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Saturday, October 31, 2015

Review of "Career of Evil" by Robert Galbraith

I am not afraid of ghosts, goblins, witches, or werewolves.  What frightens me is the evil that exists in the world, so I thought today, Hallowe’en, was a good day to post my review of Career of Evil which has characters that scare me more than the creatures that come out this night.  Happy Hallowe’en and Happy Reading!

Review of Career of Evil
4 Stars
This is the third Cormoran Strike novel by J. K. Rowling.  I enjoyed the first two in the series and this one was excellent as well.

A severed leg is sent to Robin, Cormoran’s partner.  The leg echoes Strike’s war injury so it seems to be a threatening message for him.  He quickly comes up with four suspects so one can understand Robin’s amazement:  “’You know four men who’d send you a severed leg?  Four?’”  These include a gangster, a paedophile, an ex-soldier with a penchant for domestic violence, and Strike’s mother’s junkie husband.  Strike and Robin set out to discover which, if any, of these four men might be the messenger and, it soon becomes obvious, a serial murderer.  Interspersed throughout are chapters from the perspective of that psychotic stalker whose next target is Robin.

Strike and Robin’s personal lives are also part of the narrative.  Robin’s marriage date to Matthew approaches, though she seems ambivalent, and Strike continues in an unsatisfying relationship, unable or unwilling to face his feelings for his partner.

There is much more development of Robin in this book than in the previous two.  She truly seems to become Strike’s professional partner.  Much more about her past is also revealed; one crucial event explains her present character – why she clings to Matthew and why her job with Strike means so much to her. 

There are some graphic scenes involving assault, rape, and dismemberment.  The inquiry even has Strike and Robin coming in contact with people with body integrity identity disorder (BIID), a mental illness which has sufferers wanting to amputate their healthy limbs. 

There is a lot of suspense.  Robin is the stalker’s next intended victim so it is inevitable that the two will have an encounter.  Because Robin is often pre-occupied with her relationship with Matthew and her up-coming wedding, she is not always as attentive and observant as she is warned to be, so the probability of danger is increased. 

I found myself totally immersed in trying to identify which of the suspects was the actual stalker.  As details are revealed, suspicion often shifts from one man to another.  The stalker’s interior monologues had me trying to find parallels between his statements and Strike and Robin’s discoveries.  When the truth is finally revealed, everything fits.  The writer did not cheat:  the clues are there so the reader can solve the case if he/she is astute.  There is certainly a reason why a well-known phrase keeps echoing in Strike’s head:  “Hiding in plain sight.  Hiding in plain sight.”

Several times there are references to the world’s being full of both beauty and evil.  Strike thinks that, “You could find beauty nearly anywhere if you stopped to look for it” but acknowledges also that psychopaths “were to be found everywhere, not only in run-down tenements and slums and squats, but even here, in this place of serene beauty.”

Anyone looking for a well-written, suspenseful book with a clever plot and in-depth characterization need not look any further - though I would advise reading The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm first.  

Friday, October 30, 2015

Reviews Archive - Lori Lansens and "The Mountain Story"

Lori Lansens is another Canadian author whose books I always look forward to reading.  Here's my review of her latest novel which was released earlier this year; I’ve also added brief descriptions of her other three novels.

Review of The Mountain Story
4 Stars

Having read and enjoyed Lori Lansens’ three earlier novels, I looked forward to this one. I was not disappointed. It’s a great read.

The novel is written as a letter from Wolf Truly to his college-bound son. He tells his son the full story of being lost for five days on a mountain ledge high above Palm Springs, California: “Five days in the freezing cold without food or water or shelter. . . . I was with three strangers . . . not everyone survived” (1).

What follows is a man versus nature adventure story as Wolf and the three Devine women (Nola, Bridget and Vonn) battle hunger, thirst, hypothermia, frostbite and wildlife. But the book is also a character study; via flashbacks, we learn about Wolf’s life and why he made the decision to go to the mountain that fateful day. His character and the personalities of the three women are gradually developed. By the end, Wolf knows the women intimately, and they learn things about each other they didn’t previously know.

There is a great deal of suspense. The situation of the four hikers becomes more and more dire. And from the book’s cover (“Five days. Four lost hikers. Three survivors”) we know one will die. Which one? Will it be Nola, the injured grandmother; Bridget, the ever-panicking, “dangerously lean” blonde; or Vonn, the teenager who goes hiking in flip flops? We know only that Wolf will survive since he is the narrator. His survival, however, is ironic since he tells his son that “on that cool, grey afternoon, I had decided to hike to a spot called Angel’s Peak to jump to my death” (3).

Wolf tells his son, “What happened up there changed my life” (1). It is this story of rebirth that is the added dimension. Almost immediately after meeting the women, Wolf says, “That’s when I noticed that my despair . . . was gone . . . It was like some switch had been flipped off, or rather, on” (52). He is reborn with a new mission: to bring everyone back to safety. Eventually, he comes to think of the three as “A blessing of Devines” (270). And it is not only Wolf who is reborn. There are tensions among the Devine women, especially Bridget and Vonn. Their experiences on the mountain, however, rekindle their love for each other and bonds are restored. Vonn, for example, “completely [rewrites] the story of their difficult past” (349).

This book is different from Lansens’ other novels; this is the only one that has a male protagonist and narrator. It is like her other books in that it presents an interesting plot, fully realized characters, and insight into life.

Rush Home Road
Lansens’ first novel is “set within the black community of southwestern Ontario.  Addy, Lansens's central character, is an elderly black woman who was raised in a settlement founded by fugitive slaves, the fictional village of Rushholme, and now lives in a trailer park near Chatham.  When the mother of a five-year-old neighbour girl named Sharla runs off, Addy becomes the girl's caregiver.  Her young charge helps give Addy the will to live, and also inspires a mental journey of bittersweet remembrance back through a tragic life filled with rape, racism, murder, and the death of her own children” (

The Girls
“In 29 years, Rose Darlen has never spent a moment apart from her twin sister, Ruby.  She has never gone for a solitary walk or had a private conversation.  Yet, in all that time, she has never once looked into Ruby's eyes.  Joined at the head, "The Girls" (as they are known in their small Ontario town) are the world's oldest surviving craniopagus twins.  The Girls is a fictional autobiography of the Darlen twins, mostly told by Rose but with occasional chapters by Ruby.  The stronger and more frustrated of the two, Rose longs to become a published writer but tends to conceal or distort disturbing incidents from their shared past.  Ruby, by contrast, tells it like it is, but is much more accepting of their intertwined fate. (Ruby is also the prettier twin, and one of the most poignant and shocking scenes in the novel is Rose's account of her--or rather their--first sexual experience.)  As Rose and Ruby describe their relatively sheltered childhood, rocky adolescence, and tentative experiments with love, the interplay between these two distinct voices heightens the dramatic tension of what's to come” (

The Wife’s Tale
"Mary Gooch is a typical Lansens protagonist – damaged, alienated, and resourceful, and her road to self-actualization is blocked by a box-store-sized stack of obstacles both external and internal.  Chief among those obstacles is Mary’s weight, now topping the 300-pound mark on the eve of her 25th wedding anniversary.  Lying naked in her nearly dark bedroom, waiting for her truck-driver husband Jimmy to come home, Mary gazes into the mirror, and sees a body “so gilded with fat that hardly a bone from her skeleton could insinuate itself in her reflection.”  Mary has tried every diet and life resolution to shed her excess weight, but an irresistible hunger drives her to the kitchen to binge at all hours.  Mary is stricken with hunger, but for what she can’t name or define – food makes do as a substitute.  When Jimmy fails to return home that night or the next day for the couple’s anniversary party, Mary’s sad but predictable life is knocked off its moorings.  The disappearance is soon explained by a vague letter from Jimmy, who has gone off to parts unknown to find “some time to think.”  He promises to contact Mary eventually and informs her that he’s left the $25,000 he won from a scratch lottery ticket in their shared account.  The stage is set for Mary, who barely knows how to use a bank card and has rarely set foot outside her small Ontario town, to embark on a journey both literal and spiritual.  She travels to Toronto in search of Jimmy and then flies to Los Angeles, where his mother lives and where Mary meets a cast of misfits, searchers, and unlikely guides and friends.  Mary’s mission to find her husband may be thwarted time and time again as the novel builds to a satisfying climax, but in the process she picks up a lifetime of lessons about her strengths and limitations" (

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Review of "What I Had Before I Had You" by Sarah Cornwell

3 Stars

I read this book because it was chosen for our book club.  If it had not been for the fact that I didn’t want to show up without my reading done, I don’t think I would have finished this novel.  It has received many positive reviews, but the book just didn’t resonate with me.

Twenty years earlier, Olivia Reed fled Ocean Vista and her bipolar, psychic mother Myla.  Now she revisits with her teenaged daughter Carrie and her nine-year-old son Daniel.  The latter, like Olivia, struggles with bipolar disorder.  Daniel disappears and while they search for him, Olivia thinks about her past life on the Jersey Shore.  Her memories focus on 1987 when she gained some dangerous new friends and uncovered family secrets about her twin sisters who were stillborn in 1971 but lived forever as babies in Myla’s fantasy world.

The novel examines mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder.  Several family members (Myla, Olivia, Daniel, Myla’s paternal grandfather) suffer with the disorder to some extent.  Treatments have varied over time but the author suggests that the “cure” may sometimes be worse than the illness.  Olivia comments, “What if all the transcendent moments of your life, the sound-track moments, the radiant detail, the gleaming thing at the center of life that loves you, that loves beauty – God or whatever you call it – what if all this were part of your illness?  Would you seek treatment?  I have, and sometimes I wonder if the greatest passions are just out of my reach.  And sometimes I am so grateful” (268 – 269).

A problem I had with the book is Olivia.  I found it difficult to like her; she seems to be emotionally detached so it is difficult to feel any attachment to her.  For example, her reaction to her son’s going missing seems understated.  And she does illogical things.  For instance, when searching for her son, she decides to check out the Emerald Hotel because “The building calls out sadly, it invites me,” though she recognizes the choice to go there is “a strange decision” (44).  She eventually admits that she should have called the police immediately:  “One count of aggravated carelessness.  One count of poor mothering” (106).  Finding her son seems to take second place to her introspective journey. 

I know little about bipolar disorder.  Is sexual promiscuity a symptom of bipolar disorder?  Certainly Myla’s indiscretions and Olivia’s marital infidelities imply this.  Do those struggling with bipolar disorder tend to be selfish?  Again, Myla and Olivia seem to put their needs/desires before those of their children.  I will have to do some research. 

I also had some difficulty accepting Olivia’s great rebellion.  Though her upbringing was unconventional, she was very close to Myla:  “I measured each girl in my class against my mother and found none of them worth my time. . . . At three-twenty, I would flee the dull prison of the school day and pedal hard for home, where my mother waited with quiche hot from the oven and our evening’s adventure planned . . . [but then] the things I used to love [became] unbearable” (15).  The book jacket describes Olivia’s “sudden, full-throttle adolescence” and “rebellion so intense”; it is the suddenness and intensity that seem implausible.  I can understand a teenage wanting to have friends and to have a more normal life, but Olivia’s change is just too abrupt. 

Myla is equally annoying.  It is obvious that she loves Olivia and wants to protect her from the world, but why doesn’t she ever try honesty?  Surely when her illness is under control, she can think rationally and see that she must tell her daughter the truth instead of just leaving her child alone for days and weeks. 

A character suggests that Myla should be taking lithium, a mood stabilizer.  Olivia defends her mother’s choice not to take it:  “If a pill would make her better, it would also make her someone else.  That idea rankles:  She could have been steady all through my childhood – no disappearances, no spinouts, no weeks passed out on the sofa – and she chose to be otherwise.  She was selfish, though she would never see it that way.  But how much do we really choose these things? I think.  How can I blame her for her gift of sight?” (225). So Myla’s psychic abilities are the gift of untreated bipolar disorder?  Does that mean Olivia will hereafter refuse medication to her son who also has “his illness and his gifts” (275)?

And then there’s Christie who always “says nothing but grits her teeth . . . This is how her sister is.  She only has one sister (249).  (The former grammar teacher in me won’t let me not point out that “only” in this last sentence is a misplaced modifier.  The sentence should read, “She has only one sister,” not “She only has.”)  Carrie’s attitude towards her brother is understandable; she loves him though she resents him.  But the extent of Christie’s forgiveness and understanding is difficult to accept.

The plot is very predictable so there is little suspense.  Would any astute reader doubt that Daniel will be found?  Events are so carefully structured, one can see the writer’s plot outline; for instance, Daniel’s conversation on the beach with a stranger who invites him for a boat ride is clearly intended to suggest danger of kidnapping.  The “strange decision” to visit the Emerald Hotel is just an excuse for a 60-page flashback. 

This is a debut novel so perhaps I am being too harsh.  The style is quite lyrical, but for me poetic language does not sufficiently compensate for the novel’s weaknesses.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

2015 Winner of Governor General's Award for Fiction - Guy Vanderhaeghe for "Daddy Lenin and Other Stories"

The Governor General’s Award for Fiction winner was announced today:  Guy Vanderhaeghe won for his collection of short stories, Daddy Lenin and Other Stories.  The jury praised the book as “the work of an assured writer who needs no pyrotechnics to keep us reading. Each story is superbly crafted, razor-sharp, wickedly funny.  The reader is carried along in the hands of a master, a seasoned professional at the top of his game” (

Here’s a description of the award-winning collection:  “Among these nine stories:  A teenage boy breaks out of the strict confines of his family, but his bid for independence leads him in over his head.   An actor’s penchant for hiding behind a role, on and off stage, is tested to the limits and what he comes to discover finally places him face to face with the truth.  With his mother hospitalized for a nervous condition and his father away on long work stints, a boy is sent to another family for his meals.  His gradually building relationship with a teenage daughter who has been left handicapped from polio opens unexpected doors to the world.  In the title story, a middle-aged man re-meets his former adviser at university, a charismatic and domineering professor dubbed Daddy Lenin.  As their tense reunion progresses, secrets from the past painfully revise remembered events and threaten to topple the scaffolding of a marriage (

This is Vanderhaeghe’s third Governor General’s Literary Award; he won in 1982 for another short story collection, Man Descending, and in 1996 for The Englishman’s Boy.

For descriptions of the other finalists, check my blog of October 7.

Obviously, I know a good writer:  in my October 6 blog, I featured Vanderhaeghe and his frontier trilogy!

For further information about the other six winners of the Governor General’s Literary Awards in the various categories, check out  And CBC has a great article about how Vanderhaeghe wrote the award-winning stories:

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Today's New Release - "Dark Corners" by Ruth Rendell

  4 Stars
Reading this book was a bittersweet experience for me.  It was a joy to read a book by one of my favourite mystery/suspense writers, but it was sad to think that this is the last of her novels since Ruth Rendell died earlier this year.

Carl Martin, a young crime novelist, inherits his father’s house and acquires a tenant, Dermot McKinnon, to give him extra income as he struggles with writing his second novel.  Carl also inherits his dad’s collection of alternative, herbal, and homeopathic remedies and he sells some diet pills to a friend Stacey, an actress struggling with weight gain.  Stacey dies because of those pills.  Dermot knows that Carl sold them to her, and he sets out to blackmail Carl:  refusing to pay rent and threatening to tell the newspapers about Carl’s involvement in Stacey’s death.  Carl’s life soon spirals out of control.

There are two subplots as well:  the adventures of Tom Milsom as he explores London using his free seniors’ bus pass, and the petty crimes of his amoral daughter Lizzie who, her father admits, is prone to constant “lying, exaggeration, or fantasizing.”

Usually in a Rendell mystery, plots will converge seamlessly.  That is not the case here.  Tom’s adventures and Lizzie’s exploits are only tangentially related to Carl’s story.  Had Rendell lived to revise and edit, I suspect the narrative threads would have been tightened so they would not seem so meandering and unconnected. 

What is explored so well is how everyone has dark corners in his/her mind and how ordinary people can step out of dark corners to commit criminal acts.  Carl’s need for respect causes him to take actions of which he does not initially seem capable:  “he realized again what he dreaded most in Dermot’s threats.  It wasn’t the loss of income.  It was the humiliation he feared.  He couldn’t live with the shame.”  Lizzie is motivated by a need to feel powerful:  “Doing [petty thievery] – and she often did it – gave her a sense of power.”  Dermot has a similar need:  “No one had ever been afraid of Dermot before, or not to this degree, and it gratified him to have caused someone this amount of fear without violence or even the threat of it.”

The book also examines how guilt can destroy a person.  In its portrayal of psychological disintegration, the novel is masterful.  Carl’s first act of selling dangerous diet pills to Stacey is not an illegal act, merely a careless one.  He does however feel guilty and so Dermot’s threats of exposure are effective against him.  A girlfriend describes the impact of guilt on Carl:  “He hardly speaks but to rage against Dermot.  He sleeps a little, dreams violently, cries out, and sits up fighting against something that isn’t there.”  Gradually paranoia takes over his life.  When one character suggests being too frightened to ever confess to a crime like murder, another responds, “’It wouldn’t be as scary as not confessing.  It might even be a comfort.  Think what it must have been like to have it on [one’s] conscience.’”

The effectiveness of Rendell’s character development is shown by the novel’s impact on the reader.  Readers understand Carl so well that they will want him to go unpunished while at the same time desire some justice.  Readers will also be left with a feeling of “There but for the grace of God, go I.”

There are some plot weaknesses but the depth of its psychological analysis, characterization, and thematic development make this a must-read for lovers of suspense books. 

Note:  I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Review of "The Bell Jar" by Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath was born on October 27, 1932, so tomorrow would have been her 83rd birthday.  To commemorate her birthday, I’m posting my review of her best known prose which I read in 2007.

 Review of The Bell Jar
3 Stars
This semi-autobiographical novel was published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas less than a month before Plath’s suicide.  It is supposedly based on Plath’s summer of 1953.

The narrator is Esther Greenwood, a gifted young woman, who describes her descent into crippling depression.  No specific explanation is provided for the cause of her depression, although one of her problems seems to be choosing what type of woman she wants to be.  She doesn’t want to pick one of the world’s female roles, examples of which she encounters.

This novel, considered a classic of American literature, reminds me of another coming-of-age classic:  Esther is a female version of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye.  Both protagonists are disenchanted with the world and feel out of place in society.  The satirical comments about the world’s false outer shell sound like Holden’s comments about phonies.

The portrayal of psychiatric care is outdated, but the novel does offer insight into depression.  Even the most promising or privileged can descend into a personal hell.

The ending is ambiguous.  Is Esther cured?  Several statements in the last chapter suggest a less than happy ending:  “How did I know that someday . . . the bell jar and its stifling distortions wouldn’t descend again?” (254) and “But under the deceptively clean and level slate the topography was the same” (249).

Is the novel over-rated?  Is it too much of a pity party?  It does address issues most people face:  feeling disenchanted with the world, creating a mask to deal with society and feeling guilty for doing so, and feeling like no one understands.

This is the type of book that would illicit different emotional responses depending on one’s stage in life.  I think it would especially appeal to adolescents moving from the academic setting of the teenage world to the working setting of the adult world.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Baseball Rivalry via Book-Spine Poetry

I’m not a baseball fan, but even I got Blue Jays fever this year.  Unfortunately, the Canadian team will not be advancing to the World Series, having been defeated by the Kansas City Royals in the American League Championships.

I discovered that the libraries in Toronto and Kansas City engaged in a friendly war of words, using book spines to send messages on Twitter.  Check this site to view the messages:  

Books serve many purposes.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Birthday Review - "Frog Music" by Emma Donoghue

Today is Emma Donoghue’s 46th birthday.  She is best known for her novel Room of which a film version was recently released.  In honour of her special day, I’m posting my review of her latest novel. 

Review of Frog Music
4 Stars 
This historical fiction novel has received mixed reviews, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The setting is 1876 San Francisco which is in the midst of a sweltering heat wave and a devastating smallpox epidemic. The protagonist is Blanche Beunon, a circus horse rider in France before immigrating and becoming a burlesque dancer and occasional prostitute. She lives with her lover Arthur, an ex-acrobat who now spends his time gambling with Blanche’s earnings. Living with them is Ernest, Arthur’s former acrobatic partner who joins Arthur in his dissolute lifestyle. By chance, Blanche encounters Jenny Bonnet, a streetwise cross-dressing frog catcher. Jenny forces Blanche to examine her life, especially the care of her son P’tit, but a month after their meeting, Jenny is murdered. Blanche sets out to identify her friend’s killer.

The narrative moves back and forth through time, alternating between Blanche’s attempts to solve the murder and flashbacks to the evolution of her friendship with the free-spirited Jenny.

On the one hand, the book is a whodunit. Several suspects emerge, but it is not just the identity of the murderer that is a mystery. Was Jenny the intended victim or was Blanche actually the target? If the latter is true, Blanche is in danger. And then there’s the fate of P’tit to add to the suspense.

It is Blanche’s journey of self-discovery, however, that adds depth to the novel. Though she is not a conventional heroine, female readers should be able to identify with her. Her lifestyle may be unusual, but she shares a problem common to many women: the demands of motherhood. Becoming a mother was not in Blanche’s plans, so when faced with caring for her son by herself, she alternates between loving him and resenting him. Like many a stay-at-home mom, she craves adult companionship: “But she’s desperate for some lively company. Someone who sees her as something other than a vehicle or a bottle filler; someone who doesn’t wail at the sight of her face” (128). She suffers from exhaustion: “If someone would take P’tit off her hands for only an hour, even, carry him out of hearing range so she could get some sleep” (132). And she longs for her life pre-baby: “Frankly, she’s sick of waiting hand and foot on this tiny, unsmiling stranger. She wouldn’t drown him in a bucket, but she can’t say much more than that. Guilt hangs on her like a lead apron. There are moments, tying a diaper or transferring P’tit from one arm to the other, when Blanche begins to feel competent at this kind of drudgery, but that doesn’t help; it only sharpens the feeling of estrangement from herself” (146).

Of course, maternal love prevails. Eventually, it is not only P’tit’s well-being but that of all orphaned and abused and abandoned children that Blanche considers: “Blanche is almost too angry to speak. Another baby? . . . Was this one nudged along toward his death? she wonders. Did anyone in the asylum feed him even? Hold him? All the missing children. Washed into the world against their will, to do their time, a day or a year, before being sent out of it again” (300). Blanche’s growth as a parent is convincing too. She admits to her son that “Your Maman’s a flawed jewel . . . and there’s no fixing that. There’ll be no overnight metamorphosis” as she vows to “bind P’tit to her with indefatigable love” (371).

The book is full of interesting quirky characters. Jenny is perhaps the most eccentric of all, but Blanche comes a close second, an exploited woman who seeks her independence and happiness like a thoroughly modern woman would. There is no difficulty differentiating among the characters though, admittedly, the men are not usually portrayed in a very positive way.

It is clear that the author did considerable research into the case on which she based her fiction. She has even posted a 20+-page annotated list of sources on her website: (  She succeeds in making San Francisco in the 1870s come alive, even including snippets of the lyrics of old songs popular in that era.

I certainly recommend this book. It provides material both exotic and familiar. Forget the naysayers; give the book a try. “How do you know until you try” (370)?

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Reviews Archive: Ami McKay and "The Virgin Cure"

In today’s blog, I want to focus on another great Canadian author, Ami McKay.  She has had two novels published so far:  The Birth House and The Virgin Cure.  A third book, The Witches of New York, is scheduled to be released in October of next year.

Brief Description of The Birth House:
 “The Birth House is the story of Dora Rare, the first daughter to be born in five generations of Rares.  As a child in an isolated village in Nova Scotia, she is drawn to Miss Babineau, an outspoken Acadian midwife with a gift for healing.  Dora becomes Miss B.’s apprentice, and together they help the women of Scots Bay through infertility, difficult labours, breech births, unwanted pregnancies and even unfulfilling sex lives.  Filled with details as compelling as they are surprising, The Birth House is an unforgettable tale of the struggles women have faced to have control of their own bodies and to keep the best parts of tradition alive in the world of modern medicine” (

 Review of The Virgin Cure
4 Stars

The protagonist is 12-year-old Moth who lives in the tenement slums of Manhattan's Lower East Side in the early 1870s. Moth's mother, a gypsy fortune-teller, sells her as a servant to Mrs. Wentworth, a wealthy but abusive woman. Because of her mistreatment, Moth runs away and soon finds herself under the tutelage of Miss Everett, the owner of an upscale brothel specializing in prostitutes-in-training. Here Moth meets Dr. Sadie, an idealistic physician who tends to prostitutes and the poor and tries to entice Moth away from Miss Everett before her imminent, premature and possibly life-threatening deflowering.

This book includes vivid historical realism, especially in its depiction of misery and poverty. There are several examples of Dickensian cruelty. Sidebars (e.g. Dr. Sadie's notations, newspaper stories) are inserted throughout and they add to the historical authenticity of the novel.

The book is a powerful exploration of the issues facing women in that time period, including the lack of options for women, especially poor women. The power imbalance between the sexes is certainly emphasized. Unfortunately, the myth of the virgin cure for syphilis endures in some parts of Africa as the virgin cure for AIDS.

The one weakness is that Moth seems rather innocent at times. She is streetwise but given her hardscrabble existence, one would expect her to be more worldly. In her training to be a prostitute, she isn't given any instructions about sexual relations?

Readers who enjoyed McKay's first novel will undoubtedly enjoy this book.

                                                                                                                                                              Preview of The Witches of New York:
“To those who say the world holds no more magic, are you certain of this? For this night, within the candlelit walls of a room near Madison Square, three witches are alive and well - one born of cunning, one born of ghosts, one born of wishes yet to be fulfilled.
“Eleanor St. Clair, Adelaide Thom and Beatrice Dunn have gathered to prepare for an evening among Manhattan's elite. By divination, enchantment, spellcraft and seduction, they'll carry out their work in the drawing room of a grand mansion on Fifth Avenue. Without the aid of a medium's cabinet or false knocks on table or wall, they'll peer into the future and call upon the dead. They have no need for the trappings of Spiritualism. 'Ready or not, it's begun...'
“Compelling, enchanting and utterly unique, The Witches of New York invites you on a journey ranging from high society Manhattan to the hidden voices of the budding suffragette movement, and on to the web of secrets that connects them all” (

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Reviews of "The Cuckoo's Calling" and "The Silkworm" by Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling)

My e-copy of Career of Evil was delivered this morning; it’s the third Cormoran Strike novel written by Robert Galbraith (a.k.a.  J. K. Rowling).  To celebrate its arrival, I thought I’d post my reviews of the first two books in the series – I am a firm believer in reading mysteries featuring the same detective in the order in which they are written.

Review of The Cuckoo’s Calling (Cormoran Strike #1)
4 Stars
Having read the other J. K. Rowling foray into adult fiction, I decided to give her detective mystery novel a try. Cormoran Strike is a private detective hired by John Bristow to investigate the death of his supermodel sister, Lula Landry. Police have ruled Lula’s death a suicide, but John does not believe this version of events. Cormoran and his temporary assistant, Robin Ellacott, eventually uncover the truth.

This is a slow but steady novel. There are no on-the-edge-of-your-seat action sequences or dramatic revelations or unexpected plot twists. There is more focus on characters than plot. Cormoran conducts his investigation methodically, gradually interviewing everyone involved in Lula’s life. Each interviewee gives his/her version of significant events, often inadvertently revealing something important about him/herself. Many have motives for wanting Lula dead, so there are enough possible suspects to muddy the investigation.

The mystery follows the traditional formula with the typical elements: a quirky private detective, a competent sidekick, a high profile crime, obstructionist police, and numerous suspects, red herrings and clues. Information is not withheld from the reader, so he/she is able to solve the case. In the end, there is a confrontation with the guilty party where all the threads of the investigation are connected.

Cormoran and his aptly-named assistant make a good pair. As would be expected, he is intelligent and determined. Not what would normally be considered handsome, he could best be described as a lumbering bear. Life has left him wounded both physically and emotionally, but he has retained an innate decency. Glimpses are given of his past which will undoubtedly be fleshed out in future books. Robin proves to be meticulous and resourceful. The two have an awkward relationship that has its humourous moments.

What is also appealing about Cormoran is his self-reflection. He does not just reflect on that which pertains directly to the case; he makes connections to his own life as well. This particular case makes him realize something about the early death of his mother, “1970s supergroupie Leda Strike”(80): “he could not help seeing his mother as a spiritual sister to [Lula] . . . they had not tethered themselves to life with mortgages and voluntary work, safe husbands and clean-faced dependents: their deaths, therefore, were not classed as ‘tragic,’ in the same way as those of staid and respectable housewives. How easy it was to capitalize on a person’s own bent for self-destruction; how simple to nudge them into non-being, then to stand back and shrug and agree that it had been the inevitable result of a chaotic, catastrophic life” (374-375).

Though a mystery, the book does tackle the issue of fame and its effects. Prying paparazzi followed Lula’s every move and her phones were hacked by the media. Cormorant is the illegitimate son of a rock star, and that tangential connection to fame does come in useful when trying to get people to talk to him. This focus on fame is rather ironic considering Rowling’s wish to remain anonymous by writing under a pseudonym.

This is a good mystery. It is not for those who want their thrillers to be in the vein of Dan Brown, but anyone looking for a well-written mystery with a carefully constructed plot and well-developed characters would be advised to read this one. Though slow-paced, it remains entertaining throughout.

Review of The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike #2)
4 Stars
I really enjoyed J. K. Rowling’s first mystery, The Cuckoo’s Calling, and The Silkworm is as entertaining. This time Cormoran Strike is hired by Leonora Quine to find her wayward husband, a writer of sexually explicit novels with Gothic overtones. Not surprisingly, the missing person’s case soon becomes a murder investigation when Owen Quine’s body is discovered. What is unusual is that his gruesome murder copies the description of the protagonist’s death in the manuscript of his latest novel.

Because Quine’s novel skewers virtually everyone in his life, there are many suspects with motive. Most also have opportunity. In an Agatha Christie-type ending, Cormoran gathers all the suspects together to reveal the identity of the murderer. The resolution will probably come as a surprise to readers, but everything fits perfectly. Even seemingly innocuous details of the killer’s life mentioned early on prove to be crucial clues.

Characterization is a strong element. All of the suspects are developed as round characters. Cormoran’s back story is developed further as is that of Robin, his assistant. Their relationship is also fleshed out; interesting possibilities exist. Many of the suspects are involved in publishing, so insight is given into the behind-the-scenes machinations of that industry. Two writers, Owen Quine, and his archenemy, Michael Fancourt, are described with wonderful touches of humour: Quine is described as “’a monumentally arrogant, deluded bastard’” and Fancourt’s female characters are “’all temper, tits and tampons.’”

The one aspect of the novel that bothered me is the technique of deliberately withholding Cormoran’s thoughts towards the end when he develops a theory as to the killer. Even his conversations with Robin are censored. I understand the desire to create suspense, but since Cormoran’s thoughts and conversations are given in great detail throughout, the sudden shift away from omniscience jars. It seems that Rowling is aware of this problem because she even has Cormoran address the issue: “He knew that he was acting as though he were held to a professional standard that had ceased to apply when he had left the Special Investigation Branch. Though legally free to gossip to whomever he pleased about his suspicions, he continued to treat them as confidential. . . . the safest way of ensuring that secret information did not leak was not to tell anybody about it.” The problem is, of course, that the reader is hardly going to gossip or divulge secret information!

This is a good mystery with a carefully constructed plot and well-developed characters. Like its predecessor, it is not fast-paced but certainly maintains the reader’s interest throughout. Even after only two installments in the series, Cormoran and Robin are a duo whom the reader feels he/she knows but wants to meet again.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Some Comic Relief/Political Satire for Election Day?

Today is Election Day in Canada.  Canadians have endured a very long, 78-day campaign, and most of us are suffering from election campaign fatigue.  To help alleviate that fatigue, I thought I’d suggest two humourous books about Canadian politics.  (I am not a reader of comedy, preferring mine to be of the stand-up kind or in the form of television shows or film, but members of my book club have enjoyed both of these books and highly recommend them.)

The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis

This political satire won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour and CBC Canada Reads.

“A burnt-out political aide quits just before an election--but is forced to run a hopeless campaign on the way out.  He makes a deal with a crusty old Scot, Angus McLintock--an engineering professor who will do anything, anything, to avoid teaching English to engineers--to let his name stand in the election.  No need to campaign, certain to lose, and so on.
“Then a great scandal blows away his opponent, and to their horror, Angus is elected.  He decides to see what good an honest M.P. who doesn’t care about being re-elected can do in Parliament.  The results are hilarious--and with chess, a hovercraft, and the love of a good woman thrown in, this very funny book has something for everyone” (

The High Road by Terry Fallis

This book, the sequel to The Best Laid Plans, continues the story of Angus McLintock, an amateur politician who dares to tell the truth.

“Just when Daniel Addison thinks he can escape his job as a political aide, Angus McLintock, the no-hope candidate he helped into Parliament, throws icy cold water over his plans.  Angus has just brought down the government with a deciding vote.  Now the crusty Scot wants Daniel to manage his next campaign.
"Soon Daniel is helping Angus fight an uphill battle against "Flamethrower" Fox, a Conservative notorious for his dirty tactics.  Together they decide to take "The High Road" and--against all odds--turn the race into a nail-biter with hilarious ups and downs, cookie-throwing seniors, and even a Watergate-style break-in.  But that's only the beginning.  Add a political storm in the capital and a side-splitting visit from the U.S. President and his alcoholic wife, and Terry Fallis's second novel is a wildly entertaining read full of deft political satire and laugh-out-loud comedy” (

So . . . go and vote.  And then check out one of these books so, whether the results are the ones you wanted or disappoint you, at least you can have a few laughs.  

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Review of "The Heart Goes Last" by Margaret Atwood

   3 Stars

I purchased Atwood’s latest novel as soon as it was released, though I wasn’t able to read it for a few weeks.  Unfortunately, I didn’t find it as engrossing as I had hoped.

The novel is set in the near future when the world has suffered a catastrophic economic collapse leaving many people unemployed in a society verging on total chaos.  Stan and Charmaine are destitute and living in their car.  In desperation, they apply to be participants in a socioeconomic experiment promising full employment and a house.  One month they are inmates in a prison and the next month they work as civilians outside its walls to sustain it before repeating the cycle.  At first, Stan and Charmaine don’t dwell on the downsides of their lives in the oppressive, tightly-monitored community ruled by a Big Brother figure named Ed – a community which they cannot leave.  Eventually, however, their lives become less placid as they become involved in or aware of various activities:  extra-marital affairs, human-organ trafficking, bestiality, blackmail, identity theft, customizable sex-bot manufacturing, medically-induced neurological imprinting for sexual enslavement, Elvis  and Marilyn Munroe impersonations, Teddy Bear carnality.

The novel addresses several issues:  sexism, greed, economic and sexual exploitation, and the (im)morality of technological progress – themes explored in other of Atwood’s novels.  She also asks how much freedom to make choices people would be willing to sacrifice in return for stability and security and whether sexual desire can triumph over the desire for stability.  Stan and Charmaine stay together during very difficult times, but when their lives become stable, their relationship suffers.  At the very end, a character asks, “’Isn’t it better to do something because you’ve decided to?  Rather than because you have to’” (306)?  Another replies, “’No, it isn’t . . . Love isn’t like that.  With love, you can’t stop yourself’” (306).

As Stan and Charmaine’s lives spin out of control because they let their erotic impulses control them, I felt the novel spins out of control as well.  The betrayals and counter-betrayals and focus on lust turn the book into an absurdist sex romp.  The plot becomes just too bizarre and over-the-top, and there is a comic tone which distances the reader from the characters. 

It is not just the tone, however, that separates the reader and characters.  I found both Stan and Charmaine to be unlikeable.  Charmaine, for example, is so naïve.  She immediately falls for the sales pitch given by Ed and persuades Stan that they must apply to join the Positron Project.  And she barely thinks about the consequences of her duties as Chief Medications Administrator!  It is difficult to have sympathy for people who are so impulse-driven and whose relationship lacks honesty.  They each vacillate so frequently between loving and loathing their partner so the reader finds them just whiny and annoying.

Even the novel’s style is problematic.  A review in the British newspaper Independent noted the food similes:  “And for a writer justly celebrated for her precision, there is some loose stuff here.  In the space of a couple of paragraphs, Charmaine is “like a stepped-on blueberry muffin… like toffee in the sun… like a super-strong mint… like cinnamon” (  I noticed the many references to teachers; one character has “a severe stare, like a gym teacher’s” (211), another character speaks “in the stern, slightly accusing voice of a high school teacher” (268), and a third refers to a sex-bot being made to resemble a “high school English teacher” (185). 

At one point in the novel, I was reminded strongly of A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Bell which I read recently – another example of speculative fiction set in the near future.  In Atwood’s book, a character says, “’Killing is harsh. . . It was positioned as the alleviation of excessive pain.  And happily there are now more ways than one of doing that!  Alleviating the excessive pain. . . . The thing is, people get lonely; they want someone to love them.  That can be arranged for anyone now . . . Why should anyone have to endure that kind of emotional damage’” (255)?  This is certainly similar to the injection given to people in A Cure for Suicide to help them with life’s difficulties.

The title refers to biological death but also to the human heart’s ability to love.  Unfortunately, I was not able to fall in love with this book.  It starts strongly with an interesting premise but then loses its focus.  Black humour does not appeal to me, and neither did the unlikeable characters and absurd plot.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The 2015 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award

In this brief pause in the midst of literary awards season, I thought I'd focus on another annual literary award that announced its winner before I began my blog:  the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.  At €100,000, it is the world’s largest prize for a single novel published in English. 

This year’s winner was Harvest by Jim Crace which details the unraveling of bucolic life in the face of economic progress.

“A remote English village wakes on the morning after harvest, looking forward to enjoying a hard-earned day of rest and feasting.  But two mysterious columns of smoke mar the sky, raising alarm and suspicion.
The first column of smoke comes from the edge of the village land, sent as a signal by newcomers to announce their presence as per regional custom.  The second smoke column is even more troubling: it comes from a blaze set in Master Kent's stables.  Walter Thirsk, a relative outsider in the village, casts his eye on three local boys and blames their careless tomfoolery.  The rest of the villagers, though, close ranks against the strangers rather than accuse one of their own.  Two men and a woman are apprehended; their heads are shaved to mark their criminality; and the men are thrown into the stocks for a week. Justice has been served. Or has it?
Meanwhile, another newcomer has been spotted in the village sporting the finer clothes and fashionable beard of a townsman.  Mr. Quill, as the villagers name him, observes them closely and takes careful notes about their land, apparently at Master Kent's behest.  It is his presence more than any other that will threaten the village's entire way of life” (

There were ten books on the shortlist.  Besides the winner, the following books were finalists:
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria)
Horses of God by Mahi Binebine (Morocco)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Australia)  See my blog entry of October 9 for  my review.
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (Australia)  See my blog entry of August 9 for my review.
K by Bernardo Kucinski (Brazil)
Brief Loves that Live Forever by Andreï Makine (France)
TransAtlantic by Colum McCann (Ireland)
Someone by Alice McDermott (U.S.)
Sparta by Roxana Robinson (U.S.)
Check out for information about each book on the shortlist and for all the info about the winner, including Crace’s acceptance speech.  

Friday, October 16, 2015

Reviews Archive - Richard B. Wright and "Mr. Shakespeare's Bastard"

Today I thought I’d feature a Canadian writer whom I believe is underrated:  Richard B. Wright.    He has written 12 novels:                 
The Weekend Man (1970)
In the Middle of a Life (1973)
Farthing's Fortunes (1976)
Final Things (1980)
The Teacher's Daughter (1982)
Tourists (1984)
Sunset Manor (1990)
The Age of Longing (1995)
Clara Callan (2001)
Adultery (2004)
October (2007)
Mr. Shakespeare's Bastard (2011)
He is best known for Clara Callan which won both the Giller Prize and the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction.

Here’s my brief review of his most recent novel, Mr. Shakespeare’s Bastard:
Image result for mr shakespeare's bastard
Shakespeare's personal life is poorly documented, leaving room for much speculation.  This novel speculates that The Bard fathered an illegitimate daughter, although he remained unaware of her existence.  This daughter, Aerlene Ward, is the 70-year-old narrator who tells the story of her own life and that of her mother.  Understandably she becomes obsessed with the father's plays, and passages from them are inserted and connected to Aerlene's situation.  Aerlene especially likes Hamlet which explores themes with parallels in her life.
Shakespeare is really a secondary character in the book; the novel focuses more on its female protagonists. There are, in fact, several interesting women. As in his other novels, especially Clara Callan, Wright portrays female characters convincingly.
The book sheds no new light on Shakespeare's life, but does illuminate life both in the country and in London during his lifetime.

Yesterday, Wright’s memoir was released:  A Life with Words:  A Writer’s Memoir.  Here’s a description of that book from
“From the acclaimed writer of the beloved Clara Callan comes a beautifully crafted, charming portrait of the writing life.  Combining his characteristic wit and self-deprecation with his extraordinary imagination and insight, Richard B. Wright has created a deeply affecting memoir that reads like a novel.
 “As a small, watchful boy growing up in a working class family in Midland, Ontario, during the Second World War, Wright gradually discovered that he saw the world through different eyes.  His intellectual and sexual awakenings, his exploits as a young salesman in Canadian publishing, his painful struggles to become a writer—all of this is balanced against the extraordinary reception that in the 1970s greeted his first novel, The Weekend Man, which was published around the world to great acclaim.  In spite of the sometimes crippling depression that haunted him and the ups and downs of the mid-life writer, he would finally achieve overwhelming success with Clara Callan, the Giller-winning work that swept every award in Canada and revitalized his career.
“Lovers of Wright’s work will appreciate behind-the-scenes glimpses of his craft in individual novels and his exploration of how a writer transmutes experience into art.  And readers will enjoy his thoughtful exploration of the essential role of storytelling in our lives.  A Life with Words is both a celebration of the writing life and a deeply personal—at times revelatory—invitation into the world of the imagination” (

If you have not read this author, check him out.  You will not be disappointed.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

2015 Kirkus Prize for Fiction Winner: "A Little Life" by Hanya Yanagihara


The Kirkus Prize for Fiction winner was announced today.  Hanya Yanagihara received the $50,000 award for A Little Life.  (I posted brief plot summaries of the other five finalists on October 3.) 

I have read the winner and posted my review on August 10.  In honour of the book’s win, I am reposting my review:

Review of A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
4.5 Stars

Every year I seem to read one 700+-page novel.  This is the one for 2015.  I just finished it and feel as if I’ve been on an emotional roller-coaster ride for the last few days.  Whew!  I won’t soon forget this one.

The book is about the lives of four young men who became friends in university and moved to New York to begin their careers.  They are Willem Ragnarsson, a waiter and wanna-be actor whose family ranched in Wyoming; Malcolm Irvine, a biracial man from a wealthy family who is beginning his career as an architect; J.B. Marion, the son of Haitian immigrants whose goal is to become a renowned artist; and Jude St. Francis, a lawyer about whose past virtually nothing is known.  We see how they maintain their friendships as they become established in their professions.  Gradually, though, the focus turns to Willem and Jude’s friendship and the revelation of Jude’s traumatic childhood.

Though the book covers about 40 years, there is a timelessness to it.  There are no references to specific years or historical events, though it is clearly set in contemporary times.  For example, 9/11 receives no mention.  This sense of things happening in an eternal present gives the book a fable-like quality.

This is not an easy book to read.  There are graphic depictions of suffering.  Abandonment,  physical and sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, rape, prostitution, addiction, self-harm, domestic violence, suicide, and grief are detailed, so readers need to be prepared for an emotionally harrowing experience.  Most of these miseries are revealed in flashbacks to Jude’s early life, “the snake- and centipede-squirming muck of Jude’s past.”  The relentlessness of Jude’s traumas reminded me of Sisyphus, though Jude has committed no great sin.  The novel can be seen as an examination of the effects of trauma.  Jude emerges from his upbringing physically and emotionally damaged:  “those fifteen years whose half-life have been so long and so resonant . . . have determined everything he has become and done.”  Chronic pain, shame, insecurity, and self-hatred are just some of the effects.  Because of what happened to him, Jude can think of his life only in terms of “its smallness, its worthlessness.”

On the other hand, the book is also an examination of friendship.  Willem thinks about friendship:  “Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship?  Why wasn’t it even better?  It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified.  Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs.  It was feeling honored by the privilege of getting to be present for another person’s most dismal  moments, and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return.”  Later, he tells Jude, “’I know my life’s meaningful because . . . I’m a good friend.  I love my friends, and I care about them, and I think I make them happy.’”

Though friendship has its value, certainly giving Jude some solace, the book also suggests that it has its limitations.  The friendships Jude has cannot repair him.  As in All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, a character concludes, “how hard it is to keep alive someone who doesn’t want to stay alive.”

It is some of these friends who are a weakness in the novel.  For thematic development, it is necessary for Jude to have friends.  The difficulty is that he has so many who remain unstintingly loyal and concerned regardless of his behaviour.  It would be expected that some of those friends would fall away, tiring of his repeated actions, but that is not the case.  No one ever seems to outgrow a friendship.  Except for Willem, Malcolm and J.B., however, those friends are not differentiated.  Often, they are just listed:  “Citizen, or Rhodes, or Eli, or Phaedra, or the Henry Youngs” and “Andy, JB, Richard, Harold and Julia, Black Henry Young, Rhodes, Citizen, Andy again, Richard again, Lucien, Asian Henry Young, Phaedra, Elijah.”  Willem, when trying to explain to Jude who he is, says, “’You’re the friend of Malcolm Irvine, of Jean-Baptiste Marion, of Richard Goldfarb, of Andy Contractor, of Lucien Voigt, of Citizen van Straaten, of Rhodes Arrowsmith, of Elijah Kozma, of Phaedra de los Santos, of the Henry Youngs.’”

But the characterization of Jude can only be called amazing.  His inner turmoil is detailed so specifically that there is a vividness to his character that will remain with the reader for a long time.  We may not approve of his behaviour and we may want to shake him and yell at him, but we will certainly understand his motivation.

This dark and disturbing novel will leave the reader almost overwhelmed.  It is a totally immersive read.  Though it may seem implausible in parts, it will nevertheless leave a lasting impression.  I’m in awe that all that was accomplished in only 700+ pages.