Will the real Harry Bosch please stand up?

The Reversal, by Michael Connelly

One of my favourite mystery characters of all time is Connelly’s LAPD detective, Harry (Hieronymous) Bosch. Bosch takes us into the gritty world of a cop in Los Angeles, bringing us along as he cracks the latest murder. We get to know him and some of his quirks, loves and weaknesses. He is tough but vulnerable, he loves jazz, he’s lonely. He has a dogged integrity that wins the reader over. His story is often horrifying but always interesting and engaging.

But, the last few Connelly mysteries have been disappointing and The Reversal is no exception. Bosch teams up with lawyer Mickey Haller to solve a 24-year-old crime. Connelly alternates point-of-view between the two men, but this technique has a very negative result. Instead of getting twice the story, we get less than half. Neither character shines; neither one is fully developed or as strong as usual. Because we only see Bosch part of the time, we don’t get the same sense of what he’s up to and the steps he’s taking to solve the crime. Half the story is missing.

The mystery itself feels dull and uninspired. The crime is brutal of course, but a re-trial after 24 years is not gripping in the way that a current crime would be. Trying to prove that the original suspect is guilty, does not provide the same suspense as following the trail of a killer and hunting him down.

One of Connelly’s strengths is his talent for making his characters come to life. Unfortunately, this does not happen in The Reversal. The characters are two-dimensional, and potentially interesting relationships are virtually ignored. Haller and Bosch are half-brothers who only learned of each other’s existence a few years earlier. They barely know each other, yet they are working together on this case. Another complex relationship is that of Bosch and his teenage daughter Madeline. She has recently come to live with him after the murder of her mother in the previous book The Nine Dragons. Suddenly, father and daughter have to learn to live together as well as deal with their grief and loss. So much scope here for personal insight or drama that would have been the norm in earlier works and might have added enough depth to round out the story.

I really wanted to like this book. I think Connelly’s earlier works are some of the best mysteries around, and he has created some complex, vulnerable, appealing characters. He can tell an exciting story like nobody else. I’m confident he’ll get back to doing that once more and that we’ll see the real Harry Bosch again soon.

Old British Mysteries and a Cup of Tea

Nov. 20, 2010

Recent tweets about female British mystery writers reminded me of how I was introduced to mysteries, and inspired me to revisit the very first one I read: The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey.

I must admit that early in my life I was a bit of a snob when it came to mysteries. It was only when my father-in-law suggested that I read one that I thought there might be something to it. He was a soft-spoken, well-read, academic man, and was the University Librarian at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon for much of his career. He read widely and voraciously, and loved mysteries. So, when he suggested that I try reading Josephine Tey, I took his opinion seriously and even though I had my doubts, I thought I would give it a try.

What a brilliant suggestion that was. The Daughter of Time is no ordinary mystery. Instead of puzzling over a current murder, we are taken on a fascinating journey, examining the character of someone thought to have committed murder over 400 years ago. The question is whether this man is the evil mastermind behind the crime or whether he has been maligned by historians all this time.

The story starts off with our hero, Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, confined to bed in hospital, with a broken leg. To help relieve his boredom, a friend brings him a package of portraits to examine, as Grant has a reputation for being quite good at the study of faces. In the lot is one of a serious man, someone used to power and responsibility, who had perhaps been ill as a child. Grant is astounded when he discovers that he is looking at a portrait of Richard III. He is amazed, and disappointed with himself. How could he not see evil in that face? He spends many hours simply staring at the portrait, trying to see what must have escaped him. After much reflection, and discussion with others, he decides to take his detective skills back in time and find out as much as he can about Richard. He needs to know how a man with the face of a judge could have committed the heinous crimes of which he is accused.

Tey takes us on a journey through history, examining contemporary letters and documents, and reading from history books that we discover are based on no more than hearsay. Although the events in question took place hundreds of years ago, there is still a feeling of suspense, and there is outrage and sadness for the innocent victims. After all, two young princes did disappear and were probably murdered. The question is, was it the uncle, Richard III, who was behind the murders, or someone else? Tey’s wit and intelligence draw the reader into the mystery and we are as enthralled with Grant’s study of Richard and his time, as he is.

Tey’s book, published in 1951, was key in rekindling interest in Richard and the controversy over his portrayal by such well-known authors as Sir Thomas More and William Shakespeare. Her facts and her research, her questioning of historical truth, all told in her typical amusing style, reached many more people as a mystery novel than any history text could ever have done. The Richard III Society was re-established and became even stronger in its mission to clear Richard’s name. It boasts thousands of members from around the world, and nowadays, most historians at least acknowledge the possibility that Richard may not have been as villainous as previously thought.

Of course, as my father-in-law foresaw, I was hooked by Tey. Her beautiful language, colourful characters, and fascinating puzzle intrigued me, and I devoured her other mysteries. Next on the list was Dorothy L. Sayers, then P.D. James, Ngaio Marsh, and the race was on. What fun discovering and getting to know all those authors and their characters. I loved Lord Peter and Harriet Vane and hoped so much that they would get together. Adam Dalgleish’s poetry showed a sensitive, vulnerable side that made him all the more appealing. And I absolutely adored Detective Chief-Inspector Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard, and his talented artist wife Agatha Troy. All of them became like old friends, and I could hardly wait to read the next book and find out what was happening to them.

Eventually, I moved on to include modern mysteries from all over the world, but I am still partial to the older Brits. Their mystery stories never seem as violent or threatening or oppressive as current ones. I find them relaxing, perhaps because of their slower pace from an earlier time, and because of the associations they have for me from my initial reading of them. When we visited my in-laws we would all settle in the family room after dinner, my father-in-law with his pipe, and his book or cryptic crossword; the rest of the family would read or contribute desultorily to his cryptic clues (he certainly didn’t need help from any of us!) It was very calm and peaceful and I have fond memories of those cozy evenings..

So, if you haven’t yet discovered their charm, curl up on the couch with a Tey (or a Marsh or a Sayers), a nice hot cup of tea, then relax and escape to another time and place.

Innocent, by Scott Turow

Once again Scott Turow has produced a page-turner. Rusty Sabich, chief judge of an appellate court, wakes up one morning to find his wife dead in bed beside him. The question is, how did she die, and did Rusty have anything to do with it?

Twenty-two years earlier, Rusty was charged with murdering his mistress. The case against him was strong enough to keep us in suspense the whole book, but eventually, he was acquitted. We see him in the same predicament again, accused of murdering a significant woman in his life. The earlier book, Presumed Innocent, was a fast-paced, tension-filled novel, full of twists and turns, with an ending that I found completely unexpected and actually somewhat shocking--very thought-provoking. I was dying to read Innocent, to see how Rusty would fare this time around. It definitely kept my attention and I found it hard to put down, but ultimately, despite the complex story line and the unrelenting tension, I was disappointed. Somehow, I was not engaged by the characters. My recollection of the previous book was that I actually liked Rusty and cared about what happened to him. This time I found him quite aloof, hard to read, and not all that likable. Other characters are not fully developed and none of them commanded my sympathy or respect except for the prosecutor, Tommy Molto. He seemed the most genuine, and turned out to be one of the most honest people in the book, a man stuck in a thankless job, trying his best to do the right thing. The ending of the earlier book was extremely significant and would definitely have affected Rusty’s relationship with his wife, Barbara. I found it frustrating that the actual event is never referred to, not even in Rusty’s thoughts. Perhaps because some readers of Innocent might not have read the earlier one yet and Turow didn’t want to spoil it for them, but I found this quite annoying and unrealistic.

Turow is a talented writer with a gift for constructing complex story lines, creating tension, and keeping his readers riveted. Innocent was a wild ride but I was very glad when it was over. Here’s hoping his next mystery includes characters that we care about more, so we can enjoy the ride and want it to last longer.

Canadian Favourites, Old and New

All the talk these last few days about over/under-rated Canadian authors made me start thinking about all the books by Canadian authors I have read over the years, many of which I have truly loved and read many times over. So, I decided to put together a list of my own, based purely on the fact that I like them, and no other criteria whatsoever. They move me in some way, they make me laugh out loud, they make me nostalgic, they intrigue me…

Here they are:

Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery

One of my all-time favourite books, I have read it innumerable times, have watched the CBC movie twice, and still cry and laugh every time. Anne is a charmer and a delight, and eventually all who meet her fall under her spell. How can you not wish you could be her “kindred spirit”?

Who Has Seen the Wind, by W.O. Mitchell

Another favourite from younger days, which I think I will dig out and reread (again!) Growing up on the prairies, it was so easy to relate to this book, and the later version with Kurelek’s illustrations bring back so many memories of visiting cousins, exploring the amazing hills in southern Saskatchewan, smelling hay and wild sage… Wonderful!

The Edible Woman, by Margaret Atwood

I absolutely loved this book when I read it back in university days. Atwood explores relationships and gender roles using humour and she does it extremely well. I vaguely remember that the main character finds it very hard to eat anything because she starts to identify with food, as she feels she is being devoured in her relationship with her fiancée. Have no idea if it would stand the test of time, but I laughed out loud the first time around.

Les Belles-Soeurs, by Michel Tremblay

Another one from university days, and one of many plays by Tremblay which I enjoyed. Reading joual and hearing it onstage was such a pleasure; not exactly like the French my parents spoke but very similar. Again, I could relate to the characters; they were women who sounded just like my “ma-tantes”, they were poor, they teased each other and they were extremely funny. Those women were so much a part of their environment, so Quebecoises, but people in English Canada understood and loved them, and there is even a Scottish version which did very well! What a talent Tremblay has.

Bousille et les Justes, by Gratien Gelinas

This was one of the first plays I read by Gelinas, and it’s hard to say that I actually enjoyed it but it was quite memorable. The story is quite sad and the atmosphere is depressing. And yet, Bousille touches your heart. He is an innocent, surrounded by a family (les Justes) who do not want him to tell the truth about a crime that he has witnessed, because it will implicate another member of the family. They use various means to try to persuade him to change his mind. Gelinas translated this play into English himself and both the French and the English version were extremely successful.

Forty Words for Sorrow, by Giles Blunt

This is the first in a series of detective novels featuring John Cardinal, whom I love. He is smart and persevering, cares about his work and finding out the truth, and adores his wife and daughter. He has a secret in his past which haunts him and which.makes him human and vulnerable. This is gritty and not for the faint of heart, but getting to know John Cardinal is worth it.

Three Day Road, by Joseph Boyden

Boyden’s first novel tells the tale of two young Cree men who join the Canadian army during WWI and are used as snipers by the military. When Xavier returns, his aunt, Niska, tells him stories of his young days when she raised him in the bush, to try to help him heal. Xavier is in drastic need of healing, both in body and spirit. A moving, powerful, story, loosely based on a real character, told beautifully by Boyden.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley

This was such a fun read. Flavia de Luce is a brilliant eleven-year-old girl who loves chemistry, especially concocting poisons, fights with her two older sisters constantly, and enjoys hanging out at the library. She’s extremely clever, is a bit of a loner, and whizzes around town on her trusty bicycle companion named Gladys, gathering information to solve the latest mystery. What’s not to love?

Amphibian, by Carla Gunn

Another child protagonist whom I adored and who made me laugh till the tears rolled down my cheeks. As we see the world through the eyes of nine-year-old Phineas Walsh, environmentalist par excellence, we are reminded how beautiful and amazing, but sad and scary the world can be. His struggle to make sense of this puzzling place is poignant and serious, but also entertaining and often hilarious. He is fascinating, endearing and inspiring. I guarantee you will love him.

Annabel, by Kathleen Winter

This is a haunting story, with some powerful scenes that are so poignant you think your heart will break. A baby is born to a young couple in Labrador but is it a boy or a girl? Raised as a boy, we follow Wayne through childhood to early adulthood. We feel his bewilderment and misery over his lonely predicament, but we also share his wonder for the beauty he sees in the world around him and the joy of love and friendship. Through poetic language and vivid imagery, his complicated, unusual story is told tenderly and lovingly.

The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway

Canadian author Steven Galloway’s third novel is an intensely moving story, set during the siege of Sarajevo (1992-1996). It is partly based on an actual event, in which twenty-two people were killed while waiting in line for bread. The next day, a famous cellist enters the square where the shelling took place and plays the Albinoni Adagio in their memory. He vows to return and play each day for each person killed. This is a haunting story, that I hope many will read. We lucky ones in Canada sometimes need a reminder, not only of what others endure in war-torn countries, but how quickly and easily our world can be transformed into such a state. Kudos to Mr.Galloway.

Well, that was a quick, fun exercise. Interesting to think back over some of my favourites and then challenging to narrow them down. I’ve been reminded of books I haven’t read for a long time that I might reread and of course there are so many, many more that I had to leave out! And now, with the two lists from the National Post, I have a lot more exploring to do, not to mention my current list of books to read. But I really enjoyed doing this for myself, so even if nobody reads this post, it’s still been worthwhile for me. But if you do read it, please feel free to leave comments on my choices or tell me some of yours. Even better, post a list yourself! So … what are some of your favourite Canadian books?

The Cellist of Sarajevo

By Steven Galloway
Canadian author Steven Galloway’s third novel is an intensely moving story, set during the siege of Sarajevo (1992-1996). It is partly based on an actual event, in which twenty-two people were killed while waiting in line for bread. The next day, a famous cellist enters the square where the shelling took place and plays the Albinoni Adagio in their memory. He vows to return and play each day for each person killed, thus twenty-two days altogether.
Although the title derives from this incredible incident, the cellist’s actions serve mainly as background to the story. He does not interact with any of the main characters, although they are aware of him and in some cases, their lives are affected by him. Three separate narratives tell the stories of three different people struggling to survive in a world that has changed from a civilized society to one of anarchy. Everyday they are confronted with choices that could lead to death or injury or to a loss of integrity and self-respect. They feel helpless, abandoned, vulnerable, angry and terrified. Yet, in many moving scenes, they exhibit courage in the face of fear, and a determination not to lose their humanity.
Galloway’s vivid prose brings the characters to life and the intertwining stories create suspense. The most arresting story for me was that of Arrow, a young female sniper. She has been dragged into the conflict against her will, and unfortunately for her, she is very talented. She is afraid that she will never be able to return to being the person she was before the war. Her personal struggle is by far the hardest.
The ending is incredible and I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read it. It is both sad and hopeful, and it will remain with you for a long time. Sad for various reasons, not the least being the inevitable politics of any situation, so that even in a case where all should be fighting together against a common enemy, there is still conflict and in-fighting within the ranks. But it is also hopeful because we see a determination to be true to oneself in the face of death or torture.
This is a powerful, haunting story, that I hope many will read. We lucky ones in Canada sometimes need a reminder, not only of what others endure in war-torn countries, but how quickly and easily our world can be transformed into such a state. Kudos to Mr. Galloway.

Q and A with Kathleen Winter

Recently, I read the wonderful book Annabel, by Kathleen Winter, which I reviewed and posted earlier on this blog. After reading the book and thinking about it a lot, I wrote to Kathleen a few times with some questions and she was kind enough to indulge me and take the time to answer them. She also gave me permission to post them, so here they are. Hope you find them interesting and thought-provoking.

JD: Overall, I loved the book and found your writing so poetic. You really evoke a sense of place in your descriptions of the land and the wildness of Labrador and the hustle of St. John’s. Your portraits of the characters are all so strong and real, especially Wayne and Treadway. Even though I hated what Treadway did sometimes, I could always understand him because we got to know him so well. But, I was wondering why you ended up treating Jacinta the way you did. She starts off as such an important support for Wayne, yet she ends up becoming so withdrawn and eccentric (perhaps more than a bit crazy for awhile?) that she virtually disappears as an important element of his life. She goes from being the most important to the least, and we don’t really hear from her again. That bothered me because I found her so sympathetic and likeable in the beginning. I thought it was a bit unfair for Treadway to end up being the strong, important one instead of her.

KW: You're right about Jacinta - she does retreat. I'm not sure I know the answer to your question, except maybe to say that yes, it was a choice I made, to have Treadway emerge as the stronger one, and I can see why a reader might feel the way you do. It would be a good question for a book club! I felt that Jacinta's self-enforced repression of her wishes regarding Wayne, all through his childhood, made her feel ultimately that she had made a deep mistake that she didn't know how to fix. I already had a strong female character who didn't care what any man thought (Thomasina) and I guess I gave her the bravest female role.

JD: Images of bridges occur throughout the book. Thomasina sends Wayne postcards of bridges while she travels, she talks to Wayne about bridges, and Wayne and Wally create their own beautiful version of the Ponte Vecchio. In the end, Wayne decides to study and design bridges himself. I thought it was a wonderful metaphor for Wayne, as a bridge or transition between two worlds. How did you come up with this idea , or is it possible to pinpoint when or how the seed for an idea is planted? I thought it was a very beautiful image.

KW: I can pinpoint the instant bridges came to me. The Ponte Vecchio did not exist in early drafts; Wally and Wayne built a treehouse, but the treehouse didn’t feel right to me. For a long time I left it in there but I knew it wasn’t what the story needed. I didn’t have a clue what to do instead. I was having coffee outdoors at Café El Mundo with my husband and the idea of bridges flew gently into my head, and I knew then and there what was going to happen with bridges throughout the story. It was a gift, the idea. A lot of writing is like that, for me. There is author control on one side, and inspiration on the other. It is really important to me to admit that I don’t know the answer to something I’m writing about, and to let the question sit, over time, until the idea wants to come to me of its own accord, in a completely unexpected form.

JD:Both Jacinta and Thomasina support the feminine side of Wayne right from the start. Treadway tries his best to encourage the more masculine aspects of his son and in fact, seems to be afraid of seeing any signs of femininity. Do you think that women in general are more accepting of differences in people and are more inclined to take people as they are and not feel threatened? Or is that too broad a generalization? Is there any research that you found on this idea?

KW: One of the hardest things for me in the writing of this novel was to stand back and allow the concepts of masculinity and femininity to breathe. I think they are artificial concepts when it comes to the soul, or the inner person. So I did not want to polarize them, even in apparently polarized characters, like Treadway and Jacinta. Treadway has music in him; he sings, and he has intensely private moments in which he consults the wilderness about whether he has made a mistake in forcing Wayne to be raised as a boy. Jacinta and the other women in the novel have strengths that we often attribute to men. But yes, I have observed that while gender is more fluid than social constraints pretend, it often appears that a man like Treadway would have a harder time accepting that fluidity, on the surface at least, than Jacinta or Thomasina would.

JD: Why did you isolate Wayne quite so much? When Treadway dismantles the “Ponte Vecchio” Wally and Wayne are broken apart. Why did you make it so drastic? Surely Wally would have understood that Wayne was not to blame for Treadway’s actions? It was actually surprising that Wayne was not more depressed or even suicidal, given his lot in life and the isolation he had to endure for so long.

KW: I mentioned earlier that there is a tension between author control of a story, and what the story wants to do. I don’t decide ahead of time what is going to happen. Wayne’s isolation was an important part of the whole atmosphere of this story, which is, in part, about loneliness. Loneliness is an important theme to me, and I think it is one reason why readers read novels. There is an essential loneliness that affects us all, and that is why I love E.M.Forster’s epigraph in Howard’s End: “Only connect.” I think that in order for Wayne to connect, to belong, and to find his place in the world, he had to go through a dark night of the soul first.

JD: Wayne’s attack by Derek Warford and his crew really bothered me. Why did his first sexual experience after his operation have to be so horrific and devastating? I’m sure you must have had good reasons for the way the story progressed, so please forgive me but this just didn’t seem quite right to me.

KW: I did think of removing the attack scene from the book after I had written it, because it is so brutal. Then I did some reading about what happens to many intersex people and others who don't fit at extreme ends of the gender spectrum, and realized that this scene was mild compared to the brutality, torture and even murder that many people of ambiguous gender have to face. So I left it in. I was disturbed by it too.

JD: You’ve probably read Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides, another book about a trans-gendered young person, but treated in a completely different way. What did you think of it? In that novel, Cal ends up deciding to live out his life as a man. How do you see Wayne living the rest of his life? Do you think he will become more one gender than another, or do you prefer not to think about the rest of his life, or is that possible? I find it hard not to think about him a lot and I’m just a reader; I imagine that as a writer it would be even harder.

KW: I am just beginning the first chapter of Middlesex now, after finishing my own book, so I don’t have any thoughts on it yet. But I do have thoughts about how Wayne lives out the rest of his life. He has been through a lot. He has been through so much sadness and loneliness, but at the end of the book he has begun to find a place of wholeness and belonging. In my mind I see him as moving further into that place, where people in his life will love him for all his beautiful qualities, and where he can give love in return. I did not realize when I set out to write the book, which began as a short story, how much it would focus on his childhood and youth. By the end of the novel he has only just begun to find his place in the world, but I hope that for him it is a good place. I see him as living beyond gender. I see him as having a beautiful face and graceful way of walking. I see him as someone whose gender strangers will not be able to tell, but I see him as having a circle of friends and loved ones who understand that he is intersex. In the time of the novel (starting with his birth in 1968) and in the locations covered in it, I did not find him a satisfactory lover, although I did write intimate scenes that did not end up in the book, because he had not yet come into his final way of being, his new, whole self, and for real intimacy he would have had to find someone who responded completely to his real self. I think that happens later in his life, and I think it might have to happen in a big city, although I could be wrong about that.

JD: One final question, about Wayne’s best friend. Why did poor Wally have to lose her voice? It was her one true passion and it was taken from her in such a dramatic way. Actually, I thought you treated her a bit harshly overall. She was so confident and a leader without trying when she was young, then along comes Donna and Wally is “taken down”. What were your reasons for all of that?

KW: This question really interests me because it makes me think more deeply about where I came up with Wally’s harsh experiences. She remained a strong person, but by around grade five something happened to the social atmosphere at school. There formed a social hierarchy, with sophisticated and hidden forms of creating inner and outer circles, as well as outcasts. I have seen and experienced this, and I know it affects children deeply for life, so I felt it was important enough to put in the book. The scene in which she loses her voice comes directly out of this atmosphere of covert bullying. She lost her voice because she had the courage to speak out against the bully, who reacted with impulsive violence. When I wrote that scene, I wanted to take it out of the book. I told my daughter, who was the same age as Wally and Donna, about the problem: that I did not want singing to become impossible for Wally, since, as you say, it was her one true passion. My daughter replied, “Have her sing anyway.” So that is what I did.

Thank you for these great questions. They go deep into the book and I appreciate them. Kathleen.

JD: Thank-you Kathleen for taking the time for this. I really loved the book and found it a very tender story. So easy to love Wayne!

Edith's War

By Andrew Smith
In times of war, everything you take for granted about your life is transformed. The illusion of safety, faith in your country and the rules that govern it, normal routines of work, feeding and looking after your family, are all upset and new rules and routines need to be established in order to survive.
Set in England during the Second World War, Edith Maguire’s story is that of an ordinary young woman suddenly going through a time that is no longer ordinary. Her experience is like many others, and it gives us a very tiny glimpse into what happens in extreme circumstances. Multiply that by several thousands and we might get an idea of what war-time is like for the family and community the soldiers leave behind. War affects everyone. With their world turned upside down, people behave in ways that they normally would not, and they are forever changed by that.
Over the course of the novel, we discover some of Edith’s experiences during the war, and the consequences of her and others’ behaviour. Two distinct narratives tell her story, and by far the stronger of the two is that of Edith herself. We see her live through the war with her mother-in-law in the small town of Shrimpley, near Liverpool. Young, pregnant, with her husband away at war, estranged from her own family, we feel her loneliness and confusion. Appalled by her own country when Italian neighbours are taken away because of Britain’s internment policy, she is angry and disillusioned. Her story is alive with her struggle to survive and to make sense of a world that has become senseless. Interspersed throughout her story, are her sons’ reminiscences from today’s perspective. Awaiting her arrival in Venice, Will and Shamus spend the day wandering around the city, sightseeing, drinking coffee and bickering about everything, especially their family. As the two story-lines intersect, we get a more complete picture of Edith and her life since the war.
Edith’s War is one small snapshot of a time that is long gone but whose consequences live on. It is a powerful reminder of the fragility of our own world and what thin threads hold it together.


Kathleen Winter
The story of Annabel is told through the heart and mind of a boy named Wayne. A child is born to a young couple in Labrador, who is neither distinctly girl nor boy, but both. Born at home, only the parents and midwife know about the baby and all three are stymied. Should the child be altered so that he or she may become completely one or the other, or would it be possible to let the child simply grow up as is, having qualities of both? The latter is what Jacinta, the mother, would prefer, and so does Thomasina, the midwife. They are loth to change this beautiful little person and risk losing an important element of its being. But Treadway, the father, decides the child should be a boy. They name him Wayne.
Early in life, Wayne realizes that he is not quite the same as everyone else but he’s not sure how different he is. He feels haunted by a presence, almost as though someone is hiding inside him, wanting to break free. He longs to express the grace and beauty deep within himself but also knows that certain kinds of behaviour are acceptable and others are not. The desire to wear a girl’s bathing suit, like that worn by the soloist of the Russian synchronized swim team, must be kept secret. His outward demeanor must conform to what is expected and so, doing chores with Treadway, he knows “… that a grim, matter-of-fact attitude was required of him by his father, and he learned how to exhibit such an attitude … but it was not his authentic self.” Wayne’s parents, particularly Treadway, are terrified of that authentic self showing through. How would Wayne be seen by others, and how would they treat him? Ironically, it is their own behaviour that causes him pain and isolation. Treadway alienates Wayne’s best friend and both parents end up withdrawing from his life in their own way, leaving Wayne almost completely alone. Wayne must face the quandary of his existence by himself.
Wayne’s haunting tale unfolds. We follow him through his journey to adulthood, experimenting, making mistakes, reaching out. We feel his bewilderment over his lonely predicament and his misery when he is treated abominably. We share his wonder for the beauty he sees in the world around him and the joy of love and friendship. Through poetic language and vivid imagery, his complicated, unusual story is told tenderly and lovingly. We feel what Wayne feels, and it seems real and true. It is a powerful story of hope that we can eventually bridge the gap between one another so that we can truly be ourselves.

The Hour I First Believed

By Wally Lamb

Wally Lamb takes us on a journey into the heart of a man struggling to make some sense of his life and ultimately to discover what he believes in.

Caelum Quirk teaches at Columbine High School and his wife Maureen is the school nurse. Because of a family emergency, Caelum is absent on the tragic day of the Columbine shootings. Maureen is not so lucky, and finds herself hiding in a library cupboard, waiting to die. When Caelum rushes back to Colorado he is overjoyed and relieved to find his wife unhurt physically, but neither of them can comprehend the devastating psychological harm that Maureen has suffered. She is damaged to such a degree that their whole relationship, how they fit together, how they fit into this world, is called into question. Searching for some comfort and stability in their lives, they return to their old family farm in Connecticut. They struggle together to find sanity and order and seem to be making a start, but before any hope can be found, more tragedy befalls them.

I liked the early part of the book very much and kept hoping for the best for Caelum and Maureen. Their efforts to heal themselves and each other and the many problems they faced seemed honest and genuine. But the second half almost felt like a new book. Caelum’s complicated family history is brought to light and we see its effect on him and others. We read about prison life for women, both current and historical. While both of those story-lines are fascinating on their own, they feel somewhat distracting from the main theme. Many other topics are touched on as well, such as chaos theory, alienation, drug addiction, quests, hope, despair and belief. The multitude of threads make the book less cohesive and the amount of tragedy seems excessive. Although it is a long book at over 700 pages, the ending felt too abrupt. Some loose ends were tidied up unnecessarily, while others were not worked out satisfactorily. Maureen’s “salvation” did not ring true and getting rid of her felt like a cop-out. Surely, the metaphor of Caelum’s quest did not require him to actually be alone to face the world at the end?

Despite some of the criticisms, I could not put the book down. Lamb has created complex characters facing devastating problems. He poses hard questions about violence and its aftermath. How do people deal with its long-lasting effects? How do they live their lives afterwards? What do they believe in to help them get through it and get back to “normal”? Is that even possible? Thought-provoking questions for all of us to ponder.


By Carla Gunn
Amphibian is the story of Phineas Walsh, a precocious nine-year-old boy. As he tells his story we see the world through Phin’s eyes and we are reminded how beautiful and amazing, but sad and scary the world can be. His struggle to make sense of this puzzling place is poignant and serious, but also entertaining and often hilarious.
Phin is obsessed with the state of the world’s animals and he thinks about them all the time. Almost everything he talks about relates to the animal world in some way. If his mother makes an offhand comment , his rejoinder is about how an animal or insect would react in that situation. It sometimes seems as though he is thinking like an animal himself!
When Phin compliments his mother on how she looks in her new white pants, she is devastated to learn that he meant she looked bigger in the white pants than the black ones! In the animal world, bigger is better because “the bigger they are, the less likely they are to be attacked by predators.” Phin doesn’t understand that while this is useful for animals, it has nothing to do with people, especially women, who only want to look thin, not bigger!
Phin’s main concern is that so many animals are endangered or threatened. He would like to do something to help but what can a kid do? He feels helpless and overwhelmed and is losing sleep over this. Unlike other people, Phin cannot put aside troublesome thoughts and get on with normal activities, like chores, homework, and playing with friends. Even his playtime is preoccupied; he deals with his various anxieties by writing about his imaginary world of Reull and its animal inhabitants.
When Phin’s teacher gets a White’s Tree Frog for the class and keeps it in an aquarium, Phin realizes that this is his opportunity to finally do something and save at least one small animal. He enlists his best friend Bird in his plan and their attempt to rescue Cuddles (Phin named him!) is bold, crazy and brave. Phin has taken his first step and although it had mixed results, he is now on his path.
Carla Gunn has created a character who is as innocent and vulnerable as the animals he is concerned about. At the same time, he seems a little too old for his nine years. He is already trying to come to terms with the world he lives in and his attempt to figure out how he fits into it is fascinating, endearing and inspiring.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Alan Bradley c2009
I am a sucker for child protagonists and this book did not disappoint me. Flavia de Luce is a brilliant eleven-year-old girl with a passion for chemistry, in particular the concocting of poisons. She lives with her father and her two older sisters, who fight with her mercilessly (guess why she delights in experimenting with poisons?!). Interesting secondary characters abound, including their housekeeper Mrs. Mullet, who, in Flavia’s words “… was short and grey and round as a millstone and who, I’m quite sure, thought of herself as a character in a poem by A.A. Milne…” and tortures them by baking “pus-like custard pies.”
Set in the small English town of Bishop’s Lacey during the summer of 1950, Flavia is confronted with a series of mysterious events that she is compelled to investigate. Racing around the neighbourhood with her faithful companion, Gladys (her bicycle), Flavia consults the library (of course!) and makes various inquiries around town that seem destined to land her in an impossibly difficult situation. Needless to say, she is quite resourceful, and since this is the first of a series of books, I don’t think I’ll spoil it for anyone by saying that Flavia comes through with flying colours! Some tense moments along the way, some funny ones, and some interesting and moving moments with her father, and his manservant, Dogger.
The story is captivating right from the start. We see Flavia’s unique brilliance and her ability to extricate herself from difficult situations from the first page. She is obviously extremely clever but is a bit of a loner and does not seem to associate with other children very much. Her association with Dogger is touching, the way she seeks revenge on her sisters is unique and quite entertaining, and her relationship with her father tugs at the heartstrings without being sentimental in the least.
The story whizzes along breezily, much like Flavia herself, and we are drawn in and held hostage. We are let go at the end, but by then we have developed Stockholm Syndrome and we do not want to leave this captivating young girl and her intriguing family. Fortunately, Flavia returns in The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, and I feel compelled to go and seek her out once more. No doubt Flavia will be as spellbinding in this mystery as in the first.

Introduction to Literature: Poems

Edited by Lynn Altenbernd, and Leslie L. Lewis

In honour of Poetry Month, I decided to revisit an old friend, slightly behind the times but still with lots to offer. Yes indeed, it is that oldtimer published in 1969, the second edition of “Altenbernd and Lewis.” This particular copy is a dog-eared and slightly stained paperback, much-loved and much-used, dating back to university days. The last poet included in the anthology is the American poet Anne Sexton (1928-1974), so obviously it is far from up-to-date, but I still find it a handy reference tool for so much that was written up to that time. I have other poetry books on my shelf, most published after this one, so I am not completely out of touch with the current world of poetry, but this one is still a favourite.

I took several poetry classes at the U. of S. in Saskatoon and remember one particular professor very fondly. Ron Marken’s love of poetry was apparent for all to see and his classes were dynamic and exciting. I can recall many instances of listening to him read with great feeling from Gerard Manley Hopkins (one of his very favourites) or T.S. Eliot. One of my own favourites dates from that time, Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I found the chorus calming and mesmerizing: “In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo.” Of course some of the lines are much more meaningful now than when I was a student!

And indeed there will be time

To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”

Time to turn back and descend the stair,

With a bald spot in the middle of my hair------

(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)

I find it very appealing to be able to pick up this book and look for some of the poems that I love and remember from my student days.

Apart from nostalgia, why would I recommend this book? First of all, despite the fact that it is not up to date, it covers quite a bit of territory. It starts with “A Handbook for the Study of Poetry,” which is divided into sections covering the nature of poetry, its language, form and content. A useful guide for the neophyte, it gives some background to poetic tradition, and explains how the form of the poem can affect the meaning.

Apart from a few anonymous lyrics from the 1200’s (of course the very first one is “Sumer is Icumen In”) and some ballads, the only known author listed from the Middle Ages is Geoffrey Chaucer. Three of his poems are reproduced, including the prologue to the Canterbury Tales. From there we jump to the sixteenth century where we meet Sir Thomas Wyatt, Sir Walter Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe, and Shakespeare, among others. The seventeenth of course includes Ben Jonson, John Donne and Milton, and the eighteenth Swift, Pope and Gray. Thereafter we move to the Romantic Period (Blake, Wordsworth, Burns, Byron, Shelley, Keats...) the Victorian Age (Whitman, Tennyson, Browning, Emily Dickinson, Hopkins) and ending with the Modern Period (Hardy, Housman, Yeats, Frost, Sandburg, Eliot, Auden, Dylan Thomas, Anne Sexton). All the mainstays are there.

For me it is a wonderful collection of old favourites and I can pick it up and find something enjoyable to read without too much difficulty. However, there are a few small points that could have improved its usefulness. It would be nice to know something about the poets, and all we are told are the dates of birth and death. Where were they born? Where did they live? When did they start to write? A few details would have made these writers come to life a bit more. Secondly, this is a book of anglo-saxon writers, almost totally British. It might have been nice to include a few examples of masterpieces from Europe, Asia or Africa, such as Rumi (Tajikistan, thirteenth century) or Paul Verlaine (French, nineteenth century) . . . Obviously, you would need some books of poetry from other countries to round out your collection.

These are minor quibbles. It is a very comprehensive book for someone who wants an overview of the development of poetry in the Anglo-Saxon tradition from Chaucer’s time to the mid-twentieth century and includes some truly breathtaking and beautiful lines.

I think continually of those who were truly great

. . .

Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre.

Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun

And left the vivid air signed with their honour.

(I Think Continually of Those, Stephen Spender/1909-1995, English)

Good Harbor

By Anita Diamant

Kathleen and Joyce become good friends over the course of a summer spent in Gloucester, Massachusetts. They take walks along the beach at Good Harbor, a metaphor for the safety and support they feel as they walk and talk there together. Each one is dealing with a crisis of sorts at this point in their lives; Kathleen is facing breast cancer and Joyce is struggling with her marriage and her teenage daughter. Despite their age difference they feel a rapport soon after they meet and spend many hours together, walking, talking, and learning to support each other through their trials.

This book did not completely engage me and I probably would not have finished it were it not for my book club. But it was an interesting session that night and we had quite a lively discussion. The importance of communication, relevance of religion, dealing with grief and fear, were just some of the topics we debated. Much food for thought in this easy read.

The Time Traveler's Wife

Audrey Niffeneger’s tale of lovers dealing with the additional difficulty of literally being out of step in time.

Henry is away travelling and Clare is home waiting for him to return. Sound familiar? But this is no ordinary travel and no ordinary wait. Henry is time travelling. He was born with a genetic anomaly that sends him out of current time, visiting places and people in the past and occasionally in the future. He has no control over these adventures. It could happen anytime, he could show up anywhere, although he doesn’t stray far from familiar territory, and it can last for any length of time. When he comes back, he often returns to his own home, but sometimes not. Both in travelling away and returning, he is often thrown into unusual circumstances or dangerous situations and sometimes gets hurt. Clare never knows when he will return or in what condition. All she can do is wait.

The story is told alternately by Clare and Henry so we get a good sense of what it is like for each of them to have to deal with this problem. They love each other very much but Henry’s disappearances and the inherent worry for his safety are hard for Clare to bear. Another difficulty is their inability to conceive a child and that drains her both physically and emotionally. As an artist, she is able to express some of her grief and worry through her creations. For Henry the time-travelling is very physically demanding and he is often exhausted and ravenously hungry. He gets thinner and more wraith-like as he gets older.

In the end, it is a love story, fraught with all the ordinary worries and problems of any ordinary two people. However, since Henry is far from ordinary, they have to face problems that most people would never even have to contemplate. Despite the suspension of disbelief required of the reader, it feels very real, passionate and believable.