The Illuminations [Book Review]

Book Reviews
From the Penguin Random House Canada Website

From the Penguin Random House Canada Website

 Standing one evening at the window of her house by the sea, Anne Quirk sees a rabbit disappearing in the snow. Nobody remembers her now, but this elderly woman was in her youth an artistic pioneer, a creator of groundbreaking documentary photographs. Her beloved grandson, Luke, now a captain in the British army is on a tour of duty in Afghanistan. When his mission goes horribly wrong, he ultimately comes face to face with questions of loyalty and moral responsibility that will continue to haunt him. Once Luke returns home to Scotland, Anne’s secret story begins to emerge, along with his, and they set out for an old guest house in Blackpool where she once kept a room. There they witness the annual illuminations–the dazzling artificial lights that brighten the seaside resort town as the season turns to winter. (From the Penguin Random House Canada Website)

Imagine a novel about everything. A novel about the past, the present, the future. About time and how quickly it can pass by. A novel about the fine line between love, loss, and hope beyond help. A novel about family and the secrets we harbor to protect ourselves and one another.

“He wanted to help her picture things and put her story together, for him and for her… He wanted to establish her good times.” (247)

I can’t begin to explain what The Illuminations made me feel while I was reading it — a book about everything makes you feel everything. I felt confused and saddened by Anne’s state of mind, but mystified by the stories that she would tell when her mind allowed her to remember. I felt annoyed by Maureen’s need to help a perfect stranger, pitying herself rather than helping her family or letting them into her life. I was tickled by the relationship between Anne and her grandson Luke, what she taught him about life and photography is pure gold. Before the family secrets began to unravel I was less than impressed with Anne’s daughter Alice, but that changed near the end of the novel. And Harry, Anne’s one true love, he was a mystery to me throughout the novel. I’m not quite sure if he deserved Anne but their relationship just goes to show you how powerful hope, faith, and love can be.

The Illuminations is about all of that and so much more. Author Andrew O’Hagan masterfully exposes the secrets to living. He delves into the idea that every life is extraordinary and that everyday things can in fact be wonderful works of art. This is the kind of novel that will have you thinking about your own story, your past, and your goals for the future. The Illuminations will guide its reader into the brightness of the world, if only they dare to open their eyes.

“You’ve got to live a life proportionate to your nature,’ she said. ‘You’ve got to find out what that means and then stick to it.'” (97)

Love Always,

Vanessa Xo

* The Illuminations comes out February 17th, 2015

* Disclosure: I received an ARC of The Illuminations from Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

greatness and all that jazz

Bursting the Bubble, Family Time, Just for Fun, Lifestyle/Personal, Restaurant Reviews

piclabThursday was a perfect day for walking around the streets of Toronto with one of my favourite girlies in all the land. I invited my brother’s girlfriend, Christine, to accompany me to the Chapters Indigo media preview. Although she’s been dating my brother for years we’ve never spent much time together, so when I went to pick her up I was a little nervous. I’m always scared that I’ll be awkward or run out of things to say to people but I was happily surprised when we literally could not stop talking!

I think one reason we get along so well is because we are a lot alike. We crave adventure, we’re ambitious, we’re quiet and yet can’t stop talking when we’re with people we like spending time with. We keep things to ourselves but are learning to speak our minds. We love our families, boyfriends, friends, and even books. We’re tired of saying yes to people who don’t appreciate us and have made a pact to not do things that make us unhappy just to make someone else happy.

As our chatting continued, my nervous energy melted away and we were both able to enjoy an evening in the city. We walked to Chapters Indigo head office and then over to The Store On Queen so I could pick up a pair of pants I ordered (I was super bummed that I didn’t get to meet Hubby and Wifey), and finally headed to the O&B Canteen for a bite to eat (dinner was delicious by the way).

IMG_7516IMG_7517IMG_7520 IMG_7553I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again — I LOVE BEING DOWNTOWN. The hustle and bustle makes me feel alive. The murmur of various conversations, the sardine-packed sidewalks, the endless rows of great shops and fabulous restaurants is so different from anything I experience on a day-to-day basis. King Street West is my favourite part of the city — it’s familiar and foreign. I can navigate that block pretty well and still see something new every time I walk it. I feel like I belong in the city, I should be walking home from work, grabbing an early drink or a late latte with my boyfriend, friends, or solo. 

What is about the city that makes me feel great? Is it just Toronto or all cities that make me feel like I can do anything, be anyone, and achieve my biggest dreams? An important part of this feeling is surrounding myself with people who feel the same way, or who at very least believe that I am capable of all those things. People who think I am great and that I can achieve greatness. Thank you to all of those people.


 Love Always and Forever,

Vanessa Xo

hazy drives



I love driving before cars spill onto the road from every direction. Before you become a sardine on that so-called highway. I love morning drives, sticky sweaty morning drives when the streets and trees are covered in a light fog, a mist. When the world is hazy — like waking from a dream. Your eyes are half-open but you can hear and feel everything all at once. The beads of perspiration forming on your back make you feel alive. The quiet roads allow you to think and make you feel like you’re the only one awake in this crazy world.

It’s drives like these that allow me to think, to breathe a little slower, and take an inventory of all my recent decisions. I may not have been the only one on the road yesterday but I still felt like it and I let myself get lost in a trance-like state. I thought about my last day at work (next Friday) and all of the people out there who have told me to follow my dreams, who believe in me. Their support makes me believe that I will land on my feet, regardless of the risks I take.

“I have come to accept the feeling of not knowing where I am going. And I have trained myself to love it. Because it is only when we are suspended in mid-air with no landing in sight, that we force our wings to unravel and alas begin our flight. And as we fly, we still may not know where we are going to. But the miracle is in the unfolding of the wings. You may not know where you’re going, but you know that so long as you spread your wings, the winds will carry you.”  ― C. JoyBell C.

Love Always and Forever,


how I combat depression…

Bursting the Bubble, Lifestyle/Personal

…when five important members of my support system are on vacation and I’m having a rough week.

1. Forget about negative comments and unhappy people. Although you’re realistic, you don’t need to keep hearing how hard it is to find a job or how much it sucks to get older or anything along those lines. Remember that you’re young enough to live the life you want to live. Have the courage to ignore the haters and keep on dreaming. 


2. Facetime your family whenever you can. Just seeing the face of your niece or hearing the voice of your sister might make you forget about work related problems.


3. Spend time with the family you have here. Make dinner with your brother and his girlfriend. Go to Burger’s Priest with your Uncle and boyfriend and yap until the rain forces you to go home. Invite your cousin over and make her some pasta with broccoli — then watch Catching Fire and have an open debate about who is hotter (TEAM PEETA!).

4. Invite your besties over and make them dinner. No, you don’t normally cook but you can totally lose yourself in a recipe and still feel in control — it’s getting everything ready at the same time that’s the tough part BUT you’ve got it covered. In fact, dinner comes out perfectly and your besties nearly lick their plates clean. After dinner, make a cake. Forget about your diet and eat the damn cake. Sing songs from your favourite boy bands, gossip your hearts out, discuss the important stuff, and give them the biggest of hugs when they leave, you’ll sleep easier at night.




5. Head up to the cottage for a few days and let the fresh air clear your head. Eat all of those delicious things that are bad for you, drink loads of coffee (with cream), have a glass or two of vino, and treat yourself to good conversations with great people. Try something new, like driving a huge pickup truck or using a screwdriver. Don’t look at the clock, especially when holding hands with the love of your life, while sitting on the dock in the early morning light. Breathe it all in, let it all out. There are so many wonderful things in this world to be happy about.

6. Message your Buddy, she has the best advice, ALWAYS.

“I know buddy but I have accepted that my job doesn’t define me. I need money. So I’ll work and make money. And not worry about what work it is. I won’t give up on finding something great but it is Everything else I do in life is for me.”


Let yourself feel giddy and happy over the littlest of things.

Write your heart out, even if no one reads it.

And that is how I combat depression, my friends.

Talk soon,

Vanessa Xo

collect moments not things

Bursting the Bubble, Family Time, Lifestyle/Personal, Toronto Adventures

photoMy mom took this photo of Isabelle yesterday. She captured a moment, she collected it in the form of a photo. She created a way to share this moment and although I wasn’t there, I feel like I’m apart of it. Her smile, her bright brown eyes, the crisp clear blue sky in the background, I can see it all. I can feel a light breeze and the warmth of the sun on my face, I can even hear Isabelle’s laughter. This is a moment worth collecting.

Isabelle is only nine months old and I find myself collecting so many of our moments together, not just on my phone, but in my heart. There are some things that happen so quickly that I can’t get to my phone quick enough. Like when she leans in to kiss me, or the excitement in her eyes when I walk through the door, or when she dances to a commercial on T.V.

Those are moments I keep with me every single day.

I’m finally mature enough to understand that these moments bring greater joy than any thing out there. It’s so easy to get distracted by pretty things, tangible objects that you can wear and show off. But one look at Izzy’s smile and I couldn’t care less about the purse I’m sporting, or my newest phone case, or even the colour on my nails. I care about making her smile again. Nothing can compare to that. No object can bring more joy than adventure and discovery and all those moments you collect in your heart.

“ while you are alive collect moments not things, earn respect not money and enjoy love not luxuries.”

― Aarti Khurana

Talk soon,

Vanessa Xo

it's all about perspective

Bursting the Bubble, Lifestyle/Personal


You know what will put life into perspective? How about serving pizza to a man with a leg-and-a-half. I don’t mean for that to sound rude or insensitive — I’m simply stating facts. He limped on a wooden prosthetic leg, pain seemed to overcome his right leg as if all the pressure might cause an eruption. He was an older young man, with dark grey hair, crows feet around his eyes, and a boyish smile. He was polite and kind and my heart couldn’t bear  the pain in his eyes. I didn’t know his story and I dare not ask because something in his face, in his haunched shoulders, told me that his story isn’t an easy one. Perhaps one without a silver lining.

And there I was, dwelling on things that now seem so insignificant. It is astounding how narrow or self-centred our minds can become when we let our lives become the only life in existence that matters. When our tiny setbacks are nothing compared to someone else’s troubles. When we let a dark cloud come over us, weigh us down, and think negatively of our lives.

when really, it isn’t that bad at all.

Talk soon,

Vanessa Xo

@Paintlounge with my besties #mybrushmyvoice

Lifestyle/Personal, Restaurant Reviews, Toronto Adventures

My besties and I went to Paintlounge in Toronto on Saturday evening. We walked into a bright lit room filed with chocolate brown easels covered in paint. At the far back of the room we found a table filled with different paints, brushes, sponges, blow driers, chalk, and everything else needed to create a masterpiece. Plus a little cafe where you can purchase a tea or coffee while you paint.

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I want a purse that looks like this ^ — where can I find one?


My besties and I jumped right in, picking out our canvases, grabbing our supplies, and putting on aprons. For a few minutes we stared at our blank canvases, not knowing what to do or how to go about it. “I’m getting anxiety over this,” is something you might have overheard one of us say. We all have Type A personalities, so we felt like we needed to plan our artwork, to sketch it out, to be able to erase our mistakes. Eventually we let go, and painted our hearts out. We spent over two hours painting, laughing, talking, and relaxing.

IMG_7140 IMG_7137Katrina (pictured above) LOVES love. IMG_7124“Vane, does this look ombre to you?” famously stated by Kathryn (pictured above).

IMG_7132“A writer’s heart bleeds a thousand times over.”


A quick walk around the room ensured that we were the only ‘non-artists’ at the workshop that night but it didn’t matter, we were there to let everything out, not paint a masterpiece. What I loved most about this experience was the messiness of it all. I got paint on my favourite jeans, ruined my fresh manicure, threw paint at my canvas, and didn’t give a damn. Messiness is fun and deliciously beautiful.

Have you gone to Paintlounge? Would you? Do you like my painting? LMK in the comments!

Talk soon,

Vanessa Xo

The people you encounter when you're a walking cliche

Bursting the Bubble, Family Time, Lifestyle/Personal


The acquaintance you haven’t seen in years who gets off by asking you what you ‘do’ because she/he can tell by your Instagram/blog/Facebook/Twitter that you are doing ‘nothing’. This kind of person needs no explanation. Depending on your mood they depress you or they make you work harder because you’re not doing ‘nothing’, you’re doing everything you want and you’re happy about it.

The customers who take pity on you because they’ve been coming to your establishment since you were sixteen and if they do their math they’ll know that you’re 25 and STILL working there. They give you a few extra dollars when they tip you, they smile at you with warm eyes making you feel both loved and depressed. They know you well enough to ask how the job hunt is going and offer you a sincere, don’t worry dear, something good will come along. I know it! This comment makes you want to hug them and run away screaming.

The genuinely concerned friend(s) who always forces you to look on the bright side. The friend who sends you job postings daily, who wants to help you figure out what you want, and who teaches you how to breathe when your anxiety hits the roof. This friend goes out of her way to listen to you and to be there for you, and you probably would have had a mental breakdown without her.

The sympathetic buddy who is in the same boat. The buddy who will listen to your complaints and fire a few back at you. The buddy who understands you and your frustrations the way no one else can. The buddy who will still make you smile and believe in yourself no matter how grim the situation seems in your mind. The same buddy who understands when you talk in quotes and send her photos like this:


The loving boyfriend who is the only person that makes you laugh uncontrollably. The boyfriend who believes in you no matter what comes your way. The boyfriend who helps you relax, who tries new things with you, and who reminds you that you’re awesome and you shouldn’t want what everyone else has. The patient boyfriend who just wants to make you smile.

The sister who wants you to travel, insisting that THIS is the time to spend your savings and hit the road, to make memories, to write about them, and to find yourself. She’s never read Jack Kerouac but you know she’s onto something…

The brother who makes fun of you but actually feels bad for you, while secretly hoping that his life turns out differently. He doesn’t get why you chose to be a writer but you catch him reading your blogs and your book and know that you’ve done something right.

The parents who wish the best for their kid, who see how hard you’re working and just want something spectacular to happen to you. The parents who support their child no matter what she chooses to do and know that all she wants to do is make them proud. The wonderful parents who would never put pressure on their daughter because she puts enough pressure on herself.

The girl in the mirror who, in her heart of hearts, knows that life is wonderful. Who knows that she’s working hard and that something good will happen. The girl who is happy in her own skin, who is proud of her accomplishments, who will never back down. The girl who may not know EXACTLY what she wants but knows that she’s on the right track. The girl in the mirror who understands that life isn’t about what you do, it’s about who you are. The girl who wakes up every morning with a smile plastered on her beating heart. The girl who is so full of love, and who is trying her very best to not let her head get in the way.


 That girl is me.

Talk soon,

Vanessa Xo

Weekends are for…

Family Time, Just for Fun, Lifestyle/Personal

IMG_6679Weekends are for relaxation and silly faces, for spur of the moment decisions, for glasses of vino, and visiting family. Weekends are for walking through the mall hand-in-hand, for coffee shops and sipping the perfect cappuccino. Weekends are for laughing until your cheeks ache, for stealing kisses, for cheating on your diet, and for enjoying everything you don’t enjoy during the work week.


Weekends are for reading and channel surfing, for writing and napping. Weekends are for catching up and moving on. They’re for preparing for the week ahead and looking back on the week that passed. Weekends are for love and light, for rejuvenation and living your life!


Weekends are for YOU!

I hope you had as good a weekend as I did!

Talk soon,

Vanessa Xo


Bursting the Bubble, Just for Fun, Lifestyle/Personal, Toronto Adventures

photo 3Every single time I head downtown I can feel my eyes open a little wider, my heart pound with excitement, and my mind expand with wonder. Saturday was the perfect day to walk around Queen West — the sun shone brightly, the air was fresh and crisp, and yet incredibly warm.

photo 1 photo 1-1

The day started out with choosing a random restaurant for lunch — which turned out to have the best chicken panini I’ve ever had, complimented by the smoothest, richest, cup of coffee IN THE WORLD. After lunch we walked into every vintage clothing and furniture store we saw. One store was a rare beauty, with a dank musky stench that crawled up your nostrils and died. There were suitcases piled upon suitcases, typewriters, cameras, microphones, old photos of unknown people, and keys from a letterpress, all piled on top of each other. The cramped store was a sight for sore eyes but magical just the same and filled with so many stories. I smiled at the angry-looking store owner and complimented his inventory on the way out, I was feeling pretty good about it too, until I saw a handwritten sign that said ADMIRATION DOESN’T PAY THE BILLS. 

photo 4

photo 3-1 photo 2-1

After walking all of Queen Street West and strolling through Kensington Market, I realized two things:

A: my feet hurt

B: Toronto makes me feel confident, curious, and alive. 

Walking around with my head held high, a coffee in one hand and a great friend by my side, I saw the CN Tower outlined by a bright blue sky and I thought — this will be my home.

Talk soon,

Vanessa Xo