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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

International Dublin Literary Award 2016

I’m in Dublin and yesterday the 2016 International Dublin Literary Award longlist was announced. Here’s how it looks by the numbers:
160 books
10 of them Canadian
118 cities
44 countries
19 languages
6 judges
1 winner

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
  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
  • Who by Fire by Fred Stenson
  • All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews
  • Will Starling by Ian Weir
  • The Lobster Kings by Alexi Zentner

Ian Weir is on the Vancouver Sun Book Club with me and I reviewed Will Starling around this time last year.

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.

All the Light We Cannot See was one of my favourite titles last year.

The shortlist will be published on 12th April 2016 and the winner announced on 9th June.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Newgrange and the Hill of Tara

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.




Decorated kerbstones at the back of Newgrange



Thursday, October 22, 2015

Book Review: Separation Anxiety by Miji Campbell

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.

Where to find Miji Campbell online
Website: http://writinerant.com
Blog: http://writinerant.com

Thursday, October 01, 2015

In praise of abecedarium by Dennis Cooley

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.

abecedarium by Dennis Cooley
Order from the publisher: http://www.uap.ualberta.ca/titles/178-9780888646453-abecedarium

Or Amazon.ca

Or find it at a fabulous independent bookseller like Winnipeg’s McNally Robinson who has an amazing section on Prairie authors.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Book Review: Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt

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.

Both the hardcover and digital edition are available from the publisher House of Anansi, Amazon.ca and independent booksellers like McNally Robinson.


Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Book Review: I Saw a Man by Owen Sheers


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.

The Vancouver Sun Book Club will be discussing the novel this fall but here’s a sneak peak on my reading of it.

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.


I Saw a Man by Owen Sheers is published in Canada by Bond Street Books
Fiction $29.95
Buy on Amazon: I Saw a Man: A Novel
See Reviews on Goodreads

Thursday, July 23, 2015

New Novel from Patrick deWitt

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).

Available in hardcover and ebook.
Pre-order Undermajordomo Minor

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Book Review: The Mystics of Mile End by Sigal Samuel

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.

The Mystics of Mile End by Sigal Samuel
published by Freehand Books

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Book Review: Boo by Neil Smith

As part of the Vancouver Sun’s book club, I’ve been discussing Boo, a new novel by Neil Smith. It’s about Oliver “Boo” Dalrymple, a 13-year-old boy who narrates the book from the afterlife. The jacket blurb’s proclamation that this is “Lord of the Flies without pig slaughter and privation.” 
Read more: http://www.vancouversun.com/news/book+club+year+protagonist+quest+meaning/11151629/story.html#ixzz3fr3fwphy


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.

You can read the full discussion among all the book club members here: http://www.vancouversun.com/entertainment/books/book+club+References+1970s+abound+afterlife+novel/11132081/story.html

Boo was a fascinating novel and an interesting philosophical experiment on what the afterlife holds for us.

Boo by Neil Smith
published by Knopf Canada


Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Book Review: The Parrots by Filippo Bologna


I discovered this book in the Rathmines Public Library, displayed in a section for nominees of the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. It’s billed as a smart novel, and it unveils the aspirations, and vanity, of three unnamed authors competing for a prestigious, unnamed prize. I enjoyed the irony of that. For background, this is Italian Filippo Bologna’s second novel and the first was well regarded. Indeed he may be one, or all, of the characters in the book.

It’s important to note that the characters live in Rome and there’s a dark undertone to the competition and the vote rigging or schmoozing required by authors in order to win. And winning is important as it increases sales and can firmly establish an author. So how far is each willing to go?

The three men are The Beginner, The Writer and The Master. The Beginner is the hot, young thing. He’s good looking and loved by the critics. A win means instant fame. Neither the Master or Writer want to be beaten by the novice. Plus they both deem his novel unreadable. The Writer assumes he’s the sure win, but he is the most nervous of the lot. His last book wasn’t very good. He is onto The Second Wife already and needs to win to not be dumped by The Publisher as the lost could strip him of his fabricated identity and posh lifestyle. The Writer has everything to lose. For him the win is security.

As I mentioned, the dark satire throughout the novel is about how far each author is willing to go to win. The Master is the most disheartened. He’s stuck with a small press throughout his career and has never quite got the recognition he deserves. A win means money. Plus he now has prostate cancer. Will he lose his dignity and use his cancer diagnosis to get the sympathy vote or is he above it all?  The other two have their own twists of fate but I don’t want to spoil the read for you.

The novel is black, in a sullen artisty way. There’s a thread of humour throughout. And overall it was an enjoyable read. Not a page turner but I did want to see it through to the end. You’ll like this novel if you’re also a fan of The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq, caustic humour and insider look at fame in the art world, or The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman, a satirical look at an English-language newspaper in Rome.

Oh, and what’s with the title, The Parrots? Well there is a rather nasty parrot that taunts the Beginner. Also there is a parrot at the end with the Writer. It’s unclear whether this is the same parrot or not. But as soon as I read the title and the opening scene with the parrot and the Beginner, I thought we were dealing with Flaubert’s Parrot, and surely there’s a connection. Here’s a snippet from Wikipedia on Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes:

One of the central themes of the novel is subjectivism. The novel provides three sequential chronologies of Flaubert’s life: the first is optimistic (citing his successes, conquests, etc.), the second is negative (citing the deaths of his friends/lovers, his failures, illnesses etc.) and the third compiles quotations written by Flaubert in his journal at various points in his life. The attempts to find the real Flaubert mirror the attempt to find his parrot, i.e. apparent futility.

The Parrots by Filippo Bologna
Published by Pushkin Press
View it on Amazon

Monday, June 08, 2015

Book Review: Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie


In December 2010 I read and reviewed Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie. I haven’t read all of Rushdie’s works but I have loved the ones I have, including Luka and the Fire of Life, which is the sequel to Haroun and the Sea of Stories.

There was once, in the country of Alifbay, a sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name…
And in the depths of the city, beyond an old zone of ruined buildings that looked like broken hearts, there lived a happy young fellow by the name of Haroun, the only child of the storyteller Rashid Khalifa, whose cheerfulness was famous throughout that unhappy metropolis, and whose never-ending stream of tall, short and winding tales had earned him not one but two nicknames. To his admirers he was Rashid the Ocean of Notions ...
to his jealous rivals he was the Shah of Blah.

In Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Haroun is upset that his mother has run away with the weasly clerk from next door and his father, the famous storyteller, seems to have no more stories to tell. The latter being a result of the former. When Rashid, the most famous storyteller of the land, is called into service by a gangster politician, Haroun is beyond worried that his father’s dried up gift for gab is going to get them imprisoned.

A sleepless night in a peacock bed result in Haroun riding a mechanical bird right into a story war. He’s accompanied by a water genie, a floating gardener, some talking fish, the mechanical bird and a host of other magical creatures. Of course Haroun is the hero of this tale and is awarded a happy ending.

I bought this book in the ancient book market in Argeliers, France, while looking for a happy ending. The Shad of Blah certainly delivered a delightful holiday read. He knows how to spin a frown upside down.

If you liked Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, or any other quirky tale then give this one a go. 

Monday, June 01, 2015

So Misguided in Dublin: Month 1

On Apr 24 James, Finlay and I moved to Dublin, Ireland. Moving house is no small feat but moving countries, my goodness. I have a whole new appreciation for people who come to Canada.

We stayed at a great 2 bedroom Airbnb in Donnybrook near Muckross Park College, which is close to Ranelagh village and Donnybrook and Herbert Park.

Our first park visit beyond the neighbourhood was downtown to St Stephen’s Green.

And, of course, we checked out Herbert Park, which was recommended by all of our Irish friends now living in Canada. It’s a big park with a playstructure and football and cricket fields on one side of the road and on the other a duck pond and more playing fields.

Our first weekend day trip was on the DART to Dún Laoghaire (pronounced DunLeary). There’s a weekly farmers market, which is more artisan stands than food market but still had some noteworthy attractions. The town also has a well-regarded ice cream shop but, by the time we found it, the queue was quite long and the weather had turned so we carried on home.

Here’s the famous ice cream shop (or infamous queue to get ice cream).

On the second weekend we went on the DART to Bray. Our intention was to go to the castle in Malahide but there was construction on the North line of the track so one of the station workers suggested we go South to Bray. Not a bad destination. There is a boardwalk and playstructure plus a nice hillside walk to Greystones.

The big victory was that we found a house to rent in Ranelagh. Our move in date was May 5, just in time for James to go back to work. We had 3 suitcases and our carry-on bags so moving in wasn’t onerous. The tricky part was figuring out the heating for the house, which is done via the Rayburn Nouvelle stove in the kitchen. And we had a few snags with the vacuum and washer/dryer not working, which made cleaning the house a challenge. The next step was Dunne’s and Argos to get some bedding and bath towels, a few kitchenwares and some photos printed to make it feel like our home.

James got the internet set up so we could make some calls home. And we settled into our daily routine.

The exciting, aren’t-we-living-like-Kings-now moment, was meeting the Taoiseach, Edna Kenny. i.e., the Prime Minister of Ireland. Slack announced the European office opening and the Taoiseach and an MP were on hand with speeches and smiles for the cameras. James did a bang up job with his speech and soundbites for the press. And I even got in on one of the photos with the man himself.

Darren and Julie introduced us early on to their friends Ger and Karl, and we had dinner twice with them and their 3 kids (and really making friends is as important as meeting the Taoiseach, if not moreso).

Homemade apple crisp to mark the occasion. Made with Golden Rose, Irish apples.

Ranelagh village is a nice spot with lots of amenities, including two parks that we regularly visit.

Belgrave Square

Ranelagh Gardens

And there is a Luas stop in Ranelagh, which whisks us out to Dundrum (shopping mall) and Milltown (park and pub), or the opposite direction into the city centre where there are fab parks like St Stephen’s Green and Merrior Square.

Merrion Square

I have found a few storytimes and playgroups. Finlay and I have been twice to the Pearse Library, which is also where you can do all the research into your family tree, and then we take the DART back to Aviva Stadium and walk home.

The international news in our first few weeks was that Ireland voted YES to Equality and gay marriage. There were lots of smiles and a general good sense about the results, plus Dublin was blessed with a big rainbow on the day of the vote count so it seemed like a done deal as far as Mother Nature was concerned.

We made our first trip to Temple Bar, during the daytime. The weekly market there has some great local cheese and meats, as well as food vendors like the crepe van and the apple cider stand where you can get a shot of Irish whiskey with your cider. Not a bad way to spend a chilly Irish morning!

James treated me to a ticket to see the 50th Anniversary production of John B Keane’s The Field, which had a run at the Gaiety Theatre. The Field is a well-known Irish play about a farmer “Bull” McCabe and his love for the land he rents. The land comes up for sale and Bull is a hardnose about claiming it as his and bullying the townsfolks into letting him be the only bid. A city slicker puts a wrench in that and ends up murdered. As I understanding it, owning and working the land is a deep-rooted Irish need so the play is a reflection of that, but also an interesting morality question about the value of preserving the land vs. developing it. The city slicker, played by Aidan McArdle of Mr. Selfridge’s fame, wants the land for his concrete plant. That doesn’t mean it’s right to murder him, but it means the murder and halt to that plan isn’t as day and night as it might otherwise be for the townsfolk.

The cast I saw was Michael Harding, Aidan McArdle, Ian Lloyd Anderson, Catherine Byrne, Geoff Minogue, Maria McDermottroe, Arthur Riordan, Fiona Bell, Stephen O’Leary, Mark O’Regan, Conor Delaney,Terry Byrne, and Seamus O’Rourke.

The biggest personal victory in our first month was finding Fin a playschool for weekday mornings. Being a full-time mom is not my strength and my patience for playgroups and other parents was fully tested in the first 4 weeks. Happy mom = happy kid. Finlay loves his school and playing with new toys and things that are obviously for kids, which is to say that our lovely house doesn’t have a lot of kid-friendly furniture or play areas. We are working on it. In the meantime, we have 4 bliss-filled weeks at this playschool. Then hopefully we’ll be able to find some help over the summer and a regular spot for him somewhere in the fall. 

The tedious, bureaucratic task we completed was the GNIB registration, which is our immigration stuff. Next up we have to queue for our social service numbers. James got up one morning and queued at 7:30 am at the GNIB office to get our place in line to register. Then Finlay followed, arriving at 9:00 and waiting to go through the processing which happened around 9:30. Then we took a short break while waiting for the next step, which was fingerprinting, and then we waited in another line to get our actual cards. All in, it was a 7:30-12:30 task. The GNIB card lets us come and go over the next year, then we have to renew. Joy.

Taking a break from the overly hot GNIB office.

Other logistics that were possible once we had a permanent address were getting our joint bank account and my library card. Hooray for the library!

Overall Dublin is a nice, walkable city. There are tons of parks and green spaces. That is a pleasant surprise because I was told to expect fewer parks than Vancouver. In fact we have more options here than we did in Vancouver. Also I have found a ton of storytime options at the libraries, swimming times and other activities. The hard part is getting the childminding underway so that James and I can do adult things like going to the gym or finding other activities where we can meet other adults.

And the weather.

As Finlay says, “it’s a lovely day.”

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Book Review: The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg

79-year-old Martha Andersson dreams of escaping her care home and robbing a bank.

Well I was worried about taking this book cover through customs but Martha Andersson’s luck was on my side. This old bird is a spring chicken when it comes to planning the perfect crime. Martha and her cronies are fed up with budget cuts in their retirement home that have led to reductions in the amount of coffee they can have per day and the elimination of biscuits with their tea. It’s simply outrageous and, what is even more insulting, the prisons in Sweden look like luxury accommodation in comparison. Something must be done.

When the old foggies can’t get improvements at home, they form the League of Pensioners and rob an art gallery. It’s the perfect crime. Even the police and newspapers make that claim. But what these seniors want is time in prison so they turn themselves in and figure out a way to keep the ransom money, return the paintings and be the Robin Hoods of their day.

If you liked The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson or The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce then you’ll enjoy this funny heist.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Things to Do with a Toddler in Vancouver

Visiting Vancouver with a toddler or just trying to figure out what to do with your day? Here’s the weekly itinerary my little guy enjoyed from 15 months to 2 years.


8-9:30 Get some coffee! Try the JJ Bean on Granville Island or grab some breakfast snacks or grilled cheese sandwich in the market and watch the pigeons outside or walkaround inside. Usually first thing in the morning is pretty quiet during the winter months. We also like to play at the kids park near the Kids Market on Granville Island or watch the ducks.

9:30-12:30 Granville Island Playgym (or Mini Gym) at the Falsecreek Community Centre is especially great for rainy day toddler activities.

Parent and Tot Gym at Granville Island
Mon, Wed, Fri, Sun 9:30am–12:30pm
False Creek Community Centre (Google map)
1318 Cartwright Street (enter Granville Island and turn right at the Kids Market, continue along the road to the Community Centre).
$1 drop in
Ages 0-5
Includes play toys, riding toys, balls, bouncy castle

For up-to-date info: Search vancouver.ca False Creek Recreation Programs

Lunch and Nap on Granville Island and then play at the waterslide in the afternoon or walk along the seawall to either west to Kitsilano Beach Park or east to Charleson Park

Need dinner in Kits? The Boathouse usually has space for kids or the food stand offers beach fare like burgers and hot dogs. Up Arbutus St. is The Nook, which isn’t great for dining with kids but does do take out. The Sunset Grill can usually accommodate little ones. Along 4th Ave is Sushi Bella or Indian Oven. And of course on 1st at Cypress St. is the mecca for kids dining, Rocky Mountain Flatbread. Nut-free. Delicious. Craft beers on tap. Play kitchen for the kids.

Panne from Heaven or the Epicurean have quick take away options. And the little corner store at 1st and Cypress is surprisingly good for produce, meats, sweets and treats.


Westside Family Place is a great option Monday to Thursday mornings or you can venture further afield.

Westside Family Place Drop-In $2
2819 West 11th Ave @ Macdonald St
The drop-in times may vary: http://www.westsidefamilyplace.com/drop-in/

“Play and Learn” Drop-In Hours:
Morning Drop-In: Monday to Thursday: 9:30am to 12pm (Circle Time 11:30am)
Afternoon Drop-In: Wednesday: 1pm to 4:30pm (Circle Time 2:30pm – subject to change)

The 1st visit is free and thereafter the drop-in fee is $2 per family per visit with an annual membership. Pre-paid Drop-In tickets can be purchased in bulk.

There is also Eastside Family Place and South Vancouver Family Place, depending on your location.

If you’re visiting Vancouver, I recommend renting a bike with a toddler seat at one of the shops just outside Stanley Park (at Denman & Georgia). Then you can cycle through the park, stop at the Vancouver Aquarium, and then carry on along the seawall to Second Beach or Third Beach where there are great play structures, in addition to beach access and an outdoor community pool.

If you head to Vancouver Aquarium, then behind is a massive park and play structure. It’s mostly for Ages 5+ up but a toddler would still find some access to the play spaces.

The Vancouver Aquarium is also good for kids 5 and up but little ones can still have fun. It’s a bit of an expensive outing if your toddler doesn’t have a long attention span.
Opening Hours are 10 am to 5 pm
Booking tickets to the Vancouver Aquarium online will save you a bit of money.
$29 adults, $15 kids 4-12, free under 4

During winter hours, the quietest times to visit are on weekdays or prior to 12 p.m. or after 2 p.m. During summer hours, the quietest times to visit are prior to 11 a.m. or after 4 p.m.

Check the showtimes when you enter and go to see the shows first, then wander around. if you time it right then you can watch the show above ground first and see it from below while wandering through the exhibits.

Bring snacks.

Once you’re done at the Aquarium, venture over to the Stanley Park miniature train. There are usually activities or seasonal events as well (Easter, Halloween, Christmas)

Easter Train at Stanley Park

An alternative outing is a visit to Science World in the morning and then visit the Family Play Gym at Creekside Community Centre in the afternoon. It’s open 1:30 to 5:30 pm on Tuesdays (Check the schedule. Link below.)

Science World
$22.50 per adult, $15.25 kids ages 3-12
kids under 3 free
Open 10-5 on weekdays and 10-6 on weekends and holidays
It’s actually fun for 15 months and up. There are lights and buttons to push and the space is very kid friendly.

Creekside drop-in, open gym schedule
Family Play Gym
Monday 9:30-11:30
Tues 1:30-5:30
Wed 9:30-12:30
Thur 1:30-3:30
Fri 9:30-12:30


The middle of the week was never my time to experiment so we basically stuck to Family Place in the morning and afternoon. You have to pay the drop-in fee twice to attend both sessions but it’s worth it on rainy days. Otherwise, I recommend a visit to Family Place in the morning and then the Kitsilano Branch Library in the afternoon, or Kidsbooks. Both are ideal locations if baby is sleeping and you have to get out of the rain.

Kidsbooks on Broadway
9:30 to 6 most days. Location and hours: https://www.kidsbooks.ca/locations.htm
Kidsbooks on Broadway
3083 West Broadway
Ph: 604-738-5335

If you’re in the neighbourhood then Almond Park at Alma and West 12th Ave is great and often there are lots of abandoned toys to play with here.

Every other Wednesday at 11:30 am (doors at 11am) is Movies for Mommies at the Dunbar Theatre. Awesome popcorn.
Location and What’s Playing: http://www.moviesformommies.com/locationsweeklyscreenings
4555 Dunbar St

The volume is turned down during these film screenings, there are change tables and an area to park a stroller. It’s ok if baby cries and for the most part people are very forgiving of talking toddlers.


Thursday is swimming day. We enjoyed Aquaventures swimming lessons but if you’re just looking for some one-off pool time then Hillcrest is the place to go.

Hillcrest Pool public swim is 6 to 9:45 am. Enjoy the lazy river and pool toys for kids.

We were also super lucky to have some great friends in the neighbourhood so Thursday afternoon was playtime at the Kitsilano Dog Beach, behind the Maritime Museum. If it was windy then playing at the Museum of Vancouver was also a fun time, and more sheltered.

Maritime Museum on Thursday nights 5-8 pm is admission by donation.
You can board the St Roche and view the other exhibits. The ship, of course, is the highlight. Adult admission is otherwise $11 so if you’re only going to wander around the ship quickly with a toddler then Thursday night is a good opportunity to do that at a donation rate.

And again, Thursday night pizza party at Rocky Mountain Flatbread is a recommended treat.


Best to cool your heels at the end of the week with the Playgym at Granville Island. Maybe ride the False Creek Ferries for a few stops. Beware that the rainbow boats are a different company than the blue boats. My vote is for blue because one of our friends drives the boat. 


If it’s summer time then try the Farmer’s Market at Trout Lake. There is a playstructure there, lots of picnic spots and a little sandy beach. Although swimming is hit and miss because of duck and goose poop. Jericho Beach is a better spot for toddler swims, and there’s the Jericho Sailing Centre upstairs in the club where you can get ice cream, salmon burgers, nachos, beer and other goodies. It’s open to the public and a great patio spot.


Park near Jericho at Alma and Cornwall


Playgym. Granville Island. Otherwise relax. If you’re a foodie then the Kitsilano Farmer’s Market at the Kitsilano Community Centre is a good spot to wander. There’s an enclosed playstructure that is fun for all ages and a small water park.

Other Parks

Wobbler to Toddler Parks


  • Tatlow Park off Macdonald has two play structures and the small one is perfect for wobblers. Also there is a large grassy area and little paths with bridges over the creek so there’s lots to look at too. And there are tennis courts here, which are great for kids learning to ride bikes. Although you can’t ride if there are tennis players.
  • McBride Park at Waterloo also has a playstructure that is ok for wobbler to toddler.
  • George Wainborn Park in False Creek, just opposite Granville Island (almost directly across from the cement plant), has a tiny park that is just up from the waterfront walkway. It’s small but perfect for littles who’ve just started walking.
  • Second Beach and Third Beach have some great playgrounds and also beach or grass areas for picnics.
  • Richards & Davie Street downtown has a nice little park area with lots of playstructures for kids, and some water features.

Adventures & Activities

  • Maplewood Farm in North Vancouver is open 10-4 year-round and has animals and fun things for kids. http://maplewoodfarm.bc.ca/
  • Check out the Vancouver Public Library site for the Central Branch storytime. And the Kitsilano Library Branch does “Man in the Moon”, which is a storytime for babies and their dads: Saturdays at 10.15 am
  • Kitsilano Pool has a good, gradual decline entry which is great for toddlers. The Maple Grove pool is suppose to be even better. http://www.kerrisdalecc.com/maple-grove-outdoor-pool.htm

Other Events & Classes

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Book Review: Barker by Wayne Tefs


Harlan runs away with the circus, becomes a barker (the guy who calls in the crowds) and eventually ends up in bed with the knife-throwers’ wife. You can imagine where it goes from there. Harlan is one of those guys who is always on the run. He runs away to the circus. He runs away from the circus. He runs away to the army. He runs and runs but he can’t run away from the voices in his head.

This depression-era saga follows our man Harlan from prairie homestead with an SOB dad to the traveling circus and into the army. He’s almost fodder in the Pacific theatre but the war dries up and he finds himself in real estate. “I coulda been a contender,” comes to mind. Funny enough Harlan finds his way in the most unusual way.

This is the last book by Wayne Tefs, award-winning author of nine novels, a collection of short stories and two memoirs. I have always enjoyed his writing and he is one of the prairies noteworthy authors. I felt very sad reading this book and also very pleased to have a personal connection to him.

Barker by Wayne Tefs (published by Turnstone)