Terror on the Alert

By Robert W. Mackay

In 1962, the world was in the midst of the Cold War, a time of intense hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union and their allies. Although there was never full-scale combat, each side engaged in a much-publicized nuclear arms race, causing widespread fear of WWIII. Mackay recreates that frightening time from the perspective of a young Canadian naval lieutenant on a submarine during the Cuban Missile Crisis, one of the most terrifying periods of the Cold War, when the world teetered on the brink of annihilation.

Tension is felt from the first page when we meet Ted Hawkins as he is undergoing his last test to qualify as a submariner. He must complete a simulation exercise of escaping from a bottomed submarine, 100’ underwater. With nothing to help him to the surface but a life jacket, water pressure demands that the exercise be done correctly or his lungs could explode! Despite his naval experience, he is surprised by a momentary feeling of panic as he completes the exercise, but he doesn’t dwell on it. Currently on loan to the British Royal Navy since Canada does not yet have its own fleet of submarines, Ted is assigned to HMCS Alert to replace an injured officer. While descending the ladder into the sub, Ted is shocked when he is hit with a serious panic attack. Gasping for breath, and heart pounding, he realizes what his earlier episode should have warned him about—he has developed claustrophobia. When he realizes that his Executive Officer (XO) is a former rival who detests him, it is obvious that between his claustrophobia and the XO’s animosity, Ted must brace himself for a rough week ahead.

Despite his misgivings Ted looks forward to the week away, for the submarine experience and in hopes that some time apart from his wife might help alleviate current friction. A recent horrific accident (likely the cause of his claustrophobia) is a source of worry for Ted’s wife, who can see that it has had a profound effect on him. She is also unhappy in her role as navy wife, far from home, with almost nothing to occupy her. Ted seems oblivious to her boredom and loneliness and doesn’t seem to realize how much the accident has affected him. Understandable sources of discord, but instead of facing them, Ted naively hopes that a week apart will help solve their problems.

But Ted’s week at sea changes drastically on the second day out when the captain reveals their real orders. Instead of one week of exercises, Alert has been assigned to carry out a war patrol. The U.S. suspects the Russians of moving missiles to Cuba, and Alert’s orders are to proceed to waters off Gibraltar, and identify, report, and shadow any Soviet submarines they detect. Ted is stunned by this news:

Ted was amazed. Out of the blue, he and Alert were as close as they had ever come to seeing action. This is what they trained for, all those years of drills, exercises, simulations … Ted felt more vulnerable than ever, more aware of the sweating steel cocoon in which they sat, a nearly twenty-year-old Second World War-designed boat … panic rose from the pit of his stomach into his chest. His heart pounded. Sweat broke out on his forehead. (60-61) 

Ted struggles to maintain some sanity in his predicament. But Mackay’s descriptions of the sub—the feeling of confinement from the tiny rooms and the closeness of the berths, the smells of sweat, and oil from the engines—all contribute to an atmosphere that makes Ted’s claustrophobia very real. 

As the story progresses, Ted’s claustrophobia almost overwhelms him at times and complications arise with the XO as well, both conditions making it difficult for Ted to do his job. When they start to suspect that a Soviet sub is nearby, the tension skyrockets, and when there is a final confrontation with it, Ted must overcome all his obstacles and take over the ship if he and his crew are to have any chance of survival.

This was an exciting, suspenseful read, with some twists and turns that increased the interest and tension level. Added to that, we learn some fascinating information about how a submarine operates. Attaining neutral buoyancy by pumping water into and out of ballast tanks, is necessary to maintain a particular depth, whether 200’ or 60’ (60’ is periscope depth, when the crew can see what’s above the surface but remain fairly hidden). A submarine is quieter and safer underwater—above, it’s drafty and noisy and more vulnerable to collision by merchant vessels since its low profile and narrow fin make it harder to spot from the bridge of other ships. For the safety of the submarine, it’s important to “stay in the box,” a 70 x 30 mile zone in which the ship is authorized to operate and which moves at a pre-arranged speed along the ship’s route. If the ship falls out of this zone it could be vulnerable to mistaken identity and possible attack by friendly forces. Knowledge of some of the ship’s functions contributes to the reader’s understanding of the vulnerability it faces at all times, how complicated it is to operate and how difficult and dangerous some decisions can be. As a small example, in order to make up speed and stay in the box when they are falling out of it, the ship must surface, but this makes it vulnerable during a potentially dangerous time.

Drawing on his own experience as a former naval officer and submariner, Mackay creates authentic depictions of life at sea. The danger, the tension, the feeling of confinement, all seem very real. The atmosphere of fear from nuclear destruction during that time is also recreated vividly, bringing back memories of nightmares, bomb shelters, air raid sirens … As with Soldier of the Horse, his novel set in WWI, Mackay has brought to life a critical time in history as seen by one young man caught in the ugly mesh of war. His personal story gives us civilians a tiny glimpse of what being at war really means, and perhaps a greater appreciation for those who risk their lives on our behalf. Given the state of the world right now and the serious threats we are facing, Mackay’s books seem even more relevant than ever.

I am grateful to Touchwood Press for providing me with a copy of this book to review and look forward to finding out which period of history Mr. Mackay will explore next.


By Rebecca Rasmussen

June 20, 2014

Rebecca Rasmussen’s second novel describes the life of three generations of a family living in northern Minnesota, from 1938 to 1972.

Eveline and Emil move to Evergreen to start their married life together. They learn to adapt to the harsh environment and work hard in order to survive. When Emil travels to Germany to care for his dying father, Eveline remains behind with their baby boy, determined to carry on with the work they had started in establishing a home. Her neighbour and good friend, Lulu, continues to teach her survival skills and helps her through a traumatic time when Eveline is raped by a stranger and becomes pregnant.

Unable to accept her new daughter into her heart and face the constant reminder of her ordeal, Eveline leaves Naamah at an orphanage on the very day of her birth. When we meet Naamah 14 years later, we see the lonely life she is leading and sympathize with her desire to escape and find her mother. But a life of isolation, loneliness and physical and mental abuse has not prepared Naamah for the outside world and she is not sure what to do when she is set “free” one wintry night.

Eventually Huxley, Eveline’s son, learns of the existence of his sister and goes in search of her. Whether bringing her back to Evergreen is a good decision or not is debatable, as Naamah’s early life, combined with seven years of wild living in logging camps, have not provided a good base for settling down to domestic life, even a rustic one.

The first section of the book, describing the lives of Eveline and Emil, and their friends Lulu and Reddy, was very engaging, and for me, the most interesting. I loved the strong, well-rounded characters of Eveline and Lulu and enjoyed seeing Eveline develop and grow more independent and sure of herself. I was surprised by her decision not to confide in Emil about the rape and the baby and that she worried that their relationship would be compromised by that knowledge. What torture for her to keep such a huge secret from him for the rest of their life together.

Naamah’s narrative is also interesting but her story does not seem as fully fledged. We get to know her during her time in the orphanage but we see her as an adult only through the eyes of her brother. Once back at Evergreen, things seem to move very quickly, from her rescue, to her marriage, her sinking into her old ways, to her departure. She is a complex character and I would have welcomed some insight into her feelings about all the drastic changes she was going through.

Although themes of abandonment and loss permeate this novel, and characters often struggle with cruel circumstances, tragedy and abuse, this is not a sad or unhappy story. There is also joy and love, perseverance and resilience. As with The Bird Sisters, Rasmussen’s first novel, Evergreen is a tender, open-hearted story, where the author’s love for her characters is obvious. We see them with all their flaws, dealing with the complexities and surprises of life and surviving to the best of their abilities.

Evergreen ends on a positive note when we meet Racina, Naamah’s daughter, at the age of 11. Happy and well-adjusted, and surrounded by love from her extended family, her appearance augurs well for the future.

Through a Glass, Darkly

By Donna Leon 

March 27, 2014

Hard to believe this is the 15th book that Donna Leon has written about Commissario Brunetti; Guido and the rest of the cast of characters remain as fresh and interesting as ever.

One of the things I love about Leon's mysteries (besides the fact that they are set in Venice, and she describes the "calles" and the food and the Laguna so that you both feel as though you are there and wish you were there at the same time) is that they are so complex. There is a mystery to be solved at the heart of the story, but there are many other aspects to the main idea for you to relish as well. In this case, a young night watchman is found dead in one of the glass-blowing facilities on the island of Murano. On the face of it, he died of a heart attack, after falling down in front of one of the furnaces and succumbing to the extremely high heat blasting out of it. But surrounding his death are many other factors, including the debate about pollution from the glass-making and disposal of toxic wastes, possible health risks, and of course, political corruption.

Nothing is ever black and white in Leon’s world, which is probably more true to life than we want to see, and is similar in tone to some European authors. But, what makes it so interesting also makes it somewhat dissatisfying. I hate to criticize an author I love (and whose characters I adore) but sometimes, I actually want the good guys to get their guy and the bad guys to be punished! I think that’s why mysteries are such a cosy read, despite the sometimes gory and violent stories. It’s predictable. You feel good at the end because good wins out over bad. But, in Leon’s world, the distinction between good and bad is not easily defined. So, you’re forced to think about the people involved in a different way than usual—more intriguing, more demanding, sometimes more frustrating. Things are not tied up nice and neatly, and you know that the evil and corruption continue.

As I got closer and closer to the end of this book, there were more and more signs that this was going to be one of those endings that left me feeling that something was wanting. But despite the ambiguity surrounding the pollution and corruption issues, it is somewhat hopeful at the end. Whether or not things are concluded satisfactorily, a mystery with the honest but charming Brunetti, his admirable wife Paola, and the legendary Signorina Elettra, cannot help but be worth reading. Leon draws you in to another world, makes you think a little (perhaps with a bit of Dante thrown in for good measure) and sends you on your way again.

Reading Highlights of 2013

Looking back on what I read in the past year is always a pleasure. I read so many good books, a few rotten ones that I couldn’t finish, and some that were outstanding. Here are a few of my favourites, in the order that I read them:

February, by Lisa Moore

This was a contender in CanadaReads 2013 and one of the two that I hoped would make it to the end. And I was so pleased when it won! I loved this book and was very moved by the story of the disaster on the oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland in February of 1982. Heartfelt, and beautifully written.

Indian Horse, by Richard Wagamese

The other CanadaReads participant that I loved. It is a harrowing tale of a young boy, Saul Indian Horse, and his experience in the Residential school system. Not an easy read, as we are forced to think about what happened to so many Indian children, and the far-reaching, long-term effects of the abuse they suffered, mental, physical and sexual, but so important to be told.

Bury Your Dead, by Louise Penny

This is perhaps my all-time favourite of Penny’s series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Québec Sureté. The main focus is Gamache’s struggle to come to terms with a horrific event for which he feels responsible, but there are several other story lines, including an ancient mystery, and a local murder. All are tied together through the theme of past mistakes. One small mistake can lead to tragedy; but sometimes the mistakes can be fixed, and lead to hope. Fantastic read.

The Three Evangelists, by Fred Vargas

Brand new author for me and enjoyed this immensely. Another mystery, but very lighthearted and energetic, with quirky characters and scenarios. Set in Paris, and stars three young historians (Marc, Matthias, Lucien) who get involved in a local murder. Will definitely read more by her, especially if I can find them in the original French.

The Miracles of Ordinary Men, by Amanda Leduc

I was so excited to read Amanda Leduc’s debut novel because it was the first time I would be reading a book by someone I knew! But I was also a bit nervous—what if I didn’t like it??! Happily, my worries were soon laid to rest. Though some of the circumstances in the book are quite unusual (one of the main characters grows wings, really huge wings, that only a select few can see) we are easily led to suspend our disbelief and have great empathy for Sam as he undergoes his transformation. An extraordinary book about “ordinary” men.

Ru, by Kim Thuy

This book was a delight to read: the French is elegant and poetic, the story is gentle and humorous. It is written in memoir format, and through a series of vignettes that flow back and forth in time, we get to know An as a young refugee in Québec, a younger girl in Viet Nam before fleeing to Canada with her family, and as a present-day mother of two sons. Despite the harshness of An’s experience, she relates her story with humour, love and compassion. A book filled with hope that I highly recommend.

Bone and Bread, by Saleema Nawaz

Nawaz explores the relationship between two sisters, Beena and Sadhana, raised in Montreal by their mother and later their uncle. When Sadhana dies at the age of 32, Beena is confronted by the past as she tries to figure out how and why her sister died. Memories come flooding back, both good and bad, with all the quarrels and misunderstandings inherent in a sibling relationship as intense as theirs. Beautifully written, believable portrayal of a strong but prickly relationship.

The Beauty of Humanity Movement, Camilla Gibb

I absolutely loved this book. Set in Viet Nam, the timeline alternates between the present and the past, particularly the 1970s, and involves Old Man Hung, who makes the most delicious “pho” in the city, Tu, a young tour guide, and Maggie, who has returned to Viet Nam to search for clues about her artist father’s disappearance during the war. It is a wonderful book, filled with vivid descriptions of Viet Nam, its food, its culture, its history, with interesting, believable characters. You will be dying for Pho! Will definitely read again someday.

Natural Order, by Brian Francis

Beautiful book, told from the point of view of an elderly woman, thinking back on her life and her relationship with her gay son. Very, very moving, and highly recommended.

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

Fascinated by the first of Atwood’s MadAdam trilogy and can’t wait to read the other two, especially the Year of the Flood because of being included in CanadaReads 2014. Her ability to create a truly believable dystopian world is uncanny, and although it is disturbing, at the same time it is a pleasure to read a book that is so well-written.