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Thursday, November 30, 2017

Review of THE GUEST ROOM by Chris Bohjalian

3.5 Stars
Richard Chapman hosts a bachelor party for his younger brother Philip.  The entertainment for the evening, provided by one of Philip’s friends, turns out to be two young prostitutes, Sonja and Alexandra, who arrive with their bodyguards.  An orgy ensues, and the evening ends with the bodyguards being killed by the young women before they flee.  The novel then focuses on the aftermath of the party.  Richard, who almost had sex with Alexandra, has to deal with the impact of his decisions on his marriage and family and job.  

The narrative is split between Richard (and the consequences he faces because of what happened at the party) and Alexandra (and the chronicle of her sex enslavement).  It is Alexandra’s story, narrated in the first person, which is most intriguing.  Her experiences serve as an exposé of human trafficking.  In comparison, Richard’s plight arouses much less sympathy.  Though he does not escape unscathed by any means, he has the resources, financial and otherwise, to help him mitigate the worst consequences of his stupidity. 

It is this stupidity that is Richard’s outstanding trait.  Knowing his brother, he still agrees to host Philip’s bachelor party?  A man with a wife and a 9-year-old daughter is fine with strippers being in his family home?  Then he proceeds to behave like Philip and his friends instead of being a responsible host concerned about his house and the welfare of his guests?  His lapses in judgement are just too many to be credible.  Then he continues to have lustful thoughts about her even after learning she could be underage?  Of course, the reader is to believe that eventually he begins to recognize his role in Alexandra’s victimization, but his change is not convincing.  And don’t get me started on his behaviour at the climax:  “not caring.  Not caring at all.  So be it.”  The climax seems contrived to have Richard wearing a superhero cape.

There are other things that are incredible in the book.  Kristen, Richard’s wife, agrees to have her brother-in-law’s party in her home, even presuming that at least one stripper will be present?  Considering her doubts about the nature of her husband’s intimate encounter with Alexandra, is her behaviour at the end plausible?  Certainly, some anger towards Alexandra and Richard’s choices and actions at the end would be appropriate.  Alexandra is very wary and thinks she sees a black Escalade following her but she “didn’t think cue-ball-head babies would be so smart”?!  Alexandra, despite having no formal education in English, speaks the language so well, almost too well, yet inconsistently drops definite articles?  A lawyer would actually advise a client to pay a blackmail demand?

There are some writers who like to choose a controversial issue and make it a central topic in his/her books.  Jodi Picoult is one who comes to mind.  This novel strikes me as being in the same vein; it uses human trafficking/sex slavery to draw in potential readers.  Bohjalian undoubtedly did research on the subject and informs the reader about sexual exploitation, but he seems to have paid less attention to character development and the fine points of good-quality fiction writing. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Humourous Books

Members of a book club to which I once belonged always chuckled when we chose a humourous novel to read because there are few humourous books which I have enjoyed.  Doubtless, it’s a failing in me but the list of books which have made me laugh is very short.  I do have a sense of humour and I enjoy stand-up comedy and situation comedies, but reading funny books does nothing for me.

Two humourous books I remember really enjoying are Twisted Tales from Shakespeare by Richard Willard Armour and Bachelor Brothers' Bed & Breakfast by Bill Richardson.  The former contains hilarious parodies of Shakespeare’s plays, and the latter is a book of quiet humour about the twin hosts of a rustic retreat and their clientele of bookish and perhaps slightly confused storytellers.

A list of “100 Must-Read Funny Novels” compiled by Christine Ro for BookRiot caught my attention:  She organized her recommendations under categories:  Satire, Farce, Wordplay, Black Comedy, Surrealism, Absurdity, Culture Clash, Romantic Comedy, and Social Relations.  Maybe I’ll consult the list and see if my funny bone can be tickled. 

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Oldest Surviving "Books"

I am fascinated by ancient manuscripts, so I loved an article entitled “The Oldest Treasures from 12 Great Libraries” published by Atlas Obscura last month: There are some wonderful photos of illuminated manuscripts, papyrus scrolls, and clay tablets, and information about where you can see them in person. 

Monday, November 27, 2017

Book-Obsessed Fictional Characters

Last month, I blogged about the favourite books of a fictional character, Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation ( 

Check out these articles about other book-obsessed fictional characters: 

Earlier this year, Vogue magazine had an article entitled “22 books your favourite fictional characters have read and you should too” (,41288).  
Personally, I like the reading lists of fictional characters featured in The Atlantic a few years ago:

How many of Lisa Simpson’s books have you read:

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Literary Postage Stamps

I have a friend who was an English teacher for 30 years; he is also a philatelist.  It is not surprising therefore, that he is especially interested in postage stamps featuring authors and works of literature.  After a bit of research, I discovered that literary postage stamps are not that rare.

James M. Hutchison has an extensive collection of stamps that feature literary topics, and part of it can be seen at  He states that “Among countries Great Britain by far and away leads the rest in terms of special stamp issues that feature literary topics.” 

If, however, you are interested in American literary postage stamps, why not take this quiz of 30 American postage stamps with a literary theme:

If you just want to view some literary postage stamps from around the world, check out 

Of course, postage stamps are often issued after a writer’s death.  See for some living authors who have been immortalized on postage stamps. 

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Not So Horrible Horror Books?

Horror is not a genre I read, but it is one that is a favourite for many people.  If you do enjoy scary books, check out this list of 100 the greatest horror books of all time:  Not surprisingly, several of Stephen King’s books are on the list. 

At, you can see a list of classic horror books and a list of notable new fiction in the genre.
If you’re interested in contemporary horror, check out this list of the most anticipated horror of 2017 ( or the Chicago Review of Book’s best horror of 2017: 

Earlier this year, Literary Hub offered a list of 10 literary horror books (, and if you like your horror readings to have a historical setting, check out this list:

Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House appears on virtually everyone’s list of most scary books, so it is not surprising that Netflix is working on a 10-episode straight-to-series re-imagining of Shirley Jackson’s classic 1959 novel.  Apparently, the modern re-imagining draws from the original classic ghost story while expanding on the mythology of the Crane family.  A specific release date has not yet been announced, so look for it in 2018. 

Friday, November 24, 2017

A Waterless Bookwash?

If you, like I, have a fairly large number of print books, you have undoubtedly dealt with having to clean them.  Though I tend to be fairly fastidious, whenever I take down a rarely-used book from one of Schatje’s Shelves, I end up blowing off a layer of dust.  I wish I had a Depulvera, a book-cleaning machine that resembles a carwash. 

As I write up my wish list for Santa, maybe I’ll add one of these!

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Review of ILL WILL by Dan Chaon

4 Stars
Dustin Tillman, a 41-year-old psychologist, is experiencing a lot of turmoil in his life.  His wife has recently died and he learns that his adoptive brother Rusty has been exonerated and released from prison after 30 years.  Rusty had been convicted of killing his adoptive parents and another couple.  As a very impressionable young boy, Dustin had described Rusty’s involvement in satanic rituals; this testimony had led to Rusty’s conviction.  As he grieves his wife’s death and frets about his deteriorating relationship with his sons, Dustin welcomes the distraction of investigating a series of drowning deaths which a patient of his believes are the work of a serial killer.  Meanwhile he fails to see how his son Aaron is increasingly abusing drugs. 

The book explores the unreliability of memories.  As an adult Dustin realizes that he may not remember events exactly as they happened; he tells a patient that “our recall of episodic memories becomes less accurate because of post-event information.”  But as a child he didn’t realize the significance of a question asked by an older cousin who also testified at Rusty’s trial:  “’What if we made a mistake?’”  Of course, Dustin has also lived much of his life trying not to remember certain events or his role in Rusty’s conviction:  The mind has its unknown mercies and ministrations, many sealed chambers . . . Some people’s entire lives are directed by trying not to remember something.”  One of the characters concludes, “Most people seemed to believe that they were experts of their own life story.  They had a set of memories that they strung like beads, and this necklace told a sensible tale.  But she suspected that most of these stories would fall apart under strict examination – that, in fact, we were only peeping through a keyhole of our lives, and the majority of the truth, the reality of what happened to us, was hidden.  Memories were no more solid than dreams. . . . ‘I don’t think anybody really remembers the truth of what happened to them.  They just remember the pieces that fit together logically’.”

The book also explores the difficulty of separating reality from fantasy.  As a child, Dustin was “eager to please and easily tricked” and more than once was manipulated into believing he witnessed things he was not present to have witnessed.  Dustin tells a patient, “’People can find patterns in all kinds of random events.  It’s called apophenia.  It’s the tendency we humans have to find meaning in disconnected information.’”  He also knows that “The mind is tricked by all kinds of stimuli and stress makes it worse.”  At one point Dustin says, “’We have theories about how things will turn out, and when we cling to those too tightly, it . . . closes off our experience of the world.  Our ability to see things for what they are.’”  Ironically, Dustin doesn’t realize that he has the most difficulty differentiating fact from fantasy; he doesn’t see the truth in front of him and succumbs to the “belief that random and meaningless things are connected.”  The consequences for him are horrific.  He fails to understand that sometimes perhaps all one can conclude is that “Possibly there was a glint of reality in it, somewhere.”

The lack of communication among characters means that people have even more difficulty determining what happened.  Dustin and his wife don’t tell their sons about the murder of Dustin’s family and don’t even tell them that she is dying!  The reader is given access to the minds of all the major characters and he/she soon realizes that no one has a full understanding of past and/or present events.    If Dustin, his cousins and Rusty actually talked to each other, they could have figured out what really happened in the past.  If Dustin and Aaron had real conversations, they would see what is actually happening in the present.

Characterization is a strong element in the novel.  The characters are complex with no one being flawless or blameless, but it is the depiction of Dustin that stands out.  As a child he was very gullible; his desire to please also meant he could be easily manipulated.  As an adult, he hasn’t really changed.  He has an amazing capacity for self-delusion and can still be manipulated; his son and even a patient see these traits.  Dustin often doesn’t complete sentences; he lets others finish them – what a perfect metaphor for his letting other people lead his thinking. 

There is a great deal of suspense because there are so many questions.  For example, knowing Dustin’s crucial role in his conviction, will Rusty exact revenge on his brother?  Why is Aqil so obsessed with the drownings?  Who actually killed Dustin’s parents and why?  Because no one person knows the whole truth, everyone comes to suspect everyone else and there’s “a soft glow of ill will” throughout. 

This is a dark novel about people living out their lives in lies and half-truths.  Prospective readers should also be forewarned that the ending is somewhat open-ended.  Considering its thematic explorations, vagueness and ambiguity are appropriate.  It is a novel which does probably need a second reading to ensure that the reader has not been deceived or manipulated or is guilty of retrospective patterning, “the fallacy of seeing planning where there is none.  A design that doesn’t exist.”

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Canadian Literary Awards

Canada’s three major literary prizes are the 14 Governor General’s Literary Awards, the 7 Writers’ Trust Awards, and the Scotiabank Giller Prize.  Together, these total about $650,000; all have been awarded in the last month or so.  Of course, these are not the only literary awards in the country.  Here are a few others of note: First Novel Award - $40,000 is given to the best first novel in English published the previous year by a citizen or resident of Canada (

Arthur Ellis Awards – 7 awards are given for the best Canadian crime and mystery writing published in the previous year (

Aurora Awards – 8 awards are given out annually for the best Canadian science fiction and fantasy literary works (

British Columbia National Award for Non-Fiction - $40,000 is awarded to a non-fiction book authored by a Canadian citizen or a permanent resident of Canada (

Burt Award for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Literature - $12,000 goes to the best works of young adult literature published by indigenous writers in Canada (

Canadian Jewish Literary Awards – 9 awards are given to the year's best works of literature by Jewish Canadian writers or on Jewish cultural and historical topics (

Carter V. Cooper Short Fiction Competition - $15,000 in total is awarded to the best story by an emerging writer and the best story by a writer at any career point (

Cundill History Prize - A prize of US$75,000 is awarded annually to the book that embodies historical scholarship, originality, literary quality and broad appeal (

Danuta Gleed Literary Award - $10,000 is given to the best debut short fiction collection by a Canadian author in English language (

Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBTQ Emerging Writers - $4,000 is given to an emerging writer whose body of work demonstrates great potential and who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (

Donner Prize - $50,000 is awarded for the best public policy book by a Canadian (

Doug Wright Award – this prize is awarded annually to the author of the best Canadian work and the most promising talent published in English in the cartooning medium (

Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction  - $10,000 is awarded to the best creative nonfiction book with a "Canadian locale and/or significance" that is a Canadian writer's "first or second published book (

Griffin Poetry Prize - $65,000 each is given to one Canadian and one international poet who writes in the English language (

Joe Shuster Awards – several awards are given are given out annually for outstanding achievements in the creation of comic books, graphic novels, webcomics, and comics retailers and publishers by Canadians (

J.W. Dafoe Book Prize - $10,000 is awarded to the best book on “Canada, Canadians and/or Canada’s place in the world” (

Kobo Emerging Writer Prizes - $10,000 each is given to three budding Canadian authors of literary fiction, speculative fiction and non-fiction (

Kobzar Literary Award - $25,000 is given to recognize outstanding contribution to Canadian literary arts by authors who develop a Ukrainian Canadian theme with literary merit (

Lane Anderson Awards - $10,000 each is presented to Canadian non-fiction science in two categories: adult and young readers (

Lionel Gelber Prize - $15,000 is given to the world’s best non-fiction book in English on foreign affairs that seeks to deepen public debate on significant international issues (

Lorne Pierce Medal – this medal is awarded every two years by the Royal Society of Canada to recognize achievement of special significance and conspicuous merit in imaginative or critical literature written in either English or French (

National Business Book Award - $30,000 is given to outstanding talent in Canadian business writing (

RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers - Alternating each year between poetry and short fiction, the $10,000 award helps developing artists to help build their professional careers (

RBC Taylor Prize - $25,000 is awarded to the author of a book of literary non-fiction that best combines a superb command of the English language, an elegance of style, and a subtlety of thought and perception (

ReLit Award – this prize celebrates the best book from an independent publisher (

Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing - $25,000 is awarded annually for a book of literary nonfiction that captures a political subject of relevance to Canadian readers and has the potential to shape or influence thinking on Canadian political life (

Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour - $15,000 is presented for the best book of humour written in English by a Canadian writer (

Sunburst Awards for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic - $2,500 in total is awarded to to the best Canadian speculative fiction in three categories: adult, young adult and short story (

TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award - $30,000 is given for the best literary work by Canadian authors for children aged one through 12 (

Vine Awards for Canadian Jewish Writing - $10,000 is given to each of five category winners to celebrate excellence in Canadian Jewish writing (

These are just the national awards.  There are any number of regional awards (e.g. the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award and the Atlantic Book Awards), provincial awards (e.g. British Columbia has 8 BC Book Prizes; Ontario has 4 Trillium Book Awards; and Newfoundland and Labrador has its Winterset Award), and even awards given by cities for its writers (e.g. City of Vancouver Book Award, City of Toronto Book Award, Ottawa Book Award). 

With all of these awards, one might ask whether Canada actually has too many awards.  Mark Medley recently addressed this issue in The Globe and Mail:

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Shortlists for 2017 Costa Book Awards

The Costa Book Awards is one of the UK's most prestigious and popular literary prizes and recognizes some of the most enjoyable books of the year, written by authors based in the UK and Ireland.  Uniquely, the prize has five categories - First Novel, Novel, Biography, Poetry and Children's Book - with one of the five winning books selected as the overall Costa Book of the Year. It is the only prize which places children’s books alongside adult books in this way.  Today the shortlists were announced. 

There are four nominees in the Novel category:

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

Midwinter in the early years of this century. A teenage girl on holiday has gone missing in the hills at the heart of England. The villagers are called up to join the search, fanning out across the moors as the police set up roadblocks and a crowd of news reporters descends on their usually quiet home. 
Meanwhile, there is work that must still be done: cows milked, fences repaired, stone cut, pints poured, beds made, sermons written, a pantomime rehearsed.  The search for the missing girl goes on, but so does everyday life. As it must.

 Under a Pole Star by Stef Penney
A whaler's daughter, Flora Mackie first crossed the Arctic Circle at the age of twelve, falling in love with the cold and unforgiving terrain and forging lifelong bonds with the Inuit people who have carved out an existence on its icy plains. She sets out to become a scientist and polar explorer, despite those who believe that a young woman has no place in this harsh world, and in 1892, her determination leads her back to northern Greenland at the head of a British expedition.  Yearning for wider horizons, American geologist Jakob de Beyn joins a rival expedition led by the furiously driven Lester Armitage. When the path of Flora's expedition crosses theirs, the three lives become intertwined. All are obsessed with the north, a place of violent extremes: perpetual night and endless day; frozen seas and coastal meadows; heroism and selfishness. Armitage's ruthless desire to be the undisputed leader of polar discovery sets in motion a chain of events whose tragic outcomes--both for his team of scientists and the indigenous people of Greenland--will reverberate for years to come.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
Isma is free. After years of watching out for her younger siblings in the wake of their mother’s death, she’s accepted an invitation from a mentor in America that allows her to resume a dream long deferred. But she can’t stop worrying about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong sister back in London, or their brother, Parvaiz, who’s disappeared in pursuit of his own dream, to prove himself to the dark legacy of the jihadist father he never knew. When he resurfaces half a globe away, Isma’s worst fears are confirmed.  Then Eamonn enters the sisters’ lives. Son of a powerful political figure, he has his own birthright to live up to—or defy. Is he to be a chance at love? The means of Parvaiz’s salvation? Suddenly, two families’ fates are inextricably, devastatingly entwined, in this searing novel that asks: What sacrifices will we make in the name of love?

Tin Man by Sarah Winman

It begins with a painting won in a raffle: fifteen sunflowers, hung on the wall by a woman who believes that men and boys are capable of beautiful things. And then there are two boys, Ellis and Michael, who are inseparable. And the boys become men,a nd then Annie walks into their lives, and it changes nothing and everything.

 The category winners will be announced on January 2, and the Costa Book of the Year, on January 30.

For the titles in the other categories, go to

Monday, November 20, 2017

Recent Award-Winning Fiction

Several literary prize winners have been announced recently. 

Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize
The winner of this $50,000 prize is David Chariandy for Brother.
Michael and Francis are the sons of Trinidadian immigrants; their father has disappeared and their mother works double, sometimes triple, shifts so her boys might fulfill the elusive promise of their adopted home.  Coming of age in The Park, a cluster of town houses and leaning concrete towers in the disparaged outskirts of a sprawling city, Michael and Francis battle against the prejudices and low expectations that confront them as young men of black and brown ancestry -- teachers stream them into general classes; shopkeepers see them only as thieves; and strangers quicken their pace when the brothers are behind them.  Always Michael and Francis escape into the cool air of the Rouge Valley, a scar of green wilderness that cuts through their neighbourhood, where they are free to imagine better lives for themselves.  Propelled by the pulsing beats and styles of hip hop, Francis, the older of the two brothers, dreams of a future in music.  Michael's dreams are of Aisha, the smartest girl in their high school whose own eyes are firmly set on a life elsewhere.  But the bright hopes of all three are violently, irrevocably thwarted by a tragic shooting, and the police crackdown and suffocating suspicion that follow.


National Book Award for Fiction
Jesmyn Ward won for Sing, Unburied, Sing.
Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. He doesn’t lack in fathers to study, chief among them his Black grandfather, Pop. But there are other men who complicate his understanding: his absent White father, Michael, who is in prison; his absent White grandfather, Big Joseph, who won’t acknowledge his existence; and the memories of his dead uncle, Given, who died as a teenager.  His mother, Leonie, is an inconsistent presence in his and his toddler sister’s lives.  She is an imperfect mother in constant conflict with herself and those around her.  She wants to be a better mother but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use. Simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high, Leonie is embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances.  When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary.  At Parchman, there is another thirteen-year-old boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.

I’ve just finished reading this book.  My review will be posted on December 5.

For further information about the winners of the other National Book Awards, go to

Scotiabank Giller Prize
Michael Redhill won this $100,000 prize for his novel Bellevue Square.
Jean Mason has a doppelganger. She's never seen her, but others swear they have. Apparently, her identical twin hangs out in Kensington Market, where she sometimes buys churros and drags an empty shopping cart down the streets, like she's looking for something to put in it. Jean's a grown woman with a husband and two kids, as well as a thriving bookstore in downtown Toronto, and she doesn't rattle easily—not like she used to. But after two customers insist they've seen her double, Jean decides to investigate.  She begins at the crossroads of Kensington Market: a city park called Bellevue Square. Although she sees no one who looks like her, it only takes a few visits to the park for her to become obsessed with the possibility of encountering her twin in the flesh. With the aid of a small army of locals who hang around in the park, she expands her surveillance, making it known she'll pay for information or sightings. A peculiar collection of drug addicts, scam artists, philanthropists, philosophers and vagrants—the regulars of Bellevue Square—are eager to contribute to Jean's investigation. But when some of them start disappearing, she fears her alleged double has a sinister agenda. Unless Jean stops her, she and everyone she cares about will face a fate much stranger than death.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

THE MARROW THIEVES: Internationally Recognized YA Fiction from Canada

When I was a teacher-librarian, I read quite a bit of Young Adult fiction.  Since I’ve retired, I’ve read very little; however, there’s a title that I think I will be picking up: The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline.  Dimaline recently won one of Canada's oldest and most prestigious prizes, the Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature ($25,000) and took home the 2017 Kirkus Prize for young readers' literature.  The American award comes with a purse of $50,000 U.S. (approximately $64,370 CAD).

Humanity has nearly destroyed its world through global warming, but now an even greater evil lurks.  The indigenous people of North America are being hunted and harvested for their bone marrow, which carries the key to recovering something the rest of the population has lost: the ability to dream.  In this dark world, Frenchie and his companions struggle to survive as they make their way up north to the old lands.  For now, survival means staying hidden … but what they don’t know is that one of them holds the secret to defeating the marrow thieves.

To listen to Shelagh Rogers's interview with Dimaline on “The Next Chapter”, listen at

Saturday, November 18, 2017

ALIAS GRACE: Miniseries and Audiobook

I recently finished watching the made-for-television adaptation of Alias Grace.  Based on the award-winning novel by Margaret Atwood and inspired by true events, Alias Grace tells the story of Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), a young, poor Irish immigrant and domestic servant in Upper Canada who - along with stable hand James McDermott (Kerr Logan) - finds herself accused and convicted of the infamous 1843 double murder of her employer Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross), and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin).  Grace is visited by handsome psychiatrist Dr. Jordan (Edward Holcroft), who could help set Grace free if he writes her a positive report, so she recites for him her long, grim life story, leading up to the murders. 

I really enjoyed all six episodes.  I agree with a BBC review:  Alias Grace is a solid, well-made piece of television that doesn't hide its intelligence under a bonnet, as costume dramas can do. Nor does it attempt to keep your attention with soap opera style cliff-hangers. It is better than that” ( The Guardian newspaper was even more glowing in its praise, calling it “a blessed adaptation” (

I would certainly recommend the miniseries, though, of course, I’d recommend reading the novel even more.  If you haven’t read the book, you might consider listening to it; Sarah Gadon, who plays the imprisoned Grace Marks in the adaptation, is narrating an audio version of Alias Grace, which has just been launched on ( 

Friday, November 17, 2017

Review of SON OF A TRICKSTER by Eden Robinson

3 Stars
Jared Martin lives in Kitimat, British Columbia, in a dysfunctional home.  His parents are divorced; his father is recovering from drug addiction and is financially strapped, while his mother, with whom Jared lives, has anger-management issues and keeps making poor relationship choices.  To financially support his father, Jared sells marijuana-laced cookies.  His life can only be described as dismal; the arrival of his neighbours’ granddaughter brings Jared some joy, but she has issues of her own.  Then things become downright weird when he starts having strange nightmares, seeing ghosts, and hearing talking animals.

There is little structure to the novel.  Just as Jared drifts through life, the novel feels adrift.  It seems to meander aimlessly through Jared’s days and nights of drinking, drug usage, being bullied, and having sex.  The endless partying and verbal and physical violence get tiresome.  After focusing on hyper realism, the novel changes shape and veers into magic realism where fireflies philosophize and conjugate French verbs and where river otters want to devour him. 

The message of the novel seems to be that “The world is hard . . . [so] You have to be harder.”  This advice is mentioned at least four times.  It is certainly a message that Jared takes to heart.  Despite his difficult circumstances, he never gives up.  He is, in fact, a person the reader will come to like.  Jared is caring, compassionate, and forgiving.  He takes responsibility for paying bills when his mother leaves without explanation; he helps his elderly neighbours; he helps his father catch up on late rent payments; and he makes time for people who once bullied him.  He is so kind and generous that people take advantage of him.  Of course he is not a perfect person; his sarcasm often gets him into trouble, and his substance abuse is certainly not admirable. 

Besides having a realistic protagonist, the novel is realistic in other ways as well.  The dialogue, especially that used in texting, is definitely that of contemporary teenagers.  Though his life may be more difficult than that of most teenagers, Jared’s concerns and interests are those of a typical adolescent:  social acceptance, school, partying, sex. 

Magic realism with its supernatural elements is not a genre I enjoy so the last third of the book had little interest for me.  What bothered me in particular is that it comes out of nowhere.  For example, there has been no indication that a character has supernatural powers but then she is identified as a witch:  “’She’s got this whole imaginary world going where she’s a big powerful witch and she’s being chased by mythical creatures.’”

This book appears on the shortlist for the 2017 Giller Prize and has received many positive reviews, but I was not overly impressed with it, other than that it is brutally realistic.  I think it would appeal to young people because it does address issues they face, though some school libraries might reject it because of its offensive language, graphic violence, and explicit scenes of sex and drug/alcohol abuse. 

I read that this book is the first of a trilogy, but I don’t think I’ll be reading any sequels.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

100 Novel Art Project: Typing 100 Novels on 100 Pages in 10 Years

Tim Youd, a performance artist, is half way through his 100 Novels project in which he plans, over a 10-year period, to type 100 novels, each on a single sheet of paper.  Each novel will be typed on the same make/model typewriter in a location charged with literary significance specific to the subject novel.  For example, he typed William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury at Faulkner’s former home in Oxford, Mississippi, and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms at Lake Maggiore in Switzerland where the novel’s protagonist crosses the lake in an escape to neutral territory.

Youd explains the process:  “Each novel is retyped on a single sheet of paper, backed by a second sheet, run repeatedly through the typewriter.  As the retyping progresses, the top sheet becomes saturated with ink, while the undersheet becomes embossed with indentation.  As the top sheet further distresses, ink bleeds through to the undersheet.  At the end of the performance, the two sheets are separated, and mounted side-by-side in a diptych.  This diptych serves as a formal relic, containing the repeated rectangle within the rectangle geometry present in two pages of an open book. The entire novel is present, but entirely illegible” ( 

Youd claims that his ability to read in a deep and devoted way has improved.  He explains that, “The performance itself is a devotional and close reading of the novel (the reading is silent, the sound is the typewriter alone).  My endeavor is not merely to copy the book, it is to experience deep engagement with the book.  As I have come to understand the project, it is at its heart an effort to be a truly good reader every time I sit down, and to become a better reader as I continue to move through the entire 100 novel cycle.  Most people have had the out-of-body experience that occurs during the course of an engrossing read.  It is a transportation to a higher plane of consciousness, and I think may be equivalent to a religious ecstasy” ( 

For some photos of the completed diptychs, go to  The site also has performance photos and a list of completed novels. 

Monday, November 13, 2017

Friendships between Famous Writers

Many people know of the friendship between Harper Lee and Truman Capote.  Lee used Capote as her inspiration for the character of Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird and she did considerable research for Capote’s In Cold Blood. 

To find out how well you know “book pals” why not try this quiz from The Guardian newspaper:

Then, if you are interested in the subject of famous literary friendships, there are a number of articles that might intrigue you:

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Review of MY ABSOLUTE DARLING by Gabriel Tallent

4 Stars
Turtle (Julia) Alveston, 14, lives with Martin, her survivalist father, in a decrepit, isolated house on the coast of northern California.  Martin has taught her how to shoot, make a fire, and forage for food.  He also abuses her physically, psychologically, and sexually.  Turtle’s life becomes more complicated when she meets two high school boys, Brett and Jacob.  They show her glimpses into another world which highlights how distorted is her own. 

The complex characterization of Turtle is the outstanding achievement of this novel.  She is a tough and resourceful girl who is totally self-sufficient in the natural world.  Because of her isolation and mistreatment by her father, however, she has a poor self-image; she is full of doubt and self-loathing.  She thinks of herself as “useless” (11) and “bitch” (62) and “goddamn slut” (80) because those are the things her father calls her.  In fact Martin always addresses her as “kibble,” thereby reducing her to dog food.  She doesn’t try at school because she is convinced she will fail.  Her daily life is wracked with anxiety and guilt.  Like many abuse victims, she blames herself:  “She thinks, maybe it was you all along.  Maybe there is something in you.  Something rotten.  You asked for it, or you wanted it.  Of course you did.  You brought him into this when you were just a child” (292).  And like her nickname suggests, she is focused on staying safe within her shell so she avoids contact with others. 

When she is forced to interact with other women, she echoes Martin’s misogynistic comments; for example, she calls a teacher, one who is trying to help her, a “sideways bitch” (127) and “fucking whore” (26) and “cunt” (27).  Turtle realizes that she shares some of Martin’s traits:  after teasing and taunting a classmate, “Turtle turns and walks away, and she thinks, that’s not me, that’s not who I am, that is Martin, that is something Martin does – his knack for finding the thing you hate about yourself and giving it a name.  She thinks, Christ, that was so much more like Martin, derisive, condescending, than it was like me. . . . She thinks, this is the part of him I hate most, the part that I revile, and I reached for it and it came easy” (143-144).  What differentiates her from her father is her ability to feel compassion for others. 

Turtle’s conflict throughout is her feelings for her father.  She both loves and hates him.  She loves her father and wants to protect him:  “She can’t bear that anyone else should see something he’s done wrong” (159).  She makes excuses for him; when a teacher suspects Turtle is being abused, Turtle reminds the teacher that “’He’s still hurt [from my mother’s death].  He hurts pretty badly’” (131).  She could run away but thinks, “I’m all Martin has, and I can’t leave him alone with that.  I can’t” (305).  But though she can admit, “I love him, I love him so goddamn much,” she will also admit, almost in the same breath, “I hate him for something, something he does, he goes too far, and I hate him, but I am unsure in my hatred; guilty and self-doubting and hating myself almost too much to hold it against him” (80).

Martin is memorable in his repulsive villainy.  He is very intelligent but uses his intelligence to manipulate others.  He is also unpredictable in his behaviour; one minute he is calm and loving and the next, his volatile temper explodes in violence.  He claims to love his daughter but it is a warped, possessive love; there is one horrific episode where he keeps repeating to Turtle, “’You are mine . . . Mine . . . You are mine . . . you little bitch, you are mine’” (140 – 141). 

Because Turtle is so connected to the natural world, there are many detailed descriptions:  “She and Jacob find iridescent-green centipedes, horned sea lemons with lacy gills unfurled, porcelain incrustations of spiral tube worms.  They shift more cobbles.  Sometimes, the water beneath will be still, the snails clattering across the mother-of-pearl carpets, the hermit crabs lifting their blue-pink clutch of limbs back into their blue-pink turban shells, the sullen-looking clingfish suckered against the stone, stone-colored themselves” (221).  Sometimes nature is used to emphasize Turtle’s situation:  her soul is like “a stalk of pig mint growing in the dark foundation, slithering toward a keyhole of light between the floorboards, greedy and sun-starved” (44).

The book is not flawless.  The prose tends to be ornate; at times it seems the author is trying too hard to be poetic.  Perhaps it is intended to be a reprieve from the sometimes breathtaking brutality being portrayed.  The dialogue attributed to Brett and Jacob is unrealistically precocious.  Sixteen-year-old boys are unlikely to be familiar with Finnegans Wake, The Odyssey, The Brothers Karamazov and To the Lighthouse (60) or be so verbally adept:  “’this is the chain-saw-wielding, shotgun-toting, Zen Buddhist, one-and-future queen of postapocalyptic  America’” (208). 

There are some problematic scenes as well.  The many descriptions of guns become tedious.  Perhaps it’s my dislike of guns that hates passages describing her shooting:  “She knows the sight is level when the edge appears as thin as a razor – if the gun tips up, she gets a telltale sheen off the sight’s top surface. . . She eases the play out of the 4.4-pound trigger, inhales, exhales to the natural slackening of her breath, and rolls on those 4.4 pounds” (5).  And since I know nothing about guns, descriptions of Turtle’s constant maintenance of her weapons are meaningless to me:  “Turtle sits cross-legged with the AR-10 broken open before her and the bolt carrier gutted from the receiver, shining red in the firelight, stripped of bolt and cam and firing pin.  She’s poured the carbon solvent into a lowball glass” (135). There are also some action scenes that I found over-the-top.  The climax seems to be drawn from an action film.

This book will not appeal to everyone.  It is dark and disturbing and graphic.  I found it an intense and exhausting read, but one I will not soon forget.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Books for Remembrance Day

Today is Remembrance Day, a day to contemplate and honour the sacrifice of our veterans.  It is so important that we never forget, but perhaps the best tribute we could pay our veterans would be to abolish war.  Doing a quick perusal, I was surprised by the number of anti-war novels on Schatje’s Shelves.  Some of these have explicit anti-war messages; others convey anti-war sentiments via their portrayal of the horrors of war and its effects on people.   

I posted the titles of these books last year but I’ve added books I’ve read this past year that belong on this list.
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shows the effects of the Nigerian civil war.
Empire of the Sun by J. G. Ballard tells of a young boy's struggle to survive World War II in China.
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson focuses on a fighter pilot’s wartime experience.
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah details the experiences of a child soldier.
The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian portrays life in German-occupied Italy.
The Lost History of Stars by Dave Boling shines a spotlight on the Anglo-Boer war and the mistreatment of women and children during the conflict.
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières is “nearly unbearable in its portrayal of European darkness during the war.”
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne explores the horror of WWII through the eyes of the young son of a concentration camp commandant.
Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave is set in London and Malta during WWII; no one escapes untransformed after experiencing the horrors and losses of war.
A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton has a Japanese woman revisiting her life before, during and after WWII.
The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa sheds light on the sailing of the SS St. Louis, a significant event in World War II history.
A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali by Gil Courtemanche is a brutally blunt account of the events that led to the Rwandan genocide of 1994.
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephan Crane depicts the harsh realities of the American Civil War.
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks has some brutal depictions of life in the trenches of WWI.
The Wars by Timothy Findley depicts the horrors of combat in WWI.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan is an account of Australian POW experiences as slave labourers and emphasizes man's inhumanity to man during war.
The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna, set in a Croation village after the War of Independence, chronicles how war reverberates in the daily lives of those touched by it.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain has been described as the Catch-22 of the Iraq War.
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank is a young girl’s journal written while her family was in hiding during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier paints a desolate picture of the American Civil War and its consequences.
The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway depicts life in Sarajevo in 1992 during the siege of that city.
The Tin Drum by Günter Grass is considered a classic of post-World War II literature.
The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek explores the pointlessness and futility of conflict.
Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi heightens the grotesqueness of life in Nazi Germany.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller is a satire on the insanity of war.
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway examines the tenuous nature of love in a time of war.
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway graphically describes the brutality of the Spanish civil war.
Hiroshima by John Hersey is an account of the aftermath of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, set in Afghanistan, examines the effect of warfare on individuals, societies and nations.
Tell by Frances Itani shows the effects of war on men returning home after WWI.
Schindler's Ark by Thomas Keneally is a testament to the horrors of Hitler's attempts to eradicate Jews from Europe.
Mischling by Affinity Konar focuses on two girls who become inhabitants of Mengele’s zoo in Auschwitz.
The Signal Flame by Andrew Krivák shows how families are often collateral damage in war.
The Translation of Love by Lynne Kutsukake describes the situation of the Japanese both during and after WWII.
The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer is partly based on the author’s experiences during the Philippines Campaign in World War II.
A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik examines the impact of the Liberian civil war.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra portrays life in war-torn Chechnya.
In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason examines the effects of the Vietnam War.
The Only Café by Linden MacIntyre is a mystery but highlights some of the horrific events of the Lebanese Civil War.
Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky depicts life in France during the German Occupation.
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen emphasizes the futility of the Vietnam War for the Americans.
Orhan's Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian examines the consequences of the Armenian genocide.
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje “traces the intersection of four damaged lives in an Italian villa at the end of World War II.”
All Quiet on the Western Front by  Erich Maria Remarque explores the impact of World War I on German troops during the war and afterwards.
Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay offers a portrait of France under occupation.
On the Beach by Nevil Shute imagines the aftermath of a nuclear war.
The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson set on the cusp of WWI reminds the reader of the horrors that await.
Maus by Art Spiegelman is a graphic novel about living and surviving in Hitler's Europe.
Sophie’s Choice by William Styron emphasizes the universality of the suffering under the Third Reich.
The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman is a Holocaust memoir which depicts the grim details of life in Warsaw under the Nazi occupation.
Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo is a classic anti-war novel narrated by a young American soldier injured during World War I.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, which depicts the horrors of bombing directed against civilians, is considered one of the world’s great anti-war novels.
Night by Elie Wiesel details the author’s experiences in Nazi German concentration camps.
Lost in Winter by Kathleen Winter focuses on the futility of war and the effects of war on a veteran of the war in Afghanistan.
My Heart is Not My Own by Michael Wuitchik explores the brutality and impact of the civil war in Sierra Leone.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, set in Nazi Germany with Death as its narrator, depicts the devastating effects of war.