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Monday, October 31, 2016

Monsters in Literature

Today is Hallowe’en so that got me thinking about literary monsters; obvious ones like Frankenstein’s monster and Count Dracula come to mind.  And of course there’s Pennywise from Stephen King’s It.

I found a couple of interesting websites on the topic of monsters in literature. 
Listverse has ranked the top ten “most horrifying of all monsters from literature through the ages”:

A. V. Club ranks 24 literary monsters based on the work of a costume company.  “MorphCostumes decided to rank the scariest monsters in literature in a brand new infographic.  To come up with the final ‘scream score,’ the company looked at a combination of appearance, power, and evil intent”:

But the most interesting article I found is entitled “31 Fairly Obscure Literary Monsters”:

Happy Hallowe’en!!

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Shirley Jackson: More than Queen of Gothic Horror

I thought this story about Shirley Jackson was appropriate for the day before Hallowe’en since she has a reputation as the Queen of Gothic Horror.  But as this article from The Guardian argues, she is much more, having influenced American fiction in many ways:

A new biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, was released earlier this month, and earlier this week so was a graphic novel version of her most famous short story illustrated by her grandson, Miles Hyman: Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery": The Authorized Graphic Adaptation.   Next year there will be a film of her book We Have Always Lived in the Castle.If  it’s been a while since you read “The Lottery,” you can hear it read on a podcast by The New Yorker, the magazine which first published the story in 1948.  The story has been described as “probably the most controversial story [the magazine] has ever published.” Listen to it at

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Polish Women Writers

As you can tell by my surname, my ancestors came from Poland.  Actually, they came from Kashubia in the northwest part of Poland.  As a child, I spoke Kashubian, a language that was usually identified as a dialect of Polish but has since been officially recognized as an ethnic-minority language, the only remnant of the Pomeranian language.

Unfortunately, I can no longer speak the language, though I can understand a bit. Though I have an interest in the country of my forefathers and mothers and its literature, my lack of understanding of the language means Schatje’s Shelves contain only three books from Poland.  (See photo.)

I was really pleased to come across an article entitled “10 Books by Polish Women Writers We’d Like to See Translated”:

"Next year, when the London Book Fair showcases Polish writing, let’s not forget that Polish women writers form its beating heart."

Friday, October 28, 2016

J. K. Rowling Crime Novels - Television Adaptations

Lovers of the Robert Galbraith (a.k.a. J. K. Rowling) mysteries are in for a treat.  BBC will be adapting the three novels which will also be aired on HBO. 

Image result for cormoran strike“The project, Cormoran Strike, will air as three separate event series, each based on a Galbraith book: The Cuckoo’s Calling, The Silkworm, and Career of Evil.  Cormoran Strike will star Tom Burke as a war veteran turned P.I. who can crack cases that have eluded the police proper” (  

The Cuckoo's Calling will thave hree one-hour episodes. The Silkworm and Career of Evil will each be divided into two one-hour episodes. Filming is set to begin this fall.

I’ve really enjoyed the three novels.  You can see my reviews of them:

Apparently the fourth book in the series will be released next year.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction (2017 Shortlist)

The shortlist for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction was released today.  Three titles are on the list:

Image result for andrew carnegie medalMoonglow by Michael Chabon
A young writer listens in breath-held astonishment as his ailing grandfather, whose lifelong reticence has been vanquished by strong painkillers, tells the hidden stories of his hardscrabble boyhood, WWII military service, obsession with moon missions, and love for a French Holocaust survivor.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith
Two "brown girls" growing up in London public housing share a passion for dance, but follow divergent paths which lead to adventures in America and Africa, and raise complex questions about family, friendship, race, creativity, and celebrity.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Whitehead reimagines the Underground Railroad in this powerful tale about smart and resilient Cora, a young third-generation slave who escapes the brutality of a Georgia cotton plantation and seeks sanctuary throughout the terrorized South.  (See my review:

The Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction was established in 2012 to recognize the best fiction books for adult readers published in the U.S. the previous year. The winner will receive a $5,000 cash award.  The winner will be announced January 22.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Paul Beatty Wins Man Booker Award

Paul Beatty was named as the winner of the 2016 Man Booker Award for his novel The Sellout. He is the first American to win the award.

Born in the "agrarian ghetto" of Dickens―on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles―the narrator of The Sellout resigns himself to the fate of lower-middle-class Californians: "I'd die in the same bedroom I'd grown up in, looking up at the cracks in the stucco ceiling that've been there since '68 quake." Raised by a single father, a controversial sociologist, he spent his childhood as the subject in racially charged psychological studies. He is led to believe that his father's pioneering work will result in a memoir that will solve his family's financial woes. But when his father is killed in a police shoot-out, he realizes there never was a memoir. All that's left is the bill for a drive-thru funeral.
Fuelled by this deceit and the general disrepair of his hometown, the narrator sets out to right another wrong: Dickens has literally been removed from the map to save California from further embarrassment. Enlisting the help of the town's most famous resident―the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins―he initiates the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school, which lands him in the Supreme Court.

The Man Booker Prize for Fiction, worth £50,000, is open to writers of any nationality, writing originally in English and published in the U.K. between October 1, 2015, and September 30, 2016.  

Madeleine Thien Wins Governor-General’s Award for Fiction

Image result for governor general awardIt was announced today that Madeleine Thien won the 2016 Governor-General’s Award for English Fiction for her novel Do Not Say We Have NothingThe Globe and Mail quotes Thien saying that this literary award is the one that means the most to her:  “The G-G is the prize that’s closest to my heart. Because of its age. Because of the way it’s shaped our thinking about Canadian literature – about what we read, how we read, how we imagine ourselves. So to be included on that short list was a huge deal for me. It’s the short list that made me cry instantly ” (

Thien is also a finalist for the Man Booker Prize (winner to be announced later today) and appears on the shortlist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize (winner to be announced November 7).

Thien’s novel is one of 14 books, in English and French, to receive a prize; the winners, who each receive $25,000, will be celebrated at Rideau Hall on Nov. 30.  For a complete list of all winners, go to  This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Governor General's Literary Awards.

Review of THE WITCHES OF NEW YORK by Ami McKay (Today's New Release)

3.5 Stars
The Witches of New York by [McKay, Ami]
This novel is a follow-up to The Virgin Cure, though it can certainly be read as a standalone.

In 1880 in New York, Adelaide Thom (Moth of The Virgin Cure) and Eleanor St. Clair open a teashop.  Together, they provide services to their female clients:  tarot readings, potions, herbal remedies for contraception and abortion.  They are joined by Beatrice Dunn who comes looking for a job but soon becomes an apprentice when she demonstrates an ability to see ghosts and talk to spirits.  Of course, danger lurks in a male-dominated society that views unconventional women with suspicion.  The Salem Witch Trials are history, but there are people who are still obsessed with discovering the witches among them.

Adelaide and Eleanor are witches, but they are not servants of the devil.  They are women empowered by magic; they possess special skills and wisdom which has been passed down to them.  “Witches see to things best sorted by magic – sorrows of the heart, troubles of the mind, regrets of the flesh.”  Several times Beatrice is identified as the “first witch not born but made.”  I had difficulty with this description because it is obvious that Beatrice has magic within her; Eleanor even tells her, “’The magic working within you is more powerful than most.’” 

The evil that exists is found not in the witches but in other people.  There’s a scorned husband who uses his wealth and power to exact revenge on the woman whom he believes led his wife astray.  And there’s the religious zealot, Francis Townsend, a puritanical and sadistic preacher who has made it his life’s mission to find witches and either reform or destroy them.  Unfortunately, these villains, including Sister Piddock, are more caricatures than convincing characters. 

What the three women are is intelligent and independent in a time when those characteristics in women were viewed by many as threatening.  People were told to beware of women “touting intelligence over righteousness” especially if they were “the healer, the fortune teller, the academic, the suffragist.”  This is the aspect of the book I found most interesting – its portrayal of how 19th-century society reacted to strong, confident women. 

At the end of the novel, there are some unanswered questions.  What exactly happens to Lucy Newland?  What about Bart Andersen and Sophie Miles?   What is the fate of Adelaide’s mother?  These characters play significant roles, but then they are just dropped.

The novel is rather slow-paced.  Gradually suspense is introduced, but the outcome in cases of real danger is predictable.  What stands out is the portrayal of life in the time period of the novel, especially the curtailed life of women.  Incorporating the erection of Cleopatra’s Needle into the story conveys the period’s interest in Egyptology.

In the Author’s Note at the end, McKay refers to a book published in 1893 which she identifies as a “call to action, a rallying cry to women to reclaim the word ‘witch.’”  McKay’s book can be seen in the same way, especially because she even states, “Get ready world, something witchy this way comes.”  McKay suggests that “there’s still plenty of work to be done” so women can take their true place in society; she wants women to speak out, to assert themselves so they cannot be dismissed.  I could not help but be reminded of Donald Trump’s reference to Hillary Clinton as a “nasty woman.”  May all women be witchy, nasty women!

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

Sunday, October 23, 2016

A New Middle-Earth Romance by J. R. R. Tolkien

Beren and Lúthien, a J. R. R. Tolkien story about a romance between a man and an elf, will be released next year.  It is edited by Christopher Tolkien and illustrated by Alan Lee.

The Middle-earth tale tells of the love between Beren, the mortal man, and Lúthien, the immortal elf.  Lúthien’s father, an Elvish lord, is against their relationship, and so gives Beren an impossible task to fulfil before the two can be married.  The two must rob "the greatest of all evil beings, Melkor, called Morgoth, the Black Enemy."

The couple's love story is referenced in The Silmarillion, a collection of short works by Tolkien that expands the mythology and history of Middle-earth. “Among the tales of sorrow and of ruin that came down to us from the darkness of those days there are yet some in which amid weeping there is joy and under the shadow of death light that endures. And of these histories most fair still in the ears of the Elves is the tale of Beren and Lúthien,” writes Tolkien in The Silmarillion.

The story obviously meant a great deal to the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.   The author’s wife, Edith, has the name Lúthien on her tombstone, while Tolkien has Beren engraved on his.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Digital Archive of Victorian Illustrations of Shakespeare

Image result for william shakespeare

In the past I’ve posted about art inspired by Shakespeare:  Today, I thought I’d write about a new digital archive which includes over 3,000 Victorian illustrations of The Bard’s plays.  The Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive is the PhD project of Michael Goodman, a doctoral candidate in Digital Humanities at Cardiff University.  Goodman’s site hosts over 3,000 illustrations taken from four major UK editions of Shakespeare’s Complete Works published in the mid-19th century.  The illustrations are organized for easy access. 

See the archive at to see how the plays communicated differently to various Victorian artists.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Banned Shakespearean Speech Advocates for Refugees

Because of the war in Syria and because of the election in the United States, immigration is very much in the news.  Canada has welcomed 25,000 Syrian refugees, but in the U.S. there is a lot of opposition to allowing Muslims into the country.  I was therefore interested in how a Shakespearean speech is being used to advocate for refugees.  Those unwilling to help refugees are found guilty of “mountainish inhumanity.”

Image result for the book of st thomas more “Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation”
                                The Book of Sir Thomas More (Act II, scene iv)

Xenophobia swept through England as 64,000 foreigners arrived in the country between 1330 and 1550 in search of better lives.  Locals blamed them for taking their jobs and distorting their culture.  Tensions reached a zenith on May 1, 1517, when riots broke out in London and a mob attacked the immigrants and looted their homes.  Thomas More, then the city’s deputy sheriff, tried to reason with the crowd.

This day, known as Evil May Day, is portrayed in a play titled The Book of Sir Thomas More written by Anthony Munday between 1596 and 1601.  Then Shakespeare, along with three other playwrights, was brought in to revise the script.  Shakespeare’s additions include 147 lines in the middle of the action, in which More addresses the anti-immigration rioters.  The Master of the Revels, Edmund Tilney, whose role included stage censorship, refused to allow the play to be performed because he was worried that the play’s depiction of riots would provoke civil unrest especially since England was experiencing another immigrant crisis with the arrival of French-speaking Protestant asylum seekers from France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Interestingly, this is the only surviving play script to contain Shakespeare's handwriting. The manuscript can be seen at the British Library.

Thursday, October 20, 2016


During yesterday’s presidential debate, Twitter had a field day with the hashtag #TrumpBookReport after Antonio French, a St. Louis alderman and mayoral candidate, suggested Donald Trump sounded like he was fumbling his way through a book report on a book he had not even read.

“Trump's foreign policy answers sound like a book report from a teenager who hasn't read the book,” French tweeted.  “’Oh, the grapes! They had so much wrath!’”

Check out #TrumpBookReport for hilarious suggestions imagining Trump’s take on classic literature.

SDG Reads: A Night with Frances Itani

Image result for frances itani

Yesterday, I posted my review of Tell by Frances Itani, the 2016 SDG Reads selection.  In the evening’s presentation, the author made comments that touched on some of my observations in the review.

For instance, Itani mentioned that she loves doing research.  For Deafening, she did six years of research.  She even learned American Sign Language!  For Tell, its follow-up, she did an additional two years of research including actually visiting World War I battle sites.  She stated that all of her characters are completely fictional because she needs an empty head which she can fill, but she insists on absolute historical accuracy when depicting a real place.  Her comments about her research tied in with a statement in my review of Tell that some episodes seemed “just to emphasize Itani’s research of the time period.”

My comment that “At times the plot seems more like a series of disjointed anecdotes” fits in with Itani’s comment that she writes thematically.  She said she does not map out a plot; in fact, she claims not to know exactly what “plot” means.

In my review, I also discussed the symbol of the snow wall:  “the snow wall near the rink to keep skaters from venturing unto risky, uncertain ice symbolizes the townspeople’s silence; when Kenan and Am attack that wall, community members become upset.”  Itani obviously uses symbols deliberately; she spoke of the symbolism of the clock tower.  Am spends a great deal of time there; surrounded by four clock faces, he is trapped in time.

Itani revealed that she is now working on the third book of what has accidentally become a trilogy begun with Deafening and followed by Tell.  The third book is tentatively titled That’s My Baby and tells Hanora’s story beginning in March 1939, approximately 2 decades after the ending of Tell.  The theme will be about belonging but the book will also focus on the adoption process and dementia.  The book may be released in 2017.  Itani also mentioned that there is a possibility that Deafening and Tell may be made into a mini television series.

My disappointment with last night’s presentation was that Itani gave little insight into her writing process.  She emphasized writing thematically and not paying any attention to plot.  She also said that she works very hard at trying to have readers experience what characters are feeling.  She said that the best writing advice she ever received was from W. O. Mitchell who told her to “go where it grabs you the most.”  The element of writing novels that she finds most difficult is voice; she spoke of her problems trying to find a voice for Bin Okuma, the Japanese-Canadian male protagonist in Requiem.  On the other hand, Georgie’s voice in Remembering the Bones came very easily.  But, no, she didn’t reveal whether Georgie lives or dies at the end of the book.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Review of TELL by Frances Itani

Tell is the book chosen for 2016 SDG Reads so I read it in anticipation of the author event this evening. 

3 Stars 
Tell by [Itani, Frances]Tell is a follow-up to Deafening, Itani’s best-known, award-winning novel.  I read this latter book about a dozen years ago when it was first published; at that time I was not writing reviews, but I do remember enjoying it very much.  Tell I did not find as emotionally compelling.

This novel focuses on Tress (the sister of Grania, the protagonist in 
Deafeningand her husband Kenan; their story is interwoven with that of Maggie and Am (Tress and Grania’s aunt and uncle).  Kenan has returned from fighting in World War I; he has been wounded body, heart and soul and has difficulty adjusting to civilian life, and he and Tress seem to be drifting apart.  Maggie and Am are also experiencing marital problems; a tragedy in their past, which they refuse to discuss, is resulting in emotional distancing and Maggie finds herself drawn to Lukas, a European musician who has recently moved to Deseronto. 

The theme of the novel is the harm that is caused by secrets, the stories we should tell but don’t.  The epigraph hints at this theme:  “But isn’t that why we fall in love anyway, to be able to say the secret, dangerous words that are in our heads?”  Kenan is unable to speak when he first returns from the front, and even when he begins to speak, he doesn’t open up about his war experiences.  Maggie and Am do not speak of their sorrow and their marriage is fracturing as a consequence; Am says, “’we made the mistake of living with the sorrow pushed under like a deadhead, a hidden threat under water.  We did that instead of dragging it up into views so we could talk about it, try to make ourselves better.’”   Kenan’s adoptive father never spoke of Kenan’s biological mother and Kenan knows nothing about her. 

The book is very slow-moving at the beginning, and I kept wanting something to happen.  At times the plot seems more like a series of disjointed anecdotes, some of which seem just to emphasize Itani’s research of the time period.  Do we really need to know all the details of making grape jelly or building an outdoor skating rink?  When the revelations do come, they come quickly.  Is it logical that both Am and Maggie choose to speak on the same day?

There are a couple of other issues with the book.  I grew up in a small town so I know how everyone knows everyone’s business, so I find it difficult to believe that everyone in the community never spoke of Kenan’s adoption by a single man or Am and Maggie’s secret, a secret which is not risqué, just sad.  Even Kenan asks, “How was it possible for an entire community to maintain silence?  . . . The community had created a grim kind of solidarity. . . . Still it was almost impossible to believe that no one had ever spoken . . . ” The author does try to convince, however;  the snow wall near the rink to keep skaters from venturing unto risky, uncertain ice symbolizes the townspeople’s silence; when Kenan and Am attack that wall, community members become upset.  Unfortunately, I’m not convinced an entire town would collude in keeping a secret for decades; there are always town gossips.

Then there’s the ending.  After the slow pacing, everything happens too quickly.  An entire year is skipped, and though the reader has known Maggie’s thoughts intimately, all of a sudden we learn of her actions secondhand.  Considering Maggie’s secret, her devastating loss, her decision at the end seems unrealistic. 

The upshot is that I did not find this novel as interesting or emotionally impactful as I remember Deafening being.


On this date in 1950, Edna St. Vincent Millay died.  In her honour, I thought I’d post my notes on a biography of her which I read a number of years ago:  Savage Beauty:  The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford.  I’m not a biography reader but I’ve always loved Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnets and even own a first edition of her Collected Sonnets.
In some ways I wish I hadn’t read the book:  the poet was not always a nice person.  I knew a little about her beforehand:  in the heart of the Depression, her collection of sonnets sold thousands of copies; she was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry; she was the first American figure to rival the frenzy surrounding Lord Byron whose life and work shocked the public. 

The book discusses the influences of Edna’s mother, Cora Millay, who was very ambitious for her daughters:  “She made [them] – oh, not ordinary” (9).  One observer mentioned that she had “never come across a more devoted mother and daughter” (176), and Milford concludes that “the love of [Millay’s] life remained her mother” (205).  Cora saw her daughter’s triumphs as “part of their triumph” (206).  The relationship, however, was not without its problems:  one man noted that Edna’s mother was “a bit in awe of her.  That she had created such a creature” (234), and the mother wrote that her own indiscretions might be the cause of Edna’s sexual liberality (237).  At times Edna seemed to flee from her mother but then would feel guilty and would assuage her guilt by sending money (207).

Writing poetry was the most important thing in Millay’s life.  By 16, she had a sense of vocation (41).  “[Edna] drew people to her . . . [but] her work came first . . . it was her first love, and perhaps her only one” (130).  Milford observes, “people were in some sense unimportant to her – except as subjects for poems . . . What she was interested in was her own emotions about them” (199). 

In many ways, Edna was a very selfish and vain person, “the oddest mixture of genius and childish vanity, open mindedness and blind self-worship” who had “build up so enormous an image of herself as the Enchanted Little Faery Princess that she must defend it with her life” (462).  “Edna did exactly what she pleased, when she pleased, and where she pleased” (419), perhaps unsurprising for a woman who in 1938 was voted one of the ten most famous women in America (418).  She knew “how to rule a situation or a group” (291), but social approval was very important to her.

Edna’s life was anything but orthodox since she had affairs with both men and women.  Her promiscuity was well-known in her circle.  Milford suggests that Edna was “irresistibly drawn to relationships that were doomed to fail.  Maybe she couldn’t bear the weight of a permanent attachment, in which she had no reason to believe” (205) since a central theme of one of her plays is that the enduring love between women is the only bond that lasts.  Edna flaunted her sexuality to her mother (234) who aborted her own grandchild when Edna became pregnant (239). 

The one “permanent” relationship was with her husband, Eugen Jan Boissevain, with whom she had “an open, free marriage” (351).  His devotion was complete; he even offered to “go and live by himself” (355) and refused to be “a piece of irritating, dragging piece of family” (357) if he could help Edna’s extra-marital affair with another man.  Eugen was also sexually involved with other women, and these affairs were discussed openly by husband and wife” (356).  Her lovers knew about Eugen; she wrote one lover that “I am devoted to my husband.  I love him more deeply than I could ever express, my feeling for him is in no way changed or diminished since I met you” (305 – 306).  Milford even suggests that Eugen “took morphine so that he would know what it was like for her to be addicted – so that he would know what she went through trying to stop it” (481). 

The biography was obviously very thoroughly researched.  Milford examined numerous documents which are quoted and cited.  She also had the assistance of Norma, Edna’s surviving sister.  The title is very appropriate:  it describes the audacious poet and the writing of the biographer who spared no details.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Schatje Attends Her First Book Launch

Today I had the opportunity to attend a book launch in Châteauguay, Quebec.

Grease-Greasy, The Little Straw Man is a children’s book written by Lorraine Hacquard and illustrated by Diane Duclos.  (Full disclosure:  the illustrator is the sister of a dear friend)

Intended for children ages 3 and up, the book is a French Canadian folktale based on a story the author heard from her father, a story that had been passed down several generations.  It is about a little straw boy who is adopted by a couple who have no children.  The theme is the importance of family.  This story is full of evocations of rural life of yesteryear with beautiful illustrations on virtually every page.  The digital version features many interactive items such as hidden rhymes, sound effects, old photos, and short sequences of educational films. 

There is both an English and a French version; the French version is entitled Graisse-Graissou, petit bonhomme de paille.

For more information, visit

                     Left:  Lorraine Hacquard (author)               Right:  Diane Duclos (illustrator)

Friday, October 14, 2016

Happy 90th Birthday, Winnie the Pooh!

Today, Oct. 14, 2016, marks the 90th birthday of Winnie-the-Pooh.   To celebrate everyone's favourite Silly Old Bear and his friends, CBC Books has come up with "90 weird and wonderful facts about the Hundred Acre Wood":

The real bear who inspired Winnie the Pooh was a Canadian female black bear adopted as a cub by a Canadian veterinarian named Harry Colebourn in 1914.  Colebourn found the bear cub on a train platform in White River, Ontario, and named the bear after his hometown of Winnipeg.  Colebourn left Winnie at the London Zoo where Christopher Robin Milne saw him.  The rest is history.

                           Here's a photo of  my husband and our dog at Winnie's statue in White River.


3 Stars
This is the eighth Flavia de Luce mystery. 

Flavia returns home after four months in Canada and learns that her father is seriously ill.  Unable to visit because she has been told he needs rest to recover, Flavia finds distraction in a murder.  Running an errand for a friend, she discovers the body of a local woodcarver, a discovery which, as expected, has her take Gladys for several rides as she tries to piece together what happened. 

Readers familiar with the Flavia de Luce series will find few surprises.  The plot stays true to the formula developed in the previous books.  All of the secondary characters are present though there is less interaction with her sisters, interactions which I always enjoyed.  Flavia’s observations provide the usual humour.

Flavia keeps repeating that she is a changed person since her sojourn in Canada.  She finds herself behaving uncharacteristically.  Early on, Flavia admits, “For quite some time now, I had not been myself.  Much as I hated to admit it, the events of the past several months had shaken me rather badly.  I was not at all the Flavia de Luce I had once been.  Whether that was a bad thing or a good one remained to be seen, but until I managed to work it out, the feeling was one of bearing an enormous invisible burden:  the weight of the world.”  At one point, she even says, “Who, really, am I?  Is Flavia de Luce the person everyone thinks she is?  Is she who I think she is?”  But it is not only Flavia who is changing; Dogger says, “’I fear our world is changing, Miss Flavia . . . and not necessarily for the better.’”  I found all of this signaling a little heavy-handed so the ending came as no surprise. 

One element that bothered me is Flavia’s not visiting her father in the hospital.  Though she is told that her father needs his rest and so visits are not allowed, since when is Flavia stopped when she really wants to do something?  And though her investigation occupies her mind, it seems strange that she gives her father so little thought even though she says she understands “how grave Father’s situation must be.” 

Perhaps I am getting tired of Flavia because I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I did the earlier ones.  The book is so much like the others that I found it almost tedious.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Bob Dylan Awarded 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature

The Swedish Academy today awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan, the American singer/songwriter.  Dylan, 75, is the first musician to win the award, and his selection is certainly an unorthodox choice and has received mixed reviews.  In choosing a popular musician, the Swedish Academy has redefined the boundaries of literature, setting off a debate about whether song lyrics have the same artistic value as poetry or novels.

In its citation, the Swedish Academy credited Mr. Dylan with “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”  Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, likened Dylan's work and his literary merits to those of the earliest Western poets: "If you look back, far back … you discover Homer and Sappho.  And they wrote poetic texts that were meant to be listened to, they were meant to be performed, often together with instruments. . . . But we still read Homer and Sappho and enjoy it.  It's the same way with Bob Dylan. He can be read and should be read, and is a great poet in the English tradition, in the grand English poetic tradition" (

“Dylan's lyrics have receives detailed scrutiny from academics and poets.  Literary critic Christopher Ricks published Dylan's Visions of Sin, a 500-page analysis of Dylan's work, placing him in the context of Eliot, Keats and Tennyson, claiming that Dylan was a poet worthy of the same close analysis.  Former British poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion argued that his lyrics should be studied in schools.  Since 1996, academics have lobbied the Swedish Academy to award Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature” (

Dylan has often sprinkled literary allusions into his music and cited the influence of poetry on his lyrics.  (See  He has published poetry and prose, including his 1971 collection, Tarantula, and Chronicles: Volume One, the first part of his memoirs published in 2004, and six books of his art.  Coincidentally, his collected lyrics from 1961-2012 are due out on Nov. 1. 

The Nobel comes with a prize of 8 million Swedish kronor, or just over $1.2 million (CAD). 

(Photo of Bob Dylan's childhood home taken by me in June 2011 in Hibbing, Minnesota.  Note the name of the street.)

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Library of a Lifetime Prize Draw

Today, October 12, is my birthday.  As a booklover, I think I’ve found the perfect gift:  winning the Library of a Lifetime Prize Draw. 

Launched by independent London bookshop Heywood Hill to mark its 80th anniversary, the Library of a Lifetime award will give its winner one newly published hardback book, chosen to suit his/her particular reading taste, per month, for life, delivered anywhere in the world.

To win, readers must nominate the book that has meant the most to them, with the winner chosen at random in a prize draw. The title must have been published in English, or translated into English, after 1936, the year Heywood Hill was founded.

The competition, open to any participants aged 18 years or over, closes on October 31.

For more information, go to

Monday, October 10, 2016

A Booklover's Thanksgiving

Today is Thanksgiving Day in Canada.  Especially as a Canadian, I have so much for which to be thankful, but since this is a book blog, I thought I’d focus on what I as a booklover have for which to be grateful.

I am grateful for books which provide me with so much pleasure.
I am grateful for authors who, using their imaginations and talent, write those books.
I am grateful for the trees which provide the paper on which books are printed.  (Although I read ebooks and listen to audiobooks too, print books are still my favourite.)
I am grateful for all the people who work in the physical production of paper and books (e.g. forestry workers, pulp and paper mill workers, binders, printers).
I am grateful for publishers, especially those who take chances with new authors.
I am grateful for editors and copy-editors who ensure that an author’s work is the best it can be.
I am grateful for translators whose work allows me to read literature written in many different languages.
I am grateful for booksellers, especially the small, independent booksellers who persevere despite all odds.
I am grateful for my teachers:  my elementary school teachers (especially Zita Bloski) who taught me to read; my high school teachers (especially Sylvia Post) who challenged me to read widely; and my university professors (especially Professor Jean Moreau) who expanded my understanding of literature.
I am grateful for libraries which provide everyone with free access to books, those politicians who support them, and the librarians who staff them and are always willing to make book recommendations.
I am grateful for reviewers, both professional and amateur, whose comments often guide me to books.
I am grateful to the media that feature book-related articles giving me better understanding of books and authors and making me aware of books I might not otherwise have encountered.
I am grateful for friends who lend books and discuss them.  Among those friends are book club members, especially those in THE Timmins Book Club and The St. Andrews Lassies Book Club.
I am grateful for time to read books.
I am grateful for my husband who gave me the library of my dreams.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Unmasking of Elena Ferrante: Ignore the Controversy and Read her Books

This past week Claudio Gatti, an Italian journalist, unmasked the woman who writes as Elena Ferrante, the secretive novelist who wrote the Neapolitan novels.  Elena Ferrante turns out to be the pseudonym of Anita Raja, a Rome-based translator.

Few people seem to be applauding Gatti for his clever investigative journalism.  Ferrante long made it clear that she wished for anonymity because she is not interested in fame and wanted her books to speak for themselves.  Besides invading her privacy, Gatti may have ended a literary career because in the past Ferrante has threatened to give up writing if she were ever revealed.

I think it best to ignore Gatti and just read the novels, as their author wants.  Here are my reviews of the Neapolitan quartet:

Friday, October 7, 2016

Review of THE TRUTH AND OTHER LIES by Sascha Arango

3.5 Stars
The Truth and Other Lies by [Arango, Sascha]
After finishing a fairly lengthy, serious novel, I thought I’d switch to a psychological thriller.  This German book was favourably reviewed in a number of places so I thought I’d give it a try.  Its comparison to The Dinner by Herman Koch piqued my interest.  After reading it, I would compare it more to another of Koch’s books – Summer House with Swimming Pool.

The protagonist, Henry Hayden, is a famous novelist who has been successful enough to live “a life of wealth and luxury.”  His secret is that he has actually written none of his best-selling novels; they are the work of his wife Martha who feels compelled to write but wants no attention or credit.  Henry has a mistress, Betty, who announces that she is pregnant.  Wanting to continue to live “a free and prosperous life,” Henry decides to take an action “to preserve the status quo” but things go horribly wrong.  He kills the wrong person and soon finds himself in a cat-and-mouse game with police detectives. 

Henry is morally reprehensible, and he doesn’t deny his character; he speaks of his “innate wickedness” and describes himself as “a murderer, a liar, and a fraud.”  Nonetheless, he is capable of “sporadic acts of goodness” and readers may find themselves hoping Henry will be able to escape the punishment he admits he deserves.  Henry even indirectly comments on the reader’s dilemma:  “Is it possible, Henry sometimes wondered, to love a monster?  Is it permissible?  It is in fact obligatory, if you believe in human goodness.”

A problem with the book is the number of secretive people.  There’s Henry, of course, but there are others:  Claus, Henry’s publisher, who hides his terminal cancer diagnosis; Betty who wants to keep her pregnancy a secret; and Honor, Claus’ assistant, who keeps her love for her boss a secret.  And everyone seems to have emotional or psychological issues:  there’s a psychopath, a synesthetic recluse who spent time in a psychiatric clinic, a fishmonger who goes into uncontrollable rages, an envious man who wants revenge on a childhood bully and stalks him for years, and a woman who schemes against another woman whom she perceives as a romantic threat.  These characters are believable only if the reader, like Henry, believes “in the self-evident badness of human beings.” 

There are sufficient plot twists to keep the reader interested.  Henry is adept at alibis and has become an expert on forensics and the science of criminal investigation, but will he be able to foil the lead detective who is “a genius of case analysis” and has “a solved crimes rate of one hundred percent”?  Unfortunately, there are a few too many narrow escapes so the reader’s credibility may be overtaxed.

One of the most enjoyable elements in the book is Henry’s observations, some astute and some merely comic:  “But men are never more cowardly and their lies never more pathetic than when they’re caught with their pants down” and “popularity is all too often confused with significance” and “success was a mere shadow that shifts with the moving sun” and “A dash of truth is often enough, but it’s indispensable, like the olive in a martini.”

This is a quick, enjoyable read that doesn’t require much of the reader except to question whether to believe in human goodness.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

National Book Award (Fiction) Finalists

The finalists for the National Book Awards have been announced.  Here are the fiction titles:

The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder
Twenty-two men gather every fall to painstakingly re-enact what ESPN called “the most shocking play in NFL history” and the Washington Redskins dubbed the “Throwback Special”: the November 1985 play in which the Redskins’ Joe Theismann had his leg horribly broken by Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants live on Monday Night Football.  Chris Bachelder introduces Charles, a psychologist whose expertise is in high demand; George, a garrulous public librarian; Fat Michael, envied and despised by the others for being exquisitely fit; Jeff, a recently divorced man who has become a theorist of marriage; and many more. Over the course of a weekend, the men reveal their secret hopes, fears, and passions as they choose roles, spend a long night of the soul preparing for the play, and finally enact their bizarre ritual for what may be the last time.  Along the way, mishaps, misunderstandings, and grievances pile up, and the comforting traditions holding the group together threaten to give way.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles
In the wake of the Civil War, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd travels through northern Texas, giving live readings from newspapers to paying audiences hungry for news of the world.  An elderly widower who has lived through three wars and fought in two of them, the captain enjoys his rootless, solitary existence.  In Wichita Falls, he is offered a $50 gold piece to deliver a young orphan to her relatives in San Antonio.  Four years earlier, a band of Kiowa raiders killed Johanna’s parents and sister; sparing the little girl, they raised her as one of their own.  Recently rescued by the U.S. army, the ten-year-old has once again been torn away from the only home she knows.  Their 400-mile journey south through unsettled territory and unforgiving terrain proves difficult and at times dangerous.  Johanna has forgotten the English language, tries to escape at every opportunity, throws away her shoes, and refuses to act “civilized.”  Yet as the miles pass, the two lonely survivors tentatively begin to trust each other, forming a bond that marks the difference between life and death in this treacherous land.  Arriving in San Antonio, the reunion is neither happy nor welcome. The captain must hand Johanna over to an aunt and uncle she does not remember—strangers who regard her as an unwanted burden. A respectable man, Captain Kidd is faced with a terrible choice: abandon the girl to her fate or become—in the eyes of the law—a kidnapper himself.

The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan
When brothers Tushar and Nakul Khurana, two Delhi schoolboys, pick up their family’s television set at a repair shop with their friend Mansoor Ahmed one day in 1996, disaster strikes without warning.  A bomb—one of the many “small” bombs that go off seemingly unheralded across the world—detonates in the Delhi marketplace, instantly claiming the lives of the Khurana boys, to the devastation of their parents.  Mansoor survives, bearing the physical and psychological effects of the bomb.  After a brief stint at university in America, Mansoor returns to Delhi, where his life becomes entangled with the mysterious and charismatic Ayub, a fearless young activist whose own allegiances and beliefs are more malleable than Mansoor could imagine.  Woven among the story of the Khuranas and the Ahmeds is the gripping tale of Shockie, a Kashmiri bomb maker who has forsaken his own life for the independence of his homeland.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia.  Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits.  When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape.  Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her.  Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.  In Whitehead’s conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil.  Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven.  But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens.  And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels.  Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.  (For my review, go to

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson
Running into a long-ago friend sets memory from the 1970s in motion for August, transporting her to a time and a place where friendship was everything—until it wasn’t.  For August and her girls, sharing confidences as they ambled through neighborhood streets, Brooklyn was a place where they believed that they were beautiful, talented, brilliant—a part of a future that belonged to them.  But beneath the hopeful veneer, there was another Brooklyn, a dangerous place where grown men reached for innocent girls in dark hallways, where ghosts haunted the night, where mothers disappeared.  A world where madness was just a sunset away and fathers found hope in religion.

The National Book Awards are a set of annual U.S. literary awards presented to American authors for books published in the United States during the award year.  National Book Awards are currently given to one book (author) annually in each of four categories:  fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and young people's literature.  For finalists in all the categories, go to

The winner will be announced November 16.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Review of DO NOT SAY WE HAVE NOTHING by Madeleine Thien

4 Stars
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by [Thien, Madeleine]
This book has made the shortlists of the Man Booker Prize, the Giller Prize, and the Governor General’s  Literary Award for Fiction; it has also been nominated for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.  I certainly understand why it keeps being mentioned as award-worthy.

This is a complex, non-linear multi-generational saga.  The narrator is Li-ling (Marie) living in present-day Vancouver.  Marie’s father committed suicide over a quarter of a century earlier.  This trauma and other events challenge her to piece together her family history.  Being fluent only in English, language is an obstacle but so is silence, the unwillingness of people to speak openly.

Gradually, the life stories of three main characters are revealed – those of Kai, Marie’s father who is a gifted concert pianist; Sparrow, a composer and Kai’s friend; and Zhuli, a talented violinist who is Sparrow’s cousin.  These three study at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music at the start of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.  They live for and by music, but the political climate deems classical Western music a bourgeois value, and playing such music is considered counter-revolutionary behaviour worthy of persecution.  Zhuli describes their conflict:  “’I never stopped loving my country but I wanted to be loyal to something else, too’” (260).  Their struggles (and those of various family members) to survive the political upheavals of 20th-century China from Mao’s ascent to the Tiananmen Square protests are the focus of this dense novel. 

The novel shows how people suffer under a cruel, repressive regime which requires people to sacrifice personal aspirations in the service of the shifting needs of the regime’s politics.  “’People lost one another.  You could be sent five thousand kilometres away, with no hope of coming back.  Everyone had so many people like this in their lives, people who had been sent away. . . . People simply didn’t have the right to live where they wanted, to love who they wanted, to do the work they wanted.  Everything was decided by the Party’” (417).  One man says, “’this country exists in fear’” and comments on how “’it is hard to live with so little certainty’” (180) when virtually no one can be trusted and when humiliation, state-sanctioned violence, years in a labour camp, and even death await anyone suspected of being a traitor to the state.  Even the actions of one’s parents could be used against someone.  How can people thrive when the course of their lives is decided without regard to their personal desires?

There are many characters in this novel, but there is not the confusion one might expect.  Each is clearly differentiated.  This is particularly the case with the characterizations of Kai, Sparrow and Zhuli.  Each has a distinct personality and different motivations for choices, and each reacts very differently to the manipulation of his/her life by the state.

Thien obviously did extensive research.  I found myself wishing I had more than a rudimentary knowledge of Chinese history and classical music.  In fact, I had hesitated to read the book because its subject matter seemed daunting.  Admittedly, I did find myself doing some research into major events in modern China to add to my understanding, but that research was not a necessity since Thien provides sufficient information. 

I found myself appreciating the fact that I had earlier read Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time, a fictionalized account of the life of Dmitri Shostakovich, the famous Russian composer, under Stalinism.  Like Thien’s book, it examines how/if an artist can follow his personal vision in a totalitarian society.  Just as Barnes’ novel inspired me to explore Shostakovich’s music, Thien’s inspired me to play Glenn Gould’s Bach:  The Goldberg Variations which is repeatedly mentioned. 
The reader should be aware that sadness is the prevailing emotion throughout.  To have to bury one’s dreams and to be forced to resort to silence goes against all my ideas of freedom and happiness.  There are only ruinous effects.  A comment by Seiji Ozawa, a Japanese conductor, struck me as overwhelmingly sad; Kai says, “’When Ozawa came [to China after the end of the Cultural Revolution], he said our ability to interpret the music had fundamentally changed . . . As if an entire emotional range was lost to us, but we ourselves couldn’t hear it.  Every musician in the orchestra knew they’d been cheated.  But until that moment, we never had to face it so directly’” (311).

This novel is often a harrowing read, but it is ever so powerful.  Its emotional impression lingers.  At one point Zhuli says, “’The only truth is the one that lives invisibly, that waits even after you close the book’” (280).  Even after you close this book, it will stay with you.  The book is like a masterful piece of music that continues to move you even after there is only silence.  

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

2016 Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction Finalists

The finalists for the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Awards were announced today.  The shortlist for the fiction category includes the following:

Yiddish for Pirates by Gary Barwin
Set in the years around 1492, Yiddish for Pirates recounts the compelling story of Moishe, a Bar Mitzvah boy who leaves home to join a ship's crew, where he meets Aaron, the polyglot parrot who becomes his near-constant companion.  From a present-day Florida nursing home, this wisecracking yet poetic bird guides us through a world of pirate ships, Yiddish jokes and treasure maps.  But Inquisition Spain is a dangerous time to be Jewish and Moishe joins a band of hidden Jews trying to preserve some forbidden books.  He falls in love with a young woman, Sarah; though they are separated by circumstance, Moishe's wanderings are motivated as much by their connection as by his quest for loot and freedom. When all Jews are expelled from Spain, Moishe travels to the Caribbean with the ambitious Christopher Columbus, a self-made man who loves his creator.  Moishe eventually becomes a pirate and seeks revenge on the Spanish while seeking the ultimate booty: the Fountain of Youth.
(This book also appears on the Giller Prize shortlist.)

The Parcel by Anosh Irani
The novel’s narrator is Madhu--born a boy, but a eunuch by choice--who has spent most of her life in a close-knit clan of transgender sex workers in Kamathipura, the notorious red-light district of Bombay.  Madhu identifies herself as a "hijra"--a person belonging to the third sex, neither here nor there, man nor woman.  Now, at 40, she has moved away from prostitution, her trade since her teens, and is forced to beg to support the charismatic head of the hijra clan, Gurumai.  One day Madhu receives a call from Padma Madam, the most feared brothel owner in the district: a "parcel" has arrived--a young girl from the provinces, betrayed and trafficked by her aunt--and Madhu must prepare it for its fate.  Despite Madhu's reluctance, she is forced to take the job by Gurumai.  As Madhu's emotions spiral out of control, her past comes back to haunt her, threatening to unravel a lifetime's work and identity.
(This title is also a Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize nominee.  See my review at

Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush by Kerry Lee Powell
These stories range from an island holiday gone wrong to a dive bar on the upswing to a yuppie mother in a pricey subdivision seeing her worst fears come true and are populated by barkeeps, good men down on their luck, rebellious teens, lonely immigrants, dreamers and realists, fools and quiet heroes.  Powell explores themes of belonging, the simmering potential for violence and the meaning of art no matter where it is found.
(This book also made the longlist of the Giller Prize and the shortlist of the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.)

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations--those who lived through Mao's Cultural Revolution in the mid-twentieth century; and the children of the survivors, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square in 1989.  At the centre of this epic tale, as capacious and mysterious as life itself, are enigmatic Sparrow, a genius composer who wishes desperately to create music yet can find truth only in silence; his mother and aunt, Big Mother Knife and Swirl, survivors with captivating singing voices and an unbreakable bond; Sparrow's ethereal cousin Zhuli, daughter of Swirl and storyteller Wen the Dreamer, who as a child witnesses the denunciation of her parents and as a young woman becomes the target of denunciations herself; and headstrong, talented Kai, best friend of Sparrow and Zhuli, and a determinedly successful musician who is a virtuoso at masking his true self until the day he can hide no longer.  Here, too, is Kai's daughter, the ever-questioning mathematician Marie, who pieces together the tale of her fractured family in present-day Vancouver, seeking a fragile meaning in the layers of their collective story.
(This book appears on the Man Booker Prize shortlist and the Giller Prize shortlist and has also been nominated for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.  I just finished this book and will be posting my review tomorrow.)

The Break by Katherena Vermette
When Stella, a young Métis mother, looks out her window one evening and spots someone in trouble on the Break ― a barren field on an isolated strip of land outside her house ― she calls the police to alert them to a possible crime.  In a series of shifting narratives, people who are connected, both directly and indirectly, with the victim ― police, family, and friends ― tell their personal stories leading up to that fateful night.  Lou, a social worker, grapples with the departure of her live-in boyfriend.  Cheryl, an artist, mourns the premature death of her sister Rain.  Paulina, a single mother, struggles to trust her new partner.  Phoenix, a homeless teenager, is released from a youth detention centre.  Officer Scott, a Métis policeman, feels caught between two worlds as he patrols the city. Through their various perspectives a larger, more comprehensive story about lives of the residents in Winnipeg’s North End is exposed.
(This book is also a Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize nominee.)

For information about all the finalists in all the categories, go to

The winner will be announced on October 25. 

Monday, October 3, 2016

THE HANDMAID'S TALE: a novel of prophecies that are being fulfilled?

Back on May 5, I discussed the announcement about a television series based on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  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 series is set to air early next year.

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, who is serving as consulting producer, said, “The Handmaid's Tale is more relevant now than when it was written.”  Recently, I came across an article that agrees with Atwood and argues that the the dystopia Atwood envisioned more than 30 years ago exists in the present:  the novel is “a chilling blueprint, a kind of literary prophecy for the not-so-future state of women in America here and now.” 

The article, entitled “Is The Handmaid’s Tale a Prophecy of America’s Future,” makes for interesting reading:

Sunday, October 2, 2016

2016 Giller Prize Shortlist

I was at a cottage on an island in the St. Lawrence River for a week and didn’t have internet access so wasn’t able to post, until now, about the Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist which was released last week. 

The six finalists are
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?  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.

Yiddish for Pirates by Gary Barwin
Set in the years around 1492, Yiddish for Pirates recounts the compelling story of Moishe, a Bar Mitzvah boy who leaves home to join a ship's crew, where he meets Aaron, the polyglot parrot who becomes his near-constant companion.  From a present-day Florida nursing home, this wisecracking yet poetic bird guides us through a world of pirate ships, Yiddish jokes and treasure maps.  But Inquisition Spain is a dangerous time to be Jewish and Moishe joins a band of hidden Jews trying to preserve some forbidden books.  He falls in love with a young woman, Sarah; though they are separated by circumstance, Moishe's wanderings are motivated as much by their connection as by his quest for loot and freedom. When all Jews are expelled from Spain, Moishe travels to the Caribbean with the ambitious Christopher Columbus, a self-made man who loves his creator.  Moishe eventually becomes a pirate and seeks revenge on the Spanish while seeking the ultimate booty: the Fountain of Youth.

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue
A small village in 1850s rural Ireland is baffled by Anna O'Donnell's fast, which began as a self-inflicted and earnest expression of faith.  After weeks of subsisting only on what she calls "manna from heaven," the story of the "miracle" has reached a fever pitch.  Tourists flock in droves to the O'Donnell family's modest cabin hoping to witness, and an international journalist is sent to cover the sensational story. Enter Lib, an English nurse trained by Florence Nightingale who is hired to keep watch for two weeks and determine whether or not Anna is a fraud.  As Anna deteriorates, Lib finds herself responsible not just for the care of a child, but for getting to the root of why the child may actually be the victim of murder in slow motion.

The Party Wall by Catherine Leroux
Catherine Leroux's The Party Wall shifts between and ties together stories about pairs joined in surprising ways.  A woman learns that she may not be the biological mother of her own son despite having given birth to him; a brother and sister unite, as their mother dies, to search for their long-lost father; two young sisters take a detour home, unaware of the tragedy that awaits; and a political couple—when the husband accedes to power in a post-apocalyptic future state—is shaken by the revelation of their own shared, if equally unknown, history.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations--those who lived through Mao's Cultural Revolution in the mid-twentieth century; and the children of the survivors, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square in 1989.  At the centre of this epic tale, as capacious and mysterious as life itself, are enigmatic Sparrow, a genius composer who wishes desperately to create music yet can find truth only in silence; his mother and aunt, Big Mother Knife and Swirl, survivors with captivating singing voices and an unbreakable bond; Sparrow's ethereal cousin Zhuli, daughter of Swirl and storyteller Wen the Dreamer, who as a child witnesses the denunciation of her parents and as a young woman becomes the target of denunciations herself; and headstrong, talented Kai, best friend of Sparrow and Zhuli, and a determinedly successful musician who is a virtuoso at masking his true self until the day he can hide no longer.  Here, too, is Kai's daughter, the ever-questioning mathematician Marie, who pieces together the tale of her fractured family in present-day Vancouver, seeking a fragile meaning in the layers of their collective story.

The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall
George Woodbury, an affable teacher and beloved husband and father, is arrested for sexual impropriety at a prestigious prep school.  His wife, Joan, vaults between denial and rage as the community she loved turns on her.  Their daughter, Sadie, a popular over-achieving high school senior, becomes a social pariah.  Their son, Andrew, assists in his father’s defense, while wrestling with his own unhappy memories of his teen years.  A local author tries to exploit their story, while an unlikely men’s rights activist attempts to get Sadie onside their cause.  With George locked up, how do the members of his family pick up the pieces and keep living their lives?  How do they defend someone they love while wrestling with the possibility of his guilt?

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Review of THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS by M. L. Stedman

Yesterday, I mentioned that I’m looking forward to seeing the film adaptation of The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman.  The movie was released on September 2 so may be in a theatre near you.  (Go to to see the trailer.)  Here’s my review of the book which I read back in January of 2013.

Review of The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman
4 Stars
The novel is set in the 1920s in western Australia. Tom Sherbourne, a World War I vet, becomes the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, a remote, uninhabited island. On one of his shore leaves he meets a young woman named Isabel whom he eventually marries and takes to Janus Rock with him. Their marriage is happy except that Isabel is devastated by two miscarriages and a stillbirth. Just after this last tragedy, a boat washes up on shore with a dead man and an infant. Isabel convinces Tom that they should keep the baby girl and pass it off as their own. This is the story of the consequences of that decision which becomes more difficult to undo as time passes.

The book examines the impact of isolation on morality. “The isolation spins its mysterious cocoon, focusing the mind on one place, one time, one rhythm – the turning of the light. The island knows no other human voices, no other footprints. On the Offshore Lights you can live any story you want to tell yourself, and no one will say you’re wrong: not the seagulls, not the prisms, not the wind.” Tom and Isabel live the story they tell themselves since “History is that which is agreed upon by mutual consent” and “everyone knows that sometimes the contract to forget is as important as any promise to remember.” Everything changes of course when they see the impact of their actions on others. Tom “begins to wonder how he could have inflicted such suffering. He begins to wonder what the bloody hell he’s done. ” Once he sees the consequences of their actions, Tom becomes like Janus, the god after whom the island was named: “Always looking both ways, torn between two ways of seeing things.”

Another major theme is that of love, in particular the love of a parent for a child and the love between a husband and wife, and what people are capable of doing in the name of love. Sometimes love blinds people to the truth. At one point Tom ponders love: “He struggles to make sense of it – all this love, so bent out of shape, refracted, like light through the lens.” The light of the lighthouse guides mariners to safety by showing them the right way to take; the problem is that Tom does not have a light to guide him because “A lighthouse is for others; powerless to illuminate the space closest to it.”

A major strong point of this book is that the author manages to make everyone’s motives understandable to the reader. We come to understand why Isabel thinks “God has sent us an angel” and why Tom agrees to the deception despite his misgivings but then has difficulty living with his decision. Both Tom and Isabel’s family backgrounds are given and they too help explain the reasons for their actions throughout the book. The viewpoint of minor characters is occasionally given so even their behaviour is made plausible.

No easy answers are given, and that is another reason I recommend the book. The lens in the lighthouse is “all light and clarity.” Unfortunately, life is not, and this book gives us pause to contemplate its dark corners.