Chosen for the 2016 Citywide Reading for Children Campaign run by Dublin UNESCO City of Literature and Dublin City Council’s Libraries Services.
The Book of Learning is the first in a trilogy from ER Murray about 12-year-old Ebony Smart. It seems that Ebony has had nine lives. She doesn’t discover that until her Grandpa dies. The strange circumstances of her Grandpa’s death push her into the arms of family that she doesn’t know and doesn’t trust. Are they responsible for her beloved Grandpa’s death? Why did he never mention them? It’s a mystery and poor Ebony only has her wits, her pet rat and a riddle-filled Book of Learning to guide her way. Who’s on her side? Were there really eight other Ebony Smart’s? Ebony needs to find her Grandpa’s murderer before it’s too late. http://www.mercierpress.ie/irish-books/book_of_learning/
This adventure book is set in Dublin and is full of mystery and wonder. There’s obviously more story brewing as it’s the first of three novels. If you’re looking for strong, defiant characters, a good story and a bit of magic then this is a great read for 8-12 year olds. Younger readers might find some of the scenes scary but that shouldn’t deter parents from reading it with under 8s. And I enjoyed it as an adult reader so it would be fun for over 12s as well.
The Rathmines library had stacks of this book on display and I’ve seen bus posters and promos around Dublin. There’s good coverage of this campaign.
Kate Atkinson, author of Life After Life, is one of those novelists whose writing is very clever yet it comes off naturally. Where Life After Life explored infinite chances, as lived by Ursula Todd, A God in Ruins is the life lived by her younger brother Teddy.
Teddy is a pilot with Bomber Command during World War II and his story is wonderfully told in the most non-chronological way. This is the cleverness I speak of. Atkinson tells the story in this patchwork fashion where the reader comes to understand the whole story but the characters often seem well ahead of the game, it being their life and all. Atkinson moves the reader back and forth between a present time and a past. It reminded me of The Time Traveller’s Wife in that way, which I enjoyed very much.
I was fascinated by the details of the air raids because of the first-hand accounts I have from James’ grandfather. Of the 120,000 who served, 55,573 were killed including over 10,000 Canadians. Teddy is British, which doesn’t get him extra luck one way or the other. We know early on that Teddy survives the war because we know that he has a wife and child. But his wife dies. We don’t know why, but we do know that his daughter is a bit of a terror, and probably was from birth anyway.
There are lovely repeated references throughout the book, like the exaltation of skylarks (the lifting of birds/planes), quips about whether a certain character believes in reincarnation (which is funny if you’ve read the previous title), lucky charms, and references to poetry and novels that offer opportunities to think deeper if you so desire.
Although the setting is during the war, or the present day is seen through that lens, it’s not a war novel. It’s more about the mystery and revelation we have throughout our life. The knowledge we gain after the fact, and how we choose to respond or not respond.
This novel is a strong contender for favourite read of 2016.
I used to keep track of my favourite reads each year so back at it. For 2015, my favourite new fiction title was Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt. Quirky, funny, gothic romance. This novel reminded me of The Grand Budapest Hotel.
My favourite non-fiction was Separation Anxiety by Miji Campbell. Ordinary woman goes through ordinary growing pains but with notable wit and perseverance. This memoir reminded me of Mindy Kaling, with a Canadian-girl-next-door vibe.
Now, what does 2016 hold?
The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab Precious Cargo: My Year of Driving the Kids on School Bus 3077 by Craig Davidson, Knopf Canada
I turned 40 on Nov 16 and as my friends know, there is no such thing as celebrating only on the day. Here’s what I was up to in Nov.
November 1st was an absolutely gorgeous day. The perfect way to kick off a birthday month.
We had an awesome family day at Belgrave Square playing in the leaves.
November 3-5 was Web Summit, a huge technology conference that takes place in Dublin every year, except next year it’s in Lisbon. I felt privileged to go. It’s like a Euro version of SxSW.
The first talk I went to was great. It was part of the Marketing tract and Thomas Crampton from Ogilvy talked about deep social. Worthwhile for sure.
Marie Kondo on the magic of tidying up was inspirational. She had a translator and I always love the chance to sit back and absorb another language.
Dan Brown was my last session of the conference and he was fantastic. The talk was about spirituality and technology and where there are gaps, there is religion.
Food Summit was also on the go during Web Summit. Irish food producers had lunch on offer. This is the duck dish I had. Delicious.
IDA Ireland was active at Web Summit too. James spoke on behalf of Slack for one of their evening panels. The canapes at this party were divine.
Fall is absolutely beautiful in Ireland. And you finally see more than shades of green.
I got a bunch of nice birthday cards around my birthday.
The weather continued to hold.
I went to a Publishing Ireland trade day on Nov 13 and met some Irish publishers and heard about the challenges and opportunities facing the industry here.
The event coincided with the Dublin Book Festival.
And the publication of this creative annual, which is full of essays, interviews and creative pieces by various Irish artists, writers, journalists, filmmakers, etc.
Swimming is still a big hit in our house. Don’t misread that. We go to a community centre pool, we don’t have a pool in our house.
My birthday weekend. On Sunday night Julie flew in from Bonn, Germany and we had a party at our house with a mutual friend Ger and her 3 kids. It was super fun and we drank champagne. Thanks James. Then Monday, Nov 16, James flew to Paris (the multiple shootings/bombings happened on the Friday). Julie and I went for coffee after dropping off Finlay at creche. Then we headed to the National Gallery to see a few exhibits before carrying on to the Shelbourne for afternoon tea with Ger. After we did some shopping, visited the Little Museum of Dublin and then headed back into Rathmines to pick up Finaly and home for dinner.
Nov 17, Julie and I dropped off Finlay and made our way through the rain to a rental car then off to Summerhill Spa in Wicklow, near Powerscourt Garden, where we then stopped for lunch. I had a fab massage and Julie a facial. While we were waiting for our treatments, this beautiful rainbow appeared.
After a few recovery days at home, James, Finlay and I were off to Scotland. We landed in Edinburgh and drove to St Andrew’s. We stayed at the Fairmont where James had a conference, and Finlay and I vegged out on tv and toured around the village. St Andrew’s is where Will and Kate met so it was fun to see places like the North Point cafe and the university campus, which is integrated into the town.
The cathedral and St Rule’s Tower ruins were my favourite spot.
And Forgan’s was a great Scottish restaurant. Finlay and I had a date night. Great Scotch broth and an amazing spicy chickpea, butternut squash salad.
The golf course at the Fairmont is spectacular as well.
James “Bond” went off to a party at Stirling Castle.
And I met Alan Santry, who made the scarf worn by Hermione in the last film.
Edinburgh was a beautiful city on a cool, crisp day.
We found a playground for Fin, just below Edinburgh Castle, where JK Rowling did a huge book release that I was involved with many moons ago.
The Christmas markets have started through Europe. And they all seem to have carnival rides.
Finlay was keen to go on Helter Skelter, which is featured in a Peppa Pig episode that he enjoys.
And I took him on his first rollercoaster ride. He loved Helter Skelter, which is an external swirly slide, whereas the rollercoaster was a bit too fast and jarring on one of the corners. Less fun.
In an attempt to get Fin into a nap, James and I walked the length of Edinburgh (practically). This is just passed the government buildings.
The walk back to the car was especially pretty as the sun set.
On our last day in Scotland, we drove up to Dundee, where James’ great grandfather was born. May 2, 1872. Dundee is home to one of the six oldest ships in the world.
The HMS Unicorn launched in 1824 as a 46 gun frigate for the Royal Navy.
Since young boys are uninterested in sightseeing, we stopped at an indoor play area to get out of the rain and into some exercise. Peppa Pig made an appearance.
Not to waste any moment of my birthday month, shortly after returning from Scotland, I snuck in a trip to Bonn, Germany to visit Darren and Julie and experience the German Christmas markets. Darren was off to Paris for the Climate Change talks, but we snuck in a quick visit to the UN. This is one of two UN campuses in Bonn. Both are along the Reine. The building on the left is a UN building.
The grotto along the way.
The Marshall Room. A WWII war recovery plan was settled here.
Bonn wasn’t heavily bombed during WWII so the architecture is really interesting.
Darren, Julie and I celebrated American Thanksgiving in Germany with a French meal.
Then Julie and I hit the Christmas market.
Dublin, St Andrew’s and Bonn all have very distinct building styles. I especially liked the Munster in Bonn.
Bonn is the birth place of Beethovan. His statue is supervising the Glühwein drinking at the Christmas market. I wonder if Ludwig liked mulled wine.
Julie and I took the fast train from Bonn to Mainz to visit the Guttenberg Museum.
I love all the public squares and pedestrain thoroughfares in Germany. Here’s Mainz.
The Dom, right next to the Guttenberg Museum.
Guttenberg printing press.
A page in one of the two Guttenberg bibles on display.
The Mainz Christmas market was our lunch stop. Yum.
Back in Bonn on my last day, Julie and I did a little trek to a lookout.
Then, since it was noon, we stopped for some Kolsch, which is the regional beer to drink in Bonn.
One last zip around the market then off to the bus and back home to Dublin.
As the month drew to a close, Finlay organized our Christmas decorations.
If you liked John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, then you’ll like this Romeo and Juliet story of two star-crossed lovers in Omaha, Nebraska. It’s 1986 and Eleanor and Park go to the same high school. Eleanor is joining mid term and her first day on the bus establishes the dynamics between all the characters. Tina and Steve sit at the back. Tina is the popular girl. Steve is the loud mouth. Park is half Korean, but nobody in Omaha really gets that. His mother Min Dae (Mindy) married his father when he served in Korea. Park is the skinny Asian kid, but is relatively free of the bullying that the kids save for Eleanor. All the high school antics are detailed in this novel, including the hiding of someone’s clothes during gym class.
When Eleanor gets on the bus on her first day, she is an immediate draw for the bullies, especially Tina. Her clothes are patchworked and from the charity store. She has big bushy red hair and is defiant. Nobody will let her sit with them. Finally, Park, embarrassed for her, demands that she sit. He moves over for her.
What follows are dual narratives by Eleanor and Park and their differing perspectives on the intersecting aspects of their high school days. It’s a cute, he said/she said, look at typical teenager inner thoughts. The insights into Eleanor’s situation depict a troubled home life, poverty and life with an abusive parent, in this case a short-tempered stepfather who is an alcoholic, drug user.
Eleanor and Park fall for each other over Watchmen comics and mixed tapes traded in secret on the bus. What starts as a simple gesture of giving up a seat moves to public displays of affection on the bus and dating in secret.
In broad terms, the novel is a tragic tale of young love in a poor neighbourhood. It’s not so much the Romeo and Juliet story in that there is only one family not keen on the relationship. Eleanor’s stepfather has already kicked her out of the house once. She is back on probation. There are 5 kids in all, the stepfather is abusing the mom and she is too exhausted to run. They are all stuck. Park is Eleanor’s salvation in the way that first loves are game changers. In the end the two are driven apart but there is still a redemptive ending, which I won’t spoil.
I’m in Dublin and yesterday the 2016 International Dublin Literary Award longlist was announced. Here’s how it looks by the numbers:
10 of them Canadian
The Canadian titles are (alphabetically by author last name):
Sweetland by Michael Crummey
Outline by Rachel Cusk
The Back of the Turtle by Thomas King
Us Conductors by Sean Michaels
The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill
If you’re new to this award, here are some interesting tidbits. Libraries in Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax, Ottawa, Saint John, St. John’s Sydney, Toronto and Winnipeg were among those that nominated books for the 2016 award.
Two Canadians have won the prize, the late Alistair MacLeod for No Great Mischief in 2002 and Rawi Hage for De Niro’s Game in 2008.
The International DUBLIN Literary Award was formerly known as the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Watch for this hashtag #DubLitAward
The book that received most nominations this year is Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See, chosen by 14 libraries in Canada, Germany, Greece, Ireland, The Netherlands and the USA.
On Friday, Oct 30 I did a tour of Newgrange and the Hill of Tara. My guide was Mary Gibbons who regularly runs these tours, and her brother is well-known archaeologist Michael Gibbons. If you’re a fan of archaeology, history, historical geography, folklore or just want an easy way to explore Ireland, then I recommend this tour. My pick-up time was 9:50 am from Stephen’s Green and drop-off was 4:30 pm, all for 35 euro.
On the way to the Hill of Tara, Mary regaled us with stories of Irish politicians, royalty and landowners. It was 8,000 years of history packed into a 45 min bus ride. The wide-sweeping tales from the Stone Age, through the Bronze Age and right up to modern times provided a foundation for better understanding the significance of Tara and Newgrange.
Our first stop was the Hill of Tara, which is basically some mounds of earth in a field, but do not dismiss them.
The access to this area is open, aside from a few small gates, and you can stand on the top of the site just like the ancient royals would have. The High Kings of Ireland, some 142 of them, were crowned here and you can stand at the coronation stone looking out at 23 of Ireland’s 32 counties. It is spectacular, especially on a gorgeous fall day.
The coronation stone called The Lia Fail or Stone of Destiny is where the Kings held their great coronation feasts and were approved by Earth Mother Goddess Maeve. The idea was that the King fathered the land and crops, animals and children. If something was wrong, they’d sacrifice an animal, if that didn’t work then a human, and if all else failed then they sacrificed the king.
Tara is a little over 500 ft in height, and you do get a good view of the land (and whoever might be on the attack). Standing on top is as fascinating as walking in and out of the ditches that circle each mound. The circular ditches predate Christ, in case you were wondering. What is hard to see from the photos is the undulating ground. These ditches were to keep the good spirits in and the bad out. Silly humans crossing back and forth.
You enter the Hill of Tara site and pass by a statue of St Patrick, a church and graveyard. The site is 100 acres, and it’s a beautiful landscape right in the heart of the Boyne Valley in County Meath. This county is lovely all around but Tara especially feels like a special place. It’s one of the largest complexes of Celtic monuments in all of Europe and the first settlers were here 6,000 years ago.
After you pass the church, you enter the field and see the Mound of the Hostages, where the remains of a prince were found (not of the same royals who ruled here, hence the belief that he was a hostage), then there are two royal mounds—the Kings Seat with the coronation stone and King Cormac’s House. Inside the Mound of Hostages are some of the Stone Age artwork that you see replicated in all the souvenir shops.
Back on the bus to Newgrange, we passed by Slane Castle, which is privately owned. The Georgian building is spectacular and our view from the road, I’m sure, pales in comparison to entering the property properly. I could almost hear the Downton Abbey theme song playing. The site is used for concerts as a way to maintain it. Foo Fighters played last month and 90,000 descended on the tiny village with 2 pubs, 2 restaurants and 2 churches.
On to Newgrange and the Stone Age passage tomb. Newgrange is the best known, but Knowth and Dowth, also make up the UNESCO world heritage site.
The passage tombs were constructed during the Stone Age, and the amazing thing about Newgrange is that it was used and then abandoned. It’s more than 5,000 years old, which is 1,000 years older than the pyramids at Giza. And it probably took 100 years to build. (Or maybe 20 years with 300 people, the reports vary.) Since it wasn’t used in the Bronze or Iron Age, it is a relatively pristine example of Stone Age architecture. It’s amazing that the structure is standing.
They have reconstructed the outside of the mound to show how the stone work would have held up one of the walls, but inside you are looking at the handy work of our ancestors from 5,000 years ago. It’s amazing. The layers of huge flat stones that circle upwards and inwards at the perfect angle and then the keystone on top holding the dome together. Wow.
The front of the tomb is covered in quartz that would have come from the Wicklow mountains. The archeologist who was our guide says that when the sun hits the tomb, the quartz glows. And in gaelic the word for quartz “grianchloch” means “stone of the sun”.
There are also 97 kerbstones and the one at the entrance is decorated with spirals. Plus there is one aligned at the back of the mound that is decorated.
Granite egg-shaped stones also dot the outside finishing, and may be from Newry or Mourne. Basically the 3 types of stone came from different sites in Ireland so these people worked hard to choose those particular materials.
Inside the mound a crucifix-shaped tunnel that was built on an incline. You’re 2 meters higher inside at the furthest point than you are at the entrance. The passage is only 19 metres long, which means it tunnels into the mound about a third of the way. The exact angle is how the winter solstice sunrise is able to perfect hit the opening of the roofbox and illuminate the passage all the way to the back.
This phenomenal architectural feat can be experienced only once a year, and there a lottery so 50 mortals are able to experience it each year.
At two minutes before 9 am on the morning of the winter solstice light enters the main chamber for 17 minutes. The alignment is precise and shows knowledge of the solar calendar. Dowth and Knowth are aligned for the setting sun of the winter solstice and equinox (possibly).
Let’s review. The passage tomb was constructed during the Stone Age, making it more than 5,000 years old, which is 1,000 years older than the pyramids. The inside is a perfect 10 C all year round.
The passage tomb was discovered in 1699 by workers who were removing the stone for road building materials. But the major excavation work didn’t begin until 1962. So there were 200 years or so of tomb raiding. You can see graffiti on the walls from 1817. Regardless, what’s left is amazing.
Newgrange attracts 200,000 visitors a year and you cross the River Boyne using a foot bridge and then board shuttle buses at a scheduled time so that you enter the tomb in groups of 24 only.
The tri-spiral Megalithic symbol is a recognized Celtic design, but the Celts weren’t in Ireland for another 2500 years so it’s certainly Stone Age.
Some archaeologists think the drawings are a history of the Boyne Valley, or maybe a map. It’s abstract art so it’s anyone’s guess. There are chevron shapes that look like pine trees or maybe water. There are jester patterns and spirals. Potted marks and holes. Each of the three chambers held huge stone basins. There’s only one left and it looks like it’s worn smooth and soft to touch. But there is NO touching, no photography, no recordings, no no no. It’s should be the U-NO-SCO site. But I understand the wear and tear on the place and the need to conserve it and tread lightly.
There are 40 sites in the Boyne Valley. Each celebrating something. For Newgrange, it’s rebirth in the afterlife and the dawning of a new year. It was a time when the thin veil between the living and the dead lifted. I can only imagine those Stone Age farmers waiting in the dark for that shaft of light to stream through.
They do a re-enactment so you can get a sense of it but I know the light is going to go on. If you’re a Stone Age farmer on a cloudy day, what are your hopes? What does the absence of light mean for the year ahead?
It seemed like Halloween was the perfect time to visit some tombs.
A funny, heartbreaking and ultimately triumphant read about an ordinary woman going through the typical phases of life in an atypical fashion. Whether it’s school, career, marriage, kids, divorce, re-marriage or all the little things in between, Miji Campbell’s story shows how these phases that can strengthen your character or derail you. What I liked especially is the flair in her writing style. She’s depressed, she has anxiety, I sympathize with her, but it doesn’t debilitate me as a reader. One of the best memoirs I’ve read.
I cheered Miji on throughout the book and was interested in what would happen next. This is the type of memoir that makes you feel like you’re reading your bestfriend’s diary. It’s personal, you know enough backstory to fill in the gaps, yet it has a universal feel in that I know many women just like her. Separation Anxiety is best described as a venn diagram of Mindy Kaling meets Tina Fey meets middle-age Canadian girl next door.
Miji’s story of growing up in a middle-class Calgary neighbourhood in the 60s and 70s, going to university, getting married, having kids, getting divorced and finding her way is not a run of the mill story. She’s funny, offbeat and insightful in her observations of the dynamic between her parents, between her and her sisters, and herself and the world at large. Controlling depression and anxiety get away from her but Miji’s story is still triumphant, even when she hits bottom. A great read. I can’t say it enough. I would recommend this tilte to all my female friends 30-50. Of course I’d recommend it more broadly as well but I think the closer you are to 45, the more cultural references you’ll get and the more social cues you’ll recognize in our own life.
Possible book club discussions:
• What are the small moments that define your life?
• What was it like when you grew up, was it similar to how Miji describes Alberta in the 60s and 70s?
• What social norms do moms and divorcees struggle against?
• What do you understand about your parents? Yourself?
Miji Campbell is a writer and teacher. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including Today’s Parent Magazine, The Edmonton Journal, The Calgary Herald and Women’s Words: An Anthology, and has been broadcast on CBC Radio. Miji has received two National Magazine Award nominations and a literary arts grant from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts. She owns Write Where You Are, a business that offers writing workshops to individuals, schools, community and corporate organizations. Born and raised in Calgary, Miji lives in Red Deer, Alberta. Separation Anxiety is her first book.
In celebration of Canadian poetry, and to mark Brick Books’ 40th anniversary, they are featuring articles each week about different Canadian poets. This week my article about poet Dennis Cooley is up on the site!
I am a big fan of Cooley and, as I say in my intro, readers of Dennis Cooley know how difficult it is to talk about Dennis Cooley.
First off, one tends to talk of Cooley in Cooley’s voice. His sing-song cadence worms its way into your head and you can’t read his poems any other way, or at least I can’t. Second, one attempts to be more clever than one ought to be. Being clever is Cooley’s job.
His recent collection abecedarium is a perfect example of his musicality, linguistic wit and technical dexterity. Cooley’s take on language is joyful. He manipulates the sound of the words, and the words themselves, the way a master musician plays an instrument. Each poem is a play on words, or even a play upon a play upon words. How meta, as the kids say today. Back in the day when I was studying with Cooley, we would have said, how po-mo.
(Maybe I was the only nerd who said po-mo instead of postmodern.)
Please have a look at the great collection of praise and celebration of Canadian poetry that Brick Books is compiling. I love it. And, even if you’re not a poetry buff, check out Dennis Cooley’s abecedarium.
Patrick deWitt, the bestselling author of The Sisters Brothers, delivers another knockout novel. Undermajordomo Minor is about Lucien (Lucy) Minor and his absurd employment at Castle Von Aux. The deranged castle master, Baron Von Aux, rambles around in the dark eating rats. The Baroness has disappeared. Nearby soldiers are at war over an unidentified idea. And the villagers Lucy meets are thick as thieves, figuratively and literally. Oh, and he falls in love.
Whereas The Sisters Brothers was a darkly comic, Western-inspired novel, Undermajordomo Minor is a darkly comic, orphan story/Gothic romance. Lucy leaves home shortly after his father’s death, and although he had two parents growing up, it seems they were lacking in parental affections. Lucy sets out on his own to make his fortune, or at least to turn his fortunes. He’s cheated death and been given the chance to do something interesting. It’s Oliver Twist meets Harry Potter (without the magic). Castle Von Aux and Lucy’s love interest Klara provide the Gothic romance elements. There’s a spooky castle with a general curse about the place, inclement weather and downtrodden villagers, a few marginally threatening mysteries (like what happened to Lucy’s predecessor Mr Broom), and Lucy himself as the fainting heroine.
One of my favourite scenes is between Lucy and his boss Mr Olderglough. They need to locate the Baron, tidy him up and make him suitably presentable to the Baroness and her guests. Mr Olderglough believes that trapping the Baron and knocking him on the head is the best solution. Lucy counters.
“And what next, I wonder?”
“After he’s been knocked unconscious, then shall we bring him to his chambers and manacle him to his bed. Next we will force-feed him, and bathe him, and shave him, and cut his hair and strive to resurrect his interest in sophisticated society.” Mr Olderglough rubbed his hands together. “Now, what do you think of it?”
Lucy said, “I think it is somewhat far-fetched, sir.”
“Are you not up for it?”
“I’m not, actually, no. And to be frank, sir, I don’t believe you are, either.”
“What sort of attitude is that? Let us rally, boy.”
“Let us come up with another plan.”
“Let us look within ourselves and search out the dormant warrior.”
“Mine is dormant to the point of non-existence, sir. There is no part of me that wishes to lay nakedly abed and await that man’s arrival.”
“I tell you you will not be alone.”
“And yet I shall surely feel alone, sir.”
Mr Olderglough looked down the length of his nose. “May I admit to being disappointed in you, boy.”
“You may write a lengthy treatise on the subject, sir, and I will read it with interest. But I highly doubt there will be anything written within those pages which will alter my dissatisfaction with the scheme.”
I remember The Sisters Brothers being funny and engaging right from page 1 but it took me a bit longer to get into Undermajordomo MInor. That said, this novel is just as crazy as the last. It’s very hard to stop turning the pages once you’re into it. I hope it secures as many well-deserved awards and honours as his last novel. Watch for this title!
You’ll like Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt if you liked his previous titles Ablutions and The Sisters Brothers, or if you enjoy the humour of tv shows and movies like Father Ted and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. There’s something wonderful and absurd about it all.
A new literary thriller from the acclaimed author of Resistance. In I Saw a Man, journalist Caroline Marshall dies on assignment in Pakistan, leaving her husband, writer Michael Turner, widowed and grieving. To help his recovery, Michael moves house and befriends his neighbours Josh and Samantha Nelson and their two young daughters. But tragedy strikes Michael again. He must decide if the weight of his guilt and grief are going to anchor him to his present home or drive him away again.
Overall this is a fun, summer read. Great for fall, of course. The writing itself is fun in that it’s easy to read, a good page turner. The subject matter is darker. Michael is widowed and living next door to the Nelsons. He comes over to retrieve his screwdriver that he lent them the night before. The back door is open. This is odd because the wife Samantha is away and Josh and his two daughters don’t seem to be in the house. Michael enters the quiet family home and calls out but gets no reply. He hesitates then enters in search of his screwdriver. Readers don’t find out for a long time what’s happened to that screwdriver and Owen Sheers builds in a lot of good tension.
There’s also the background story of Michael and his wife Caroline Marshall. Caroline was a free-spirited female reporter who broke a few international stories and wasn’t adverse to dangerous assignments. Caroline had removed herself from field work and had settled down with Michael in a quaint cottage in Wales where she was doing some producer work until an assignment crossed her desk that she couldn’t refuse. Next thing Michael knows, she is off to Pakistan to report on the story of a Welsh boy who joined a terrorist group there.
Owen Sheers creates great tension in this background story. He brings Michael and Caroline together, almost like two moths to a flame. They are an unlikely couple who are pulled together by something unexplained and also both aware that something is going to pull them apart. How Caroline dies is also a secret that Owen Sheers keeps from his reader for much of the book.
The novel isn’t really plot driven in the way that thrillers are. Instead it’s intellectual and emotional. There’s emotional tension in each of the relationships. There are lies and betrayals that either create alliances or ruptures. And it’s the nature of love, loss and secrets that is at the heart of this book.
Prep your bookshelf for this tale of polite theft, bitter heartbreak, domestic mystery, and cold-blooded murder. Patrick deWitt, award-winning author of The Sisters Brothers, has a new novel out this fall.
The Sisters Brothers was a fantastic read, one of my favourites that year, and it won the 2011 Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and was also nominated for that year’s Man Booker and Scotiabank Giller Prize. I’m really looking forward to this one and have an advance copy to enjoy! (Thanks House of Anansi)
Full review to come, but the basics are this: Lucien Minor (Lucy) is young, foolish and rather daring. He accepts employment as “undermajordomo” at the disquieting Castle Von Aux (think Transylvania) and becomes embroiled in a love triangle. The book is full of the dark secrets and peculiar characters, so peculiar that you will be forced to turn the pages to see what’s next.
Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick DeWitt will appear Sept. 5 simultaneously in Canada (House of Anansi Press), the U.K. (Granta Books), and the U.S. (Ecco/HarperCollins).
Four distinct voices tell the tale of one family’s attempt to transcend the Kabbalah Tree of Life. Each seeks enlightenment. Each failure has a lesson. This is a debut novel about faith, family and finding meaning from an accomplished writer, editor and playwright.
The Mystics of Mile End is set in Montreal’s Mile End, a mashup of Hasidic Jew and hipster cultures. Brother and sister, Lev and Samara Meyer, are at a loss after the death of their mother. They seek refuge in their faith and retaliate against their father David’s denial of that faith. David, for his part, is uncertain about his own faith and seeks the meaning of life in self-destructive ways. He’s a professor of Jewish mysticism, yet not any more enlightened, and his research into the Kabbalah Tree of Life, discovered posthumously by Samara, might be the one thing that finally connects the family.
The Torah is the five books of Moses, so I thought that there would be five books in The Mystics of Mile End but there are only four: Lev, David, Samara and Mile End.
I guess Mile End really is a character in the book. But beyond a geographical place, it’s where Holocaust survivor Chaim Glassman lives (in silence) with his wife. It’s where Mr Katz is assembling lemons and wired-up tin cans in his giant oak tree, and where Lev’s star-gazing friend Alex falls in love with Samara and then learns his own lessons and break throughs.
The novel is about what happens when we search for signs instead of living, and when we are silent instead of talking. It’s a strong debut novel.
One of my favourite discussions was about the 1970s cultural references in the novel. Here’s what I said:
Until our conversation last week, I did not pick up on the fact that the book is set in the 1970s because there are so many hipster trends today that allude to that period. It’s obvious now, and so overt, that it’s embarrassing to admit that I glazed over this aspect of the novel. As I started compiling a list of the cultural references, I couldn’t stop so this is not an exhaustive list, just want sprang to mind.
First off, I loved the Napolean-Dynamite visual I got when reading about Boo or Johnny wearing the white and blue striped gym socks and sweat bands. That alone brought levity to the underlying story of two boys dead in a school shooting. The peace symbol and style of clothes really do set the story in the 70s for me but Town/Heaven is presented as Salvation Army so, again, I didn’t initially understand the setting to be the 1970s. My assumption then, since there are no computers or video games, is that Town’s culture is that of America in current day.
The clothes especially made me laugh and Boo’s criticism of the cashmere sweater and egotism of 13-year-old girls reminded me of that all-about-me phase. It’s funny, especially, if the 70s was the Me decade, to end up in town with generations of 13 year old Americans. You would not feel so unique, which is maybe why some townies identify as gommers, or portal seekers, or find other ways of segmenting themselves off.
The other prominent 70s references for me were the Hardy Boys references, especially the building named Frank and Joe, the music references, and I immediately thought of the do-good council as the Brady Bunch.
I wonder if there are no cars in Town because 13 year olds can’t drive, or if that’s a reference to the oil crisis? Likely the former. And I don’t know enough about the history of the periodic table but there’s obviously an interesting study of those elements and their function within the storytelling.
What I don’t recall are references to Star Wars. But Boo is certainly aware of the starscape and Zig only changes it on occasion. I wonder for people who saw the moon landing first hand, if it was underwhelming. It’s cool, but there’s nothing there. Was that a letdown and made people wonder about heaven? If you imagined the moon as this great place then saw its pocked surface, did you question what you’d imagined about heaven?
The mental health building, Johnny’s behaviour, and the sense of being in purgatory or sentenced to 50 years in town reminded me of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There were several places in the novel when I wondered who the crazy actually was.