The Rehearsal, by Eleanor Catton

rehearsalI recently read Eleanor Catton’s Booker Prize winning novel, The Luminaries, and decided it was my favourite novel of 2013. It was so good, in fact, that I decided I needed to read Catton’s first novel, The Rehearsal. I learned in doing a Wikipedia search on Catton that she wrote The Rehearsal as her master’s thesis at the age of 23 and that it had won a slew of awards. However, I did not hold out any expectations that I would like it anywhere near as much as The Luminaries. As it turns out, it was good that I did not have high hopes. This novel screams of over-achievement (in short, like a master’s thesis). I still have no clue what this book was about. Somehow I managed to finish it, mostly because I was expecting to be struck with a bolt of clarity – an ‘ah-ha moment’ – somewhere before the final pages. This did not occur. The novel is split into two alternating narratives: one from the point of view of a drama student at a theatre school; the other about a saxophone teacher and one of her students, whose sister had an affair with her high school music teacher. During the first couple chapters I was convinced that the saxophone teacher story was actually a play; a play which was being performed by the students at the theatre school. About a third of the way in I began to doubt this conclusion and by the halfway point I was convinced I was wrong. And then by the latst quarter of the book I began to doubt again. In the chapters about the saxophone teacher (whose name we never learn), Catton makes references to lighting and the particular way that a character is holding an object or standing, consistent with the over-dramatization of the theatre. And then there’s the ridiculous dialogue. The fifteen-year-old students talk in long-winded phrases, loaded with metaphor and descriptions that no teenager would ever use. Clearly Catton is trying to make some sort of point, but my dim-witted, new mother brain never figured out what it was. I suppose I could do a google search and find some kind of analysis of the novel to help me out. Maybe one day I’ll get around to that.

By no means do I regret reading The Rehearsal. Aside from the sometimes frustrating moments of internal debate over whether the saxophone teacher story was a play or not, it was a mostly enjoyable read. I’d recommend it to those readers who have a more analytical mind and like to spend time thinking about deeper meanings, or allegory, or metaphor, or (insert literary device here). For those of you who like a more straight-forward, simple story, I’d avoid!


The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

night circusAfter recently completing The Luminaries, I was eager for another gripping and well-written novel to get me through those night-time feeds with baby. The Night Circus was on my list of books to read, but I have no idea where I heard about it. The novel is kind of a cross between The Hunger Games and Harry Potter, but written for adults. The story takes for granted that magic exists and as such is rooted in the genre of magical realism (a genre I came to love via the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude). It is dark – the two main characters have been implicated in a kind of duel, in which only one can survive – but also beautiful. The circus is a wildly imaginative place with a surreal quality about it: everything is black and white and the various tents themselves house a range of acts from the more usual acrobats, fortune tellers, and contortionists, to the more unexpected: an ice garden, acrobatic kittens, and my personal favourite, the cloud maze (a vertical maze constructed of floating cloud-like bubbles that you can climb onto). Coupled with the black and white colour scheme, these latter tents lend that dreamlike quality to the circus; something that I really appreciated during the wee hours. You get to experience the circus from several points of view: that of a teenaged boy who becomes a regular visitor, several of the performers, and those who work behind the scenes. However the two main characters are the duellers and they have a complicated relationship, as the reader is able to anticipate pretty early on. If I had one complaint about the novel it would be that the characters themselves aren’t very well developed and their dialogue is somewhat stilted. They come across as two-dimensional but then in some respects this adds to that surreal nature of the novel. While the story is interesting, particularly as it is told from several perspectives, the ambiance and imaginative nature of the novel is what I loved the best.

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

luminariesIt has been a long time since I finished a book and knew for certain that I would be reading it again, soon. The Luminaries is an enthralling read. I don’t make it a point to seek out Booker Prize winners, but I was recently looking for a good book to read during my nightly baby feeding sessions and the recent announcement of The Luminaries as the 2013 winner caught my eye. I may have been put off by the girth of this novel; at 850 pages it is a tome! Luckily I bought it for my Kobo though and I have yet to see a paper copy of it. The novel, set in late 19th century New Zealand, centres around a conspiracy and how a number of different characters have unwittingly played a role in it. Putting the pieces together to figure out the series of events that occurred and how each character was involved kept me awake and engaged throughout the wee hours of the morning as I nursed my babe. Needless to say for a Booker Prize winner, the writing is brilliant. What surprised me was reading about Eleanor Catton after finishing the book. If you are an aspiring novelist, you may feel ill when you learn that Catton is the youngest Booker Prize winner ever, at the age of 28! Thinking back about the writing, this is incredibly impressive. Catton convincingly writes from a variety of perspectives and in a historical time period to boot. The Luminaries is only her second novel, the first being the thesis for her master’s degree! Her obvious talent has certainly made me feel envious even though I’ve never harboured a strong desire to write a novel, let alone an award-winner. It’s a very creative and a complex work and I highly, highly recommend it, especially if you like a good mystery.

Mount Pleasant, by Don Gillmor

mt pleasantRecently I reviewed a Canadian novel called Late Nights on Air, which despite being a rather uneventful and mundane story, I really enjoyed.This might be the first time I have ever read two Canadian novels in a row and liked both of them, but Mount Pleasant is better written and more interesting than Late Nights on Air. I was really captivated by the story and by Harry, the main character, a middle-aged professor who has managed to rack up a sizeable debt. Dutifully taking care of his ailing father, Harry is not too concerned about this debt as his father was an investment banker and Harry is counting on at least a couple million dollars in inheritance: more than enough to cover his debts and buy some goodies for him and his wife. When his father dies and Harry discovers that his estate is worth just $7000, Harry embarks on an investigation to find out how his money disappeared. This is both an entertaining and intellectually stimulating read. The fact that I enjoyed this book says a lot, considering that I read the bulk of it at unspeakable hours of the night while nursing my newborn son. Any book (not in the Harry Potter series) that can keep me both awake and content at 3am in a dimly lit and quiet room deserves hearty kudos. It is extremely well written and I will be quite surprised if it does not make the list for the 2014 Giller prize.

The Royal Nonesuch, by Glasgow Phillips

nonesuchBack in mid-September, Philip and I moved to our new abode, across town. We spent a couple weeks packing up and one of the first things to get packed was my library. Of course we managed to pack up all my books and in the meantime I ran out of reading material. Almost 9 months pregnant and desperate for a new book to read, I decided to risk life and limb by venturing into the garage, which was stacked over 6 feet high with an assortment of boxes. While they were labeled, stupidly I’d decided it was wise to put the labels on top of the box instead of on the side, which meant that any attempt to find out what was in a particular box necessitated physically moving every box on top of it. At 35 weeks pregnant, this was a pretty dumb thing to be attempting, as even I’ll admit. As luck would have it, I did come across a box containing books fairly quickly and I made a deal with myself: I had to read whichever book I pulled out first that I hadn’t yet read (otherwise I’d get all picky and start trying to move boxes around to find just the right book). The first book I pulled that met this criterion was a biography called The Royal Nonesuch, an advance proof copy that I’d been given by a former roommate who worked for a publishing company. Looking at the cover,  I had no idea why on earth I’d taken this book. I had no clue who Glasgow Phillips is and the cover of the book is startlingly ugly, containing a cartoon portrait of a bald man wearing aviator glasses who I can only assume is Glasgow himself, above a raunchy cartoon of a stripper dangling a bill in front of her crotch. Honouring the deal I made with myself, I decided to give the book a try.

Against all odds, I not only finished The Royal Nonesuch in about 3 weeks, but I will confess to somewhat enjoying it. I still have no real idea who Glasgow Phillips is, however. All I know is that he is friends with the guys who created South Park. He really is an unknown, which made reading this biography actually kind of interesting. Phillips is an aimless guy in his late 20s, trying to make a career for himself in TV comedy. He recounts numerous creative attempts and there are some very amusing anecdotes. The writing is surprisingly decent and at times quite funny. On a less positive note, Phillips needs to work on his editing. There are far too many characters introduced and many of them are secondary to the main storyline; I found myself constantly flipping back pages trying to remember who a particular person was. Eventually I learned when to bother doing this: often a character was only involved in the story for a short time so if I couldn’t remember who he/she was, I’d just pretend I did and continue reading. Most of the biography recounts raucous parties and demented characters (notably a bipolar homeless man named Timmy the Woodsman). The second half of the story becomes more poignant than the first as Phillips’ mother becomes seriously ill with a rare type of cancer. I was close to tears several times as Phillips describes the doctors visits and chemo treatments that she must undergo as he attempts to care for her while trying to get his career off the ground.

Overall I wouldn’t call this a satisfying read. I was satisfied in that I’d completed the book but aside from gaining a glimpse into what it’s like to live in LA and make an earnest attempt to make it big, I learned very little. What kept me reading was a desire to eventually figure out just who this guy was and if he did finally get himself a TV contract. I still don’t really know the answer to either of these questions.


Vegan Chocolate Cake with Raspberry Chocolate Icing, aka Matt’s Birthday Cake

SAMSUNGMy dear friend Matt’s birthday was last Sunday and I wanted to celebrate the occasion with a chocolate cake (this was admittedly as much for him as it was for me). My usual go-to recipe is the Guinness chocolate cake that my mom introduced me to years ago. However, being 9 months pregnant, I didn’t relish the idea of going to the liquor store and facing down the glares I’d inevitably get as I purchased a 4-pack of Guinness cans. Plus the recipe is pretty high in fat and since I intended to eat a lot of this cake, I wanted something a bit more “nutritious”. Once again, I turned to the fabulous Isa Chandra over at the Post Punk Kitchen for some ideas. I was not disappointed! I made her “Just Chocolate Cake” recipe, doubled it to make a layer cake, and voila: chocolate cake perfection, in my humble opinion. This is exactly the cake I wanted to make: rich without being fattening or greasy; a slightly spongy texture; and very, very chocolatey. However, I wasn’t too enamoured with Isa’s suggested icing: a chocolate ganache. In my experience, ganaches tend to be rather rich and more like a glaze than an icing. I wanted a nice thick fudgy icing – the texture that you’d get from a tub of Duncan Hines icing without all the unpronounceable ingredients. I did a google search for vegan icing recipes and decided to combine two that I found from a site called Short & Sweets: Chocolate Buttercream Frosting and Raspberry Buttercream Frosting. The result? A very chocolatey icing with the unmistakable taste (and bite) of raspberry. Awesome.

Here’s the recipe for the cake. Like I said, I copied Isa’s recipe exactly so you can go straight to the source for it. However, I’ll put it here in case *heaven forbid* the Post Punk Kitchen ever went defunct:


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 8 or 9 inch cake tins and line with parchment paper if you’re pretty paranoid about the cake sticking. I did this extra step and was glad I did.

In a large bowl, whisk together:

  • 2 cups almond milk (soy or other non-dairy milk would work here too)
  • 2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar

Allow to curdle for a few minutes. In the meantime, combine in another bowl:

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2/3 cup cocoa powder – try to use Dutch processed if possible!
  • 1.5 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Now that the milk has curdled, add to it:

  • 1.5 cups granulated sugar
  • 2/3 cups canola oil
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract

Add the dry ingredients to the wet, in two batches. Use an electric mixer to combine until there are no large lumps left.

Bake for 32 to 35 minutes, until a toothpick inserted through the centre comes out clean.


Melt 140g/5oz bittersweet chocolate either in the microwave or in a double boiler and allow to return to room temperature. Beat in 1/2 cup of softened Earth Balance vegan butter (1 stick) for about a minute. Add about a cup of fresh raspberries and beat. Next, add a cup of icing sugar and beat until combined. Add another cup and beat again. Add 1 tbsp of cocoa and a couple splashes of almond milk and taste your icing at this point. I’m not a fan of icing that tastes like icing sugar or that is gritty so I tend to use less icing sugar than most recipes call for. However if you feel it’s not sweet enough or icing-y enough, add up to another cup of icing sugar.

This yielded plenty of icing to do a thick layer between the two cakes and to ice the entire outside surface area. After icing the cake I noticed that the icing was a bit droopy so I decided to put the whole thing in the fridge to stiffen up. This was a very good decision and did not affect the taste of the cake.


Tagged , ,

Late Nights on Air, by Elizabeth Hay

late nightsIn my third year of my undergraduate degree in French, I thought it would be interesting to take a class in Quebec literature. I had taken a lot of ‘classic’ French lit courses up until that point, covering such works as Madame Bovary and Germinal and I figured it was time I connected with Canadian francophone writers. It was in this class that I decided that with few exceptions, Canadian literature (both anglophone and francophone) is boring. I had had my suspicions before taking the Quebec lit course, having struggled through a few dull Margaret Laurence and Margaret Atwood novels. But it wasn’t until the Quebec literature class that it dawned on me: Canadians are boring! Case in point: the first book we read in class was called Le Survenant,  about a family that owns a farm and one day a stranger shows up to help. Quite seriously, nothing else happens and there are some mind-numbing pages describing farm chores. I still remember actually being angry at the book for being so utterly dull, and this was more than ten years ago! I have since been hesitant to pick up novels by Canadian writers and will only do so on the strong recommendation of friends.

It is perhaps not surprising then that I left Late Nights on Air on my bookshelf, unread, for a good four years before finally picking it up recently. I’m not sure what compelled me to actually pluck it out of my extensive library of unread books, but it wasn’t without some apprehension. As it turns out, Late Nights on Air is a bit boring in that nothing really happens per se. There is no zombie apocalypse; no disasters or vivid love affairs or dramatic turn of events. It is really a simple story about four people who work for a local radio station in Yellowknife. It is about how they interact with each other and with the remoteness of their location and the harshness of the weather. Bored yet? For some reason I wasn’t. I actually really enjoyed this novel, despite that in addition to being uneventful it is also pretty bleak. I guess this should not surprise me as that’s the other thing about a lot of Canadian lit: it’s often horribly depressing (the epitome might be David Adams Richards’ Mercy Among the Children). If ever I were uncertain about whether living in the North would be a good idea, Late Nights on Air set my mind straight on that point. Do I recommend this book? Yes, with some reservation. It did, after all, win a Giller Prize so it’s worth a try. I believe I may have hated this book had I read it ten years ago. Do we get more boring with age? Is it easier to relate to dull characters the older we get? If so, I’d say this a book for those in their mid-30s and over.