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.

Visions in Death (Robb)

Visions in Death - J.D. Robb

This was a light and easy impulse read before I embark again on my more literary projects. I've read a couple of these "In Death" mysteries before; they're set in the 2050s in an entirely recognizable New York City. I had no trouble navigating the relatively minor tweaks that Robb introduces to make her world futuristically fresh while still operating on very familiar patterns. It's a police procedural about tracking a serial killer in a large urban area. Even the introduction of a professional psychic as a civilian assistant - and the various degrees of skepticism she encounters - would be entirely plausible in a present-day setting. It is the presence of this psychic, rebranded in Robb's future lingo as a "sensitive", that gives us the title of the novel. Our tough and sassy detective, Eve Dallas, conducts a fairly flawless case, sorting out the forensic evidence with aplomb, getting the profiling right and eventually tracking the serial killer to a country property where most of his (female, of course) victims are buried. Though the case doesn't echo the Robert Pickton horror in either perpetrator psychology or the low social status of Pickton's victims, nonetheless the timing of publication (2004) leads me to think that sensational case from a couple of years before was at least at the back of the author's mind as she detailed the grim discoveries of the bodies. To keep us all from sinking into despair, perhaps, Robb adds an interesting twist at the end that I will not disclose.

The protagonists - Eve Dallas, her detective sidekick Delia Peabody, and Peabody's main squeeze and computer nerd McNab - are very easy to like and root for. I would add Dallas' wealthy and extraordinarily helpful husband Roarke, but, as in the other books I read, I find him irritatingly just a little too perfect to be true,  and the obligatory sex scene with Dallas annoying - just Nora Roberts the romance writer intruding where she is not needed. However, it's a small flaw in an otherwise enjoyable and undemanding read.

In Bitter Chill (Ward)

In Bitter Chill - Sarah Ward

Recommended on some book discussion board or other, this is one of the few debut crime novels I've read. Usually a writer will be well-established before they penetrate my fog of apathy about literary fashion! In this case, though, I'm very glad I invested the time.

A current case triggers the re-opening of a 1970s cold case. A second current case reinforces the need to go back to the old one. Unusually,  however, one of the victims of the cold case is still kicking and a major character in the present of the novel. Also somewhat unusually in my recent crime-novel-reading experience, the flashback POV is very sparingly used, and the reader stays pretty much in synch with the knowledge owned by the modern-day investigators. Those investigators are of two types: the police, trying to comprehend two recent deaths of older women, and Rachel, the survivor of the 1970 double kidnapping (in which the other victim is long missing and presumed dead.)

All right, I don't want this to be a spoiler review, so I'll just mention that not only is Rachel's profession of genealogist a very good piece of characterization, but it's highly germane to the eventual solution of the mystery behind the violent acts in the crimes past and present.

The detection team, featuring (at least for this case) a woman named Connie and a man named Sadler, who are almost certainly going to play a game of will-they-won't-they in sequels, didn't actually interest me all that much. But they are fairly well delineated, and in no way objectionable, so I'm sure they'll carry future novels just fine, especially if they're as well plotted as this one.

I plan to read more by Sarah Ward.

And Furthermore (Dench)

And Furthermore - Judi Dench

"Do not consider this an autobiography. I have neither the time nor the skill to write one," warns Dame Judi right at the beginning of her introductory remarks. She points to the 1998 biography by John Miller, and it is that same John Miller who has the "as told to" credit on this book. That said, "And Furthermore" is chatty and not obviously ghost-written in tone, and the assistance to its celebrated author seems to have been chiefly rendered in keeping names, dates and projects straight. Unlike a later-in-life memoir with a similar title, Lauren Bacall's "And Then Some," this book does not confine itself just to the years since the last biographical outing, but instead covers off, in an orderly and comprehensive, if fairly superficial way, all of Judi Dench's long life. There is a solid emphasis on her performing rather than her personal or emotional life, though of course she talks a bit about major events like the passing of her much-loved husband, Michael Williams. The narrative is mostly anecdotal, sometimes funny but not exclusively so, and very generous to her co-workers in theatre, film and television. She also reveals a somewhat surprising penchant for misbehaving on stage or set - practical jokes and the like.

Dench, if she is generally apt to suppress criticism of other people, makes no secret of her dislike for certain material. She loathes "The Merchant of Venice," for instance. And even at the distance of more than 40 years, she has no hesitation in pronouncing a minor play from French, "Content to Whisper," "the most terrible play known to man."

The names are not so much dropped as just wonderfully, gloriously omnipresent. Judi Dench has worked with everyone from Gielgud onwards. She can say of two productions of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "What was so uncanny for me was hearing Rachael Stirling as Helena, the part her mother Diana Rigg had played with the RSC when we did it before." She knows and has worked with all the British classical actors who have crossed over to Hollywood celebrity - Ian McKellen, Anthony Hopkins, Jeremy Irons, Kenneth Branagh, Daniel Craig, you name 'em. A little to my surprise, she also has a solid resume in musicals; she was only prevented by a rehearsal injury from being in the original London cast of "Cats" and she played big houses in "Cabaret" and "A Little Night Music."

Judi's right though, in a way. This is an autobiographical work, but it's not "the autobiography" or "the biography." Like many actors, she shies away from analyzing or even watching her own work. And, likeably enough, she doesn't indulge in a lot of introspection, at least not for public consumption. I shall probably end up trying Miller's 1998 biography in hopes for more insights to add on top of this entirely amiable work.

Oh yes, there's a decent collection of photos from her collection too, including some in colour. Definitely a keeper.

Bear (Engel)

Bear by Marian Engel - Marian Engel

I remember the buzz around this Governor General's Award winner in the mid 70s when I was just beginning to be an active student of literature, and I also remember blinking and pushing it aside when I heard that it had woman-bear sex in it. At that point in my life, I was far more interested in the various romantic oddities of 18th and 19th century Gothic fiction (though come to think of it, that includes vampires, who are surely no less odd as lovers than a well-disposed bear).

Anyway, coming at this as part of my CanLit reading project, I was mercifully unaware that a recent mocking internet meme had caused a surge in its readership, and in online reviews. My attention was focused instead on the fact that the protagonist is a woman (my gender), an archivist (my profession) and of the 70s (roughly my generation). There were definitely moments of identification: when she reveled in her solitude and in her exploration of the "folly" home she lives and works in over the summer, and, of course, her self-conscious spinning-out of her half-fascinating, half-tedious work. But though I remember at second hand the era of sexual experimentation and freedom (new to women), the associated emptiness and lack of direction - a prevalent theme of this work - is not one that moves me in personal ways.

What pleased me about this novel was its good writing, clear and perceptive, about the progress of solitary emotions, and the quirky but believable details about cottage-country surroundings; so believable, in fact, that somehow it cajoles you into accepting the notion of a bear as well. I should add that this animal, though still very much wild in temperament, is not in his natural surroundings. There are different degrees of wildness, and this is quasi-domesticated vacation territory, not bear country. It is a particularly nuanced view of the wildness and solitude to which our city-dweller actually aspires. This is wildness colonialized and civilized, where your job is still to sort out an old library, and your encounters with a real bear are accompanied, quite literally, by annotations - found scraps of paper containing little pieces of historical bear information.

I was grateful that there was no anthropomorphism in the depiction of the bear. He remains an animal in his responses at all times, including his final, casual clawing, which brings Lou to her senses and sends her back to her own life.

Overall, the experience of reading this was somehow slight, and not just because the novel is very short. Though it did describe emotional states beautifully, I did not feel by the end either invested in Lou as a character or particularly knowledgeable about her. In a sad way, that may be the book's best expression of 1970s emotional alienation. And it's probably why I ended up going with 3 instead of 4 stars.

Kit's Law (Morrissey)

Kit's Law - Donna Morrissey

This is a small-town Newfoundland novel by a small-town Newfoundlander, and I found the first-person narrative both believable and entirely comprehensible, which is a fine combination.

 

Our narrator-protagonist is Kit, a teenager (fourteen at the beginning) with an old head on her shoulders. This is partly because she has to deal with an intellectually challenged mother, Josie. After her grandmother Lizzie dies (a woman for whom "feisty" is an entirely inadequate description), Kit digs in her heels and, with the advocacy of the local doctor and the grudging consent of rest of the nearby small community, stays put in her remote house upon the gully. A young man, Sid, son of the minister, comes around regularly to help with the heavy chores like wood-chopping. It sounds like a story of isolation but actually one of other joys of this book is the sharp, unsentimental delineation of a host of minor characters, most of whom are well-intentioned, and some of whom are genuinely good for Kit and her mother.

 

One character who is neither good nor well-intentioned is Shine, a figure of menace who takes advantage of Josie's adult sexuality, which is not controlled by an adult intellect. His death comes at the hands of one of the major characters, as he is in the process of terrorizing all three of Josie, Kit and Sid. The fallout from that incident deepens Kit's isolation and accelerates her growing up.

 

I won't disclose the twist that derails Kit's happy-ever-after with Sid, her first romantic interest. It was unexpected (to me) but entirely defensible from a plot point of view, especially in a setting where the characters are few and heavily interconnected.

I liked the writing in this novel: it was vivid in its sensory imagery, and there was a very strong sense of place, which had elements meaningful to the characters (Lizzie's partridgeberry patch, for instance, a secret place where the secrets of Kit's birth are - partially - told). And the unsentimental, but also unjudgmental, transcription of Josie's loud, repetitive, moody and often uncomprehending speech struck me as being probably born from real observation.

 

I would recommend this one.

Sing to the Moon: Tales from the Kitten Cam (Pickford)

Sing to the Moon: Tales from the Kitten Cam - Jill Pickford

This is a slight book of occasional short stories and poetry that gives me a really disproportionate amount of pleasure: or, at least, I'm sure people would think it disproportionate who aren't also followers of the 24-hour live streams of foster kittens upon which its "characters" are based. Chief amongst these streams, and the only one I follow with any regularity, is the kitten cam of Foster Dad John, a middle-aged IT guy who lives just outside of Seattle, a gentle, knowledgeable cat-lover who is that rarest of males, neither camera-shy nor a grandstander. Though he sometimes gets other assignments, generally he sees a litter of kittens through from birth to adoptable age at 8 weeks or a little older; most often the mother cats are also part of the deal. He takes his educative role seriously, but never pompously, and famously does undignified things like sweeping out his "Critter Room's" floors, building elaborate anti-climbing contrivances (which inevitably fail eventually) and falling asleep on camera with the kittens crawling all over him.

 

Jill Pickford is part of his international following (she's based in Britain), but whereas others content themselves with chatting online, or donating to FDJ's parent shelter Purrfect Pals, or making drawings or craft-y gifts for the kittens' going-away, she has been composing occasion-driven cat point-of-view stories (or verse) for several years now, often helping other viewers through some of the more traumatic events in that little world like the death of a kitten. Encouraged by those other viewers, she has developed that alternate cat world - and chiefly its relation to the "other side" of the rainbow bridge - into a fantasy world with its own rules and dominant characters. The mother cats figure prominently in her stories, as do the fragile kittens who failed to thrive, those of their living siblings whose adoptive owners have signalled tolerance for publicity by inviting cam viewers on to dedicated post-adoptive facebook pages, and the brother and sister cats of those same adopted facebook cats. In short, there is a fairly large circle of reference through social media which pretty much dictates the extent of the expected readership for these stories.

 

That said, in the later stories in the volume, Pickford has allowed herself a bit of freedom from the constraints of real incidents and courtesy to private individuals (including FDJ himself), by inventing whole other lives for cats once they are across the Rainbow Bridge or, in the case of two lost kittens, their "next lives" (since cats have 9). This is where Pickford's generous imagination and clever writing sings, in my opinion - and it is here, too, that there is the opportunity to find readership not just amongst those in the social media fan club.

 

All proceeds go to Purrfect Pals, by the way - like many fan communities, this is a gift culture, as is evident by the wide variety of (international) collaboration that has gone into the publication. Even had it given me far less pleasure than it did, I would have been happy to know that its purchase (it was a generous gift from my sister, another Kitten Cam follower) put a few more pennies into the hands of that worthy shelter.

To find FDJ and his current batch of kittens, google "The Critter Room", or search youtube with that same phrase (youtube is his platform now; he was priced out of his previous one).

Stalking Darkness (Flewelling)

Stalking Darkness - Lynn Flewelling

The sequel to "Luck in the Shadows", this novel essentially closes the story arc relating to the ritualistic reconstitution of an ancient object of power by a nasty modern-day pair (a politician and a wizard, of course). It also sees the first kiss between our two heroes, who have certainly dilly-dallied in getting to that point, but given that Alec is a juvenile, that's quite understandable. If you come to this series hoping for the hot-and-heavy sex and romantic angst of modern-day fanfic set in similar milieux, though, you'll be sorely disappointed. Like the first book, this one's heavy on the plot, relatively light on interpersonal relationships generally, and extremely light on the romance. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the move forward with a familiar world and familiar characters into a new collection of settings and problems. The self-immolation of the elder sage at the hands of a younger character so that the world can be saved is a well-worn trope (waves at that old Hogwarts greybeard); I am hopeful, though, that the PTSD that event rightly triggers in the enforced murderer will be woven into the character a bit and survive beyond the denouement of this book, rather than being instantly cured by a declaration and a first kiss. I think this author's good enough to manage that, and the characterisation important enough to her.

 

That said, I'm going to put this series aside a bit instead of pursuing the last three volumes right away, especially considering the neat wrap-up at the end of this volume. I found the world-building and plot clear and well enough structured, and the writing (other than, once again, the occasionally jarring American slanginess) quite all right, but when I look back on both novels from the distance of a few weeks, I discover I found them competent but not particularly compelling. If somehow I had read them when I was 16, it might have been a different matter.

The Bronze Eagle (Orczy)

The Bronze Eagle - Emmuska Orczy

This is very much a Scarlet Pimpernel novel in disguise. The setting is France, but France twenty years after the Pimpernel, during Napoleon's abortive return to power up to and including Waterloo. An Englishman who is not what he claims to be (Bobby Clyffurde) moves between the sides aiding the anti-Revolutionary cause as best he can. As with Percy Blakeney before he was shackled with a wife, Clyffurde is pursuing a romantic passion as well as political aims.

I'm thinking this may actually have been a more comfortable period than the Revolution for Orczy to work in. Bobby's spy work against Napoleon (he's on the payroll of the British government, as opposed to Percy's amateur status) allies naturally with his national interests and does not involve any slavish attachment to the fortunes of the spoiled and haughty French émigrés. In the Pimpernel novels, there was always a bit of tension between on the one hand the narrator's conventional historical stance that the French aristos were a deplorable lot who brought much of their fate upon themselves, and on the other the wholehearted dedication of Percy and his band to rescuing those same aristos as victims. In this novel, while there is some ambivalence about Napoleon himself - Orczy again echoes her own contemporaries in admiring his "genius" - there is none about his movement, which was against English interests and therefore deserved all-out opposition from Clyffurde. So, while Clyffurde does his share of aristo-rescuing, his motives are less pro-aristo than anti-Bonaparte. They are, of course, especially pro-Crystal, his ineffable blonde French-born English-raised love, for whom he make the expected hyper-honourable sacrifices up to and including rescuing the less than honourable aristocratic rival he believes her to be in love with.

Crystal herself is a classically maddening Orczy female. She has both complete deference to her family's interests and a spontaneous spunkiness when enforcing ideas of "honour" on her trio of suitors (the third is a Bonapartiste, exposed on their affiancing day). Amongst the suitors only Clyfforde has the same sort of ideals as she does, including the bizarre habit of working against one's own self-interest as if it were some sort of virtue in itself to do so.

By contrast, there is an elderly aunt figure (or fairy godmother), full of common sense and good works, whose only failure as a character is that she seems always just a little too infallibly right about what everyone is thinking, doing and about to do. She is entirely necessary to the happy ending for the lovers, who otherwise would no doubt have contented themselves with a single swooning rose-perfumed waltz at the ball before Waterloo.

Baroness Orczy had clearly done her homework about the Battle of Waterloo and wanted to show it off. The battle section of the book is therefore about two chapters too long, though the incidents involving her fictional characters are fairly well distributed. She did write one very striking scene of Napoleon grimly leading his horse back in the direction of the battle, not to take up arms but to find his peers and plot how to use the swings on the London Stock Exchange, consequent on changing reports of the battle's outcome, to rebuild his fortunes!

I'm not sure why I keep coming back to these romances of the first decades of the twentieth century, when those of the twenty-first century leave me cold or worse. Perhaps it's just that Baroness Orczy writes very good fairy tales that do not pretend to be more, and I can appreciate them as such.

Babbitt (Lewis)

Babbitt - Sinclair Lewis

I was wary of this novel of 1920s America, given what very little I knew of it, which was only that its title has become a metaphor, now fairly little-used, for an entirely conventional and complacent middle-class man. I thought that it would be very satirical, and very much of its time and place, and both of these things are true. However, though some of the zing may have gone out of particular references, there is a clear and universally comprehensible movement of the spirit of the central character into attempts towards more liberal attitudes both personal and socio-political, and then back into his cage, but with more self-awareness. It is that self-awareness that helps him in the last chapter to deal with his (mildly) non-conformist son.

At first I found the plan of the novel a little too methodical. At least up to the 60% mark, the chapters seemed just to be ticking off satirical bullet points: Babbitt's conservatism and conformity at home; Babbitt's conformity at his real estate workplace; Babbitt's conformity with his "Booster Club" associates; Babbitt's conformity at church; Babbitt's conformity with the rough fraternity of commercial travellers on the train, etc. etc. However, seeds were planted: Babbitt's best friend Paul is given the role of foil, a man profoundly unhappy in those same circles - and it is a violent incident involving Paul that sets Babbitt off on his hesitant journeys into self-determination.

A man is at the centre of this novel, and its women, although not unsympathetically portrayed (except for obvious caricatures) will not give any great joy to the modern female reader's heart. The wife and the mistress are both essentially mirrors for particular aspects of Babbitt's character and aspirations; indeed most of their value to him appears to be in how well they listen to and mirror him. One minor character actually calls herself a feminist, but she is given no platform. To be fair, most of the supporting male cast are there to reflect back aspects of Babbitt too (or, fitter-in that he is, to provide something for him to reflect), so I didn't find the novel misogynistic in any way.

I was a little startled by the sudden end of the novel (Babbitt's eldest son elopes with his girlfriend and drops out of college in favour of a manual job - and in the very last sentence Babbitt is about to support him in the face of conservative family wrath). But actually I think Lewis was right to stop there, point made. A Babbitt may not be able to change himself, but at least he can learn a little and support the next generation.

Cereus Blooms at Night (Mootoo)

Cereus Blooms at Night - Shani Mootoo

This multiple award nominee from the mid-1990s was not familiar to me until I found it on the "100 Novels That Make You Proud to be Canadian" CBC list. Like many books on that list, this one is Canadian-ish, in that Mootoo was born in Ireland, grew up in Trinidad and at the time of publication was dividing her time between Canada (Vancouver) and the States. This novel is entirely set in the Caribbean (Trinidad, I assume). However, the original publisher was Canadian (Press Gang Publications). The copy I have is from Grove Press in the U.S. There is a brief mention of Canada as an emigration destination for a minor character.

SPOILERS AHEAD

So that's what it's not. Here's what it is: horrifying, and yet disarmingly poetic. At the centre of the story is an abusively incestuous relationship, father-daughter, and a rather Psycho-like discovery of the father's corpse in the family home, still inhabited by his mentally deranged daughter many years later. The discovery is made by a childhood friend and later suitor who failed Mala/Poh-Poh miserably by backing away when he first became aware of the abuse.

A framing device of the gentle development of a relationship between a gay male nurse and the transgender son of the failed suitor makes it all a bit more palatable, as does vivid and at times rhapsodic description of the natural world. The natural metaphors are heavy throughout the book; insects quite literally pervade every page, with little textual decorations of ants, beetles and other bugs acting as chapter breaks, etc. I actually found that a little discomfiting - but it was entirely appropriate to this set of characters and circumstances, for both Mala and Ambrose, her verbose and foreign-educated suitor (an entomologist), are intensely interested in insect life. And, then, of course there is that blocked off room where the body lies...

I think this is very obviously a first novel, in that, like the tropical setting, it is almost too brimming with all sorts of themes and ideas - about gender roles and non-conformity, and abuse, and religiosity, and the cruelty of conformist communities, and humans in the natural world, and the dream-splitting of the self to cope with the intolerable, and the evanescent flowering of passion (the title), and more. By the end, we have hopes and pleasant imagery for the second generation in the frame story. That, I think, is how this novel get away with having such a truly dark heart.

Oscar Wilde and the Vampire Murders (Brandreth)

Oscar Wilde and the Vampire Murders: A Mystery (Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries) - Gyles Brandreth

I'm very sorry to discover that this is the last unread Brandreth "Oscar Wilde" mystery left for me. This one takes advantage of the fact that Wilde and Bram Stoker overlapped not just in place (both were Irish and went to university there together; Stoker was actor-manager Henry Irving's factotum at the Lyceum Theatre) but in personal lives (Wilde was an early suitor of Florence Bascombe, Stoker's wife).  Furthermore, Stoker was distantly related to Arthur Conan Doyle, a major figure in these Wilde novels. It was inevitable that he would make an appearance in this series, even though the novel Dracula was published in 1897, too late for it to be directly referenced in any story of Wilde at large and at his best in London. Instead, Stoker's connections are used to take us into an underground (and not very serious) secret society playing with supernatural and vampiric rituals - no doubt thoroughly researched, as usual.

Other threads of the '90s that Brandreth manages to weave in here are the early investigations and experiments into "hysteria" - female mental illness - in London and Paris; and the notoriety of the Prince of Wales' son, Prince Eddy, who was the subject of (discredited) rumour that he was Jack the Ripper. He is planted here as a character partly to provide a red herring; his royal father also plays a fairly crucial part in the plot, in that he and the dignity of the royal house are the reason why Wilde & Conan Doyle's investigations are both commissioned and then suppressed secretly. The Duchess whose murder precipitates the whole thing is, of course, fictional, but the name and the situation are realistic enough that you have to confirm that with a little external Sherlocking on your own.

I really liked the multi-layered narrative here; since the not-so-underlying theme was female sexuality (and violence against it), the story being told through a sequence of letters, telegrams and diaries, mostly addressed to or directly referencing Mrs. Wilde, Mrs. Conan Doyle, and Mrs. Stoker, gave the narrative a welcome context and complexity.

And Wilde's relationship with the young man who at least put himself forward as a genuine vampire was, to say the least, interesting...

The Awakening, and selected stories (Chopin)

The Awakening and Selected Stories - Kate Chopin

I read this in the edition that's free from Kindle, which unfortunately omitted the scholarly introduction advertised on the cover, probably for copyright reasons. Though I would have read it afterwards, it would have been nice to have a single essay to situate the importance of "The Awakening" instead of my inevitable after the fact googling.

 

The fact that I was unaware of this novel suggests either that my degrees in literature were deficient in American and feminist works (possible) or, more likely, that Chopin's work has been "found" and celebrated as proto-feminist since I ceased my active studies. That said, I found it both well-written and enjoyable in a sad sort of way. I did feel the unhappy ending - I should hope I am not spoiling anyone by mentioning that a nineteenth century story about an adulterous woman doesn't have a happy ending - was in some way imposed upon the novel by an author who saw no hope of its critical survival with any other outcome. Adulterous women pretty much had to be doomed in the 19th century, just like their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters a few decades later. Even so, the samples of contemporary critical reaction I found are rife with phrases like "not a healthy book" and "sad and mad and bad." It's really the only false step in an otherwise very well-depicted psychological journey: from an adolescent crush on a performer to a loveless marriage, to an attraction that "awakens" her romantically/sensually during a Louisiana beach summer, to a sexual liaison (the contemporary critics, used to decoding 19th century language, found this unambiguous, and so did I) with a substitute love object, and finally to a feeling of despair in the face of indubitable responsibility to her children after her romantic lover returns and pushes her away. But this last, the despair, was the least convincing and least fleshed-out aspect of the progression.

 

The little group of short stories added in with the novel are fairly insubstantial but interesting in their depiction of race and gender issues in that place (Louisiana) and time (the Civil War and just after). There's one story that was clearly picked just because it depicts - not in nearly so much detail of course - a woman making the opposite choice to Edna's in The Awakening, namely deciding to preserve her marriage rather than give in to a romantic attraction to another man. Another one that sticks in the mind is a rather nasty tale of a marriage between an aristocrat and a woman of unknown origin; he throws her out when her baby's skin tone appears to demonstrate that she is part Black, which he cannot under any circumstances accept. The last sentence of the story (it's a revelation about him and his own parentage) is quite a telling twist.

 

Reading fiction about "the woman question" in other centuries never fails to put me in a grateful frame of mind for the freedom of action and thought I enjoy.

This Time Together (Burnett)

This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection - Carol Burnett

I haven't read the various other books by "serial autobiographer" Burnett. This one I would describe as light and, without the slightest snarkiness, "heart-warming." It consists of anecdotes of a page or two each about various people in Burnett's life, mostly celebrated people, and mostly funny anecdotes. She has anchored it with some stories about family as well, but there is no prolonged anlysis of the career, let alone psychological navel-gazing. This is Carol Burnett sitting at dinner or at a party, telling her best stories. I have no doubt that many of them have been polished or even improved a little over time. It doesn't matter. Throughout the book she exposes what seems to be a very real gift for appreciating those around her and, more unusually it seems to me, a strong gift for forming mutually respectful working creative partnerships with other very talented women (Lucille Ball, Julie Andrews, Beverly Sills).

 

One of the delights of the internet age is to read an anecdote about a particular TV episode or special, and then be able to go online and find it, however fuzzy, to watch and appreciate as if for the first time. It slows up the reading, but most enjoyably so. In the case of this book, a two-page anecdote turned into an hour of media-watching several times over!

Late Nights on Air (Hay)

Late Nights on Air - Elizabeth Hay

The dark cruel winter and breezy white nights of Canada's north (specifically Yellowknife, N.W.T. and the barren landscape around Great Slave Lake) pervade this novel of the 1970s. All of the main characters are employed by a radio station (a public one, of course), and all of them bring previous selves from elsewhere. However, the indigenous people are not completely absent - there is one secondary Native character named Theresa whose function is chiefly to utter home-truths, and there are in addition brief but telling depictions of Native contributions to the Berger Inquiry into a proposed natural gas line, which hovers in the background giving a fundamentally personal tale weight and an anchor in history.

 

I really liked the way the author characterized her principals with fragments of their past, letting us get to know them as they get to know each other. Two characters (Dido and Eddy) attract, clash, separate and rejoin, eventually splitting off from the group in mysterious circumstances that suggest more violence than they ultimately deliver. Men can be abusive (and it's more than implied that Eddy is, to Dido) but the killer in this story is the North itself. A woman - a minor character whose story we have nonetheless learned something of - chooses the Northern winter as the agent of her self-immolation; we are allowed for a time wrongly to suspect Eddy.

 

The other four conduct their most intense journey into knowledge of themselves and each other in a summer trip into the Barrens. The trip is beautifully described, with all the physical discomfort and dangers fully acknowledged. And only three come back, as the North takes its second victim. The trip echoes a history of a decades-earlier fatal expedition into the same region, that they are all aware of, and that they have read and (more importantly) heard over the air in a radio adaptation.

 

In the background, we have Justice Berger conducting his Inquiry into a proposed gas pipeline. His conclusion, as most Canadians of a certain age know, was that it should be deferred until massive implications for the environment and for native land claims could be better considered. The simultaneous importance and insignificance of human concerns in that fragile but unyielding landscape is at the forefront in the main narrative and echoed in this factual backdrop.

 

I really liked the writing in this novel. It's precise, not over-complicated and somehow full of light and space like the North itself. And sometimes it's really quite funny.

If you like character studies and original description of places unfamiliar to most of us, this novel could well be for you.

Luck in the Shadows (Flewelling)

Luck in the Shadows - Lynn Flewelling

Back before I discovered the amazing and sometimes awful world of slash fanfiction, I grew interested in a somewhat similar phenomenon, though more muted, in published science fiction and fantasy by women, featuring gender transgressions (well, transgressions in those days) amongst mostly male characters. Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ursula Le Guin, Storm Constantine and others seemed to me the late twentieth century successors to a conversation that started with homoerotic undercurrents in the work of sentimental historical novelists like D.K. Broster.

 

The first two novels of this series were recommended to me long ago (though I can't remember by whom) as being in that same fantasy tradition. This first in the series, which I enjoyed, barely merits the "homoerotic" tag - we have only the beginnings of sexual awareness in the youthful protagonist, Alec, and a little bit of reported, suppressed attraction from the himself attractive somewhat older man, Seregil. What it does have is lots of solid world-building, along with a good cast of supporting characters, including a number of strong and disparate women. If I had a quibble at all, and it only occurred at the end, it was that the plot, which I found well-paced, was in fact rather obviously divided in two, with a detailed set-up of a dark magic threat in the first half, not fully resolved but then lost in the political/fraudulent machinations of the nobles in the second half. A serious threat to Seregil is averted in each half, but how or whether the two strands are otherwise connected has yet to be revealed. In a fantasy series, I'm much more inclined to forgive this kind of partial lack of conclusion, because the series, obviously, has to continue.

 

By and large the writing was good and the tone well-maintained. I was very occasionally lifted away from the page by some lapse into slanginess that I would have queried if I had been editing the book. If I've been stingy with my stars (as usual), it is only because I am anticipating with some pleasure that I may be able to push the rating up when Seregil and Alec achieve more of their destiny in the next book.

The Luminaries (Catton)

The Luminaries - Eleanor Catton

Let's start this review with something that's just housekeeping, not criticism. I read this book as part of a CanLit project. It won the (Canadian) Governor General's award, after all. But this is CanLit only by the most attenuated of courtesies; Catton may have been born in Canada, but she grew up in New Zealand, lives in New Zealand, and writes about New Zealand. This is a New Zealand novel.

 

I liked this New Zealand novel a very great deal. Yes, the book was hard to heft in a purely physical sense, and the opening, where you are dealing with multiple inset narratives and a dozen and a half new characters, needs either great concentration or the willingness to go back and start again several times, as I ended up having to do because of too-long gaps in reading. The payoff of the unusual structure of the novel is that while you spend the first half or so grasping at the facts through masses of evocative detail, you discover as the chapters grow tighter and more focused that you have most of the pieces of the puzzle, and by the time you reach the tiny blips of prose which are the final segments, you are an expert in this particular narrative and can supply all the context you need. Looking at the cover illustration after I finished, I realized that, as well as being a representation of the waning of the moon, it also represents the narrative strategy of the novel, which starts with huge amounts of information, at the global level, as it were, and ends with merely a tiny sliver which nonetheless conveys everything you need to know. The subject of the cover "information", tellingly enough, is a young woman, and though the book at first seems to be democratically dividing the importance of the characters amongst a round dozen people, in the end it's the young woman (Anna) who's key.

 

I'm not going to spoil the plot of this thing. Though it's not by any means a conventional mystery, discovering what's what is at least half of the joy of the book. (The other half is the very interesting historical depiction of a remote and racially diverse gold rush society, so underpopulated that multiple connections between characters, which might in a populous setting seem otherwise unrealistic, seem entirely plausible ).

 

There is an apparatus of astrology attached to the title and to the chapter headings of the novel. I'm happy to report that for those who are too lazy or too uninterested to try to decipher it, it's completely unnecessary for the understanding of the story. It's entirely possible that taking the trouble to figure it out would add another layer of understanding, or perhaps another way to appreciate Catton's craftsmanship, but I must admit I didn't bother too much with it.

 

I won't lie: reading The Luminaries is an undertaking. I think most readers will find that, once undertaken, it's well worth it. Though it's only very barely Canadian, I think we'll claim it anyway!