The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth: why tell this story as fiction?

Guest post by Dr. Stuart Clark
It’s always in the top three questions about this book. Often, it’s question number one: why did I choose to tell the true stories of astronomers Kepler and Galileo in fictional form? The answer is a simple one. Their lives were so dramatic that there was nothing I needed to invent to make them work as novels. I just had to craft them.
As I worked on The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth, I discovered that some simplification was needed to keep the story moving and some invention was necessary to fill in the gaps but my aim was to preserve the important facts so readers could share in these staggeringly important moments of history. But share without the boring bits, the maths and the technicality and all that. I could hive that off behind the closed doors of my characters’ various offices and studies!
This would be a novel – biographical fiction if you want the latest literary buzzword – about astronomers rather than about astronomy.
As I performed my detailed research on the lives of Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei, I was staggered at the events that they witnessed and the lives that they led. I also learnt that science was born from these highly religious men, not to challenge God but to glory in Him.
I wanted to know, what was Galileo thinking when he stood before the Inquisition? What did Kepler feel like when he saw Tycho Brahe’s giant observatory for the first time (in its own time as marvellous as the Hubble Space Telescope is today)? How did Kepler react when the soldiers marched on Prague and a battle raged in the market square close to his house?
History could not tell me; the emotions, thoughts and fears of these men largely died with them. So, if I wanted to explore those deep human responses I had to turn to fiction and I had to speculate.
I reasoned that every scientist knows how to extrapolate between data points. I toyed with the idea that The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth would be the literary equivalent. Then I realised that presenting science as fiction had a long precedent.
When Galileo wrote his book about the moving Earth, the Dialogue, he did not present that in a dry, pedantic way. Oh no! He invented three characters who argued and presented different points of view in a fictional debate set over four days. Perfect, I thought, to use fiction to discuss the perception of scientific truth – and off I went.
The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth is the result. I hope you enjoy it.

The Sky's Dark Labyrinth

By Stuart Clark
In today’s technological world, we have incredible access to information. Want to find out what happened overnight in Afghanistan or how the stock market is doing or who won the game? Listen to the news on the television or radio, or turn on your computer. In seconds you will have information, often more than you really want. Although science reporting doesn’t get much space in the general press, information in all areas of science, including astronomy, is readily available on the internet. We can find out about new discoveries or see pictures of planets, stars, nebulae … at the touch of our fingers on the keyboard.
We take our daily exposure to news and information for granted. In The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth, Stuart Clark takes us back to a time when this was far from true. Information was precious; it was hard-fought and not always easily shared. He tells us the story of a few of the brilliant men to whom we should be grateful. Their drive to find out as much as they could about astronomy, led to the legacy of our understanding of some of its mysteries and to the vast amount of information that is within our reach.
In the early 17th century, people believed that the earth was the centre of the universe and the sun travelled around the earth to create day and night. This was the truth according to the church; this was how God had created the world and it was not something to be questioned.
But a few curious minds did question it. One of them was Galileo Galilei, Italian physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and all-around science genius, whose “optical tube” (precursor to modern telescopes) allowed him to observe the night sky at 20 times the magnification of the naked eye. Another was the German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler, whose brilliance caught the attention of the colourful Tycho Brahe. Brahe invited Kepler to come and work with him in Prague where he had established an observatory that far outclassed anything currently in existence in its sophistication and precision. These men did not always agree about the interpretation of their observations, but they were unified in their goal: the pursuit of knowledge.
Their observations ultimately led them to question the accepted belief about the relative positions of the sun and the earth. This had serious repercussions both scientifically and personally. It went against everything that they’d been taught and although they were men of science, they were also men of faith, and questioning the teachings of the church was not insignificant for them.
Reading this book will fill you with awe at the magnitude of what these men accomplished. We must remember that they had to find their own way to pay for their pursuits. They either supported themselves with other work (Kepler was apparently quite adept at drawing astrological charts!) or somehow found a sponsor to help fund their efforts. Not only was it sometimes at great expense or hardship to themselves and their family, but it was also dangerous. Heresy was a very serious crime and being in conflict with the church was not to be taken lightly.
Clark brings these men to life with great vibrancy and detail. We are witness to their frustrations, their curiosity and imagination, and their painstaking, meticulous work, as well as their foibles and eccentricities. We sympathise with Kepler (and his wife) having to live a life without much luxury, for the sake of astronomy. We share Galileo’s astonishment and satisfaction at being able to see so much more in the sky, including the moons of Jupiter, with his optical tube. And we are captivated with Tycho Brahe’s eccentricities (elk for dinner? But not to eat!) and his willingness to fund a whole band of merry astronomers, diligently making observations and taking measurements late into the night every night without fail, despite some wild partying!
Probably most of us have a rudimentary knowledge of the history of this time, and the turmoil that these theories caused but Clark opens our eyes to some of the intrigue that might have gone on behind the scenes. Although we have a pretty good idea of how it all turns out, there is quite a bit of tension and suspense in this fascinating story, and despite ourselves we keep hoping that Galileo will escape the clutches of the Inquisition. Clark’s exposition of the men in the midst of this time of upheaval leaves us wanting more. Luckily for us, this is just the first in a trilogy about the mysteries of astronomy and the important players in its discoveries.
The epigraph in this first book is from Kepler: “The roads that lead man to knowledge are as wondrous as that knowledge itself.” Clark’s books will help us travel along that road.

Thank you to Polygon, McArthur, Ruth Seeley and the author for providing a review copy of The Sky's Dark Labyrinth, by Stuart Clark
Visit McArthur for more information: or Stuart Clark's website:

The Measure of a Man

The story of a father, a son, and a suit.

J.J. Lee

I was completely captivated by this book. Lee’s descriptions of cutting fabric and sewing on a Singer treadle machine took me back to when I learned to sew, under my mother’s guidance, also on a Singer treadle. I loved that treadle; it was so forgiving, allowing you to control the speed so you never ran into problems at corners or when putting in zippers. My mother made all our good clothes and to this day I cannot fathom how she managed, with 11 children undertow. But I remember them vividly and they were beautiful.
So many memories are tied to clothing, especially if they’re made just for you, and J.J. Lee explores this aspect of clothing in his memoir. In examining and dissecting and eventually remodeling his father’s suit, he evokes strong memories of his father. It takes Lee a long time to prepare, before he is ready to do anything to the suit. He knows that once he makes a cut, it is irrevocable. When he finally does cut into the fabric, he opens up the suit to expose unexpected material that had been used for padding; so too do unexpected images surface of his childhood and his troubled parent. It is a brave journey that Lee takes us on as he explores both the suit and his father’s life.
Along the way, we learn some fascinating history about men’s clothing and how the suit became the mainstay of a man’s wardrobe. To Lee, a suit is not just a piece of clothing; it has history, it has meaning, it can express a mood or one’s stature, it can communicate to others in unexpected ways. He compares it to poetry “… the suit becomes a haiku… (p.3) and other more sensual things: “… the lapel … will roll out like a blooming flower petal … all fullness and sensuality … wool labia opening out with an irresistible lushness.” (p.42) I guarantee, once you read this book you will never think about a suit in quite the same way again.
I enjoyed this book immensely. It is a warm, loving, open look at Lee’s father and his influence on Lee’s own life and goals, using the metaphor of the suit to help in this exploration. Eventually, Lee is able to come to terms with what he uncovers, and to accept the fit that he can achieve.

The Jade Peony

By Wayson Choy

As part of the reading for my local library book club, we read the lovely, poignant story of The Jade Peony, by Wayson Choy. Set in Vancouver’s Chinatown of the 1930s and 40s, we see a Chinese family struggle to survive, through the eyes of three of the children. Each has a unique role in the family and a different perspective. As the story progresses, and we move from one child's narrative to the next, we see the family change and adapt and eventually face the consequences of war and its very real and personal effects here at home. The story is told with great tenderness for all the characters and I loved it very much the first time I read it.

I read it again for the book club and it was the second reading for many in the group as well. I still loved it, but it’s a very different experience to read a book for your book club rather than simply reading on your own, especially if you’re lucky enough (as I am) to belong to one with people who not only love to read, but who have opinions and love to voice them! Reading on our own is a very solitary, introspective endeavour. We read, we might ponder a bit, depending on the book, then we move on to the next. But in a book club, reading becomes a dynamic activity. There is heated debate, there is argument, you have to back up your ideas, you sometimes have to fight to have your turn to talk, people agree strongly about some things, and disagree vehemently on others; one or two pick up on something they felt was significant that others have totally missed and now want to go back and find that passage to verify; an inference is made which some agree with and others think is a bit farfetched… It is a lively two hours of discussion, discovery, laughter, disagreement, reading aloud, surprise, and sometimes very strong feelings. Our bond is the love of reading, but we represent different ages and stages in life, different types of careers (nursing, teaching, business, editing…) and several cultures and countries. Each one of us brings a unique perspective to the table and adds to the richness to be gained from the book.

Most of us liked the book very much, for various reasons: learning something about the Chinese culture; seeing the world from a child’s perspective; strong characterization; beautiful language; learning some history through fiction rather than non-fiction. We all agreed that although the book is set more than 70 years ago, about a culture that is different from most of us there that day, many of the ideas that Choy explores are universal. Family loyalty, racial prejudice, fitting in, and the role of women in society are as relevant today as they were then. He shows us how much we are the same, despite our differences.

Each month this book club reads and discusses a work of fiction (usually). We vote on the selection of books for the coming year and are quite honest in our thoughts about the book. By-and-large, it is a generous, forthright group of people who are not afraid to share their ideas and to perhaps learn something in the process. I count myself very fortunate to be a part of such a lively, intelligent community of readers and look forward to the next discussion.

November’s selection: The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery.

Cool Water

Take a drink of Cool Water with Dianne Warren’s wonderful book set in the sand dunes of Southern Saskatchewan. Her novel, in the form of interconnected stories, paints a complex picture of a place in time and the people who live there.

There are so many things I loved about this book, but one thing that intrigued me (and took me back to university days) was that the structure, despite so many story lines, seemed to conform to the “three unities” of classic drama, as set out by Aristotle, and further refined by 17th century French playwrights. The unities of action, time and place stipulate that the story take place roughly within a 24-hour time period, that it all happen in one location, and that the action be limited to one main idea with few subplots. Although Warren’s book is nothing like what one would associate with classical theatre, it does in fact fit these criteria fairly well.

The unity of time criterion is met, as the events unfold during the course of one day. Lee Torgenson awakens in the middle of the night to the sound of a horse galloping. He ignores this at first, since he is often plagued by phantom hoofbeats, but eventually gets up to discover a real horse outside. The horse does not protest when Lee saddles him, and so, with the light of the moon to guide them, they begin their 24-hour adventure together.

A long-distance horse race that took place many years earlier is described in the prologue. Starting at the buffalo rubbing stone just to the north of town, two cowboys outlined a 100-mile perimeter around the local hills and sand dunes. When Lee sets out on horseback, he inadvertently traces the same path as the cowboys. This historic path sets the parameters for the unity of place: Juliet, Saskatchewan and the Little Snake Hills.

Although Lee’s adventure starts the action, and literally draws a boundary around the story, there are many other tales that unfold. Aristotle thought that unity of action was the most important of the three, and that there must be only one main story or plot. Any other action should contribute to that plot in a structured, cohesive way, so that “…the structural union of the parts being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole.” [1]

In this case, the “plot” is to show the interconnectedness of the various people in the book and Warren does this beautifully. Thus, Cool Water fulfills the unity of action as well. Each of the stories is connected in some way to one or another and does “make [a] visible difference.” As Lee makes his way around the historic path, he sees or visits different farms and homesteads and we get a glimpse of the people who live there and how their lives crisscross and intertwine. We witness interactions between a cowboy and a rebellious teenager, a bank manager and a father of a family at the end of his rope. We see a father communicating with his son, and an older couple trying to make a connection with each other. We see one woman who’s lost a horse and another who is afraid she’s lost a husband. Innocent actions, seemingly isolated, have repercussions later, so that leaving a gate open, or writing down a phone number, can have potentially disastrous consequences.

This is a very satisfying book. Warren describes her complex, appealing characters in a very warm-hearted, straightforward manner. Through them, she reminds us that we are all connected. We live our lives and each of us has our own story but we are inextricably linked to others, no matter how ephemerally and whether or not we are aware of that connection and its possible effect. Not a new idea perhaps, but somehow comforting nonetheless, and Warren’s version of it is a pure pleasure to read.

1-Aristotle, Poetics, VIII

The Raven's Gift

In a post-apocalyptic world, how would you react? Would you do just about anything to survive? Would you have hope? Or would you give in to despair as the world sinks into chaos and anarchy?

Don Rearden’s first novel explores this idea from the point of view of John Morgan, a young, once idealistic schoolteacher. He and his wife Anna moved to a tiny, remote village in northern Alaska, prepared for hardship, adventure and new experiences. But the village is overtaken by a virulent fever which speeds through the community, leaving many dead in its wake. Cut off from the rest of the world and finally realizing that the cavalry is not on its way, John eventually flees, in hopes of finding help or even anyone else alive.

We follow John’s journey in the present and through flashbacks. We see him as the idealist in a loving relationship with his wife, and also as a cynic with many questions. How did the virus reach this isolated community? How did it start? Was it a natural occurrence or was it a government experiment? Why is no one coming to help? Are they all dead, or is this part of the experiment—to see if an isolated community could survive such a devastating situation, and how resourceful they would be.

John’s story is totally engrossing. It is a fast-paced examination of a catastrophe that is all the more chilling to contemplate as we see how such a disaster could actually happen. Much food for thought here, but despite all, we are not left in total despair. A very strong first novel from Mr. Rearden.

State of Wonder

By Ann Patchett

Dr. Marina Singh is sent to Brazil by the pharmaceutical company she works for, to track down the elusive Dr. Annick Swenson, who is working in the Amazon jungle on a very promising fertility drug. Marina is also in search of information about the death of her former colleague and research partner Anders Eckman.

Once in contact with Swenson, Marina travels with her into the jungle on a pontoon driven by a young deaf boy named Easter. Marina’s fear and discomfort are palpable, and when the end of the day brings a bombardment of insects, Patchett’s description is so vivid that we almost feel them raining down on us: “At dusk the insects came down in a storm, the hard-shelled and soft-sided, the biting and stinging, the chirping and buzzing and droning, every last one unfolded its paper wings and flew with unimaginable velocity into the eyes and mouths and noses of the only three humans they could find.” And as it gets darker Marina becomes even more uneasy because she cannot see the jungle anymore: “She felt the plant life pressing against the edges of the water, straining towards them, every root and tendril reaching.” We have complete empathy for her feelings of vulnerability and oppression.

State of Wonder is filled with such rich descriptions that create a very strong sense of place. It is a beautifully written book; the language is so detailed and vivid that we can almost hear the birds and touch the trees and smell the air after the rain. We are there in the jungle with Marina and her colleagues. Patchett’s creation of this world was the greatest strength of this book.

Another strong component is the development of Marina’s character as she confronts some of her long-held fears in this alien landscape; we see her strength and determination in going to the jungle on behalf of her friend; and we delight in her warm, wordless relationship with Easter. But in general, I felt that the character development was lacking. We do get to know Marina and to some degree, Swenson, and we learn to love her young companion, Easter, but there are many secondary characters that seem to exist merely to move the plot along.

I was enthralled with this book almost to the end. Patchett creates a spellbinding world and forces us to confront questions surrounding drug research, exploitation of natives, sacrifice, love, and betrayal. It is an intense read, demanding much contemplation.

But then, the ending. This was very, very disappointing. It was unexpected and anticlimactic, and felt rushed and out of character. In a way, it spoiled the earlier part of the book that had been so enjoyable. At the same time, the language is so vibrant, the jungle setting is portrayed so vividly, and there is so much to think about, that it might almost be enough to offset the ending. Almost.

Guest post by Peter Behrens

As part of the July Anansi/Behrens blog tour, Peter Behrens has written a guest post for my blog. This is a first for me, so I am very excited and honoured to be part of the tour and host this author on my site. Thank-you Peter and thank-you Anansi. Here he is:

Writing Women

Readers have responded passionately to the women characters in my novels — especially to Red Molly in The Law Of Dreams, and to Iseult in The O’Briens. Readers who fall in love with those characters sometimes ask “How are you (a man) able to write women characters so well?” My first response is pleasure that they, as readers, responded to the characters, felt involved with them and curious about them. But the question is kind of strange, when you think about it. As a novelist and a screenwriter I'm in the business of imagining characters, creating them and inhabiting them. Yikes, how dreary a book or a career would be if I could only imagine or see things from a “male” point of view!

What helps me with women characters is a lifetime of research! I've lived with women all my life! My mother, for a start. I grew up with two sisters, very close in age. I've had women friends all my life, and I'm married to a woman. It's fun to write the interior lives of women — the world seen and experienced from inside a women's head. It's a challenge but not much different from the challenge of inhabiting a male character. What bores me is a character too much like myself. When I was in my 20s and finding my feet as a writer many of the main characters in the short stories I was composing (for my collection Night Driving) tended to be young men in their 20s . . . it was a sort of egotism, really. I'm long since over that. I'm not at all interested in myself as a character. I'd rather dive into the minds, hearts and points-of-view of characters — men women and children — whose range of experience is quite outside my own.

Women are often more vocal and articulate about their feelings. I've watched and listened. I hope I've learned. And I'm glad that readers feel the authenticity of the women in The Law Of Dreams and The O’Briens . . .

The O'Briens

The O’Briens starts with us being introduced to Joe, grandson of Fergus, the central character in Behrens’ earlier novel, The Law of Dreams. We follow Joe and his family as they travel from Quebec to California, British Columbia and Maine, with a stop or two in Mexico and New York City. We see the world change over the course of 60 years from the viewpoint of several generations of the O’Brien family.

When we first meet Joe he is 13 years old, the eldest of five, and already the head of the house. His mother is failing and his father has disappeared, succumbing to the wanderlust that afflicts many of the O’Brien men. Joe is a fast learner and starts in business at a very young age, earning enough money to look after the whole family.

Joe is 17 when his mother dies, and he decides to move out west to make a fresh start and find his fortune. After making arrangements for the rest of his siblings, Joe makes stops at Coney Island to take stock and “…be alone with himself, to block out the world for a few days.” (p.53) For the first time in his life he is not only alone but free of all encumbrances and responsibilities. He finds it both exhilarating and paralysing and it takes a week of solitude and wrestling with a few demons before he is ready to move on and start carrying out the plan he outlined during his stopover: to find a wife, to have sons and daughters. When he meets Iseult Wilkins several years later in Venice, California, the first part of his plan falls into place.

Iseult recently lost her mother and is in a similar state to the one Joe was in at Coney Island. “She wanted to just be for awhile. To collect herself. Much of her life had just been a refraction of her parents’ desires and needs. She wanted light, and time to think…with nothing else for company.” (102) She feels unmoored but free. She wants to live with more intensity, and in that, she is a perfect match for Joe. Watching surfers at the beach with him, “She felt a tremble of excitement and suddenly knew she had to transpose her life into another key — harsher, riskier…she felt space opening up within her chest, lungs expanding, the power to breathe deeply and well.” (p.121)

Joe falls hard for Iseult and because of her, delays his trip to Mexico to examine a proposed railway route. After a whirlwind, five week courtship they are married and he whisks her off to Mexico for a combined honeymoon and business trip. Iseult is as open to adventure as Joe and shares his passion to try new things. He makes her things in a way she never has before. As the train enters Mexico, they are attacked by rebels and Joe pins her down to protect her. Amid the bullets and the screaming, Iseult feels “Slight nausea, exhilaration, and a sense of her life coming open, sudden and entire.” (p. 141) And so their married life begins.

They set up house in a tent in a railway camp in British Columbia, as Joe’s crew works on a section of the new railway system. Joe and Iseult contend with their share of difficulties and grief over the years, some of it seemingly unbearable, but with their strong foundation, no matter how off course they become, or adrift from one another, they always find each other again.

The first part of the novel is quite intense and we get to know Joe very well as a young man and then an infatuated husband. We know what he thinks and how he feels and gain some understanding of his motivations. After his Coney Island stop we don’t see Joe again until he meets Iseult in California. But now we see him through Iseult’s eyes, and in the beginning of their relationship they are extremely close and her view of him continues to be strong and fully developed. Later on, as the closeness of the marriage wanes and Iseult becomes less happy, and contemplates leaving Joe, the picture of Joe becomes more closed and remote.

The perspective of the story changes in the middle part as the second generation takes over. Joe and Iseult become secondary figures as we see the world through the eyes of their children, Mike, Margo and Frankie. We see Frankie grow up and watch Mike go off to war, estranged from his father. We feel Margo’s joy, then sadness as she falls in love, becomes a mother, and longs for her soldier husband to return. We get a broader picture now, a sense of more people, more change, more things happening in the world. It is like the stream of people that Iseult saw on the boardwalk in Venice. A general throng, an overall view, with no one thing standing out, except once in awhile something special, with more detail.

For example, Mike is a pilot with the RAF and and his view of the war and his sense of humour come through when he writes to Margo about how tired they all are and starting to make mistakes: “A chap was killed the other day flying into a Chance light. Good pilot too. If it were a hockey game we’d be calling for a line change!” (p.402) Or Johnny Taschereau, Margo’s husband, expressing his love but also a feeling of being disconnected:

I’m thinking of your wrists now.

I once knew my wife, down to her bones.

Do you have a sweet tan this summer? Comme une huronne?

Let me dispose of my adjectives, please. In your arms, please let me release them.








You see I have slipped into nouns… (p.430)

These are two brief examples of Behrens’ evocative language. He has a gift for painting a picture, of expressing that person in such a way that we see and understand them at that moment in their life.

Although the glimpses into their characters are illuminating, I miss the fact that none of the next generation is portrayed in the same depth as the parents. We get a peek into their makeup but we don’t spend as much time with them or get to know them as well. None of them has the personality of Joe or Iseult.

Overall, it is a colourful journey that we take with the O’Brien family as they live through six incredible decades of the twentieth century. They participate in two world wars, survive the Depression, and play a siginificant role in the building of the railroad. The world changes drastically from 1900 to 1960, and Joe at 73 is not the same person he was at 13. But he is still the patriarch, the strong centre of the family, and the one we care about the most. When the focus returns to him in the end we are happy to get to know him again and to see him finding his way once more.

Soldier of the Horse

By Robert W. Mackay, c2011, Touchwood Editions

Robert Mackay’s first novel is a fast-paced, gripping account of one soldier’s experience during WWI, based partially on his own father’s recollections of serving in the Canadian Cavalry.

Mackay creates a sympathetic hero in Tom Macrae, articling student who suddenly finds himself in trouble with the law. Tom takes the offer of a stint in the army rather than go to jail and is shipped off to Europe to serve in Lord Strathcona’s Horse. The muddy trenches of France are a far cry from his Winnipeg home, but Tom proves his mettle in his new circumstances and rises up the ranks to become lance-corporal, corporal, and eventually troop sergeant, before his time is up.

Mackay’s depiction of the war is vivid and gritty. When Tom rides into battle, stabbing with his bayonet, we can almost feel the resistance going in, then the arm swinging back as he removes the blade. We feel sick with dread as a troop scouts ahead of the front line into No Man’s Land, far from protection, open to bullets and grenades. The rain is cold, the mud stinks, it is always wet and dark and everyone is afraid. Such tenuous circumstances result in fierce bonds of trust and loyalty. These young men depend on each other for their lives every day. They also rely on their horses and their bond with them is complex, combining love, dependence, responsibility and protection. In one horrific scene, Tom and another soldier rescue a companion after his horse is shot and the soldier is thrown, exposed to the enemy. But the horse is not dead and the young soldier will not leave his horse to die slowly. As it screams in anguish, the soldier makes his way back to finish the job. Tom understands:

He could not bear the suffering of the horses, creatures that only did the bidding of men. Innocent, somehow. He had seen horses gutted, legs blown off, blinded, shot, even gassed, and he knew he would live with their screams for the rest of his life. (p. 154)

Mackay does not glamorize war. It is ugly, dirty and terrifying. The soldiers endure things that no one can without harm. Those who make it home are scarred, and are haunted by unwelcome memories. After the war, Tom attends a talk by his former general at The Empire Club in Winnipeg. As General Seeley starts to relate his “very thrilling story—the story of your Canadian Cavalry,” Tom cannot stop the images that assault him and he is forced to leave:

…he saw, once again, Flowerdew tumble from his saddle…he was alone on galloping Toby…blood spattering from his flayed legs…Horses screamed and men moaned for their mothers and Planck bled out on the ground. René Carbonnier…died in Tom’s arms…Tom shuddered and left the hall, the general’s cultured tones fading. (p. 230)

His view of the war is not a “thrilling story” to be shared with others. It is personal and nightmarish, and he can’t even talk about it with his wife. When she reads from the newspaper about General Seeley’s speech, “He’s talking about the big picture,” said Tom. “All I know is it was a bloody mess from where I saw it.” (p.231)

But in the midst of the “bloody mess” and the brutality, Mackay shows us a story of humanity, loyalty, love and honour. Tom and his men are not fighting for glory or recognition. They simply want to survive and be allowed to return home to their families, marry their sweethearts, and live as normal a life as possible after the war. They test their courage every day, and despite their terror and against all odds, try to do what is right and necessary. Their actions are proof of their honour.

As most of the veterans from WWI have now passed away, Mackay’s book is a commemoration to them and other soldiers, and in particular to his own father. At least 15,000,000 soldiers and civilians were killed and another 20,000,000 were wounded in that Great War. Incomprehensible to think of those numbers and their long-lasting and far-reaching effects. Mackay shows us one tiny picture of the war through the eyes of a common soldier and reminds us what a precious thing it is to be able to lead an ordinary life.

Hide and Seek: A Murder Mystery

by Thomas Kaplan-Maxfield, published 2011by Kepler Press, Cambridge, MA

In Hide and Seek, Thomas Kaplan-Maxfield takes the usual murder mystery formula and turns it upside down. Right from the start we know who the murderer is, so what is going to keep us interested? What is left to solve? In this case, the puzzle is not who the murderer is, but who is trying to track down the murderer, and why.

Told in the first person, the story unfolds through the eyes of young, spoiled David Draper. Madly in love with the captivating actress Melanie Carson, David strangles her one night in a fit of jealous rage, then anxiously waits for the Boston Police to come calling. Still free six months later, he is invited to join his sister and aunt in a Murder Mystery weekend on a tiny island off the coast of Cape Cod. Although David is uncomfortable at taking part, he is finally persuaded to go along. Several coincidences later, he is convinced that one of the participants is manipulating the weekend events to flush out Melanie’s murderer. Who is it and what will David do about it?

Starting a mystery from this reversed viewpoint requires the author to pique our interest in a different way from usual. It is a psychological mystery rather than an action-based one, relying on character study to keep us engaged. I have only read one other mystery with a similar perspective. In L.R.Wright’s wonderful novel, The Suspect, eighty-year-old George Wilcox is provoked into striking another elderly soul on the head and kills him. As in David’s situation, it was not planned or even thought of ahead of time, yet there it is—murder—and what to do about it? In both instances, the question is not who is the murderer, but will he get away with it?

There is another question for us as the reader, and this produces a different kind of tension in the story. The dichotomy between the person we get to know and the one who committed murder, creates a psychological unease. In this case, David is a pleasant, ordinary fellow, not the kind of person you would expect to strangle someone! Since we see everything from his point of view, we share his anxiety and are forced to have sympathy for his dilemma, despite ourselves. Do we want the detective to discover him or not? He’s nice. But, he killed someone! How can we like someone capable of that? How do we resolve our conflicting feelings? This conflict is sustained throughout the book as we get to know David better and see him interact with others. Though guilty, he “feels” innocent.

The resolution of the problem is not as tidy as I would like (one murder too many, some action with no obvious effect on the plot…) but overall Kaplan-Maxfield accomplishes his goal. We are intrigued and uncertain about the outcome right to the end. Will David get away with murder? You’ll have to read Hide and Seek to find out.


by Emma Donoghue

Jack has lived in one room for all of his five years. A backyard shed, converted into a living space that measures 11’x11’ and receives natural light from a single overhead skylight, it is all he has ever known. Confined there with his mother, Room is his whole world. But now that he has turned five Ma is thinking of an escape plan. Is Jack really ready for “Outside” or would he rather stay in Room, the only thing that is real to him?

Told from Jack’s point of view, this is an extraordinary story of a child’s closed world and the incredible strength, endurance and patience of his mother. In captivity his whole life, with no exposure to anyone other than his mother and occasionally “Old Nick” Jack learns about the world from his mother and from watching television. But without the actual experience of it, it is almost impossible for Jack to comprehend that outside really exists and that there is something other than Room or TV.

Originally, I had to put this book down after reading for only a short time. I found it demanding and tiring. But when I came back to it, I finished it almost all in one go. Two things bothered me at first. I found the five-year-old voice and perspective jarring and somewhat contrived. As the book progressed and Jack’s personality and experience developed, his voice seemed more genuine and natural.

But the major stumbling block was the unrelenting experience of the mother. Imagine being a young mother, locked in one room with a young baby, then toddler, then precocious five-year-old. Day-in, day-out, you are with that child at all times, with no help or relief from one single person. You are the mother, the father, the grandparents, cousins, friends, day-care worker, babysitter, teacher. You feed him, change him, bathe him, talk to him, play with him, devise ways to keep him entertained and stimulated and for him to get some exercise, teach him to read, write and sing, answer all his questions. You cannot talk to anyone at any time about anything that might go wrong or that irritates you or worries you. In fact you cannot talk to a single person for seven years other than your captor once or twice a week, and your son. Your son becomes your world.

For Jack and his mother, their world is each other, but Ma knows they must break free if they are to survive. Eventually they manage to escape from Room and its physical confines, but escaping its psychological hold is not as easy. Now they must learn to adapt to a completely different life, filled with people and things and noise and busyness of all kinds. Jack misses Room, where it is quiet and safe and predictable, and where he has Ma all to himself.

Emma Donoghue does a remarkable job of creating their world and what it would feel like to live in it. It is an exceptional accomplishment, and there are many things to learn from this courageous little boy and his mother. An exacting but worthwhile read

Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Soon after the end of WWII, writer Juliet Ashton receives a letter from a man from Guernsey who is searching for information about Charles Lamb. So begins a correspondence that extends to others on Guernsey, in particular the members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Through the letters we learn about what happened to the people of this island during the German occupation and how they have fared since the war. The letters are delightful; often amusing and entertaining, sometimes sad and moving, always full of information. They paint a picture of the strong, brave, interesting characters that populate the island and what they endured. They did what was necessary to survive, including forming their literary society, and ended up with a love and appreciation for literature and all that it can do. Their straightforward goodness and lack of sentiment will charm you and make you wish that the letters could continue and tell you more of their story.

The Bird Sisters

By Rebecca Rasmussen

Rebecca Rasmussen’s debut novel is a delight. Fascinated by the lives of two sisters and their family, charmed by the ease with which Rasmussen spins her tale, you will not want it to end.

Milly and Twiss are elderly sisters who live in the same house they have occupied all their lives. Known for their skill at saving injured birds, people drive for miles to bring them a bird to heal. We see them in the present, towards the end of their days, and we see them the summer that Milly was 16 and Twiss 14. Their incomparable cousin Bett came to visit, and nothing was the same after that.

Told by both sisters through a series of flashbacks, their individual personalities shine. Milly is sweet, thoughtful, loves to bake, and is easily teased. Twiss is rough and tumble, headstrong and wild, and loves to golf with her father. She is anything but sweet. Different but extremely close, they are fiercely loyal to each other.

Rasmussen presents their tale with love and tenderness and draws us right into the heart of these women. She reminds us just how exciting, passionate, and fragile the world can be. I’m hoping this is just the first of many stories she has to tell.

Pigeon English

By Stephen Kelman, 2011, House of Anansi Press

With his first novel, Stephen Kelman demonstrates his story-telling talent, bringing to life a young boy who is one of the most lovable characters I have come across in a long time.

Harrison Opoku lives in London with his mother and older sister Lydia, while the rest of his family remain in Ghana for now. From the perspective of an eleven-year-old trying to learn the language and customs of a new country, the world is a bit of a scary place. But there are things he must learn if he wants to fit in, or even survive.

Inner-city life is far removed from Ghana, but Hari is learning to navigate its byways. How many of us remember what it is like to be that young, that primal, so innocent and fresh? At the same time aware of violence and danger that appear at any moment. When Lydia is getting her hair straightened by a friend one afternoon, Hari watches and Lydia admires herself in the mirror. Suddenly,

Miquita’s face went all hard… “Are you with us?” … Miquita was making the iron go near then pulling it away like a crazy game … Lydia closed her eyes … “I’m with you, I’m with you.” Lydia opened her eyes … there was one tiny patch on her cheek gone shiny and red … “Just keep still, I don’t wanna hurt you. You shouldn’t have moved.” Lydia: “Sorry.” I got my breath back. The world woke up again. When Lydia’s hair was finished it actually looked bo-styles. (pp. 140-141)

With this passage we see how easily an ordinary pastime can shift from playful innocence to deadly seriousness in an instant. Lydia suffers one tiny burn to remind her of this episode and the very real possibility of extreme harm. Then, we shift back to normal, admiring how beautifully her hair turned out, and everyone is friendly again, as though nothing had happened.But we are reminded that the underlying danger is a constant thing and can surface at any moment.

Does Hari learn the language and codes necessary to get along in this new and threatening place? Does his “pidgin English” eventually transform into a language of survival? For the moment Hari combines the vernacular of his peers, filled with British slang, with Ghanaian terms and some of his own making. This gives Hari a unique, fresh voice, and we feel that we are truly hearing this child tell his story in his own words.

He is a beautiful spirit who feels the need to do good things, whether something tiny, like making his sister smile to “save the day” or something much larger, like tracking down the murderer of a young boy. We see his great love for his family, particularly his younger sister, Agnes, and the sacrifices he is willing to make for them; we see his curiosity about the world; we see his bravery in trying to identify the killer and in his refusal to submit to the local gang; and his attachment to his “own” special pigeon is endearing. In short, we learn to love him. But be careful, for he may break your heart.

The Canterbury Trail

By Angie Abdou

With a wink to Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales, Angie Abdou assembles her own group of diverse personalities and sends them on a pilgrimage. She mixes up a batch of locals, foreigners, ski-bums, red-necks, hippies and urbanites and takes them trekking up a mountain one beautiful spring weekend for a last taste of powder. They ski, snowshoe and snowmobile their way up to “Camelot” the local ski cabin. Each group is unaware of the others and is somewhat dismayed to find that they must share the space. But they all make the best of it, and with more than a bit of booze and pot to help mellow out some of the conflicts, there is much ribald fun.

This is not a plot-driven story, although there is a definite agenda: climb the mountain and conquer the slopes; enjoy. This is a study in characters, and as we meet each one, we learn a bit about their personality and their reasons for participating in this venture. In time we get to see more than what appears on the surface, and although we might not always like what we see, we gain some insights and come to care about what happens to them.

Obviously, combining such disparate types could lead to conflict and tension, and it does. But there is also a lot of comedy, and some scenes made me laugh out loud, tears rolling down my cheeks. After an evening of indulgence, Alison (urbanite journalist) is horribly sick the next morning, and when she throws up from the upstairs bedroom window, it is so vivid, you can almost smell it. Then Lanny (the miller) having spent the night outside, wakes up from the noise and the odour hits him so hard that he makes a snowball to suck and hold under his nose, so that he doesn’t succumb. Amusing as this scene is, it also helps solidify the characters. We’ve all been there. We can immediately identify with these people so they seem more real to us, and we like them a bit more. This is just one of many examples that illustrate Abdou’s talent for making her characters come to life.

There is humour in various forms throughout the book and in general the tone is fairly casual and low-key. Some of the characters have serious issues to deal with, but the book itself feels quite light-hearted overall. Like most of us, they lead their lives in a fairly trusting way. Then, with a whumpf we are reminded that nature has its own rhythm, and if we are caught in it, it is terrifying, implacable, inexorable…final.

With The Bone Cage, Abdou showed us her talent for plunging us into the heart of the story from the very first sentence. She does the same here, and also delights us with her humour. But with her ending we see an entirely new side to her writing. She lulls us into a fun adventure, then hits us hard. In a last moving, powerful section, Abdou takes us “…somewhere beyond words.” All we can do is sit back and admire.

Pandora's Bottle

By Joanne Lessner

Sy Hampton’s bid of half a million dollars at a wine auction wins him a bottle of wine. Yes, one bottle, but what a bottle it is. This is a Bordeaux, a Chateau Lafite 1787 once owned by Thomas Jefferson, and possibly still drinkable after more than 200 years. The winemaker at that time had experimented with the best barrel of the exceptional 1787 vintage, using extended maceration for 40 days and adding a secret ingredient. “La chose secrète” was still a mystery. No one knew what he had added, but it was supposed to preserve the wine and keep it drinkable for far longer than usual. Only the owner of the wine will be able to find out if it actually worked.

Once Sy acquires the wine he'd been coveting, he has to decide what to do with it. Drink it now, keep it, drink it by himself, open it up with other wine-lovers, or share it with a special someone? Sy opts for the latter, and invites a beautiful young woman to share the excitement of opening the bottle, with expectations of a wonderful evening together, enjoying something truly special. Hopes are high. And when he finally opens the bottle, he does not seem disappointed:

Sy lifted the bottle to his nose and breathed. The luscious aroma of earth, chocolate, fruit, and smoke was dizzying. Sheer, unadulterated desire overtook him, and his entire body grew weak.

The inspiration for Lessner’s tale came from an event that took place at The Four Seasons restaurant in 1989. New York wine merchant William Sokolin had been commissioned by a British wine firm to sell a Chateau Margaux 1787, etched with Thomas Jefferson’s initials, who was well known for his love of Bordeaux. Sokolin was hoping for $500,000 for the bottle but had had no cash offers to date. In showing it off to the other wine-lovers that evening, somehow the bottle was broken. Although the bottle did not shatter, it was punctured in two places. Wine flowed out and Sokolin fled, mortified.

Lessner takes this incident and runs with it, embellishing and exaggerating, then adding a diverse cast of characters, to produce a delightful romp. Take a few middle-aged oenophiles, a young woman with the seductive name of Valentina D’Ambrosio, a waiter/dancer named Tripp, an ambitious French-Canadian restaurateur, a young boy named Eric and mix well. Add some mistaken identity, a couple strong Brooklyn accents, and dashes of naivete, romance and suspense to spice things up. Finish with a large helping of humour and enjoy.

This is an entertaining read, but with some serious elements as well. We care about the men and women in this book as they make choices involving love, family, money and ambition. Sy is struggling with a mid-life crisis. The bottle is a kind of metaphor for his life; what will he do now that he has reached this point and realized some of his dreams? Will he remain alone or will he share his life with someone else? The event at the restaurant serves as a catalyst for several other characters to examine their lives and make some changes. These are significant decisions, but it never feels too serious. Everything is handled with a light touch.

Lessner leads us through the novel with ease and verve. She is a talented playwright, actor and singer and has written the lyrics to several musicals with her husband, composer/conductor Josh Rosenblum, including Fermat’s Last Tango and Einstein’s Dreams. Pandora’s Bottle is her first venture in writing a novel. Given how much fun she seemed to have with it, I’m pretty sure she will go for an encore.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

By Rebecca Skloot

HeLa cells had been used for decades in scientific research, but when Rebecca Skloot first heard of them in high school and wanted to know something about the woman for whom they were named, nobody could answer her questions. Eventually, needing to satisfy her own curiosity and convinced of the importance of this story, Skloot decided to investigate, determined to let the world know about the woman whose cells have helped so many. She has written a moving, thought-provoking book, which deals with ethics in science, racism, poverty, and the importance and strength of family ties. Skloot tells us the story of Henrietta Lacks and how her cells became “immortal” after her death.

Henrietta Lacks was born in Virginia in 1920 and died 31 years later from aggressive cervical cancer. During her short life she bore five children and worked as a tobacco farmer. She ended her days in excruciating pain and was buried in an unmarked grave. We learn about Henrietta’s incredibly hard, impoverished life, through Skloot's research and her contact with the Lacks family. They are wary at first, but she eventually convinces them to talk to her, and Deborah, Mrs. Lacks’ daughter, joins Ms. Skloot in her mission to tell the world about her mother and the story behind the cells that are so familiar to scientists, but unheard of to everyone else.

Lacks was treated for her cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital, using a method that today sounds like absolute torture. Doctors there took cells from her cervix without her knowledge or consent, and cultured them. Culturing cells was tried routinely, but the cells always died. This time was different; Henrietta’s cells lived, and not only that, reproduced incredibly. Her cell line became known as HeLa from the first two letters of her first and last names.

Mrs. Lacks died later that year. Her family was not aware that part of her had been removed, that her cells had been cultured, and that they were being used in scientific research. They had no idea that her cells had been so beneficial to important medical and scientific advancements, or that people were profiting from marketing them, until more than 20 years later. They learned about what had happened to Henrietta when scientists asked for blood samples from surviving family members, in order to study the HeLa cells and try to understand why they had become “immortal” when others died.

Skloot does a good job explaining the science involved in the culturing of cells and why they are so incredibly important. She takes us on a journey of discovery that took her ten years to reveal and we are enthralled. But this is not only a book about science and research and history, it is also a story of love and family. Deborah opens up to Skloot because she also wants to know about what happened to her mother. It is her journey of discovery as well. Just a toddler when her mother died, she does not remember her and knows very little about her. She is avid to learn more. Through Skloot’s research and detective skills, Deborah eventually finds out more of her mother’s story. There are many tears along the way (for the reader as well) as we learn about Henrietta’s suffering (the autopsy report is unbelievably brutal to read) but also joy and relief to finally gain some longed-for knowledge about her mother’s life.

There is much to learn from this book. How many people even think about how research is conducted or where the material for the research comes from? How many would realize that so much has been accomplished based solely on this one line of cells? Without Henrietta Lacks’ cells to work with, our knowledge and understanding of many diseases (cancer, polio and AIDS to name a few) would be much further behind.

Some other things we learn are not so pleasant. Many passages are shocking. It becomes clear early on why the family is distrustful of doctors and scientists and wary of reporters. There were many instances in the early 20th century and even into the 1940s, of doctors and scientists using black patients for research and experiments, often allowing patients to die, in order to make observations, rather than treating them. Other “experiments” are cited that are enough to make one angry and ashamed that we as humans, are capable of such atrocities towards one another.

Rebecca Skloot has produced a compelling, intelligent book that gives us a hint of the wonder of science and the excitement of discovery. She raises questions about ethics in scientific and medical research that are still relevant. Henrietta Lacks’ family is left with the knowledge that her cells live on and continue to contribute to medical advancements to this day. A wonderful legacy, but many have profited from research using these cells, and her family still lives in poverty, unable to pay for health insurance or to take advantage of the treatments that her cells helped to develop. Skloot reminds us of the human story behind the science and that even advancements that benefit humanity may have personal consequences as well.

Crime Machine

By Giles Blunt

With his recent book, Crime Machine, Giles Blunt has returned to his tried-and-true wonderful protagonist, detective John Cardinal.

Working with his partner and best friend, Lise Delorme, Cardinal tackles the latest gruesome murder in Algonquin Bay, the beheading of a visiting Russian couple. Cardinal and Delorme must sift through the many distractions, red herrings and real leads (attractive American reporter, annual fur auction, “family” of criminals in hiding, 20 year-old cold-case file) before they can determine the solution to this brutal crime. There are many threads to the story but Blunt’s conclusion weaves them together nicely, and there is plenty of suspense to keep us hooked right to the end.

Apart from the mystery to be solved, it’s always a pleasure to read another story about John Cardinal. He is still dealing with severe grief and loss over the death of his wife. Catherine suffered terribly from depression, and after her death John felt guilt as well as grief, despite all he had done to support her. His vulnerability and humanity add another dimension to the novel so that we are just as interested in his own personal story as we are in the mystery.

This novel brings Blunt back to his best writing. His attempts to write outside this detective series are not as successful; story-lines and protagonists are not as well developed and seem flat compared to his mystery novels. With Crime Machine, we return to familiar territory, peopled with strong and colourful characters. Let’s hope Blunt maintains this series a bit longer because I’m sure John Cardinal still has a lot to tell us.

The Bone Cage

By Angie Abdou

Angie Abdou’s debut novel The Bone Cage, places us squarely in the world of two dedicated athletes. With her powerful imagery and her gift for the smallest detail, their daily routines feel very real. We sweat down with Digger as he prepares for weigh-in and we swim countless lengths in the pool with Sadie. Although the demanding and often harsh practices these two must endure would be alien to most people, Abdou draws us in to such a degree that it all feels normal and matter-of-fact as we fall into their patterns.

Each chapter alternates between the two main characters, Sadie Jorgenson, a 26-year-old swimmer, and Digger (Tom) Stapleton, a 28-year-old wrestler. Both have qualified and are preparing for the 2004 Olympics. They are living with their parents during this time and there is a sense that their lives are “on hold” for now, as practising their sport occupies them completely.

The picture of Sadie is more fully developed than Digger’s. She is a bit of a loner and is quite introspective. We learn about how she feels, how she sometimes uses literature to get through her practices, memorizing poetry or rewriting the classics, or recalling quotations that seem apt to her situation. She seems very real and understandable. She displays one of the few strong emotional bonds in the novel, that between her and her grandmother. They have a loving, supportive relationship, unencumbered by expectations. When her grandmother dies, Sadie is devastated, and mourns her loss physically. Her body collapses and refuses to follow its usual pattern. She sleeps for days, needing time to recuperate emotionally; that can only happen when she is strong again physically.

Digger’s portion of the story is interesting because of his sport. It is fascinating to learn about some of the techniques and strategies used in wrestling. But he is not as fully drawn as Sadie and although he is a hard worker, he seems young for his age. Neither of them has time for any other career or occupation, and their social life is almost non-existent. They are very focused on themselves. But it is their single-mindedness that has brought them this far and which allows them to survive the physical demands on their body.

One of the powerful aspects of the book is Abdou’s concrete imagery. There is an immediacy to her visceral, graphic details that allows us to feel the athletes’ pain or exhaustion. Occasionally, too, we are given a glimpse of satisfaction, even contentment that is as much physical as emotional. There are a couple of such instances early on when Sadie is swimming. The constant repetition of her strokes and kicks become mesmerizing, like a mantra, and nothing exists for awhile but her body and its repetitive movements as she travels back and forth from one end of the pool to the other. There is a feeling of calm, almost meditation, and Sadie is in total harmony with her body:

One, two, three, breathe. One, two, three, breathe. She slides easily into the rhythm of her stroke … up one side, back on the other …The even splashing of her own arms, her own feet, soothes her. Her breathing fills her ears…. herself into herself. She doesn’t think. She acts. Her body knows the movements. (29)

With this fleeting picture, Abdou shows us why the drudgery and the pain and the routine of being so dedicated to a sport might all be worthwhile.