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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Review of OPEN HOUSE by Elizabeth Berg

2 Stars
This is another of those Oprah Book Club selections that lacks substance. 

Samantha Morrow is a middle-aged upper class woman whose husband David leaves her after 20 years of marriage.  A stay-at-home mother (for 11-year-old Travis), she has made little effort to have a life outside her family; she seems to have only one friend.  For financial reasons, she decides she needs to take in lodgers – a 78-year-old woman, a depressed university student, and a gay hair stylist.   These three people, and a neighbour who befriends her, help her create a new life.

Sam was my problem with the book.  She is a very unlikeable character so it is difficult to have any sympathy for her.  She has a good life despite the fact that her marriage has fallen apart; even money does not seem to be a real issue.  Certainly, her marriage breakdown does not have the catastrophic consequences many women experience.  Furthermore, she is so self-absorbed, so self-centred, and so full of self-pity.  All she does is whine.  Her friend tells her, “’I don’t feel sorry for a victim who keeps choosing to be a victim.  That’s what you’re doing.  You’re not even trying.  You’re just sinking deeper into feeling sorry for yourself.’”  This is a perfect description of her and, as a result, she comes across as just pathetic. 

Sam is also such a shallow person.  She tells Travis about the divorce (after stupidly telling David she wanted to do it) but, instead of worrying about the impact of the news on her son, she frets about halitosis because her breath smells “of garlic for three days after she eats it,” about gray hair “popping out all over my head”, about cellulite, and about snoring.  She constantly comments on other people’s appearances. 

The book is full of stereotypes.  It is a black woman who begs on the street (though she has a “lovely face"); Sam’s employer at a laundromat is a Chinese man with “tea-coloured teeth” who speaks in broken English; it is a black man, whose “eyes are bloodshot,” who comes into the laundromat with a blaring boom box (though he is “handsome”); and the third lodger is a flamboyantly gay hair dresser who describes himself as “’a walking cliché’” and when faced with danger says, “’We  need a man in the house!’”

The theme is anything but complex.  Samantha has to learn to appreciate the simple things.  And that message is repeated several times by several people:  Samantha thinks, “I was thinking that gratitude is too much absent in our lives now, and we need it back, even if it only takes the form of acknowledging the blue of a bowl against the red of cranberries. . . . This is the time in my life to do other things. . . . All right:  the red against the blue, the sound of the birds in the morning.  The sugar smell in bakeries.  The smoothness of fabric moving under my hands into the teeth of the sewing machine.  The movement of the ocean, the break of light every morning, every morning.”  And King says, “’I want to be appreciative of all that’s here, in a normal life.  I want to keep finding out about the things I see around me.’”  And Sam’s mother says, “’I think most young people today are so focused on tomorrow they forget all about today.’”

The plot is predictable.  It is obvious, from the first introduction of a character, that he will be Sam’s next romantic interest.  And that man is just too good to be true, a total contrast to the man who Sam says “almost” date-raped her.  The ending is just so optimistic and sentimental, exactly what the reader expects.

I wish I had not gone to this Open House.  

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Review of PRINCIPLES TO LIVE BY by David Adams Richards

3.5 Stars
The protagonist, John Delano, is an RCMP officer nearing retirement in Saint John, New Brunswick.  He receives a letter which suggests that a 13-year-old boy went missing from a foster home twelve years earlier.  Delano feels he must investigate but there seems no record of such a boy since he was never reported missing and even his name is unknown.  His very existence is questionable, though the novel’s opening flashback shows that he did indeed exist and explains what happened.  Delano is thwarted every way he turns, a colleague even suggesting Delano is planting evidence.  Regardless he persists.

Delano is a broken man.  His health is failing, his career has stalled, his marriage has failed, and he is tormented by the unsolved disappearance of his stepson and by the horrors he witnessed during the Rwandan genocide.  Delano arouses sympathy in the reader.  He has suffered a great deal.   He feels responsible for his stepson’s disappearance since he wasn’t at home because of work; the boy’s last words to Delano were, “’Dad, you forgot to say goodbye’” (178).  When his psychiatrist asks if he has ever considered suicide, Delano replies, “’Oh – not so often.  Four, maybe five times a day’” (171).  When asked if he has friends, he says, “’Not that you’d notice’” (201).  His professional reputation has suffered; his actions and comments have been incorrectly interpreted to label him a racist and sexist. 

He also arouses admiration.  Delano is a brilliant man with uncompromising ethics.  He has a personal code of honour.  Believing that evil exists in the world (69), Delano feels that he must root out evil wherever he suspects it lies.  If his pursuit of evil means that he must suffer, so be it:  “If Saint Catherine’s heart could be pierced by the cross of Christ, why shouldn’t his be” (178)?  Delano is very much David in a David versus Goliath struggle between good and evil.  He and his goodness are at odds with a society in which political correctness and appearances take precedence, in a world in which “common decency” (117) is exceptional.   His decisions and actions often complicate the struggle; his unwillingness to deviate from his principles means his enemies can portray him as an inflexible troublemaker. 

There is one major problem with how Delano works on the case.  At the beginning, he mentions that though he is no longer an active officer, he does get called in to work on cases:  “He was better than good at them.  Why this was he wouldn’t have been able to tell anyone.  He had in fact been around the globe doing work.  He had been an officer for many years” (11).  His reputation proves to be deserved, but his powers of observation seem almost superhuman.  Everywhere he searches he finds objects that are clues to a decades-old disappearance.  Every object he finds turns out to be relevant to the case.  From the flimsiest of clues, he builds a narrative that always proves to be correct.  Some of his leaps of logic are astounding.  Often he seems to rely only on supposition.  It is understandable, therefore, why he is often regarded with suspicion; evidence does appear by chance and he always makes astute analyses and uncanny predictions.  At the end, one colleague is astounded and asks, “’I know he is good, but is he that good?’” while another replies, “’Except . . . he is that good.  He always has been that good’” (255).

In terms of characterization, another issue is the portrayal of the villains.  Melissa Sapp, for example, seems to be the embodiment of evil.  A career politician, she seeks revenge against Delano because he openly opposed her decisions many years earlier.  She portrays herself as an altruist but she is a hypocrite because she does only things that will aid her ambition and bring her more power.  She is beautiful and intelligent and uses those traits to be unscrupulously manipulative.  The author takes pains to state that Sapp “did have one entirely admirable trait. . . Although not in her marriage, she did have loyalty in most other things that concerned [her husband]” (266).  The author, however, “doth protest too much, methinks.”  Velma Cheval is another villain who, likewise, seems to have no redeeming qualities. 

The tone of the novel is sometimes troubling; the author’s anger almost overpowers the narrative.  He lashes out at academics, social workers, feminists, political bureaucrats, and even writers.  For example, Canada’s special envoy to the UN is described:  “This special envoy had the pallid, studied look of a world-weary intellectual and a practised, face-saving inscrutability when he spoke of delicate matters – matters when to actually be concise and forthright was critical.  That is, like so many diplomats, the more vital the need the more tenuous the response” (75 – 76).  Then there are comments like, “[John] had seen as many self-serving and wounded feminists as chauvinists.  A few of them had murdered.  But more of them had done something even worse, in John Delano’s mind unforgivable: Like some of the writers he had got to know from Newfoundland to Saskatchewan, they had pandered” (60).  Professors do not fare well:  “the security professors had, the safety they enjoyed, the coddling they experienced, . . . and the monies they received seemed disproportional to anything they had achieved.  If there was an ideal idle class, a class that pretended to have great experience, even great suffering, without experiencing the pain, professors certainly came close” (160).

Another weakness in the book is the interconnectedness of characters.   Saint John is not a huge metropolis, but it is not a small town either.  It is unlikely that everyone will have a direct connection to Delano.  When the relationship between Delano and a petty criminal is revealed at the end of the novel, it explains a lot, but then everyone seems related to everyone else.  “By some trick of fate” (77), a political mandarin is the father of a man Delano once arrested.  That son influenced the decisions of the parents of the missing boy and is a friend of Melissa Sapp.  So many tricks of fate seem excessive. Certainly, Melissa Sapp’s involvement in so many aspects of Delano’s life over so many years stretches credulity.

My review of this book seems negative, and I feel there are definite problems.  Nonetheless, I would recommend it.  David Adams Richards has been a favourite novelist of mine for many years; in my blog, I’ve mentioned that his  Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul is a book that should be read by all Canadians.  Though this book is not his strongest, I still found it enjoyable.  A damaged detective solving a case suggests a police procedural, but this is anything but a conventional mystery.  It seems that David Adams Richards always surprises and offers something out of the ordinary.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Saying Goodbye (Literary Quotations about Brexit?)

The United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union, but there are many questions and concerns about what happens next.  Signature (@SignatureReads) featured a list of quotes on parting entitled “All We Need of Hell:  9 Quotes on Parting in the Wake of Brexit” (  That inspired me to brainstorm my favourite quotes on saying farewell; here are 15 statements by authors that might apply as withdrawal negotiations are begun:

“Parting is such sweet sorrow.” – William Shakespeare

“To say goodbye is to die a little.” ― Raymond Chandler

“Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.” ― Kahlil Gibran

“Only in the agony of parting do we look into the depths of love.” ― George Eliot

“They parted at last with mutual civility, and possibly a mutual desire of never meeting again.” ― Jane Austen

“I have more care to stay than will to go.” ― William Shakespeare

“It was one of those ridiculous arrangements that couples make when they are separating, but before they are divorced – when they still imagine that children and property can be shared with more magnanimity than recrimination.” – John Irving

“He loved her; in some ways he was devoted to her. But he couldn’t reach her, and it was the same on her side. It was as if they’d drunk some fatal potion that would keep them forever apart, even though they lived in the same house, ate at the same table, slept in the same bed.” – Margaret Atwood

 “This is all. It’s been very rare to have known you, very strange and wonderful. But this wouldn’t do — and wouldn’t last.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

“They who go feel not the pain of parting; it is they who stay behind that suffer.” - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“The reason it hurts so much to separate is because our souls are connected.” - Nicholas Sparks

“Taking leave of our friends resembles taking leave of the world, of which it has been said, that it is not death, but dying, which is terrible.”  - Henry Fielding

“Thou hast but taken up thy lamp and gone to bed; I stay a little longer, as one stays to cover up the embers that still burn.” - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“Such parting breaks the heart they fondly hope to heal.” - Lord Byron

“Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.” - J. R. R. Tolkien

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Book Titles

Last week, a former student of mine (@NathAt) tweeted about the number of novels published in 2016 with titles including the word wife:               The Photographer's Wife by Suzanne Joinson
                                                                                The Ringmaster's Wife by Kristy Cambron
                                                                                The California Wife by Kristen Harnisch
                                                                                The Restaurant Critic's Wife by Elizabeth LaBan
                                                                                My Husband's Wife by Jane Corry
                                                                                The Missing Wife by Sheila O'Flanagan
                                                                                The Railwayman's Wife by Ashley Hay
                                                                                The Imperial Wife by Irina Reyn

That got me to brainstorming other titles I’ve read with wife as a key word:
                                                                                The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman
                                                                                The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
                                                                                The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff
                                                                                The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan
                                                                                The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
                                                                                The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht
                                                                                The Silent Wife by A. S.  A. Harrison
                                                                                The Nazi Officer's Wife by Edith H. Beer

 And this thinking about titles reminded me of a blog post I read a while back:  “Ten Things About Book Titles That Keep Me Up at Night” (

Coincidentally, The New Yorker also posted a humour piece about book titles last week, “Famous Novels Retitled like Episodes of ‘Friends’” (

Friday, June 24, 2016

Review of NIGHTFALL by Richard B. Wright

3.5 Stars
This short novel revisits the characters of Wright’s earlier novel, October.  Readers might want to read this latter book first though they might then find Nightfall repetitive because passages from October are directly inserted.  On the other hand, October does, as the author’s note in Nightfall states, “clarify the relationship between James and Odette at quite different stages in their lives.”

James Hillyer is a 76-year-old widower and retired professor.  Despondent after the death of his daughter, he starts thinking about happier times in the past.  He decides to try and find his first love, Odette Huard, whom he last saw in Gaspé, Quebec, in 1944.  The two of them do reconnect and start a new relationship after 62 years.

Chapters are narrated from various viewpoints (James, Odette, Odette’s developmentally challenged sister, Odette’s former boyfriend) but always in third person.  This narrative structure allows the reader to see events, like the first meeting between James and Odette, from the perspective of both characters.

This approach, however, has a drawback.  There is considerable repetition.  For example, we learn, in one of Odette’s chapters, that she worked at the Green Mermaid when she was young; then in a conversation with James, she gives him that same information.  Frequently, things are mentioned via a character’s thoughts and then repeated via dialogue.

One of the aspects I most enjoyed is comparing the elderly characters with their younger versions.  They have had numerous life experiences, but both James and Odette are much like their young selves.  When James first hears Odette’s voice on the phone, he comments, “Hints of the old Odette.  Temperaments never change.  We are what we were, only in old bodies” (23).  Odette remains blunt and worldly; James is sedate and continues to have “a rather melancholic side” (160). 

What is also emphasized is that though the two are old and their expectations have been tempered by time and life, they have the same emotions as the young.  They want companionship and love and even sex, that “old itch” (103).  Odette comments that, “it was good to have the comfort of someone to love and to share whatever time was left to them” (165).  Both are aware that they are in their twilight years, but they hope they “would have some time together.  And it must be time well spent.”  And isn’t that a lesson for everyone?

The book is a short, easy read, a meditation on love and aging.  It suggests that people, regardless of their age, are capable of being happy.  James comments that   “’happiness is largely a matter of temperament, a disposition or attitude, a genetic inheritance.  It helps, of course, if the circumstances in your life are agreeable; if you’re not worried about, say, money or health. . . . I do believe that our culture is obsessed with happiness and people try too hard to find it.  I sometimes think happiness finds you, and you don’t need to look for it all the time. . . . It could come from something as simple as listening to, say, a cardinal singing in a tree on a spring morning’” (159 – 160).  And isn’t that, too, a lesson for everyone?

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Canadian Debut Novels

Yesterday, I posted about the Kobo Emerging Writers Prizes given to Canadian authors.  That got me to thinking about debut novels and I came across this list of 25 Canadian debut novels compiled by CBC Books:

I’ve read 14 of the titles on that list, and some of them are among the best novels I’ve ever read.  I would highly recommend                         What the Body Remembers by Shauna Singh Baldwin
                                                                Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden
                                                                River Thieves by Michael Crummey         
                                                                A Student of Weather by Elizabeth Hay
                                                                Obasan by Joy Kogawa
                                                                Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald
                                                                No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod
                                                                Annabel by Kathleen Winter
To the CBC list of great Canadian debut novels, I would add the following:
                                                                Tamarind Mem by Anita Rau Badami
                                                                The Good House by Bonnie Burnard
                                                                Rush Home Road by Lori Lansens
                                                                Crow Lake by Mary Lawson
                                                                The Birth House by Ami McKay
                                                                Kit’s Law by Donna Morrissey
                                                                Cool Water by Dianne Warren

So those are my 15 suggestions for Canadian debut novels.  

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Kobo Emerging Writers Prize Winners

The Kobo Emerging Writer Prize winners were announced yesterday.  The winner in the literary fiction category is Irina Kovalyova for her short story collection, Specimen.

The stories in Specimen are an exploration of science and the human heart; the place where physical reality collides with our spiritual and emotional lives.  In “The Blood Keeper,” a young academic travels to North Korea to work on her dissertation and embarks on a dangerous affair. In “Mamochka,” an archivist at the Institute for Physics in Minsk, must come to terms with her daughter’s marriage to a Chinese man in Vancouver. In “Peptide P,” scientists study a disease that seems to affect children after they eat hotdogs. In “Side Effects,” a woman’s personality is altered, and not necessarily for the better, by botox injections. In “The Big One,” a woman and her daughter find themselves trapped in the rubble of an underground parking garage after an earthquake. Stylistically varied and with settings that range from North Korea and Minsk to Vancouver and Gdansk, Kovalyova is a new voice in Canadian fiction (

Kobo awards an annual prize to emerging Canadian writers in the categories of literary fiction, non-fiction, and genre fiction (with a different genre recognized each year).  In 2016 romance is the chosen genre.  The prize is open to both traditionally published and self-published authors from Canada who released their debut title the year prior. Of course, the title must be available on

For information about the prize and other winners, go to

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Some Satire: Donald Trump on Books

I am not a political person, but I do enjoy satire.  I found this online earlier this morning.  (I await a Hillary Clinton version.)


Make the Western Canon Great Again!

By  posted at 6:00 am on June 21, 2016 

Let me ask you a question, my friends. When was the last time an American won the Nobel Prize? Do you know the answer? It was 1993, and it was an African-American woman! Nothing against African-American women, okay? African-American women, some of them, they’re gorgeous. Perfect 10s. But still, you gotta wonder: 23 years ago, and it was a black lady. Before that, you have to go back to 1976 – and it was a Jewish guy! Now, I love the Jewish people, and we all know the African Americans love me, but seriously, it tells you something when you have to go back to 1962 to find a real American Nobel Prize winner in Literature.
Our literature is slipping, folks. We’re losing our edge. It’s sad. It’s just so damn sad. You know why we’re slipping? Because our colleges are run by politically correct guilty white liberals who hate America. Oh my God, America’s college professors are so dumb. I could have been a professor, okay? Believe me, I’m a terrific teacher. People love it when I explain stuff to them. It’s a gift I have. But why would want to be a professor? Sure, I could sleep with some cute coeds. But think about it: Do you see many college professors married to supermodels? Do you see college professors with personal brands worth $5 billion. No, you don’t. And you know why? Because they’re so dumb.
You know how you can tell they’re dumb? From the books they teach. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoThe Interpreter of MaladiesThe House on Mango Street. Anybody here read The House on Mango Street? I haven’t, either. I’m a businessman worth $10 billion. I don’t read books unless I wrote them, and even then I’m selective. But they’re teaching The House on Mango Street like crazy in English Departments across America – or at least they were in the 1990s, which just goes to show you how current my information is. The author of that book is Sandra Cisneros, who is, I believe, a Mexican. She was born in the United States, okay, but her parents are Mexican. So she’s Mexican. It doesn’t matter where you’re born, not if you’re black or brown. President Obama was born in Hawaii and his mother was a white woman, and yet the man’s Kenyan. It’s so obvious, if you think about it.
Anyway, there she is, this Sandra Cisneros, on college reading lists along with Edwidge Danticatand Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Díaz  and all these other foreigners, and THEY’RE TAKING JOBS FROM AMERICAN AUTHORS. Good, hard-working American authors like Jonathan Franzen and John Irving and Richard FordTime magazine, which is, to be honest with you, this close to losing its press credentials with me, but anyway, Time called Jonathan Franzen “The Great American Novelist.” “The Great American Novelist,” my friends, and he can’t get onto a university syllabus to save his life. He’s too “commercial,” they say. He doesn’t play nice withOprah. And, oh yeah, they never say it because they’re too politically correct, but he’s too white. That’s the real problem with Jonathan Franzen. He’s too white, too male, and too straight. Sorry, Jonathan. Three strikes and you’re out.
We’re going to take back the Western canon, folks. We are going to build a big beautiful wall around books written by white people and we’re going to make the immigrants and the African-American writers pay for it. Foreign writers are eating our lunch right now. We used to dominate the world of letters. The Russians, the Chinese, even the French – they all read our books. We used to be feared and loved around the world. And now look at us. Look who’s winning Nobel prizes these days. Svetlana AlexievichPatrick ModianoMo Yan? I mean, what the hell kind of name is Mo Yan? Is that a guy? A girl? Which bathroom does Mo Yan use in North Carolina? Hah! Ha! Ha! Ha! Damn, I’m funny. I’ve gotta tweet that. But this is serious stuff, folks. These foreign writers are winning the Nobel Prize year after year, and we’re letting it happen. They’re shlonging us and we’re so stupid and lazy and politically correct that we like getting shlonged!
Well, no more.
When I’m President, I’ll ban all books by immigrant writers until we can figure out what the hell is going on with the Western Canon. I’ll ban translations by foreign authors, too. We’ll ban so many books it’ll make your head spin, folks. We’ll empty out the university book stores! We’ll clear whole shelves from the library! We’ll fire all the politically correct professors who hate America! We’ll build piles of books as high as one of my big, beautiful, classy hotels, and we’ll burn them all to ashes!
And when we’re done, my fellow Americans, we will make the Western Canon great again.
(Hat tip to frequent Millions commenter Moe Murph, who supplied the headline for this piece.)

Happy birthday, Jane Urquhart! (Review of THE NIGHT STAGES)

Today, June 21, is the 67th birthday of one of my favourite Canadian authors:  Jane Urquhart.   A new book of hers will be released on October 11:  A Number of Things: Stories About Canada Told Through 50 Objects.

“From one of our nation’s most beloved and iconic authors comes a lyrical 150th birthday gift to Canada. Jane Urquhart chooses 50 Canadian objects and weaves a rich and surprising narrative that speaks to our collective experience as a nation.  Each object is beautifully illustrated by the noted artist Scott McKowen, with Jane Urquhart conjuring and distilling meaning and magic from these unexpected facets of our history.  The fifty artifacts range from a Nobel Peace Prize medal, a literary cherry tree, a royal cowcatcher, a Beothuk legging, a famous skull and an iconic artist’s shoe, as well as an Innu tea doll, a Sikh RCMP turban, a Cree basket, a Massey-Harris tractor and a hanging rope, among an array of unexpected and intriguing objects.  Bringing the curiosity of the novelist and the eloquence of the poet to her task, Jane Urquhart composes a symphonic memory bank with objects that resonate with symbolic significance. In this compelling portrait of a completely original country called Canada, a master novelist has given all of us a national birthday bouquet like no other” (

I’ve already featured my review of one of her books, Sanctuary Line

In honour of the author's birthday, here’s my review of her latest novel which was released last year, The Night Stages:
3 Stars
On a flight from Ireland to New York, Tam is stranded for three days at the Gander Airport because of fog, “’fog that blinds and deafens and causes that stillness . . . followed by the kind of clarity that causes you to wince’” (229). The fog grounds her, but it is a mural in the terminal which inspires her to reflect – on her past life as an auxiliary pilot in WWII; her relationship with Niall, an emotionally remote meteorologist whom she has just left; and Niall’s search for Kieran, his missing brother. Interspersed with her reflections are vignettes of the life of Kenneth Lochhead, the artist who painted the mural, and that of Kieran after he left home.

The mural is entitled Flight and Its Allegories and a major theme in the book is that of flight: Tam’s “ridiculous joy” (118) when flying a plane and her fleeing from Niall; Kieran’s flight from his family home after a tragedy and his happiness when exploring on his bicycle, “always happiest on higher ground” so he is described as a climber “’Always heading for the sky’” (156); Niall’s withdrawals from Tam, retreats so frequent that they form a “familiar pattern” (197).

It is flight that becomes the sustaining metaphor throughout. When her job as an auxiliary pilot comes to an end after the war, Tam talks of having “lost her compass” (130) and finding herself “so essentially adrift” (254). In her relationship with Niall she realizes she has become “in every possible way, a passenger” (10) and feels she has “lost her bearings. Her instruments were lying to her. She would not be able to make her way, even with familiar territory under her, toward any kind of landing strip” (331).

The characterization of Tam is unsatisfactory. In her youth she was adventurous as evidenced by her transporting planes throughout the war. When Niall entered her life, she exchanged her “then-vivid life” for one that is “very likely uninteresting”: “The young pilot she had been then, the young woman behind the controls, would have been disdainful of what she has become: a sombre person” (10). In her thirties she acquiesces to a life with a “Lack of certainty, ambivalence, impossibility, and no hope whatsoever of resolution” (385)? Why? The mural with its exploration of “speed and stasis” (221) is perhaps a symbol of Tam’s life but, unfortunately, she also seems as flat and inert and unknowable as the figures on the mural.

I am unclear as to why Kenneth Lochhead is included as a major character. The flashbacks into his life before his painting of the mural suggest how his experiences affected his rendering, but he has no connection to Tam, Niall or Kieran. (I almost felt Lochhead was inserted because he was a friend of Urquhart’s husband.) For this reason, I take exception to Claire Messud’s assertion that Urquhart has a gift “for the melding of ideas, events and individuals into a significant whole.” I was not left with a sense of a whole.

The book, until the An Post Rás, is very slow-paced. The first 350 pages have the reader feeling as if he/she is in the night stage of the bicycle race but there is no drinking nor does it serve as “an antidote of sorts to the day’s suffering” (355). I guess Tam’s interrupted journey in Gander is a night stage of sorts with the race resuming once she makes her decision about where she will continue from Gander. Unfortunately, if the night stage is too prolonged, interest is lost in the rest of the race though, indeed, “’It’s not finished yet’” (389).

Though I have read and enjoyed most of Urquhart’s other novels, I was not as enamoured with this one. Though the language is lyrical, the novel does not feel like a cohesive unit, and parts are tedious like a long delay in a journey. I do, however, want to go and see Lochhead’s mural!

Happy Birthday, Ian McEwan! (Review of SWEET TOOTH)

Today, June 21, is Ian McEwan’s 68th birthday.  I’ve loved all of his novels which I’ve read:  Enduring Love, Amsterdam, Atonement, Saturday, On Chesil Beach, Solar, Sweet Tooth, and The Children Act.

The great news is that a new book by McEwan will be released September 13:  Nutshell.  “Nutshell is an altogether original story of deceit and murder, told by a narrator with a perspective and voice unlike any in recent literature. Love and betrayal, life and death come together in the most unexpected, moving ways in this sensational new novel from Ian McEwan, which will make readers first gasp with astonishment then laugh with delight. Dazzling, funny and audacious, it is the finest recent work from a true master, beautifully told, brilliantly executed” (

I’ve already posted My review of his latest novel, The Children Act (, so in honour of McEwan’s special day, I thought I’d post my review of his penultimate novel, Sweet Tooth.

4 Stars  
Serena Frome, after graduating from Cambridge, gets a position with the British Intelligence Service after being groomed for MI5 by an older man with whom she has an affair. Eventually she is given the job of covertly recruiting a writer who has shown anti-communism tendencies, in the hopes that his writing will balance the bias of conventional media. Of course Serena falls in love with her recruit, Tom Haley. As their relationship develops and becomes “mired in deceit” (319), Serena faces a dilemma: should she tell Tom the source of the stipend he receives that allows him to devote all his time to writing and thereby risk losing him because of her betrayal?

The novel is set in 1972, and there is much reference to domestic politics of the time: miners’ strikes, energy crises, and IRA bombings. At times I found the political ramblings rather tedious. The other section of the book that is tedious is the retelling of Haley’s short stories - which Serena reads prior to deciding if his political views make him an appropriate candidate to be recruited as a soldier in the cultural war against communism. Reading the actual stories would have been much more interesting that being given not very succinct synopses.

Serena is not a likeable character. She has led a sheltered life, growing up “inside a walled garden, with all the pleasures and limitations that implies” (1). She is shallow and self-absorbed. For example, when she fears Tom might throw her out of his apartment, she thinks, “I would need to remember my hairdryer” (277). On her way to first meet Tom, she observes, “And how could anyone resist me in my confection of red, white and black . . . “(136). As she admits at the very beginning, she is not especially good at her job: “Within eighteen months of joining, I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover . . .” (1). She has her positive traits such as “cleverness, beauty and tenderness . . . love of sex and fun . . . wry humour and sweet protective instincts” but for me these are outweighed by her “impulses of snobbery, ignorance and vanity, . . . minimal social conscience . . .[and]self-pity” (318).

The novel is a story of deceptions and half-truths. Serena certainly deceives Tom, but there are several other characters who also hide the truth. Furthermore, McEwan plays a trick on the reader, as becomes evident with the twist in the final chapter. At one point, when reading Tom’s stories, Serena comments, “Vulgar curiosity made me wonder if every sentence confirmed or denied or masked a secret intention” (109). Readers familiar with other of McEwan’s novels (Atonement) will wonder as well as they read this novel. Upon finishing, my immediate reaction was to begin the book anew to examine it from the new perspective given by the ending.

Of course, there is foreshadowing, so the reader should be prepared. Tom and Serena have a discussion about literature: “I said I didn’t like tricks, I liked life as I knew it recreated on the page. He said it wasn’t possible to recreate life on the page without tricks” (184). Since Tom shares several biographical details with McEwan, it is a logical assumption that there will be a trick, that he will be the “double agent” Serena despises: “I wasn’t impressed by those writers . . . who infiltrated their own pages as part of the cast . . . So, no tricksy haggling over the limits of their art, no showing disloyalty to the reader by appearing to cross and recross in disguise the borders of the imaginary. No room in the books I liked for the double agent” (66).

I enjoyed the discussions about the different types of literature. Serena prefers the realist approach; she believes writers “should make use of the real world, the one we all shared, to give plausibility to whatever they made up” (66). She goes so far as to admit, “I suppose I would not have been satisfied until I had in my hands a novel about a girl in a Camden bedsit who occupied a lowly position in MI5 and was without a man” (65). What a telling comment! Tom, on the other hand, is a modernist who admires the experimentalists (184-185). There is also reference to the “lower grade of fiction, like a mass-market romance” (65). The woman who writes “’a soppy romantic novel’” (264), what is commonly known as “’Commercial stuff’” (260), is paid “’a bloody fortune’” and the film rights are bought for her “’pulp fiction’” (295). Meanwhile, Tom, the serious writer, wins a prize but is still dependent on “an independent source of income” (319).

I shall return to this book again. I think McEwan’s technique is worth examining more closely, although at times I got the impression that the writing of the book was very much a metacognitive exercise, and I could almost sense a smugness in his cleverness. In my opinion, it does not rank as highly as Atonement, but it would be unfair to expect every novel to be such a dazzling achievement.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Review of EVERYONE BRAVE IS FORGIVEN by Chris Cleave

3.5 Stars
Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by [Cleave, Chris]This historical novel, set in London and Malta during World War II, examines how political events beyond personal control influence the private lives of people.  Mary North is the cosseted daughter of an affluent family who volunteers for the war effort.  She is assigned a teaching job through which she meets Tom Shaw who works for the Education Authority and with whom she begins a love affair.  Tom’s roommate, Alistair Heath, an art conservator, enlists for active duty and is deployed to France and later to Malta.  Though Mary tries to set up her best friend Hilda with Alistair, Mary and Alistair have an instant connection when they meet, despite Mary’s insisting that she is in love with Tom.  The book follows these four young people and shows how the realities of war affect their lives.

Each of the characters changes.  No one escapes untransformed after experiencing the horrors and losses of war.   Some suffer physically; others, emotionally; some, both.  Certainly, all lose their naivety and innocence.  Mary certainly undergoes a change.  At the beginning, the war is just an opportunity for adventure; she signs up 15 minutes after war is declared, leaving “finishing school unfinished . . . desperate not to miss a minute of the war.”  She has her own view of war:  “What was war, after all, but morale in helmets and jeeps?  And what was morale if not one hundred million little conversations . . . The true heart of war was small talk, in which Mary was wonderfully expert.”  She agrees to go with Hilda to see the effects of the first bombing of the city: “’I’ll be damned if we’ll be the only ones who haven’t.  It’s all anyone will be talking about.’”   Later, as the Blitz continues, she reflects:  “If we truly wanted to help, we could have hosted this whole street in your place and mine, instead of digging through their rubble. . . . We’ve never done anything, have we?  We’ve no talent but conversation.’”  And, later, she summarizes how she is different:  “London’s circle had seemed quite equal to the earth’s equator.  Now she saw the smallness of it.  How vain she had been in her nest, feathering it with mirrors.”

The love story is unconvincing.  Mary’s love for Tom seems superficial perhaps because she tries “extremely hard to show it.”  It is almost as if she wills herself to fall in love with him because of her rebellious nature; she enjoys discomfiting her family by choosing a man from a lower social class.  And her love for Alistair begins after one meeting and survives all obstacles?  Perhaps we are to think that the shallow Mary doesn’t understand real love until she meets Alistair, but the “love at first sight” theme doesn’t work for cynical old me.

Another difficulty I had with the book is that all the characters engage in relentless witty banter.  Certainly, some people use humour as a way to help them deal with traumatic events, but in the book everyone uses clever repartee:  Tom, Alistair, Mary, Hilda, Mary’s mother, Alistair’s comrades-in-arms like Duggan and Simonson, even children like 10-year-old Zachary.  Surely not everyone is capable of snappy dialogue and clever witticisms. 

There are aspects of the book that I enjoyed.  I knew little about the siege of Malta so that historical element was enlightening as was the blatant racism in WWII-era England.  At one point, Hilda tells Mary to forget about a young black child:  “’You’re not his family, or even his species.’”  Mary, who embraces racial equality, reflects, “It was simply a peculiarity of the British that they could be stoical about two hundred and fifty nights of bombing, while the sight of her with a Negro child offended their sensibilities unbearably.”  I enjoyed some of the biting commentary:  “’I see the wealthy untouched by this war and the poor bombed out by it, and yet rich and poor alike make not a murmur.  I see Negro children cowering in basements while white children sojourn in the country . . . We are a nation of glorious cowards, ready to battle any evil but our own.’”

Despite the fact that the novel deals with serious issues, it is not totally pessimistic; in fact, it is a narrative of redemption.  War strips people down to their essentials, showing their best and worst.  For their worst, the novel suggests people can be forgiven:  “Everyone would be excused, for everything they’d done.”  The titles of the three parts of the book hint at the theme:  Preservation, Attrition, and Restoration.  A life may not be able to be preserved but it can be rebuilt “if everyone forgiven was brave.”

The book is slow-moving and so not always a compelling read, but it is nonetheless worthwhile.  

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Some Reading for Father's Day

Today is Father’s Day so I thought I’d highlight a short story anthology found on Schatje's Shelves.  Fathers and Sons, edited by Alberto Manguel has 20 stories and features such writers as William Faulkner, Steven Crane, Franz Kafka, Ben Okri, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Richard Ford, and Rohinton Mistry.  The typical male themes of war, sports, and the outdoors appear along with more unusual and introspective pieces (

In honour of the day, I also thought I’d share an article I recently read entitled “21 Women On The Best Advice They Got From Their Dads”:

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Celebrating Book Clubs

Today, June 18, is National Group Reading Day in Great Britain.  The day is sponsored by The Reading Agency, “a charity whose mission is to inspire more people to read more, encourage them to share their enjoyment of reading and celebrate the difference that reading makes to all our lives” (

The first book club to which I belonged has minutes of meetings dating back to 1938, making THE Timmins Book Club one of the oldest in North America.  We were featured on

In honour of the day, I also thought I’d feature popular reading group books.  A British perspective is offered by The Reading Agency which conducted a survey and released its list of the most popular reading group books: 
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
I was amazed to realize that I’ve read 9 of the books on that list; The Miniaturist is the only novel I have not read.

Recently, BookRiot also recently issued a list of the top 12 book club books:
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
Room by Emma Donoghue
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
I’ve read 7 of these; The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Me Before You, The Nightingale, Americanah, and Big Little Lies are the 5 I haven’t yet read.

And for a lighter look at book clubs, see

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Margaret Atwood: PEN Pinter Prize Winner

The PEN Pinter Prize is an annual literary award launched in 2009 by English PEN in honour of the late Nobel Literature Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter, who had been a Vice President of English PEN and an active member of the International PEN Writers in Prison Committee.   The award is given to a writer of outstanding literary merit who, in the words of Pinter’s Nobel speech, casts an “unflinching, unswerving” gaze upon the world and shows “a fierce, intellectual determination … to define the real truth of our lives and our societies.”

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Lambda Literary Awards Winners

Image result for lambda literary awards
Lambda Literary Awards (also known as the "Lammys") are awarded yearly by the US-based Lambda Literary Foundation to published works which celebrate or explore LGBT themes.  To qualify, a book must have been published in the United States in the year current to the award.

“The Lambda Literary Awards were founded in 1989 to elevate the profile of LGBT literature,” said Lambda Literary Board President, KG MacGregor. “In so doing, we also elevate the lives of those who find themselves authentically portrayed in our stories.”

Canadian author Hasan Namir’s novel God in Pink took the prize in the Gay Fiction category.  This novel  tells the story of Ramy, a closeted university student in war-torn Iraq in 2003, who struggles to balance his sexuality, religion and culture as a queer Muslim against a violent backdrop (