Book Reviews

From time to time, I am asked to review a book, or I come across a book that I am anxious to tell others about. Some of the books are related to writing or creative work. Others are related to my varied interests. Some I read just for fun.

I hope you find the reviews to be thoughtful and helpful. I am grateful to the authors and publishers for sending me their books.  I welcome your comments.

Strangely, Incredibly Good

By Heather Grace Stewart

Morning Rain Publishing, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-928133-12-4

188 pp

Strangely, Incredibly Good!” by Heather Grace StewartSimply, Incredibly Good

When talking about Montreal-area writer Heather Grace Stewart’s new novel, “Strangely, Incredibly Good”, I muffed the title and called it “Simply, Incredibly Good.” Hence the title for my review—because this is a novel that is simple on some levels, highly complicated on others, and is—well—good. Really good.

I wasn’t surprised at how good it was. I’ve followed Heather’s work for a few years, and have read a lot of her poetry, which is nothing like the poetry we studied in school. Heather’s poems come from the heart, rarely fit a pattern, and touched me on a deeply emotional level. I expected the same from the novel—and it exceeded those expectations. Even though belief has to be somewhat suspended to really get into this book and follow its characters.

Heather’s heroine, Cat Gilmour, an overweight 38-year old divorcée, is hard on herself, and gets down easily sometimes, but she also has an wicked sense of humour, and readily laughs at herself or at society. She also has an inner strength that she doesn’t even know she has sometimes. It takes her teenaged daughters, her 91-year old grandmother, and a Genie to help her find that strength. A Genie?

A wish-granting Genie pops out of Cat’s exercise machine and leads her to discover, own, and change her past so she can forge a better future for herself and her family. The Genie doesn’t always get it right though, which means that he and Cat have some amazing experiences.

We all may not be able to change our past, but we certainly are in control of our present and our future, and if there doesn’t happen to be a Genie around to help, it’s up to us to make our future what we want it to be. Sometimes we don’t always know how to stand up for ourselves, but we can learn. Whether Heather Grace Stewart meant there to be these messages in her book or not, I don’t know, but that’s what I was left with.

I was also left with a hope that there would be a sequel—and I recently found out there would be. Heather’s hoping it will be out by late 2015. So, Cat’s adventures with her girls and her “Badass Grandma” will continue and who knows—her Genie just may be along for the ride. I know I will be.

During a recent interview, I asked Heather how and why she made the transition from writing poetry and non-fiction to writing a novel that is so full of emotions, mostly funny ones.

“I write for myself, and hope my audience will follow. Right now, I’m concentrating on the fiction, and that seems to be a good place for me to be,” Heather says. “We’re all complicated, multi-sided human beings, so I think I always had that in me. I’ve always liked humour, and being funny. With my writing, I like to make people laugh, and cry, and be entertained. Poetry and non-fiction don’t always lend themselves to humour though, so I needed to find another outlet. It started with “Leap” (my second book of poetry) and there was a little more in the next book, “Carry On Dancing.” My humour comes out in my writing, and when I’m speaking at a book signing or other event. I am a serious journalist with this fun side that likes to poke fun at herself, and at society. Cat likes to do that too, so my humour comes out through her, except she thinks and says things that I don’t dare.”

As Heather says, she is sticking with the fiction for now, and I for one, am happy for that. As much as I’ve enjoyed her poetry, her fiction is such fun to read. Check out her website photo to see what I mean.

Signed copies may be ordered from the author for $15 Cdn, plus shipping and handling. Contact her at writer@hgrace.com E-books are available online via Kindle http://amzn.com/B00KQORLDO and Kobo http://tinyurl.com/mgfbxk6

An edited version of this review is in the New Vitality newsletter, produced by the 55 Plus Activity Centre at the Lennox & Addington Seniors Outreach Services. The author of this blog, Christine Peets, is the instructor for the 55 Plus Writing Group and leads the Dynamic Stretch and Classic Strength fitness classes at the centre.

 

Chocolatour: A Quest for the World’s Best Chocolate

(Wizard of Words Productions, 2013)

Doreen Pendgracs

Reviewed by Christine Peets

Pendgracs-Chocolatour-Cover

This book should come with a warning, “Do not read unless you have a supply of chocolate handy.” After reading even a few chapters about how the people who make chocolate and the beautiful places all over the world where they live and work, you will definitely be reaching for some chocolate.  How could you meet cocoa producers and farmers in Ecuador, Peru, and St. Lucia, discover the many health benefits of –and the reasons we (especially women) crave it—and then go with Pendgracs to meet chocolatiers, chocolate makers, and chocolate masters without wanting to devour some chocolate? As the saying goes, “resistance is futile.”

There is some confusion between these terms, chocolatier, chocolate maker, and chocolate master and Pendgracs explains them, but not quite early enough in the book. (They are first mentioned in the Introduction and then the terms are more fully explained in Chapter 1–I guess I was just curious too soon.)  That aside, it’s a marvel to see the passion, flair, and personality put into the making of this delectable treat. Speaking of personality, did you know chocolate has one, and that you have a “chocolate personality” too? This may explain why, when you have a craving for a certain kind of chocolate you may not be satisfied until and unless you can find it. Fortunately, Pendgracs makes that easy for us.

On her quest for “the world’s best chocolate” Pendgracs went to France, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom. She (and occasionally a travel companion) discovered—and shares with us—the best places to find the exact chocolate you seek. She also points out places to stay and eat so you can get the best experience in each locale.  Some of the best parts of each chapter are the Fun Facts, and the Noteworthy Chocolate for each place. Adding to the fun of the book are the Chocolatour Awards, which Pendgracs admits are subjective, and the A-Z Guide for Chocolate Lovers. Those should definitely help you decide where in the world you’d like to go on a chocolate quest.

To give you an idea of what you’d find are the gorgeous photos most of which were taken by Pendgracs.  Each picture truly tells a colourful story, and those, along with the soft paper Pendgracs chose when she published this book make reading the book an experience for more than your eyes.

However, this isn’t your typical travel book.  We go to places that are “off the beaten path” as Pendgracs says, “as those are the places I most enjoy and the ones you are least likely to have heard of.” While some may be in large cities, others are in small towns or villages.  There are also listings of events featuring chocolate, which will be expanded in Volumes Two and Three.

Yes, this is just the beginning. So there are more Chocolatours to different parts of the world coming.  For now, we can enjoy reading about the wonderful chocolate in these parts of the world.  You’ve been warned: get the chocolate handy.

IMG_2628.JPG - Version 2(1)Doreen Pendgracs shopping for chocolate at Schiphol International Airport in Amsterdam.

Images courtesy of Doreen Pendgracs, Wizard of Words Production. All rights reserved.

 

 

Yes Makes Life Interesting (originally posted November 2010)

On the CBC program “Q”, actor Harvey Fierstein told host Jian Ghomeshi that “life is only as interesting as the times you say yes.” Manitoba author, Doreen Pendgracs says “yes” a number of times, which no doubt means she has a very interesting life. Much of her time is, or has been spent serving on volunteer boards of directors, including the board for the Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC). She was the Regional Director for the Prairies and the North, and she was extremely dedicated to her work. Not only did she serve on the PWAC board for many years, she represented PWAC on other boards. Her work was recognized when she was presented with her region’s Volunteer Appreciation Award at the PWAC Awards Banquet in 2008.  She’s also won awards from other groups. Doreen took her experiences from those numerous other boards, combined it with information received by others who also had experience with boards of directors, and wrote a wonderful book called Before You Say Yes—A Guide to the Pleasures and Pitfalls of Volunteer Boards(Dundurn Press, 2010, ISBN 978-1-55488-703-3)

Here’s my review of Doreen’s book. I’ve sent this and similar reviews to magazines that publish such things, but have not as yet heard back from any of the editors whether they plan on printing the review.  I haven’t given up yet though.

Full disclosure: I am happy and proud to call Doreen a mentor and a friend. It’s through PWAC that I met Doreen.  [I think] I’ve keep my bias out of my review. It is a positive review, because it’s warranted. Were it not, I would have said so.

For anyone considering a position on a volunteer board of directors, or for anyone now on a board of directors, this is a must read. You’ll learn your rights and responsibilities, how to work with others on the board, and how to know when it’s time to leave—and ensure a successor—so that your hard work will not have been in vain.

Early in the book Manitoba author Doreen Pendgracs lays out who this book is for—and who won’t benefit from it. She also explains when more detailed information is required, and a there is a list of resources at the end of the book. Pendgracs has more than 25 years’ experience serving on a number of boards, and this shows she knows of what she writes. Her enthusiasm for volunteering and making a difference in your community shines through. However, there are a few too many personal examples. The same points could have been made without revealing her own experience with almost every situation being described. Having said that, Pendgracs does show the experience gained on one board can be easily transferred to another, regardless of the type of board, be it a volunteer non-profit, or a union committee.


Advice and experience is also offered by a number of other people, and that advice is interspersed throughout the book, again showing a wide scope of experiences from both the author and her sources. Pendgracs writes with an friendly style, and this is a book that can be read easily. It can be referred to quickly when deciding about a position on a board or when dealing with an issue while serving on a board. The format is well laid out, and I’d suggest making notes as you go along as there is some very complex information. Pendgracs shows that she has done her due diligence in researching and writing this book, and her advice is sound.

Like Doreen, I’ve served on a number of committees and boards of directors for various non-profit organizations. I’ve also chaired committees, so I know the amount of work involved, which is why I haven’t done it for a few years. Knowing Doreen, and reading her book has inspired me to sign up again for some volunteer work again. I’ve joined the Asset and Development Committee for the Napanee District Community Foundation. I’ve only attended a few meetings, but I am impressed with this group, and its work, and I know I will learn a great deal from this experience. I also believe I can make a valuable contribution. Being armed with Doreen’s book will make the job easier.

I’m glad that I’ve said “yes” to this group. There will be others. Life will definitely keep on being interesting.

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