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Monday, May 30, 2016

Happy Birthday to Colm Tóibín!

Today, May 30, is Colm Tóibín’s 61st birthday.  I would like to post a review of one of his novels, but I have already posted four since I began this blog. 

I reviewed The Testament of Mary on December 19, 2015:

Most recently, I reviewed The Master on April 15, 2016:

I would highly recommend each of these books. 

Happy birthday, Mr. Tóibín!  I look forward to your next novel.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

2016 O. Henry Prize Stories

The O. Henry Award, named after the American short story writer, is an annual American award given to short stories of exceptional merit.   

The 2016 O Henry Prize stories have been announced:

All twenty stories will be published in an eponymous anthology this September.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

2016 Ellis Awards Winners

The winners of the 2016 Ellis Awards have been announced. The Arthur Ellis Awards are a group of Canadian literary awards, presented annually by the Crime Writers of Canada, for the best Canadian crime and mystery writing published in the previous year.  The awards are named for Arthur Ellis, the pseudonym of Canada's official hangman. The award statue itself is a wooden model of a hanging man.

The winner of the Best Novel is Open Season by Peter Kirby.
This is the third book in the Luc Vanier crime series set in Montreal.  “A Guatemalan journalist is kidnapped, and the only message from her kidnappers is the murder of her lawyer. In a race against time, Luc Vanier sets about reconstructing her life, through the sordid world of human trafficking, the secretive underbelly of a multinational mining corporation, and the hiding places of desperate refugees. When Vanier is brutally warned off the investigation, he throws away the rule book and goes after the villains with a vengeance” (

The Best First Novel award went to Ausma Zehanat Khan for The Unquiet Dead, the first in a series featuring a Muslim investigator.  See my review:

For more information about other Ellis Awards winners, go to

Friday, May 27, 2016 First Novel Award Winner

The winner of the First Novel Award was announced yesterday.  It was given to Mona Awad for 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl

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 simultaneously skewers the body image-obsessed culture that tells women they have no value outside their physical appearance, and delivers a tender and moving depiction of a lovably difficult young woman whose life is hijacked by her struggle to conform (

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.

The other five finalists received $4,000 each; for summaries of these finalists, see my blog of April 25:

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Review of WHILE I WAS GONE by Sue Miller

2 Stars
Had this book not been chosen by my book club, I would not have finished and would, in fact, have thrown it away.  I persevered but feel I wasted my time.

The protagonist and narrator is Jo Becker a middle-aged woman married to Daniel, a minister.  In her job as a veterinarian she reconnects with Eli Mayhew, an acquaintance from the 1960s when she lived in a commune-like house with him and several other young people until one of their housemates is murdered.  Her encounter with Eli has her revisiting the six months she lived in Cambridge under an assumed name after abandoning her first husband.  The narrative moves from past to present as she remembers the past and navigates her present life in which she flirts with escaping once again.

As I’ve already indicated, I found the novel boring.  Nothing of interest happens for the first 75 pages.  Whatever happened to beginning with something that will catch the reader’s attention near the beginning?  By this time, I’d developed an aversion to the protagonist and couldn’t care less about what happened to her.

Jo is totally unlikeable.  She is a self-centred whiner.  Her behaviour might be acceptable in a young person, but it is inappropriate in a middle-aged one.  She remembers herself as “egocentric . . . uncaring about the pain I might be causing others” (133); the problem is that she is exactly the same in her 50s.  She has never grown up.  She abandoned her first husband and caused grief both to him and her mother, yet because she is bored, she is ready to run away again and this time hurt even more people.

Because she wants to feel young again and to experience some excitement, she tiptoes towards an affair and risks throwing away her marriage.  She is envious of her daughter:  “I wanted to be standing at the center of my life in hot lights, moving in ecstasy to music . . . I wanted to be turning and dancing and laughing under the caressing waves of applause. . . . I wanted to be making love slowly and elaborately in the parked van in a dark city alley, listening to the hitched breathing of the others while they sat back and watched” (166).

To make matters worse, she has no idea what she wants.  One minute she admits, “I would say we have lived happily, if not ever after, at least enough of the time since.  There are always compromises, of course, but they are at the heart of what it means to be married” (95).  Ten pages later, she says, “I hate this . . . I hate my life” (105). 

The book has been described as “exquisitely suspenseful” yet I found there is virtually no suspense.  Because of her self-indulgence and immaturity, it is entirely predictable that Jo will make stupid, reckless decisions and that others will suffer.  It is very obvious that she is not a good judge of character; her comments about her housemate Dana indicate that Jo is unable to recognize emotional instability in others (as well as herself), so it is inevitable that her opinions of others are not to be trusted. 

I read this novel while I was gone on a road trip; I wish I had not taken the book with me!  When I learned that it was a selection of Oprah’s Book Club, I should have quoted Shakespeare:  “Get thee gone!”

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Birthday Review: A WORLD ELSEWHERE by Wayne Johnston

Today, May 22, is Wayne Johnston’s 58th birthday.   He is Canadian novelist from Newfoundland who has written nine novels.  I posted my review of his most recent novel, The Son of a Certain Woman, on December 10, 2015:

In honour of his birthday, I’m posting my review of another of his novels, A World Elsewhere:

4 Stars
Landish B. Druken is a struggling Newfoundland writer who adopts Deacon, a child whose father died while sealing with Landish's father. Destitute because he is disowned by his father for not taking up sealing, Landish contacts his one-time friend, the ultra-wealthy Padget (Van) Vanderluyden, for help. Their friendship ended because of a plagiarism scandal in Princeton but their relationship, albeit a toxic one, is resumed when Van "rescues" Landish and Deacon by bringing them to Vanderland, his great American castle in North Carolina. (Yes, the Vanderbilt's Biltmore is the inspiration.)

Landish is totally unsuccessful as a novelist; he made a vow to "'write a book that will put in their places everyone who has ever lived'" (1) but "Landish wrote every night, and every night burned what he wrote because it wasn't good enough" (10). His best stories are those he tells Deacon to explain the world. For example, he explains the duties of a ship's crew: ". . . the men in charge of engines had what were known as 'engine ears,' which meant that they were deaf from the noise the engines made. Also there were pursers who made sure that no one's purse was stolen. There were men called stewards who were in charge of serving stew. And other men called porters who were in charge of serving port" (109). Landish is a drunkard and wastrel, but one cannot but admire his quick wit, and his love for Deacon is certainly a redeeming quality.

Van, on the other hand, is an emotional cripple. He is a totally selfish man who sees people as possessions which he can control with his money. He will stop at nothing to get what or who he wants. In Princeton he devises a scheme to have Landish expelled in the hopes that Landish will then have no choice but to join him as his "'lifelong guest'" (22) in the Vanderland he proposes to build. When the two are eventually reunited, Van tells Landish, "'You may not leave Vanderland for any reason without my permission . . .'" (138). Likewise, he keeps his daughter a prisoner: "'[Godwin] has lived all her life at Vanderland and will not leave it, not even for a minute, until she is twenty-one . . . '" (138). Deceit, bribery and blackmail are techniques he employs with skill.

A major theme is father-son relationships. Van's father rarely spoke to him and treated him with scorn when he did; he even left him only one-tenth of what the other children received. Abram Druken disowns Landish and bequeaths him only a whitecoat hat. It is the relationship between Landish and Druken that seems to be the exception.

The outstanding quality of the book is its prose. Anagrams, puns, rhymes and neologisms abound. Food is a pre-occupation when Landish and Deacon have barely enough to survive; to take his mind off his hunger pangs, Landish makes up food puns: "The Merchant of Venison. Broth fresh from the brothel. A sacrificial lamb was a mutton for punishment. . . . He would write Van and tell him they had dined tonight on Sham Chowder, Lack of Lamb, Crazed Ham and Duck a Mirage. Steam of Mushroom Soup and Perish Jubilee" (52). Landish's description of the stages of life is ingenious: "You go from the Womb of Time into the womb of your mother and from there into the world. The world leads to the Tomb of Time, the place from which no one knows the way back home. . . . [Y]ou passed from the Womb of Time into what he called your birth 'Murk,' which was the interval between your 'commencement screech' and the first moment of your life that you remembered. . . . Landish also told Deacon about Just Mist - the realm of things that at one time were possible but had never happened" (35 - 37).

It is this wonderful prose that makes the book worthy of reading. It is not my favourite of Johnston's books, but I would recommend it for its wonderful playfulness with language.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Some Science Fiction and Fantasy Books

I’m not a fan of science fiction/fantasy, but I know many readers who are so I thought I’d share the news about two awards that have made the news recently. 

The Hugo Awards are a set of awards given annually for the best science fiction or fantasy works and achievements of the previous year.  The finalists have been announced:  When the list was released, The Guardian featured an article about how the biggest prize in science fiction and fantasy writing has been monopolized by nominations by two conservative groups which have campaigned against a perceived bias towards liberal and leftwing science-fiction and fantasy authors:  The winners will be announced on August 20. 

Last week, the winners of the Nebula Awards were announced; these awards recognize the best works of science fiction or fantasy published in the United States during the previous year:   As The Guardian pointed out, all but one of the prizes at the science fiction and fantasy awards were for female authors:

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Review of THE TRANSLATION OF LOVE by Lynne Kutsukake

4 Stars
This novel is set in post-war Japan.  It describes life in the aftermath of Japan’s defeat, focusing on the impact on individual lives.  Aya Shimamura, 13, was released from a Canadian internment camp and repatriated to Japan with her father.  She is enlisted by a classmate, Fumi Tanaka, to write a letter to General MacArthur asking for his help in locating Fumi’s older sister, Sumiko, who was working at a dance hall as a companion to American soldiers.  The letter is received by Matt Matsumoto, a Japanese-American working for the Occupation forces as a translator.  He and a colleague decide to search for Sumiko themselves.

What stands out in the book is the situation of the Japanese both during and after the war.  The Japanese in Japan lost so much:  property, livelihood, family members.  The lesson that they learned is “’that everything you have can be taken away from you in an instant’” (190).  Because her family has been reduced to poverty, Sumiko takes a job to help but that job leaves her at the mercy of an unscrupulous dance hall owner and ruins her reputation.  Mixed-race children of Japanese mothers and American fathers are unaccepted and abandoned. 

Japanese-Canadians, like Aya and her family, lost everything; her father lists all the belongings taken from him and adds, “They took his dignity and his honor and his pride and his sense of self-worth” (148).  When Aya and her father arrive in Japan, they are not welcomed; the opinion is that the immigrants “’shouldn’t have come back.  The immigrants eat all our food’” (6 – 7).  Aya is called “the repat girl” and is bullied and shunned by her schoolmates. 

Japanese-Americans also face discrimination.  Matt’s brother fought and died in Europe to prove his loyalty to the U.S., but Matt is turned away from an American bar in Tokyo by Japanese doormen even though he is clearly a G.I.  One of Matt’s co-workers is a Japanese-American who was in Japan looking after a family member when the war broke out; because she entered her name “in the family registry in order to get a ration card’”(93), she is no longer considered American and has been waiting for years to have her American citizenship reinstated. 

A major theme is how people continue after war has devastated their lives.  One of the letters sent to General MacArthur is written by an 85-year-old man:  “Ever since the beginning of this terrible war, I have been plagued daily by the same question:  How should a man live?” (287).  An answer of sorts is suggested:  “In the end there was only the task of moving forward, one step after another, making your way through the dust and dirt of living” (309 – 310).  Of course some people do not have the strength to continue, hence the reference to suicides, but that advice to live “Just day by day.  Going forward. . . . Just live” (310) applies to many situations where people are faced by catastrophic events.

The perspective offered by this novel is unique.  I have read Obasan by Joy Kogawa which focuses on the predicament of Japanese-Canadians during World War II, and I have also read Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson which highlights American anti-Japanese sentiments following World War II.  The Translation of Love sheds light on the events in Japan following the war.  The book is well-written, interesting, and informative and should be read along with the other two novels.  

Monday, May 16, 2016

Man Booker International Prize Winner

The Man Booker International Prize is given to a book in English translation, with a £50,000 prize for the winning title, to be shared equally between author and translator. Its aim is to encourage more publishing and reading of quality works in translation.

Today the 2016 winner was announced:  The Vegetarian written by Han Kang, a South Korean, and translated by Deborah Smith.

Yeong-hye and her husband are ordinary people. He is an office worker with moderate ambitions and mild manners; she is an uninspired but dutiful wife. The acceptable flatline of their marriage is interrupted when Yeong-hye, seeking a more 'plant-like' existence, decides to become a vegetarian, prompted by grotesque recurring nightmares. In South Korea, where vegetarianism is almost unheard-of and societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye's decision is a shocking act of subversion. Her passive rebellion manifests in ever more bizarre and frightening forms, leading her bland husband to self-justified acts of sexual sadism. His cruelties drive her towards attempted suicide and hospitalization. She unknowingly captivates her sister's husband, a video artist. She becomes the focus of his increasingly erotic and unhinged artworks, while spiralling further and further into her fantasies of abandoning her fleshly prison and becoming - impossibly, ecstatically - a tree.  The Vegetarian is a novel about modern day South Korea, but also a novel about shame, desire and our faltering attempts to understand others, from one imprisoned body to another (

For more information about the award, the novel and the novelist and translator, go to  (I outlined the six finalists in my April 14th blog entry:

Friday, May 13, 2016

Bookish Films at the Cannes Film Festival

The Cannes Film Festival began a couple of days ago.  It showcases international cinema, premiering new films from all over the world; inevitably, some of these films are based on books.  I came across an article which highlights some literature-inspired films being featured this year.  Check out

Most of us will not make it to the French Riviera to see these films, but we can keep a look out for them when they are released in our home country.  I’m especially looking forward to Julieta which is inspired by three Alice Munro stories.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Review of THE SYMPATHIZER by Viet Thanh Nguyen

4 Stars

I am not a reader of spy thrillers or war novels, but this book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and has appeared on the lists of several literary awards.  What I enjoyed the most about the novel is its social satire.

The nameless protagonist-narrator is an Americanized Vietnamese with a divided heart and mind.  His narrative takes the form of a confession written to a Commandant.  It begins in the final days of the Vietnam War when the Americans are being evacuated from Saigon.  The narrator is an aide-de-camp to the chief of the South Vietnamese secret police, but he is a Communist undercover agent whose handler is Man, a former classmate who became a “blood brother”.  He becomes a refuge in Los Angeles but continues as a Viet Cong spy, keeping tabs on other refugees who are making plans to return to Vietnam and mount a counter-revolution.

In the section detailing the narrator’s time in the U.S., social satire comes to the fore.  There are many comments on the shallowness of American culture.  For example, “America’s most unique architectural contribution to the world [is] a parking lot.”  And “America, land of supermarkets and superhighways, of supersonic jets and Superman, of supercarriers and the Super Bowl! . . . Although every country thought itself superior in its own way, was there ever a country that coined so many ‘super’ terms from the federal bank of its narcissism . . . ” 

The book is also a satirical look at the promises of the American Dream.  There is reference to the “Cyclopean eye of the IRS” which means that taxation is “a basic tenet of the American Dream.  Not only must [a man] make a living, he must also pay for it.”  Refugees are “hobbled by their structural function in the American Dream, which was to be so unhappy as to make other Americans grateful for their happiness.”  The refugees may want to assimilate but the Americans are not easily accepting of them because “all yellow people are guilty until proven innocent.”  The Vietnamese refugees remain a faceless, voiceless people. 

The novel provides a new perspective on the Vietnam War in contrast to the one provided by Hollywood.  The narrator serves as a cultural advisor on a film about the war entitled The Hamlet.  He wants to give voice to the Vietnamese characters but “My task was to ensure that the people scuttling in the background of the film would be real Vietnamese people saying real Vietnamese things and dressed in real Vietnamese clothing, right before they died.”  It soon becomes obvious that the author is criticizing the “egomaniacal imagination” of directors like Francis Ford Coppola who would undoubtedly see a film like Apocalypse Now as “more important than the three or four or six million dead who composed the real meaning of the war.” 

Of course, there is also a discussion of war and revolution.  What is emphasized is the futility of the Vietnam War for the Americans.  And even for the winners of the war, there is disillusion:  “a revolution fought for independence and freedom could make those things worth less than nothing.”

This book is not an easy read.  The last section in particular is difficult with its abundant brutality.  The book, however, is a worthwhile read.  The sympathizer is often more a spy on Americans than on the South Vietnamese.  Though he is a Communist sympathizer, he shows that the South Vietnamese are worthy of sympathy because they were largely abandoned and betrayed by the Americans.  The sympathizer summarizes what was gained:  “I said, Nothing, nothing, nothing, a grinning simpleton huddled in the corner.”

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

2016 RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers

Bronwen Wallace was a Canadian poet and short story writer.  In her honour, a group of friends and colleagues established the Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers.  Wallace felt that writers should have more opportunities for recognition early in their careers, so this annual award is given to a writer below the age of 35 who has published in literary magazines, journals, or anthologies, but has not yet been published in book form.  Past winners include Michael Crummey and Alissa York, two of my favourite Canadian authors. 

Alternating each year between poetry and short fiction, this year’s award is given to the author of an exceptional short story.  The three finalists are
Brendan Bowles for “Wyatt Thurst”
Allegra McKenzie for “This Monstrous Heart”
Hannah Rahimi for “With My Scarf Tied Just So”

Each of the finalists' stories can be downloaded for free on iBooks at

The winner of the $5,000 prize will be announced on June 8.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Shirley Jackson Awards

I love Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery,” a story virtually everyone reads in high school.  Back in July of 2015, I wrote about new book featuring 22 unpublished Jackson stories:

Image result for shirley jackson awards
In recognition of the legacy of Shirley Jackson’s writing, The Shirley Jackson Awards are given for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic.
The awards are voted upon by a jury of professional writers, editors, critics, and academics.  The awards are given for the best work published in the preceding calendar year in the following categories:  Novel, Novella, Novelette, Short Story, Single-Author Collection, and Edited Anthology.

For a complete list of nominees, see

The 2015 Shirley Jackson Awards will be presented on Sunday, July 10, 2016.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Some Reading for Mother's Day

Today is Mother’s Day so I thought I’d highlight a short story anthology entitled Mothers and Daughters edited by Alberto Manguel.    The 20 stories explore the mother-daughter connection.  Some authors featured are Daphne du Maurier, Louise Erdrich, Katherine Mansfield, Carson McCullers, and Edith Wharton. 
 In "Mama," Dorothy Allison reflects on her mother's life by remembering the physical details of her mother's body and comparing them to her own: "Nothing marks me so much her daughter as my hands--the way they are aging, the veins coming up through skin already thin. I tell myself they are beautiful as they recreate my mama's flesh in mine."
Sara Jeannette Duncan's "A Mother in India" questions the biological bond between mother and daughter.
In "Lolita," Dorothy Parker turns her eye to a social butterfly mother and her drab, shapeless daughter who ends up winning the chisel-jawed heartthrob.
In Bonnie Burchard's "Women of Influence" a grown daughter becomes the go-between for two sisters--her dying mother and her dying aunt: "I realize I have not been asked to bring my mother's forgiveness here. Or have I? Is my mother counting on me to pass it on or to live with it? I don't want her compromised"  (

Also in honour of the day, I thought I’d share an article from The Guardian.  It features writers’ reflections on photographs of their mothers before they were born.  Some of the writers included are Jeanette Winterson, Julian Barnes, and Penelope Lively:

Friday, May 6, 2016

Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour Shortlist

Today, the shortlist for the 2016 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour was announced.  There are three finalists: 

Poles Apart by Terry Fallis
Eve of Equality, a new feminist blog, becomes an overnight sensation when a wildly popular talk show host stumbles upon it, tweets about it, and promotes it on her show. The anonymous blog is intelligent, thoughtful, and bold, brazenly taking on various injustices in the lives of women. But it’s the post about the controversial entrepreneur behind XY, a new chain of high-end strip clubs opening up across the country that sets off a firestorm. In a matter of hours, the site crashes, its Twitter count jumps from a paltry 19 followers to nearly 250,000, and Eve is suddenly lauded as the new voice of modern feminism. But who, exactly, is the Eve behind Eve of Equality? Meet Everett Kane, aspiring writer and fervent feminist. He writes his erudite blog in his new apartment, at his kitchen table, and his life is about to change forever. (

Republic of Dirt by Susan Juby
Prudence Burns is an overly idealistic Brooklyn girl who has inherited a derelict plot of land named Woefield Farm. Her motley crew of farm hands consists of Earl, an elderly, reclusive bluegrass legend; Seth, an agoraphobic heavy-metal blogger in early recovery from alcoholism; and Sara, an 11-year-old girl with a flock of elite show poultry.  When Prudence is felled by a thyroid condition, things on the farm begin to fall apart, resulting in valiant and sometimes ill-advised attempts to restore domestic bliss. Efforts are complicated by a renegade mule, attempts to turn a hideously ugly child’s playhouse into a high-yield roadside farm stand, and an electrical station’s worth of crossed wires. Will Prudence get well? Will Seth finally get rid of his pesky virginity? Will Earl rescue Sara? And will anyone, ever, admit they might be wrong? (

When the Saints by Sarah Mian
A decade after being cast off to live with strangers, Tabby Saint returns to Solace River, Nova Scotia, to find her childhood home deserted. She quickly latches on to the lonely tavern-keeper, West, who informs her that her family was run out of town. Tabby heads out to nearby Jubilant to find the fragments of her family: her addict sister, Poppy, and her two young kids; her brothers, Bird and Jackie, one crippled by a vicious attack and the other holding a dangerous grudge against the men responsible; a threadbare version of the bulletproof mother she remembers; and an ailing father, a man so vile he is unworthy of forgiveness even on his deathbed. Irreverent and mouthy as they ever were, the Saints are still a lightning rod for trouble. When a new storm arises, Tabby must choose whether to stay or run back the way she came. (

For the complete list of ten books that made the longlist, see

The winner will be announced on June 11.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Television Adaptation of THE HANDMAID'S TALE

Last week, there was an announcement that Hulu, an American online company and streaming service, will be screening a 10-episode drama series based on the award-winning, best-selling novel The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Elisabeth Moss will play Offred, a Handmaid trying to survive in the male-dominated totalitarian regime of Gilead.  Enslaved by a society that values only her fertility, Offred must find a way to survive in this world of oppression and swift, cruel punishments.

Atwood will serve as consulting producer for the show, which was given a straight-to-series order by the online television streaming service.  ‘I am thrilled that MGM and Hulu are developing The Handmaid’s Tale as a series, and extra thrilled that the very talented Elisabeth Moss will be playing the central character.  The Handmaid's Tale is more relevant now than when it was written, and I am sure the series will be watched with great interest.  I have read the first two scripts and they are excellent; I can hardly wait to see the finished episodes,’ said Atwood (

The series will go into production later this year and will premiere on Hulu in 2017.  Unfortunately, Hulu is not available in Canada!

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Prince: Music Legend and Library Supporter

There seems to be a connection between music legends and books.

When David Bowie died in January, I posted some information about his voracious reading habits:

Now it has been revealed that Prince, who died on April 20, was a library supporter.  Apparently, in 2001 Prince donated $12,000 to the Louisville Free Public Library to support the Western Branch, which over the years had faced threats of closure. He asked that the award be kept silent. Louisville Western Branch Library opened in 1905 as the first library in the nation to provide services exclusively for the African-American community (

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Today's New Release: THE CURIOUS CHARMS OF ARTHUR PEPPER by Phaedra Patrick

3 Stars
Arthur Pepper is a 69-year-old widower living a quiet, routine-filled life in York.  A year after the death of his wife Miriam, he decides it’s time to sort her clothes.  He discovers a gold bracelet with eight charms, a bracelet he has never seen.  He decides to track down the story behind each charm; in his travels he is taken far outside his comfort zone and ends up learning about Miriam’s life before she married him, but he also learns a great deal about himself and finds new purpose.

The premise of the story is rather unbelievable.  Arthur and Miriam were married for forty years, yet he knows nothing about her life before their marriage?!  That a husband and wife might not know everything about each other’s lives is credible, but that he knows virtually nothing calls into question the closeness of their relationship.

Another weakness is that everything comes so easily for Arthur in his quest.  While sorting Miriam’s shoes, he remembers a neighbour’s story “about a pair of boots she’d bought from a flea market and found a lottery ticket (nonwinning) inside.”  Obviously, he finds something inside one of Miriam’s boots.  Later, he decides to look around Miriam’s childhood home because “It might spark a memory.”  And of course, “A memory began to creep back.”  Naturally, he meets someone who says,” ‘I do know someone who knows about gold bracelets.  He’s got a shop not far from here.  We could take your bracelet to him, if you like.’”  A quest usually has some challenges, but his are few.

There’s a great deal of telling, rather than showing.  After the story of each charm is uncovered, Arthur learns something; every event becomes a teachable moment.  What he learns is explicitly detailed as if the author fears the reader might not be able to grasp Arthur’s insights.  Arthur even tells an acquaintance, “’I am learning more about myself . . . With each person I encounter, with each story I hear, I feel as if I am changing and growing.’”  At times the summaries go on and on:  “What he had discovered were things about himself.  He hadn’t expected to act so bravely. . . . He offered relationship advice to a stranger in a café, and when he spoke he hadn’t sounded like the silly old man he told himself he was.  He confronted a past love rival, when he could have walked away . . . His openness and acceptance of a young man with a drug problem and his dog had surprised him.  These were qualities that he didn’t know he possessed.  He was stronger and had more depth than he knew and he liked these new discoveries about himself.”  For someone who was clearly not introspective, Arthur becomes very reflective. 

This is obviously a debut novel.  A reader can imagine the plot graph:  this happens and then Arthur learns a lesson.  Then this person will help him with the next charm and he will learn another lesson.  And what the protagonist realizes is not exactly profound:  “All was not as glossy as it first seemed” and “it’s the things you say and do that people remember you for” and “it was possible for memories to shift and change with time.  To be forgotten and resumed, to be enhanced or darkened as the mind and mood commanded.”

This book will appeal to readers who like sentimental books with an uplifting message.  This is certainly a feel-good book with a life-affirming message.  It will be compared to other books like Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, and there are certainly similarities, but The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper lacks the polish of the others.  It has its charms, but it is not exceptional. 

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

Monday, May 2, 2016

CrimeFest Convention in Bristol, England

If you live near Bristol in the United Kingdom, plan to attend CrimeFest, held this year between  May 19 – 22. 

“First organised in June 2008, CrimeFest is a convention for people who like to read an occasional crime novel as well as for die-hard fanatics. It has not only become one of the biggest crime fiction events in Europe, but is also one of the most popular dates in the international crime fiction calendar. The annual convention was featured as one of ‘the best crime writing festivals around the world’ in the Guardian and one of ‘the 50 Best Festivals’ in The Independent. CrimeFest draws top crime novelists, readers, editors, publishers and reviewers from around the world and gives delegates the opportunity to celebrate the genre in a friendly, informal and inclusive atmosphere” (

A recent article in Quill and Quire referred to this event, mentioning the three Canadian authors shortlisted for awards at this annual crime-fiction convention:
American-born Canadian thriller writer Linwood Barclay was nominated for his latest suspense novel, Broken Promise, the first in a trilogy.
Canadian-born, London-based historian and author Judith Flanders was nominated for A Bed of Scorpions, the second titled in her Sam Clair series.
And Toronto native Alan Bradley was named a finalist for the latest installment of his Flavia de Luce mystery series, As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust (

For a complete list of authors shortlisted, see

Sunday, May 1, 2016

2016 Arthur Ellis Awards Shortlists

The Arthur Ellis Awards are a group of Canadian literary awards, presented annually by the Crime Writers of Canada, for the best Canadian crime and mystery writing published in the previous year.
The awards are named for Arthur Ellis, the pseudonym of Canada's official hangman. The award statue itself is a wooden model of a hanging man.

Recently the shortlists were announced. 
Best Novel
Hungry Ghosts by Peggy Blair
The Storm Murders by John Farrow
A Killing in Zion by Andrew Hunt
Open Season by Peter Kirby
The Night Bell by Inger Ash Wolfe

Best First Novel
Hard Drive by J. Mark Collins
What Kills Good Men by David Hood
The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan  (See my review:
Encore by Alexis Koetting
Old Bones by Brian R. Lindsay

The winners will be announced on May 26.