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Thursday, August 31, 2017

Archival Review of THE SHADOW OF THE WIND by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Yesterday, I blogged about gothic novels so today I thought I’d post a review from my archives of a novel with definite gothic elements.

The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafón
3 Stars
The novel is set in 1950s Barcelona while Spain is under Franco’s dictatorship.  Daniel Sempere, the son of a bookseller, discovers a rare novel by Julian Carax, an obscure author, when his father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.  Daniel slowly learns the story of the author, uncovering bits and pieces from some of those who knew him. 

One sinister figure is Lain Coubert, the devil in Carax’s novel, who has been trying for years to destroy all traces of his books.  Another arch-villain is Francisco Javier Fumero, a sadist who is a chief inspector of the Barcelona Crime Squad and childhood friend of Carax.  Daniel’s sidekick, friend, and mentor is Fermín Romero de Torres who was tortured by Fumero. 

The book is 500 pages of incest, murder, childhood friendships and humiliations, mistaken identity, disappointed and discouraged love, crumbling mansions, robbed crypts, and hatred and anger spanning decades.  Daniel’s situation bears uncanny resemblances to that of the protagonist in Carax’s novel and Carax’s life.

A major weakness is that there is little direct action and a lot of exposition.  Stories from various characters, told in page after page of exposition, relate second- and third-hand family histories with relevant information coming only after much stage setting and ancestry delineating. 

There is a definite tinge of melodrama such as is found in Victorian novels:  wealthy families ruined by evil appetites, forbidden love between beautiful young people, and vengeful patriarchs protecting the chastity of their daughters.

This novel spent 60 weeks on Spain’s best seller lists and he has sold millions of copies worldwide, but I wouldn’t put it on my list of favourites.

If you are interested, there’s a prequel to the book entitled The Angel's Game and a sequel titled The Prisoner of Heaven.   

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Gothic Novels (in honour of Mary Shelley)

Today, August 30, 2017, marks the 220th birthday of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley who is best known for writing, Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus.  In celebration of Shelley’s gothic masterpiece, I thought I’d suggest some titles of other gothic novels. 

Gothic fiction places heavy emphasis on atmosphere, using setting and diction to build suspense and a sense of unease in the reader.  Common subject matter includes the supernatural, family curses, mystery, and madness.  The novel usually regarded as the first gothic novel is The Castle of Otranto by English author Horace Walpole, which was first published in 1764.

Here are some of my favourites, most of which are considered classics of the genre:
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

If you want to learn more about gothic fiction, I highly recommend this British Library site:

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Highest Earning Writers in 2017

Forbes, the American business magazine, released a list of the world’s highest-paid authors in 2017. 

J. K. Rowling heads the list at $95 million; James Patterson is second at $87 million; and Jeff Kinney comes in third at $21 million.  Dan Brown and Stephen King round out the top five.  See for the list of top ten.

The top three are the same as last year, though the order has changed.  See  for the world’s highest paid authors in 2016. 

To the salaries of which of these writers have you contributed?

Monday, August 28, 2017

Print Books versus E-Books

Most people tend to prefer either actual print books or e-books.  Those who prefer the former focus on the tactile and state that they like how paper pages feel in their hands; those who prefer the latter often argue for the practicality of e-readers.  I read both, but definitely use ebooks when I’m travelling.

Now science has weighed in on the debate and the conclusion is that actual paper books are better.
According to studies, reading in print helps with comprehension while e-readers limit one's sensory experience and thus reduce long-term memory of the text.

“Before the Internet, the brain read in a linear fashion, taking advantage of sensory details to remember where key information was in the book by layout. As we increasingly read on screens, our reading habits have adapted to skim text rather than really absorb the meaning. . . . This sort of nonlinear reading reduces comprehension and actually makes it more difficult to focus the next time you sit down with a longer piece of text.”

According to studies, linear reading, away from the distractions of modern technology, not only helps one’s ability to concentrate but reduces stress.  Reading the old-fashioned way has also been shown to increase empathy and improve sleep.

For more information, go to

Yesterday, CBC Radio's call-in show, Cross-Country Checkup, had a discussion of how digital technology has changed people's reading habits:  

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Review of HISTORY OF WOLVES by Emily Fridlund

3 Stars
I picked up this book because it appeared on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize.  The book has its strong points, but I can’t say that I experienced much pleasure while reading it.

The novel is narrated by Madeline (Linda) Furston, an adult looking back at her life as a young teen.  She lives in northern Minnesota with her parents, the remaining members of a failed commune.  Her home is a drafty cabin without the basic amenities of modern life.  She is a solitary girl who is left unsupervised and wanders the woods around her home:  “The twenty acres of land on the east side of Still Lake.  That’s what I knew.”  Two events impact her life:  the arrival of a new teacher, Mr. Grierson, who shortly afterwards is charged with two crimes of a sexual nature; and the arrival of the Gardner family.  She becomes attached to Patra Gardner who hires Linda as a babysitter for four-year-old Paul until his untimely death.

This is a sad book.  Linda is desperately lonely and feels unloved.   Her bond with her parents seems tenuous:  “I never even knew for sure if they were my real parents, or if they were simply the people who stayed around after everyone else went back to college or office jobs . . . They were more like stepsiblings than parents.”  They do not show her affection and, at one point, she has no contact with her mother for two years.  Until the arrival of Patra, Linda’s strongest bond seems to be with her dogs.  She develops an almost romantic attachment to Patra which had me wondering whether Linda was sexually attracted to her.  Linda describes herself as “flat chested, plain as a banister.  I made people feel judged” so it is understandable why she is so interested in Lily, the pretty girl who “could make people feel encouraged, blessed.”

Like many young people who have not yet matured, she is selfish and seems to lack empathy; when it is obvious that Paul is becoming more and more ill, she shows little concern for him, especially as evidenced in her meandering walk from the drugstore and her selfishness in not asking for help for him because “it would mean . . . the end of everything worthwhile [relief from boredom and loneliness for her].” 

It is with Mr. Grierson that Linda seems to identify.  She sees in his desire to be liked by his students her own desire to belong.  She also sees him as both a victim and a perpetrator since he is innocent of one of the charges made against him.  She seems to see herself in the same way:  guilty of not doing something but innocent because she only partially understood what was happening since she “took in information differently.”  Mr. Grierson tells her in a letter that some people “will defend people like me on principle because when their turns come around, they want that so badly for themselves.” 

The book examines how children become hostages to their parents’ beliefs.  Because of her parents’ chosen lifestyle, Linda often walks miles to school and wears clothes made from other people’s clothes.  Linda is ostracized at school and is desperately lonely.  She mentions that she knows only one way to pray:  Dear God, please help Mom, Dad, Tameka, Abe, Jasper, Doctor, Quiet, and Paul to be not too bored and not too lonely.  Not too.  It was the only prayer I knew.”  Obviously, to be bored and lonely are feelings she knows first-hand.  Perhaps it is this life that accounts for Linda’s fascination with wolves; she wants a time when she can be an alpha animal.  Paul is another example of someone whose life is determined by his parents; their beliefs affect decisions he and his wife make regarding Paul. 

The book also examines whether actions or thoughts are more important.  Leo, Paul’s father, believes “’It’s not what you do but what you think that matters.’”  He uses this belief to justify his inaction.  And Mr. Grierson feels guilty because he thought of committing a crime even though he never acted on it.  Linda is not sure and wonders whether “It’s not what you think but what you do that matters.”  She remains passive when action is needed and there are terrible consequences for which she feels guilt.

I have several problems with the book.  I found it very slow because there is minimal plot and very little suspense.  We are told from the first page that Paul dies, so it does not take long for any astute reader to see where the book is going.  Another weakness is that at times the writer explains too much and at other times she explains too little.  For example, Linda is a keen observer of nature so descriptions of the natural world abound.  Repeatedly, such descriptions are used to convey mood and to foreshadow.  This technique became tedious after a while.  On the other hand, the Grierson story and the Gardner narrative seem unrelated and the reader is left to figure out the connections.  Unfortunately, because I quickly found the book tedious, I didn’t really want to spend time figuring out the messages. 

The issues the author addresses are important, but I just found little enjoyment in the way she examines various themes.  I appreciate interpretive literature that inspires me to think but that does not mean it should be devoid of entertainment value. 

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Female Detectives in Literature

In yesterday’s blog entry, I drew attention to some female villains in literature.  Of course, women can also be crime solvers who bring villains to justice. 

As a young reader, I read all the Nancy Drew books.  The schoolgirl detective set me onto the path of becoming a lifelong crime fiction reader.  Later I encountered Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple.  A more recent favourite has been Lisbeth Salander, Stieg Larsson’s creation in The Millennium Trilogy.  And I can’t forget Precious Ramotswe, the protagonist in the series The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith, or Temperance Daesee Brennan, the forensic anthropologist in the novels of Kathy Reichs.

Wikipedia has an extensive list of fictional female investigators from novels, short stories, radio, television, films and video games:  
Female detectives in fiction often contend with sexism, in addition to battling the mysteries at the centre of their cases.  I just finished a novel, Murder Below Zero by John Lawrence Reynolds, in which the protagonist, Maxine Benson, is a police chief but many doubt her ability to handle policing because she is a woman.  (My review of this book will be posted on September 8.)

The Guardian newspaper recently had an article about female detectives in literature:

A book that I think I’ll pick up is Pistols and Petticoats:  175 Years of Lady Detectives in Fact and Fiction by Erika Janik.  I read an excerpt from the book and it sounds really interesting:

Friday, August 25, 2017

Female Villains in Literature

After discussing literary villains in yesterday’s blog, I thought I’d focus on female villains in literature.  In my opinion, Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth would certainly rank amongst the “best.”  From modern fiction, Amy Dunne in Gone Girl deserves mention as does Nurse Ratched in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. 

I just finished reading Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, The Golden House, and it has Vasilisa who will rank “among the all-time pantheon of designing women.”  (See my review on September 5, the date of the book’s release.)

Check out these sites for other suggestions for femme fatales:

If you want to focus on female killers, LitHub has suggestions for you:

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Literary Villains

Yesterday’s blog entry about real-life villains who have had literary pretensions got me thinking about villains in fiction.

Shakespeare excelled at portraying villains:  Iago in Othello; Lady Macbeth in Macbeth; Edmund from King Lear; Claudius in Hamlet; and Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus.  But other writers have also included some dastardly villains.

Various publications at various times have compiled lists of literary villains:
The Telegraph: ); this list prepared by the British newspaper is the most extensive and though it is from 9 years ago, it is still useful if you are interested in meeting some evil guys or gals in your next book.    

For other suggestions about memorable “bad guys,” see these lists:

And then take a look at the Norton Critical Edition Periodic Tale of Literary Villains:

There would be no great literature without great villains.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017


I recently came across an article on LitHub which presented a list of novels, poetry, and essays by authoritarians.  It seems that a number of authoritarian figures have had literary pretensions.  Beside Joseph Stalin, Joseph Goebbels, and Muammar Gaddafi is included the recently departed White House Chief Strategist, Stephen Bannon.  For an interesting look at what these and others wrote, see

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

2017 Hugo Awards

The Hugo Awards, established in 1955, are considered one of the world's top prizes for science fiction writing.  They are given annually for the best science fiction or fantasy works and achievements of the previous year.  The finalists were announced earlier this month in Helsinki, Finland.

A year after NK Jemisin became the first black person to win the Hugo award for best novel, the African American author has landed the prestigious science fiction prize for the second year running.  She becomes the first person in 25 years to win the award two years in a row.  She took the prize, which is voted for by fans, for The Obelisk Gate, the follow-up to her Hugo award-winning novel The Fifth Season.  The Broken Earth series is set in a world that is constantly threatened by seismic activity, and where the mutants who can control the environment are oppressed by humans.

Here are some of the other winners:
Best Novella:  Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire
Best Novelette:  “The Tomato Thief,” by Ursula Vernon
Best Short Story:  “Seasons of Glass and Iron,” by Amal El-Mohtar   (Amal El-Mohtar is a Canadian!)

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Global Anthology

Yesterday, I blogged about the plan to find the Great American Novel.  Today, I thought I’d mention The Global Anthology, an initiative that highlights a work of prose from every country, as well as many nations, states, sovereignties, territories, and flag-less regions.

One piece was chosen for each country, including something from all 193 member states of the United Nations.  Every piece had to be written in or translated into English and every writer had to be native to the country represented.  The focus is on featuring under-known and contemporary writers.

“This isn’t a perfect anthology, but it is a sincere attempt to cast as wide a literary light on the world as we could for English readers. And it will be a living thing, its scope periodically updated and expanded until we’ve accounted for a voice from within every human border.”

To read something from Abkhazia or Zimbabwe or any place in between, go to

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Great American Read

At the end of July, PBS announced THE GREAT AMERICAN READ, a new eight-part television series and nationwide campaign to explore the joy of books and the power of reading.  Its aim is to start a national conversation about inspiring and influential books.

Initially, 100 books will be selected by the American public and an advisory panel of literary professionals.  The reveal of these titles in May of 2018 will also feature appearances by celebrities and everyday Americans advocating for and explaining their personal connections to their favourite books.  Then several episodes will explore the nominated books through themes such as “Being American,” “Heroes,” “Growing Up,” “What We Do for Love”.   As summer turns to fall, voting will close and America’s top 10 books will be revealed, counting down to America’s Best-Loved in the final episode of the series in September 2018.

Can we take bets that Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird will be the winner?

I couldn’t help but wonder whether PBS was inspired by Canada Reads, the annual debate on CBC?

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Music Inspired by Literature

I recently wrote about reading and music ( and then came across a BookRiot article listing songs that reference classic works of literature (

This lead to my thinking about songs that actually retell a work of literature.  One of my favourite singers/songwriters is Loreena McKennitt and she has included on her CDs a number of songs based, in whole or in part, on literary works, both prose and poetry.

An Ancient Muse:
“Penelope’s Song” gives the perspective of Penelope, Odysseus’s faithful wife.
“The English Ladye and the Knight” is a poem by Sir Walter Scott set to music.

The Visit:
“The Lady of Shalott” is the poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson set to music.

Parallel Dreams:
“Annachie Gordon” is the Romeo and Juliet story told in a Scottish folk song.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley:
“Down By the Sally Gardens” is based on the W. B. Yeats poem.

The Book of Secrets:
“The Highwayman” sets Alfred Noyes’ poem to music.
“Dante’s Prayer” was inspired by The Divine Comedy.

McKennitt also sings songs from Shakespeare’s plays:
“Prospero’s Speech” on The Mask and Mirror
“Cymbeline” on The Visit

If you are interested in listening to musical versions of literature, Wikipedia has an extensive list of such songs:

Friday, August 18, 2017

Writing a Character Sketch of Donald J. Trump

Considering all the drama emanating from the White House, people may sometimes feel they are living in a fictional world from which they would like to escape.  BookRiot recently speculated about our being trapped in a novel with Donald Trump as a main character.  Read what readers/reviewers might say:

When I was teaching English, I taught students how to write a character sketch; before asking them to write one for a character in the novel we were reading, I would have them write one for a famous person or fictional character everyone could identify.  If I were teaching today, I know a lot of students would choose to write their sketch of Donald J. Trump.

I imagine statements like the following: 
Donald J. Trump is a totally egotistical character who only ever thinks of how things impact him.  Every speech, regardless of the topic, will eventually have him mentioning his accomplishments which will, in virtually all cases, be greatly exaggerated.  He expects total loyalty, even if that means not defending the country’s Constitution.
Trump has poor impulse control which causes him to say stupid things without considering the impact of his words.  He tweets constantly and obviously doesn’t stop to check what he is going to post.  He is like a bully who cannot control his emotions and resorts to threats of revenge.    
The 45th president is also very hypersensitive; to say he has a thin skin is to understate the extent of his sensitivity to criticism.  Should anyone be even mildly critical of him, he lashes out.  A deep sense of insecurity probably lies at the bottom of this touchiness. 

If you were going to write a character sketch of Donald Trump, what traits would you highlight?

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Maybe We Need More Utopian Literature?

Yesterday, I wrote about the recent popularity of dystopian literature, a genre that often reflects the darkness of today’s world.  But perhaps what we should be reading is more utopian fiction in which the author proposes a better way of life than currently exists. 

The word "utopia" was coined by Sir Thomas More for his 1516 book Utopia, but the genre has roots dating back to antiquity.  Luke Mastin in his website ( has an extensive list of utopian fiction; for each book, he mentions the publication date, the country of the author, and a brief synopsis of the plot and description of the utopian society.  He also indicates which books are, in general, best described as utopias and which dystopias and which have elements of both.  He also notes which books are the classic utopias, which are second-rank in the genre, and which are books where the utopian element is more peripheral.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Dystopian Literature: Today's Must-Read Genre

As I discussed the other day, apparently book sales have suffered since Trump became president ( except for dystopian literature.  I’ve blogged about this genre in the past (, but thought it was worth discussing again in light of this finding. 

There was a recent article in the Village Voice entitled “Darkness Falls on America” which argues “In a country turned upside down, is it any wonder that dystopian fiction rules?”  It reviews some recent dystopian books set in the U.S.: 

If you’re looking for suggestions for your next foray into this genre, check this list of 100 works of dystopian fiction:
Here you’ll find literary fiction, young-adult works, graphic novels, realist tomes, some books written long ago, and others published in just the last few years.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Review of LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by George Saunders

4 Stars 
This experimental novel puzzled and frustrated me at first but I adapted to its style and in the end was so very happy I had persisted.  It is definitely a book worth reading.

Eleven-year-old Willie Lincoln, son of President Lincoln, died in 1862.  The author imagines him trapped in bardo, a transitional world between life and the afterlife.  Willie is not alone; many people are in bardo with him – people who have died but who are in denial and are unwilling to complete their journey to the afterlife.  Willie remains in bardo because of his father’s love and grief; his father comes to the cemetery to mourn and promises to return, and Willie wants to be there when he does.  It is imperative that Willie leave bardo because “the architect of this place has, for reasons we cannot know, deemed that to be a child and to love one’s life enough to desire to stay here is, in this place, a terrible sin, worthy of the most severe punishment.”  A trio of spirits makes it their mission to influence Lincoln to let his son move on. 

It is the book’s style which stands out at first.  There are two sections.  The story of the living, focusing on Lincoln at the time of his son’s death, is told via a collage-like narrative.  Quotations from both real and invented primary sources are carefully arranged to describe events and Lincoln’s reaction to Willie’s death.  What is often emphasized is the contradictory elements; for instance, Lincoln’s eyes are described as dark grey, gray-brown, bluish-brown, blueish-gray, and blue, and he is described as “the homeliest man” and “the ugliest man” and “the handsomest man” depending on the observer. 

The story of the bardo is also told from multiple perspectives.  roger bevins III, hans vollman and reverend everly thomas are the main narrators, but numerous other voices are heard as well:  a soldier, a murderer, a rape victim, an alcoholic couple, a pickle merchant, a disgraced clerk, slaves, etc.  Again, the words of these bardo inhabitants are strung together like the quotations are assembled in the other section.  These speakers are often physically deformed, their disfigurements representing their failings, desires or pre-occupations when they were alive.  For example, a man who was killed just before consummating his marriage has a huge erect penis.  They represent the aspirations and disappointments of ordinary people; frequently, they focus on missed opportunities.  What these speakers also share is an unwillingness to accept their death.  They have a number of euphemisms for their condition; their coffins, for instance, are “sick-boxes.” 

What emerges most strongly from the book is the portrayal of President Lincoln.  He is shown as a thoughtful, dignified man burdened by a terrible personal grief but also by the grief of the nation because of the Civil War.  At one point, he is described as “the saddest man in the world” and when he mourns his son he becomes “a sculpture on the theme of loss.”  He comes to realize that it is grief and loss that unify all mankind:  “His mind was freshly inclined toward sorrow; toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow; that everyone labored under some burden of sorrow; that all were suffering; that whatever way one took in this world, one must try to remember that all were suffering  (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact; that his current state of sorrow was not uniquely his, not at all, but, rather, its like had been felt, would yet be felt, by scores of others, in all times, in every time. . .”

Of course, it is not only Willie that is in bardo.  Lincoln, like any person grieving the loss of a loved one, is also in a transitional phase, between his former life in which Willie lived and the next phase after he comes to terms with his son’s death, accepting that his son “came out of nothingness, took form, was loved, was always bound to return to nothingness.”  Lincoln is described as “An opening book.  That had just been opened up somewhat wider.  By sorrow.”  He realizes that “in this state, he could be of no help to anyone and, given that his position in the world situated him to be either of great help or great harm, it would not do to stay low, if he could help it.”  All that is missing during his epiphany is the “always bone-chilling, firesound associated with the matterlightblooming phenomenon.” 

This is a book I may re-read.  I’m certain there is much that I missed, especially at the beginning when I was impatient with the style.  I guess even readers may initially find themselves in bardo until they embrace the unusual form.  Readers should be warned, however, that pathos permeates the book; sections where Lincoln is shown mourning his son are heart-wrenching. 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Books for Dog Lovers

Today, August 13, our dog Akira, an Alaskan Malamute, turns 7 ½ years old.  If you have a companion dog or love dogs, you are probably a sucker for books about them. 

I’ve found a number of sites recommending books for dog lovers:
Many of the recommendations are non-fiction, but some fiction titles are included as well.

Akira when she first joined the family

Akira as an adult

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Book Sales Suffer under Trump's Presidency

I’ve written about Donald Trump’s lack of reading ( though it seems he has inspired a number of writers ( and lists of suggested readings during his term in office (   There was even a campaign to buy Trump a book for Valentine’s Day:

Despite having inspired writers and lists of recommended readings to survive his presidency, it seems that the president has actually had a detrimental effect on book sales.  An article in the New Republic argues that “Trump’s Presidential win has sent a rippling effect through the book publishing world, affecting authors, booksellers, editors, agents, and publicists: In a world where reality has become stranger than fiction, actual books are no longer selling.” 

Apparently, watching televised hearings has replaced reading:  “The disastrous and almost comically incompetent Trump presidency has both frightened the reading market away from popular books and functioned as a kind of mass entertainment with which it is difficult to compete, with Senate hearings and official testimonies becoming must-see TV.” 

The good news is that “there seems to be a renaissance emerging for marginalized artists: The same identities that are being persecuted and demonized by the Trump administration are finding a warm welcome from an increasingly diverse literary audience that is eager to hear vulnerable voices.” 

The article concludes, “For authors whose books were released in the thick of the political storm, to booksellers watching readers flock to dystopian works, the Trump administration has succeeded in influencing our consideration of books—not necessarily for better or for worse, but in ways that demonstrate how much we need words to survive and provide solace for troubling times ahead.” 

Friday, August 11, 2017


When Sean Spicer resigned as Donald Trump’s press secretary, Twitter was abuzz and the hashtag SeanSpicerABook quickly appeared.  Here people have suggested titles for the book Spicer might want to write about his time working at the White House.

Some of my favourites are “The Brief Wondrous Career of Sean Spicer,” “ Far From the Madding Crowd-Size,” “ Low Expectations,” “ The Spicer in the Rye,” and “2107: A Spice Odyssey”.

Check out #SeanSpicerABook for other wonderful suggestions. 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Icelandic Crime Fiction

I recently came across an interesting article about Icelandic mysteries ( and quickly discovered that I’ve read all of the authors mentioned in the piece.

Read the article and then check my reviews of the books:

To watch the Trapped television series, go to Netflix.  It is definitely worth watching.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Archival Review of LAST RITUALS by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

I've been reading several Icelandic mysteries and thought I'd post a review from my archives of the first Icelandic mystery I ever encountered.  I read this first in the Thóra Guðmundsdóttir series back in April of 2012.

Review of Last Rituals by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir
2 stars  
Harald Guntlieb, a university student from Germany, is killed in Iceland and a friend of his is arrested. Harald's family doubts the police explanation and sends Matthew Reich to investigate further. Since Matthew speaks no Icelandic, he hires a lawyer, Thora Gudmundsdottir, to assist him. The murder investigation soon leads them to research the history of sorcery in Iceland, Harald's thesis topic.

What this mystery really lacks is dramatic tension. There is virtually none. There are macabre touches but a "yuck" factor is not the same as suspense. The investigation plods along and no one is ever in any real danger. A great deal of luck and coincidence helps to solve the case: "'the evidence came from two different sources on the very same day'" (272). To make matters worse, there are plot tangents, mostly into Thora's personal life; she has to deal with some family issues which are totally irrelevant to the main plot. How she handles one particular family crisis is clearly intended to develop her character, but her traits could have been shown in her involvement in the murder investigation.

There are problems with Thora's characterization. She seems immature for her age. She is so scatter-brained that she serves a guest a meal without a main course (254). She is so naive that she seems not to have discussed safe sex with her sixteen-year-old son. In addition, her knowledge of the law seems weak. She and her partner in a law firm are not particularly astute: "Who would consult a legal firm that specializes in contractual law yet messes up its own contracts" (6)? Later, "She was wondering whether she could be disbarred for serious abuse of her position and a flagrant conflict of interest. In fact she was unsure whether the law made such a provision . . ." Then she asks a police officer, "'Can I see [the accused] alone or am I supposed to be present when he's interrogated'" (271)?

The relationship between Matthew and Thora is stereotypical. They are obviously intended to be foil characters in the vein of Brennan and Booth in Bones or the Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis characters in Moonlighting. There is little original in their depiction - (not so)witty repartee with some unacknowledged sexual attraction.

Two other novels in this series have been translated into English and I may read them, but only if nothing else demands my attention more strongly.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Review of THE ONLY CAFÉ by Linden MacIntyre (New Release)

3.5 Stars 
Pierre Cormier had been a Phalangist militiaman during the Lebanese Civil War before arriving in Canada as a refugee.  Twenty-five years later at The Only Café in Toronto, Pierre met Ari, a mysterious man who had worked in intelligence for the Israeli Defense Forces and was, Pierre believed, in Lebanon during the civil war and involved in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre.  Then, after a major scandal involving the mining corporation for which he worked as a lawyer, Pierre disappeared, presumably dying because of a propane tank explosion aboard his boat. 

Five years later, Pierre is finally declared dead.  His son Cyril, an intern at a national newsroom, is conducting research for a documentary on domestic terrorism but also ends up looking into his father’s secretive past and his death.  He tracks down Ari to find out what he knows about Pierre and his disappearance.

In the first part of the book, the author deliberately obfuscates.  This evasiveness and the narrative’s different timelines (Pierre’s Lebanese past; Pierre’s final weeks; Cyril’s present) leave the reader feeling confused.  MacIntyre seems to want the reader to feel how Cyril feels since he knows little about his father and even less about events in Lebanon during his father’s life there.  The reader gains clarity as Cyril does. 

I knew little about the Lebanese Civil War and so did some research especially into the Karantina, Damour, and Sabra and Shatila massacres.  Because of my lack of knowledge, I was often confused.  A historical timeline with some brief explanatory notes would have been really helpful.  (i.e. Karantina was a predominantly Palestinian Muslim slum district in mostly Christian east Beirut controlled by forces of the Palestine Liberation Organization; in 1976, Karantina was overrun by militias of the right-wing and mostly Christian Lebanese Front, specifically the Kataeb Party (Phalangists), resulting in the deaths of approximately 1,500 people, mostly Muslims.  The Damour massacre was a reprisal for the Karantina massacre.  Damour, a Maronite Christian town, was attacked by Palestine Liberation Organisation units. Part of its population died in battle or in the massacre that followed, and the remainder were forced to flee.  The Sabra and Shatila massacre was the killing of civilians, mostly Palestinians and Lebanese Shiites, by a militia close to the Kataeb Party, carried out virtually under the eyes of their Israeli allies.) 

Sometimes I felt rather overwhelmed by trying to keep the politics straight.  Occasionally, it is also difficult to determine who is speaking because there are long stretches of dialogue with no indication of the speaker.  There are also events that take focus away from the main storyline.  For instance, what is the purpose of including Cyril’s on again/off again romantic relationship? 

A more significant issue is the portrayal of Cyril.  He is an intern who knows little about domestic terrorism and the radicalization of youth, yet he is chosen to be part of a team working on a documentary on the topic.  He “became quickly lost as the discussion shifted to Syria and its potential to cause havoc in Lebanon,” but he’s told, “’I hear you’ve made a strong impression’”? 

A major theme is that the past is never dead:  “The past is never dead as long as there is memory.  Memory is the afterlife, both hell and heaven.”  Cyril is told that “’there is no distinction between what’s historical and what’s contemporary.’”  Events in the novel certainly bear this out.  Pierre’s fate, for example, is a direct result of events in the past and Cyril’s life has certainly been impacted by the past his father could not escape or totally forget.  On a broader scale, current events often have their nascence in long past events.       
There is a great deal in this novel; in fact, sometimes, it seems that there is too much.  It is a book I should probably re-read because I think there is much I missed.  There is mystery and suspense, but not a conclusive ending.  Considering the book’s theme,  such an ending is appropriate.  I recommend the book but with the suggestion that the reader first read a bit about the Lebanese Civil War. 

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

Monday, August 7, 2017

Reading and Music

Do you listen to music when you read?  Usually soft jazz or classical music is played when I read.  You can listen to “Music for Reading” at

On the topic of music, when I was researching Shakespeare and his influence on art for my blog entry of August 5, I came across a quiz about the songs in Shakespeare’s plays: 

I try to read or re-read at least one Shakespeare play a year, and when I do, I often play two cds I own:

One is Sweet Airs That Give Delight; this recording is a celebration of the music which has been written for various productions of Shakespeare at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario.

Cleo Laine Wordsongs has 30 tracks in which the singer performs songs inspired by Shakespeare and other poets.  My favourites are “Dunsinane Blues” and “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day” and “The Compleat Works”.  In this last piece, she sings the titles  of all of Shakespeare’s plays. 

If you like country music, this article pairing classic country songs with books might be of interest to you:

Sunday, August 6, 2017

"The Parthenon of Books"

Yesterday, I blogged about an exhibition of art inspired by Shakespeare’s plays.  There is another exhibition that readers might like to see in Kassel, Germany.

South American conceptual artist, Marta Minujín, designed an installation called ‘The Parthenon of Books.’  Minujin compiled a list of 170 books banned in various parts of the world, and she asked the public for help in gathering 100,000 copies of them.

The installation has been constructed, with the same dimensions of the real-life Parthenon in Athens, at Friedrichsplatz Park where, on May 19, 1933, Nazi sympathisers burned an estimated 2,000 prohibited books by Jewish or Marxist writers. 

The exhibition ends on September 17, at the end of which the books will be re-circulated to the public.

The artist also constructed a replica in Buenos Aires in 1983, choosing books banned during the Argentinian military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983.  The Tate Gallery in London has a documentary record of this project:

For more photos and information about the current exhibition, go to   And for a video, watch