I've discovered since writing and publishing two books that there a lot of people out there who are writing 'something' -- often it's a novel, sometimes it's poetry, sometimes even short stories.  On occasion, I've been asked to read and comment on other people's work, at no charge, and I have done so a few times.  As much as I would like to be approachable in this manner, I feel that I am now at a point in my writing life where I should expect to be paid for my writing expertise; so if you would like me to read and provide editorial advice on a piece of writing, please feel free to contact me for my rates through the email address provided at the bottom of any page on my website. And here is a list of books that I've read over the years which have enriched my own writing experience. Perhaps they will enrich yours, too. For Fiction: On Writing -- Stephen King Bird by Bird -- Anne Lamott A Passion for Narrative -- Jack Hodgins Writing Fiction -- Janet Burroway Attack of the Copula Spiders -- Douglas Glover Aspects of the Novel -- E.M. Forster How Fiction Works -- James Wood Reading Like a Writer: A Guide For People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them -- Francine Prose Startle and Illuminate: Carol Shields on Writing -- Edited by Anne Giardini and Nicolas Giardini And for Poetry: The Poetry Home Repair Manual  -- Ted Kooser In the Palm of Your Hand -- Steve Kowit Little Eurekas -- A Decade's Thoughts on Poetry -- Robyn Sarah The Ode Less Travelled -- Stephen Fry Good luck with your writing and contact me if you would like to engage the services of a professional writer.  And now, back to the books in my to-be-read bookshelf. Fall, 2014 1. Blue Nights, by Joan Didion (Vintage International, 2011) -- a book of creative non-fiction, it is a follow-up to Didion's National Book Award-Winner, The Year of Magical Thinking, in which Didion wrote about the death of her husband and her mourning period for him.  I remember reading that book when it came out.  I hadn't been much of a non-fiction reader up to that point, but that book was so wonderfully written, so powerful in its evocation of loss and memory, I was quite thrilled, as I always am, to encounter a writer that I'd never read before.  Didion's only child, a daughter, became very ill within a year of the death of Didion's husband.   Part of that struggle was chronicled in The Year of Magical Thinking. Blue Nights is a book that deals primarily with the loss of Didion's daughter, Quintana Roo, while also documenting and coming to terms with Didion's own frail health.  Blue Nights is a compulsive read.  Short, only 188pp, and in it Didion covers so much ground -- aging, grief, parental guilt, what it is to be a parent, the flood of memory, how afraid we are for our children and how the death of a child continues to reverberate like no other.  It is a sad book.  But there are also lots of funny and touching bits -- my favourite bit is when Didion contrasts her coming of age shenanigans with how controlled the lives of children and adolescents seem to have become now.  I'm very glad that I read this book.   2. The Truth About Luck, by Iain Reid (Anansi Press Inc., 2013).  The full title of this book is The Truth About Luck: What  I Learned On My Road Trip With Grandma.  Al and I had the good fortune to see Iain Reid at Kingston WritersFest, last fall, 2013. He read small excerpts from the book and was a panelist at one of the writing events.  The whole premise of the book struck me as charming, so I decided to pick up a copy after the discussion and we had Mr. Reid sign it.  A year later, I've managed to read it -- I am the tortoise, not the hare, when it comes to reading the books that I purchase.   I loved this book.  Partly, I think it is because Al's mom is the same age as Iain Reid's grandmother, and was active in the army during the Second World War, but also because Reid  looks closely at things, he has a wonderful sense of humour, and he writes well. The premise:  Reid, who is always short of funds, is convinced by his brother to take their grandmother on a trip for her birthday. Reid, a young man in is late-twenties, doesn't really think the trip through, and finds himself scrambling at the last moment to make arrangements. His grandmother is up for anything, it turns out, even if it is just a road trip in Reid's beat-up car from Ottawa to Kingston, and a five-day 'stay-cation' in Reid's apartment and the city of Kingston.  But this book isn't about the trip, it's about the relationship.  Reid loves his grandmother, but he doesn't really know her as well as he'd like, and five days alone with her allows him and his readers to get to know her a little better.  Their relationship deepens as the book progresses, and we learn a lot about his grandmother and Reid. And now, when I walk past an older woman, white-haired, a little hunched over, perhaps moving with a walker, I find myself wondering about her story. Thanks, Iain Reid.   3. The Mistress of Nothing, by Kate Pullinger (Anchor Canada edition published 2014, originally published 2009) -- a novel of historical fiction, this book tells the story of an English maid, Sally Naldrett, and her mistress, Lady Duff Gordon, who travel to Egypt in an attempt to cure Lady Duff  Gordon of her tuberculosis. While in Egypt, Sally and Lady Duff's relationship deepens as they both fall under the spell of a foreign country that they come to see as their home. But then a man becomes part of the equation and chaos ensues. The story begins in England in 1862. I first purchased a copy of this book as a Christmas present for my sister, last year.  I knew it had won the Governor General's award, and that it was a work of historical fiction. It seemed like something she might like.  She did.  So this spring while I was in Canmore, AB, signing copies of my second book at a great little indie establishment called Cafe Books, I bought a copy. I'm glad that I did. Egypt comes alive in these pages. Pullinger has done her research; I never doubted where I was while reading this book.  The story is told in first person from Sally's point of view, which works for the most part, but at times, especially in the latter third of the book when Sally is in seclusion, I felt her point of view became somewhat limiting.  However, overall, this book was really well-written and an excellent read.   4. Husk a novel, by Corey Redekop (ECW Press, 2012) I'll come right out and say it:  I'm not a fan of zombies; whether they are stomping around in a television show, slobbering on the big screen, or taking a bite out of fiction. But here's the thing:  Corey Redekop appeared on a panel at Kingston WritersFest last fall and he kind of won me over, just a little bit, with his sense of humour, his excellent reading from Husk, and the unique way that he decided to tackle the whole zombie 'thing'. He's also the first author I've come across who asks his readers to sign the reading copy of his book, which is a nice touch..  This book is really funny. It's also really gross, sometimes really really gross, but mostly it's very funny and it plays with the zombie 'culture' in a way that interested me, while also commenting on and sending up the culture of celebrity.  The premise:  Sheldon Funk, a not-very-famous-actor, wakes up during his own autopsy and discovers that he has become a zombie, but a zombie with a heart (sort of) and a conscience. Chaos ensues. What I liked most about this novel is that I could not predict what would happen next, but I trusted the author's voice so I was in for the ride.  If I had to guess, I'd say  Redekop is a fan of Futurama, The Simpsons, and Family Guy, but also Mary Shelley and every horror flick from the 1930's forward.  If you like those shows, that writer and those movies, you will like this book.  I do, and I did.   5. Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them, Francine Prose (Harper Perennial, 2006) It's the Christmas season, and here I am stuck in a air-boot with a broken foot.  My MFA class finished at the end of November, so one would have expected that I might read something  unrelated directly to craft, maybe a collection  of short stories or a novel, perhaps a murder mystery. But no, I chose to read a book about reading and writing and craft.  I'm a keener.  What can I say.  Prose has put together a great collection of essays that looks at reading, how to read like a writer, how to read so that your own writing can benefit from what you read, and how to read for the sheer joy of reading.  She breaks down writing into its component parts, beginning with words, moving on to sentences, and then to paragraphs, before honing in on narration, character, dialogue and details -- each of these components deserves and gets its own chapter.  Along the way, Prose peppers her essays with examples from great writers, and she offers a "Books to be Read Immediately" list in the final pages that would keep any lover of literature busy for a long time to come.   Prose, who is a creative writing teacher as well as a writer, also writes plainly about her thoughts on writing classes and degrees in writing, which I found correlated quite well with my own thoughts on these matters.  If you are considering entering an MFA program, for instance, you might just want to sit down with Ms. Prose for a while and consider her comments. Her writings style is personal and accessible, funny and instructive.  You will learn a lot about writing and reading by spending time with this book.    6. The Book of Evidence, John Banville (Picador, 1998. first published in 1989 by Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd.) My first encounter with John Banville's writing was his Booker winning novel, The Sea. It was a wonderful novel and as soon as I finished it I ordered two more of his books:  The Untouchable and The Book of Evidence.  I've finally managed to read the latter. Banville is a gorgeous writer. His attention to detail and ability to find just the right word or phrase to nail either a character or a situation or a back-drop makes me want to be a better writer.  I love that in a book and in an author.  The Book of Evidence's principal character, Freddie Montgomery, has committed two crimes -- he's stolen a painting, and while doing so, he has killed a maid who discovered him in the act.  We first meet him in prison after the fact, and the novel is basically a re-telling of his life, and his crimes and what lead up to his capture. He's not trying to figure out why he killed the maid so much as  why he felt compelled to steal the painting, although he does appear to come to some understanding of the horrific nature of his crime as the book progresses.  It is a remarkable portrait of a human being who has crossed the line in the worst possible way, and it is crisply and searingly written.  My favourite line in the book is a description of Freddie's friend, Charlie:  "He had aged. He was in his early sixties, but he looked older.  He was stooped, and had a little egg-shaped paunch, and his ashen cheeks were inlaid with a filigree of broken veins." (p.34). Filigree, being the perfect word to upload the character's physical description into my mind's eye. Banville does this type of thing on every single page. It is an excellent book, and I look forward to reading The Untouchable in the future.   February, 2015 7. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens (Canterbury Classics, San Diego, 2012) I'm catching up on "The Tortoise" after having had surgery just before Christmas. It is now February, and I did manage to read a few books while my foot was encased in a cast and elevated on a pillow for all of December and much of January.  This is my second time reading Great Expectations.  I first read it in my early teens.  I came across this copy while shopping at Costco, about a year ago.  It looks like it's bound in blue leather, but it's most certainly 'pleather'. Regardless, it's very pretty on the outside and it was reasonably priced, as most classics are: $10.00, if I'm remembering correctly.  I took Great Expectations with me to the hospital in December -- a little joke that only I got, I suppose; I doubt any of the staff noticed.   I'm a huge fan of Dickens. We named our second cat "Pip", after the narrator of Great Expectations. Dickens has a great sense of humour combined with an ability to look at the dark side of life through characters who are sympathetic and human. Here, he has created a wide variety of characters who have stood the test of time.  Miss Havisham, in her decaying wedding dress; Mrs. Joe Gargery, sister of Pip, responsible for bringing her brother up 'by hand'; Joe Gargery, Mrs. Joe's husband, and Pip's sweet-hearted and ethical father figure; the blowhard, Mr. Pumblechook; Wemmick, the clerk -- king of his own castle and caregiver to 'the Aged', when he isn't running Mr. Jagger's law practice. Wemmick is probably my favourite character this time around, although when I first read the book in my teens, I was  most fascinated with Miss Havisham and Magwitch, the thief.  The action begins immediately, with Pip being 'assaulted' by Magwitch in the cemetery, where young Pip has come to visit the graves of his parents and siblings. The scene is both terrifying and very funny, as we come to realize that the prisoner, Magwitch, is not nearly as frightening as he wants the boy to believe.  He threatens Pip with certain death if he does not bring Magwitch the implements from home to allow the prisoner to remove his chains and to escape authorities.  Magwitch disappears, and Pip continues to live life under his sister's punitive thumb until one day Mrs. Havisham's lawyer, Mr. Jaggers, visits Pip to tell him that he has attracted the goodwill of an anonymous donor who would like to help Pip to become a 'gentleman'.  There is also a love interest: the beautiful and proud Estella, who lives with Miss Havisham, and has been raised to wreak revenge on any and all males who have the misfortune to fall in love with her. There are a lot of 'coincidences' in this book, which are revealed one right after the other in the final fifty pages or so.  I can't help thinking that these coincidences would never be accepted by today's editors and publishers.  I'm not sure the modern reader is quite as interested in them as perhaps readers from the time period would have been.     April, 2015 8. Ellen in Pieces: A Novel, Caroline Adderson (Patrick Crean Editions, An imprint of Harper Collins PublishersLtd, 2014) I first read Ellen in Pieces around the beginning of February.  I haven't laughed so hard or so often while reading a novel in a very long time. I haven't teared up while reading a novel the way that I did with this book in quite a while, either. I decided to read it a second time before writing down my thoughts in The Tortoise. When I encounter a really good book, I tend to go back and read it a second time to try and figure out how the author put it together.  This book.  My-oh-my.  I can't heap enough praise upon this book.  It really got to me.  The characters feel so very real.  They are loyal, disloyal, caring, flawed, intelligent, gifted, loving, funny, and oh-so-human. Ellen is a triumph, a single mother who fiercely loves her family and friends; she is far from perfect, which is what makes her so very interesting and compelling as a character. I became so attached to her, that when she faces a life-altering moment about two-thirds of the way into the novel, and I had to put the book down to make our supper, all I could think about was Ellen and whether or not she would be okay. We meet Ellen at a pivotal moment in her life as the novel begins -- her two daughters are 'almost' grown and out of the house and Ellen is beginning to feel the freedom that comes with the contemplation of an empty nest. Deciding that it is time for her to make some changes, she sells her home in North Vancouver, gives up her business, Ellen Silver Promotions, and takes up pottery. She also takes up with Matt, a young man who is twenty years her junior. I love how this novel is put together.  It is told in stand-alone chapters, each one a piece of the story that is a window into Ellen's life. Six of the chapters are told from Ellen's point of view, the rest are split between the points of view of various characters who are very close to Ellen:  Matt, the boyfriend, Mimi, her 'difficult' eldest daughter, Larry, Ellen's cheating ex-husband, Georgia, one of Ellen's closest friends, and Eli, Ellen's grandson.  I love how the alternating points of view allow us to see Ellen from the vantage points of other characters, giving us a fuller picture of who she really is and what she means to so many other people in her life. This book is funny, tragic, wise and life-affirming. It explores family, friendship, loyalty and the nature of regret and it does so with characters that one is likely not soon to forget.  I expect that Ellen in Pieces will be the best book that I read in 2015.    9. The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt (Little, Brown and Company, 2013) When I commit to reading a book, I almost always finish it. I don't stop halfway, or throw it across a room in disgust, or try to palm it off on some unsuspecting friend or relative.  My hope is that even if a book begins in a slow or weak fashion that it will find its footing and I will be carried along for the ride.  I expected that this would happen with The Goldfinch, all the way through the 771 page novel, but it didn't. The Goldfinch begins well enough, with an introduction to the narrator, Theo Decker, who has just dreamed about his dead mother.  We soon find out how she died when he was only thirteen; in a spectacular explosion that leaves Theo motherless and holding on to a small painting, which he doesn't exactly steal, but doesn't return to its rightful place, either. He continues to keep the painting a secret from his family and friends throughout most of the book, but eventually the reader knows he will have to deal with what he did.  The painting is what kept me invested in reading this book.  I wanted to know what happened to it, but it didn't seem to take up as much real estate as I would have imagined it should.  Theo's living arrangements, first with a family friend in NYC, then his no-good father out in California, and then with a mentor named Hobie who refinishes antique furniture (back in NYC), take up a lot of space, and I've got to say that as a reader I just did not feel very invested in his relationships with any of these people, other than Hobie, who I kept imagining as Stephen Fry.  While out in California, Theo becomes fast friends with another troubled teen named Boris. Together, they sample a wide range of drugs which help Theo to self-medicate and keep his feelings about what happened to his mother at bay.  Boris is also a key player in what eventually happens to the little painting, but honestly? By the time I got to the end of this book, I no longer cared what happened to the painting, and I discovered that I was no longer invested in the narrator, either.  I'm not completely sure why.  Maybe it has to do with the length of the book; it could have been pared down, many of the adjectives and adverbs could have been given the boot, and the period of time that Theo spent out in California seemed to be endless. Maybe it had to do with the unsatisfying nature of the relationship that Theo did or didn't have with the young girl he meets the day that his mother dies.  But I am only one reader.  This book went on to win the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, so it must have lots of fans, however, when I measure it against Ellen in Pieces, I find it wanting.   May, 2015 10. Wild, Cheryl Strayed (Vintage Books/Random House Inc., New York, 2013) I'm sad that I didn't read this book before it was turned into a movie with Reese Witherspoon playing Cheryl Strayed. Strayed is quite a bit taller, and generally more 'substantial' than Witherspoon. One can see when she is interviewed that she carries a weight, not a weight that she can't handle, but a weight all the same.  I like that. So, it took me several chapters before I could banish the tiny, perky Reese Witherspoon from my brain, but once she was gone, that was it, and I was invested in the story. Strayed, who loses her mother at the age of twenty-two, loses her way in life not long after.  Her family life falls apart, she begins cheating on her young husband with a string of men, and she starts experimenting with drugs.  Somehow, at twenty-six, she realizes that it is up to her to stop her downward spiral, and decides that a hike will help her to figure things out.  The hike is not a simple day hike. No. She commits to hiking the Pacific Crest Trail -- by herself -- a trail that stretches from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State. It will take months to accomplish, and she proceeds with little training, although she does read up on the trail and is somewhat prepared for the trials that she might face. The scene where she attempts to strap on her giant backpack for the first time is still with me. There are many memorable scenes in this book.  Personally, I wish she would have delved a little deeper into the darker areas of her relationship with her mother, but I also understand that this book isn't so much about her mother as it is about her coming to know herself.  I also would have enjoyed more visual descriptions of the terrain that she covered, but I guess that's what the movie is for.  Overall, I felt Strayed went pretty deep here, and that she was incredibly honest about herself, her shortcomings and her strengths. I can't imagine taking on this type of physical challenge, so I was surprised how delighted I was to accompany her on this journey, and maybe learn some things about myself along the way. One thing that irritated me, though, was Strayed's habit of burning books on the trail as she finished them. I understand that she was trying to lighten her load, but why not put the books in the donation boxes that were along the way, for others to pick up and read?  Burning books is not cool.    August, 2015 11. David, Ray Robertson (Biblioasis, 2012) I'm very late writing this post.  I finished David for the first time back in June, and then summer happened, and I went out to UBC to take my last course for my MFA. Vacation took place once my course was finished, at which point I felt a second read was necessary if I were to do the book the justice it deserved.  I finished David for a second time earlier this week, and enjoyed it even more the second time around.  My first introduction to Robertson's work was a collection of essays entitled Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live.  Robertson has a philosophy degree and it was put to great use in those essays.  I enjoyed that book so much that I decided to order a couple more of his titles from Biblioasis: David and Was There The Night He Died. David  tells the story of a black man living in Chatham, ON in 1895.  Growing up in a nearby black settlement which was inspired by the Elgin Settlement, David has settled and made his life in Chatham after a falling out with the Reverend William King, who established the black settlement in the 1850s, where David was raised by his single mother, and educated by Reverend King.  The 'now' of the book is set in 1895, when David is told of the death of Reverend King.  The death of his old mentor leads David to examine his whole life, and a very colourful life it turns out to be. Once he is kicked out of the 'Eden' of the black settlement, which occurs right after the death of his mother, David must make his own way, and he does, though not always through legal means.  In the now of the story, David is well off, having made his fortune by running an illegal drinking establishment. Before he began pouring whiskey, however, he spent a number of years working as a grave robber, and before that as a factory worker. Now, he owns his own home, he has a large library of books that give him immense pleasure, and he has found a soulmate in the person of Loretta, a German ex-prostitute turned Chatham landlord, who wants to take him to Europe for a four-week holiday.  I found the exchanges between these two characters to be well-worth the price of admission.  Their discussions are believable and feisty, the relationship feels authentic, and I love that Loretta gives as good as she gets. David is a lucky man, and he knows it. The characters are what make this book the gem that it is, not just David and Loretta, but the cast of secondary characters who people this book. What I found most impressive is how Robertson manages to move between the now of the story and multiple past periods in David's past without losing the reader, and that's an important skill for a novelist.  David is one of the most satisfying historical novels that I've read in a very long time.   October, 2015 12. Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout (Random House, 2008) Again, I'm writing this post rather late. The Tortoise is living up to its name.  I finished Olive Kitteridge over a month ago and haven't found the time to write about my impressions because I've been inundated with appointments and trying to write to a deadline for my thesis advisor.  I'm in a sweet spot right now, though, so let's get this thing written. I first heard about Olive Kitteridge  in 2013, after my first book, a collection of stories set in a small town on the St. Lawrence River, was published.  "Have you read Olive Kitteridge?" I was asked, more than once, by people that I trust to steer me in the right reading direction, so it seemed like a good idea to purchase a copy.  It did not disappoint.  Nominally, we are covering the same sort of geographical terrain:  a series of stories set in a small town near water, but Olive Kitteridge is dominated by one character, whereas my book examines the small-town world through the eyes of several characters. Olive Kitteridge is also touted as a novel told in stories, which appears to be the new way to describe a collection of linked short stories.   Much like Ellen in Pieces, the stories pivot around a strong central character, but in this book's case, I found that I felt less invested in some of the stories where Olive did not figure prominently.  She is a flawed woman, a flawed character, which of course makes her interesting and worth reading about, and I found that I missed her when she didn't appear in a story.  Her relationship with her husband, Henry, is revealed layer by fascinating layer as the chapters unfold. This relationship feels authentic, and I love how we see it through both partners' eyes at various points in time. Her difficult relationship with her son also feels true; the desire she has to recapture the affection she felt they shared from an earlier time, her sadness and confusion as to why that is not ever likely to happen, the way they try to reach toward each other and yet end up pulling away -- it's all wonderfully portrayed. A strong central character, sharp writing, good stories. This is an excellent book. I understand that Olive Kitteridge has recently been made into a mini-series starring Frances McDormand in the title role.  I'm excited to watch; I'm sure she will do the role justice.   July, 2016 13. Martin John, Anakana Schofield (Biblioasis, 2015) I'm back, not having read much over the past year while I devoted quality time to my MFA thesis. It's finished, and I couldn't be happier. Time to read whatever I like, time to write whatever I want. The first book I reached for was Martin John, by Anakana Schofield. This is Schofield's second novel.  Her first, Malarky, also published by Biblioasis, went on to win the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, and received many other accolades. I read it in three days, and loved it. Martin John took me a little longer to read. It wasn't for lack of trying.  The book sucked me in immediately, but between finishing my thesis, and helping one of our kids to move to a new city, the end of spring and the beginning of summer, and, and, and, I found it took me nearly a month to finish it.  I felt cheated by that, so I read it again, as I alway do when I find a book that is compelling and unusual in so many ways. Where to start? The subject matter: not easy. Martin John feels up young women, he exposes himself in public.  He's a sexual deviant, a *ervert, and part of the 'mission' of the narrator (who is as much a character in the book as anyone else) is to try to figure out what makes him do the things that he does. Of course, that's impossible, right? The narrator has no more access to what makes Martin John tick than his mother does, than we do as readers. The narrator documents his actions and the actions of his mother in an up-close manner, but she and we and Martin John's mother  never really gain access to the reasons for his behaviour. We suspect he is mentally ill, perhaps suffering from extreme OCD amongst other disorders, but the narrator tells us early on: "There are simply going to be things we won't know. It's how it is. As it is in life must it be unto the page. There's the known and the unknown. In the middle is where we wander and wonder." Wander and wonder is exactly what we do as we move through a time line that stretches from Martin John's teenage years to his mid-forties, but it is all jumbled, similar to the way Martin John's brain works -- in and out we go, around and around -- it is as if everything that has happened continues to happen.  Even when Martin John is sent to England by his mother to give her a break and to keep him safe from both the authorities and the fists of the brothers of his victims, 'Mam' is never far from Martin John or his thoughts.  Mam is an amazing character in her own right -- frustrated, ashamed, stressed, in and out of denial about her son's proclivities; she wants 'it' to stop so she can have a normal life, whatever that might look like.  This book is darkly funny, smartly put together, and the characters are unforgettable.  It's the best thing I've read since  Ellen in Pieces, by Caroline Anderson.   August, 2016 14. All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr (Scribner, 2014) I first saw this book on a table at Chapters about two months ago. I read the synopsis, thought maybe, then recalled the 300+ unread books in my office and said 'no.' Be strong, Colette. Be strong. A couple of weeks later, Al and I were back in the same store because he needed a book for our summer vacation. This time Doerr's Pulitzer prize-winning book displayed a $15 sticker -- a deal! I read  the first page. It didn't disappoint, so I went home with it and I'm happy that I caved. This novel is the perfect mix of great writing, vivid characters and well-executed plot. Set in France and Germany during World War II, the main characters are a young blind French girl and an orphaned German boy, who meet under extreme and stressful circumstances in Saint-Malo, France, August, 1944, after the Americans have nearly bombed the city into oblivion. That is 'the now' of the story. We spend a good deal of the book reading about Marie-Laure and Werner's childhoods, how they both ended up in Saint-Malo, France at the same time.  The story is told in short alternating chapters, their childhoods happening during the build up to the war and then the war years themselves.  Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her father before it is occupied by the Nazis, which necessitates their escape to Saint-Malo carrying what may or may not be a rare and cursed diamond from the Museum of Natural History where her father works. Meanwhile, Werner, alongside his sister Jutta, grows up an orphan in a German mining town with no hope of a better life until his interest in building radios catches the attention of the military leadership and he is sent away to military school.  Marie-Laure and Werner are the main characters, but there are other characters in the book who shine, Marie-Laure's father, her great Uncle Etienne, who owns the house in Saint-Malo that they flee to, his housekeeper, Madame Manec, Werner's sister Jutta, and Frederick, the ill-fated boy that Werner befriends at military school; also the giant, Volkheimer, who takes Werner under his wing both at school and once again when Werner is called up to serve in the German army. This is a book about war, duty and resistance. It's a book about fear, bravery, loyalty and love, a book about knowing what is right but still doing wrong, of being caught up in a military machine that does its best to kill what it is to be human.  Reading the novel as Donald Trump runs to become president of the United States, a man who has vowed to 'make America great again', who sounds a little too much like Hitler, I cannot help but wonder what kind of world we will face and how we will respond if he actually does manage to win.   September/October 2016 15. This Is Not My Life: A Memoir Of Love, Prison, And Other Complications, Diane Schoemperlen (HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. 2016) Over the course of a two-week period in September, I read Governor General's Award-winning author, Diane Schoemperlen's memoir about her almost six-year relationship with a prison inmate.  This book is Schoemperlen's first attempt at a memoir -- she is best known for her fiction -- and it does not disappoint. The first sentence of the book is one of the best first lines I've ever read. She goes on to write an engaging, personal, occasionally humorous, painful and honest account of a romantic relationship that is complicated by the fact that her lover is a convicted murderer, who has spent the past thirty years in prison.  Schoemperlen digs deep, trying to understand her attraction to a man who many women would never consider to be worthy of boyfriend or life-mate status.  She also furnishes the reader with a close-up look at the inner workings of our country's prison system. This book is an excellent read.   16. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov (Second Vintage International Edition, Random House, 1997) How did I manage to get this far in my life without reading Lolita? I've owned this copy for a while, as I generally make a point each year or so of purchasing an acknowledged classic that I have not yet read.   Whenever the name 'Lolita' has come up in conversation over the years, it is almost always associated with the idea of a young promiscuous girl who enjoys having sex with older men.  Having now read the novel, I am left shaking my head as to why such a 'wink, wink, nod, nod' attitude has been attributed to this child character. Nabokov makes it very clear that Humber Humbert is a pedophile, who abducts Lolita, a girl who stands 'four feet ten in one sock' after her mother's untimely and, for his purposes, convenient death, then crosses state lines with her and proceeds to sexually assault her over a two year period because, in his own words, "she had absolutely nowhere else to go".  I think Nabokov does an amazing job of getting into the mind of a pedophile, trying to see him from his own point of view, until the end of the novel, that is, when Humbert appears to acknowledge his wrong doing and takes responsibility for the hurt he has caused Lolita. As a reader, I didn't buy it.  Pedophiles are not known for accepting responsibility for their actions; they blame their victims for the assaults, minimize the damage, come up with excuses for their own behaviour, often denying wrongdoing until their dying breath. The book is an amazing achievement nonetheless.   17. Startle and Illuminate: Carol Shields on Writing, Edited by Anne Giardini and Nicolas Giardini (Random House Canada, 2016) I have a difficult time beginning a new writing project after spending my summer doing anything and everything but writing. I often find reading a book about our craft, written by a writer whom I admire, helps me to get the words flowing again.  Carol Shields has long been one of my favourite novelists and short story writers. I used to particularly enjoy seeing or hearing her interviewed. She had a way of expressing herself that used to make me feel like we were sitting down together over a cup of tea.  Shields died thirteen years ago but her daughter and grandson have gone through all of her papers and produced a wonderful volume on writing that is in Carol Shields' own words. I enjoyed spending time with this book. I could hear Shields' voice as I read it, and it helped me in exactly the way that I hoped it would.   November, 2016 18. We're All In This Together, Amy Jones (McClelland&Stewart, 2016) I picked up We're All In This Together while vacationing in St. John's, NL this past summer.  I was aware of Amy Jones from having read a short story of hers a few years ago in The New Quarterly that resonated with me.  She's also published a collection of short stories with Biblioasis called What Boys Like: And Other Stories (2009) which I have not yet read.  So, author recognition, but also a really intriguing cover that drew me to We're All In This Together.  The blurbs on the back cover suggested a funny, sad, engaging family drama, and it just so happened that I was in the mood for that type of story. Over the course of the novel, we are introduced to the members of the Parker family of Thunder Bay.  Each chapter is told from the point of view of one of the Parker's, so we get to know each of the siblings and their parents more intimately than if the story was told from a single point of view. The novel begins with Finn's POV -- she is one of two twin daughters, the one who got away from Thunder Bay and now lives in Toronto.  Despite vowing never to go back, she finds herself returning to Thunder Bay after her mother launches herself over a waterfall in a barrel, becoming an Internet sensation, and ends up in hospital. The book is funny right from the start. I liked Finn immediately, and enjoyed being introduced to her family through her eyes.  It quickly becomes apparent  that something isn't right with Kate Parker, the matriarch of the family, and over the course of the book we come to realize that she is suffering from a form of dementia.  Katie's dementia is not funny, and it isn't treated that way in this book, but it is a trigger or flash point that forces her fractured family back together, often with hilarious, sad, and messy and touching results.  I really enjoyed this book, and was left wondering why We're All In This Together didn't receive any prize love this season.  Here's hoping Jones gets serious consideration from The Leacock Foundation in Spring 2017.   December, 2016 19. In Another Country: Selected Stories, David Constantine (Biblioasis, 2015)                

I've discovered since writing and publishing two books that there a lot of people out there who are writing 'something' -- often it's a novel, sometimes it's poetry, sometimes even short stories.  On occasion, I've been asked to read and comment on other people's work, at no charge, and I have done so a few times.  As much as I would like to be approachable in this manner, I feel that I am now at a point in my writing life where I should expect to be paid for my writing expertise; so if you would like me to read and provide editorial advice on a piece of writing, please feel free to contact me for my rates through the email address provided at the bottom of any page on my website. And here is a list of books that I've read over the years which have enriched my own writing experience. Perhaps they will enrich yours, too.

For Fiction:

On Writing -- Stephen King

Bird by Bird -- Anne Lamott

A Passion for Narrative -- Jack Hodgins

Writing Fiction -- Janet Burroway

Attack of the Copula Spiders -- Douglas Glover

Aspects of the Novel -- E.M. Forster

How Fiction Works -- James Wood

Reading Like a Writer: A Guide For People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them -- Francine Prose

Startle and Illuminate: Carol Shields on Writing -- Edited by Anne Giardini and Nicolas Giardini

And for Poetry:

The Poetry Home Repair Manual  -- Ted Kooser

In the Palm of Your Hand -- Steve Kowit

Little Eurekas -- A Decade's Thoughts on Poetry -- Robyn Sarah

The Ode Less Travelled -- Stephen Fry

Good luck with your writing and contact me if you would like to engage the services of a professional writer.  And now, back to the books in my to-be-read bookshelf.

Fall, 2014

1. Blue Nights, by Joan Didion (Vintage International, 2011) -- a book of creative non-fiction, it is a follow-up to Didion's National Book Award-Winner, The Year of Magical Thinking, in which Didion wrote about the death of her husband and her mourning period for him.  I remember reading that book when it came out.  I hadn't been much of a non-fiction reader up to that point, but that book was so wonderfully written, so powerful in its evocation of loss and memory, I was quite thrilled, as I always am, to encounter a writer that I'd never read before.  Didion's only child, a daughter, became very ill within a year of the death of Didion's husband.   Part of that struggle was chronicled in The Year of Magical Thinking. Blue Nights is a book that deals primarily with the loss of Didion's daughter, Quintana Roo, while also documenting and coming to terms with Didion's own frail health.  Blue Nights is a compulsive read.  Short, only 188pp, and in it Didion covers so much ground -- aging, grief, parental guilt, what it is to be a parent, the flood of memory, how afraid we are for our children and how the death of a child continues to reverberate like no other.  It is a sad book.  But there are also lots of funny and touching bits -- my favourite bit is when Didion contrasts her coming of age shenanigans with how controlled the lives of children and adolescents seem to have become now.  I'm very glad that I read this book.

 

2. The Truth About Luck, by Iain Reid (Anansi Press Inc., 2013).  The full title of this book is The Truth About Luck: What  I Learned On My Road Trip With Grandma.  Al and I had the good fortune to see Iain Reid at Kingston WritersFest, last fall, 2013. He read small excerpts from the book and was a panelist at one of the writing events.  The whole premise of the book struck me as charming, so I decided to pick up a copy after the discussion and we had Mr. Reid sign it.  A year later, I've managed to read it -- I am the tortoise, not the hare, when it comes to reading the books that I purchase.  

I loved this book.  Partly, I think it is because Al's mom is the same age as Iain Reid's grandmother, and was active in the army during the Second World War, but also because Reid  looks closely at things, he has a wonderful sense of humour, and he writes well.

The premise:  Reid, who is always short of funds, is convinced by his brother to take their grandmother on a trip for her birthday. Reid, a young man in is late-twenties, doesn't really think the trip through, and finds himself scrambling at the last moment to make arrangements. His grandmother is up for anything, it turns out, even if it is just a road trip in Reid's beat-up car from Ottawa to Kingston, and a five-day 'stay-cation' in Reid's apartment and the city of Kingston.  But this book isn't about the trip, it's about the relationship.  Reid loves his grandmother, but he doesn't really know her as well as he'd like, and five days alone with her allows him and his readers to get to know her a little better.  Their relationship deepens as the book progresses, and we learn a lot about his grandmother and Reid. And now, when I walk past an older woman, white-haired, a little hunched over, perhaps moving with a walker, I find myself wondering about her story. Thanks, Iain Reid.

 

3. The Mistress of Nothing, by Kate Pullinger (Anchor Canada edition published 2014, originally published 2009) -- a novel of historical fiction, this book tells the story of an English maid, Sally Naldrett, and her mistress, Lady Duff Gordon, who travel to Egypt in an attempt to cure Lady Duff  Gordon of her tuberculosis. While in Egypt, Sally and Lady Duff's relationship deepens as they both fall under the spell of a foreign country that they come to see as their home. But then a man becomes part of the equation and chaos ensues. The story begins in England in 1862.

I first purchased a copy of this book as a Christmas present for my sister, last year.  I knew it had won the Governor General's award, and that it was a work of historical fiction. It seemed like something she might like.  She did.  So this spring while I was in Canmore, AB, signing copies of my second book at a great little indie establishment called Cafe Books, I bought a copy. I'm glad that I did.

Egypt comes alive in these pages. Pullinger has done her research; I never doubted where I was while reading this book.  The story is told in first person from Sally's point of view, which works for the most part, but at times, especially in the latter third of the book when Sally is in seclusion, I felt her point of view became somewhat limiting.  However, overall, this book was really well-written and an excellent read.

 

4. Husk a novel, by Corey Redekop (ECW Press, 2012)

I'll come right out and say it:  I'm not a fan of zombies; whether they are stomping around in a television show, slobbering on the big screen, or taking a bite out of fiction. But here's the thing:  Corey Redekop appeared on a panel at Kingston WritersFest last fall and he kind of won me over, just a little bit, with his sense of humour, his excellent reading from Husk, and the unique way that he decided to tackle the whole zombie 'thing'. He's also the first author I've come across who asks his readers to sign the reading copy of his book, which is a nice touch.. 

This book is really funny. It's also really gross, sometimes really really gross, but mostly it's very funny and it plays with the zombie 'culture' in a way that interested me, while also commenting on and sending up the culture of celebrity.  The premise:  Sheldon Funk, a not-very-famous-actor, wakes up during his own autopsy and discovers that he has become a zombie, but a zombie with a heart (sort of) and a conscience. Chaos ensues. What I liked most about this novel is that I could not predict what would happen next, but I trusted the author's voice so I was in for the ride.  If I had to guess, I'd say  Redekop is a fan of Futurama, The Simpsons, and Family Guy, but also Mary Shelley and every horror flick from the 1930's forward.  If you like those shows, that writer and those movies, you will like this book.  I do, and I did.

 

5. Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them, Francine Prose (Harper Perennial, 2006)

It's the Christmas season, and here I am stuck in a air-boot with a broken foot.  My MFA class finished at the end of November, so one would have expected that I might read something  unrelated directly to craft, maybe a collection  of short stories or a novel, perhaps a murder mystery. But no, I chose to read a book about reading and writing and craft.  I'm a keener.  What can I say. 

Prose has put together a great collection of essays that looks at reading, how to read like a writer, how to read so that your own writing can benefit from what you read, and how to read for the sheer joy of reading.  She breaks down writing into its component parts, beginning with words, moving on to sentences, and then to paragraphs, before honing in on narration, character, dialogue and details -- each of these components deserves and gets its own chapter.  Along the way, Prose peppers her essays with examples from great writers, and she offers a "Books to be Read Immediately" list in the final pages that would keep any lover of literature busy for a long time to come.  

Prose, who is a creative writing teacher as well as a writer, also writes plainly about her thoughts on writing classes and degrees in writing, which I found correlated quite well with my own thoughts on these matters.  If you are considering entering an MFA program, for instance, you might just want to sit down with Ms. Prose for a while and consider her comments.

Her writings style is personal and accessible, funny and instructive.  You will learn a lot about writing and reading by spending time with this book. 

 

6. The Book of Evidence, John Banville (Picador, 1998. first published in 1989 by Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd.)

My first encounter with John Banville's writing was his Booker winning novel, The Sea. It was a wonderful novel and as soon as I finished it I ordered two more of his books:  The Untouchable and The Book of Evidence.  I've finally managed to read the latter. Banville is a gorgeous writer. His attention to detail and ability to find just the right word or phrase to nail either a character or a situation or a back-drop makes me want to be a better writer.  I love that in a book and in an author. 

The Book of Evidence's principal character, Freddie Montgomery, has committed two crimes -- he's stolen a painting, and while doing so, he has killed a maid who discovered him in the act.  We first meet him in prison after the fact, and the novel is basically a re-telling of his life, and his crimes and what lead up to his capture. He's not trying to figure out why he killed the maid so much as  why he felt compelled to steal the painting, although he does appear to come to some understanding of the horrific nature of his crime as the book progresses.  It is a remarkable portrait of a human being who has crossed the line in the worst possible way, and it is crisply and searingly written.  My favourite line in the book is a description of Freddie's friend, Charlie:  "He had aged. He was in his early sixties, but he looked older.  He was stooped, and had a little egg-shaped paunch, and his ashen cheeks were inlaid with a filigree of broken veins." (p.34). Filigree, being the perfect word to upload the character's physical description into my mind's eye. Banville does this type of thing on every single page. It is an excellent book, and I look forward to reading The Untouchable in the future.

 

February, 2015

7. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens (Canterbury Classics, San Diego, 2012)

I'm catching up on "The Tortoise" after having had surgery just before Christmas. It is now February, and I did manage to read a few books while my foot was encased in a cast and elevated on a pillow for all of December and much of January. 

This is my second time reading Great Expectations.  I first read it in my early teens.  I came across this copy while shopping at Costco, about a year ago.  It looks like it's bound in blue leather, but it's most certainly 'pleather'. Regardless, it's very pretty on the outside and it was reasonably priced, as most classics are: $10.00, if I'm remembering correctly.  I took Great Expectations with me to the hospital in December -- a little joke that only I got, I suppose; I doubt any of the staff noticed.  

I'm a huge fan of Dickens. We named our second cat "Pip", after the narrator of Great Expectations. Dickens has a great sense of humour combined with an ability to look at the dark side of life through characters who are sympathetic and human. Here, he has created a wide variety of characters who have stood the test of time.  Miss Havisham, in her decaying wedding dress; Mrs. Joe Gargery, sister of Pip, responsible for bringing her brother up 'by hand'; Joe Gargery, Mrs. Joe's husband, and Pip's sweet-hearted and ethical father figure; the blowhard, Mr. Pumblechook; Wemmick, the clerk -- king of his own castle and caregiver to 'the Aged', when he isn't running Mr. Jagger's law practice. Wemmick is probably my favourite character this time around, although when I first read the book in my teens, I was  most fascinated with Miss Havisham and Magwitch, the thief. 

The action begins immediately, with Pip being 'assaulted' by Magwitch in the cemetery, where young Pip has come to visit the graves of his parents and siblings. The scene is both terrifying and very funny, as we come to realize that the prisoner, Magwitch, is not nearly as frightening as he wants the boy to believe.  He threatens Pip with certain death if he does not bring Magwitch the implements from home to allow the prisoner to remove his chains and to escape authorities.  Magwitch disappears, and Pip continues to live life under his sister's punitive thumb until one day Mrs. Havisham's lawyer, Mr. Jaggers, visits Pip to tell him that he has attracted the goodwill of an anonymous donor who would like to help Pip to become a 'gentleman'.  There is also a love interest: the beautiful and proud Estella, who lives with Miss Havisham, and has been raised to wreak revenge on any and all males who have the misfortune to fall in love with her.

There are a lot of 'coincidences' in this book, which are revealed one right after the other in the final fifty pages or so.  I can't help thinking that these coincidences would never be accepted by today's editors and publishers.  I'm not sure the modern reader is quite as interested in them as perhaps readers from the time period would have been.  

 

April, 2015

8. Ellen in Pieces: A Novel, Caroline Adderson (Patrick Crean Editions, An imprint of Harper Collins PublishersLtd, 2014)

I first read Ellen in Pieces around the beginning of February.  I haven't laughed so hard or so often while reading a novel in a very long time. I haven't teared up while reading a novel the way that I did with this book in quite a while, either. I decided to read it a second time before writing down my thoughts in The Tortoise. When I encounter a really good book, I tend to go back and read it a second time to try and figure out how the author put it together.

 This book.  My-oh-my.  I can't heap enough praise upon this book.  It really got to me.  The characters feel so very real.  They are loyal, disloyal, caring, flawed, intelligent, gifted, loving, funny, and oh-so-human. Ellen is a triumph, a single mother who fiercely loves her family and friends; she is far from perfect, which is what makes her so very interesting and compelling as a character. I became so attached to her, that when she faces a life-altering moment about two-thirds of the way into the novel, and I had to put the book down to make our supper, all I could think about was Ellen and whether or not she would be okay.

We meet Ellen at a pivotal moment in her life as the novel begins -- her two daughters are 'almost' grown and out of the house and Ellen is beginning to feel the freedom that comes with the contemplation of an empty nest. Deciding that it is time for her to make some changes, she sells her home in North Vancouver, gives up her business, Ellen Silver Promotions, and takes up pottery. She also takes up with Matt, a young man who is twenty years her junior.

I love how this novel is put together.  It is told in stand-alone chapters, each one a piece of the story that is a window into Ellen's life. Six of the chapters are told from Ellen's point of view, the rest are split between the points of view of various characters who are very close to Ellen:  Matt, the boyfriend, Mimi, her 'difficult' eldest daughter, Larry, Ellen's cheating ex-husband, Georgia, one of Ellen's closest friends, and Eli, Ellen's grandson.  I love how the alternating points of view allow us to see Ellen from the vantage points of other characters, giving us a fuller picture of who she really is and what she means to so many other people in her life.

This book is funny, tragic, wise and life-affirming. It explores family, friendship, loyalty and the nature of regret and it does so with characters that one is likely not soon to forget.  I expect that Ellen in Pieces will be the best book that I read in 2015. 

 

9. The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt (Little, Brown and Company, 2013)

When I commit to reading a book, I almost always finish it. I don't stop halfway, or throw it across a room in disgust, or try to palm it off on some unsuspecting friend or relative.  My hope is that even if a book begins in a slow or weak fashion that it will find its footing and I will be carried along for the ride.  I expected that this would happen with The Goldfinch, all the way through the 771 page novel, but it didn't.

The Goldfinch begins well enough, with an introduction to the narrator, Theo Decker, who has just dreamed about his dead mother.  We soon find out how she died when he was only thirteen; in a spectacular explosion that leaves Theo motherless and holding on to a small painting, which he doesn't exactly steal, but doesn't return to its rightful place, either. He continues to keep the painting a secret from his family and friends throughout most of the book, but eventually the reader knows he will have to deal with what he did.  The painting is what kept me invested in reading this book.  I wanted to know what happened to it, but it didn't seem to take up as much real estate as I would have imagined it should.  Theo's living arrangements, first with a family friend in NYC, then his no-good father out in California, and then with a mentor named Hobie who refinishes antique furniture (back in NYC), take up a lot of space, and I've got to say that as a reader I just did not feel very invested in his relationships with any of these people, other than Hobie, who I kept imagining as Stephen Fry.  While out in California, Theo becomes fast friends with another troubled teen named Boris. Together, they sample a wide range of drugs which help Theo to self-medicate and keep his feelings about what happened to his mother at bay.  Boris is also a key player in what eventually happens to the little painting, but honestly? By the time I got to the end of this book, I no longer cared what happened to the painting, and I discovered that I was no longer invested in the narrator, either.  I'm not completely sure why.  Maybe it has to do with the length of the book; it could have been pared down, many of the adjectives and adverbs could have been given the boot, and the period of time that Theo spent out in California seemed to be endless. Maybe it had to do with the unsatisfying nature of the relationship that Theo did or didn't have with the young girl he meets the day that his mother dies. 

But I am only one reader.  This book went on to win the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, so it must have lots of fans, however, when I measure it against Ellen in Pieces, I find it wanting.

 

May, 2015

10. Wild, Cheryl Strayed (Vintage Books/Random House Inc., New York, 2013)

I'm sad that I didn't read this book before it was turned into a movie with Reese Witherspoon playing Cheryl Strayed. Strayed is quite a bit taller, and generally more 'substantial' than Witherspoon. One can see when she is interviewed that she carries a weight, not a weight that she can't handle, but a weight all the same.  I like that. So, it took me several chapters before I could banish the tiny, perky Reese Witherspoon from my brain, but once she was gone, that was it, and I was invested in the story.

Strayed, who loses her mother at the age of twenty-two, loses her way in life not long after.  Her family life falls apart, she begins cheating on her young husband with a string of men, and she starts experimenting with drugs.  Somehow, at twenty-six, she realizes that it is up to her to stop her downward spiral, and decides that a hike will help her to figure things out.  The hike is not a simple day hike. No. She commits to hiking the Pacific Crest Trail -- by herself -- a trail that stretches from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State. It will take months to accomplish, and she proceeds with little training, although she does read up on the trail and is somewhat prepared for the trials that she might face. The scene where she attempts to strap on her giant backpack for the first time is still with me. There are many memorable scenes in this book.  Personally, I wish she would have delved a little deeper into the darker areas of her relationship with her mother, but I also understand that this book isn't so much about her mother as it is about her coming to know herself.  I also would have enjoyed more visual descriptions of the terrain that she covered, but I guess that's what the movie is for.  Overall, I felt Strayed went pretty deep here, and that she was incredibly honest about herself, her shortcomings and her strengths. I can't imagine taking on this type of physical challenge, so I was surprised how delighted I was to accompany her on this journey, and maybe learn some things about myself along the way.

One thing that irritated me, though, was Strayed's habit of burning books on the trail as she finished them. I understand that she was trying to lighten her load, but why not put the books in the donation boxes that were along the way, for others to pick up and read?  Burning books is not cool. 

 

August, 2015

11. David, Ray Robertson (Biblioasis, 2012)

I'm very late writing this post.  I finished David for the first time back in June, and then summer happened, and I went out to UBC to take my last course for my MFA. Vacation took place once my course was finished, at which point I felt a second read was necessary if I were to do the book the justice it deserved.  I finished David for a second time earlier this week, and enjoyed it even more the second time around. 

My first introduction to Robertson's work was a collection of essays entitled Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live.  Robertson has a philosophy degree and it was put to great use in those essays.  I enjoyed that book so much that I decided to order a couple more of his titles from Biblioasis: David and Was There The Night He Died.

David  tells the story of a black man living in Chatham, ON in 1895.  Growing up in a nearby black settlement which was inspired by the Elgin Settlement, David has settled and made his life in Chatham after a falling out with the Reverend William King, who established the black settlement in the 1850s, where David was raised by his single mother, and educated by Reverend King.  The 'now' of the book is set in 1895, when David is told of the death of Reverend King.  The death of his old mentor leads David to examine his whole life, and a very colourful life it turns out to be. Once he is kicked out of the 'Eden' of the black settlement, which occurs right after the death of his mother, David must make his own way, and he does, though not always through legal means.  In the now of the story, David is well off, having made his fortune by running an illegal drinking establishment. Before he began pouring whiskey, however, he spent a number of years working as a grave robber, and before that as a factory worker. Now, he owns his own home, he has a large library of books that give him immense pleasure, and he has found a soulmate in the person of Loretta, a German ex-prostitute turned Chatham landlord, who wants to take him to Europe for a four-week holiday.  I found the exchanges between these two characters to be well-worth the price of admission.  Their discussions are believable and feisty, the relationship feels authentic, and I love that Loretta gives as good as she gets. David is a lucky man, and he knows it.

The characters are what make this book the gem that it is, not just David and Loretta, but the cast of secondary characters who people this book. What I found most impressive is how Robertson manages to move between the now of the story and multiple past periods in David's past without losing the reader, and that's an important skill for a novelist.  David is one of the most satisfying historical novels that I've read in a very long time.

 

October, 2015

12. Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout (Random House, 2008)

Again, I'm writing this post rather late. The Tortoise is living up to its name.  I finished Olive Kitteridge over a month ago and haven't found the time to write about my impressions because I've been inundated with appointments and trying to write to a deadline for my thesis advisor.  I'm in a sweet spot right now, though, so let's get this thing written.

I first heard about Olive Kitteridge  in 2013, after my first book, a collection of stories set in a small town on the St. Lawrence River, was published.  "Have you read Olive Kitteridge?" I was asked, more than once, by people that I trust to steer me in the right reading direction, so it seemed like a good idea to purchase a copy. 

It did not disappoint.  Nominally, we are covering the same sort of geographical terrain:  a series of stories set in a small town near water, but Olive Kitteridge is dominated by one character, whereas my book examines the small-town world through the eyes of several characters. Olive Kitteridge is also touted as a novel told in stories, which appears to be the new way to describe a collection of linked short stories.   Much like Ellen in Pieces, the stories pivot around a strong central character, but in this book's case, I found that I felt less invested in some of the stories where Olive did not figure prominently.  She is a flawed woman, a flawed character, which of course makes her interesting and worth reading about, and I found that I missed her when she didn't appear in a story.  Her relationship with her husband, Henry, is revealed layer by fascinating layer as the chapters unfold. This relationship feels authentic, and I love how we see it through both partners' eyes at various points in time. Her difficult relationship with her son also feels true; the desire she has to recapture the affection she felt they shared from an earlier time, her sadness and confusion as to why that is not ever likely to happen, the way they try to reach toward each other and yet end up pulling away -- it's all wonderfully portrayed. A strong central character, sharp writing, good stories. This is an excellent book.

I understand that Olive Kitteridge has recently been made into a mini-series starring Frances McDormand in the title role.  I'm excited to watch; I'm sure she will do the role justice.

 

July, 2016

13. Martin John, Anakana Schofield (Biblioasis, 2015)

I'm back, not having read much over the past year while I devoted quality time to my MFA thesis. It's finished, and I couldn't be happier. Time to read whatever I like, time to write whatever I want.

The first book I reached for was Martin John, by Anakana Schofield. This is Schofield's second novel.  Her first, Malarky, also published by Biblioasis, went on to win the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, and received many other accolades. I read it in three days, and loved it.

Martin John took me a little longer to read. It wasn't for lack of trying.  The book sucked me in immediately, but between finishing my thesis, and helping one of our kids to move to a new city, the end of spring and the beginning of summer, and, and, and, I found it took me nearly a month to finish it.  I felt cheated by that, so I read it again, as I alway do when I find a book that is compelling and unusual in so many ways. Where to start?

The subject matter: not easy. Martin John feels up young women, he exposes himself in public.  He's a sexual deviant, a *ervert, and part of the 'mission' of the narrator (who is as much a character in the book as anyone else) is to try to figure out what makes him do the things that he does. Of course, that's impossible, right? The narrator has no more access to what makes Martin John tick than his mother does, than we do as readers. The narrator documents his actions and the actions of his mother in an up-close manner, but she and we and Martin John's mother  never really gain access to the reasons for his behaviour. We suspect he is mentally ill, perhaps suffering from extreme OCD amongst other disorders, but the narrator tells us early on: "There are simply going to be things we won't know. It's how it is. As it is in life must it be unto the page. There's the known and the unknown. In the middle is where we wander and wonder." Wander and wonder is exactly what we do as we move through a time line that stretches from Martin John's teenage years to his mid-forties, but it is all jumbled, similar to the way Martin John's brain works -- in and out we go, around and around -- it is as if everything that has happened continues to happen. 

Even when Martin John is sent to England by his mother to give her a break and to keep him safe from both the authorities and the fists of the brothers of his victims, 'Mam' is never far from Martin John or his thoughts.  Mam is an amazing character in her own right -- frustrated, ashamed, stressed, in and out of denial about her son's proclivities; she wants 'it' to stop so she can have a normal life, whatever that might look like. 

This book is darkly funny, smartly put together, and the characters are unforgettable.  It's the best thing I've read since  Ellen in Pieces, by Caroline Anderson.

 

August, 2016

14. All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr (Scribner, 2014)

I first saw this book on a table at Chapters about two months ago. I read the synopsis, thought maybe, then recalled the 300+ unread books in my office and said 'no.' Be strong, Colette. Be strong. A couple of weeks later, Al and I were back in the same store because he needed a book for our summer vacation. This time Doerr's Pulitzer prize-winning book displayed a $15 sticker -- a deal! I read  the first page. It didn't disappoint, so I went home with it and I'm happy that I caved.

This novel is the perfect mix of great writing, vivid characters and well-executed plot. Set in France and Germany during World War II, the main characters are a young blind French girl and an orphaned German boy, who meet under extreme and stressful circumstances in Saint-Malo, France, August, 1944, after the Americans have nearly bombed the city into oblivion. That is 'the now' of the story. We spend a good deal of the book reading about Marie-Laure and Werner's childhoods, how they both ended up in Saint-Malo, France at the same time.  The story is told in short alternating chapters, their childhoods happening during the build up to the war and then the war years themselves.  Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her father before it is occupied by the Nazis, which necessitates their escape to Saint-Malo carrying what may or may not be a rare and cursed diamond from the Museum of Natural History where her father works. Meanwhile, Werner, alongside his sister Jutta, grows up an orphan in a German mining town with no hope of a better life until his interest in building radios catches the attention of the military leadership and he is sent away to military school.  Marie-Laure and Werner are the main characters, but there are other characters in the book who shine, Marie-Laure's father, her great Uncle Etienne, who owns the house in Saint-Malo that they flee to, his housekeeper, Madame Manec, Werner's sister Jutta, and Frederick, the ill-fated boy that Werner befriends at military school; also the giant, Volkheimer, who takes Werner under his wing both at school and once again when Werner is called up to serve in the German army.

This is a book about war, duty and resistance. It's a book about fear, bravery, loyalty and love, a book about knowing what is right but still doing wrong, of being caught up in a military machine that does its best to kill what it is to be human.  Reading the novel as Donald Trump runs to become president of the United States, a man who has vowed to 'make America great again', who sounds a little too much like Hitler, I cannot help but wonder what kind of world we will face and how we will respond if he actually does manage to win.

 

September/October 2016

15. This Is Not My Life: A Memoir Of Love, Prison, And Other Complications, Diane Schoemperlen (HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. 2016)

Over the course of a two-week period in September, I read Governor General's Award-winning author, Diane Schoemperlen's memoir about her almost six-year relationship with a prison inmate.  This book is Schoemperlen's first attempt at a memoir -- she is best known for her fiction -- and it does not disappoint. The first sentence of the book is one of the best first lines I've ever read. She goes on to write an engaging, personal, occasionally humorous, painful and honest account of a romantic relationship that is complicated by the fact that her lover is a convicted murderer, who has spent the past thirty years in prison.  Schoemperlen digs deep, trying to understand her attraction to a man who many women would never consider to be worthy of boyfriend or life-mate status.  She also furnishes the reader with a close-up look at the inner workings of our country's prison system. This book is an excellent read.

 

16. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov (Second Vintage International Edition, Random House, 1997)

How did I manage to get this far in my life without reading Lolita?

I've owned this copy for a while, as I generally make a point each year or so of purchasing an acknowledged classic that I have not yet read.  

Whenever the name 'Lolita' has come up in conversation over the years, it is almost always associated with the idea of a young promiscuous girl who enjoys having sex with older men.  Having now read the novel, I am left shaking my head as to why such a 'wink, wink, nod, nod' attitude has been attributed to this child character. Nabokov makes it very clear that Humber Humbert is a pedophile, who abducts Lolita, a girl who stands 'four feet ten in one sock' after her mother's untimely and, for his purposes, convenient death, then crosses state lines with her and proceeds to sexually assault her over a two year period because, in his own words, "she had absolutely nowhere else to go".  I think Nabokov does an amazing job of getting into the mind of a pedophile, trying to see him from his own point of view, until the end of the novel, that is, when Humbert appears to acknowledge his wrong doing and takes responsibility for the hurt he has caused Lolita. As a reader, I didn't buy it.  Pedophiles are not known for accepting responsibility for their actions; they blame their victims for the assaults, minimize the damage, come up with excuses for their own behaviour, often denying wrongdoing until their dying breath. The book is an amazing achievement nonetheless.

 

17. Startle and Illuminate: Carol Shields on Writing, Edited by Anne Giardini and Nicolas Giardini (Random House Canada, 2016)

I have a difficult time beginning a new writing project after spending my summer doing anything and everything but writing. I often find reading a book about our craft, written by a writer whom I admire, helps me to get the words flowing again.  Carol Shields has long been one of my favourite novelists and short story writers. I used to particularly enjoy seeing or hearing her interviewed. She had a way of expressing herself that used to make me feel like we were sitting down together over a cup of tea.  Shields died thirteen years ago but her daughter and grandson have gone through all of her papers and produced a wonderful volume on writing that is in Carol Shields' own words. I enjoyed spending time with this book. I could hear Shields' voice as I read it, and it helped me in exactly the way that I hoped it would.

 

November, 2016

18. We're All In This Together, Amy Jones (McClelland&Stewart, 2016)

I picked up We're All In This Together while vacationing in St. John's, NL this past summer.  I was aware of Amy Jones from having read a short story of hers a few years ago in The New Quarterly that resonated with me.  She's also published a collection of short stories with Biblioasis called What Boys Like: And Other Stories (2009) which I have not yet read.  So, author recognition, but also a really intriguing cover that drew me to We're All In This Together.  The blurbs on the back cover suggested a funny, sad, engaging family drama, and it just so happened that I was in the mood for that type of story.

Over the course of the novel, we are introduced to the members of the Parker family of Thunder Bay.  Each chapter is told from the point of view of one of the Parker's, so we get to know each of the siblings and their parents more intimately than if the story was told from a single point of view.

The novel begins with Finn's POV -- she is one of two twin daughters, the one who got away from Thunder Bay and now lives in Toronto.  Despite vowing never to go back, she finds herself returning to Thunder Bay after her mother launches herself over a waterfall in a barrel, becoming an Internet sensation, and ends up in hospital. The book is funny right from the start. I liked Finn immediately, and enjoyed being introduced to her family through her eyes.  It quickly becomes apparent  that something isn't right with Kate Parker, the matriarch of the family, and over the course of the book we come to realize that she is suffering from a form of dementia.  Katie's dementia is not funny, and it isn't treated that way in this book, but it is a trigger or flash point that forces her fractured family back together, often with hilarious, sad, and messy and touching results. 

I really enjoyed this book, and was left wondering why We're All In This Together didn't receive any prize love this season.  Here's hoping Jones gets serious consideration from The Leacock Foundation in Spring 2017.

 

December, 2016

19. In Another Country: Selected Stories, David Constantine (Biblioasis, 2015)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"I speak my mind freely on all things, even on those which perhaps exceed my capacity and which I by no means hold to be within my jurisdiction. And so the opinion I give of them is to declare the measure of my sight, not the measure of things." -- Michel de Montaigne. 

This bookshelf resides in a small alcove in my upstairs office.  These are the books I have purchased but have not yet read.  I have an even larger bookshelf downstairs in the living room where I keep the books that I have read. Yikes, eh?  My plan for “The Tortoise” is to post the title of the book that I am currently reading, and to offer my personal thoughts and reflections on the last book that I read. In this exercise, I am a reader speaking to fellow readers; I do not consider myself to be a book critic.