijuana cultivation very much - bikers, Asian gangs, etc. get only cursory references and not in-depth examination. Mulgrew explains this away saying that those groups comprise about 3% of pot growers and most of the media attention, but while that might be correct, I think they still deserve investigation. Pot is big business in Canada and when/if it becomes legal there will be some big opportunities there.

But don't take my word for it: Editorial reviews, mixed reader reviews. Unfortunately that's all I can find besides highly biased reviews from both sides of the drug war debate.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro

The Basics: Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro, 2005, 263 pages, hard cover, shortlisted for the Booker prize in 2005.

How I found it: When I was in London last February it was one of the books being advertised on billboards in the tube (because the Brits actually read). also recommended it to me because I had read Alligator.

What's it about?: I don't want to give away too much since this is one of those books where little bits are revealed as you go along. It is enough to say that it is set in England in the 1990s and concerns a group of kids growing up and coming of age at a special academy for clones destined to become organ donation machines. (Sorry if I've said too much and ruined the book for you.) It is science fiction, but it is literature science fiction, along the lines of The Handmaid's Tale and just as well written too.

Did I like it?: This is the first book that I've read in awhile that I just couldn't put down. Ishiguro writes in a succint, yet beautiful style that I love. He also avoids giving too much detail about his alternative reality scenario so that the reader doesn't question it and accepts it in the same way that his characters do. The only thing I didn't like about it was the fatalistic attitude the characters seemed to have; they all accepted their fate without question or attempted rebellion.

Will you like it?: The story is compelling, the characters are easy to relate to, the premise is not too far fetched and it is an exceptionally well written book. I think you will like it, and I guarantee you won't hate it.

But don't take my word for it: Most online reviewers liked it, the major newspapers, including the Sunday Times, had nice things to say, as did