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Book Reviews

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.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Book Review: Barker by Wayne Tefs

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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)

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Book Review: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

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A heart-breaking, yet uplifting, book about two teens who fall in love after meeting at a Cancer Kid Support Group. Maybe you’ve seen the movie or read the hype about this book, either way, it’s all the wonderful things said and none of the bad. Hazel’s cancer is stable but she has never been anything but terminal. The wait is on. A fellow support-group kid named Isaac is her companion when it comes to sighing and eye rolling during the support group sessions and one day Isaac brings his friend Augustus to the group. Augustus is missing a leg due to his cancer but is in all respects a heartthrob. Former basketball star, instant charmer and class clown, Augustus has it all and only eyes for Hazel from day 1. Admittedly he is staring because Hazel reminds him of an ex-girlfriend, or rather of a former girlfriend who passed away from her cancer.

It’s love in the cancer ward and, although author John Green has made up many of the medical aspects, he seems so spot on with teen malaise and irony that you might think he is still a teenager himself.  I found this book more funny than sad and it’s definitely raw as well as raucous. There are lots of big questions in this book and the story acts as a pleasant philosophical examination of living, loving and taking risks.


Amazon.ca: The Fault in Our Stars ,by Green, John ( 2013 ) Paperback

Monday, April 06, 2015

Book Review: The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy

imageA quaint love story, or rather unrequited love story. Rachel Joyce’s first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, is the story of a saintly pensioner who walks, in yachting shoes, across England to say goodbye to a friend from long ago who is in a hospice. This is the other side of the story. Miss Queenie Hennessy is the friend who is waiting for Harold Fry, and while she waits, she writes out her confession and goodbye to Harold.

And I mean, really, the woman is dying. You’d think the man could get on a train or bus. But no, he is walking and she is waiting. The time gives them space to build themselves up for the visit, I suppose.

Anyway this companion book, since it’s not really a sequel, is about the burden of guilt Queenie has been carrying since leaving Kingsbridge 20 years ago. The novel is her letter to Harold about her recollections of first seeing him, dancing to himself under falling snow, and then meeting in the canteen at the brewery. She mentions, often, that Harold always remarks to everyone that they first met in the stationery cupboard. Miss Queenie Hennessy, however, was balling her eyes out so perhaps she’d rather remember it as the canteen. No matter. The “where” is the least of her deathbed worries.

Instead it’s that she met, danced with, and became friends with Harold’s son and never said a word about it to Harold. More than that, Harold’s son David stole money from her, along with her love poems and egg whisk. The egg whisk being the most irritating item to go astray. She lent David books, let him sleep on her couch, gave him money and offered up friendly advice about staying in touch with his parents. But David was as troubled as he was troubling.

Despite Queenie’s efforts to befriend him, David lied to her, mocked her, and eventually disappeared. His sudden death put Queenie on the spot. She couldn’t confess. She couldn’t tell Harold about her involvement with David because she feared the betrayal would be too great. She ran away then, but now she’s determined to say the things she wished she’d said then.

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy is her declaration of love and her confession. If Harold Fry’s pace is slow, Rachel Joyce’s writing just clips along at a good measure, which makes this 300-pager feel like a zippy read.

imageThe Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize and longlisted for the Man Book Prize. Read them both, why not.

See Books by Rachel Joyce on Amazon.ca

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Book Review: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

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The Miniaturist: “There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed…” When the newly married Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam on a brisk autumn day in 1686 she is expecting to be warmly embraced into her husband’s household. Johannes Brandt is a wealthy merchant trader who is well respected, and Amsterdam is a glittery new start for Nella who comes from the country with a suitcase and her ancient, respected Oortman name. She soon discovers that her family name is likely the only reason she is there. Johannes’ sister Marin is a younger version of Downton Abbey‘s Dowager Countess, and she certainly runs the household, not a role Nella the new wife is going to assume.

Johannes is kind, but mostly away travellling, and his affections, when home are showered on his dogs, not Nella. The one gift he presents to her is a cabinet-sized replica of their home. Nella finds a miniaturist to furnish the rooms but, as cryptic package after package arrives, Nella’s wonderment shifts to eerie suspension. The miniatures of the household are exact replicas of the furniture and family members, and they are lovely at first. But then unrequested items like a small cradle arrive. It’s like the miniaturist knows the family’s deepest desires and secrets.

When Johannes’ favourite dog is killed and a long-time servant disappears, the artistry seems to turn to witchcraft. Nella is left wondering if the packages are benign predictions of the future or warnings of things to come. The whole experience is all the more alarming given that Nella is living in Amsterdam at a repressively pious time: puppets are banned, and even man-shaped gingerbread is forbidden. But false idols end up being the least of her concerns when Johannes is betrayed by a friend and arrested.

The Miniaturist is a beautifully written fairy tale with all the witchcraft and sugar plums you could possibly want. It’s beguiling. Fans of the Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern will enjoy this story. I think readers of historical fiction, Sarah Waters or Markus Zusak (The Book Thief) will like it too.

Or check out what readers say on Goodreads

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Book Review: A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett

This shocking and disturbing account of a journalist’s capture and torture in Somalia in 2008 was one of the most celebrated books of 2013, making the Globe 100 and hitting all the notable lists. A House in the Sky reads like a novel, which allows the reader to step away from the narrative a little bit and pretend that this is a fictionalization (you need this survival technique to make it through the book). The strength of the harrowing adventure is in the authors’ ability to slam the reader back into reality at just the right moment.

Here’s the general rundown: Amanda Lindhout grows up in Red Deer, moves to Calgary, works as a cocktail waitress and raises enough money to travel the world. She’s got the travel bug and moves quickly beyond the minor inconveniences of the backpacker lifestyle and into the major challenges of being a fledgling journalist in Iraq then Somalia. Her solo travels across Sudan, Syria and Pakistan do not prepare her for the full-blown war in Somalia or for the captivating power Osama Bin Laden will have on Somali militant groups. She’s not safe the second she lands and by day four she has been abducted along with a photojournalist from Australia. The two are held captive for 15 months, and Amanda is starved, raped, beaten and tortured. Initially the violence is moderate, a way to show who’s boss, but as the months drag on and the families refuse to pay the ransom demands, life gets much, much harder.

The journey is unimaginable. Amanda’s fortitude is amazing. And I never, ever want to read this kind of story again and think “well, they chose to go there.” The bigger question is “why the hell do people do this to each other?” The answer is money. And that is a very sad answer.

Amanda’s story is certainly about personal mistakes and wrong turns but it’s also a reminder that the stories we hear on the news about journalists who are captured, tortured and sometimes beheaded on camera are just one small fraction of the madness going on. There is a deeper story about survival and sacrifice, both for the captors and the captives.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Book Review: The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson

A hilarious novel about a South African woman who knows too much, twin brothers (one of whom knows too little) and the foibles of the sanitation department, nuclear weapons programs, the Mossad, the Chinese, and the Swedish royal family. Think Airplane meets National Lampoon meets The Butler.

The Girl Who Saved The King Of Sweden: A Novel by Jonas Jonasson was a delightful read over the holidays. It’s ridiculous in a believable way.

Book description: On June 14th, 2007, the King and Prime Minister of Sweden went missing from a gala banquet at the Royal Castle. Later it was said that both had fallen ill: the truth is different. The real story starts much earlier, in 1961, with the birth of Nombeko Mayeki in a shack in Soweto. Nombeko was fated to grow up fast and die early in her poverty-stricken township. But Nombeko takes a different path. She finds work as a housecleaner and eventually makes her way up to the position of chief advisor, at the helm of one of the world’s most secret projects.

The highlights are that Nombeko is super smart and is in a shitty position (literally) as an assistant in the sanitation department in South Africa. The idiot managers can’t count and she has powerful math skills. Through a series of events involving self defence and a pair of scissors she learns to read. I can’t reveal too much! She inherits a jacket lining full of diamonds and accidentally gets run over. She is found at fault and is basically sold into servitude to a drunk who’s in charge of South Africa’s nuclear program. He can count but barely. His father has paid off the university to get his son the engineering degree that’s landed him in this position. Nombeko saves the day and her own skin by helping him develope six nuclear missiles in the 1980s, then voluntarily dismantle them in 1994. Unfortunately the counting part means there is a seventh missile that only a few people know about, including Nombeko and the Israeli secret service. She masterminds a plan to escape to Sweden but a misdirected package of antelope meat turns out to be the seventh missile, which she manages to safeguard in Sweden for over 20 years, with the help of twin brothers, one of whom has a vendetta against the King of Sweden and the other who doesn’t exist since his father never declared his birth to the state. Honestly it’s all terrifically unbelievable but the writing is fantastically funny.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

2 Cookbooks, 2 Novels

Four books that I loved and haven’t had a chance to review:

Pucker by Gwendolyn Richards
Canada’s Julia Child brings citrus fans a melody of recipes from breakfasts to mains, drinks to sweets. It’s is tart and tangy with recipes like Lemon Bourbon Sours, grilled grapefruit, Citrus-Braised Pork Shoulder Tacos, and Lime Sugar Cookies. Yum yum yum. 


Dirty Apron Cookbook by David Robertson
Fans of this Vancouver-based restaurant and cooking school will recognize many of the recipes in this amazing cookbook that features 80 of the school’s time-tested signature dishes. The pulled pork is delish and I barely managed to take photos of the dish before we gobbled it up.


Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald
Spend a week with this stressed out mom and all will look well in your world. Mary Rose, aka Mister, is home alone for the week with her two young kids while her wife travels for work. It’s a mix of family drama, swimming class, personal reflection, parenting of aging parents and general stress management. My comments on this title for the Vancouver Sun Book Club are here and there are 4 weeks of book club discussions plus our chat with author Ann-Marie MacDonald.


All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
A delightful, and sad tale, about two young people whose paths cross during WWII. Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. He create miniatures of their neighbourhood so that Marie-Laure, who is blind, is able to navigate her way around. He also makes small puzzles for her and in one is a gift that she cannot reveal to anyone. In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. The love of this radio and its mechanics draw Werner into Hitler’s service. As the two are drawn from their homes, their lives intersect in a really lovely yet tragic way. 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Book Review: Will Starling by Ian Weir

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Sweeney Todd meets Frankenstein in this romp through the underbelly of London, 1816, when grave-robbers are digging up bodies and selling them on the sly to anatomists and surgeons eager to understand to inner workings of the body and that fine line between the living and the dead.

Will Starling by Ian Weir opens with a macabre scene. The great, and godlike, Dionysus Atherton stands in a public square waiting for the hangman to do his business. “Dionysus Atherton consulted his timepiece, and made a note: the subject dropped at one minute past eight ... All movement finally ceased at 8:48, and death was pronounced at two minutes past nine.” Such are the interests of surgeons, or rather this surgeon in particular who is keen on chasing life to its outer reaches in hopes that science can pull back the subject from death’s icy grip. Once they cut down the body, can Dionysus Atherton secretly bring it back to life?

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley hasn’t yet written Frankenstein but resurrection is in the air.

Atherton, although a colourful figure, is not the protagonist, we leave that role to Will Starling, who works for a rival surgeon and is endowed with the gift of gab. What follows is “the reckoning of WM. Starling, Esq., a Foundling, concerning Monstrous Crimes and Infernal Aspirations, with Perpetrators Named and Shrouded Infamies disclosed to Light of Day, as set down by his Own Hand in this year 1816.”

Author Ian Weir, like in his debut novel, the acclaimed Daniel O’Thunder, deftly crafts a historical tale of twists and turns, with some pot boiler elements, and huge literary merit. This is a fun read for anyone who loves a good story, plus there’s some great slang and a few useful etymology points you can use at upcoming holiday parties.

Will Starling’s narrative reminds me a bit of Sherlock’s Dr. Watson, but Will is much more gossipy, into the ladies and not above boasting about himself and roasting his friends and family.

Published by Goose Lane Editions, Will Starling should be easy to find on all the “Must Read” tables in bookstores.

If you liked Cataract City by Craig Davidson, The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon or The Harem Midwife and The Midwife of Venice, then you’ll like this book too, especially since all these authors have lovingly provided jacket cover quotes. “Crackerjack novel ... no one else in Canada today writes like Ian Weir ... his characters are as engaging as the Artful Dodger or Fagin or Martin Chuzzlewit.”

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Book Review: The Long Way Home by Louise Penny

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Louise Penny is one of those mystery writers whose works I can’t put down. I would say her Inspector Gamache series is a Canadian version of the British detective drama Foyle’s War, but set in contemporary Quebec. Chief Inspector Gamache of Homicide for the Sûreté du Québec is on the far side of middle age, a solid man both in stature and personal fortitude, and he is good and kind. The series is the right mix of Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marpole and CSI.

I started reading the series with book #7, A Trick of Light and was hooked. The Beautiful Mystery was by far one of the most beautiful mysteries I’ve ever read. Each book in the series introduces readers to a tucked away corner of Quebec (sometimes a real place and often a fictionalized version of a real place) set in contrast to the tranquility of Three Pines, a small village outside of Montreal that is not on the map and without cell service. It’s the Miss Marpole component with quirky small-town characters who are a microcosm of the world at large but also who are living in a very special place, maybe even a magical place in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez kind of way.

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With The Beautiful Mystery, the location was the monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups, hidden deep in the wilderness of Quebec, where two dozen cloistered monks live in peace and prayer. Although they have taken a vow of silence, the monks are world-famous for their glorious chants. Gamache is called to the scene when the renowned choir director is murdered. The Vancouver International Writers Festival put on an amazing author event with Penny and Gregorian chanters recently so I was very excited to get a chance to attend this year’s author event.

Although there was no choir, Louise Penny was in fine spirits and instead of reading from her book, which of course would be a tricky feat if you didn’t want to reveal spoilers, she talked about herself, her writing process, how the Inspector Gamache series began, her first publishing contract, meeting her agent in a strange twist of fate and all the wonderful fans and “family” that have developed as a result of the books. It was like meeting a famous relative. She was lively and gracious and held the conversation without being full of herself. No wonder she can write a character like Gamache who is the embodiment of kindness and dignity.

One of the things I like about Louise Penny is the Acknowledgements come at the beginning of her book vs. tucked away at the end. It’s like how film credits used to appear in the opening sequence of a movie. Things that are meant to be read! She is very faltering of her agents, publishers and early readers, including the fine folks at Raincoast Books, where I used to work. It’s fun to see their names in print, especially when you know how much goes into making an author #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, or even getting on a bestseller list at all. (Of course, you need good writing, but it takes a village to bring the book up.)

As a former CBC radio host, Penny is incredibly well spoken. She has the gift of comedic timing and she takes pleasure in sharing her stories with fans. We were 700+ at the event in Vancouver, the last on what sounded like a loooong tour. Saving the best house for last? Anyway, she jokingly said she was taking “the long way home,” which is the title of book #10 in the series. 

After an absolutely riveting book #9, How the Light Gets In, Penny introduces us to the now retired, former Chief Inspector of Homicide, Armand Gamache, who is living in the small village of Three Pines. Has he found peace away from the front line of the police, away from the dead bodies, away from the corruption that forced him into retirement? Maybe.

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Gamache’s spirits are dampened but he’s not disheartened. He’s hurt physically but not beyond repair. The test of this comes when his neighbour Clara Morrow asks for help in finding her estranged husband Peter. The Morrows are well known Quebec artists but jealousy and fame has come between them. It’s a trial separation of one year, but Peter fails to return. He’s withdrawn $3000 from his bank account months ago and hasn’t been seen since. As much as Clara believes he’s missing because something is emotionally wrong, Gamache knows that it’s more likely physical.

In many ways this is a transition book. Our heralded Chief Inspector Gamache no longer holds that title. He’s been put out to pasture and that is always different than choosing to retire. What will happen to him? To the series? This book isn’t the answer to that, but we do get a crackerjack missing person’s mystery with all the tricky police work required to trace a person who doesn’t want to be found. Plus there’s the trials and tribulations of the art world, and the evocative rural Quebec settings. Plus the buttery croissants of the bakery in Tree Pines, which are worthy of mention because Penny makes me want to eat one every time she writes about them. Maybe the Gamache series is over and she’s going into food writing?

Or perhaps she’ll be a therapist. Each of the Inspector Gamache books present the discord in the apparent harmony. There’s a murder. There’s jealousy or rage. There’s double crossings. There’s hurt, both small crimes of the heart and big crimes against the law. And often it’s not about premeditated actions. Something breaks the silence. Or lots of small things break along the way. Given that Penny’s audience at the Vancouver International Writers Festival event last week were middle-aged, retirement-ready women and men, I think the book might be therapy for us. How do you not feel pushed into something? How do you value the gifts you have right under your nose vs. seeking solace elsewhere? How do you find creativity and inspiration when you’ve lost it? Whatever way you dice those tomatoes, the 10th books in the series, A Long Way Home, is good for many reasons.

And if you haven’t encountered the audio books, Ralph Cosham is a wonderful reader:
http://www.audible.com/series?asin=B006K1P8NC&mkwid=DSATitle&pmt=b&pkw=_inurl:asin%3D&source_code=GO1GB909GSH102413&gclid=CJTVpOq8z8ACFQ-DfgodmY4AVg

If you like following authors on Facebook, Louise Penny has a wonderful page:
https://www.facebook.com/louisepennyauthor

Thank you to Jamie Broadhurst and Dag Wagstaff at Raincoast Books for introducing me to Louise Penny and the Inspector Gamache series!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Best Books for an 18-Month-Old

My brother and I were complaining recently about how hard it is to find some of the children’s books we grew up with and consider classics. Is this what happens when you have kids? You want to re-live your own childhood through their eyes? There are a few that are easy to find. The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Where the Wild Things Are, for example. And there are 5 children’s books turning 50 this year, which means they are readily available too. But they are definitely for older kids so they remain on the shelf. I’ll list them below then my compilation of FlashWolfe’s favourite titles at 18 months.

Celebrating 50 Years

  1. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl.
  2. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: The Magical Car by Ian Fleming
  3. Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown
  4. Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
  5. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

Best Books for 18-Month Old

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Concepts and First Words

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Peek-a-boo and Lift-the-Flaps

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Songs and Spotting

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Lovely Board Books

Holiday

Bedtime

 

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Summer Reading Recommendations

Here are the last 3 books I devoured.

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The Light of Amsterdam by David Park
A novel that often reads like interwoven short stories about misunderstandings and miscommunication. A December flight from Belfast to Amsterdam brings together the otherwise unconnected characters of this drama. We have a father and teenage son who are at odds, a single-mother and a spoiled daughter on her hen party (dippy girlfriends in tow), and an almost-retired couple who are losing touch with each other. The trip to Amsterdam changes them all for better or worst. Author David Park has written 7 books, including the hugely acclaimed The Truth Commissioner. I think Darren will like this novel. The book has a very European feel to it, complete with Irish slang and descriptions of Amsterdam’s nooks and crannies.

Opening lines:

The ink was black, the paper the same shade of blue as a bird’s egg he had found a week before. In their balanced elegance the capital G and B mirrored each other. Unlike most of the soccer signatures he collected which were largely indecipherable hieroglyphics — the bored scribbles of fleeing stars — this name was readable and perfectly formed.

The Light Of Amsterdam by David Park, published by Bloomsbury


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The Demonologist by Andrew Pyper
A thrilling, and terrifying read, with lots of Milton’s Paradise Lost insights for the book nerds. A major departure for the bestselling author of Lost Girls, The Demonologist has the same literary prowess as Pyper’s other novels but is more like a literary version of Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code. Professor Ullman is a world-renowned expert in Milton’s Paradise Lost. He’s a scholar but not a believer, until he witnesses demonic acts with his own eyes, including the possession of his daughter. An advance copy crossed my desk in early 2013 but since I was pregnant at the time, I waited until now to dip into the shadows of this book. I recommend it for Kiley who said she was looking for page-turner summer read. This is Canadian, literary, and creepy-crawly.

Opening lines:

The rows of faces. Younger and younger each term. Of course, this is only me getting older among the freshmen who come and go, an illusion, like looking out the rear window of a car and seeing the landscape run away from you instead of you running from it.

The Demonologist: A Novel by Andrew Pyper, published by Simon & Schuster


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The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Winner of the Man Booker Prize. Add this to the classic school-boy novel list. Four boys meet during their formative years at school. One boy standout. One boy dies. One boy, now grownup, tells the tale. Barnes’ novels are so smart that they make me feel smart. This is a bit of a snobby book and I loved it. In some ways it reminds me of Fifth Business by Robertson Davies in that the reader must beware of an unconsciously unreliable narrator. I’m afraid to recommend this one for fear of identifying the snobby readers among us, but you know who you are.

Opening lines:

I remember, in no particular order:
– a shiny inner wrist;
– steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it;
– gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house;
– a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torchbeams;
– another river, broad and grey, the direction of its flow disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface;
– bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door.
This last isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, published by Vintage Canada

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Book Review: The Confabulist by Steven Galloway


The Confabulist

Steven Galloway’s Houdini is as stageworthy as the man himself. And Martin Strauss, the man who killed Houdini, is his own elusive character. The Confabulist is a great story about magic, illusion, and escape artists.


I’m a fan of Steven Galloway so in many ways I felt predisposed to liking The Confabulist. I found it as page-turning as I remember Finnie Walsh being, on par topic wise with Ascension, and the style of writing as intriguing as The Cellist of Sarajevo.

Having recently read Bruce MacNab’s nonfiction account of Houdini and Bess’ tour of the Maritimes in The Metamorphosis, a lot of the Houdini stories seemed very familiar to me. But that’s the wonderful thing about celebrities. The general public can revel in thinking we know a lot about a person who quite often portrays a public persona that is quite different than the private one.

What I love about Galloway’s novel is that fiction lets us speculate more freely about the private persona.

Houdini was a great showman and certainly understood marketing and publicity. He was one of the most photographed men of his time and even though he died in 1926 (the first time *wink*) I feel like I’ve seen him perform.


Houdini and Magic

The famous and infamous are always fascinating, especially entertainers. Frank Sinatra, for example, is so lauded but also many say ol’ blue eyes wasn’t a nice guy. These men at the top of their game need such an ego to perform, I’m sure that if they don’t start out nasty, as Julia says, they develop that as a coping mechanism. What I like about Galloway’s version of Houdini is that he gives us the entertainer and a version of the man behind the scenes.  Both are inventions. 

Houdini invented himself: the name, the act, everything. And that’s the great American promise, that you can come from nothing and build your fortune. What a perfect illusion.

Speaking of invention and illusions, there’s something uncanny about Houdini. His life is a lovely dichotomy. He spent 26 years in the 19th century with horse and buggy, telegrams and struggling to make a name for himself and then 26 years in the 20th century with automobiles, telephones, radio and riches and celebrity.

The technological advances alone must have seemed like magic to people. Then for a magician as practiced in slight of hand and flexibility as Houdini to use that technology in his act, it must have been a double whammy for the audience. Oh, the great power! No wonder the spiritualists were excited.


Memory, Madness and Conspiracy Theories

I have a fondness for fools who speak the truth, everything from the characters in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to the jesters in Shakespearean plays. So Martin Strauss has my ear from the beginning of the novel when he introduces himself and the fact that the constant ringing of tinnitus can lead the afflicted, not that he is, to madness and suicide. What an opening!

Speaking of opening, the epigraph is from Aldous Huxley, “Every man’s memory is his private literature.” The more I thought about that, the more interested I became in Martin. Houdini is his own creation. He’s telling himself stories about who he is. So is Martin.

In the grocery store parking lot, Martin can’t unlock the door to his car. That’s because it’s not his car. Indeed, he’s never owned a green Chevrolet yet he has a clear memory of pulling into the lot and parking that particular car. He says that he tries to dismiss these small incidents but that they come with a memory, a recollection that he knows is false but which seems real.

Sometimes we tell stories that we makeup about ourselves. I’ve experienced that with jokes. A funny incident happened to me and one night at a party, my husband retold the story as if it happened to him! Well, he said, it sounds better in the first person. Houdini has showmanship as the reason behind his stories (as well as affairs that he wants to protect Bess from), but why does Martin fabricate his identity? Do we tell these stories and alter our memories because of something we are proud of or because of something we are ashamed of, or likely both?

When it comes to conspiracies, Houdini seems both proud of and ashamed of his participation with the CIA. The mystery and intrigue and prestige that is awarded him plays into the persona he’s creating, and yet it comes with its own faults and secrets that can’t be shared.

I don’t want to spoil the mystery and intrigue of Martin’s character, but there are so many great quotes so I’ll try to choose one that doesn’t reveal too much. He’s talking to Alice about confabulations and why certain false memories are so persistent and he says, “nothing is in the past for me. Because I remember it in the present, it’s in my head right now, though it’s always reconstructed. And reconstructions can’t be trusted. I can’t be trusted. None of us can.”

I love characters who warn us poor readers not to believe them. 


Female Characters

The female characters in The Confabulist really have supporting roles to our two stars, Houdini and Martin Strauss. In the case of Houdini, it’s steadfast Bess who knows Harry’s signs both on stage and off. He trusts Bess above all others and it’s Bess who sticks with him. She seems secondary both to the act and to the story Galloway is telling. For Martin, the girl is Clara but he mistrusts her love and doesn’t stick with her. Clara is also secondary to the act of Martin punching Houdini on that ill-fated night in Montreal. Then there’s Alice, who is the audience for the story that Martin is telling about his encounter with Houdini and the events that led to him killing Houdini, twice.               

There are similarities though too. Both men idolize their mothers. There are two beautiful scenes in the novel about the death of a mother. The first is Houdini saying farewell to his mother when he sets sail for Europe, and the grief he experiences upon learning of her death shortly after. The second is Martin consoling Alice when he learns that her mother is dead. “Being a parent is a monumental thing. You shape reality for another person. You cannot be an illusion … If you have done a good job, what remains is the part of you that was magical.” I thought that was a lovely thought but also curious because “if you have done a bad job, or no job at all, what remains of you is proof that the world is an unfeeling place.”

Both men idolize their mothers, and those mothers appear magical to them, but they also treat the world as if it is an unfeeling place. They are mistrusting of the outside world, they have one-night affairs, and they have illusions and disillusions about politics, women, and life in general. These are strange men and they make for interesting characters, which is perhaps why the women in the novel don’t take centre stage.

Loved the book.

The Confabulist by Steven Galloway
Published by Knopf

Vancouver Sun Book Club Chat with Steven Galloway
http://www.vancouversun.com/sports/Live+chat+noon+Author+Steven+Galloway+with+Book+Club/9885149/story.html

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Book Review: All the Broken Things by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

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All the Broken Things is this month’s Vancouver Sun Book Club read. Since the book club members get a say in what we read, I’m predisposed to like the books we pick and All the Broken Things by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer is no exception. It’s well written, the story is interesting, the characters are true characters and parts of the book are stuck in my mind.

All the Broken Things is about a Vietnamese family who moves to Canada in the early 80s. They are suffering in various ways from Agent Orange. The father died on the boat. The mother has sores that she keeps from the children, the youngest was born deformed and the boy Bo is mentally scarred by the experience. Bo oscillates between fight or flight and after one particular bout with a boy named Ernie, he’s picked up by Gerry who’s working the circus circuit and is looking for a bear wrestler. No seriously.

Although the book is set in 1984, Kuitenbrouwer mentions in the introduction that bear wrestling was a fixture in Ontario sideshows until 1976 and she’s simply shifted the timeframe to suit the story.

Bo joins the circus and the rest of the novel is about the tension of two captive bears, a boy who feels like a captive, the atrocity of war and circus Freak Shows. It’s strange and beautiful at once. The majesty of the bear, the hilarity of her on a bike. The beauty of Bo’s mother, the sullen, drunk. Orange the sister, Agent Orange.

I’m looking forward to what my fellow Book Club members have to say about the novel.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Book Review: Perfect by Rachel Joyce

Well, Perfect by Rachel Joyce is a perfectly sad little book. Perhaps sad isn’t the best word, morosely melancholic?

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Perfect opens in June 1972 with 11-year-old Byron worried about the addition of 2 seconds. Apparently the 2 seconds will be added to bring clocks back into line with the movement of the Earth. His best friend James has read about it in the paper and Byron can’t stop worrying about when those seconds will be added. “It’s the difference between something happening and something not happening.” Indeed!

What does happen is that Byron stabs his wristwatch in front of his mother Diana while she’s driving and she hits a little girl. Diana doesn’t realize she’s had an accident until Byron’s anxiety about it spills out a month later. What transpires over the next 4 months is the undoing of this little family.

Byron and James plot a way to save Diana from persecution but instead drive her into the hands of the seemingly distraught (yet totally conniving) mother of the little girl.

I missed reading Rachel Joyce’s first novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry so I’ll have to it pick up.

Perfect is quirky, well written and, I suspect, just as great a book club selection as Harold Fry. If you like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time you’ll also like this title.