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Monday, February 29, 2016

Review of CUTTING FOR STONE by Abraham Verghese

3 Stars
This book was on my to-read pile for quite a while; I finally got to it, but it took me some time to get through it since it’s a dense read.

The plot is straightforward.  Marion and his twin brother Shiva are born in Ethiopia in 1954 to a Carmelite nun and a British surgeon.  They are “orphaned” because their mother dies in childbirth and their father flees.  They are raised by two doctors, Dr. Hemalatha (Hema) and her husband Dr. Ghosh, who work at the hospital where the twins are born.  Marion, the narrator, tells about the people and events that shape their lives and result in a distancing between the twins as they grow up.

The novel has received many laudatory reviews, but I found the book uneven in quality.  As I mentioned, the plot is relatively simple, but the book is rather lengthy.  There are numerous tangents.  The descriptions of surgeries are very detailed, and unnecessarily so.  The author is a physician but not all readers work in the medical field.  Do I really need to know how to repair the vena cava?  The reader will learn about Ethiopian culture and history and the practice of medicine in a society with limited resources.  Unfortunately, some of these digressions overpower the plot. 

The number of coincidences also bothered me.  Characters cross paths by chance just when they need to.  Marion becomes a surgeon in the U.S., a country with a large population, yet he meets several people from his past.  I read a review in The Guardian which expresses my feelings:  “This is a book narrated by a surgeon, and structured as a surgeon might structure it: after the body has been cut open and explored everything is returned to its place and carefully sutured up - which is not, in the end, how life actually works” (  The ending is supposed to be satisfying but feels melodramatic.

Characterization is also an issue.  The narrator speaks in a monotone and is quite judgmental so I found it difficult to engage with him.  At times he is so irritating.  The female characters tend to be stereotypes.  Genet, Marion’s childhood sweetheart, is especially problematic.  We see her entirely from Marion’s point of view so she fails to develop into a round character.  (And a scene involving her and Marion in the last part of the novel is very disturbing.)  The character who stands out for me is Ghosh; he is a dynamic character who recognizes his flaws and emerges as a wise and compassionate man.

The novel offers a warning about living one’s life:  “everything you see and do and touch, every seed you sow, or don’t sow, becomes part of your destiny.”  This idea is repeated:  “Not only our actions, but also our omissions, become our destiny” and “The world turns on our every action, and our every omission, whether we know it or not.”  To this is added the caution that “no money, no church service, no eulogy, no funeral procession no matter how elaborate, can remove the legacy of a mean spirit.”  “You live [life] forward, but understand it backward.  It is only when you stop and look to the rear that you see the corpse caught under your wheel” so we need to remember that we are all capable of administering first-aid treatment by ear:  “words of comfort.”

I occasionally tackle a big book; this one at over 650 pages qualifies.  Its unevenness makes it a slog at times.  I wish an editor with cutting skills worthy of a surgeon had taken a scalpel to it so the unhealthy elements had been removed.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

A Bookshop Holiday!

Many readers dream of working in a bookstore; certainly, that is something I wish I’d had the opportunity to do.  Well, I came across some information about a holiday flat in Scotland which comes with a bookstore which guests are expected to run:  I’m putting this on my bucket list!

Friday, February 26, 2016

Some Analysis of Shakespeare's Plays

On February 7, I mentioned that, since 2016 is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, I will occasionally focus on some Shakespeare books to be found on Schatje’s Shelves.  I’ve already recommended my choice for a single-volume of the entirety of Shakespeare’s work; today I’m suggesting two books which may help readers with their understanding of the plays.

Northrop Frye on Shakespeare, edited by Robert Sandler, won the 1986 Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction.  Frye’s lecture notes for an undergraduate Shakespeare course focus on several plays:  Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Bolingbroke Plays, Hamlet, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, Measure for Measure, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest.

Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom has 35 essays, offering a fairly comprehensive interpretation of the plays.

Some readers prefer not to read literary criticism, but to those who enjoy reading the interpretations of scholars, I’d definitely recommend these two books to enrich one’s appreciation of The Bard.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Reviews of Peter May's Lewis Trilogy

From my reviews archive, I thought I’d post my reviews of Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy, set on the Isle of Lewis, the northernmost of the Outer Hebrides.  It’s a case of the first being excellent and the sequels just not measuring up.

The Blackhouse
4 Stars
This is the first of a literary thriller trilogy set on the Isle of Lewis, the northernmost of the Outer Hebrides. Detective Fin Macleod, a native of the island, is dispatched from Edinburgh to investigate a gruesome murder which resembles an earlier one committed in the city. The victim in Fin’s hometown is a local bully, Angel Macritchie, with whom Fin was acquainted. Reluctant to return to the island after an absence of many years, Fin nonetheless uncovers the identity of the killer and forgotten secrets of his early years.

The narrative is split between third person limited omniscient from Fin’s viewpoint as he investigates the murder in the present and first person from Fin’s viewpoint as he revisits his troubled memories of his 18 years on the Isle of Lewis. One of the most memorable flashbacks is to that of the guga harvest, the culling of juvenile gannets, a rite of passage for young men from the island.

Detective Fin Macleod is introduced and he, like a lot of literary detectives, comes with a lot of personal baggage. His many flaws are revealed gradually as he narrates episodes of his past. He proves not to be a totally admirable human being, but he seems well aware of his shortcomings and seems to genuinely want to make amends for his failings. Life has dealt Fin some devastating blows so one cannot help but have some sympathy for him.

What is interesting about a lot of the characters is that they are all shown to have both positive and negative traits. First impressions are often shown to be inaccurate. Angel, the victim, has no shortage of enemies. “’There’s a whole generation of men from Crobost who suffered at one time or another at the hands of Angel Macritchie’” (52) and the general feeling is that “’Whoever did it deserves a fucking medal’” (112). Yet Fin admits that in his role as cook for the guga hunters, he succeeded “in earning their respect” (197) and his behaviour towards a paraplegic classmate is better than that of anyone else (255 – 256).

The quality of the writing surpasses what is often found in mysteries. Diction such as “fallen into desuetude” (49) and “the gloom of this tenebrous place” (215) is the exception in mysteries but seems to be the rule for Peter May. Of course, this book is more than a mystery; in fact, the murder investigation is secondary to the exploration of Fin’s past.

There are several surprises along the way but the author plays no tricks. There are clues throughout although they are subtle. For me, the biggest clues were Fin’s inability to remember certain things though his memory of other events is almost eidetic. The revelations at the end answer the questions the reader might have in the course of reading the book. Most readers will correctly identify the killer, but his motivation is not fully explained until the end.

The portrayal of life in a small town is such that anyone who has ever lived in one will immediately recognize as accurate. As a young man, Fin wants to escape “the claustrophobia of village life, the petulance and pettiness, the harbouring of grudges” (180) but as an adult he realizes the villagers’ “struggle for existence against overwhelming odds. Good people, most of them” (79). Most of us have had such mixed emotions about our hometowns.

I’m really looking forward to the second and third books of this trilogy.

The Lewis Man
3 Stars
This second novel of the Lewis Trilogy opens with the discovery of a body in a peat bog. Fin Macleod, a retired police detective who has returned to the Isle of Lewis, the Hebridean island of his birth, is drawn into the murder investigation when it is determined that the body has DNA links to Tormod Mackenzie, the father of Marsaili, Fin’s first love.

The book has two points of view. Part is narrated in third person, focusing on Fin; other sections are in first person with Tormod as the narrator. This latter point of view is interesting because Tormod suffers from dementia. We learn about his life from his memories of the distant past. Some of the suspense in the novel is derived from our wondering whether Fin will be able to uncover that past without Tormod’s assistance. The problem is that Tormod’s memories are formed into such clear and detailed narratives; this hardly seems believable in a person suffering from progressive dementia.

One aspect of the novel that bothered me is the lengthy descriptions of the landscape and weather. Here’s an example: “The night was filled with the whispering sound of the sea. It sighed, as if relieved by the removal of its obligation to maintain an angry demeanour. A three-quarters moon rose into the blackness above it and cast its light upon the water and the sand, a light that threw shadows and obscured truths in half-lit faces. The air was soft, and pregnant with the prospect of coming summer, a poetry in the night, carried in the shallow waves that burst like bubbling Hippocrene all along the beach’ (252). The descriptions are poetic, but when virtually every chapter includes such descriptions, they soon become tedious. The author is certainly trying to establish the beauty and desolation of the Outer Hebrides, but so many references to the weather are not necessary to do so.

It is best if one has read the first book in the trilogy, The Blackhouse, because characters from it reappear and their stories are further developed. Fin’s relationships with Marsaili and her son Fionnlagh are better understood if one knows what transpired earlier. One of the most interesting aspects of this novel is these relationships. The past weighs heavily on Tormod but it does as well in Fin’s life.

Besides the weight of the past, this book also touches in the mistreatment of children. Fin’s childhood was less than ideal and Tormod’s was even less so. The novel touches on "the homers" - children from broken homes who were relocated to foster families in the Hebrides.

The resolution relies too highly on coincidence. The number of characters who come together at the end is unbelievable. And the foreshadowing of Fin’s comment, “’I wish you hadn’t told him your dad’s name’” (279) doesn’t make the ending more credible.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first book in this series; this second one was less satisfying, but I will certainly read the third to find out how it all ends.

The Chessmen
3 Stars
This is the last of The Lewis Trilogy; unfortunately, it is a disappointment.
Fin Macleod and a friend, Whistler Macaskill, discover a body in a plane at the bottom of a loch after it is drained. The body is identified as that of Roddy Mckenzie, a successful musician and friend of Fin and Whistler who disappeared seventeen years earlier. The remains indicate Roddy was murdered. As Fin sets out to investigate, he slowly uncovers several long-hidden secrets. Interspersed with the mystery are flashbacks to Fin’s youth as a roadie for Roddy’s band, Sòlas, a band in which Whistler was also a member.

One of the problems with the book is that characters are introduced who are never even mentioned in the previous two books. Whistler, for example, has been arguably Fin’s closest friend from childhood yet Fin never visited him when he returned to the Isle of Lewis? Fin’s time as a roadie for a Celtic band was also not detailed previously, though that was apparently a significant event in his life at university. Introducing so many new characters in the last of a trilogy suggests poor plotting.

Another weakness is the backstory of the band. Almost all the bandmates vie for the attention of the female lead singer, Mairead. Not only is their bickering rather juvenile, it seems a too-obvious ploy to add to the list of possible suspects in Roddy’s murder since Roddy and Mairead have an on-again/off-again relationship with Mairead turning to other band members when she and Roddy quarrel.

There is also some obvious plot manipulation which is unfair to the reader. Fin suspects Whistler has some information which he is not divulging, but he never directly confronts him to learn what he knows; he “allowed the issue to drift, failed to confront it” (265). Then, as Fin gets closer to the truth, he refuses to tell George Gunn, his policeman friend, what he suspects. He says, “’You do [deserve to know], George. And I promise, you’ll be the first. But not yet’” (225). He even repeats this later: “’I can’t tell you, George. Not yet’” (231). And to his lover, Fin says, “’I’ll go to [the police] when I know the truth. The whole truth’” (243). Withholding information from the reader is a cheap shot.

The resolution to the mystery is rather unbelievable. Most readers will come to suspect the truth but will dismiss that possibility as too incredible. The resolutions of the other stories carried over from the first two books seem rushed and contrived as well.

What I did enjoy is the historical elements. The references to the Lewis chess pieces and the sinking of the Iolaire had me researching more information. I had also never heard of a bog burst.

In looking back, I wish I had read only The Blackhouse and skipped the other two books in the trilogy since they just don’t measure up to the standards of that first one.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Freedom to Read Week

Today begins Freedom to Read Week which is “an annual event that encourages Canadians to think about and reaffirm their commitment to intellectual freedom, which is guaranteed them under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” 

During this week, visit the website of the Canadian Book and Periodical Council (  It lists 100 publications that have been challenged in Canada in the past decades:  Each challenge sought to limit public access to the works in schools, libraries, or bookstores.  Sometimes challenges succeed and sometimes they fail.  But even if challenges are dismissed and books remain on library shelves or curriculum lists, the effect of a controversy over print material can spread.  For example, often a book with a controversial reputation tends to be quietly dropped from reading lists and curricula.

To mark Freedom to Read Week, the Book and Periodical Council has prepared a list of 30 publications which Canadians have tried to remove:  This document makes interesting reading because it discusses specific books and reasons why removals were requested.   Books have been challenged for “morbid, Satanic themes,” “the portrayal of racial minorities,” promoting “an anti-logging viewpoint,” “the depiction of wizardry and magic,” profane language, descriptions of sex scenes, and depicting a character who “challenges adult authority.”

For an American perspective on this issue, check out the website of the American Library Association which has extensive lists of banned/challenged books:  Often very popular novels are challenged:

Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, died two days ago.  Her much-loved novel is also one of the most challenged:

Celebrate the freedom to read by reading a banned/challenged book!

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Review of "The Valley of Amazement" by Amy Tan

Yesterday, February 19, was Amy Tan’s 64th birthday.  I had intended to post a review of one of her novels then, but I felt I had to write about the passing of Harper Lee.  Tan is probably best known for The Joy Luck Club, her first novel, which I actually taught a number of times when I was teaching.  I’m posting my review of her latest novel, The Valley of Amazement, which was published in 2013.  

2 Stars
Having read Amy Tan’s other novels, I looked forward to reading her most recent one. Unfortunately, my expectations were dashed; the book was a disappointment.

Set primarily in the first quarter of the twentieth century in Shanghai, the majority of the novel focuses on Violet Minturn, the daughter of Lucia, an American woman who manages a first-class courtesan house in the city, and an absent Chinese father. When Violet is fourteen, her mother leaves for San Francisco but, because of a man’s devious machinations, Violet is separated from her mother and forced to remain in Shanghai where she is trained as a courtesan. 337 pages are then devoted to 13 years of Violet’s life, years during which she searches desperately for love. Via a 96-page flashback, we are given the story of Lucia’s life which, not surprisingly in an Amy Tan novel, has many parallels with Violet’s.

The first 90+ pages, detailing Violet’s life with her mother, are interesting. Violet learns some family secrets and has to deal with accepting her bi-racial background: “I feared that over time, I would no longer be treated like an American, but as no better than other Chinese girls. . . . I was a half-breed. . . . I feared the stranger-father within my blood. Would his character also emerge and make me even more Chinese? And if that came to pass, where would I belong? What would I be allowed to do? Would anyone love a half-hated girl?” (46 – 47).

The longest section describing Violet’s life from 1912 to 1925 is tiresome. Initially there is little tension. Violet does have to adapt to life as a courtesan, but it is a life of which she had a very good understanding. One chapter is entitled “Etiquette for Beauties of the Boudoir” “wherein Magic Gourd advises young Violet on how to become a popular courtesan while avoiding cheapskates, false love, and suicide” (139). It is obvious Tan did considerable research, but the 35-page chapter reads like a personal essay. What then follows is Violet’s life as a courtesan and her search for true love in a life devoted to the illusion of romance. Her search is not easy. Virtually all the men behave badly and Violet is left to suffer, albeit with Magic Gourd, her surrogate mother, always by her side. The problem is that the plot becomes predictable: Violet is warned not to do something, but she does it nonetheless and tragedy follows. Not learning from her mistakes, she makes the same poor choices over and over. Tragedy follows tragedy but it becomes difficult to have much sympathy for her since she never seems to mature.

When Lucia’s life is finally detailed, the reader is served a virtual repetition of Violet’s. A rebellious, self-assured girl feels unloved and so makes poor choices and suffers accordingly. The number of parallels between their lives is just too many: both choose men very unwisely and suffer devastating loss; both possess traits of pride and selfishness and the same harsh judgmental attitude towards parents. At one point, Magic Gourd tells Violet, “You are like your mother in so many ways. You often see too much, too clearly, and sometimes you see more than what is there. But sometimes you see far less. You are never satisfied with the amount or kind of love you have” (131). This type of direct characterization just repeats what has already become obvious. Furthermore, there are even parallels between the characters that people their lives. For example, Violet has her ever faithful companion, Magic Gourd, while Lucia has Golden Dove. Lu Shing moves in and out of Lucia’s life but affects it profoundly, and Loyalty Fang performs the same role in Violet’s. Both stories possess shams; the artist in one copies the works of famous artists and the poet in the other copies the poems of ancestors. These numerous echoes suggest a great deal of contrivance.

Another problem is that characters are not likeable. Violet can best be described as bland and naïve, and it is impossible not to become frustrated with her inability or unwillingness to learn from her experiences. Lucia is the same. There is also the difficulty with believability. Would a woman who has lost one child risk the possibility of losing a second child? Would a woman whose livelihood depends on being able to accurately gauge the trustworthiness of men be so blind to the true qualities of some men? Would a woman who has suffered what can only be called as a life-destroying loss show such little distress and give only rare thought to what she has lost? Sometimes there are contradictions. One minute Violet says, “It was strange how quickly it happened. . . . I felt free. That’s when I knew I could end our relationship for good. . . . I simply didn’t love him anymore” and then she says, “I stopped breaking up with him. . . . we always conceded that we loved each other. . . . We admitted it” (550 – 551). This is her behaviour towards the end of the book and this change occurs in the course of one page!

Stylistically, there are flaws. The book is much longer than it need be; it could use a judicious editing. The detailed descriptions of clothing and furniture are really not necessary. There is also unnecessary repetition: Lucia tries opium for the first time (489) and then she makes statements like, “This possibility was my opium” (496) and “Those words were opium to my soul” (510). Even the symbolism lacks depth: the use of the painting entitled The Valley of Amazement as a symbol for a life “that did not exist” (521) because it shows a truth “whitewashed with fake happiness” (573) is anything but subtle.

This novel revisits themes that Tan has explored in previous novels: identity and mother/daughter relationships. The elements of family secrets, misunderstandings, and yearning for a mother’s love have appeared in other of her books, so one will not discover much new in this one.

To my dismay, I found Tan’s latest novel a wearying read. I was anxious for it to end. Like Lucia and Violet, it begins with self-assurance but, like them, it goes on and on without new insight. Sadly, I was left with the feeling that Tan has become like Perpetual and Lu Shing; the men copy the poems and paintings of others, and she is imitating her previous work.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Harper Lee's Lasting Legacy

As virtually everyone who reads now knows, Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, passed away today.  That novel is one of the most beloved and most taught works of American fiction.  It is a book I taught numerous times over my 30 years as an English teacher.

In Harper Lee’s honour, I did some reflecting on some of my favourite quotes from that novel.  Here are my top ten:
Until l feared I would lose it, I never loved to read.  One does not love breathing (22).
“I think there’s just one kind of folks.  Folks” (230).
“Everybody’s gotta learn, nobody’s born knowin’” (230).
“Real courage . . . It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin it anyway and see it through no matter what” (116).
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” (34).
“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience” (109).
 “Most people are [real nice], Scout, when you finally see them” (284).
“Things are never as bad as they seem” (218).
“You’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something . . . whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash” (223).
“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy . . . That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” (94).

A number of newspapers around the world have written extensive articles about Harper Lee.  Two I found most informative are the ones in The New York Times ( and in The Guardian (  This latter also offers a picture gallery:  For a Canadian perspective, check out the CBC site:

Last year, there was a lot of controversy surrounding the publication of Lee’s second novel, To Set a Watchman, which reveals a different Atticus Finch.  That’s the first book I reviewed on my blog – see my first entry of July 16, 2015.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Review of "The Tenderness of Wolves" by Stef Penney

3 Stars
I chose to read this book because it won a Costa Book of the Year Award (for 2006), and I’ve often liked the winners of this particular literary prize.  I was also intrigued by the repeated reference to the fact that the author set this book in Canada though she had never visited the country; apparently she suffered from agoraphobia for years and so relied strictly on research for details about the setting.

The novel is set in 1867and begins in Dove River, a small settlement on Georgian Bay.  The body of Laurent Jammet, a trapper and trader, is discovered by his neighbour, Mrs. Ross.  Representatives of the Hudson Bay Company are called to investigate.  Mrs. Ross’ adopted son, Francis, has gone missing and he becomes a major suspect.  Mrs. Ross sets out with William Parker, an Indian tracker and another suspect in the murder, to find her son who himself seems to have been following a set of tracks.  An adventure/survival story is thereby joined to a murder mystery.

Everyone in this book seems to go on a journey looking for someone; the supposedly isolated woods around Lake Huron have a lot of people travelling through them in the winter.   Mrs. Ross and Parker set off in search of Francis; David Moody, an HBC representative, and Jacob, his Indian companion, set off in search of Francis, Mrs. Ross and Parker; a search party of five sets out to find Francis, Mrs. Ross, Parker, Mr. Moody, and Jacob; and there are even flashbacks to the searches for two teenaged girls who went missing twenty years earlier.  Some searches are successful, but some people find only themselves at the end of their journeys.

The novel lacks focus.  There are so many characters.  Besides Mrs. Ross, William Parker, David Moody, Jacob, and Francis, individual  and specific attention is given to Angus Ross, Francis’ father; Andrew Knox, the magistrate of Dove River, and his two daughters, Susannah and Maria; Mackinley, the leader of the HBC investigators; Thomas Sturrock, an itinerant searcher and former journalist; three residents of Himmelvanger, a cloistered religious village; several people who live and work at Hanover House, an old fort; and even Dr. Watson, an asylum superintendent.  There are several chance encounters amongst these characters:  Maria meets a man in Sault Ste. Marie whom Thomas had known in Toronto; David meets a woman whom Thomas had met years earlier in Burkes Falls; Parker has a connection to the husband of one of the women living in Himmelvanger. 

And there are too many subplots.  Besides the murder investigation, there’s a plot involving a Norwegian religious settlement, another about a bone tablet which seems to be a Rosetta Stone for a native language, and a third about the decades-old mystery of missing sisters.  All three of these subplots are largely abandoned.  And then there are the love stories; love features prominently in the stories of several of the characters.  A potential reader should be warned that there are a lot of loose ends at the end of the book.  (The murder case is solved, but by the time the murderer is identified, the reader may not really care since it has become obvious for some time that the innocent will not be punished.)   In fact, there are unanswered questions throughout; one that bothered me throughout was how Mrs. Ross came to leave the mental asylum in which she resided for years.

I don’t understand the title since the tenderness of wolves is not discussed.  There is a story about a wolf cub who is raised as a pet but who eventually leaves its master:  “’The Chippewa have a word for it – it means ‘the sickness of long thinking’.  You cannot tame a wild animal, because it will always remember where it is from, and yearn to go back.’”  The Sickness of Long Thinking is mentioned again at the end and explains one person’s choice, and it seems that other characters suffer from this ailment as well, so it would have been a much more appropriate title. 
As I mentioned at the beginning, I was interested in how many people were surprised that the author wrote so convincingly about a place she had never visited.  Many writers never visit the settings of their novels so I don’t understand why this fact is noteworthy.  But because Penney’s lack of firsthand knowledge and reliance only on research were emphasized, I found myself looking for possible errors.  Perhaps I found one:  a woman mentions working in Kitchener but the city now known as Kitchener was named Berlin from 1854 until World War II.

I do not understand why this novel won such a prestigious award.  Looking back at the longlist, A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon would have gotten my vote.  The Tenderness of Wolves has potential but should have received some judicious editing.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Today's New Release: "The Quality of Silence" by Rosamund Lupton

2.5 Stars
Having read and enjoyed Lupton’s previous novels, Sister and Afterwards, I was excited to read her new release.  Though the book is suspenseful, I found too much suspension of disbelief is required and that definitely dampened my enjoyment. 

Yasmin and her ten-year-old daughter Ruby arrive in Alaska where they plan to meet Matt for Christmas.  Matt, Yasmin’s husband and Ruby’s father, is a wildlife filmmaker.  When they arrive in Fairbanks, they learn that there was an explosion and fire at Anaktue where Matt was living; everyone was killed.  Yasmin is even given Matt’s wedding ring which was found at the scene of the disaster.  Yasmin refuses to believe Matt is dead and sets off with Ruby, who was born with total hearing loss, to find him.  She commandeers an 18-wheeler and heads north in total darkness, encountering a blizzard with hurricane force winds while being followed by a threatening tanker truck. 

There are several unrealistic events.  It is unlikely that a wildlife photographer would go north of the Arctic Circle in the middle of winter to take photos when 24 hours of darkness is the norm.  Then Yasmin is able to drive an 18-wheel, 40-ton truck with no previous experience other than watching a truck driver:  he “navigated around hairpin bends and down hills more like ski runs than a road, Yasmin focusing on the drive axles and the air-actuated clutch and how power flowed to the tires without any differential action, giving each wheel all the torque the road permitted.”  It is emphasized that she is an astrophysicist who has some knowledge of “the engineering part of physics,” as if this is supposed to explain her adeptness.  At home, she drives “a Toyota Auris, which is quite small” but she manages to drive a truck carrying a pre-fab house hundreds of miles - though putting her foot on the pedal is “a stretch even with the seat as far forward as it would go.”  A foot of snow falls in two hours, but between the poor visibility and the blizzard conditions she manages to drive the highest mountain pass in Alaska?  Because “she understood the mechanics of driving the truck,” she manages the gear stick with ease, knows when she has to chip ice and snow off the tires, and puts on tire chains with a minimum of difficulty?  She knows there is sufficient “diesel to reach Deadhorse” but she doesn’t refuel there and continues on?  And a supposedly intelligent woman would take her much-loved daughter on such a dangerous journey? 

There are some unanswered questions.  What happened to the taxi plane Matt was supposed to take?  A survivor in the region of Anaktue would not see a search-and-rescue plane?  People would not be aware of 22 fracking wells about 40 miles downriver, even though it takes “five million gallons” of water “to frack a single well”?

The novel is narrated from two perspectives:  Yasmin’s in the third person and Ruby’s in first person.  It is Ruby’s viewpoint that is interesting.  She provides a unique voice.  At one point she talks about a 507-year-old mollusk that was discovered; she says, “A Tudor mollusk!  Some things are just catch-your-breath amazing.”  Unfortunately, Ruby seems very precocious for her age at some times but then she uses such childish slang like “super-coolio” over and over again.

What I enjoyed about the book is Yasmin’s character change.  She comes to learn about herself.  For instance, she comes to realize that she changed after the birth of her daughter, so much so that “she’d lost the idea of herself” and “had been missing herself as she used to be.”  She realizes she is the reason for the distance that has developed with Matt.  She also learns more about her daughter. She is constantly asking Ruby to speak using her “mouth-voice” which Ruby does not like doing.  Only later does Yasmin understand Ruby’s fear that when she talks, she disappears:  “’When I sign or type I see the same words as the person I’m talking to. . . . But if I speak with my mouth, then only the hearing person hears my words.  I don’t.’”

There is considerable suspense during the trip along the ice road.  In the last quarter of the novel, however, the tension disappears.  The tone becomes didactic so the book ceases to be a mystery and becomes an environmental treatise.

The novel succeeds in conveying the oppressive cold and darkness, but there are too many instances of unrealistic plotting.  A drop-dead gorgeous astrophysicist becomes an ice road trucker?  We can understand her motivation - that she “couldn’t bear for Ruby to suffer the appalling bereavement of losing a parent, the terrible violence of that grief” - but would she really behave so irresponsibly as to put her daughter’s life at risk?  I can’t get past the lack of realism, though other readers more able to suspend disbelief will undoubtedly enjoy the suspense.

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

Monday, February 15, 2016

Review of "Natchez Burning" by Greg Iles

Today I’m featuring another review from my archives.  This book I read in March of 2015.  Though I gave it a low rating, it appears on the longlist for the 2016 Dublin Literary Award.

Natchez Burning by Greg Iles
2 Stars
Penn Cage is the mayor of Natchez, Mississippi. Tom, his father, is the town’s doctor who is charged with the murder of Viola Turner, an African-American woman who had been his nurse before leaving the community 40 years earlier. There is suspicion that their relationship in the 1960s had not been solely professional. When Tom refuses to defend himself, his son sets out to discover the truth; his search leads him to investigate unsolved crimes of the civil rights era carried out by the Double Eagles, an ultra-violent KKK splinter group. Penn is aided by Henry Sexton, an intrepid reporter who has devoted his life to revealing the crimes of the Double Eagles, and by Caitlin Masters, Penn’s fiancée and a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist.

What is uncovered is Natchez’s “secret history” of violence against blacks. It is not an easy read; there are descriptions of savage beatings and torture and “deaths by flaying, burning, drowning, and crucifixion.” The horrors pile up. Caitlin mentions at one point, “But the sheer weight of the horrors Henry had uncovered had begun to deaden her sensibilities. The same thing could easily happen to the Examiner’s readers, so she had to choose her focus carefully.” Iles has the same problem; instead of just being horrified at the extent of the injustice and violence, the reader may be left wondering how the author is going to outdo himself in the next confrontation between good and evil.

Some of the scenes seem to have been written with a film in mind. The climactic scene is definitely one of these. In terms of dialogue and suspense, it is tailor-made for a thriller. Unfortunately, it strains credibility, as do many cinematic thrillers.

Characterization is problematic. There are many stereotypical characters: a shady district attorney with a grudge, a crooked sheriff, a criminal mastermind, an intrepid reporter, etc. So many of the characters tend to be either totally good or totally evil. For example, Tom is the noble doctor who “practiced family medicine for more than forty years, treating some of the most underprivileged in our community with little thought of financial reward. . . . If small towns still have saints, then he is surely one of them.” Twice he is referred to as “Atticus Finch with a stethoscope.” In the prologue, the reader is told that Penn discovers that his father may have a chink in his armour and “tired feet of clay – or worse.” Nonetheless, there is little to tarnish his image; questionable behaviour seems to be motivated by love for family. On the other hand, the redneck villains have no redeeming qualities or extenuating motivations.

Point of view alternates among characters, Penn’s chapters being the only ones narrated in first person. Penn is supposedly the star of the book, but I found him annoying. He makes many stupid decisions and drags others in with him. He repeatedly mentions how dangerous the situation is, but then does not take the precautions one would expect. I have not read the previous three Penn Cage novels, but I cannot understand why everyone defers to him. He withholds information from authorities who have proven to be trustworthy.

The themes are clearly outlined in the prologue. The book examines the effects of the past: “’The past is never dead; it’s not even past. If it were, there would be no grief or sorrow.’” It argues that there are no saints: “’Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.’” And, of course, it examines the conflict between loyalty to family versus loyalty to truth/justice; Penn is forced to question the adage, “’If a man is forced to choose between the truth and his father, only a fool chooses the truth.’” Stating the themes so explicitly is almost an insult to the reader’s intelligence.

There are a lot of loose ends, so the ending will not be satisfactory for many people. What exactly happened when Viola died? What were Tom and Walt hoping to accomplish when they set out? The fate of several characters is not mentioned. This book is apparently the first of a trilogy, so presumably these questions will be answered in the future books.

This book has had rave reviews, so I was rather disappointed. It has a great deal of suspense so works as a thriller, but it is too lengthy. There is considerable repetition. Whether or when I read the other books in the series depends on what other books are on my to-read pile since I did not find myself so invested in the characters that I can’t wait to see what happens to them.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Valentine’s Day Books: Love is (Only Sometimes) a Many-Splendored Thing

Though romance novels have millions of readers, I am not one of them.  In fact, I tend to avoid such books that might be classified as love stories.  However, I have to admit that over the years I have read some books, mostly classics, which would be considered romance novels. 

Here are 20 titles with strong romance elements which I will admit to reading:
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Sabine’s Notebook by Nick Bantock
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Possession by A. S. Byatt
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
A Room with a View by E. M. Forster
The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
The Far Pavilions by M. M. Kaye
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Márquez
The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

If you are interested in the books considered the best romance novels, check out these sites:

If you are looking for gift ideas for Valentine's Day, CBC has suggestions of novels to give to your lover:

And if Valentine's Day is an unwelcome reminder of what has become of your love life, you can find
solace at the bookshop.  Here are 10 literary highlights for the lovelorn, a list created by  the British

Saturday, February 13, 2016

What Does Your Personal Library Reveal About You?

Your books are your personal history.  You are what you read, so private libraries reveal much about their owners.

I recently came across this interesting article about the private libraries of famous people:  I loved that Iris Murdoch apparently found her library “a silent living presence whose company sustained and reassured her.”

This article had me browsing through a book found on Schatje’s Shelves:  At Home with Books:  How Booklovers Live with and Care for Their Libraries by Estelle Ellis, Caroline Seebohm, and Christopher Simon Sykes.  Keith Richards of Rolling Stones fame is one of the bibliophiles featured.  “In his house in rural Connecticut, he oversaw every aspect of his library: its size, shelving, the kind of wood, the furnishings.”  He mentions that for him there is nothing more satisfying than to be lying on his sofa, buried in a book, in his own library:  “reading anchors me.”  His books show eclectic tastes:  19th- and 20th- century novelists, espionage, art, musical instruments, and military history.  “I can read anything except a book with pages missing.”

So what does your book collection tell the world about you?

Friday, February 12, 2016

Review of "The Language of Secrets" by Ausma Zehanat Khan

3.5 Stars
This book brings back Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty, the police duo who handle minority sensitive cases.  This time they are asked to investigate the murder of Mohsin Dar, Esa’s estranged friend who had infiltrated a Muslim terrorist cell planning an attack on Toronto.  One of their problems is that greater value is “ascribed to the façade of Khattak’s investigation than to the actual truth it might uncover.”  Another problem is that the man in charge of unravelling the terrorist plot bears a grudge against Khattak and so withholds information.  Complications also arise when Rachel goes undercover as a potential Islam convert at a local mosque and when Khattak’s sister Ruksh becomes engaged to Hassan Ashkouri, the leader of the terrorist cell.  Can the murderer be identified and arrested and the terrorist attack prevented?

As in the first novel in this series, it is the characterization of Khattak and Rachel that stands out.  They behave consistently with the traits outlined in The Unquiet Dead.  Their relationship develops further; the partnership is “expanding, deepening.”  In this second book, Khattak’s divided loyalties are emphasized:  he is torn between his Muslim faith and his role as a detective investigating members of his community.  His actions are constantly being scrutinized and suspected by both his faith community and the police force. 

The motives of the various members of the mosque are thoughtfully dissected.  Readers will find themselves not agreeing with the actions of some of these people, but they will have a good understanding of their sometimes complex motivations.  The author insists that the reader not equate Islam with terrorism by contrasting Khattak’s moderate views with those of Ashkouri:  “It wasn’t enough to say that the same faith that had produced Hassan Ashkouri had also produced Esa Khattak, good and evil sketched out in broad strokes.  It wasn’t easy and two-dimensional like that.  It was nuanced, complex, difficult . . . Ashkouri had chosen a different path, a different means of addressing his anger and grievances, his choices vindicated by his reading of history.  Something could be beautiful, humane, encompassing.  Or it could be made ugly.  And maybe that was the lesson.  We bring to a tradition what is already within ourselves, however our moral compass is designed, whatever our ethical training is.”

The author also addresses the issue of moderate Muslims having to speak up.  She has Khattak regretting that he didn’t always do so:  “Times he should have spoken up, questions he should have asked, challenging others to an ethical reading of scripture in lieu of the tropes of dogma.  It had seemed like a burden that someone else should carry, yet he realized it belonged to him, just as it belonged to each of his coreligionists, this personal quest for an ethical life – and it couldn’t be put down by choice, not without abandoning the field to the hardened and hidebound, whose rigid conservatism and eschewal of modernity contained with it the seeds of jihadist ideology.”

My reservations about the book revolve around the plot.  There are some unrealistic elements.  For example, Rachel admits that she is not really prepared for her undercover role:  Choosing an undercover surname “was as far as she had gone in establishing her cover.  Rachel possessed little previous undercover experience.”  Why then would Khattak be “authorized to send [Rachel]” to the mosque in such a role?  Wouldn’t the agency charged with gathering intelligence and ensuring national security be wary of sending in an amateur who could unwittingly make a terrorist cell aware of its being under surveillance?  And perhaps I’m naïve but would a man in charge of bringing down a terrorist cell purposely withhold information because of his personal animosity towards Khattak, a tactic that could risk national security and the safety of innocent people?  The secrets within policing are almost as dangerous as the secrets of the terrorist cell.

I appreciated the insight offered into Arabic poetry.  For example, readers are told about the “well-established tradition of Arabic poetry, conflating the personal with the political.”  Agha Shahid Ali, a Kashmiri poet, and Faiz Ahmad Faiz, a Pakistani poet, are mentioned more than once so I was inspired to do some research.  Faiz, I discovered, was nominated four times for the Nobel Prize for literature.

Apparently a third book in the series is already being written.  In an interview with Maclean’s magazine, the author said the following:  “In my third book I send him to Iran, where Khattak, who’s from the same majority Sunni tradition as me, will be in the minority in a Shia country.  I wanted him to examine the privilege of membership in a majority tradition, where you never have to think about the feelings or the traditions of the other and see what that feels like.  I like to put him in situations where he’s uncomfortable, and has to examine his perspective and assumptions much more critically” (

The first two books of this series have sufficient strengths that I look forward to the third one.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Review of "Finding Nouf" by Zoë Ferraris

Yesterday, I posted my review of The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan, the first mystery in a series featuring a Canadian Muslim detective.  It reminded me that three years ago I read another first mystery in a series featuring a Muslim detective, this one set in Saudia Arabia.  Here’s my review of that book:

4 Stars
This is a mystery set in contemporary Saudi Arabia. Nayir ash-Sharqi, a desert guide, is asked by his friend, Othman Shrawi, to find his sixteen-year-old sister, Nouf. After her body is discovered, Nayir sets out to find out how she died; he is assisted in his investigation by Katya Hijazi, a forensic technician who also happens to be Othman’s fiancée.

The mystery is satisfactory, although the identity of one person guilty of a crime is very obvious early on because the implication of this person solves a relationship problem for Nayir and Katya. What is most interesting about the book is its glimpse into Saudi Arabia’s restrictive Muslim culture. Various aspects of Saudi culture are interwoven into the narrative: the importance of hospitality, attitudes towards Americans and immigrants, segregation of men and women, gender roles.

For Nayir and Katya to work together, they must resort to deception and subterfuge which make Nayir uncomfortable. As a traditional conservative Muslim, he has rather rigid ideas about female modesty and proper behaviour. His interaction with Katya forces him to become more flexible as she provides commentary on the realities of life for women. Nayir argues that “’All the prescriptions for modesty and wearing the veil, for decent behavior and abstinence before marriage’” are intended to protect women, but Katya counters that “’those same prescriptions can sometimes cause the degradation people fear the most’” (219).

In many ways, the main conflict is between tradition and desire. Nayir wants to marry, yet his religious beliefs restrict his contact with single women. Katya would like to be a wife and mother, but she also wants a career, so she seeks “’a husband who respects [her] work’” (217). It also becomes clear that Nouf also wanted the freedom to make choices: “’Yes, options . . . I think that’s what Nouf wanted’” (218).

I would recommend this book to readers who enjoy mysteries in an exotic locale which is gradually made familiar.

Two more books have been added to this series:  City of Veils and Kingdom of Strangers.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Review of "The Unquiet Dead" by Ausma Zehanat Khan

3.5 Stars
Esa Khattak is a Canadian Muslin in charge of CPS, a branch of policing which handles minority-sensitive cases.  He and his partner, Rachel Getty, are asked to investigate the death of Christopher Drayton.  Two mysteries end up being the focus of their investigation:  was Drayton really Dražen Krstić, a war criminal implicated in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, and was his fall an accident?

The characterization of the detective team is great. The two are foils:  Khattak is “urbane, soft-spoken, respectful, decisive” and epitomizes “the female holy grail of tall, dark, and handsome,” dressing in “sleek splendor” whereas Rachel is “direct and to the point” and “boxy, square-shouldered, round-cheeked, indifferently dressed.”  The two have a good relationship and work well together.  As is often the case with male/female detective pairs, there seems to be an unspoken attraction. 

Both Khattak and Rachel have personal problems.  Rachel’s dysfunctional family (abusive father, distant mother, estranged brother) gets considerable attention.  Less is known about Khattak’s backstory except that his wife died and he seeks “forgiveness for the accident that had caused her death.” 

The characterization that is poor is that of the other women in the novel.  All seem to be manipulative, even Rachel’s mother.  Then there are the shallow stereotypes:  Drayton’s fiancée is a hyper-sexualized gold digger; Khattak’s former girlfriend is likewise promiscuous; even the curator of the museum in which Drayton was interested is predatory.  All of the women are also beautiful, thereby inciting Rachel’s envy. 

One aspect I found annoying is Khattak’s keeping information from his partner.  This approach is obviously intended to create suspense:  what is really going on?  The reader, like Rachel, is left in the dark.  Khattak’s behaviour is explained by comments such as “[Rachel] knew he’d tell her everything she needed to know eventually” and “He was often reticent at the beginning of an investigation” and his justification that “’I’d like to see what conclusions you draw without the weight of prior knowledge.’”  Nonetheless his evasiveness is too obviously a dramatic ploy and unrealistic.

Throughout the book are interspersed are statements about the Bosnian War, including eyewitness testimonies before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.  All of these quotations are explained at the end in extensive notes, but the lack of initial explanation is confusing.  The reader wonders whether these are flashbacks to the past of some of the characters or whether the statements of people outside the narrative.  They certainly emphasize the horror of what happened but more clarity at the beginning would have been helpful.

This is the first of the author’s mysteries and, as indicated, it is not without its flaws.  However, it is a strong police procedural and its information about the Bosnian War has already had me doing further research.  And I've decided to read the next book in the series.  I’m interested to learn more about Khattak and Rachel and to see how their relationship develops.  Look for my review of the second book, The Language of Secrets, later in the week.

Note:  In the February 2, 2016, issue of Maclean’s, there’s an interview with Ausma Zehanat Khan in which she speaks about her mysteries; you can access it at

Sunday, February 7, 2016

A "Heavy" Read: A Single-Volume Shakespeare

Because 2016 is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, I’ve decided that throughout the year, I will occasionally focus on some Shakespeare books to be found on Schatje’s Shelves.

Today I’m featuring The Complete Works of Shakespeare, edited by David Bevington.  I have the 6th edition, published in 2008, though I gather that there is now a 7th edition available – published in 2012.  This is not a cheap text; the most recent edition costs over $150(CAN).  It is well worth the price; I think it’s the best single-volume Shakespeare.

Bevington is an American literary scholar who has been called "One of the most learned and devoted of Shakespeareans," by Harold Bloom. Apparently, he is the only living scholar to have personally edited Shakespeare's complete corpus.

The introduction of The Complete Works of Shakespeare is 106 pages long with sections on Life in Shakespeare’s England, Drama before Shakespeare, London Theaters and Dramatic Companies, Shakespeare’s Life, Shakespeare’s Language and Development as Poet and Dramatist, Editions and Editors of Shakespeare, and Shakespeare Criticism. 

The text is organized by genre:  comedies, histories, tragedies, romances, and poems. 
Each play is introduced by a descriptive essay which outlines the themes to be found.  Extensive footnotes appear throughout; they are complete, concise and accurate.  The annotations are, as a rule, helpful without being intrusive.
One useful feature of the layout is that, instead of being given the usual style of line numbering (10, 20, 30, etc.), numbers occur only at the end of lines which have footnotes.  This approach eliminates the tedious and time-wasting hassle of line counting, and the frustration of searching through footnotes only to find that no note exists.  If a line has a note, the reader will know at once, and the notes are easy for the eye to locate as the keywords preceding notes are in bold type.

At the end of the book, there are four appendices.  One discusses the dates and early texts of each of the plays; the second explains the sources of each of the plays; the third focuses on performances of the plays throughout the ages; and the last lists, play by play, the various film versions of the plays.

So in this year of celebrating The Bard, if you are interested in purchasing a really good single-volume edition of Shakespeare’s works, I’d recommend this one. 

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Books for Black History Month

February is Black History Month, which is the annual observance for remembrance of important people and events in the history of the African diaspora.  I already touched on this topic on January 18 (Martin Luther King Day) when I listed 50 titles that address racism.  Any of these books would be appropriate reads, I think.

Some quick research has led me to a number of sites which suggest other books as possible reads for this month.  Here are the two sites which I liked.  Unlike the list I compiled earlier, these focus on more recent releases:  - One of the books recommended is The Illegal by Lawrence Hill which I reviewed on September 19. - This site suggests Black History month books written by Canadians. 

I also came across this interesting site:  It focuses on books written by African writers, all being published for the first time in the U.S. during 2016.  These do not fit the theme of Black History, but I think we need to read more international authors, and African writers probably receive least attention from North American readers.   

Friday, February 5, 2016


Lovers of reading tend to like biblionovels, novels which have a bibliophilic theme or main character.  Many are set in bookstores or libraries.  Some readers would argue that the only thing better than reading books is reading books about books!  I perused Schatje’s Shelves and found 15 authors who have written biblionovels.

Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader sends Queen Elizabeth II into a mobile library van in pursuit of her runaway corgis and into the reflective, observant life of an avid reader.

Katarina Bivald’s The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend features a Swedish former bookstore employee opening a bookstore in Iowa

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is probably the biblionovel that springs to most peoples' minds, a futuristic fantasy-noir in which books are verboten, but so beloved that people memorize their favorites and recite them underground.

Geraldine Brooks’ The People of the Book is a traipse through European, African and Middle Eastern history as one follows the detective work of a book conservator and her research on the illuminated Sarajevo Haggadah. 

A.S. Byatt’s Possession is a great literary puzzle wrapped inside a passionate romance between bibliophiles that shifts between present day and Victorian London.

John Dunning’s Booked to Die, the first of the Cliff Janeway series, has the Denver police detective turned book scout finding an underpriced literary treasure at every single thrift shop and garage sale. Unfortunately, the later books in the series focus less on his book finds and more on shoot 'em up chase scenes with villains.

Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshop has a literary apothecary working from a floating bookstore in a barge on the Seine, telling readers the exact book which will ease the hardships in their life.

Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road and its sequel, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, are about a long distance friendship between a New Yorker and the head buyer of a secondhand bookstore in London.

Bill Richardson’s Bachelor Brothers’ Bed and Breakfast and its sequel Bachelor Brothers’ Bed and Breakfast Pillow Book are cozy reads about two eccentric twin brothers, Virgil and Hector, who run a bed and breakfast for bibliophiles.

Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale has a reclusive, best-selling English author relating her autobiography to a young antiquarian bookshop assistant.   The book is a Gothic-tinged story with snippets of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre woven throughout. 

Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows wrote The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, an epistolary novel about the power of books, loyalty and friendship during the German occupation of this Channel Island during World War II.

Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress has the transformative power of reading at the centre of this semi-autobiographical novel of two young Chinese men sent for "re-education" in a remote Chinese mountain village in the late 1960s.

Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind has an antiquarian book dealer's son finding solace in reading a book by Julian Carax.  But when he seeks out other Carax titles, he finds that someone has been systematically destroying all copies of the author's work.

Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry has a widowed owner of a bookstore on a Martha's Vineyard-like island whose life is changed forever by a publisher's rep and a baby on the doorstep.

Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is about Liesel Meminger, a foster girl living outside of Munich in 1939. She steals books. With the help of her foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbours during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement.

There are a number of websites where you can find other titles: 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Review of "White Heat" by Melanie J. McGrath

3 Stars
This is the first of the Edie Kiglatuk mysteries set in Canada’s high Arctic.  Everything begins when an American hunter is killed while on a hunting expedition guided by Edie, a half-white, half-Inuit woman.  Her community of Autisaq on Ellesmere Island wants to dismiss the death as an accident, but Edie is left uneasy, and when more deaths occur, she decides to investigate. 

I liked the character of Edie.  She is a strong-willed, intelligent woman, though she certainly has her flaws.  She struggles with alcoholism, by her mid-twenties, having “already drunk away her hunting career and . . . [being] well on the way to drinking away her life”.  The other character who is well-developed is Derek Palliser, a police officer upon whom Edie occasionally relies for help.  Derek is unmotivated except by his interest in lemmings and so has to be pushed to do anything.  Unfortunately, many of the other characters are mere caricatures of corrupt officials, unscrupulous whites, and greedy businessmen.  The “bad guys” are extreme in their behaviour. 

The book begins slowly, though the pace increases once Edie starts her investigation.  Then the mysteries pile up becoming very convoluted with several villains; it is sometimes difficult to remember who did what to whom.  At times the plot becomes rather farfetched.  What also becomes frustrating is Edie’s frequent stumbling upon clues that inevitably take her closer to solving the several mysteries. 

What impressed me most about the book is its rich detail about Inuit life and culture.  I was amazed to learn that the author is British.  She certainly has an understanding and appreciation for the Inuit.  She details the realities of life north of the Arctic Circle:  a harsh environment, poverty, alcoholism, fossil fuel exploration, and the effects of climate change.  The latter is emphasized with several references to the impact of global warming on the lives of both the people and the wildlife.  What will be remembered by many readers is the food:  Edie eats seal-blood soup, caribou tongue, fried blubber, and fermented walrus gut.  What I remember is a comment about gratitude: “Gratitude is a qalunaat [white] custom . . . Inuit were entitled to help from each other.  Gratitude didn’t come into it.”

I learned not only about how to conduct an Inuit search but about another dark chapter in Canada’s history:  Canada’s forced relocation, in 1953, of Inuit from their traditional home on the eastern coast of Hudson Bay to Ellesmere Island, the most northerly landmass on the planet.  The author of this novel wrote a non-fiction book about this relocation.  I will certainly be checking out this book entitled The Long Exile:  A Tale of Inuit Betrayal and Survival in the High Arctic.

Two other books in this series have been published:  The Boy in the Snow and The Bone Seeker.  Though the first book has flaws, I found it of sufficient quality that I will read at least the second in the series.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

2016 PEN Literary Awards Shortlist

Yesterday, PEN America announced the shortlists for the 2016 PEN Literary Awards.  PEN confers over $200,000 to authors writing fiction, nonfiction, poetry, biography, essays, translation, and more.

The PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction ($25,000) is awarded to an author “whose debut work—published in 2015—represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise.”
The shortlist has five titles:

In the Country: Stories by Mia Alvar
These nine stories give voice to the women and men of the Filipino diaspora. Here are exiles, emigrants, and wanderers uprooting their families from the Philippines to begin new lives in the Middle East, the United States, and elsewhere.

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy
The Turners have lived on Yarrow Street for over fifty years. Their house has seen thirteen children grown and gone; it has seen the arrival of grandchildren, the fall of Detroit’s East Side, and the loss of a father. But now, as ailing matriarch Viola finds herself forced to leave her home and move in with her eldest son, the family discovers that the house is worth just a tenth of its mortgage. The Turner children are called home to decide its fate and to reckon with how each of their pasts haunts—and shapes—their family’s future.

Mr. and Mrs. Doctor by Julie Iromuanya
Ifi and Job, a Nigerian couple in an arranged marriage, begin their lives together in Nebraska with a single, outrageous lie: that Job is a doctor, not a college dropout. Unwittingly, Ifi becomes his co-conspirator until his first wife, Cheryl, whom he married for a green card years ago, re-enters the picture and upsets Job's tenuous balancing act.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
It is April 1975, and Saigon is in chaos. At his villa, a general of the South Vietnamese army is drinking whiskey and, with the help of his trusted captain, drawing up a list of those who will be given passage aboard the last flights out of the country. The general and his compatriots start a new life in Los Angeles, unaware that one among their number, the captain, is secretly observing and reporting on the group to a higher-up in the Viet Cong. The Sympathizer is the story of this captain: a man brought up by an absent French father and a poor Vietnamese mother, a man who went to university in America, but returned to Vietnam to fight for the Communist cause.

Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness by Jennifer Tseng
Forty-one years old, disenchanted wife and dutiful mother, Mayumi’s work as a librarian on a small island off the coast of New England feeds her passion for reading and provides her with many occasions for wry observations on human nature, but it does little to remedy the mundanity of her days. That is, until the day she issues a library card to a shy seventeen-year-old boy and swiftly succumbs to a sexual obsession that subverts the way she sees the library, her family, the island she lives on, and ultimately herself.

If you are interested in the longlist – which had ten fiction titles – see, and if you are interested in the titles in the various categories, see

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Today's New Release: "Missing Pieces" by Heather Gudenkauf

2 Stars

I agree with the title of this novel:  there are missing pieces.  Unfortunately, what is missing are the elements of a good mystery:  a believable plot, convincing characters, and suspense.

Sarah and Jack Quinlan have been married for twenty years.  They return to Penny Gate, Iowa, when Jack’s Aunt Julia (who raised him after the death of his mother Lydia) is injured in a fall.  It turns out that Aunt Julia’s fall is similar to that which resulted in the death of Jack’s mother, a death which was ruled a homicide. Sarah learns about the details of this death only now and discovers that her husband has also withheld many other facts about his past.  She starts investigating her mother-in-law’s murder and unravels more family secrets, ones which begin eroding her trust in Jack. 

Character development is weak.  Sarah and Jack have been married for two decades, but their relationship is very shallow.  Their conversations sound like ones acquaintances would have.  And Sarah’s feelings for her husband change so quickly that it seems that their marriage never had a solid foundation.  Sarah is jealous of a girlfriend Jack had when he was a teenager?  Many of her statements and actions are just illogical and indicate a lack of intelligence.  For instance, she asks someone for help and then when that person tries to be discreet in public about aiding her, Sarah is “still baffled by her odd behavior”?  She orders a Bloody Mary though “vodka always gave her a headache”?  Sarah has to be told that Jack couldn’t have pushed his aunt down the stairs:  “’You and Jack weren’t even in town when Julia was hurt.  There was no way he could have done it.’”?  And to this statement, she sits “back in her chair, dumbfounded [and says] ‘Oh, my God, you’re right’”?!  This is not the type of comment expected from someone who was once a “hard-news reporter, the kind that traveled all over the work . . . covering major international news stories”!   Sarah claims to have “journalistic instinct” but it never seems to work.  She receives strange emails and just dismisses them?

Sarah is not the only person whose behaviour is unrealistic.  An employee of the police department agrees to help her though they have met only once?  And that person is willing to risk losing her job?  And that abettor takes a box containing an entire case file, “’the one file that the sheriff keeps in his office’” and tells Sarah she can have it for a day or two?  And why would that employee include a Walkman so Sarah can listen to the enclosed tapes, when there are transcripts of the tapes?

There are comments made that make no sense.  Sarah believes that the murder investigation into Lydia’s murder is closed (though no one has been charged or convicted).  The sheriff tells her, “’the case isn’t officially closed, just suspended’” but later Sarah twice mentions that “the case is closed.”  Then the sheriff says, “Officially, the Lydia Tierney murder investigation is closed” only to say, a few pages later, “Now I have two active murder cases to investigate.’”  The reader’s head should be left spinning.

The plotting is amateurish.  There is no real suspense since any astute reader will identify the murderer virtually from the beginning:  there is really only one person who could be guilty.  The attempts to create suspense are so obvious and unconvincing.  Sarah leaves her car keys and cell phone in her car which is parked in the middle of nowhere and then she panics when two men in a truck stop to ask if she has car problems?

Clumsiness is used to advance plot.  Sarah stumbles on steps and thereby discovers blood spots.  Her purse catches the edge of a desk and, conveniently, a file which contains vital information flutters to the floor.  Later her elbow shatters some glass jars.  What a klutz!  And even Sarah’s sister-in-law is as clumsy, knocking over a vase of flowers set on a windowsill in Julia’s hospital room; she manages to knock it over though she is described as being close to Julia’s bed, not the windowsill.

Then there is the focus on unnecessary details.  For instance, why is there so much emphasis on how decrepit the hospital in Penny Gate is?  “The hospital was clean but dated.  Institutional-green walls were lined with faded Impressionist prints and the carpet was worn and thin.” And “Sarah’s eyes followed [the nurses] down the depressingly dim corridor.  She noticed on the ceiling that a brown spot had bloomed against the white plaster and rainwater dripped rhythmically into a large bucket below.  She imagined mold and mildew festering behind the walls.” And “The old elevator creaked and groaned and was excruciatingly slow in its descent . . .  The elevator finally arrived at their floor and the doors opened to an empty, quiet hallway.  It was cold and eerie . . . ” And “The stairwell was windowless and weakly lit by dusty fluorescent bulbs.  Cobwebs swung precariously in the corner where drab cement blocks met the ceiling . . . ”

The identity of the murderer is not a surprise but the motive for Lydia’s killing is not believable.  Actually, many of the killer’s actions are illogical.  Why would a murderer email “creepy” messages which could help identify him/her?  Would a killer really leave evidence at a crime scene as “’just my little inside joke’”?

And there are other things that make no sense.   How can a person claim to have seen Sarah “’snooping around Jack’s old room, looking in drawers’” when that person was not in the house, much less in the room?  Then why does Sarah look for a “shoe box with Jack’s name written on it” in her brother-in-law’s house when she saw it in Uncle Hal’s house?  How can she claim the box was “removed” when it hadn’t been in her brother-in-law’s house in the first place?!  A woman who dismisses an old love as “a weak little boy” will then argue that they “belong together”?!  An advice columnist would receive “overtly violent” letters? People keep old farm tools in a bathroom?  A reporter would be repeatedly told “Don’t ask the questions if you don’t want the answers”?  I could go on and on. 

Obviously, some major editing is required.  I had not heard of this writer and so was surprised to learn that she is a “bestselling author.”  Perhaps the many issues with this book are due to the fact that I read an advanced reading copy?  

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