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Saturday, April 30, 2016

2016 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction Winner

Earlier this month, the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction winner was announced. The prize is awarded annually to the authors of the year's best works of fiction by living American citizens. The winner receives US $15,000 and each of four runners-up receives US $5000.

The winner is Delicious Foods by James Hannaham
In Delicious Foods, James Hannaham tells the story of three characters: a mother, her son, and the drug that threatens to destroy them. Darlene, once an exemplary wife and a loving mother to her young son Eddie, finds herself devastated by the unforeseen death of her husband. Unable to cope with her grief, she turns to drugs, and quickly forms an addiction. One day she disappears without a trace. Unbeknownst to eleven-year-old Eddie, now left behind in a panic-stricken search for her, Darlene has been lured away with false promises of a good job and a rosy life. A shady company named Delicious Foods shuttles her to a remote farm, where she is held captive, performing hard labour in the fields to pay off the supposed debt for her food, lodging, and the constant stream of drugs the farm provides to her and the other unfortunates imprisoned there (

The other finalists were
Mr. and Mrs. Doctor by Julie Iromuanya
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Mendocino Fire by Elizabeth Tallent
The Water Museum by Luis Alberto Urrea

Friday, April 29, 2016

2016 Edgars Awards Winners

Yesterday, the Mystery Writers of America announced the winners of the 2016 Edgar Allan Poe Awards honouring the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction and television published or produced in 2015.

The winner in the Best Mystery Novel category is Let Me Die in His Footsteps by Lori Roy.

Everyone knows Hollerans don’t go near the Baines family.  It’s been that way since Joseph Carl Baine was hanged in 1936.  But on a dark Kentucky night in 1952 Annie Holleran crosses over into forbidden territory because local superstition says that Annie can see her future in the Baines’ well. What she sees instead, there in the moonlight, is a dead woman. And suddenly the events of 1936, events that have twisted and shaped the lives of Annie and all her kin, are brought back into the present. And if Annie is to save herself, her family and this small Kentucky town, she must face the terrible reality of what happened all those years ago (

I highlighted the other nominees in my January 23 blog entry:

The Best First Novel is The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen which recently won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
The Sympathizer is the story of a man of two minds, someone whose political beliefs clash with his individual loyalties. In dialogue with but diametrically opposed to the narratives of the Vietnam War that have preceded it, this novel offers an important and unfamiliar new perspective on the war: that of a conflicted communist sympathizer.
“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. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s astonishing novel takes us inside the mind of this double agent, a man whose lofty ideals necessitate his betrayal of the people closest to him” (

In total, prizes for fifteen categories were awarded.  For the complete list, see

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Review of CLOUD by Eric McCormack

2 Stars
This is a peculiar novel.  Its blending of magic realism and Gothicism just doesn’t appeal to me.

Harry Steen finds an old book in a bookstore in Mexico; its title refers to an isolated village in Scotland where he lived briefly and where something happened which “would complicate the entire course of [his] life thereafter” (57).  That book inspires him to chronicle his life from an impoverished childhood in the slums of Glasgow to his financially secure life in Canada as a successful businessman.

The Wikipedia entry on McCormack states, “McCormack's heroes tend to have an academic/bookish bent, been born in Scotland, and have settled in the same part of Canada that he did. They also travel extensively, often by ship, and meet eccentric fellow travelers who relate to them their life stories and interests.”  This is certainly the case with this novel’s protagonist.  After graduating from university, he sails to Africa and South America but eventually settles in Camberloo, which seems to be a bizarre blending of Cambridge and Waterloo, two cities in southern Ontario where the author lived.  In his travels Harry meets many odd fellows. 

It is the number of strange fellows which stretches credulity.  There’s Jacob Nelson, a violinist with exhibitionist tendencies; Charles Dupont who becomes involved in horrific surgical/anthropological experiments; and Gordon Smith, a wealthy entrepreneur who enjoyed exotic sexual customs on remote tropical islands.  Each of these men has considerable influence on Harry’s life.

Harry is not a likeable character.  He is so self-centred and seems to feel himself hard done by, a wronged victim.  He admits that he spent his life blaming someone else for his “self-serving behaviour over the years” (384).  It is difficult to feel much for someone so self-involved.  Every time he drinks he repeats his story of a love lost and becomes maudlin.  Yet everything falls into his lap:  jobs, sexual encounters, marriage, and wealth.  Women are constantly throwing themselves at him as if he were irresistible when there is little attractiveness in his personality. 

According to the Wikipedia entry, another characteristic of McCormack’s writing is the use of coincidence, with characters often meeting in unusual circumstances years after they have parted.
Again, this is the case in this novel.  Chance and coincidence are found in real life, but the amount of coincidence in the book is problematic. 

Apparently, McCormack is also known for self-references and those are found here as well.  McCormack’s books include Inspecting the Vaults, The Paradise Motel, The Mysterium, First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, and The Dutch Wife.  In the novel, the titles in a ship’s library include Inspecting the Faults, The Paladine Hotel, The Wysterium, Last Blast of the Cornet, and A Dutch Life (155).  What is the purpose of parodying one’s own titles?

According to the flyleaf, the book is about the “nature of love” and there are statements on that topic like, “’We all wish love would be eternal and exclusive . . . But it rarely seems to be the case’” (146) and “’first love is often a kind of self-love, a delight in the idea of being in love’” (383).  At the end of the book, a cloud is lifted and Harry sees how he was wrong about love, but there are no new insights on the subject.

This book will undoubtedly appeal to certain readers, but it failed to be compelling for me.  It is not a difficult read by any means, but it lacks focus.  There are so many tangents – do we really need to know the life stories of patients in a psychiatric institution specializing “’in artists and academics who’ve somehow gone wrong’” (374)?  At one point, the narrator comments, “Book lovers naturally do feel a kind of possessiveness and protectiveness in how they relate to certain authors and books, as though they were pets” (413).  This book is not one of my pets!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour Nominees

A couple of days ago, the longlist for the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour was released. This is an annual literary award presented for the best book of humour written in English by a Canadian writer. The medal is a tribute to well-known Canadian humourist Stephen Leacock (1869–1944) and is accompanied by a cash prize of $15,000(CAD).  It is presented each year in Leacock’s hometown of Orillia, Ontario.  The medal is one of the oldest literary prizes in Canada; it has been awarded since 1947. 
There are ten books on the 2016 list:
Our Life off the Grid by David J. Cox
The Horrors: An A-Z of Funny Thoughts on Awful Things by Charles Demers
Under Majordomo Minor by Patrick DeWitt
Do You Think This is Strange? by Aaron Cully Drake
Poles Apart by Terry Fallis
The Republic of Dirt by Susan Juby
The Secret Life of Doctors by Stephen Kaladeen
Vinyl Café Turns the Page by Stuart McLean
When the Saints by Sarah Mian
The Book of Faith by Elaine Kalman Naves

Two of the nominees are previous winners.  DeWitt's first novel The Sisters Brothers won the prize in 2012.  Terry Fallis is a two-time Leacock Medal winner, taking the prize in 2008 for The Best Laid Plans and again in 2015 for No Relation.

The shortlist will be announced on May 6 and the winner on June 11.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Review of THE WIDOW by Fiona Barton

3 Stars
This is the latest psychological thriller about which there is so much publicity.  I found it very readable, but as is usually the case with highly-hyped books, it doesn’t quite measure up.

The widow is Jean Taylor whose husband Glen died in an accident.  Glen was accused of kidnapping a child, Bella Elliott, who has never been found.  Now that he is dead, the police and press turn to Jean to find out what she knows.  Several questions arise:  Was Glen guilty of abducting Bella?  If so, was Jean ignorant of her husband’s activities or was she complicit with Glen?  Was Jean a victim or was she a victimizer?

Each chapter begins by identifying the perspective from which it is narrated:  The Widow, The Reporter, The Detective, etc.  The novel also moves back and forth in time between 2006 when Bella went missing and the investigation started and 2010 when Glen dies and the investigation continues.

Only Jean’s chapters are narrated in first person.  One of the first things we learn about her is that she is not a grieving widow:  “I was glad he was gone.  No more of his nonsense.”  That euphemism for Glen’s activities she uses frequently but really it serves to hide what she knows, so it soon becomes obvious that she is not a totally reliable narrator.  She even mentions that occasionally she has to “switch to being Jeanie for a while.”

In one way, the book is a study of a marriage.  We learn how Jean, a young, naïve hairdresser, is charmed by the older handsome bank worker.  Glen always takes charge and Jean becomes the submissive partner.  Of course issues arise.  Jean desperately wants children but she is unable to become pregnant.   Gradually Glen becomes more withdrawn and spends time on the computer.  When Glen is charged with Bella’s abduction, Jean remains the supportive wife.

For a book identified as a thriller, there is not a great deal of tension.  We know from the onset that Glen is dead and that Bella has not been found after four years, so there is little suspense concerning their fates.  Learning the truth about Jean’s role in the case is more an intellectual puzzle.  The reader does, however, experience other emotions:  anger, sympathy, frustration – often with the same character.  For instance, Jean’s situation may arouse sympathy but some of her decisions inspire anger.  The same is the case for Kate Waters, the persistent crime reporter; we may cheer her determination to get a story but we will cringe at her techniques to do so.   

This book will undoubtedly find its way into the hands of people during their summer vacation, and it is a good novel for such an occasion.  It doesn’t demand much effort from the reader and has sufficient interest in it to while away a few hours provided the reader has not set his/her heart on a suspenseful thriller.

Monday, April 25, 2016 First Novel Award Finalists

2016 is the 40th anniversary of the First Novel Award which honours the best Canadian debut novels of the year.  Appropriately, the prize is $40,000.

Six debut novelists were named finalists:

Book of Sands by Karim Alrawi
Tarek, a young father, watches as the city he lives in is mired in protests amid the upheaval of the Arab Spring, hemmed in by barricades and strangely inundated by great flocks of birds. Facing the threat of police arrest, he flees with his nine-year-old daughter, Neda. He is forced to leave behind his pregnant wife, Mona, under the watchful eye of Omar, her deeply troubled and religious brother. As Tarek and Nada journey through villages razed by conflict towards a mountain refuge, they meet with fellow travellers from Tarek’s past and his time as a political prisoner. The reunion reveals secrets that Tarek must come to terms with for his own and Neda’s sake. Ultimately, he must decide where this journey will take them and if he will ever be able to return home again.

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad
Growing up in the suburban hell of Misery Saga (a.k.a. Mississauga), Lizzie has never liked the way she looks—even though her best friend Mel says she’s the pretty one. She starts dating guys online, but she’s afraid to send pictures, even when her skinny friend China does her makeup: she knows no one would want her if they could really see her. So she starts to lose. With punishing drive, she counts almonds consumed, miles logged, pounds dropped. She fights her way into coveted dresses. She grows up and gets thin, navigating double-edged validation from her mother, her friends, her husband, her reflection in the mirror. But no matter how much she loses, will she ever see herself as anything other than a fat girl? In her hilarious and at times shocking debut, Mona Awad skewers the body image-obsessed culture that tells women they have no value outside their physical appearance, and delivers a tender depiction of a lovably difficult young woman whose life is hijacked by her struggle to conform.

Do You Think This Is Strange? by Aaron Cully Drake
Freddy is having a rough year. First, he is expelled from school for fighting. Now, at his new school, he is required to have regular conversations with a counselor—an awkward situation for anyone, really, but even more so for Freddy, who has autism. Not only that, Freddy’s mom left years ago and his dad drinks too much. But then Saskia—a fair-haired girl Freddy hasn’t seen in ten years—appears at his new school. As children they attended the same group therapy sessions, and now she is hardly the same person he remembers. She doesn’t smile. And she doesn’t talk. But their reunion provides him with respite in a difficult time, and sets a chain of meetings and events into motion that reveals long-repressed memories and brings Freddy to a unexpectedly freeing moment of truth.

Seep by W. Mark Giles
Dwight Eliot was born on a baseball diamond, during a dugout-clearing brawl. Decades later, when he sees his childhood home being moved on a truck down the highway, he begins a quest to research the history of his hometown and of his family. Seep is being dismantled, and the land is being redeveloped as a master-planned recreational townsite to complement a nearby First Nations casino. In the face of the town's erasure, he tries to preserve its stories; so doing, he comes to question his own. Seep limns the tension between land development and landscape, trauma and nostalgia, dysfunction and intimacy in a narrative of twenty-first century Canada.

Backspring by Judith McCormack
Eduardo, an architect from Lisbon, has come to Montreal to be with his wife Geneviève. Geneviève researches fungi and likes to catalogue her orgasms. But when Eduardo is caught in an explosion, and rumors of arson begin to circulate, both his marriage and his fledgling architecture firm verge on collapse

The Afterlife of Birds by Elizabeth Philips
Henry Jett's life is slowly going nowhere. His girlfriend recently left, and his job in a local garage is uninspiring, considering that he doesn't particularly like cars. Henry finds solace in his eccentric passion, rebuilding the skeletons of birds and animals. Meanwhile Henry's brother, Dan, is disappearing into an obsession of his own. Without Dan to rely on, Henry begins to engage in new ways with the people around him in his Prairie city: the 80-year-old Russian émigré who delights in telling stories; the very pregnant former employee of his mother's; the lawyer who may or may not be his brother's ex-girlfriend. Gradually they demand that Henry become a participant in his own story, and Henry must forge his own way of living in the world.

The winner will be announced on May 26.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Canadian Literary Festivals

I’m fortunate to live within easy driving distance of both Ottawa and Montreal and so have the opportunity to attend literary festivals there.  Both the Ottawa International Writers Festival (Spring Edition) and the Blue Metropolis Festival in Montreal were held recently. 

I decided to do some research to find out about other literary festivals I might be able to attend and I found a great article in a recent edition of The Toronto Star.  It highlights major festivals held in each province (except PEI) throughout the spring, summer, and fall:

 The Writers’ Union of Canada has an even more extensive list; it lists events held in all ten provinces and in the Yukon and Northwest Territories as well.  From this site, you can link to specific information about each festival or reading series:

And on the topic of attending literary festivals, BookRiot had an article entitled “How to Get the Most from Your Literary Festival Experience” by Bronwyn Averett:

I agree with Averett:  “What’s not to love about a good literary festival? They are filled with books, people who write books, people who read books, discussion, inspiration, and usually wine.”

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Read on World Book Day

Today is World Book Day.  The event is commemorated every year on April 23 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to promote reading, publishing and copyright.

To  mark the day, International Business Times UK had an article entitled “World Book Day 2016: Quotes that will motivate you to read more and explore the world of books” by Agamoni Ghosh which I thought I’d share:    

“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking –Haruki Murakami
Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him –Maya Angelou
Books are like mirrors: if a fool looks in, you cannot expect a genius to look out –J K Rowling
There is a great deal of difference between an eager man who wants to read a book and the tired man who wants a book to read –Gilbert K Chesterton
It is what you read when you don't have to that determines what you will be when you can't help it –Oscar Wilde
There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we spent with a favourite book –Marcel Proust
A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it –Edward P Morgan
If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all –Oscar Wilde
Some books leave us free and some books make us free –Ralph Waldo Emerson
It is a good rule after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between – C S Lewis
Make it a rule never to give a child a book you would not read yourself –George Bernard Shaw
Books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren't very new after all –Abraham Lincoln
There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them –Joseph Brodsky
You know you've read a good book when you turn the last page and feel a little as if you have lost a friend –Paul Sweeney”

Here in Canada on this day we also celebrate Canada Book Day, a day to promote the reading of Canadian books.  It is a good occasion to learn more about Canadian authors and to choose a new Canadian book to read. 

Dedicate today to reading!

William Shakespeare 400

Today, April 23, is the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death.  It is also the 452n anniversary of his birth.

The Shakespeare Blog recently quoted a 200-year-old stanza, apparently part of an impromptu rhyme written and recited by Mr James Bisset at the celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday two hundred years ago, in Stratford’s Town Hall:

 “Revered be the season a Shakespeare appear’d,
Revered be the date of his birth.
Ever sacred the day, which two centuries since,
Snatch’d “the pride of all nature” from earth.”

Over the nine months since I began this blog, I’ve had a number of entries about The Bard.  On this auspicious anniversary, I thought I’d repost some of these.

On September 1, 2015, I made a list of Shakespeare-inspired novels:,

In the same vein, on October 10, 2015, I wrote about the Hogarth Shakespeare novels being released in 2015 and 2016:

On January 3, 2016, I challenged readers to read a Shakespeare play in this anniversary year:

On February 7, 2016, I recommended a single-volume Shakespeare:

On February 26, 2016, I suggested two useful books by Shakespeare scholars:

On the Ides of March, I listed some favourite quotations from Julius Caesar

On March 26, 2016, I wrote about Shakespeare’s skull being missing from his grave:

On April 7, 2016, I discussed the First Folio recently authenticated on the Isle of Bute in Scotland:

As the year continues, I will certainly be posting more about this greatest of English writers.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

On Charlotte Brontë's Bicentenary - Review of READER, I MARRIED HIM (edited by Tracy Chevalier)

Today is the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë's birth so I'm reviewing an anthology of short stories inspired by Jane Eyre.

3 Stars
This is a collection of 21 short stories by 21 female writers, short stories inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Jane’s statement towards the end of the novel that she married Mr. Rochester.  (I loved the summary of the book given by a character in Tracy Chevalier’s story, “Dorset Gap”:  “A governess full of inner strength who marries a completely inappropriate man.”)

In her forward, the anthology’s editor, wrote, “I liken Reader, I Married Him to a stone thrown into a pond, with its resulting ripples.  Some of the writers have written close to where the stone has entered the water, taking the Jane Eyre story itself and writing it from a different angle . . . Other stories are ripples a little further from the source, including elements from the novel such as the moors setting, or specific incidents, or imagery such as mirrors or animals, or even certain lines . . . Other stories may move still further away from Jane, yet almost all of them address marriage (or today’s equivalent of it) in some way, exploring when marriage might happen, or should happen, or shouldn’t, or when it ends, or is with the wrong person, or seems to be with the right person but goes wrong.”

And, yes, the stories are certainly a mix, varying hugely in content and style.  Some pick up Jane's story and are set in Brontë’s time period; others are set in contemporary times; and one is in the future.   Some of the characters are gay and others are straight.   Some are Muslim, some are Christian, and some are Jewish.  The stories take place in England, the United States, Turkey, Zambia, and other locales.  One story, “Behind the Mountain” by Evie Wyld, is set in Canada. 

The stories I most enjoyed are the ones which used Jane Eyre as a real starting point.  “Grace Poole Her Testimony” by Helen Dunmore has Mrs. Rochester’s caregiver telling the story of her life before the arrival of Jane at Thornfield and giving her opinion of the governess whom she calls “the pale one.”  “The Mirror” by Francine Prose examines Jane and Edward’s marriage and has them going into couples therapy.  “Reader, She Married Me” by Salley Vickers is from Mr. Rochester’s viewpoint; he is burdened by guilt and regrets.  “The Orphan Exchange” by Audrey Niffenegger is a lesbian version which re-imagines Jane’s real love relationship.

Some of the pieces are only very tangentially connected to Jane Eyre.  Of this group, I most enjoyed two.  “Reader, I Married Him” was written by Susan Hill who admits to never having read Brontë’s masterpiece.  Hill’s contribution is a first-person interior monologue delivered by Wallis Simpson; she details her relationship and marriage with Edward VIII who abdicated the English throne in order to marry her.  “The Self-Seeding Sycamore” by Lionel Shriver also stands out; it is a delightfully funny story about a widow’s problems with her neighbour.

Like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, a short story anthology is often full of surprises:  “You never know what you’re gonna get.”  Some of the pieces I enjoyed and some were not to my taste.