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Lauren B. Davis (Princeton, New Jersey)

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The Quiet Twin
The Quiet Twin
by Dan Vyleta
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 18.80
4 used & new from CDN$ 12.30

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Masterful!, Jan. 1 2013
This review is from: The Quiet Twin (Hardcover)
Dan Vyleta, with whom, in the interest of full disclosure I have crossed paths at a couple of literary festivals, is a writer of significance and elegance. Dan is the son of Czech refugees who emigrated to Germany in the late 1960s, although he now lives and teaches in the Great Lakes region of the US. His European background is a clear influence on this work, which takes place in Vienna, in the autumn of 1939 -- shortly after Austria's annexation by the Nazis.

The book blurb will tell you what you need to know of the plot, but allow me to say this is a novel of intricate subtly and slight of hand -- things are not always as they seem. In the afterword, Vyleta says: "My primary interest in this book belonged with the arm of opportunists whose crimes were at times as grave in their consequences as those perpetrated by the true believers. Sixty-five years after the Second World War it is easy for most of us to convince ourselves we could never have belonged amongst those who would have held wrong-headed beliefs; it is a more nagging question to wonder what one might have done in order to secure some modicum of social and material success."

Set in a claustrophobic apartment block the novel's vividly-rendered characters watch their neighbors and speculate about the violent going-ons so that what is public and what is private is called into question -- threat builds and the bodies mount up, but the assumptions drawn, by reader and characters alike, shift and then shift again. It's masterfully done.

The tone of the novel, the shrouded backdrop of National Socialism and all that implies -- so rancid and corrosive -- acts as another central character. Mood and atmosphere simply ooze off the pages. There are shades of "Rear Window" here, if that play had been written by Goebbels.

HIGHLY recommended.

The Nettle Spinner
The Nettle Spinner
by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 16.02
17 used & new from CDN$ 3.01

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful writing, Sept. 28 2012
This review is from: The Nettle Spinner (Paperback)
From the beauty of the writing, it's hard to believe this is Kuitenbrouwer's first novel.

This is a fascinating tale, which intertwines the fable of a woman pursued by a feudal lord, with that of a modern woman dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault and the resultant pregnancy. The fable is based on a Flemish and French fairy tale collected by Charles Deulin and which Andrew Lang included in The Red Fairy Book. In it the lord forces the woman who is the object of his obsession to spin the cloth to be used for her wedding shift and his shroud from nettles. As she makes his shroud, however, the lord falls ill and does not recover until she stops spinning. When later he becomes ill again, and so ill he wishes to die, he cannot do so until she finishes his shroud.

The protagonist of Kuitenbrouwer's novel, Alma, is a young woman at odds with modern life who heads out into the north to plant trees with a somewhat motley and rootless crew. There, she is raped, runs deep into the forest and discovers she is pregnant. She holes up in a cabin with a mysterious elderly leprechaun-like recluse, who may or may not be real. He claims, after all, to be a survivor of the Titanic.

Kuitenbrower captures the verisimilitude of camp life in the north perfectly, and it's not a pretty picture. My skin crawled and I wanted to take a bath after reading about the filth, the bugs, the sweat, the dirt, and the back-breaking, repetitive, mind-numbing toil. But her writing is so lovely, and so perfectly suited to the fable-like quality of the narrative, that I was glued to the page.

This is a dreamy, lyrical novel, which nonetheless manages to create a brooding, menacing atmosphere. I thoroughly enjoyed it and can't wait to see what she'll do next.

The Beggar's Garden
The Beggar's Garden
by Michael Christie
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 12.26
2 used & new from CDN$ 4.94

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A fine collectoin, Aug. 19 2012
This review is from: The Beggar's Garden (Paperback)
This is a fine collection of linked short stories. Christie worked in homeless shelter in the rough Eastside neighborhood of Vancouver BC. Clearly he was touched by the people he met there, for the empathy he feels for the people he writes about -- the addicted, the mentally ill, the forgotten and marginalized of society -- is palpable.

What's equally impressive is that Christie writes about them without it feeling exploitative. He looks deeply into their lives, their thoughts and their hearts, but there's no sense of voyeurism, just as the is no moralizing. The sympathy he creates is entirely due to his talent at making us see his characters as humans no so unlike us, broken, fragile, floundering, perhaps, but still us and not some judgment-inducing "them".

The writing is clean and precise, and creates the perfect tone -- neither too stark, nor too romantic.

I recommend this book. I would be surprised if you don't find some aspect of yourself within its pages.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand: A Novel
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand: A Novel
by Helen Simonson
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 15.88
13 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Charming, but twee, July 22 2012
I was all ready to give this book four stars, based on the charm factor, as well as the clever language and dialogue, however, in the end I am forced to drop down to three stars because I fear the entire thing is entirely too twee (to coin the British term).

Ms. Simonson was raised in the part of England in which this book is set -- the southern part -- but has not lived there in over 20 years (see resides now in Brooklyn, NY). I suspect the hazy lens of memory is responsible for the quainter-than-quaint villages, the stiff-upper-lip main character and surrounding eccentrics who read more like stock players in a pantomime than real people. Although I have certainly met my fair share of absurdly class-conscious and racist Brits, I have yet to meet anyone who, for example, insists on being called by his military rank. Not even my relatives-of-great-antiquity would go that far. Sadly, some of it bordered on cartoon.

With that criticism stated, the pleasure of the book lies in Ms. Simonson's ability to capture a sardonic turn of phrase. Her asides and dialogue often had me snorting with laughter. Major Pettigrew is the sort of person I wish did exist, even if I couldn't believe in him as a character. Perhaps that was Ms. Simson's longing as well, and perhaps there's nothing really wrong with creating the sorts of characters with whom you wish you could have tea.

Major Pettigrew's romance with Mrs. Ali, the Pakistani shopkeeper was endearing, and I particularly like the Major's relationship with his son, and with Amina, a young woman involved with Mrs. Ali's nephew. That young woman, in fact, may be the most satisfyingly written character in the book -- certainly the most unexpected. The ending felt melodramatic, but everything does wrap up nicely.

If you're looking for a thought-provoking read about the quality of human relationships, this probably isn't it; if you want a fun afternoon's read, however, you could do much worse.

The Last House Of Ulster
The Last House Of Ulster
by Charles Foran
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 13.68
28 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unforgettable, July 14 2012
Foran tells the story of the McNally family of Belfast, whom the author met in 1979 and lived with on and off over the next twenty years, and in telling their story, tells the story of Northern Ireland. Compassionate, funny and frightening, it's a hell of a book.

Foran was a 19 year-old student in Dublin when he first visited the family with a school friend. Fascinated, in an arrogantly innocent sort of way by the horror of check points, murders, bombings and all the violence of Belfast during the "Troubles", the authors initial voyeurism soon give way to profound concern and love for the family. The daily life of the family, their struggles to maintain their standards of care for each other, of hospitality, of humor and strength are beautifully detailed.

And it is to Foran's credit that he offers no simple answers save those contained in one human being's love for another.

This is a poignant account of the connections between people, of the power of place and history, and of courage and pride. It is the story of Ireland, and the story of a single, unforgettable family. Worth reading more than once, it's so good.

Return
Return
by Dany Laferriere
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 16.57
9 used & new from CDN$ 14.97

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant., May 12 2012
This review is from: Return (Paperback)
This is a BRILLIANT book. How to describe it? Part poetry, party novel, part meditation. Dany Laferriere uses language and form in a way that is unique and perfect for this work. The novel/memoir/poem begins with the author-narrator learning of the death of his estranged father in New York. Windsor Laferriere left Haiti in the 1960s, fleeing the persecution of Papa Doc Duvalier's brutal regime, just as Dany would later leave it in 1976, fleeing the similarly savage repression of Baby Doc Duvalier. Fathers and sons. Legacies of loss.

We follow the narrator to NYC, where he looks upon the body of the father he has not seen in fifty years, in his coffin. He begins to touch him, and then chooses not to, honoring the distance his father preferred. It's a heartbreaking moment, and there are many of them in this book.

While it's true that were I a poetry critic, perhaps I would find fault with the technical aspects of some of the poetry (Are some of the lines cliche? Are some of the images too abstract? Some of the line break arbitrary?). However, I am not a poetry critic, but rather a prose writer and novelist, and so I look at the work as a whole, as a narrative, and I judge it by it's capacity to move me, to broaden my empathy and to care about the characters. By this measure, it could not be more successful. This work is piquant with loss, spiced with longing. It is also political -- the discussion of hunger as the essential Haitian experience is powerful, as are the sections with his nephew, also named Dany. "We didn't know you were coming back," says his sister by way of explanation. "The exile loses his spot"

I was touched by the passages exploring the contrasts between Montreal winters (which I know very well) and the lush, almost suffocating tropical climate, and much of it contains wry humor. A young man the narrator meets speaks to him of Montreal and the lack of dictators there: "You don't live here? I came from Montreal. And there's no dictator there if I understand correctly. No, but there's winter. It's not the same thing. Of course not, I was joking. His face darkens. Is the winter so terrible up there? You have to go through it to understand it. So, it's subjective then? More like democratic."

THE RETURN is an elegant medication on exile, fathers and sons and identity. It also the story of mothers and sons, for the weight of the author's mother's continual grief is haunting. Laferriere questions his sister as to why his mother eats out of a blue plastic bowl when he has sent her a new set of dishes and a big box of silverware "that has never been removed from its packaging. She doesn't like it? On the contrary--it's her treasure. She takes it out once a month and cleans it. In the lamplight, her face is serene. She is still beautiful. She is wearing her face for special days. As soon as you leave, my sister tells me, she'll put her dark-day face back on.

I am overcome with such a feeling of remorse.
The feeling that everything is wasted.
My mother, and then my sister.
The woman have paid the price for this house."

Rips the heart out, that does. But along with the longing, loss and grief, there is also -- as is so typical of Laferriere -- humor. Consider the piece entitled, "In Praise of Diarrhea" for example. Then too, there is the wonderful section: "An Emerging Writer," in which the author talks with his nephew, who also wants to be a writer -- he thinks:

"To write a novel, I tell my nephew
with a sly smile,
what you really need is a good pair of buttocks
because it's a job
like the seamstress's
where you spend a lot of time sitting down.

You also need a cook's talents.
Take a large kettle of boiling water,
add some vegetables
and a raw piece of meat.
You'll put in the salt and spices later
before lowering the heat.
All the flavors will blend into one.
The reader can sit down to the feast.

It's like a woman's job,
my nephew points out, worried.
It's true you have to be able to change
into a woman, a plant or a stone.
All three realms are necessary.

Watching the vein in his temple beat that way, I know he's thinking fast. But you haven't explained the most important thing to me. What would that be? It's not just the story, it's how you tell it. Then what? You have to tell me how to do it. You don't want to write something personal? Of course. No one can tell you how to be original. There must be tricks that can help. It's always better if you discover them yourself. But I'll waste time. That's the point: time doesn't exist in this job. I feel like I'm all alone. And lost. What good is having an uncle who's a writer if he tells you he can't help you out? At least you know that much."

Excellent.

Finally, it seems to me Laferriere has created a collage of experiences and arranged them in a way that leads the reader through a haunting emotional landscape. In the author's own words, "I give importance to a minor event by ting it to a chain of events that are just as minor. I believe that stories aren't necessarily big or small but that they're all linked together. The ensemble forms a hard and compact mass that we can call, for convenience's sake, life."

I couldn't agree more. Although some readers may take a while to settle into the style and structure of this work, I urge you to make the effort, it will be well worth it. And, I would be remiss if I didn't congratulate translator David Homel -- he's done a hell of a job.

Enter, Night
Enter, Night
by Michael Rowe
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 12.96
27 used & new from CDN$ 8.78

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful writing and terrifying plot!, Nov. 25 2011
This review is from: Enter, Night (Paperback)
Frightening, complex and character-driven, this is a horror story for thinking people. What begins as a traditional narrative, albeit one with multiple points of view, some of which dead-end with shocking swiftness takes on a more sinister sheen with every chapter. And those dead-ends (you'll pardon the pun)successfully keep the reader guessing as to what might happen next, since everything is apparently possible, unlike many novels in this genre where it's obvious from the first page who will survive and who won't.

Then, too, Rowe's research is enviable -- legend, myth and history combine to lend the novel an unmistakable air of authenticity. His use of the Ojibwe Wendigo myth is handled with enormous respect, as well. (The next time I'm out on a wilderness ramble, I'm not sure I'll be able to wander past a pile of boulders or a cave opening without feeling a chill run up my spine.)

And I have to say -- there is one scene with a boy and his dog that scared me so much I had to put the book down for a couple of hours (before I was compelled to go back and read on). Rowe has a way of not only scaring the reader silly, but also of creating tremendous feeling -- the description of that same boy's relationship with his dog tore me apart, as did the descriptions of what when done to a young man when his monstrous spider of a mother sent him off to a "doctor" to be "cured" of his homosexuality. Ghastly and heart-breaking.

Then there's the prose. Consider Rowe's description of the scent of autumn: "Fallen leaves, the scent of cooling earth and the flowering of benign rot, the sleepy prelude to winter." He goes on to talk about sunlight streaming down through "a cathedral of orange-leafed trees, turning everything around it the color of caramel apple glaze." Or this passage:

'The light leaking through the motel curtains was deep orange, a pellucid autumnal hue unique to northern regions where the snow came fast and early and winter ruled for seemingly endless months. The light spoke of stars in the violet-blue early morning sky, of columns of Canada geese streaking south across the vastness of Lake Superior and Lake Huron, while below them, the forests turned the colour of fire and rust and blood.'

You don't generally find prose of that quality in horror fiction. Stephen King . . . watch out!

Natural Order
Natural Order
by Brian Francis
Edition: Hardcover
9 used & new from CDN$ 12.05

5.0 out of 5 stars If you have a heart, this book will move you, Oct. 30 2011
This review is from: Natural Order (Hardcover)
I loved this book. The story of a Joyce Sparks, 86, now in a nursing home, looking back on her life and on the difficult relationship with her son, John. Joyce was never quite able to come to terms with her son's sexual orientation and the silence surrounding this pink elephant in the room is Joyce's tragic flaw. I was reminded of "Olive Kitteridge" in the way Francis so perfectly creates Joyce's interior world, as well as the crusty, crotchety, ultimately fragile personality of the protagonist.

If being gay these days is difficult for young people (and it undoubtedly is, alas), the era in which John grew up was even harsher. Francis also paints a perfect picture of time, and of the terrible 80s, when so many were dying of "the gay disease." Joyce's life, it seems, as been book-ended by gay men, and if I had one quibble with the book it would be that the narratively convenient circle this creates feels just a tiny bit contrived. But never mind, the characters are so beautiful and compassionately crafted it's a small niggle indeed.

I can't imagine anyone with a heart not being moved by this book. Well done, Mr. Francis.

A Democracy of Ghosts
A Democracy of Ghosts
by John Griswold
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 15.49
13 used & new from CDN$ 8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Recommended, Dec 13 2010
This review is from: A Democracy of Ghosts (Paperback)
John Griswold's perfectly named A DEMOCRACY OF GHOSTS is a beautifully written novel. The subject matter is grim - the torture and murder of 21 scab workers by union workers during a coal mining strike in 1922 Illinois, known as The Herrin Massacre. Since the reader knows the outcome of events contained within the narrative from the outset, the tension is tight throughout. Although we are told by the cover copy the narrative is about four couples (some of whom are the author's ancestors), the somewhat detached prose style lifts the focus to that of the community as a whole -- the 'democracy of ghosts' if you will. Still, the struggles, dreams and loyalties of the individuals themselves are never lost. There are echos of Upton Sinclair in this book, but also of James Agee's LET US KNOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN. I was reminded of some of Agee's techniques, particularly when Griswold chooses the first person plural point of view. It's a risky move, but one I think Griswold pulls off admirably. Scattered throughout the novel are newspaper reports, letters and other historical documents, all used to good effect and there are passages of great lyricism -- the epilogue being a notable example. Well done. This book deserves a wide readership and stands as a good example of how to successfully pull off an engaging novel based on a historical event.

In Her Wake: A Child Psychiatrist Explores the Mystery of Her Mother's Suicide
In Her Wake: A Child Psychiatrist Explores the Mystery of Her Mother's Suicide
by Nancy Rappaport
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 20.76
28 used & new from CDN$ 0.46

4.0 out of 5 stars Brave and balanced, May 5 2010
Dr. Rappaport has written a brave and touching memoir, in which she attempts to understand her mother, who killed herself when Rappaport was just four years old. The aftermath of suicide is devastating, as I can attest from personal experience. The swath of anguish it leaves behind is wide and indelible. Nancy Rappaport, after whom Dr. Rappaport was named, killed herself of a public and painful custody battle, leaving behind six children, the author being the youngest. You can imagine the complexities and sensitivities involved in writing a memoir with all those family members hovering about, especially when some are not supportive of the project. Yet Rappaport handles it with with compassion and a courageous honesty.

Rappaport's family is a prominent one in Massachusetts politics and her mother was by all accounts a brilliant, energetic and accomplished woman, described by her own mother as "a very vehement sort of person." The author weaves the story of her own adult life as a psychiatrist, wife and mother, using present situations as stepping stones to meditations on those of her mother. As Rappaport dissects her mother's marriage and life she bring to the task her own considerable wisdom and experience as a psychiatrist. This adds depth and universality to a personal story, and will be highly informative to anyone who has suffered the suicide of a loved one.

This is a well-written book, both in terms of scholarship and prose. Rappaport has a lovely way with words, and a clear and generous perception. This is a wonderful examination of how a parent's suicide affects the family left behind and how it contributed to the author's becoming who she has become. This book will be an especially valuable resource to therapists working with patients dealing with suicide in the family, or the early loss of a parent.

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