A Scottish-Canadian Blethering On About Books

Notes and reflections - not really worthy to be called reviews - written at various times over a long life of eclectic reading.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (Johnston)

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams - Wayne Johnston

I've read a few Newfoundland novels lately, but this one, a fictionalized autobiography of Joey Smallwood, Newfoundland's first Premier, differs from the rest of them in that it is largely an urban novel, with most of the action set either in St. John's or in New York. Smallwood spent time working for the radical left-wing press in New York in his youth, and remained a socialist throughout his long political career, though his emphasis on economic development for Newfoundland meant that he controversially sided with large corporations (and foreign corporations at that) against unions in a number of major decisions. This novel is not, however, an economic or political history of Newfoundland, though elements of both are wryly scattered throughout, and the omnipresence of the historical view is very much felt through the interspersed writings of fictional historian, journalist and love interest [Sheilagh] Fielding - always known by her last name, just as she always addresses Smallwood as "Smallwood". And yes, as the title would suggest, not only are the larger dreams of the new province in Canada largely unrequited, but so too are the affections of Smallwood and Fielding, though it is hard, sometimes, to discern in which direction the unrequited feelings are flowing, both characters are so prickly, defensive and entirely caught up in their own worlds.


I'm not going to try to describe the way the plot winds in and out, incorporating major historical events in Smallwood's actual life like his trip on foot across the island, following the major railway line, recruiting union members; his harrowing trip as a journalist on a sealing voyage where a large part of the crew was stranded and frozen; his fraught political relationship with pre-Confederation Newfoundland politicians under the old system of colonial government from Britain; his shoestring existence in extreme poverty in New York. Nor was I particularly concerned to sort out fact from fiction in all of this. The more intriguing mystery was the characters, and how a couple of key (and likely fictional) events in their youth drove them through life. Those events involved written evidence, and the existence of written histories, and even a book of history as a possible instrument of homicide - OK, if you want more, you must read the book. And I really do think you should if you enjoy description that leaps off the page (strange, familiar, and strangely familiar settings), and characters who make you ache a bit even while they stubbornly withhold full understanding of their pain.


You don't need to know a lot about Newfoundland or its history to enjoy "Colony of Unrequited Dreams". You may find, however, that this fictional history about histories makes you want to know more of the truth. Heartily recommended.

Fierce (Raisman)

Fierce: How Competing for Myself Changed Everything - Aly Raisman

I truly believe that if this autobiographical piece by now 23-year-old gymnast Aly Raisman had been lived, written and published a generation earlier, it would have had the same cookie-cutter content as every other seize-the-Olympic-moment biographical publication: I had a supportive family, I had goals from early on, here is who coached me, I competed at this and placed second, I competed at this and placed first, I competed at this, placed sixth and was devastated, I got injured, I worked towards my comeback, here are my (blandly edited) feelings about my principal competition, etc. etc.

Frankly, this is still the majority of the book's contents, and what else could you expect in the biography of someone still so young, and who still has so much future income that could be drastically affected by misplaced public statements revealing too-deep or too-bitter feelings about some matter or another.  Actual personality, warts and all, is the privilege of the private and the elderly.

But this is the age of #metoo and of holding to account, and Raisman, at the tender age of 15, was by her own account initiated into the far too numerous club of the victims of sexual predator Larry Nassar.  Like too many others, probably, I admit that I read this not because I am a fan of her career (I am only a lukewarm follower of gymnastics, unlike figure skating), but because I genuinely wanted to see what she would choose to write about that. And, let's be clear, I would have been much happier if she hadn't had anything to write about in the first place.

I think she has exercised good judgment (and/or been well advised) in what she has written and left out.  She describes, but only briefly, and not repetitively, Nassar's grooming tactics and how he took advantage of the highly demanding (some might say abusive) competitive atmosphere of Marta Karolyi's isolated training camps - or similarly isolated-in-plain-sight situations when far abroad at competitions - to gain the girls' trust with gifts and sympathy. She draws her line in the sand at the details of what he did behind closed doors, to her and others. Those would, in any case, come out in the press at the time of his public trials, where she would speak out at more length, and I honour her courage and that of all her peers in doing so at that time when it would make the most difference. But clearly she is well aware that in this ghastly world, there are too many who would read such details with avid and prurient attention.  Instead, the most extended treatment of the Nasser subject comes in two specific chapters, one in which she describes how an investigator hired by the Gymnastics Association came to speak with her, and she was unable to provide details or confirmation because she still had so much self-doubt and so much faith in the authorities that she could not yet fully conceive that she had been abused and not been protected. (Her account of her subsequent call to the US Gymnastics Federation, where she was more or less told to shut up, is even more dismaying, and is no doubt part of the grounds of the lawsuit I'm given to understand she has filed against them).  The subject of the emotional effects of abuse, where she tries her best to give support and courage to readers who are being victimized (and passes on some practical information about support organizations), forms her final chapter.

If you are a fan of gymnastics, there are some solid details and some amusing stories about the competitions here (as well as some nice colour pictures). Her descriptions of her various high-level routines (which, like many Olympians, she remembers right down to each wobble) are clear and fun to read alongside the video we are now so privileged to have at our fingertips.  If you are an outsider to that obsessed athletic culture, as I am, you cannot help raising eyebrows at the still-admiring tone in which Raisman describes the culture of discipline in which extreme fatigue and injury are largely dismissed and the battles over weight and proper nutrition are constant.  If you are a decent human being, you will be left with a feeling of terrible dismay that somehow nearly all of these happy, chummy, resilient, talented young women were also dealing with periodic sexual assault from an adult whom all of the authority figures in their lives had told them they could and should trust.

It makes one look back at all those bland, "I competed here and placed second; I held true to my goals and won the Olympics"-style sports biographies from earlier generations with a wary and jaundiced eye.  Is there a flood of revelatory volume 2s forthcoming? For the athletes' sake, I hope there is no need.

Generation X (Coupland)

Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture - Douglas Coupland

I am in, or at least on the cusp of, Generation X, so I must admit that i expected this curious production to resonate with me more than it did. There were flashes of recognition with some (not nearly all) of the constant string of material culture references. And I recognized, at an intellectual level, how some of the typographical oddities were signalling the malaise of the generation itself: the marginalia draws your attention away from the stories, typical of the fragmented attention of my youth; the ironic, half-clever coinages and definitions (e.g. McJob) reveal that terrible urge to define and understand in an incomprehensible world. But, at my advanced age, I think perhaps those qualities (and the immense resentment of the prior generation, also much in evidence here) are just characteristics of the youth of pretty much any generation you care to name. Or at least any generation where the young people aren't dragged into severe crisis like a World War to turn them away from looking inwards.


That said, the three main characters were alien creatures to me. Part of that was that even the Canadian among them (depressed, undeclared gay, dual-citizen Dag from Toronto, probably D. Coupland's nearest thing to a stand-in) is very heavily Americanized, as is the book, which is primarily set in the dusty California desert (another heavy symbol). The actual narrator, Andy, becomes most human when describing his interactions with his own relatives, but otherwise seems to be entirely lost in his own head. In fact, this book has them all - there is also a woman character who is little more than a cipher - spending more time in alternate worlds that this one, spinning elaborate stories to each other about doomsday scenarios or micro-worlds frozen in time. The stories are moderately amusing but in the end do not illuminate much about either the teller or the people being told to - except that they amuse themselves by spinning tales about appalling alternate realities. Possibly that's the point.


So, I didn't connect. Wrong place and time, maybe. Maybe it's just that (as with Kerouac's On The Road) I have read it at the wrong age. Or maybe it's just too self-consciously clever and hasn't worn well. It was worth the try, I guess.

Only With Passion: Figure Skating's Most Winning Champion on Competition and Life (Witt)

Only With Passion: Figure Skating's Most Winning Champion on Competition and Life - Katarina Witt, E.M. Swift

OK, once I got past the highly debatable subtitle and rather ridiculously sexed-up cover picture, this little book from 2005 was actually quite an enjoyable read. A full biography it is not, but Katarina is not the first female skater - see, for instance, Barbara Ann Scott - to combine scattered biographical facts and philosophical musings into an advice-to-a-young-skater format. At least Katarina's book doesn't include an entire chapter on the details of school figures!


I like Katarina, based on her pretty consistent public persona here and on tv - she's generally very down-to-earth and seems to have a strong grasp on realities both interpersonal and financial. What's more, she appears to have the capacity to form strong female friendships - notably with Sandra Bezic and with her business partner, Elizabeth. She also somehow seems to have maintained a strong relationship, though perhaps part of that is unacknowledged dependency, with a coach, Jutta Muller, whose methods in this gradually-awakening day and age would likely be described as borderline abusive. The strictures on Katarina's weight - and the skater's defence of those strictures - I found troubling. Anyway, it's clear that even 10 years after her last amateur skate, Muller was still a valued part of Witt's career. She takes her fictional young skater friend, "Jasmine" to see her training with Mueller for her latest professional project.


One of the self-revelations I most enjoyed was Katarina's complete awareness that she's addicted to showboating. She doesn't seem particularly worried that she thrives on being the centre of attention, and doesn't perform her best unless she's aware of multiple eyes upon her. I'm not sure she quite makes the full connection between that and the fact that she has never settled down into a marriage, but she comes close in the few fairly guarded sentences that she devotes to her longish relationship with Richard Dean Anderson. In fact, rather too much of this narrative is slightly defensive about being an independent single woman, although I can completely understand that she has had to deal with this same narrative for years from the media; all that emphasis on her femininity and her beauty (often at the expense of acknowledging her real athletic chops). That aspect of her life interested me far less than her stories of growing up in East Germany, and also the stories she introduces about some of her East German friends, at least one of whom made the dangerous crossing from East to West Berlin while the wall was still up.


About other skaters of her era, Katarina generally speaking follows the "if you can't say anything nice" rule; she has respectful words for Debi Thomas, and also for Nancy Kerrigan, and she openly regrets that she was so aggressively competitive with Rosalynn Sumners in the pre-1984 years, given how well they got along in the pro years that followed. And then there's this:


"And what was Tonya Harding like?"

"Tonya," I chuckled ruefully. "She was an impressive athlete, I must say. Her jumps were so high. She was very talented, except not in the head. Really, I don't care two cents about her."


She's careful, but it's not North American media-speak. I like that.


If you are curious about how she would describe her Playboy photo-shoot, or the '87 Worlds, '88 Olympics, the '94 Olympics, or Carmen on Ice, you'll find a bit about each of those in here, though none of them is terribly deeply examined. E.M. Swift (the same man who "co-wrote" Gordeeva's My Sergei) has done a good job eliminating any Germanic-sounding glitches from the smooth first-person narrative. There is a photo section, in black and white, not in itself a reason to buy the book, but with some fun novelties (including pictures of Katarina and Anett Poetzch wearing the same competition dress).


I hope we do someday get a more substantial memoir or biography, but in the meantime, this little book has earned its spot on my shelves.

The Woman in the Window (Finn)

The Woman in the Window: A Novel - A. J. Finn

I thought this was really well-done. Even though I accidentally managed to spoil myself for the final twist (and what a twist), I was completely drawn in until the very last page, largely because of the writing. The first revelation (the one about protagonist Dr. Anna Fox's family) was, I'm pretty sure, one of those that are there in order to make the reader feel good about their own instincts. There were plenty of hints dropped even within the first few pages, drawing us into a self-satisfied feeling that, ah yes, we do indeed know what is going on with this slightly addled, unreliable first-person narrator. In contrast, we are at that same narrator's mercy when it comes to impressions of all the other characters, including the one ultimately revealed as the psychotic villain, which is genuinely surprising and shocking to Anna, and therefore to any unspoiled reader.


Our narrator is fond of old thriller movies, and frequently has them playing, thus allowing that evocative quoted dialogue to seep into whatever alarming or puzzling thing is happening in her own life. And, too, this novel is very clearly written with movie adaptation in mind; from the pathetic-fallacy major rainstorm during the climactic events, to the devastating and echoing effects of sudden falls in scary places, to characters suddenly appearing in dramatically described light - it's as if the promised movie is already unspooling in one's head. No surprise, then, that the film rights were already sold before publication.


I became more emotionally involved than I expected I would in Anna's haze, her agoraphobia, her depression, and her absolutely heart-rending self-doubt when she allows herself to be pushed at one point into believing that she really did delude herself, seeing things she did not see, making up stories, sending an e-mail and photo she did not send... Gaslighted, in fact.


I was only vaguely aware that the gender-neutral A.J. Finn pseudonym belonged to a male author, and I thought he did a really decent job of inhabiting a female voice. In fact, the only moment when I specifically spat, "pah! male author!" was when he failed to update us on the condition of the cat in the sunny denouement. (I am like many mystery/thriller readers in that I can contemplate human murders without pain - presumably because it's part of the implicit contract - but any description of cruelty to animals puts me on edge and makes me worry inordinately. Anyway, potential readers of this novel needn't be put off my mentioning the subject; it's minor.)


It's always a question with a first novel from an author with another established career: is this the beginning of a long relationship, or has "A.J. Finn" written the one novel he had within him? Either way, I'm glad he got it published, and if his real-life position at the publishing house did have something to do with that, in this case the publishers got it right.


A very trendy title, but nonetheless heartily recommended.

A Wrinkle In Time (L'Engle)

A Wrinkle in Time - Madeleine L'Engle

This is a book I might have grown very attached to if I’d read it at nine or ten years of age. In those days, I would have glommed on to the brainy Daddy’s-girl main character and enjoyed the vaguely mythical shape of the story (3-Fates-like grandma figures and all), despite the fact that the book’s too short to indulge in much detailed world-building. A few years later, I would definitely have enjoyed the presence of the irritating but too-cute baby brother, although my own does not have dramatic mind-reading capabilities, as far as I know. As an adult, I am bothered by the fact that it’s too Christian and too American for my tastes; as a child, that probably would have passed muster with me, since I was far less judgmental and disenchanted in those days.


The emotional centre of this novel is that ghastly moment in each child’s life when they (we) discover that a parent they idolize is human and grossly fallible. It's very distressing, as a child, to find out that adults are impotent in the face of the world's overwhelming evils. The solution to the overwhelming evil in this book - simply and quite impressively named IT - is one that is cliche'd in literature, theology and popular song: love conquers everything. I've read and heard it too many times to find any sense or comfort in it (again, my 9-year-old self would probably have reacted more favourably.) However, it was quite an enjoyable short read, and I can completely understand how if someone read it in their formative years they would cling to it as a favourite book. Within a clear and straightforward narrative, it addresses a lot of the knotty philosophical questions that bubble to the surface of a thoughtful child's mind.


Besides, it's enormously helpful in understanding the concept of warp drive in Star Trek!


Christian and American biases notwithstanding, I would give this as a gift to a child without hesitation - particularly if she were a brainy Daddy's-girl.

Hag-Seed (Atwood)

Hag-Seed - Margaret Atwood

This is Margaret Atwood's re-telling of The Tempest, set in a Canadian prison. It's part of a series of commissioned re-tellings of Shakespeare, by a variety of authors.


Damn, that woman is clever. I don't go to her if I'm looking for emotional comfort, for sure, but I love watching her the way I love watching a trapeze artist or an Olympic snowboarder: sheer appreciation of someone exercising amazing skills I'll never possess. This one is full of happy recollections for an English lit major; don't know how well it would play if you were completely unfamiliar with the Tempest, though there is a helpful summary at the back.


There's nothing terribly realistic about the plot of the novel (it depends on a highly unlikely temporary technological takeover of the prison), but individual moments and references provoke chuckles of recognition. Take the name of the protagonist, for instance - Felix Phillips. Felix for Prospero, of course, but the "Phillips" part is obviously for Robin Phillips, who was the long-time and famously unconventional artistic director of the Stratford (Ontario) Shakespeare Festival. Actually, I'm kind of disappointed that Atwood 'fessed up to that one in her afterword, and didn't let the rest of us go on feeling clever for having noticed it.


Likewise, the characters of the various inmates and the few outsiders are slenderly built (though I didn't feel they were stereotypes). But there is just enough depth there - Felix is dealing with, or rather not dealing with, the death of his real-life daughter, Miranda, to whose imagined image he talks while he lives out a wretchedly reclusive life. (As in the play, things improve at the end.)


I'm pretty sure that the critical notion that The Tempest is all about various types of prisons is not original to Atwood (though it's been so long I wouldn't even know where to start digging it out). But the way she has worked it through is entirely her, and entirely delightful.


Delightful. Yes, that's exactly the word. Do read it!


A Patient Fury (Ward)

A Patient Fury - Sarah Ward

This is the third entry in Sarah Ward's DC Connie Childs series, and I think I must be becoming accustomed to disliking (mildly or intensely) her characters, be they good or bad, because that aspect of her writing did not bother me as much as it did in A Deadly Thaw. The mystery reader who looks for a satisfactory restoration of good over evil at the end of their detective novel (not necessarily a reasonable hope in this less-formulaic age) will note with interest the titles of the three main sections of the book: "The Wrong", "The Right", and again "The Wrong".


Yes, Connie is wrong in the first section, right in the second, and wrong again in the third - or at least so it seems! - and I'm not going to say more than that about the final outcome, even though I've put a spoiler warning on this review. The twist at the end was only one of the possibilities I was still mulling; one thing I didn't like so much was that novel ended quite abruptly, with one secondary character left rather disturbingly vulnerable to a horrid fate.


As usual, the murders in the present - nasty, involving blunt force trauma and a fire, and with 3 dead bodies, though the number that are actually murders is intrinsic to the solution so I won't say - anyway, the present murders are linked to a past unpleasant incident (in this case the disappearance of a parent). And though there is nothing supernatural, there is quite a lot of haunting from the past that goes on one way or another, including the profession of our main survivor and protagonist, Julia, who gives "ghost tours".


As far as settings go, we mostly stick close to Connie's beat in her fictional English town, but we do have a brief trip to a historically interesting prison in Leicester. Its history seems to have interested the author, too, because she gave enough detail to pique my curiosity and send me to Google for pictures.


Psychologically, Connie's a bit of a mess in this one - she's depressed, recovering both from being summarily shoved away from her very brief affair, and from very bad physical injuries at the end of the last novel, and she's self-doubting and irritable enough when her superiors question her judgment & discipline her to submit her resignation. Fortunately for the continuation of the series, it's not accepted. However, if a relationship with her immediate superior, Sadler, is the long game, then based on this novel it's going to be a very long game indeed.


I'm not a raving fan, but I'll probably continue to follow this series, now that I've made something of an investment in all those continuing characters that I can't - quite - like.

Our Life on Ice (Torvill & Dean)

Our Life on Ice: The Autobiography by Jayne Torvill (2014-10-09) - Jayne Torvill;Christopher Dean

With the publication of this follow-up volume (on the heels of John Hennessy's "as-told-to" biography from just after the '84 Olympics, and of "Facing the Music" which was about events leading up to the '94 Olympics), I think we can safely add Torvill and Dean to the ranks of serial autobiographers. What is more, they have kept the format more or less consistent with earlier books: segments headed "Jayne", segments headed "Chris", and more general narrative headed "Jayne and Chris".


Although it has a general chronological sweep, much of the book is arranged into subject-based chapters which, I assume, is to disguise the fact that the book is necessarily a bit thinner than its predecessors where it revisits the amateur and early professional career covered in the other books, while still giving the opportunity to revisit and perhaps recast the previously narrated events from the an older (and wiser?) perspective. One subject that stood out to me because I was actually a little surprised at how undiplomatically it was handled was Chris' brief and unhappy marriage to Isabelle Duchesnay, and specifically the wedding, which was apparently made into a spectacular production against Chris' wishes by Isabelle's overbearing family. He is much more restrained (to the point of reticence) on what went wrong in his second marriage, to Jill Trenary, presumably because (a) there are kids and (b) they're still on good terms.


The major new material in this book relates to the British television show "Dancing on Ice", a "Strictly Come Dancing" clone, similar to "Dancing With The Stars" in the US - a reality competition where somewhat courageous celebrities learned basic skating and then performed highly-produced numbers weekly for judges, with regular eliminations. The "hook" of the show, of course, was that Torvill and Dean also performed regularly and, from my youtube explorations, sometimes with gimmicks not entirely necessary, given how very well they seem to have kept up their basic skills. Though there are obvious and expected declines in speed and flexibility, it's really remarkable how good they still were during this decade-long run, and it was a remarkably smart substitute for the rigours of touring in large-ice arenas where they would always have been measured against the audience's memories of their competitive prime (not to mention worn out by travelling). I was pleased also to see some discussion of Christopher Dean's choreography, for other skaters and for his brief venture into (autobiographical) modern dance. It wasn't terribly satisfying discussion - he seems to be one of those people who are much better at doing it than talking about it - but at least it's there.


Amongst the other fairly lengthy tributes to mentors and collaborators, we get a much better sense than before of the importance to the team of Jayne's husband Phil Christensen, who was a sound engineer on one of their professional tours (he came via the rock music world), and who eventually ended up in a central management role for their career. Among the least interesting aspects of the book - although it's been something that's been shoved in their face over the years, so I suppose they felt they had to address it yet again - is the rather uninteresting question of whether Torvill and Dean had a romantic relationship themselves. If you believe them, it amounted to one exploratory kiss in the back of a tour bus, and a mutual decision that anything more would mess up their working relationship and career. I see no reason not to believe them.


There's nothing shocking about this book because Torvill and Dean remain obstinately unshocking. Just two people who have been remarkably good at what they do for a remarkably long time, and who have taken the trouble to give us a bit of serial-autobiographical context to their main legacy which is, of course, all that wonderful - and fortunately for us, recorded - ice dancing.

The Return of the Firebird: Evgeny Plushenko, an Image of the New Russia (Tuncay)

The Return of the Firebird: Evgeny Plushenko, an Image of the New Russia - Vildan Bahar Tuncay

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, very young well-off university men who indulged in "poetical effusions" could get them published with subscriptions from indulgent and equally well-off friends. I have read some of this innocently awful rubbish.


Innocently awful rubbish is also how I would describe this self-published fan biography of Evgeny Plushenko. Mercifully slight, it is the product of someone for whom English is clearly not the first language, and whose style has been further corrupted by academia. There are a few minor insights, though they are likely born of reading rather than experience; I think Ms Tuncay is likely correct in linking Plushenko's arrogance and flamboyance to the rapid emergence of materialistic culture in post-glasnost Russia generally, for instance. Not ever having been a fan of Plushenko - I found him technically gifted, but without any sort of interpretive merit, and repulsively narcissistic - I am not inclined to forgive the faults of the writer (and the non-existent proofreader) for the sake of the subject.


Plushenko fans may want the book to complete their collections, particularly since there is so little written about him in English; I cannot otherwise recommend it at all.

The Day the Falls Stood Still (Buchanan)

The Day the Falls Stood Still - Cathy Marie Buchanan

I'm a sucker for anything waterfall-related, fictional, non-fictional or pictorial, so Buchanan had me at "hello" with this quite charming historical novel of a middle-class World War I era young woman on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. Her family hits hard times almost exactly at the same time as she falls for a young man - fictional name Tom Cole, but he is a reworking of an actual historical figure, a riverman named William "Red" Hill - who is knowledgeable about, and a passionate advocate for, that part of the Niagara River that flows through the famous falls and gorge. However, she gives her hero (and he really is a hero in the best fictional romance tradition) a different set of circumstances, and the ending of the novel will not please all readers. I quite liked the ending, but I won't say more for fear of spoiling.


For me, a major part of the enjoyment of this novel was the re-telling of a number of famous anecdotes about the Niagara Falls of Tom's generation, and that of his grandfather of the mid 19th-century. It was in the 1840s, in fact, that "the Falls stood still" because of an ice jam in Lake Erie, and Tom's grandfather, like Tom himself, had much ado to save the lives of fools who at various times (including that one) did not respect the enormous power and danger of the river. In fact, the cumulative effect of the anecdotes in this book - those I knew and those I didn't - was to confirm my impression that Niagara Falls stunters and barrel-riders are, to the man and woman, prime candidates for the Darwin Award.


The main action of the novel coincides in time with the beginning of the exploitation of Niagara for hydro-electric power, and also the beginning of the argument (which will never fully die, though it appears to have been quieted by an international agreement ca. 1950) over how much water can be removed from the river for industrial purposes - and how much by each country, since it's an international river - without compromising the truly iconic nature of the Falls as a tourist attraction. Tom, who identifies with the river at a visceral level, is of course an opponent of the development, and he has allies to this day; Bess, his wife and our narrator-protagonist, is more centrally situated in the argument, being sympathetic to Tom but the daughter of a power-plant manager (albeit one who loses his job).


Bess is also a seamstress (it's how she keeps her little family going while Tom is away fighting in the gruesome battles of WWI - and thereafter, as he struggles to find work) and, for my taste, a little too much of her narrative is concerned with dressmaking details - but that's nitpicking. The dressmaking has a function in linking up the various female characters of the plot, it moves the story forward in a couple of places, and some of the detail is helpful in establishing the historical feel of the novel - it's as legitimate in that respect as the horrible details of trench warfare that Tom brings home with him.


This was a 3-star family story read that got its fourth star because it hit upon and handled well one of my own personal hobby-horses, Niagara Falls.

A History of Canada in Ten Maps (Shoalts)

A History of Canada in Ten Maps: Epic Stories of Charting a Mysterious Land - Adam Shoalts

This work of popular history by a young man who is a "modern explorer" himself is understandably chiefly centred around exploration maps of territory now within Canada's boundaries. It has a fairly informal tone, but full scholarly apparatus. I enjoyed the thoughtful preface and afterword material, and the summaries of the exploits of various famous explorers were highly readable, with many interesting anecdotes. I also thought the tone successfully avoided any suggestion of hero-worship, and also acknowledged in a timely way the major contributions of named and described indigenous allies and collaborators, some of whom, as expedition members, ventured nearly as far away from their homes as the Europeans or Canadians they assisted. The main disappointment of the volume is one that was presumably out of the author's control: the reproductions of the maps, although coloured and glossy, are constrained to too small a size by the book's standard format to be really enjoyed. A coffee-table format would have been better (but probably too expensive). One of the chief victims of this shortcoming is the Thomson map (one I am very familiar with, having worked alongside the original for many years), but that huge, faded map would likely have been chiefly illegible even in a much larger reproduction: it is largely illegible close up, in its original.


This is not groundbreaking history, nor is it really cartographic analysis, though there is some discussion of the history and techniques of cartography in the preliminaries. It's a sesquicentennial project, aimed at a general audience, and, if my quite vivid recent memories of its tales about the Vikings, about Cartier and Champlain and Hearne and Mackenzie and Thomson and Franklin, are any indication, it has certainly done its job of raising awareness of the role exploration and mapping played in the early definition of the boundaries of the state we now call Canada. The roles of other forces (war, politics and statecraft) are, legitimately I think, largely left aside. As others have remarked, the one chapter on the Fort Erie battle during the war of 1812 seems a little forced and out of place. But then military history is not something I read with pleasure in any case.


Shoalts also seems to be quite an interesting guy, and I recommend a browse through his website after finishing this book.


A Deadly Thaw (Ward)

A Deadly Thaw: A Mystery (Inspector Francis Sadler) - Sarah Ward

I enjoyed Sarah Ward's first mystery novel, In Bitter Chill. This sequel was, for me, a bit of a sophomore slump, though I'm not giving up on her. My problem with this one was that the motivations of the principal characters in the mystery seemed to me far-fetched, and those of DC Connie Childs, who now appears to be established as the lead police protagonist, off-putting if not quite as incomprehensible when she lets herself fall into a sexual relationship with a married colleague.


For future reference, this is the story where a woman kills her lover, but goes to jail for the murder of her husband (having deliberately misidentified the body). The husband also turns up murdered years later. I had half of the solution fairly early on (I solved the identity of who brings gifts to the murdering woman's sister), but I had a wrong suspect in mind for the second murder, mainly because I didn't find the romance between him and the sister at all credible.


In the police station, there were some misunderstandings because the administrator couldn't let them know they were under internal investigation for past failings in dealing with victims of sexual assault - a depressingly timely theme, and very much relevant to the main plot too.


I'm sticking with DC Childs for a bit - I still find the writing solid and the situations imaginative. I'm hoping the third book int he series will also have rather more plausible motivation for the crimes, and rather less of poor interpersonal judgment on Connie's part.

Richard Burton: Prince of Players (Munn)

Richard Burton: Prince of Players - Michael Munn

This biography of Richard Burton is, I would guess, highly unreliable as to details. Although Michael Munn, the author, was indeed in the entertainment business in minor capacities, I very much doubt he had the kind of access to Burton himself (or to his circle) that would allow him to quote, apparently verbatim, whole stretches of actual conversation so very focused and illuminating about Burton's life. My suspicion that in fact Munn was paraphrasing cribbed versions of secondary sources was confirmed when I compared his account of an incident involving John Gielgud with Sheridan Morley's Gielgud biography, and discovered word-for word-borrowings but written as if told to the author directly by Burton (the tip-off was the idiosyncratic phrase "idiot boards"). That said, Munn does seem to have had some access to Burton (though not perhaps in the chummy way he claims), as well as to some of the more notorious gossips in Hollywood like Roddy McDowall. He also actually gives us a bibliography of sorts, though only a "selected" one; so I suspect he did his reading.


This, then, was a quick read with a hefty dose of salt, reliable for at least the bare outlines of Burton's career, and likely also a pretty good reflection of the gossip about Burton over the years. It's not a very happy tale. Indeed, given whatever illness of the mind (or brain) he was suffering from, as well as his lifelong alcoholism, what strikes me about Burton is not the brevity of his working life but the fact that he managed to get as much good work done as he did.


I was relieved to read that despite his reputation of having slept with every leading lady he had, Julie Andrews (who shared the stage with him in "Camelot") was notoriously proof against his boozy charms.


There's got to be at least one better biography out there, and I remember hearing that Burton's own diaries have been published, so I may come back to him at some point. I'm really far more interested in Peter O'Toole (upon the subject of whom this particular book was pretty light, though apparently they were quite good friends), but reading this book has at least revived in me the desire to go back and watch "Becket" again.

Cranford (Gaskell)

Cranford (Penguin Popular Classics) - Elizabeth Gaskell

"Although the ladies of Cranford know all each other's proceedings, they are exceedingly indifferent to each other's opinions ... but, somehow, good-will reigns among them to a considerable degree."


That passage from the first chapter of Cranford is actually a pretty good summation of what we learn about Miss Matty and her circle of friends in the succeeding set of linked stories (for a novel with an overarching plot this is not). The book is short (for a Victorian work!) easy and gently humorous, and it pokes fun at manners and mores that are far enough from today's that the already gentle satire bites not at all. Though in their little day-to-day exchanges, Mrs. Gaskell's characters can be horribly selfish and ignorant, yet without exception they have a core of goodness, and in the face of economic anxiety, which is the principal villain in this book without a villain, they do come together to support each other, even as they hedge their generosity around with a significant superfluity of social ridiculousness.


I read this on a plane flight and it went down quickly and smoothly, with smiles and just a bit of sentiment - like a cup of tea with an old friend.

So, Anyway... (Cleese)

So, Anyway... - John Cleese

As part of his narrative schtick in this memoir, John Cleese occasionally engages in exasperated expostulations to his imagined readers, in response to imaginary comments or criticisms from them. In one of those passages, he accuses us of not really being interested in the serious passages of his life, but instead wanting just to have a good laugh. Guilty as charged, Mr. Cleese, guilty as charged. And I'm happy to say that Cleese's whimsical prose and tongue-in-cheek exaggeration frequently delivers that good laugh.


Cleese concentrates almost entirely on his childhood, his school and university days, and his early career in stage and TV comedy, culminating with the coming together of the Monty Python troupe. There is one additional chapter about the reunion stage show decades later (apparently a highly gratifying experience). This imbalance implies either that he considers the later part of his life (including the Fawlty Towers period) not worth chronicling, or else that he thinks there's another book in it.


Cleese comes across as extremely, almost painfully self-aware, but of course he deflects from anything really painful with humour. He is very careful not to criticize those around him. Some of the tensions come through anyway; he admits that the Python group was essentially two entirely separate writing teams - Cleese & Chapman on the one hand, and Idle, Jones & Palin on the other. Other than a fairly mild description of arguing with Terry Jones (accompanied by protestations that it was all beneficial creative tension), Cleese does not dwell on any discord, far less sling mud. One suspects the same is true of his descriptions of family.


I very much enjoyed this, and suspect that most other John Cleese aficionados will too unless they have unrealistic expectations for lots of depth or lots of dirt. I hope he writes volume 2.