This year’s resolution: Count on Yourself

While weight loss and healthy eating tend to be mainstays on everyone’s new year’s resolution list, more and more of us are making resolutions about our finances. We want to be better informed and to make better decisions about our money.

Count on Yourself by Canadian expert Alison Griffiths, the host of MAXED OUT and personal finance columnist for the Toronto Star and Metro, is the perfect place to start.

Does the word “investment” make your head hurt? Are you afraid to look at your RRSPs?

Are you worried that you’ll have to eat cat food instead of caviar when you retire?

Count On Yourself gives you easy-to-follow, prescriptive advice on how to take charge of your money.

Learn how to get organized. See how fees hamstring your investments. Discover the perfect low-fee, low-maintenance portfolio that lets you sleep at night.

This book provides easy, prescriptive advice on:

  • Debt and credit
  • RRSPs, RESPs and other investment accounts
  • Your plan for the future
  • Retirement planning
  • Raising money smart kids
  • How to survive in the sandwich generation

Check out Alison’s investment tips for students, young professionals, new parents and retirees.

Tips for students:

Tips for young professionals:

Tips for new parents:

Tips for retirees:

Join Alison in Toronto and Vancouver as she shows us how to take control of our finances. She will explore our attitudes toward money and the obstacles that stop us from being our own financial boss. When it comes to YOUR money there’s no one better to count on than yourself.

Location: Indigospirit First Canadian Place
Date: Tuesday, January 24
Time: 12:30pm

Location: Toronto Reference Library in the Beeton Auditorium (789 Yonge St, Toronto)
Date: Wednesday, January 25
Time: 6:30- 8:00pm

Location: Indigo, 2505 Granville Street, Vancouver, British Columbia
Date: Saturday, January 28, 2012
Time: 12:00pm until 3:00pm

Don’t forget to enter our contest to win a personal consultation with Alison Griffiths.

Visit Alison at,  on Facebook or follow her on Twitter 

Indie Bookstore Spotlight: Collected Works

The independent bookstore is a cultural and community hub – authors are introduced, works read aloud to an audience and ideas are shared.

Each month, we will be featuring an independent bookstore from across Canada, proving what a special role these shops play in fostering authors,  community and a love of reading.

This is a photo of Collected Works before the renovation. Take a look at some of the photos of our demolition/renovation from last year.

Collected Works serves up two addictions that go together like a horse and carriage – books and coffee – and both are served with warmth by their knowledgeable and personable staff. Nestled among the shops and pubs on Wellington Street at Holland, in a vibrant community to the West of downtown Ottawa, Collected Works is one of the hubs of the neighborhood. And while it specializes in literary fiction, poetry and children’s books, Collected Works welcomes all book lovers with open arms. The store is also a venue for exhibitions by local artists, readings by writers, book club discussions, and workshops for aspiring writers. Check out their schedule of events here.

1. Tell us a little bit about the history of Collected Works.

Christopher Smith and Craig Poile opened Collected Works Bookstore May 5, 1997, just as Chapters was rolling out its first wave of superstores in the Ottawa area. Everyone thought it insane to be opening a new indie at the same time as some of the city’s best-known booksellers were closing shop in the face of the fierce competition. It didn’t seem rational to be opening a 1,200-square-foot store that didn’t discount. But we put our faith in the basics of quality bookselling: knowledgeable staff who are passionate about reading, carefully selected stock, and above all great (read: warm, personal) customer service. We figured a store where the customer is treated as an individual is more of a draw than any giant barn of discounted books. Our belief appears to have been well-founded. Fifteen years later, not only are we still here, we’ve also expanded, doubling our floor size. And we’ve become Ottawa’s leading independent bookstore, twice nominated for Bookseller of the Year by the Canadian Booksellers Association, and this year voted Best Bookstore—of any kind—by the readers of Ottawa Xpress, the city’s alternative weekly newspaper.

2. What made you want to open a bookstore? 

Christopher had been working as a bookseller for over 10 years for two different family-owned stores, where he rose through the ranks. When one of the stores went out of business, he and Craig had the opportunity to buy it. They didn’t have the funds to make it work, but it got them thinking that owning their own store was the best route to take. Christopher took business courses and a job managing a coffee shop after he figured out that he wanted a coffee bar to be part of the store. Together Craig and Christopher saved their money and scouted locations. It took two years, but on the advice of a friend they found both the perfect neighbourhood and location.

3. What do you like best about your job?

The people – the customers, the staff, the sales reps, fellow booksellers, the authors. Second-best is receiving. Every time you get to open those boxes, it’s like Christmas.

4. What does the book-buying public understand least about independent bookstores?

They think we sit around reading all day. It’s one of the ironies of bookselling that there is so much to do in a day that the last thing you have time for is to read, and when you do find the time, you are so tired you fall asleep. This actually makes you really picky about what you read. We try not to read not what everyone else is reading. Those books will sell themselves. We look for things that a bit off the beaten track – the ones you that need a good bookseller to hand-sell.

5. What’s the hardest part about being a bookstore owner in 2012?

Trying to stay focused on the basics: service and selection. With all the hype around ebooks, online retailers, discounters, superstores, and the like, it’s hard not to think like Chicken Little. Because consumers can now get whatever they want, wherever they want, it is more important than ever to focus on what makes us unique: really great personal service and superior selection.

6. What types of books does your store specialize in?

We are a general trade store that stocks what we consider the best in Canadian, American, and British books. We have strong fiction, children’s, and poetry sections, and try to emphasize things Canadian and small presses.

7. What are some of your favorite titles? Kids titles? Titles coming out this spring?

Our bestsellers are big on local heroes—authors that range from international bestsellers like Francis Itani and Elizabeth Hay to those that have made a name for themselves through small presses and self-published titles. The staff have a diverse set of literary idols and preoccupations: Neil Gaiman, David Sedaris, Joyce Carol Oates, Elizabeth George, J. M. Coetzee, anything with zombies!…too many to name, but all darn fine reads.

8. What are you reading right now?

Readme by Neal Stephenson.

9. What’s your most current best seller?

Requiem by Frances Itani

10. What have been some of your favorite (or most memorable) author events?

David Sedaris tops that list. We crammed over 120 people into our store and had another 200-plus in a marque tent in our back parking lot. He arrived at 5 in the afternoon and stayed until after midnight. He’s not only a great writer but a lovely man. He sent a thank you card a couple of weeks after the event addressed to each of the individual staff who worked the event.

11. Any strange, wild or crazy-but-true stories?

There are lots, but the best is the day someone came in and asked if they could by a rock off the street they found on the sidewalk in front of the store. We told the rock was free of charge but they insisted they needed to pay for it so we obliged.

12. What book are you, or will you, hand-sell with a vengeance?

Again, it’s our local authors that we tend to talk up, whether it’s a self-published title like The Baker’s Daughter (the memoirs of Ottawa icon Grete Hale), a play about the inhabitants of a neighbourhood just down the street from the store (Don Laflamme’s The Mechanicsville Monologues), or the new international bestseller by Francis Itani (Requiem).

And from our  booksellers, other titles include:

For Kids: Busytown Mysteries: The Missing Apple Mystery
Richard Scarry’s characters solve mysteries in Busytown! So much to love.

For Middle School: The Always War by Margaret Peterson Haddix
In the future, war is still an ugly, messy, costly business. As always, Haddix delivers a fast-paced page-turner that is as thought provoking as it is satisfying.

For Teens: Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry
As one reviewer said, this is George Romero crossed with Catcher in the Rye. How could I resist? Well written and moving.

During the Holidays: Hanukkah Hop!
A refreshingly different Hanukkah book sure to please.

13. Is there anything else you would like to tell our blog readers?

I think I’ve said enough.

Kevin Sylvester &The Neil Flambé Capers


2012 is set to be a very exciting year for Toronto author and illustrator Kevin Sylvester and his middle grade series The Neil Flambé Capers.  Not only is the second book in the series, Neil Flambé and the Aztec Abduction nominated for the 2011 Silver Birch Award (Book #1 won last year!), but book #3, Neil Flambé and the Crusader’s Curse is set to hit stores in May!

We caught up with Kevin to talk about the inspiration for Neil Flambé, writing for kids, and what it’s like to be nominated (AGAIN!) for the Silver Birch Award.

1)   Your character Neil Flambé  originally made his debut on CBC in Neil Flambé and the Case of the Caustic Cumin as part of an ongoing summer morning broadcast.  How long had you been thinking of this character or story or was it almost more of a choose your own adventure where the story and character took on a life of their own?

In some ways Neil is a character I’d been playing around with for years, and in some ways he was a completely new creation. He’s a smart young man with attitude… kind of like a Bugs Bunny or Spiderman in the kitchen. I love the cockiness and the ability of those types of characters. Neil is less self-aware than these guys, but he is confident and good at what he does.

I also like making up stories where kids have to deal with adults on their level and be better than they are. I think a lot of kids see themselves this way anyway. Adults keep messing up their plans and then lecturing them. If kids could just be left alone the world would be great! (That’s what they think, anyway).

          Once I set Neil in the very adult world of haute cuisine he started to take specific shape. His backstory (watching Julia Child instead of the teletubbies, reading cookbooks instead of Robert Munsch) started to pop into my brain.

          I love to cook myself and chefs have become rock stars, or celebrity artists. Neil wants that so badly he can (pun intended) taste it and that’s something we all have to deal with. How far will any of us go to be great at the thing we care about most?

          Having said all that, the radio play was really an adult story, and Neil had to become younger, less mature, less “in control” of himself.

2)  How did you develop the look of Neil Flambé?

Neil sort of popped into my head when I was thinking up the original story, even before I’d written a word. He was a gangly kid in a chef’s hat and chef’s coat. After I wrote the first installment of the work I sat down at my cousin Shauna’s kitchen table, where I was staying, and started drawing a picture for the website we set up.

          Essentially I drew an oval and a triangle. The triangle is his big nose, and the oval is his head. I originally wanted to make his hair blue, like the flame in an actual Flambé, but my cousin’s daughter Rowan was sitting next to me and said I had to make it red. Good call.

          I’ve made Neil a little younger looking since that original picture (which is still on the web in some places) but that also fits with the rewriting of the story.

3)  What made you want to write for this age group (Grades 3-6)?  How do you have such a good understanding of not only what kids want to read, but how they interact with the material of a story, from the characters to the illustrations?

I don’t set out to write for a specific age group. I write the kinds of stories I like to read and liked to read when I was a kid. I have always loved fast-paced narratives that have humour mixed in to keep things light. (See earlier reference to Spiderman!)

          Having said that, if I were only writing for an older audience I might dabble in more experimental plot lines and would certainly have more obscure food references. That was how the Caustic Cumin developed and I had to streamline it for a younger audience.

          I have to say that I have had amazing editors along the way who helped me hone and shape the books for this age group. My wife Laura and Charis Wahl were the first to see that the Neil stories needed to be less food-heavy, for example.

          Neil needed a foil for the non-foodie kids to have a way to connect to the cooking without knowing the terminology. Voila, Larry! (Larry wasn’t in the radio play.) Larry has become much more than that, of course, but that was his reason for being “born” into Neil’s life.

          Linda Pruessen and now Ariel Coletti constantly challenge me to defend the plotting, dialogue and references.

          But I’ve also been very edified to see that many adults, and adult bloggers who don’t even have kids, have enjoyed the books as well.

4)                  Kids obviously love not just your books, but your whole “multi-media” presentations, with you drawing illustrations, reading the books, and wearing the chef’s jacket and hat. Do they ever give you input for the next book or how they think Neil should be developing as a character (though maybe not in so many words!)?

I sometimes tell the kids that I set the series in a kitchen because there are so many possible murder plots involving food (just wait until you see the deadly duels in Book #4!). Then I ask them if they can think of some possibilities themselves. Let’s just say that kids have very active imaginations… think blenders and meat tenderizers.

          That shows me that they can make the connection to the danger of the stories without taking it too seriously and that gives me some leeway to explore some of the darker areas of life.

          I’m also a big believer in matching words and images. Everything from comic books, to The Hardy Boys and even Charles Dickens is a combo of words and pictures. I don’t understand people who think that pictures “dumb down” real literature.

Those are the books that made me love reading. I think they give a lot more people a chance to enjoy the book. I’m not saying all books have to have pictures, but don’t criticize books that do.

As for wearing my chef’s outfit, I like authors who demystify the process and don’t take themselves too seriously. It’s fun to write and I hope people have fun reading my books.

5)                  I know you have daughters, do they influence your stories? Do they ever read them or give any suggestions?

My daughters are two of the most voracious readers that I have ever known, and they are very critical. They read my stories long before I ever gain the confidence to send them to an editor. Once they sign off I also know that the books don’t stink….

          They introduced me to many of my heroes – Ken Oppel, Eoin Colfer, Jean Little, Eva Ibbotson… so many others.

          I’d already many of those authors, but seeing what my girls enjoyed allowed me to be more conscious of the elements that I wanted to include in my stories.

          Reading to them when they were younger – everything from Goodnight Gorilla to The Hobbit – gave me a sense of the rhythms and cadence of good writing.

6)                  How has your career as a radio broadcaster influenced you as a writer?

It’s been huge, for so many reasons. For one thing, I think the approach I take to telling a story on the air is perfectly suited for the way I write my books. Simplicity is a key value of both mediums.

          I use simple language and tell my stories in a straightforward way. On the radio you have to do that because you can’t rewind live story-telling. My books are laid out in the same way. I always imagine my books being read out loud by someone next to a fireplace, in an old rocking chair… sort of a mixture of the Friendly Giant and Jim Henson’s Storyteller.

          The other advantage of my radio work is that I’ve been able to visit and experience the flavours of some amazing places – Torino, Mexico City, Athens, Sydney, Moscow… and all those elements sneak into my books one way or another.

7)                  The Silver Birch Awards are really neat because they are like a combination of the Librarians’ and the Kids’ Choice Awards. How did it feel to win for Neil Flambé and the Marco Polo Murders last year?

It was amazing. Authors know that just being nominated for the award is the real prize – and that’s totally true. Just seeing all those young readers holding onto your book like some magic talisman is overwhelming. To be on stage with so many amazing authors was great. I read the other nominated titles and let’s just say the kids had a tough choice to make. Canadian writers are the best in the world right now… let’s put it that way.

          Winning was like the whipped cream on a banana split. It means more to have kids pick your book than to have critics pick the book. After all, we all write for those kids.

          It had a special resonance for me last year because the books were in serious danger of dying. The original publisher had gone bankrupt, so it was very emotional for me. And a huge thanks to S&S for riding in and saving Neil!

7a) You are nominated again, this time for Neil Flambé and the Aztec Abductions. Is it as exciting as the first time?

Hecks ya! It’s an honour and the ceremony itself is a blast – win or lose (and I’ve been on both sides of that and still had a great time).

And one of the great side benefits of the nomination is that I get asked to visit a lot of schools. Kids love to read, if they are excited about the books. The Silver Birch committees pick titles that do this. To have a chance to meet the readers and to get them interested in the books is amazing. If they already know the books it’s a different thrill. Kids have made me some amazing artwork based on Neil and it’s all up in my attic studio.

8)                  What are your plans for Neil Flambé? Will you continue with the series, especially now that you have such a great following, or do you want to move onto something new? And either way, will you continue to write for the same age group or will your characters get older as your readers get older?

Neil and Larry are very real to me. I hear them talking together at night – not even stuff for the books but just the minutiae of their lives. So they will be with me for a long time.

          I don’t have an “end” in mind for the series. I could write a hundred books (a la The Hardy Boys) or stop at six or seven. I think I’ll stop once the stories themselves feel thin or tired to me. Nothing is as disappointing as reading a series that’s gone on too long.

          Of course I also have a number of other books in the works. I have a couple of non-fiction books due in 2012 on show business and the economy. I have also started at least four other books that I’m just waiting for the right time to finish. Look for Medieval Mark, Mr. Green, Cicatrice and MINrS sometime in the future. 

Coming May 2012:

Find out more about The Neil Flambé Capers.

Top Ten Holiday E-Books

So you finally gave in and decided to give yourself a shiny e-reader as an early Christmas present. And why not? E-readers are portable, lightweight and leave a lot of space in your bag for more stuff. Here are our 10 top e-book picks to get you e-reading right away!

1) Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson: While much has been written about Steve Jobs since he passed away, this is the book to read. With unrestricted access to Steve Jobs and the people who knew him, Walter Isaacson sheds light on the type of person Steve was and how determination (and sometimes stubbornness) is the key to success.

2) 11/22/63 by Stephen King: The latest novel by Stephen King tells the story of Jake Epping, an English teacher, who is tasked with preventing the Kennedy assassination. At 3lbs, this is a hefty hardcover; fortunately it weighs nothing in e-book form, meaning you can enjoy a riveting read without suffering bodily harm.

3) The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma: Since writing this book, Felix J. Palma has become a key figure in the science fiction and fantasy world stage. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells is the inspiration for this tale in which Felix takes us back to Victorian London. This is a time and place where technology was considered magic and everything was thought to be possible. With a touch of humor Felix tells us the stories of an aristocrat in love with a murdered prostitute from the past; a woman bent on fleeing the strictures of Victorian society by searching for her lover somewhere in the future; and a fourth-dimensional plot to murder celebrated authors in order to steal their fictional creations. (Note: The Map of the Sky, Felix’s second book, is coming out Summer 2012!)

4) Atlas of Impossible Longing by Anuradha Roy: Anuradha Roy brings us the story of Mukunda and Bakul, two people who find each other when abandoned by everyone else. It is a love story characterized by the strife, longing, and tragedy that follow the impossible. Definitely a book that will move you and make you consider whether you are truly ever with someone or if you are always longing for something lost.

5) Time in Between by Maria Duenas: The Spanish world has known of this amazing story since 2010; it made its debut in North America on November 8, 2011. Comparisons to Casablanca and John Le Carre have led to the development of a serial for the Spanish TV market and a movie deal.

Set  in Madrid, Tetuan, and Lisbon before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War through the Second World War, this story follows Sira Quiroga, a poor seamstress from Madrid who, after being abandoned in Algiers by her lover, forges a new identity and becomes the most sought-after couturiere in North Africa for the idle rich and the wealthy wives of German Nazi officers. But she is soon embroiled in a world of spies, working for the British Secret Service through a secret code stitched into the hems of her dresses. The Time In Between is one of those rare, richly textured novels that keeps you hoping it won’t end.

6) Wither by Lauren DeStefano: If you are tired of angsty vampires falling in love with angsty teens, this is the book for you. Set in a world where the goal to achieve immortality has only caused the reverse, Rhine Ellery at sixteen finds herself with only four years to live. She is kidnapped and becomes the bride of Linden, a boy, who will only live until he is twenty-five.  What she doesn’t know is that Linden’s father is an eccentric doctor bent on finding an antidote to the disease, and that her strangely colored eyes hold a clue to curing it.  Will Rhine be able to escape and find her twin or will the world continue to spiral into anarchy?

7) The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman: In 70 CE, nine hundred Jews held out for months against armies of Romans on a mountain in the Judean desert, Masada. According to the ancient historian Josephus, two women and five children survived. Based on this tragic historical event, Hoffman weaves a spellbinding tale of four extraordinary, bold, resourceful, and sensuous women, each of whom has come to Masada through a different path. The lives of these four complex and fiercely independent women intersect in the desperate days of the siege, as the Romans draw near. All are dovekeepers, and all are keeping secrets—about who they are, where they come from, who fathered them, and whom they love. This novel is Alice Hoffman’s masterpiece.

8 ) Wildflower Hill by Kimberley Freeman: Spanning three generations and half the world, Wildflower Hill is a sweeping, romantic, and compelling story of a ballerina who inherits an estate in Tasmania where long-forgotten secrets reveal the way to a more fulfilling life and love. This is a novel about about finding out who you really are and what you really want and discovering that the answer might be not at all what you’d expect.

9) Carte Blanche by Jeffery Deaver: Bond, James Bond. That should be enough for you to read this book. But if you need more information all we are allowed to tell you is that James Bond is his early thirties and already a veteran of the Afghan war. He has been recruited to a new organization. Conceived in the post-9/11 world, it operates independent of MI5, MI6 and the Ministry of Defense, its very existence deniable. Its aim: to protect the Realm by any means necessary. After Headquarters decrypt an electronic whisper about an attack to British interest, Agent 007 is given carte blanche to do whatever it takes to fulfill his mission.

10) Guilty Plea by Robert Rotenberg: Bestselling author Robert Rotenberg is back with his next razor-sharp legal thriller. Rotenberg’s insider knowledge of the behind-the-scenes courtroom machinations and his mesmerizing trial scenes make this another scorching page-turner.