RAMpageous Readers Book Club literary selections

Note: Book synopses are mostly slightly shortened versions of those provided by publishers.
April 2018
Lively, Penelope (1976) A Stitch in Time. HarperCollins. 221 pages.
Maria, an only child, comes to spend the summer holidays with her family in Lyme Regis. She finds a sampler stitched by a girl, Harriet, in 1865 and it becomes clear that something odd happened to Harriet - but what?
January 2018
Lively, Penelope (2014) Dancing Fish and Ammonites. Penguin Books. 222 pages.
This is a meditation rather than a memoir, on life, books and memory, filled with pithy wisdom. Dancing Fish and Ammonites traces the arc of Lively's life, stretching from her early childhood in Cairo to boarding school in England to the sweeping social changes of Britain's twentieth century. She reflects on her early love of archeology, the fragments of the ancients that have accompanied her journey - including a sherd of Egyptian ceramic depicting dancing fish and ammonites found years ago on a Dorset beach. She also writes insightfully about aging and what life looks like from where she now stands.
September 2017
Bradley, Alan (2014) The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Doubleday. 272 pages.
Set in England in 1950 and featuring Flavia de Luce, the youngest daughter (aged 11) of the de Luce family of Buckshaw, near Bishop's Lacey. She has two older sisters, Daphne (aged 13, who is a passionate reader), and Ophelia (aged 17, who is into music). Their mother. Harriett. is presumed dead (missing on a mountain climbing expedition) and their father, Colonel Haviland de Luce, is vague and neglectful and is passionate only about stamp collecting. Flavia is a precocious child with a passion for chemistry, especially poisons, facilitated by a lab an ancestor of hers had built a century ago. The plot is complicated but involves stolen stamps, boyhood friendships, and rivalries at her father's prep school, Greyminster. Flavia sorts out the mystery, much to the bemusement of the investigating officer, Detective Hewitt. Flavia is an compelling character, though definitely not an 11-year-old in voice. The plot is outrageous enough to strain credulity yet amuse.
July 2017
Lowell, Catherine (2014) The Madwoman Upstairs. Simon and Schuster. 339 pages.
Our narrator is Samantha Whipple, who is the last known descendent of the Brontës. Her ancestor was Patrick Brontë's brother. Her father was an eccentric who was obsessed with the Brontës books. After his death, Sam goes to Oxford to study English literature. There she is assigned James Orville as her tutor. He's brilliant, young and handsome. She is not a great student and they argue a lot. At the same time, her father's will sends her on a scavenger hunt to find her inheritance, something Brontë related she's assuming. The world also assumes that there is a vast trove of Brontë memorabilia in the possession of the family. And so she is hounded, especially by Sir John Booker, who has spent his life trying to track down Brontëobjects, believing they will tell him more about the books. Orville believes the books are entire in themselves and should be accepted on their own terms. This contrasts with the search for authorial intent. Sam reads the books as concealed autobiography, believing that she can learn more about the sisters' lives from the books. Lots of literary chat and book references make this a hugely entertaining read.
March 2017
Hawkins, Paula (2014) The Girl on the Train. Doubleday. 316 pages.
Three women, three men, connected through marriage or infidelity. Each is to blame for something. But only one is a killer in this nail-biting, stealthy psychological thriller about human frailty and obsession. Just what goes on in the houses you pass by every day? Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning and evening, rattling over the same junctions, flashing past the same townhouses. The train stops at the same signal every day, and she sees the same couple, breakfasting on their roof terrace. Jason and Jess, as she calls them, seem so happy. Then one day Rachel sees someone new in their garden. Soon after, Rachel sees the woman she calls Jess on the news. Jess has disappeared. Through the ensuing police investigation, Rachel is drawn deeper into the lives of the couple she learns are really Megan and Scott Hipwell. As she befriends Scott, Rachel pieces together what really happened the day Megan disappeared. A sinister and twisting story that will keep you guessing at every turn, The Girl on the Train is a high-speed chase for the truth.
January 2017
Schumacher, Julie (2014) Dear Committee Members. Doubleday. 192 pages.
Jason Fitger is a beleaguered professor of creative writing and literature at Payne University, a small and not very distinguished liberal arts college in the midwest. His once-promising writing career is in the doldrums, as is his romantic life, in part as the result of his unwise use of his private affairs for his novels. His life, a tale of woe, is revealed in a series of hilarious letters of recommendation that Fitger is endlessly called upon by his students and colleagues to produce, each one of which is a small masterpiece of high dudgeon, low spirits, and passive-aggressive strategies.
November 2016
Fitzgerald, F. Scott (1926) The Great Gatsby. Penguin Books. 188 pages.
The Great Gatsby is a love story of sorts, the narrative of Jay Gatsby's quixotic passion for Daisy Buchanan. The pair meet five years before the novel begins, when Daisy is a legendary young Louisville beauty and Gatsby an impoverished officer. They fall in love, but while Gatsby serves overseas, Daisy marries the brutal, bullying, but extremely rich Tom Buchanan. After the war, Gatsby devotes himself blindly to the pursuit of wealth by whatever means--and to the pursuit of Daisy, which amounts to the same thing. Gatsby buys a mansion across Long Island Sound from Daisy's patrician East Egg address, throws lavish parties, and waits for her to appear. When she does, events unfold with all the tragic inevitability of a Greek drama, with detached, cynical neighbor Nick Carraway acting as chorus throughout. Spare, elegantly plotted, and written in crystalline prose, The Great Gatsby is as perfectly satisfying as the best kind of poem.
September 2016
Walter, Jess (2012) Beautiful Ruins. Harper. 337 pages.
Beautiful Ruins is a glorious read for book lovers. From the moment you pick up the novel, it conjures a world that you long to enter. The teal-blue Ligurian Sea laps against a jagged coastline filled with candy-colored houses and open windows. At first glance, you're dying to get inside those houses and find out what's going on. You needn't worry. Jess Walter has written a sumptuous epic about the real people who make art, spinning illusion for fun, profit, and meaning. There are screen actors, a novelist, and Pasquale, an innkeeper, who keeps his patrons fed and watered on homemade wine and dreams. Among all the shimmer and hope are the lost souls who long to create something, anything. And just as Jess Walter introduces us to these characters, he follows them for fifty years. The journey will delight and captivate you.
March 2016
Austen, Jane (1815) Emma. Reprinted 2001. The Modern Library, New York. 359 pages.
Beautiful, clever, rich - and single - Emma Woodhouse is perfectly content with her life and sees no need for either love or marriage. Nothing, however, delights her more than interfering in the romantic lives of others. But when she ignores the warnings of her good friend Mr. Knightley and attempts to arrange a suitable match for her protégée Harriet Smith, her carefully laid plans soon unravel and have consequences that she never expected. With its imperfect but charming heroine and its witty and subtle exploration of relationships, Emma is often seen as Jane Austen's most flawless work.
January 2016
Flynn, Gillian (2012) Gone Girl. Crown Publishing. 475 pages.
Marriage can be a real killer. One of the most critically acclaimed suspense writers of our time, New York Times bestseller Gillian Flynn, takes that statement to its darkest place in this unputdownable masterpiece about a marriage gone terribly, terribly wrong. As The Washington Post proclaimed, her work "draws you in and keeps you reading with the force of a pure but nasty addiction." Gone Girl's toxic mix of sharp-edged wit with deliciously chilling prose creates a nerve-fraying thriller that confounds you at every turn. On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy's fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick Dunne's clever and beautiful wife disappears from their rented McMansion on the Mississippi River. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media - as well as Amy's fiercely doting parents - the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he's definitely bitter - but is he really a killer? With his twin sister Margo at his side, Nick stands by his innocence. Trouble is, if Nick didn't do it, where is that beautiful wife? Employing her trademark razor-sharp writing and assured psychological insight, Gillian Flynn delivers a fast-paced, devilishly dark, and ingeniously plotted thriller that confirms her status as one of the hottest writers around.
November 2015
Atwood, Margaret (1988) Cat's Eye. McClelland and Stewart. 442 pages.
Cat's Eye is the story of Elaine Risley, a controversial painter who returns to Toronto, the city of her youth, for a retrospective of her art. Engulfed by vivid images of the past, she reminisces about a trio of girls who initiated her into the fierce politics of childhood and its secret world of friendship, longing, and betrayal. Elaine must come to terms with her own identity as a daughter, a lover, an artist, and a woman - but above all she must seek release from her haunting memories. Disturbing, hilarious, and compassionate, Cat's Eye is a breathtaking novel of a woman grappling with the tangled knot of her life.
September 2015
Strayed, Cheryl (2012) Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Knopf. 336 pages.
At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother's death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life. With no experience or training, driven only by blind will, she would hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State - and she would do it alone. Told with suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild powerfully captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her. Now a movie too!
July 2015
Cather, Willa (1918) My Antonia. New Millennium Library. 232 pages.
This great American novel tells the story of several immigrant families who move to rural Nebraska. Antonia is the eldest daughter of the Shimerdas and is a bold and free-hearted young woman who becomes the center of narrator Jim Burden's attention. The story has many elements but clearly documents the struggles of the hard-working immigrants that homesteaded the prairies, and does a particularly fine job covering the hardships that women faced in that difficult environment. My Antonia also provides Willa Cather with a platform to make some comments on women's rights while weaving a story where romantic interests are ultimately bandied about by the uncontrolled changes that occur in people's lives. The final book of Willa Cather's prairie trilogy, My Antonia, is considered her greatest accomplishment. My Antonia was first published in 1918.
May 2015
Bennett, Alan (1998) The Clothes They Stood Up In. Random House. 174 pages.
When life is pared down to the bare essentials, one can grow spiritually--or shrink into one's basic instincts. Though profound statements as such this are not to be found in British playwright Bennett's charmingly subversive and very amusing cautionary tale, his characters illustrate the principle in surprising ways. Mr. and Mrs. Ransome return to their London flat after a performance of Cosi fan tutte (Mozart's comic opera about changing identities) to find the place totally stripped. Even the casserole left warming in the oven is gone, along with the oven, all other appliances and every stitch of clothing. Mr. Ransome, a stodgy, misanthropic solicitor who is fussy about correct diction, is mainly concerned about the loss of his CD player and the earphones with which he has always insulated himself from his wife. Formerly cowed and repressed, Mrs. Ransome is surprised at her pleasure in replacing their lost possessions with a few inexpensive items. Bennett carries off his terse, surreal comedy with witty aplomb and with apt comments about the foibles of contemporary society and the consumer economy.
March 2015
Brontë, Emily (1847) Wuthering Heights. Penguin Classics. 416 pages.
In Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë tells the story of Lockwood, the new tenant of Thrushcross Grange on the bleak Yorkshire moors, who is forced to seek shelter one night at Wuthering Heights, the home of his landlord. There he discovers the history of the tempestuous events that took place years before: of the intense passion between the foundling Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw, and her betrayal of him. As Heathcliff's bitterness and vengeance is visited upon the next generation, their innocent heirs must struggle to escape the legacy of the past.
January 2015
Gowdy, Barbara (1998) The White Bone. HarperPerennial, Canada. 330 pages.
A thrilling journey into the minds of African elephants as they struggle to survive. For years, young Mud and her family have roamed the high grasses, swamps, and deserts of the sub-Sahara. Now the earth is scorched by drought, and the mutilated bodies of family and friends lie scattered on the ground, shot down by ivory hunters. Nothing seems reliable anymore. Yet a slim prophecy of hope is passed on from water hole to water hole: the sacred white bone of legend will point the elephants toward the Safe Place. So begins a quest through Africa's vast and perilous plains - until at last the survivors face a decisive trial of loyalty and courage. In The White Bone, Barbara Gowdy performs a remarkable feat of imagination. Plunged into an alien landscape, we orient ourselves in elephant time, elephant space, elephant consciousness and begin to feel, as Gowdy puts it, "what it would be like to be that big and gentle, to be that imperiled, and to have that prodigious memory."
November 2014
Stegner, Wallace (1962) Wolf Willow: A History, a Story and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier. Penguin Books, New York. 306 pages.
An account of growing up for a few formative childhood years in East End, Saskatchewan, and an imagined recreation of a cattle drive in the winter of 1906-07 in which terrible blizzards all but destroyed the great cattle herds and ranches of the northern plains and opened the gates to agriculture (farming) settlers. Stegner lived in the area from 1914 to 1920. His memories are coloured by the rosy glow of childhood in which everything seems idyllic. However, he makes cogent points about the settlers' lack of knowledge of the history of the area they were settling. He regrets that they missed out on a mythology and a history, which might have grounded them more securely and given them a greater and more intense connection with the land. Lyrical and evocative writing.
September 2014
Joyce, Rachel (2012) The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Horace Fry. Random House, Canada. 320 pages.
A retired man goes out to post a letter, and instead, starts walking the length of England. From the book jacket "A novel of unsentimental charm, humour and profound insight into the thoughts and feelings we all bury deep within our heart" and "Harold Fry is infuriating, hilarious, and completely out of his depth, but I held my breath at his every blister and cramp, and felt as if by turning the pages, that I might help his impossible quest succeed."
July 2014
Boyden, Joseph (2013) The Orenda. Penguin Books, Canada. 496 pages.
A visceral portrait of life at a crossroads, The Orenda opens with a brutal massacre and the kidnapping of the young Iroquois Snow Falls, a spirited girl with a special gift. Her captor, Bird, is an elder and one of the Huron Nation's great warriors and statesmen. It has been years since the murder of his family, and yet they are never far from his mind. In Snow Falls, Bird recognizes the ghost of his lost daughter and sees that the girl possesses powerful magic that will be useful to him on the troubled road ahead. Bird's people have battled the Iroquois for as long as he can remember, but both tribes now face a new, more dangerous threat from afar. Christophe, a charismatic Jesuit missionary, has found his calling among the Huron, and devotes himself to learning and understanding their customs and language in order to lead them to Christ. An emissary from distant lands, he brings much more than his faith to the new world.
May 2014
Wharton, Edith (1911) Ethan Frome. Modern Library, New York. 193 pages.
Ethan Frome is set in the fictional New England town of Starkfield, where an unnamed narrator tells the story of his encounter with Frome, a man whose life had been altered in a "smash-up" twenty-four years before. Through flashbacks, we see Frome's story play out against the cold, gray, bleakness of a New England winter. Frome is an isolated farmer trying to scrape out a meager living while also paying attention to his demanding wife, Zeena. Hope enters Ethan's life when his wife's cousin Mattie arrives to help. His life seems on the verge of transformation before his hopes are thwarted by the stifling conventions of the time. This classic of American literature is a powerful tale with compelling characters trapped in circumstances they seem unable to escape.
March 2014
Wharton, Thomas (1995) Icefields. NeWest Publishers Limited, Edmonton, Alberta. 275 pages.
Icefields is a story of adventure and discovery that unfolds amidst the stunning beauty of the Canadian Rockies. Presented within the frame of a tourist guidebook, this novel records life in the mountains, as time and the coming of the railroad slowly transform the settlement of Jasper from a place of myth and legend to a modern tourist town. Written by an Albertan writer, this novel blends geology and poetry, fact and fiction, history and imagination.
January 2014
Vassanji, M. G. (2012) The Magic of Saida. Doubleday Canada. 320 pages.
A powerfully emotional novel of love and loss, of an African/Indian man who returns to the town of his birth in search of the girl he once loved - and the sense of self that has always eluded him. Kamal Punja is a physician who has lived in Canada for the past forty years, but whom we first meet in a Tanzanian hospital. He is delirious and says he has been poisoned with hallucinogens. But when Kamal finds a curious and sympathetic ear in a local publisher, his ravings begin to reveal a tale of extraordinary pathos, complexity, and mystery. At once dramatic, searching, and intelligent, The Magic of Saida moves deftly between the past and present, painting both an intimate picture of passion and betrayal and a broad canvas of political promise and failure in contemporary Africa.
November 2013
Richardson, C. S. (2012) The Emperor of Paris. Doubleday Canada. 178 pages.
Like his father before him, Octavio runs the Notre-Dame bakery, and knows the secret recipe for the perfect Parisian baguette. But, also like his father, Octavio has never mastered the art of reading and his only knowledge of the world beyond the bakery door comes from his own imagination. Just a few streets away, Isabeau works out of sight in the basement of the Louvre, trying to forget her disfigured beauty by losing herself in the paintings she restores and the stories she reads. The two might never have met, but for a curious chain of coincidences involving a mysterious traveller, an impoverished painter, a jaded bookseller, and a book of fairytales, lost and found.
September 2013
Jones, Lloyd (2007) Mr Pip. Vintage, Canada. 185 pages.
In a novel that is at once intense, beautiful, and fablelike, Lloyd Jones weaves a transcendent story that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the power of narrative to transform our lives. On a copper-rich tropical island shattered by war, where the teachers have fled with most everyone else, only one white man chooses to stay behind: the eccentric Mr. Watts, object of much curiosity and scorn, who sweeps out the ruined schoolhouse and begins to read to the children each day from Charles Dickens's classic Great Expectations. So begins this rare, original story about the abiding strength that imagination, once ignited, can provide. As artillery echoes in the mountains, thirteen-year-old Matilda and her peers are riveted by the adventures of a young orphan named Pip in a city called London, a city whose contours soon become more real than their own blighted landscape. But in a ravaged place where even children are forced to live by their wits and daily survival is the only objective, imagination can be a dangerous thing.
July 2013
deWitt, Patrick (2011) The Sisters Brothers. House of Anansi Press Limited, Toronto, Ontario. 272 pages.
Hermann Kermit Warm is going to die. The enigmatic and powerful man known only as the Commodore has ordered it, and his henchmen, Eli and Charlie Sisters, will make sure of it. Though Eli doesn't share his brother's appetite for whiskey and killing, he's never known anything else. But their prey isn't an easy mark, and on the road from Oregon City to Warm's gold-mining claim outside Sacramento, Eli begins to question what he does for a living - and for whom he does it. Patrick deWitt pays homage to the classic Western, transforming it into an unforgettable comic tour de force. This is a violent, lustful odyssey through the underworld of the 1850s frontier that beautifully captures the humour, melancholy, and grit of the Old West and two brothers bound by blood, violence, and love.
May 2013
Krakauer, Jon (1997) Into Thin Air. Villard Books, New York. 291 pages.
When he reached the summit of Mount Everest in the early afternoon of May 10, 1996, Krakauer hadn't slept in fifty-seven hours and was reeling from the brain-altering effects of oxygen depletion. As he began the perilous descent from 29,028 feet, twenty other climbers were still pushing doggedly to the top, unaware that the sky had begun to roil with clouds, heralding a change in the weather conditions. Into Thin Air is the definitive account of the deadliest season in the history of Everest. Taking the reader step by step from Kathmandu to the mountain's deadly pinnacle, Krakauer has his readers shaking on the edge of their seat. Beyond the terrors of this account, however, he also peers deeply into the myth of the world's tallest mountain. What is it about Everest that has compelled so many people--including himself--to throw caution to the wind, ignore the concerns of loved ones, and willingly subject themselves to such risk, hardship, and expense? Written with emotional clarity and supported by his unimpeachable reporting, Krakauer's eyewitness account of what happened on the roof of the world is a singular achievement
March 2013
Márquez, Gabriel Garcia (1988) Love in the Time of Cholera. A. A. Knopf, New York. 348 pages.
A small coastal town in an un-named South American county in the late 19th century and the early 20th century witnesses the 51-year courtship of Fermina Daza by Florentino Ariza. As an overly-protected young girl, Fermina rejects Florentino and marries a wealthy doctor, Dr Juvenal Urbino, who offers her stability and security. Florentino maintains his dream of love for 51 years, although this does not stop him from playing a full role in the life of the town. The evocation of the life and times and personalities of the town are the most powerful part of the story. Márquez was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1985.
January 2013
Kishkan, Teresa (2009) The Age of Water Lilies. Brindle and Glass. 275 pages.
This gentle story is set in Victoria in 1962-63. Tessa is about 10 years old, an imaginative intelligent child. She becomes friends with a neighbour on Memorial Crescent, an elderly lady, Miss Flora Oakden. They share an interest in nature and a passion for history and landscape. While Tessa explores her neighbourhood and becomes increasing aware of her surroundings, Miss Oakden's remembers her difficult young adult life in western Canada. An immigrant from England, the direction of her life is changed by WWI, as was the case for so many women on the home front. She had artistic talent and worked as a painter of glazed tiles for a local manufacturing company. She often used floral motifs, including lilies, based on those in her garden, plants which she brought with her from England and forms one of the few remnants of that past life.
November 2012
Waldman, Amy (2011) The Submission. HarperCollins, New York, USA. 299 pages.
A jury gathers in Manhattan to select a memorial for the victims of a devastating terrorist attack. Their fraught deliberations complete, the jurors open the envelope containing the anonymous winner's name - and discover he is an American Muslim. Instantly they are cast into roiling debate about the claims of grief, the ambiguities of art, and the meaning of Islam. Their conflicted response is only a preamble to the country's. The memorial's designer is an enigmatic, ambitious architect named Mohammad Khan. His fiercest defender on the jury is its sole widow, the self-possessed and mediagenic Claire Burwell. But when the news of his selection leaks to the press, she finds herself under pressure from outraged family members and in collision with hungry journalists, wary activists, opportunistic politicians, fellow jurors, and Khan himself - as unknowable as he is gifted. In the fight for both advantage and their ideals, all will bring the emotional weight of their own histories to bear on the urgent question of how to remember, and understand, a national tragedy.
September 2012
Yoshimoto, Banana (2005) The Lake. Translated by Michael Emmerich. Melville House, Brooklyn, New York, USA. 188 pages.
While The Lake shows off many of the features that have made Banana Yoshimoto famous - a cast of vivid and quirky characters, simple yet nuanced prose, a tight plot with an upbeat pace - it's also one of the most darkly mysterious books she's ever written. It tells the tale of a young woman who moves to Tokyo after the death of her mother, hoping to get over her grief and start a career as a graphic artist. She finds herself spending too much time staring out her window, though - until she realizes she's gotten used to seeing a young man across the street staring out his window, too. They eventually embark on a hesitant romance, until she learns that he has been the victim of some form of childhood trauma. Visiting two of his friends who live a monastic life beside a beautiful lake, she begins to piece together a series of clues that lead her to suspect his experience may have had something to do with a bizarre religious cult. With its echoes of the infamous, real-life Aum Shinrikyo cult (the group that released poison gas in the Tokyo subway system), The Lake unfolds as the most powerful novel Banana Yoshimoto has written. And as the two young lovers overcome their troubled past to discover hope in the beautiful solitude of the lake in the country-side, it's also one of her most moving.
August 2012
Pötzsch, Oliver (2008) The Hangman's Daughter. Translated by Lee Chadeayne. Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, USA. 435 pages.
Magdalena, the clever and headstrong daughter of Bavarian hangman Jakob Kuisl, lives with her father outside the village walls and is destined to be married off to another hangman's son - except that the town physician's son is hopelessly in love with her. And her father's wisdom and empathy are as unusual as his despised profession. It is 1659, the Thirty Years' War has finally ended, and there hasn't been a witchcraft mania in decades. But now, a drowning and gruesomely injured boy, tattooed with the mark of a witch, is pulled from a river and the villagers suspect the local midwife, Martha Stechlin. Jakob Kuisl is charged with extracting a confession from her and torturing her until he gets one. Convinced she is innocent, he, Magdalena, and her would-be suitor to race against the clock to find the true killer. Approaching Walpurgisnacht, when witches are believed to dance in the forest and mate with the devil, another tattooed orphan is found dead and the town becomes frenzied. More than one person has spotted what looks like the devil - a man with a hand made only of bones. The hangman, his daughter, and the doctor's son face a terrifying and very real enemy.
July 2012
Murakami, Haruki (2011) 1Q84. Translated by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel. Random House, Toronto, Ontario. 1029 pages.
One review described 1Q84 as a "complex and surreal narrative" which "shifts back and forth between tales of two characters, a man and a woman, who are searching for each other". It tackles themes of murder, history, cult religion, violence, family ties and love.
June 2012
Morton, Kate (2008) The Forgotten Garden. Washington Square Press, New York. 552 pages.
In 1913 London, a little girl plays on the deck of a ship, waiting for the return of the woman who left her there. But the woman doesn't return and the child, a castaway, ends up in Australia. On her 21st birthday, her adopted parents tell the girl the secret of her identity, setting in motion a search that will span three generations and lead her to the forgotten garden of the title.
May 2012
Desrochers, Suzanne (2011) Bride of New France. Penguin Books, Canada. 294 pages.
This book by Canadian author Suzanne Desrochers is the result of her PhD thesis where she is comparing the migration of French and British women to North America in the early modern period. In 1669, Laure Beausejour, an orphan imprisoned with prostitutes, the insane and other forgotten women in Paris' infamous Salpêtrière, is sent across the Atlantic to New France as a Fille du roi. Laure once dreamed with her best friend Madeleine of using her needlework stills to become a seamstress on the Rue Saint-Honoré and to one day marry a gentleman. The King, however, needs French women in his new colony and he finds a fresh supply in the city's largest orphanage. Laure and Madeleine know little of the place called New France, except for stories of ferocious winters and men who eat the hearts of French priests. To be banished to Canada is a punishment worse than death. Bride of New France explores the challenges of coming into womanhood in a brutal time and place. From the moment she arrives in Ville-Marie (Montreal), Laure is expected to marry and produce children with a French soldier who can himself barely survive the harsh conditions of his forest cabin. But Laure finds, through her clandestine relationship with Deskaheh, an allied Iroquois, a sense of the possibilities in this New World.
April 2012
Doyle, Brian (2010) Mink River. Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, Oregon. 319 pages.
Brian Doyle's debut novel brings a community to life through the jumbled lives and braided stories of its people. In a village on the Oregon coast there are love affairs and almost-love-affairs, mystery and hilarity, bears and tears, brawls and boats, a garrulous logger and a silent doctor, rain and pain, Irish immigrants and Salish stories, mud and laughter. There's a Department of Public Works that gives haircuts and counts insects, a policeman addicted to Puccini, a philosophizing crow, beer and berries. An expedition is mounted, a crime committed, and there's an unbelievably huge picnic on the football field. Babies are born. A car is cut in half with a saw. A river confesses what it is thinking. It's the tale of a community, written in a distinct and lyrical voice. Readers will close the book more than a little sad to leave the village of Neawanaka, on the wet coast of Oregon, beneath the hills that used to boast the biggest trees in the history of the world.
March 2012
Adamson, Gil (2007) The Outlander. House of Anansi Press Limited, Toronto, Ontario. 388 pages.
Set mostly in southern Alberta in 1903. Tells the tale of Mary Boulton, 19 years old and fleeing from her two brothers-in-law after shooting and killing her husband after he'd been callous about the death of their child. Originally from the more genteel east (Ontario perhaps), she has to learn to survive in the harsh western landscape, especially the mountains. She winds up in the town of Frank and is there when the slide happens. She's just on the edge of the slide area and instead of being killed she is badly injured but survives. In fact she's pretty tough since she also survives being shot in the leg by an arrow during her flight through the mountains. The brutality of some men is balanced by the kindness of at least three that she meets in her travels.
February 2012
Twelve Hawks, John (2005) The Traveler. Seal Books, Toronto. 404 pages.
What lies ahead is already here and America is a difficult place to live below the surface. But Gabriel and Michael Corrigan are trying to do just that. Since childhood, the brothers have been shaped by the stories that their father has told them about the world in which they live. After his mysterious disappearance, they have been living off the grid that is, invisible to the intrusive surveillance networks that monitor our modern lives. But no-one is as invisible as they would like to believe. Nathan Boone, a mercenary, has been tasked to hunt down the brothers. The only person who stands between them and certain death is Maya, a tough young woman playing at leading a normal life. But her background is anything but normal. She has been trained to fight and survive at whatever cost. When she is summoned to protect the brothers, she must leave everything behind if she is to succeed.
January 2012
Mistry, Rohinton (1991) Such a Long Journey. McClelland and Stewart, Toronto. 346 pages.
It is Bombay in 1971, the year India went to war over what was to become Bangladesh. A hard-working bank clerk, Gustad Noble is a devoted family man who gradually sees his modest life unravelling. His young daughter falls ill; his promising son defies his father's ambitions for him. He is the one reasonable voice amidst the ongoing dramas of his neighbours. One day, he receives a letter from an old friend, asking him to help in what at first seems like an heroic mission. But he soon finds himself unwittingly drawn into a dangerous network of deception. Compassionate, and rich in details of character and place, this unforgettable novel charts the journey of a moral heart in a turbulent world of change.
December 2011
Follett, Ken (1990) The Pillars of the Earth. Signet Books, New York. 983 pages.
Set in 12th-century England, the narrative concerns the building of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge. The ambitions of three men merge, conflict and collide through four decades during which social and political upheaval and the internal politics of the church affect the progress of the cathedral and the fortunes of the protagonists. The insightful portrayals of an idealistic master builder, a pious, dogmatic but compassionate prior and an unscrupulous, ruthless bishop are balanced by those of a trio of independent, resourceful women. Beginning with a mystery that casts its shadow on ensuing events, the narrative is a seesaw of tension in which circumstances change with shocking but true-to- life unpredictability. Follett's impeccable pacing builds suspense in a balanced narrative that offers action, intrigue, violence and passion as well as the step-by-step description of an edifice rising in slow stages, its progress tied to the vicissitudes of fortune and the permutations of evolving architectural style. Follett's depiction of the precarious balance of power between monarchy and religion in the Middle Ages, and of the effects of social upheavals and the forces of nature (storms, famines) on political events; his ability to convey the fine points of architecture so that the cathedral becomes clearly visualized in the reader's mind; and above all, his portrayals of the enduring human emotions of ambition, greed, bravery, dedication, revenge and love, result in a highly engrossing narrative.
November 2011
McCullough, Colleen (2008) The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet. McArthur and Company, Toronto. 467 pages.
Readers of Pride and Prejudice will remember that there were five Bennet sisters. Now, twenty years on, Jane has a happy marriage and a large family; Lizzy and Mr. Darcy now have a formidable social reputation; Lydia has a reputation of quite another kind; Kitty is much in demand in London's parlours and ballrooms; but what of Mary? Mary is quietly celebrating her independence, having nursed her ailing mother for many years. Marriage may be far from her mind, but what if she were to meet the one man whose fiery articles infuriate the politicians and industrialists? And what if when she starts to ask similar questions, she unwittingly places herself in great danger?
October 2011
Hay, Elizabeth (2007) Late Nights on Air. McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, Ontario. 364 pages.
June 17 1976. Four people leave Yellowknife for a six-week canoe trip through the barren lands down the Thelon River to visit John Hornby's cabin, the place where he and two companions starved to death in the winter of 1927. The four are all strangers to this landscape and all work for small radio station, CFYK, in Yellowknife. Harry Boyd is the station manager. He got his start at the station and then went south for an unsuccessful stint in television and has returned as a failure. He's talented but his drinking has damaged his career. Eleanor Dew, also in her 40s, is the station's receptionist and came to Yellowknife in 1970 after a failed marriage. Ralph Cody, the oldest at 61, is a freelance book reviewer but his real passion and talent is for photography. He photographs the landscape in close-up: grass stalks against winter snow, pondweeds swirling in water currents. The youngest is Gwen Symon, in her mid-20s. She drove north from southern Ontario, because she wants to work as a script editor in radio and has been told that it'll be easier to get work and experience there. As their journey proceeds, there is an invisible fifth to the group: Dido Paris, daughter of Dutch immigrants, and the news reader at the station. Harry heard her voice on radio and fell in love with her. But Dido is more interested in a perverse and vaguely unhealthy relationship with a different man. Harry can't get over her and really can't engage with the people or places around him. This is a shame, because they are moving through a land of great beauty. And they are all uncomfortably aware that this fragile land is under threat. For months, Yellowknife has been the setting for the Berger Enquiry. They have sat in the hearings and heard the testimony about the Aboriginal people's relationship to the land of the north, about the great caribou herds and other wildlife. Development, if it comes, when it comes, will bring immense changes. So their journey also has something of the flavour of a dream, an air of enchantment, underlain by violence.
September 2011
Jones, Edward P. (2003) The Known World. Amistad, HarperCollins, New York. 388 pages.
This remarkable novel, winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award and short-listed for the National Book Award, deserves all the acclaim it has won and then some, especially in this flawless rendition. The story is set in antebellum Virginia, in the morally complex world of prosperous free blacks who aspire to all the liberties of white citizenship, including owning slaves.
August 2011
Taylor, Timothy (2002) Stanley Park. Counterpoint, Washington, DC. 423 pages.
A young chef who revels in local bounty, a long-ago murder that remains unsolved, the homeless of Stanley Park, a smooth-talking businessman named Dante - these are the ingredients of Timothy Taylor's stunning debut novel - Kitchen Confidential meets The Edible Woman. Trained in France, Jeremy Papier, the young Vancouver chef, is becoming known for his unpretentious dishes that highlight fresh, local ingredients. His restaurant, The Monkey's Paw Bistro, while struggling financially, is attracting the attention of local foodies, and is not going unnoticed by Dante Beale, owner of a successful coffeehouse chain, Dante's Inferno. Meanwhile, Jeremy's father, an eccentric anthropologist, has moved into Stanley Park to better acquaint himself with the homeless and their daily struggles for food, shelter and company. Jeremy's father also has a strange fascination for a years-old unsolved murder case, known as "The Babes in the Wood" and asks Jeremy to help him research it. Dante is dying to get his hands on The Monkey's Paw. When Jeremy's elaborate financial kite begins to fall, he is forced to sell to Dante and become his employee. The restaurant is closed for renovations, Inferno style. Jeremy plans a menu for opening night that he intends to be the greatest culinary statement he's ever made, one that unites the homeless with high foody society in a paparazzi-covered celebration of "local splendour".
July 2011
Thomas, Joan (2010) Curiosity: A Love Story. McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, Ontario. 409 pages.
Based mostly on historical events, this fine novel is set mainly in Lyme Regis, southwest England, in the early 19th century. Thomas writes of the complex relationship between Mary Anning and Henry de la Beche. Mary is the daughter of a cabinetmaker and collects fossils or curiosities from the eroding cliffs to sell to the travellers and tourists who pass through the town. Trained by her father, she develops a remarkable eye for the fossils. She finds some impressive fossils in the cliffs, including a large Ichthyosaurus and a large Plesiosaur. These fossils are taken, described and named by others (Buckland and Conybeare respectively) and Mary gets no credit for her part in their discovery. However, as Thomas writes her, she becomes a skilled and intuitive anatomist basically through observation. We also see part of the story though the eyes of Henry de la Beche, an upper middle-class man whose income comes from a slave-worked sugar plantation in Jamaica. The plantation is failing but still provides him with a relatively comfortable life. He is an acute observer also and a good artist. Despite differences of class, gender and wealth, Mary and Henry become friends after a fashion as they meet and communicate over the fossils. Mary in this portrayal is a very intelligent and determined character and is quick to learn. Both are challenged in their beliefs by the implications of the fossil finds. The title - Curiosity - has many layers of meaning, from the objects collected, to the treasures displayed by the wealthy in their curio- cabinets, to the spirit of scientific enquiry.
June 2011
Goldman, William (1973) The Princess Bride. Ballantine Books, New York. 399 pages.
The courtship of Westley and Buttercup. Westley is a farm boy who goes off to seek his fortune in America in order to win the hand of Buttercup, the farmer's daughter, who is very beautiful. In fact, she is so beautiful that she attracts the attentions of the evil Prince Humperdinck, the Crown Prince of Florin. She only agrees to marry him once she believes that Westley is dead, killed by pirates (in fact, Westley survives and has become the leader of the pirates). Just before the wedding, Buttercup is kidnapped by a gang, Vizzni the Sicilian who is the leader, Inigo the Spaniard (a famous swordsman) and Fezzik the Turk who's a giant and immensely strong. Prince Humperdinck has commissioned them to kidnap and kill her so that he can blame it on Guilder, the rival kingdom, and give him a pretext for invasion. But Westley defeats the three (killing Vizzini in the process) and rescues her, before being captured by Prince Humperdinck. The Prince imprisons Westley and forces Buttercup to promise to marry him in return for sparing Westley's life. Fezzik and Inigo free Westley from prison and all three rescue Buttercup and as the novel ends they are fleeing from Florin. The tale is written as though it is abridged from a longer work, with occasional interjections by Goldman.
May 2011
Urquhart, Jane (2005) A Map of Glass. McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, Ontario. 371 pages.
Jane Urquhart's novel weaves two parallel stories, one set in contemporary Toronto and Prince Edward County, Ontario, the other in the nineteenth century on the northern shores of Lake Ontario. Sylvia Bradley was rescued from her parents' house by a doctor attracted to and challenged by her withdrawn ways. Their subsequent marriage has nourished her, but ultimately her husband's care has formed a kind of prison. When she meets Andrew Woodman, a historical geographer, her world changes. A year after Andrew's death, Sylvia makes an unlikely connection with Jerome McNaughton, a young Toronto artist whose discovery of Andrew's body on a small island at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River unlocks a secret in his own past. After Sylvia finds Jerome in Toronto, she shares with him the story of her unusual childhood and of her devastating and ecstatic affair with Andrew, a man whose life was irrevocably affected by the decisions of the past. At the breathtaking centre of the novel is the compelling tale of Andrew's forebears. We meet his great-great-grandfather, Joseph Woodman, whose ambitions brought him from England to the northeastern shores of Lake Ontario, during the days of the flourishing timber and shipbuilding industries; Joseph's practical, independent and isolated daughter, Annabel; and his son, Branwell, an innkeeper and a painter. It is Branwell's eventual liaison with an orphaned French-Canadian woman that begins the family's new generation and sets the stage for future events. A novel about loss and the transitory nature of place, A Map of Glass is vivid with evocative prose and haunting imagery - a lake of light on a wooden table; a hotel gradually buried by sand; a fully clothed man frozen in an iceberg; a blind woman tracing her fingers over a tactile map. Containing all of the elements for which Jane Urquhart's writing is celebrated, it stands as her richest, most accomplished novel to date.
April 2011
Smith, Diane (1999) Letters from Yellowstone. Penguin Books, New York. 226 pages.
It is 1898 and Professor Merriam, a botanist from a new Agricultural college in Bozeman, Montana, is planning a summer field season in Yellowstone National Park. He's having trouble rounding up other participants. So when a letter arrives from A. E. Bartram, studying medicine at Cornell but with a passion for botany, he is delighted to recruit him to the team. A member of a famous plant family no less! But Bartram is a woman. Consternation ensues. Merriam realizes that he has little choice but to accept help, however unlikely the source. The story of the subsequent field season is told in letters that each of the main characters send to their correspondents back home and elsewhere. So we get the same incidents recounted from different viewpoints. Alex, the lady botanist, has a very different view on science to Merriam, who also differs from Peacock, the insect man, and Rutherford, an agricultural advisor. Their conversations, conflicts and clashes form the heart of this novel.
March 2011
Bodanis, David (2000) E=mc2: A biography of the world's most famous equation. Doubleday, Canada. 337 pages.
An interesting and very readable approach to telling science through people stories. Bodanis takes the separate components of the equation and explains what they mean, especially through some of the 18th and 19th century scientists who investigated them. Thus we learn about Michael Faraday and Humphrey Davy (m), Lavoisier (m), Cassini, Roemer, James Clerk Maxwell (c) and then onto Einstein (in the c chapter), then Voltaire and his lover, du Chatelet (2, squared power), who died giving birth to his child. Then we move on to Einstein and his derivation of the equation, especially the year of 1905 and story of Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner, and then into the more familiar story of the race to build the atomic bomb in WWII. Finally ends with links to cosmology (Hoyle and Chandra) - the Big Bang and the understanding of solar energy and where it comes from.
February 2011
Findley, Timothy (1984) Not Wanted on the Voyage. Viking, Canada. 352 pages.
The voyage of the Ark, in a re-imagined context. Here, Yahweh is a tired and vengeful old man who sends the rain in a petulant fit after the city folk have driven him away because they don't see a need for him any more. Dr Noyes (Noah), Yahweh's friend, still believes. He is a fanatic or, as we might say now, a fundamentalist. He spends his time enforcing discipline and orthodoxy on his family and conducting cruel "experiments" on animals - really satisfying his sadistic cravings under the guise of science. His wife, Mrs Noyes, is also elderly, worn out with child-bearing and an alcoholic, taking solace in gin. Their remaining grown-up children are a real disappointment. Shem, the eldest (the Ox) is stolid and imperturbable and is married to the fascinating and beautiful Hannah, with whom Dr Noyes has an incestuous relationship which is studiously ignored by all. Japheth, the youngest son, has been traumatized by his capture and torment by a group of brigands and cannibals. He is married to Emma, barely more than a child, and is unable to consummate their union, in part because she refuses to have anything to do with him. Recently, he has developed an unhealthy interest in warfare and weaponry (following the example of Yahweh's chief bodyguard, the Archangel Michael). Ham, the middle son, is hugely intelligent and has true scientific curiosity but is way ahead of his time. This odd group attracts the attention of Lucifer, a restless fallen angel, brother of Michael, who turns himself into Lucy and marries Ham. The Ark is built and loaded, the rains come, and the voyage starts. On board ship, the clan are divided into two. On the upper decks, living in comparative comfort and with good food. are Dr Noyes, Japheth, Shem and Hannah. Locked below decks, with dark, poor food and discomfort, are Mrs Noyes, Ham, Lucy and Emma, the rebellious group. Much of the story is seem through the perceptions of Mottyl, Mrs Noyes's elderly cat, old, sick, and blind, but very observant and intuitive. She provides the sensory commentary on the events and we learn more from her about what is going on than we do from the other characters who, although they have eyesight, are really blind to Dr Noyes's true objectives. This is not a warms and fuzzy view of religion and its role in society but a savage and very dark view of fanaticism and perversion of belief, and also the way that self-deceit eventually heads to madness.
January 2011
Boyden, Joseph (2005) Three Day Road. Penguin Books, New York, USA. 354 pages.
The tale of two young Cree boys from northern Ontario near Moose Factory, Xavier Bird and Elijah Whiskeyjack, who go to fight in Europe in WWI. Elijah, who spent much of his youth in residential school, soon fits in and becomes popular with the rest of the unit, so much so that he is made Corporal. Xavier speaks little English and was brought up mostly in the bush by his aunt, Niska. The tale of their life in France is told mostly by Xavier as he floats in a morphine-induced dreams, while his aunt takes him down-river to the north and back home again. He has come back to Canada but he is badly damaged in body and mind. On the Front, the boys' hunting talents means that they are superb scouts and snipers. But Elijah gets too fond of killing and commits many atrocities. The three day road of the title is the three days the Cree believe the soul travels after death. It is also the three days that Niska and Xavier travel down the river to reach home. Much of the book is taken up with the horrors of trench warfare. The boys fight at Ypres, help to take Vimy Ridge, and fight at Amiens and Passchendaele. The tale is compelling yet also disturbing and harrowing.
The remarks in black are descriptions of the books from various sources. Number of citations: 50
This presentation has been compiled and is © 1998-2022 by
Alwynne B. Beaudoin (bluebulrush@gmail.com)
Last updated July 2, 2022
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