Shadow Giller: The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

28513019I put off writing my review of The Wonder for a couple of weeks after reading Kim’s excellent review. I couldn’t see how I could add anything more. But I have taken some time to forget about what she wrote so that I can concentrate on my own notes.

Fans of Emma Donoghue will surely be picking this book up, but I hope that those of you who are new to Donoghue’s work will also consider reading it. Inspired by historical accounts of “Fasting Girls“, Donoghue has created a story about a young girl, her family, and her nurse.

In an Irish village very soon after the terrible Potato Famine, Anna has stopped taking food. For months she has supposedly been living off of nothing, which has caused a great stir. People want to come see her, they want to know if this is for real. So a committee is formed; one that includes the local doctor and priest. They hire two nurses to take turns watching over the girl to ensure that she isn’t secretly taking in sustenance.

Nurse Lib, who was trained by Florence Nightingale, travels to the village already with doubts as to the possibility of the situation. She imagines that she won’t be around long before the girl is discovered as a fraud. But, after a few days, it’s obvious to her that even if Anna had been receiving sustenance before the nurses began their watch, there certainly isn’t any way she could be now. Which means that the two-week watch could now be actually causing the girl to die. Lib tries to convince Anna to take food, but Anna refuses. Lib believes that if she can figure out the reason behind Anna’s decision to fast, she may be able to turn the tides. But what could it be?

One week exactly since Lib had arrived from London. So full of confidence she’d been – misplaced confidence in her own acuity, it had turned out. She’d thought to be back at the hospital by now, putting Matron in her place. Instead she was trapped here, in these same greasy-feeling sheets, no nearer to understanding Anna O’Donnell than she’d been a week ago. Only more muddled, and exhausted, and troubled by her own part in these events.

The beginning of the book, with the introduction to the story and the setting, immediately pulled me in; then there was a bit of a lag in the middle when I wondered if the rest of the book would just be Lib’s travels back and forth between the village and Anna’s cabin. But it picked up again as the race against time became obvious, and the frustrations Lib found herself coming up against in trying to deal with, and talk reason into, Anna’s family, her doctor, and the rest of the committee who were determined to see the two week observation period through to the end.

28449257This is a good book; the history, the religious politics, the setting, and the characters. In particular, I found the attitudes and beliefs of the characters the most interesting aspect of the story. The doctor was hoping to make a great discovery; the possibility of human existence without the need for food. Anna’s family seemed paralyzed by their religious beliefs. And Nurse Lib was an interesting character; she made mistakes and held a prejudice against the Irish – one that represented the feelings about them in other parts of the world at the time (“What a rabble, the Irish. Shiftless, thriftless, hopeless, hapless, always brooding over past wrongs.”). But she was also strong and passionate about her cause, and a good nurse. “Good nurses follow rules… but the nest know when to break them.”

The end was an exciting finish, but felt a little too ‘fairy tale-ish’ for my tastes. However, I’m sure there will be many readers out there who will find it satisfying.

This book will do well. But as good as it is, and as popular as it will be, is it what the Giller jury is looking for? Are they looking for a good story? Or are they looking for a book that will make you question what you thought you knew, a book that will give you the urge to read it again, or one that leaves you with a burning desire to talk it over with friends? On November 7th, we will find out.

*Thank you to HarperCollins Canada for sending me a copy of this book for review! 


A review in The Star calls The Wonder a “powerful exploration of religion and the sway it holds“.

A review in The New Yorker explores some of the history behind Donoghue’s book.

Emma Donoghue’s interview with Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter.

Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush by Kerry Lee Powell

25818227Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush was longlisted for the Giller Prize, is a finalist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Awards. So, of course I had to read it.

As I have mentioned before, I prefer novels to short stories. However, short stories have their place in my life, and I love it when I discover a collection that has me turning the pages. There are collections that are good but start to feel same-y, and there are collections that have you looking forward to the next story before you’ve even finished the one you’re reading. That was this book. The writing and the variety of stories was fantastic, and I can’t wait to see what she writes next.

I made notes and jotted down passages from every story in this book, but I fear I would be typing forever if I talked about all 15 stories. So, some highlights…

In a Kingdom Beneath the Sea, the narrator observes the other characters around her. She is one of the older strippers in this seedy joint, and if she can’t keep the weight off, she’ll be on her way out soon, making way for the younger slimmer women. One of the new girls has an admirer; someone who wants to save her from herself. But her brothers have a stake in her ‘career’ and are guarding her every move. “Today’s the day Mitchell Burnhope gets the royal shit kicked out of him.

The title story, Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush, was inspired by de Kooning’s “Woman” series of paintings. A couple goes on vacation to L.A.. Boyd loves it but his girlfriend, the narrator, does not; specifically the mega roller coaster she felt obligated to go on. At the airport, on the way home, a man attacks Boyd out of the blue. He insists that he is okay, so they board the plane and fly home. But, as time goes on, it becomes apparent that he is not okay. His girlfriend feels guilty and responsible as though she was the one who conjured up the attacker to “punish Boyd for being so annoying“. Boyd begins acting very strangely, and his girlfriend feels powerless, like she is drowning in the “ugliness”.

Things happen and can’t unhappen.

The incandescent lights in her nightmares began to leach into her waking hours, filling them with slashes of violent colour. As if a screen had been pulled to one side, instead of suburban streets she now saw primal violence, in the snarling grilles of oncoming traffic, in the sharp angles of buildings and the sudden movements of strangers. Why would anyone pay to go on a roller coaster when this restless malevolence was everywhere to be had for free?

The narrator in There Are Two Pools You May Drink From has wandered far and wide over the years since high school. She hasn’t kept in touch with anyone. But she’s finally given up on the idea that there’s a “mythical place where I’ll find everlasting happiness“, and she’s gone on a journey to hunt down those “hazy figures from my past” in order to “make peace with my former self“. Most of the story takes place at Lindy’s house as the narrator remembers back to when they were girls. Lindy, who she was always so jealous of, but who, unlike her, has lived a quiet stationary life.

But looking at Lindy I see for a moment, as if through a chink in a stone wall, how it is possible to keep steady while the hands travel across the clock’s face, how the smallest variations in the yard might give comfort as the years pass, why children beg to be told the same story again and again.

How far will Christoff go in The Spirit of Things to get away from life with his father?

Sometimes Christoff stuffed cotton wool in his ears to shut him out, but his father’s voice was nearly always ringing in his head, long before the real shouting started, and long after it stopped.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn Property of Fatty, Calvin’s life is goes from bad to worse when he hastily decides to go on “vacation” with some guy he met at the Boogaloo; a guy who thinks “You can tell a lot about people by the shape of their ass… It’s like a second face.”

All the characters in Scenes of Acapulco seem messed-up or unhappy. Bonnie and Troy are getting married; Bonnie’s friend tells her Troy is dumb, while Troy’s buddy tells him Bonnie’s a sneak. You can’t help but think the marriage will never make it, especially after you find out what really went on all those years ago when Bonnie disappeared.

In Social Studies, Ada gets a job in a dingy bar where the customers do their best to make her want to run for the hills like the many bartenders before her.

In Vulnerable Adults, Lauren realizes that, like her, her husband Jacko is feeling ‘stuck’ “… scared of descending into the underworld, but just as terrified of whatever might be wandering vicious and free on the surface.

Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush is one of the two short story collections on the Giller longlist this year, the other being The Two of Us by Kathy Page. (my review) Two strong collections coming from opposite sides of the country. If you love short stories (or even if you don’t), you will not want to miss these.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABlurbs and further reading:

This is fiction’s ‘unflinching eye’ at its most powerful, the gaze that spies out the heartbreaking cycle of human cruelty and refuses to look away. A reader might buckle under the weight of the world portrayed if it weren’t for the beauty of the prose itself, the imagery that rings on in the subconscious long after the closing line.” Alissa York, author of Fauna and The Naturalist

What the reader will find in Powell’s stories is a deep and abiding care, for language, in the zinging comic exchange that never misses a beat; for imagery, in the clarity that emerges out of a grey background, tough and fragile but impossible to ignore; for all her lost, ragged characters, in their struggle to get back to some misplaced sense of home. These are beautiful stories, they will make you think and they will make you feel and they will always, always reward your attention.” Alexander MacLeod, author of Light Lifting

A review in the National Post says of Kerry Lee Powell’s stories that ” it is impossible to pick a crown jewel. Each one feels like the favourite until the next. I couldn’t agree more.

Kerry Lee Powell on The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers, on writing about trauma.

“I would say that my biggest preoccupation as a writer has been with trauma, and more importantly with surviving trauma.”

Kerry Lee Powell’s website, where you can read more about this book as well as her poetry collections.


Shadow Giller: Yiddish For Pirates by Gary Barwin


Gary Barwin’s imagination knocked my socks off. History and adventure come together in this remarkable tale full of word play and wit, all told by a 500-year-old Yiddish-speaking parrot.

So, you ask, how did this shell-less cheder-bocher – schoolboy – drawn from the waters of Ashkenaz find himself on the Spanish Main, the blade of his sword pressed against the quivering kishkas of Spanish captains? How did Columbus, the Inquisition, and the search for some books cause us to seek for life everlasting?

And, come to think of it, how did I, an African Grey, become his mishpocheh, his family, and he my perch, my shoulder in the world?

And so begins the tale of Moishe and Aaron, his parrot.

A bookmark without a book doesn’t know where it is. Moishe was my slim volume, my scrawny story. My shoulder.

Together they take on the Inquisition,

“Since the beginning, they have tried to kill us Jews, but ha-Shem – God – gives the story a little, what you would call, a drey, a twist, and then somehow, we aren’t destroyed. Until the next time.”

Christopher Columbus the pompous,

The ship’s master unfurled the flag of the Spanish Kingdoms and planted it in the sand. For we shall have dominion over every living thing that moveth upon the earth and have a fancy brocaded flag to prove it.

and the Ocean Sea.

To be at sea is to know vastness, to understand the flight of clouds, the reach of the stars and of invention. He was riding the expanding ripples of God’s great cannonball. Moishe felt as if he were travelling in every direction at once, each direction away from home, toward story.

They seek “revenge and retribution from Spanish ships and their gold”,

Was I surprised my hopeful pink boychik Moishe had turned pirate? Feh.

God Hisself would have turned pirate if, on bumping into the New World, He had seen that the othershtupping Spanish had discovered only a larger canvas on which to paint their murderous scenes. The same hateful fire burned inside their poxy hearts as fueled Inquisition flames. They had persecuted Jews. Now they persecuted Los Indios.

and they search for the Fountain of Eternal Life.

“Ach, who needs immortal life?” I answered. “It’s but a larger sack to fill with misery.”

“But it works the other way, too,” Moishe said. “Trouble would scatter like ashes in the wind over a life-without-end. And anyway, it’s the Fountain of Youth, so you’re made young again. Younger than your memories, younger than your pain.”

“Eternal relief.”

“An everlasting finger to those who tried to erase us: here we are, a permanent stain on the pages of history.”

They suffer great sorrow but maintain hope for the future.

I wish that we, too, could leave this meiskeit-ugly bloodletting. That we, too, could silently row out of this story and find another one, a story where more blood stayed in the body. Sha. I’m only looking for this treasure, these books, this poxy fountain, because, like a shlemiel, I still believe – keneynehoreh – in life instead of death. But, takeh, it’d be easier to be dead.

And through it all, Aaron can’t help but crack his jokes.

I smiled sheepishly. If a parrot could be said to be sheepish. Or to smile.


This book comes with a warning: despite the jolly feel of the novel, there are some very graphic scenes of violence. You’re thinking it be the pirates. But, sadly, the worst of it comes from the “good guys”; the Catholics in Spain ridding the country of heretics, and the great explorers of the New World who think the Native Islanders are soul-less.

Yiddish For Pirates is not a quick read, but every word is enjoyable. I giggled and smirked, felt anger and awe, and at the end of it all I shed a tear. I was sad to see Aaron go.

In the Acknowledgements, Barwin says that he dedicates this book to his family: “I have tried to infuse it with wonder, thoughtfulness, wit, intelligence, culture, love and compassion. If I have succeeded in this in any way, it is because I have learned these things from them.”

He has succeeded.


With Yiddish For Pirates, Gary Barwin has earned every last ‘blurb’ about his book. Here are a couple that I especially like:

“All my life I have been waiting for the romantic tale of a Kabbalistic Jewish pirate as filtered through a uniquely Canadian perspective. Today, my prayers have been answered and then some.” Gary Shteyngart, author of Little Failure

“What an accomplishment! What an imagination! The wit, the wordplay, and the subversive humour make this a thoroughly original and delightful novel.” Lauren B. Davis, Scotiabank Giller Prize–nominated author of Our Daily Bread and Against a Darkening Sky

For someone so accomplished, I’m embarrassed to say that I had never heard of him until his book made the Giller longlist. Happily, that has been rectified, and I hope the treasure that is Yiddish For Pirates will bring him much well-deserved recognition.


Yiddish for Pirates is also a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction.

The review in the Globe & Mail claims that Yiddish For Pirates is “unlike anything else you’ll read this year”.

The review in The Star reveals some of what Barwin was thinking as he wrote his book.

“Pirates were these word-invention machines. These insults and swashbuckling threats are such a juicy joy to speak,” he says. “That’s a component of that in Yiddish as well. People who speak Yiddish love to revel in the Yiddishisms and clever charismatic ways of saying things. It’s so fun to riff off of those.”

Gary Barwin’s interview with Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter.

*Thank you to Random House of Canada for sending me a copy of this book for review!


Shadow Giller: The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall

[Rape Culture’s] most devilish trick is to make the average non-criminal person identify with the person accused, instead of the person reporting the crime…                                                                                                       – Kate Harding, ‘Asking For It’

29220492This book is timely, insightful, and a page-turner. This is a book that will appeal to a wide audience, and will get people talking. And thinking: How would you react if someone you loved and trusted was charged with the worst of crimes? The Best Kind of People is an examination of rape culture; what it looks like and how it affects us, the victims as well as the accused.

No one saw it coming.

Everyone loves George. He’s a charming and generous family man; everyone’s favourite teacher at the school. He has a devoted wife and a loving son and daughter. So, when he is arrested for several counts of sexual assault and attempted rape, everyone is shocked. Everyone’s first reaction is denial. But, over time, the doubt begins to creep in. His daughter, Sadie, feels it first, along with guilt and shame. What if?

… if even a portion of the allegations against him were true, then what would her support mean? She was hit with a powerful surge of guilt. When your family needs you, you should be there.

“But his blood is in mine… What if he is guilty? What would that make me?”

Then again, what if he’s innocent? There is still irreparable damage done either way. Even if found innocent, it would be hard to go back to the way things were before. Never again would there be a sense of safety and peace of mind.

For months Joan would replay this moment, trying to decipher the look on her husband’s face. Was it guilt? Confusion? Indignation? Stoicism? Acting? But nothing, not even a revolving camera of omniscience, a floating momentary opportunity to narrate, would allow anyone to truly understand the truth about George. He became a hard statue, an obstacle, a symbol. // The father and the husband, from that moment, had been transformed.

Not knowing felt worse than knowing something for sure, even something terrible.

With the shifting of perspective between the three family members, (George’s wife Joan, their older son Andrew, and their 17-year-old daughter Sadie), Whittall manages to bring us three different standpoints. Sadie who has doubts from the beginning, Joan who is a full supporter and so desperate to have things back to the way they were, and Andrew who tries to remain neutral but feels the tremendous pressure. I was struck by how realistically she was able to have these three family members with their own, often differing, thoughts on the case still be able to come together and support each other despite their differences, rather than be torn apart. They did not always get along, they did not always agree, but there was always love.

“You don’t stop loving someone in an instant because someone accuses them of something despicable. Nothing is that black and white.”

Nothing is that black and white. And Whittall takes this and runs with it. There is so much grey in this book that you will want to hash it all out; in your own head and with someone else. Aside from the question of George’s guilt and all the questions it holds for his family, the book addresses issues of victim blaming and rights for men. When you see the result of these young girls speaking up, it becomes very clear as to why so many of them just don’t. The public attention and ridicule doesn’t seem worth it.

“Your father is a symbol of all that feminism has done to cause hysteria on this world. Hysteria has become law! Feminists show specific signs of mental illness, and you can see, this is what happens when these women get too much power. Innocent men go to jail because girls aren’t taught anything about being decent and responsible human beings. They are taught they can do anything, and deserve special treatment, and men have to pay for it.”

What I liked best in this book was Joan’s point of view as the long-time wife of George and mother of two children who she had to keep herself held together for (most of the time). As you might expect, her feelings and thoughts were all over the place. And then she also had to take in and register everyone else’s feelings and thoughts on it all; her children, her friends, her co-workers, and her sister (who had strong opinions on the subject, and wasn’t afraid to tell Joan what she thought). She had to take all this in, hold it all together, while trying to sort out her own feelings and try to put some semblance of a life back together. How do you reconcile with the fact that all you’ve ever known and trusted in life is suddenly in doubt? She went through the whole gamut of emotions; guilt, shame, a sense of betrayal, loss of control, lack of trust (in anyone). I felt everyone’s pain, and I will not deny that there were tears.

“You’re feeling ashamed, but you shouldn’t. This is not your fault.” // “I am not ashamed,” Joan spat at her. The truth was that the shame Joan felt was so expansive and so forceful that it couldn’t be something described by as few as five letters, something so commonplace. This was something else entirely. “A word doesn’t even exist for what I’m feeling,” Joan mumbled.

“And that is the entirety of the life lesson I have learned from this experience. No one has control. At all.”

And, the ending. The ending will keep you awake at night. Is it satisfying? Is it revolting? Is it inconceivable? Is it what most of us would have done? What would I have done? I know what I would have liked myself to have done, but that’s not the same thing.  I didn’t know what to think. I confess to feeling a strange sense of relief that disgusted and confused me. However it is that you feel about it, you will all want to talk about it.

Heavy stuff, right? Except that the way Whittall writes doesn’t feel too heavy. It feels effortless and conversational. She even throws in some humour to lighten things up.

Are you serious? might be the dumbest thing people say, as a way to buy time to let very serious things sink in.

Andrew hadn’t thought about Stuart for years, and really only mentioned him when anyone asked him for his “coming out” story, which rarely happened anymore. Younger guys didn’t seem to have that ritual of exchanging stories of revelation, denial, acceptance, estrangement. These days they seemed to say, “What? I’ve always been gay. Here I am in day care in my Glad to be gay! onesie. What are you harping about, old guy?”

This book is written mostly from the point of view of the family of the accused, who are an upper-class white family. One thing I would like to have seen is more of a focus on the victims and their families. But that’s not the story the author chose to tell. She did touch on it, and it was an interesting twist to have the sister of Sadie’s best friend be one of the victims. In any case, there is still much to devour and ponder in this book; some things I haven’t even touched on in this review. I highly recommend it.

Best line: Outside, the leaves appeared to have reddened overnight, going mad alongside her.

Thank you to House of Anansi  for providing me with a copy of this book for review!


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor more information about Zoe Whittall and her other works, visit her website.

“Zoe Whittall might just be the cockiest, brashest, funniest, toughest, most life-affirming, elegant, scruffy, no-holds-barred writer to emerge from Montreal since Mordecai Richler…”
– The Globe and Mail

Review in The Globe & Mail: The Best Kind of People arrives at exactly the right moment

“I’m happy with how it turned out, but I feel, like every writer, you imagine how you could continue to write it forever.”

Review at the National Post: Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People delves into rape culture with a family broken by secrets

“Despite the plot’s real-world resonances, The Best Kind of People’s strength is in its commitment to the people themselves – tracking their shared and individual psychology over time, neither mindlessly sympathetic nor sadistic. Although invested in the politics at work, Whittall also observes and dissects filial loyalty, to profound effect.”



Literary Wives: American Housewife by Helen Ellis

literarywives2Literary Wives is an on-line book club that examines the meaning and role of wife in different books. Every other month, we post and discuss a book with this question in mind:

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Don’t forget to check out the other members of Literary Wives to see what they have to say about the book!

25472765American Housewife by Helen Ellis

I don’t know if, by writing American Housewife, Ellis was trying to make a statement or if she was just having some fun (or both). But it did raise some questions for me, and this is my attempt to talk about them. (Warning: It’s possible that what I have to say has nothing whatsoever to do with the book.)

American Housewife is a short story collection that is at times entertaining and clever, and at other times a bit silly. To figure out what she was trying to say about the experience of being a wife wasn’t easy. Some of the stories lend themselves better to this theme than others, but after reading a review of the book at Pickle Me This, I realized that the one thing they all have in common is that the wives in the stories are all childless.

My entire experience of being a housewife (not sure I like that term, but I’ll go with it for now) has been one of also being a mother. And everyone I (personally) know who stays home also has children. So, this is new territory for me. What do I know about being a housewife who doesn’t have children? For me, taking care of my children is the main part (by far) of my job as a ‘housewife’, and the most rewarding.

On the other hand, even without kids there are lots of things that need to get done; so many possibilities. How do I know this? Because these are all the things I never seem to be able to get to because I’m too busy doing the child-related things and keeping up with the basics. However, one person’s idea of ‘things to do’ might be very different from another person’s. Ellis explores this a little in “The Wainscoting War” where decorating the house becomes too important in the woman’s life, and eventually comes between her and her husband. Picking up some kind of a hobby, though, might have been beneficial to the housewife in “Dead Doormen” (and to the doormen).

In some of the stories, like “What I Do All Day” and Hello! Welcome To Book Club“, she almost seems to be making fun of being a housewife (in an affectionate kind of way). The wife in “What I Do All Day” weeps because she is lucky enough to have a drawer full of glitter. And, the women in the book club all have secret book club names (“as long as you take care of book club, book club takes care of you”).

In “Dumpster Diving With the Stars” and “How To Be A Patron of the Arts” the wives, who are writers, seem to be wrestling with the decision to stay home as a writer, even when not getting published, rather than working outside the house. In “How To Be A Patron of the Arts” the wife is burning herself out writing on weekends with a full-time job during the week, so that she has something ‘to fall back on’ that’s not her husband. When he suggests to her that she stay home and write, she cries. Relief? Failure? Gratitude? Is that not what partners are for – to support each other? That’s my official standpoint, but I’m as guilty as the next person for doubting myself. No one likes to feel dependent on another person, but we are also not meant to do everything on our own.

I think the hardest thing about being a housewife is feeling proud of what you do. I dread the question: What do you do for a living? because I know people have strong opinions on it, and that many people don’t value domestic work. Next, I dread the question: So, what do you do all day? When I answer this, I always feel defensive. (Is this not a rude question?) So many things! And every one of them is valuable to me and to my family. So valuable that I choose to do them even though I don’t get paid.

Every couple finds what works for them, and there are no right or wrong answers (as long as everyone is happy with their choices). But domestic roles are still undervalued.* Which means that housewives are still doubting their decision to stay home, even if that’s what works best for them. It almost seems worse now that women have so many more options open to them; like if we still choose to stay home we’re turning our backs on progress. And often, we are our own worst enemy; doubting ourselves and criticizing others.

In “How To Be A Grown-Ass Lady” and “Take It From Cats“, I found some helpful hints for anyone: “Don’t sit on a toilet in front of anyone, ever”, “Forget thongs”, “Listen to erotic audiobooks when you scrub the bathroom floor”, and “Even though you can take care of yourself, it’s okay to let someone be nice to you.

Best line: I fix myself a hot chocolate because it is a gateway drug to reading.

*Child care is undervalued as well, but that’s a rant for another time, since there are no children in this book.

Don’t forget to see what the other Literary Wives thought of the book! Next we’ll be reading Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood. Join us if you can!


Giller Longlist: The Two of Us by Kathy Page

28818591This is one of the few books on the Giller Prize longlist that I hadn’t heard of. It’s also one of the only two short story collections on the list. The other being Willem De Kooning’s Paintbrush by Kerry Lee Powell.

Admittedly, short story collections aren’t my usual fare, but this is a strong collection that kept my interest throughout.  Among these 16 stories that vary from 4 to 20 pages, you will come across spouses growing old together, a child and her mother battling it out at the dinner table, a hairdresser and a cancer patient, a lonely mother who has alienated herself from her son, old lovers, new lovers, a woman struggling with weight issues, homeless people trying to find a place to call home,  a swim coach and his protégé. There is nothing outrageous about them; they are snapshots of people’s lives, so many different lives. It’s in reading stories like these that I realize how varied we are, yet still fundamentally the same; we feel pain, love, hurt, betrayal, fear, joy, loneliness, shame. And we all long for the same things: to matter, to belong. “United by her characters’ primal desire for intimacy, these stories reflect our yearning for meaningful connection.”

Snippets to whet your appetite:

I saw that love could not be done by halves. Nor was it rational, or fair. It demanded dedication, as did its opposite, hate.

Seated, she looked at him properly for the first time. She judged his hair to be ever-so-slightly thinner on the crown of his head and cut shorter. She recognized his long-fingered hands with their baby-pink, neatly filed nails. But the lips she had crossed the city for, changing buses three times – those weren’t here. Instead, a different pair of lips stood out on Simon’s face, fissured, bloody, and swollen to almost twice their usual size. Skin blistered from them in bubbles and rags, as if they were being barbecued.

We are killing each other, she thought again. By inches. Or mouthfuls. Sometimes deliciously, but not always so. They were killing each other routinely, sometimes grudgingly or argumentatively, and mostly they were unaware of what they were doing. By now, she could see it, the strangeness of the pact they were joined in without ever having discussed it or consented to its goals and terms. Gravity pulled down on every pound of her flesh. She was her own worst enemy, and his.

….when she kissed me on the mouth, it was as if she was turning me gently inside out to look for something she had lost.

There was no point in being pushy, and, as he explained to Annette, it was all too easy for parents to think you were some kind of pervert, especially once your hair started to thin. These days, he said, it’s probably better all round to be female, but some things can’t be helped.

I’m doing it for both of us, because this is how we must go: muffled, blinkered and blind, empty of knowledge, fearless, deaf to warnings and ignorant of history. You and I, the two of us, moving on, but also going back to where everyone has been before.

This is the first book I’ve read by Kathy Page, but I’m looking forward to reading more; perhaps one of her novels.  Her fifth novel, The Story of My Face, was long-listed for the Orange Prize in 2002, the sixth,Alphabet, was nominated for a Governor General’s award in 2005, and in 2011, The Find was shortlisted for a Relit Award.

The Two of Us did not advance to the shortlist, but don’t let that stop you from considering this book the next time you’re in the mood for some short stories.

Thanks to Biblioasis for providing me with a copy of this book for review!


The Hidden Keys by André Alexis

29363400In the last two books I’ve read by André Alexis, there have been sheep and there have been dogs. The Hidden Keys has very few animals, but is still filled with interesting characters; a thief, an addict, a drug-dealer, a thug, an artist who stuffs deceased pets for a living, and a few billionaires.

What do all these characters have in common? They are all involved, in some way, in a treasure hunt; either in pursuit of the treasure, or in pursuit of the people who are in pursuit of the treasure.

It all started when Willow Azarian (the aging heroin addict) went up to Tancred (the thief), and told him the story of her family’s billions, her father’s death, the money he left them all, and most importantly the mementos he left each of the five Azarian siblings. Willow believes they hold clues to a further treasure/discovery. She’s not interested in the treasure as much as she is interested in finding out if she is right, or if there is a further message from her father who she was close to. She wants Tancred to steal each of the mementos from her siblings, and help her figure out the mystery.

Now, Tancred may be a thief, but he’s a nice person. He gives Willow his word that he will help her, starting a chain reaction of antics involving many characters; the drug-dealer and his thug who want in on the action, the artist who made the original mementos and has always suspected they held more meaning, the five Azarian siblings who have their own opinions about their father and his mementos, Tancred’s friend Olivier who helps him steal on occasion, Tancred’s friend Daniel who is a detective on the case and wishes he were not, and the man in the graveyard hired by more than one of them to keep watch over a mysterious mausoleum.

This book was a lot of fun to read. What I liked:

  • The puzzle/mystery/treasure hunt at the heart of the story. Following along while they pieced together the clues and went searching for the treasure was a lot of fun. The big question being: is there even going to be a treasure at the end of it all, and if so, what will it be?
  • The characters were all different and unique. We get a bit of backstory on each one to explain how he/she got to where they are today. None of them are good or bad, but a combination of both. I found the friendship between Tancred and his friends touching. Having been friends for life, and knowing each other so well, they are accepting of each other and how they live their lives.
  • Alexis is not afraid to make his characters look ridiculous. A couple of Tancred and Olivier’s heists turn into slapstick comedy scenes. And Colby makes a fool of himself trying to insert himself into a higher position of power. Stealing an old man’s leg to break into a building is beyond absurd. But they pull it off.
  • For fans of Fifteen Dogs, Majnoun and his owners make an appearance at a dinner party.
  • Inspired by a reading  of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, The Hidden Keys questions what it means to be faithful and what it means to be good. This theme plays out the most through Tancred’s character; to help Willow and faithfully keep his word to her, he has to lie to people he knows and steal from people he doesn’t want to steal from. For the first time in his career, he feels conflicted about what he does for a living. At a certain point, he no longer has an interest in the outcome; he is merely continuing because he gave his word to Willow. His friend Daniel (the Detective) also has some soul-searching to do when he begins to suspect who is behind the rash of Azarian robberies.

But you have to remember there is a difference between doing good and thinking you’re doing good. Almost everyone thinks they’re doing good. But we know too little, Tancred. I mean humans know too little. When a man has so little idea what the consequences of an action will be, how can he know if he’s doing good or not?

I’m convinced it takes a certain amount of faith to do good, Tancred. Not faith in God. I mean, faith that the actions you take will have the outcomes you desire.

I don’t know why people don’t worship chance. It’s as powerful as any of the gods and it doesn’t need money, doesn’t punish, doesn’t care what you eat on Friday. I’m not a believer, but if I was going to be, I’d worship chance. You could have churches that look like dice.

The only reservation I have about wholeheartedly praising this book is the ending. After the lead-up to the end, I felt ever-so-slightly dissatisfied. On the other hand, I don’t know how else he might have ended it. In any case, the journey this book takes you on is well worth the possibility of a small disappointment at the end; one that is entirely subjective.

One thing I have learned after reading three books by André Alexis: I find his writing soothing; like I know I am firmly in the hands of a good storyteller.  He’s also good at making me think. Can’t wait for his next one!


Thank you to the folks at Coach House Books for sending me a copy of this book for review!

A review of The Hiddden Keys at The Star in which the reviewer reminds us that The Hidden Keys is the third book in a quincunx, a series of five interrelated novels.