Canada Reads: February by Lisa Moore

february_lisa_mooreI think that what I am about to say is going to make me very unpopular, but bear with me. I wasn’t totally blown away by Canada Reads candidate February by Lisa Moore. Without a doubt the writing was fabulous. Moore can slide the reader seamlessly back and forth in time and place with little to no effort. She moves you to places you did not know you were going to go and before you know it you’ve been there and back. I cannot stress enough that I think she is one of the best writers in Canada today.

But the story wasn’t all that compelling to me. Especially since it was about the Ocean Ranger disaster off the coast of Newfoundland, which should have been enough to drive the story forward. I am coming to realize as I write this blog that story is really important to me. I need a reason to keep turning those pages. As a result, I felt February was a bit draggy at times. I also tend to like stories told in a more linear fashion.

The story itself revolves around Helen, the widow of an Ocean Ranger worker and how her life and that of her children move forward with a huge absence in their lives. Helen’s son John seems to get a more attention than her other children, and yet his parts of the novel did not fit as cohesively into the rest of the story as others.

February is my last read for Canada Reads, so how do I think it will do? Lisa Moore, like Jane Urquhart (Away), has a loyal and committed following who want to see her win. Will this be enough? I suspect it may be. I think February has a very good chance at taking the Canada Reads title. It is being defended by Trent McClellan, and although I admit that I am not overly familiar with him, he is funny and I think he will be able to win over votes and that’s what counts.

Who would like this book? People who appreciate good writing will love February. Even though I was not draw in by the story personally, I can see that this is a great book and would recommend it with ease to a great variety of readers. Because of the setting it also reminded me a bit of Annabel by Kathleen Winter.

Arcadia Falls by Carol Goodman

Arcadia-Falls-195x300I don’t know what rock I was living under back in February 2011 when Carol Goodman‘s Arcadia Falls came out, but somehow i missed it. You see, I’ve been a fan of Goodman ever since The Lake of Dead Languages came out way back in 2002. Goodman’s novels may not always be terribly original, but they fall into a genre I love: Boarding School mysteries. Even when she strays from this tried and true genre, her novels still take place in rather closed, academic settings. The Night Villa (2008), which I loved, takes place on the Isle of Capri among a group of scholars searching for a long lost secret.

Arcadia Falls, unsurprisingly, is set at a private art school in Up State New York. The recently widowed Meg flees there with her daughter in hopes of finding some stability, financial and otherwise, after the unexpected death of her husband. But because this is a novel by Goodman, a death on campus upsets the idyll she is hoping to find. A mystery unravels which places the history of the school at its core.

Overall the writing is solid and the story intriguing. I am a fan, I can’t help but like Goodman’s work. She weaves the history of the school and the heritage of various students into a compelling mystery set in the present.

Who would like this book? I am a sucker for boarding school mysteries and stories set in closed academic communities. If you are too then this book will not disappoint. I would put it along side other books such as The Twisted Thread by Charlotte Bacon and even The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood. Of course standing at the pinnacle of boarding school novels is The Secret History by Donna Tartt. If you haven’t read this, then you must.

And as an aside for fans of YA and fantasy, Goodman has recently published The Demon Lover under the name Juliet Dark. Everything you want out of a boarding school novel, plus a demon lover thrown in. I haven’t read it and probably won’t, but it is sure to appeal to a large audience.

Robbie Burns Night Special: Scottish Literature

It is with a wee bit of trepidation that I sit down to write this post. When it comes to Scottish literature I am woefully under read. I can name to big names like Alexander McCall Smith and Ian Rankin, but beyond that I have not read a whole lot.

isabel-dalhousieUpon arriving in Edinburgh I read a lot of Alexander McCall Smith and specifically his Isabel Dalhousie Series. The reason I read so much of Isabel’s adventures is because she lives about a mile from where I live and she walks everywhere. I could follow her adventures in Edinburgh as I got to the know the city. She walks through the Meadows on her way into town, as do I. She shops at Henri’s in Morningside for fancy delicatessen stuff, so do I. Her preferred stop for a quick bite and a cuppa in town is Valvona & Crolla, ok … I haven’t been there yet.  However, after a few books read in quick succession I found the stories to be a little tiresome. This may be a product of my serial reading of them. Perhaps if my reading of them had been spaced out a little more leisurely that would not have been the case.

gillespie and iOn to Glasgow. Gillespie and I by Jane Harris is set in Glasgow at the time of the 1888 International Exhibition. The story follows Harriet Baxter, a spinster and her involvement with Ned Gillespie a famous artist and his family. The story takes a rather dark and unexpected turn as Harriet’s interest in Gillespie turns to obsession. I’ve always been interested in the big International Exhibitions of the Victorian Age and Gillespie and I is saturated in Glasgow’s Exhibition. One of my favorite parts of the book was the map of the exhibition on the fore leaf. Overall Gillespie and I was a very engaging book and was nominated for 2013 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

To take us a little further afield is Ever Fallen in Love by Zoe Strachan. Set largely in an unnamed university town that bears a striking resemblance to St Andrews and a small upper Highlands village, the story follows Richard as he reflects back on his heady university days. His walk down memory lane is spurred on by the unexpected arrival of his little sister, her friend and their ‘drama’ at his remote cabin. At its heart, Ever Fallen in Love is about unrequited and perhaps inappropriate love and the crazy things it can make one do. It paints a wonderful picture of the Scottish university environment in the late 1980s and is a must read for anyone heading to Orkneys off the coast of northern Scotland. Strachan renders the sense of place, on both instances, beautifully.

gruffalo-in-scotsFinally a tribute to Robbie Burns would not be complete without something that is actually written (or translated into) the Scots language. For that I have chosen The Gruffalo (in Scots) by Julia Donaldson and translated by James Robertson. Same great story rendered almost completely incomprehensible.

A moose took a dauner through the deep mirk widd. A tod saw the moose and the moose looked guid.

Still to be read is The Missing Shade of Blue by Jennie Erdal. It has been out in the UK for about a year, but will be released in Canada this summer.

Canada Reads: Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan

twosolitudesAt first glance Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan seems like a natural choice to sweep Canada Reads. It is an iconic Canadian novel and Governor General Award winner that captures the plight of the English and French in Quebec in the early part of the twentieth century. MacLennan’s writing is clean, crisp and timeless, concealing the fact that it was written more than sixty years ago.

But as I got more into the novel, I became less convinced. The plot moves along at a snail’s pace. This is largely due to MacLennan’s impromptu ravings over the (multiple) two solitudes that form the backbone of the novel. He expounds many times and at length on the dichotomies that prop his story up: French vs. English, Catholic vs. Protestant, Religion vs. Science, America vs. Canada and the list goes on. I think I prefer a little more subtly. Overall, these digressions make the novel about 200 pages longer than it should have been.

Some of the characters in Two Solitudes, however, are truly memorable and Canadian. I am thinking specifically of Yardley, the retired seaman from Nova Scotia who decides to buy a farm in the all French outpost of St. Marc. He is one of those characters in Canadian literature that you can’t help but love. I put him up along side Matthew Cuthbert. The relationship that develops between Yardley and young Paul is one of the sustaining factors of the novel. This relationship is certainly more plausible that the supposed romance that takes between Yardley’s granddaughter and Paul. But now I am digressing much as MacLennan does.

Initially I thought Two Solitudes would fair quite nicely in the Canada Reads debates, but now I’m not so sure. Away, defended by Charlotte Gray, and The Age of Hopedefended by Ron MacLean will surely surpass Two Solitudes. I think Two Solitudes‘ defender Jay Baruchel has a lot of popular support, but can he stand up to the likes of Gray and MacLean?

Who would like this book? The usual CBC Canada Reads crowd – that goes without saying. I think this novel would also appeal to the historically and politically minded. It really is a key work in depicting Canada’s social history.

White Dog Fell From the Sky by Eleanor Morse

White-DogI found White Dog Fell From The Sky by Eleanor Morse on a number of ‘must read’ lists for 2013. It was just released in early January and has had some buzz surrounding it. The story is set largely in Botswana and centers on Isaac, an educated, black, political refugee from South Africa during apartheid. He finds a job as a gardener with Alice, a sympathetic American. While Alice is travelling in the north of the country, Isaac goes missing. I won’t reveal more than that.

White Dog Fell From the Sky filled an important void in my literary education as I have read embarrassingly few novels about or set during apartheid in South Africa. While most of White Dog is set in Botswana, South Africa is always lurking in the background as the oppressive other. The fear and shock Isaac displays towards the mixed society that surrounds him in Botswana serves to underline what his life must have been like before he escaped from South Africa.

Although I enjoyed the setting and other aspects of the novel, I also felt it was deeply flawed. In particular, the Alice’s story line was rather meandering and somewhat unnecessary at times. Alice’s marriage troubles and her doomed love affair with an inappropriate older man cluttered what I saw as the main thrust of the novel – Isaac’s plight. These aspects of her life may have been included to explain some of Alice’s later actions, however most of the time I found her story took me away from the point of the novel for too long. On the other hand, it may be that I missed entirely what Morse was trying to achieve. I questioned my understanding of the trajectory of the novel a number of times.

Who would like this book? As with most of the books I’ve been reviewing lately, this book is definitely for someone who likes ‘literature’ as opposed to something a little bit more pedestrian. That is to say, this novel is not an easy read. Morse’s writing style is quite lyrical and the topics she explores move it into a more difficult category.

CanadaReads: Away by Jane Urquhart

awayI first read Away by Jane Urquhart shortly after it first came out in 1993. I remembered it being a novel set primarily in Ireland. My second reading last week revealed that a good portion of it also takes place in the back waters of Canada and Port Hope. As such it reflects the struggles of early Irish immigrants to Canada during the time of the Potato Famine and makes a very traditional pick for CanadaReads. I say traditional, because it seems to me that Away reflects the strand in Canadian literature that we learned about in school – think pioneer story, new immigrants, the savage land, encounters with First Nations peoples. In short it is a rather traditional Canadian story, if such a thing exists.

Urquhart is known for her lyrical and poetic writing, and that is what Away delivers. I am not a fan of this style – I align my taste more with Hemingway, quick and to the point.  However, her writing style corresponds very nicely to the overall tenor of the story, which verges towards magical realism at times. To me Away does not stand up to other of her works, such as The Stone Carvers, but many critics will disagree with that statement.

How will Away fair in CanadaReads? Good question. It is being defended by Charlotte Gray, and I believe she knows her stuff and will defend the book admirably. At the end of the day, however, will the traditional nature of the novel appeal to the panel or drive it away (no pun intended)? I am at a loss to predict Away‘s viability as the next CanadaReads champion.

Who would like this book? This book is for lovers of straight up, traditional Canadian lit. It reminds me of Roughing it in the Bush by Susanna Moodie. Obviously, CBC obsessed reader like me will also read it because of CanadaReads.

Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See by Juliann Garey

toobrighttohearI seem to have snagged Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See by first time author Juliann Garey hot off the presses – it just came out in hardcover December 26, 2012. As a result you may not have heard much about this book yet. But i say ‘yet’ because this is poised to be one of the break out novels of the year. It was precisely this positive press that made me pick it up. I was not disappointed by the book, however, i was deeply troubled.

The plot of the novel focuses on Hollywood studio executive, Greyson Todd’s descent into madness. Each chapter starts with one session of Greyson’s electroshock treatment, which brings to the fore a past memory of varying significance. As the novel proceeds we discover that he is in fact bipolar and has suffered from this condition for years. When we meet him he has hit rock bottom, abandoning his family and career for a sex and drug filled jaunt around the world that lasts years.

As I mentioned, I found the novel to be rather troubling, but not because of a large portion of it takes place in a mental institution. Instead it is Greyson’s treatment and view of women as he travels from one sexual tourist hotspot to another. In Bangkok he realizes that money, of which he has a lot, can buy him just about any woman/ girl he wants. But his lowest point comes during a visit to Africa where he uses his wealth and therefore power to marry and abandon a widow after setting he up with a good deal of money in African terms. He is cavalier in his sexual engagement with her, almost daring AIDS to come his way. I found the power imbalances in almost of Greyson’s relationships with women to be troubling at best and misogynistic at worst. I don’t know if this is made worse because the novel was written by a woman.

Garey is at her best when writing as a slightly insane movie director balanced precariously on the edge. At times it verges into almost stream of consciousness. There is confusion, erratic jumping around and self flagellation. It all makes for a very realistic telling of someone mingling with insanity. Even Greyson’s sometimes appalling treatment of women fits coherently into the character Garey has so deftly drawn. And it is the plausibility of it that makes it so troubling.

Who would like this book? This book is definitely for an edgier reader. It is for someone who likes contemporary gritty tales and isn’t afraid of getting a little dirty in the process. It would also appeal to fans of behind the scenes tales of Hollywood. Greyson is, after all, a Hollywood mogul of sorts. I would also put it in line with other books set in mental institutions such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Girl, Interupted (which i adored).

Reading Challenges 2013

I know we are already more than a week into 2013, but it is not too late to make a New Year’s resolution. As you have probably guessed, my resolution has to do with reading and how much of it I can get done. And lucky for me there are a number of web-based supports that I can draw on. Here is a quick list of the reading challenges and pledges I am taking part in this year. You should challenge yourself too!


50bookpledge brought to you by The Savvy Reader is better than ever this year. In the past it has been a mostly Twitter based thing, but this year it has its own website. Although it is called the 50 book pledge, it is really just about getting people to read more. You set your challenge for yourself, anywhere from 12 – 200 books in 2013. The graphics of the site are really good and easy to use. You get your own bookshelf (you choose the colour) to record the books you’ve read and those you want to read. And to keep you motivated, it is all designed so that you can see what your friends are reading, earn badges and win prizes. So far, I love it!!

reading-bingoNot to be out done, Retreat by RandomHouse has developed their own version of ReadingBingo. This is reading with a bit of a twist. Each square of the Bingo card, which you can print out yourself, has a challenge that you can stamp once you have completed it. Examples include Reading a Book By a Celebrity, a Book of Poetry and a Book with an Animal on the Cover. It’s up to you whether you decide to fill your card, go for a line or make an X. If this isn’t a good excuse to go buy a Bingo blotter, I don’t know what is.

goodreads 2013 reading challengeAnd then there is the tried and true favorite over at GoodReads, plain old 2013 Reading Challenge. Not quite as visually pleasing as 50bookpledge, but since many people are already signed up on GoodReads it is handy. As you enter the books you’ve read it lets you know by way of percentage how far you have to go. And like 50bookpledge, you can set your own goal. Mine is 75 books in 2013. Now the only question is, will I be able to do it?

iqrc-2013Finally, there are also a plethora of challenges for the niche read, a group to which I can sometimes claim to belong. I have a particular penchant for books and writers from India and other areas of South Asia. Well, it should come as no surprise that out there on the world wide web I could find a challenge to fit this hankering. So in addition to the others, I have signed up for the Indian Quills Reading Challenge. Like with other challenges you can set the goal for yourself. I am challenging myself to read 20 books by South Asian writers. The books I blog about will also be linked up to their website at The Tales Pensieve.


readlong2013Of course after I got this all looking pretty and posted I realized that there is another book challenge that should be mentioned: Simon&Schuster Canada has announced their Read-Along 2013. Each month they will present a reading challenge of sorts. This month’s is to read a book you never got around to reading last year even though it was on your To Read list. For me that book is Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter.

Sussex Drive by Linda Svendsen

sussexdriveSussex Drive by Linda Svendsen is one fun novel. As the name indicates, it is a political satire set in the hallowed halls of Ottawa’s elite.The story is set in 2008 and melds together aspects of recent history that we recognize (ie. the election of Obama, the proroguing of Parliment and the rise of the right in Canada) with a perhaps less plausible alternative history (GG reports to King Charles). In its telling the story focuses primarily on two female power brokers – Becky, the brash and pushy wife of the PM, and Lise, the somewhat controversial immigrant GG. Perhaps because of this point of view the reader also gets a peak at how the personal lives of these VIPs and their children are manipulated by the political machine.

Two things that i really appreciated about the novel were the use of language and the prominence of women. As is befitting the bilingual environment of Ottawa and the parliamentary millieu, the characters switch back and forth between English and French as they speak. This is done effortlessly by some and with a little bit more struggling by others. As a reader, however, I think it is clear what is being said without knowledge of French. Secondly, the women in Sussex Drive are very complex characters juggling the concerns of public and private life. The men, on the other hand, are somewhat one dimensional. The GG, who is modeled on Michaelle Jean, is a sensitive arbiter of power put in a number of very awkward situations by the conservative First Family. Becky, the PM’s wife, is a manipulative behind the scenes force, who ultimately steers the direction of the government. By drawing on these two characters Svendsen gives the reader a different view of Ottawa from the one we are used to.

Overall Svendsen has written a very interesting and intriguing look at politics in Canada. It is not the most staggeringly beautiful piece of Canadian literature, but it is a fun, humorous page turner.

Who would like this book? Anyone interested in (Canadian) political satire. Sussex Drive exists in the same vein as Terry Fallis‘ Ottawa based satires. Politically speaking, I think it would appeal to left leaning readers, but it is hard for me to judge for sure. The political right might like it too if they are willing to laugh at themselves. There seems to be a trend towards buying political books for one’s dad, but this one would definitely appeal to a mother as well.

CanadaReads: The Age of Hope by David Bergen


The Age of Hope

I always think that I am a fan of David Bergen until I actually read him. I feel the same way about Ian McEwan. They are both highly praised, award winning literary writers, and yet I tend to walk away from their books feeling a little meh. It was with that in mind that I launched into The Age of Hope by David Bergen for Canada Reads.

The novel is not a real page turner. It is about a woman’s life as a wife and mother starting in the 1950’s. To say that not much really happens in the novel might be a little of an understatement. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the story is Hope’s on going battle with mental illness. At various points in her marriage she is institutionalized and receives electroshock therapy. I found these episodes fascinating due to my interest in mental illness, but they were not enough to sustain the novel.

Although I am not a real fan of The Age of Hope, I am impressed by Bergen’s writing. The whole thing is written from the point of view of a bored stay at home wife and mother, and I think Bergen captures that voice precisely. One would almost think that Bergen himself is a bored house wife. The tone and mood he creates are dead on, the problem is it’s just not something i want to read about.

One big question remains: How will The Age of Hope do in Canada Reads? Difficult to say. It is being championed by Ron MacLean, and lets face it Ron MacLean can hold his own against Don Cherry, so I think he will be able to argue persuasively in the arena of Canada Reads. But will that be enough? I don’t think the novel can stand on its own against the other contenders, but we shall see.

Who would like this book? Good question. Obviously readers of Canadian literary fiction will read The Age of Hope regardless of what I say. And they should – I am all for supporting Canadian arts. Beyond that, I would recommend this novel to those who like moody prose more than plot driven tales. And of course, it is required reading for fans of Canada Reads.