Book Review: Then and Always by Dani Atkins

Then and Always is the story about the second chance that everyone hopes for, but few actually receive. For Rachel Wiltshire, the book’s protagonist, it seems that she does not need one. She has a secure group of friends, a loving boyfriend, and is on the brink of an exciting new chapter at university. But when tragedy strikes, Rachel’s life spins into an entirely new direction. Five years later, a wedding forces Rachel to confront her old friends and the event that changed her life forever, but she finds that she is still struggling with the grief and everything that could have been. While encountering old faces and hearing new stories from the past, Rachel has a terrible fall.

When she wakes up, everything is different. She is a journalist, not in administration. She is wealthy and successful. She is engaged. She has everything she ever wanted and then some. Most importantly, it appears that she is happy. Except, she remembers everything about her life, and it is nothing like this one. With the help of some familiar (and unexpected) people, Rachel tries to reconcile her new life with her old one to determine what exactly happened to give her this second chance at the life that she actually wanted.

First-time author Dani Atkins has crafted a thought provoking yet surprisingly light story that succeeds in premise, characters, and plot pacing. Although the concept of dual realities and cause-and-effect have been visited many times in literature and film, I enjoyed how Atkins did not really use it to restrain Rachel in her journey. A lot of the time characters who are dealing with a split life are constricted by their knowledge and try to ensure that they do not share any piece of their other life so that they do not impact the one that they are currently living in at all. Atkins uses amnesia to explain Rachel’s very apparent consciousness of her old, sad life to the other characters, thereby creating a setting where her knowledge does not directly impact the timeline of her second life.

What it does affect is how Rachel navigates her new world going forward. She not only develops an understanding of her relationships and life within this happy, wealthy world, but she is able to cross-reference it with her emotions and decisions in her other life. Here, Atkins touches upon a really interesting point about how we can draw from our previous experiences in order to impact our current situation, even if it is the life that we always wanted. By doing this, she contemplates second chances, not in terms of just having one, but how we can make them more fulfilling, even in the most ideal situation.

Then and Always is a great beach read because Atkins makes it easy to identify with the characters and the storyline. Instead of providing endless amounts of backstory before Rachel enters her second life, Atkins informs her readers of only the necessary facts. Since there is a lot of overlap between the two timelines, we are able to learn more about Rachel as we submerge ourselves into the thick of the plot, rather than having to sift through half a book that focuses on character development before the story actual goes anywhere. By the time readers meet all of the principle characters in the first few chapters, you have a fairly good grasp on their fundamental personalities that carry over into the rest of the book. None of them are particularly original, but it helps to create this sense of familiarity while you are reading.

There is nothing wrong with feeling comfortable. In fact, I think one of the main takeaways from Then and Always is that one should reflect on the circumstances  and the people that lead you to be happy. Most of all, it teaches us that we can build and rebuild a life that incorporates those things.  While Rachel’s journey to figure this out is certainly heartening, humorous and yes, mainly confusing, it is also incredibly satisfying, just as life should be.

I received an advanced copy of Then and Always from Penguin Canada in exchange for participating in their blog tour. Then and Always will be released tomorrow (May 20th) in Canada via Penguin Canada. 


Then And Always Thursday…on a Saturday




“Mom Week” took place this past week. It’s an annual week celebration for all things mom, since my mom’s birthday always follows Mother’s Day. Between running around and finding last minute presents, coordinating meals with friends and family, and actually setting up activities to do with my mom, it’s a pretty busy time. While I try to express my gratitude and love for my mom throughout the year, it’s nice to be able to celebrate everything that she is in a big way on two separate but close occasions.

For my third and final Then and Always post, I wanted to talk about my mom and celebrate her one more time during Mom Week. She is my best friend and my best fan. I am grateful that I have always had an extremely positive and strong relationship with her, which really falls on her infinite amount of patience and grace. She has always made me feel comfortable enough to talk to her about decisions and issues, rant to her or cry with her when life wasn’t so swell. She is the first person that I call for advice, the last one I say good night to every night, and the number one person who I know will always understand me, even if I am completely illogical. She pushes me to strive for more in life, inspires me to enjoy the simpler moments, and cheers me on even when I succeed in the smallest of ways. She is encouraging, considerate, and humble.

She is a beautiful person, inside and out. She is keen on exploring the world, one country at a time. She loves her CW teen dramas as much as she loves her Indian soap operas. She hosts mahjong parties for her and her friends on a weekly basis. She is a second mother to many of my friends. She is always on the phone, catching up with one person, following up on another’s health, and giggling with her mother on the phone. She likes going on midnight coffee runs because she is the only person that I know who can drink caffeine that late and not feel awake. She likes to dance and is an avid concert-goer. In fact, she took me to my very first pop concert when I was eleven. Last summer, when I won tickets to Beyonce’s Mrs. Carter tour, she was the first person I invited to be my date, and we danced the night away together. We’re set to repeat our antics this summer when B and Hov perform in Toronto, but until then, I am sure I will spend many a weekend baking up a sugar free storm.

She has been, and always will be, my everything. Happy Mom Week, Ma. You’re the greatest.

Then And Always Thursdays celebrates Penguin Canada’s upcoming release, ‘Then And Always‘, which releases on May 20th. My full review of the novel will be posted on May 19th for Penguin Canada’s blog tour. Until then, make sure to tune in every Thursday where I will share personal anecdotes and memories of the things that I love, then, and always. 

Low Carb, Gluten Free Cream Cheese Swirl Brownies

I’m always on the hunt for ways to replace regular all-purpose flour favourites. It’s a bit of a challenge with coconut flour, but I am determined to create a catalogue of recipes that I can reference on a weekly basis. I’m confined to coconut flour because of that giant bag that I’ve been holding on to (and talk about every time I post about one of the recipes I have tried out.) It’s always trial-and-error with coconut flour, but when you finally find a recipe that works, it is extremely satisfying. When you find ways to elevate that recipe, then you’re pretty much Anna Olsen.

A few weeks ago I tried out Comfy Belly’s brownie recipe and it was an instant hit in my house. Last week I had a craving for super chocolate-y brownies, and decided to give Comfy Belly’s fudge-like brownies a shot. Since a lot of Comfy Belly’s recipes have worked out well for me in the past, I was pretty confident that this recipe would turn out delicious, so I took them to the next level by incorporating this cream cheese mixture (without the raspberries).


I had a few slip ups along the way, so I am not 100% certain if the original brownie recipe is supposed to come out as moist and chocolate-y as these did or if it was just a fluke. While adding all of the wet ingredients into the mixture, I completely forgot to add my olive oil. When I was confused as to why the batter was so thick, I added an additional cup of milk…until I realized that I hadn’t put any olive oil in. Then I added the olive oil, and ended up with extremely liquid batter. To compensate, I added three tablespoons of coconut flour, resulting in an increased amount of batter.

If you don’t have powdered erythritol for the cream cheese mixture, make sure you give yourself some time to powder it at home, and break up the cup portion so that you get the right consistency. I have also read other recipes that sweeten the cream cheese with honey, so that might be another option to consider if you don’t feel like spending a lot of quality time with your food processor and erythritol. Given the mishaps I had with the brownie batter, I wish I had made more cream cheese mixture so that it could be swirled to the bottom of the pan. Maybe I shouldn’t be calling myself Anna Olsen just yet.

Regardless of all the hiccups, these brownies came out looking gorgeous and tasted just as good. Even my family members who aren’t into the whole low carb/gluten free/sugar free baking enjoyed them. They were moist and thick, perhaps more on the cake side than brownie side, but delicious all the same. The cream cheese bits balanced out the intense chocolate taste perfectly and made them especially addictive. These will definitely be in regular rotation at my house going forward.

A Hot Docs Redux

Last week I attended the Hot Docs Canadian and International Documentary Festival, the largest documentary film festival in North America. Hot Docs has become a major cultural institution over the years and has grown bigger and better with every festival. This year’s festival screened 197 documentaries from around the world over the course of eleven days across 452 screens in Toronto.

I have been to the odd Hot Docs screening here and there over the years, but I never really had the chance to float around Toronto for multiple days during the festival until this year. I won passes from the kind folks over at Scene and was able to check out six incredible documentaries: Meet the PatelsFed UpBronx ObamaI Am Big Bird: The Carol Spinney Story, Harmontown and Advanced Style. I loved all of them for different reasons and while I do intend on posting full reviews for a couple of these titles, I thought I would share a quick recap of some of my experiences at this year’s Hot Docs festival.

I kicked off my three day documentary extravaganza with a morning screening of Meet the Patels, which received its world premiere at this year’s Hot Docs festival. Meet the Patels follows thirty year old Ravi Patel, an actor based out of Los Angeles who has recently broken up with his red headed, all-American girlfriend. His parents, who are completely unaware that their son is even in a relationship, urge him to seriously consider settling down and marrying a nice Indian girl, preferably of the Patel variety. Side note: Patel is a very common last name in India. More specifically, most people who carry that last name are from the Gujurat state in India. They’ve formed their own sub-community of sorts over the years.

So Ravi makes an agreement with his parents: for one year, he will seriously pursue an arranged marriage. This is a huge undertaking when you are doing it Indian-style, but Ravi tries every method with an open mind and an open heart, while his sister Gita films the entire experience. While this film does a great job at uncovering some of the misconceptions associated with Indian arranged marriages, I think its resonance goes far beyond cultural borders. I think audiences really identified with the deep-rooted love that the Patel family has for one another, from both the parents’ and children’s perspectives. Gita and Ravi also did a fantastic job at assembling footage that was insightful but also simultaneously light and comedic. This tone is reinforced by animated bits of conversation and certain events, which I really enjoyed. I am sure these are just some of the reasons that Meet the Patels is the runner-up for the Audience Award at this year’s festival and I would highly recommend it for just about everyone.

Two out of my three days at Hot Docs were spent under grey skies and an umbrella. Well, when I had one that was working. I accidentally dropped one of my umbrellas in the gap between the subway and platform, and my other one kept malfunctioning because of the wind. All the trouble and traveling was totally worth it though, because I got to see some of the beautiful architecture at The University of Toronto’s St.George campus while checking out a few documentaries. I especially loved Hart House, which is where I watched Bronx Obama. “Bronx Obama” is the nickname for Louis Ortiz, a man who has made a career out of impersonating Barack Obama. Bronx Obama recounts Ortiz’s journey into this unconventional profession during the days of the 2008 election, Obama’s first term and the 2012 election. I was pleasantly surprised at how much heart there is in the film, which solely came from Ortiz, as a father, actor, and an American citizen. I also found that there is an interesting contrast between Obama and Ortiz’s pursuit of the American dream. They are obviously much different in scope, but Ortiz unexpectedly handles the same backlash that Obama does during his career, tying these two individuals in more ways than Ortiz may have ever intended.

One of the coolest parts of Hot Docs is that the filmmakers and stars of these documentaries stick around for a question and answer period following screenings. At the Bronx Obama screening I attended, one audience member asked Ortiz a question regarding the longevity of his career now that Obama is half-way through his second term as president. His response was optimistic and poignant, as he commented that while Obama’s time in the White House is coming to a close, his story is a monumental part of American history, and he believed that he will be a part of retelling that history in the years to come.

Q+As gave audience members a lot of additional insights into the stories that they got to see unfold on the big screen and the people who lived through these actual stories. I attended a special Scene screening of Advanced Style, which is based on the blog of the same title by Ari Seth Cohen. Advanced Style teaches audiences about how to embrace aging and how to feel beautiful when doing so through the profiles of New York women all over the age of sixty. While some of the stories introduced on screen felt incomplete and had a lot of loose ends by the end of the film, I really loved the spirit and approach that the documentary promoted. When director Lina Plioplyte spoke about how inspiring these women are in both their acceptance of age and how they live during her Q+A session, I couldn’t help but think of my own grandmother, who is well into her 80s. She loves pulling an outfit together, going out, and socializing with her friends. She engages in conversation, she continues to learn from the people around her and loves more and more every single day.  I think there’s a certain grace that women, like my grandmother and the women in Advanced Style, possess and it’s something I would love to strive for as I get older.

As simple and obvious as it may seem, what makes Hot Docs great, especially when you are experiencing its offerings back-to-back, is how much your brain starts churning with ideas. I loved how intellectually and, at times, emotionally stimulated I felt during those few days around the city. Harmontown did that for me. While watching the film (in a chapel at U of T, with free popcorn, and Gregory Smith sitting two rows in front of me), I recalled conversations in my Pop Culture class about Dan Harmon’s genius and meta-ways and began to think of the doc in that context. Dan Harmon is the creator of NBC sitcom Community, a half hour comedy about a group of students at a community college. NBC hasn’t always been satisfied with the ratings the show pulled in, but its extremely passionate following quite literally demanded that the show remained in production, and NBC actually listened. Unfortunately, NBC fired Dan Harmon over creative and managerial differences right before production began on the fourth season.

Instead of going to work on his own television show, Dan Harmon took his podcast Harmontown on the road. He traveled across the United States with his girlfriend Erin, cohost Jeff Davis, and Dungeons and Dragons master/Harmon fan/podcast participant, Spencer and put on shows, none of which actually had any script or plan or narrative other than whatever the team felt like talking about while on stage. I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the show Community, Dan Harmon’s team as a community, and the community he was trying to create during his live performances. I don’t want to go too much into the actual conclusions of the documentary, but I was surprised by how much Dan Harmon contemplated his identity and his place in these varying communities. His self-awareness and willingness to comment on what he believed were his personal inadequacies ended up being an incredibly raw, introspective look into fundamental human emotions. Yes, Harmontown is a must-see for Dan Harmon/Community fans, but I also think there are a few good takeaways for the people who have never been to Greendale Community College.

My one regret is that all of the documentaries I saw were American. I loved all of them, but I missed out on the opportunity to check out features from Canadian filmmakers and from other parts of the world. I will have to make a more conscious choice to see these types of documentaries at next year’s festival, but in the meanwhile, I will try to find opportunities to check out such works at other festivals.

I had an amazing time at Hot Docs and cannot wait for next year’s festival. Make sure to stay tuned for my reviews of Fed Up and I Am Big Bird: The Carol Spinney Story!

Then And Always Thursday

For this week’s Then And Always Thursday, I thought I would bring back an old but very special memory from one of my first days at university. I remember feeling so nervous about moving into a residence that had a reputation for being a bit more on the “wild” side, wondering how I was going to share a bathroom with fourteen other people, and curious about who my roommate would be. That first day was really intimidating because I didn’t know anyone on my floor and most of my friends from high school who attended Western had landed up in other residences.

After setting up my side of my dorm room, saying goodbye to my parents and meeting my roommate, we were supposed to put on our residence t-shirts and collect in the yard outside of our building to get ready for our frosh week opening ceremonies. It was the first time our entire floor had been together for one event and I started talking to a few people (who I’m still friends with to this day) while our frosh leaders organized the entire group and taught us residence cheers for the opening ceremonies. It’s funny how quickly my fears had slipped away and how easily I eased into the whole concept of school spirit (which, during orientation week, got broken down into faculty and residence spirit). I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was the first major experience of my new chapter, and an integral one to my identity.

It’s almost been a year since I’ve graduated, and these days I can’t help but recall days like that first day outside of residence, moments where I built up my Mustang pride. The best part is that my enthusiasm for my school is still as strong as it was then. And probably will always be that strong.

Then And Always Thursdays celebrates Penguin Canada’s upcoming release, ‘Then And Always‘, which releases on May 20th. My full review of the novel will be posted on May 19th for Penguin Canada’s blog tour. Until then, make sure to tune in every Thursday where I will share personal anecdotes and memories of the things that I love, then, and always. 

Introducing Then And Always Thursdays

One of my favourite parts about the spring and summer is figuring out what I am going to be obsessing over during the few warm, sunny months we get during the year. This list usually includes everything from fashion to food to music. My absolute favourite thing to obsess over is books. Growing up, I was always that kid who spent her summers going to the library multiple times a week and racing through as many novels and series as I could. While I spend less time at the library now, I still enjoy having a stack of books to keep me company. To this day, I love submerging myself into a good plot with engaging characters, and often end up rereading stories that I really like over and over and over again in the span of a few months.

I am excited that my hunt for the perfect summer book is starting with Penguin Canada’s upcoming title, Then And Always, by Dani Atkins. Here is the official plot summary:

Absorbing, surprising, and heart-rending, Dani Atkins’s debut novel follows a young woman who, after an accident, gets a second chance at life … just not the one she remembers.

Rachel Wiltshire has everything she’s ever wanted: a close group of friends, a handsome boyfriend, and acceptance to the journalism program at a top-choice college. But one fateful evening, tragedy tears her world apart.
Five years later, Rachel returns home for the first time to celebrate her best friend’s wedding. Still coping with grief, she can’t stop thinking about the bright future she almost had, if only that one night had gone differently. But when a sudden fall lands her in the hospital, Rachel wakes to find that her life has completely changed. Now she has her dream job as a writer and a stylish apartment, but the people she loves most are not the way she remembers them. Unable to trust her own recollections, Rachel tries to piece together what really happened, and not even she can predict the astonishing truth.

The kind folks over at Penguin Canada have sent me an ARC of Then And Always and yes, I have already begun digging into it. I won’t say a word on the book right now, but you will be able to catch my full review when it is posted on my blog on May 19th. But to celebrate the release of Then And Always (out May 20th), I have decided that every Thursday I am going to share a personal anecdote about my own certain traits or interests that have persisted throughout the years. It’s kind of my spin on the popular ‘Throwback Thursday’ (or #tbt), but instead of just showing you pictures, I want to share some of my stories of what I loved then, and really, always. I hope my posts encourage you to share your own stories about yourself that have been true in the past and are still true to this day.

This week I thought I would talk about my love for music. I grew up in a home where it was common to hear everything from the Bee Gees to obscure singers from Africa to bhangra beats and then some. My parents always loved going to concerts and would drag my brother and I to random free outdoor shows in Toronto. We would always have close family members and friends over on the weekends and we would watch Michael Jackson video anthologies and Sade live concerts. My brother, on the other hand, was a huge hip-hop head. With my room being next to his, I often fell asleep to the sounds of Common and Method Man.  Naturally, I eventually caught the music bug too.

When I was younger I was more into pop, rock and top 40. I listened to artists like Linkin Park, Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani (her solo material), and Justin Timberlake, and saw many such acts live in Toronto. As I grew older my tastes and interests in different genres expanded. I think growing up in an age where the Internet was just becoming this huge open resource and database for artists helped me discover new sounds as I could always look up tunes that I heard on my favourite TV shows and use sites like MySpace and YouTube to find new, upcoming acts. Like so many others, I eventually got into reading online publications like NME, Pitchfork and Spin, not only to find new music but also to learn about music as an industry, in a legal context, historically, and more.

During my years away at university I slowly realized that I could channel my interest in a productive way. I had found this open call for bloggers with Much Music and after submitting an application, I began to contribute to their Red Hot Blog. Through this opportunity I began to discover how much I loved writing and online media. I enjoyed being able to express myself and share my thoughts on music, report on stories about popular culture, and even write the occasional film review. It was different from my academic pursuits and gave me a break from the massive amounts of human resources and political science-readings that I had to do all the time. I even had the opportunity to volunteer at the MMVAs a few times, which put me in the center of the music and pop culture storm. It was probably the first real professional experience that I had had in this field. I absolutely loved working behind the scenes and seeing the logistics and operations aspect of a large scale event. It’s more chaotic in real life than it seems on television, but it is a lot of fun and very fulfilling.

Dragonette at Western University/UWO

Dragonette at Western University/UWO

I became motivated to expand my skill set in online media and started to pursue digital photography on the side. I volunteered at my school’s radio station and covered a lot of on-campus music/pop culture related events so that I could develop my portfolio while also seeing some incredible acts live. It was exhilarating to be in those high-energy settings where so many people were united by one common interest. I loved seeing people get so excited by a song, the rush of trying to get a good photo in a limited amount of time and gaining hands-on experience in a professional capacity. In fact, when I moved back home, I continued to pursue this interest. If you follow me on Instagram/Twitter, you will see that I still go to live shows all the time and review them on a regular basis.

Robert Sheehan at the Toronto premiere of The Mortal Instruments: The City of Bones

Robert Sheehan at the Toronto premiere of The Mortal Instruments: The City of Bones

This entire experience has influenced me to pursue similar opportunities outside of the realm of music, particularly in film and the arts in Toronto. Last summer I worked on a movie red carpet and I regularly review films on this blog. In fact, this week I am busy attending screenings at Hot Docs in Toronto and will have a bunch of reviews coming out in the next few days. I foresee myself doing this kind of work for a long time because I find it very rewarding, not just as a fan or a blogger, but also as a student of it. I just feel like there is so much that I do not know about music and the arts and entertainment and I am excited to soak in as much knowledge, as many perspectives, and as many experiences as possible. With that said, I am more interested in learning the logistics/operations aspect of it these days, perhaps in the form of event management or internal operation management, but I welcome any opportunity that comes my way.

I have met so many amazing people along the way, learned a lot about myself and done some things that I never imagined doing while watching the Thriller video over and over again as a child. Regardless of the activity and the industry, it all comes down to my passion for the people who so accurately capture and depict varying aspects of life in differing forms, and connect all of us by doing so. This passion was persistent then, and always.