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S Svendsen "Uni" (Canada)
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Unknown Sigrid Undset: Jenny And Other Works
Unknown Sigrid Undset: Jenny And Other Works
by Sigrid Undset
Edition: Hardcover
18 used & new from CDN$ 29.62

5.0 out of 5 stars A fine selection of the Nobel laureate's early writings, March 10 2014
Sigrid Undset was a giant among early twentieth century authors—especially women authors. Undset’s two monumental works, the trilogy ‘Kristin Lavransdatter’ and the tetralogy ‘Olav Audunssøn’ (titled The Master of Hestviken in English), both set in Medieval Norway, for which she earned her Nobel Prize in literature, greatly overshadow her earlier and later works. This book includes her first full length novel, Jenny, two short stories, and her letter to a Swedish friend from 1900-12.

Jenny is principally the story of two women and four men, all aspiring artists in Rome and in Kristiania (later renamed Oslo) in the 1910s. In turn three of the men declare their love for Jenny and their wish to have her as their own. The least likely candidate surreptitiously endears himself to her; a consensual but lopsided sexual relationship results. Perhaps the most likely candidate becomes alienated from her and in the end violates her. The third candidate only awakens to his love for Jenny after years of just being a close friend; but he is only met with reluctance and hesitancy. The fourth man marries Jenny’s flirtatious, capricious and vacillating friend Fransiska.

‘Great Expectations Unfulfilled’ would be an apt title for ‘Jenny.’ Here is a beautiful introverted woman whose young life subsists on trivial pleasures, love of nature, hopes, dreams and expectations. But in Jenny’s idealistic reveries reality never seems to bring fulfilment. Or, if fulfilment seems to have been reached, even for a fleeting moment, she frets and worries about its unavoidable pending demise. And her lack of fulfilment and success is existentially attributed by herself to the failure to follow her creative instincts and make the right choices about relationships. This is a somber and brooding tale offering deeply profound psychological and emotional struggle. It was a much criticized but significant literary achievement which tackled controversial themes of moral and gender conflicts at a time of imminent social upheaval (WW 1).

As reflected in this novel, between the lines, Undset was not a typical feminist. She favoured women’s rights to academic, artistic and financial independence but she also valued women’s traditional roles in the home as loving and devoted wives and mothers. Although ‘God’ is mentioned in this work, as having some relevance to the characters’ lives, Undset was pretty much a free thinker in her youth and early twenties. But even at that age her narratives seem to quest after answers to ‘a bigger question’ which transcend logic and crass realism. After a crisis of faith her much condemned conversion from Protestant Lutheranism to Roman Catholicism occurred in 1924 when she had for some time been writing about situations rooted in medieval pre-Reformation times that were dominated by staid traditional norms and adherence to religious orthodoxy.

Thjodolf is an extended short story. It is a tale about Helene, an uneducated, unsophisticated working class woman who toils for her livelihood. She gives birth but the child soon dies. She answers a newspaper notice about taking on a newly born infant whose mother has given him up. An amount of money is exchanged before Helene takes possession of the boy. She revels in being a mother to the child and he thrives with her care. Then a day arrives when she and her husband must part with Thjodolf. This is principally a story of a devoted mother who desires nothing more than to love and care for a child and be a good wife but is betrayed on two fronts by cruel destiny.

Simonsen is a melancholy short story about a kindly man, a widower, approaching his senior years. Not being ambitious or capable to succeed in either his working life or privately, he takes things as they come, relying on his successful son to bail him out whenever he loses his job—lately a frequent occurrence. He has lived without the benefit of marriage with an industrious seamstress, Olga, with whom he has a little daughter, Svanhild. Olga has also a son by a fiancée who deserted her. Simonsen’s daughter-in-law is his worst enemy, wishing to distance herself and the family from Simonsen, Olga and her children. This story contrasts greatly in mood and tone with the previous pages of the book. It describes the hardships of a worker down on his luck who tries to take heart from simple joys: thankful devotion to his partner Olga and a generous affection for their daughter Svanhild. When he is forced to go away from his family to work elsewhere he grieves but finds consolation in the One Above.

Undset’s letters to her Swedish friend, Dea Hedberg, provide a fine conclusion to this book, providing readers with insight into her intelligent observances about life, her opinions about the habits of women and men, her ceaseless writing pursuits and the dreariness of her office work. Her greatest difficulty was to find companionship and someone to love and admire who would be capable of intelligent conversation. Up until meeting her future husband, Anders, in Rome in 1909, her letters portray a woman who battles melancholy, depression and pessimism. The concluding letter in the book, written in Rome in 1913, soon after the birth of her son, reflects a happy woman who is in a loving relationship in surroundings that come as close to her ideals as imaginable. Her books had already been well received and she looked forward to a bright future with her husband, a successful painter. Being able to read these letters gives the reader a better understanding of Undset’s comprehensive thought process that found expression in the profound literature she produced.

The Death-Ray
The Death-Ray
by Daniel Clowes
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 14.40
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2.0 out of 5 stars Self-indulgent nonsensical puffery, March 9 2014
This review is from: The Death-Ray (Hardcover)
This work is the epitome of self-indulgent nonsensical puffery. Out of some forty pages maybe ten are worth someone’s time. These are short stories, mostly snippets of biographical nonsensical non-events about Andy and Louie, shiftless juvenile idlers. Almost every brief episode has neither plot nor ending: POOF—what was that about? Clowes, it is so, so sad when dementia manifests early, sabotaging mental acuity even before middle-age crisis has had a chance to enter the picture!

Coup d'Etat (The War That Came Early, Book Four)
Coup d'Etat (The War That Came Early, Book Four)
by Harry Turtledove
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 13.00
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1.0 out of 5 stars Reader loyalty expired, Feb. 27 2014
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This is the fourth book in “The War That Came Early” series. It amazes me that an author of Turtledove’s stature in the alternate history genre can churn out book after book that fails to provide readers with quality material. There was potential in the plot and some of the characters. Instead we are served the same old warmed-over stew of military combat machismo in every permutation of wretched gut wrenching imaginable. The calibre of dialogue ranks down there in the bottom of the ditches where language is polluted with every base primal instinct known to man or beast, over and over and over again.

Ninety percent of the narrative in these novels puts the reader among the rank and file combatants who for the most part fail to demonstrate any redeeming camaraderie or esprit de corps. Turtledove offers no relief by means of noble heroes or stouthearted worthies. No, these are grunters and grinders who hate what they do and do what they hate.

The title of the book refers to a revolutionary political and military about-face. But Turtledove misses the opportunity for real drama and suspense. The coup d’etat is given scant attention. Instead of providing social, political, administrative and civilian texture to such a major development the author keeps his narrative focused on the activities of the rabble of soldiers, airmen and sailors who are moved from place to place by members of the upper echelons whom readers never get to meet.

The most interesting part of the book—less than ten percent—has to do with civilians in Germany, Britain and America. Why could we not have had more of their stories to offset the scuzzy combat scenarios? Turtledove has lost my reader loyalty. I will not be buying the next book.

The Harrowing of Gwynedd
The Harrowing of Gwynedd
by Katherine Kurtz
Edition: Hardcover
40 used & new from CDN$ 1.48

3.0 out of 5 stars Too dry, Feb. 5 2014
Much like “Camber the Heretic,” which chronologically comes before this one, this is not an attention-keeping tome but even worse. I suppose readers who are not fascinated by the ritualistic episodes, which can go on for ten or twelve pages, will have to endure those elements in the narrative or just scan through them as I do. Kurtz revels in their magical mysticism but only sometimes does she conjure up the unexpected.

These are some of the events played out or brought into play in this volume: The “blocking of Deryni powers” to conceal members of the Deryni race becomes a strategy to fool the Regents who now rule Gwynedd after the death of King Cinhil. The Regents, headed by Archbishop Hubert MacInnis, are bent on cruelly decimating the Deryni race. A new religious order, Custodum Fidei, is established to entrench the demonization of all things Deryni. Evaine and Joram, the children of Camber, and Dom Queron, a healer-priest, go underground where they establish a new Camberian Council to undermine the Regents’ power.

Prince Javan has gained Deryni powers from the ritual performed in the presence of his father Cinhil before his death. His older brother, King Alroy, is just a puppet in the Regents’ power base, following their dictates. Javan comes on side with the Camberian Council to help them counteract his brother’s complicity with the Regents. The prophet Revan, with the support of the Camberian Council, continues his subterfuge as a Willimite cult leader, baptizing Deryni and those who have had close contact with Deryni, to divest them of magical powers and influence. This is a scheme to deceive the Regents to allow the cult to gain followers because it supposedly fulfills their objective to disempower Deryni. Since his death Camber’s body has through a spell stayed in a state of equilibrium, not decomposing. Evaine obtains the forbidden scrolls Protocols of Orin to explore the possibility of bringing Camber back to life.

This is the first book of the “The Heirs of Saint Camber” trilogy and also the fourth book if all the seventeen or so books in the full Deryni epic are read chronologically. It was the tenth of the Deryni books to be published. I do find it peculiar that books by a female author can be so devoid of human kindness and romance. And she offers up only one female hero! The next volume is called “King Javan’s Year.” By its title we can tell that the Regents will de deposed or their influence compromised. Hopefully it will have more excitement, suspense and female influence.

The Distant Hours: A Novel
The Distant Hours: A Novel
by Kate Morton
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 13.71
134 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

3.0 out of 5 stars A distant circuitous narrative, Jan. 12 2014
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I enjoyed Kate Morton’s first two books considerably. This book does have its good moments but does not measure up to what we have gotten to expect from Morton. The first third of the book (Part One) is boring. The readers are forced to spend time with two eccentric twin sisters who live in a ghoulish castle with a mentally deranged younger half-sister, their isolationist dominant father and a subservient house keeper. An up and coming writer, Edie, whose mother once lived at the castle—being an young evacuee from the London blitz, has become enthralled by a story about the Mud Man, authored by the spinsters’ father. She becomes obsessed with researching the history of the castle and its inhabitants, including the role her mother might have played.

We have to endure page after page of details about the twin sister's preoccupations to look after each other, to keep outsiders away, to care for their ailing father and younger sister, to preserve their castle, to maintain their idiosyncrasies and generally to try to make time stand still, concealing traumatic secrets that would topple their eerie house of cards. Thankfully the story progresses to become more interesting with Edie’s continuing research twining more and more lose ends together in the main plot which revolves around covert relationships, sibling rivalries, guilty consciences and diabolical secrets. The book has five parts containing numbered as well as titled chapters, each chapter further divided into the different perspectives of six characters in two timelines: 1939-1941 and 1992. There is a lot of shifting back and forth. At the end of the book I felt like rereading Part One to make better sense of the whole story, but I didn't.

I think Morton tried too hard to be gothic with this novel to the point where I felt I was reading a poor imitation of better constructed books with similar themes. I could have predicted the main component of the ending since it fit the theme of a number of other classic gothic tales. This novel needed more normalcy, sanity and fluency to be an engaging read. There was some of it but not enough.

Love Without End: Jesus Speaks...
Love Without End: Jesus Speaks...
by Glenda E. Green
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 16.62
34 used & new from CDN$ 6.84

4.0 out of 5 stars Many truths but difficult to connect the dots, Jan. 9 2014
Yes, this book does have many truths that ring true. Even a sceptic has to admit that much. We are told that Jeshua/Jesus manifested himself to Glenda Green off and on for two months in 1992 and responded profusely to her questions about love and life. He would sit next to her on the sofa. He would watch TV (relevant to the topic of the day) with her. She would make notes which form the bulk of the contents of the book. I have read numerous books of, about and “by” Jesus as well as other high luminaries. They express themselves in a wide range of credibility, clarity and comprehension—somehow attempting to appeal to every spiritual palate. It would indeed be truly miraculous if they could gather together for a new “last supper” and strike up a committee to come to some consensus. But alas, no.

Glenda Green’s Jesus speaks like someone with PhD’s in philosophy, religious studies, sociology, psychology and physics. If this “revelation” is targeting the uneducated, unwashed, sick, hungry, flea-bitten and plague-ridden masses—as the Biblical Jesus did—it aims so far above its target that it would be like NASA’s Project Apollo as compared to the Wright brother’s heavier-than-air first flight. Even author Green admits more than once that she has problems connecting the dots. As I was reading this book I asked myself why this book has not succeeded in spiritualizing mankind and reforming society to new levels of unity based on “love without end.” The obvious answer seemed to be that it is too highfalutin. Grandiloquent would be another term. Another answer might be that it is too wrapped up in the package Glenda Green presents and represents. If we are to accept this version of Jesus, we must also accept what Green purports to have experienced and everything about her. True believers would therefore aspire to elevate her to virtual sainthood for having brought a new revelation of divine truth, although she herself attributes this revelation solely to her manifested Jesus.

I found it interesting that in “The Ten Commandments of Love” concerning the seventh commandment about adultery, Jesus says “it is the Father’s will that the institution of marriage be a holy bond… The marriage of a man and a woman honors and recognizes the marriage of all other things.” He is clear that marriage is the traditional union between a man and a woman. Do unsanctified common-law relationships qualify, I wondered. But perhaps even same-sex unions and even polygamy, polyandry and polyamory can qualify within a wider definition because he adds that “whenever two or more come together in love, for any purpose, whatever the relationship, whatever the bond, a union is created within the one spirit.” Or maybe I am amiss in seeking a wider definition of marriage than he intends? If so, the next question would be how to define adultery in an open marriage or polyamorous relationship. Being a dispenser of truth for the twenty-first century can get complicated! (all quotes from page 228)

This is not a book for anyone in a hurry. Although the vocabulary is not difficult the ideas presented are densely complex making it challenging to link one concept to another. Actually it is more case of layering the concepts or constructing them to fit within each other. The paperback binding I had (ninth printing, 2002) was the worst of the worst, the kind that resists being fully opened. It takes muscle to keep this book open enough to read in bed. In this genre I like to underline a lot but the binding made it a chore to do so and it could not be done neatly. One star for the binding, four for the contents.

Opal
Opal
by Lauraine Snelling
Edition: Paperback
33 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars Adventures of Ruby and Opal continue, Dec 24 2013
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This review is from: Opal (Paperback)
People who enjoy Snelling’s books know what to expect: excellent characterizations, true historical settings, geographical detail, day-to-day routine interspersed by intervals of dramatic crisis, realistic dialog, remorseful insights, apprehensive anticipations, relationship-fostering, religious devotion, etc. ‘Opal’ fulfills all of those expectations. The book revolves around three main characters: Opal Torvald, a fourteen year old tom-boyish ranching girl whose life revolves around the chores of running a cattle ranch and the training of horses; her married sister Ruby Harrison who runs the domestic operation and is dutifully maternal to her little son; and Jacob Chandler, a preacher who has come West to escape his past moral failure and now works as a ranch hand.

Most readers will have followed Ruby and Opal from the first volume of this quadrilogy. Snelling’s writing can be criticized as being predictable and formulaic. However, she usually manages to dish up surprises and loyal readers appreciate the growing affinity they feel towards the main characters. The author hardly ever abandons her reader’s attention for any length of time. It can happen when she gets bogged down in too many detailed descriptions of domestic chores or—as in this book—of training horses, but after a few pages the plot moves on to new situations and adventures.

This is pleasant reading, especially for fans of Christian sentimentalism. God is believed, or at least suspected, to have a hand in all events. Human free will is constantly challenged to be guided and to follow the Divine impulse. The Bible is the textbook for a happy and successful existence. Readers who are not avid Christians may find that kind of orientation quaint and outdated. But this is historical fiction after all, meant to reflect attitudes and conditions true to the time period. The devotion to Christian beliefs and values presented in most of Snelling’s books is quite accurate for the time, place and populace she writes about. Critics belonging to the secular school should understand that it does not work to try to impose 21st century mindsets on 19th century characters.

The fourth book ‘Amethyst’ will no doubt also feature the two sisters, Ruby and Opal, in more complex and demanding situations with the addition of at least one new female character.

Too Much Happiness
Too Much Happiness
by Alice Munro
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 14.44
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A pleasant selection of short stories, Dec 12 2013
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This review is from: Too Much Happiness (Paperback)
I have never been a fan of short stories. I have found that with the typical short story it is like a) I am parachuted into a scenario. I have had little introduction to the characters or the environment in which they operate. Gradually I am given enough information to get acquainted; b) The plot—if there is one—does not have enough time to develop; c) I may have liked the story but find the ending is too abrupt, leaving too many questions that will never be answered.

Alice Munro being awarded the Nobel Prize in literature motivated me to buy two of her books. Having finished ‘Too Much Happiness’ I am still not much of a fan of short stories but that doesn’t mean I am not impressed by Munro’s literary skill. She is a superb writer and I think it is tragic that she has only published one novel. The story at the end of the book from which has been taken its title is a biography of Sophia Kovalevsky, a Russian mathematician, a genius, who struggled to be accepted among the exclusionary male academia of the late 19th century. It occupies 56 pages which is much longer than most short stories. Her life was marked by her fervent passion for mathematics, but she also married and became a mother and, having later becoming a widow, she was awakened to amour with a fellow academic who probably didn’t deserve her devotion. The story is mainly told in the ‘present’ time leading up to Sophia’s death, with many flashbacks from her earlier life.

Most of the stories are very agreeable but after finishing the book (unlike after having finishing a novel) it is difficult to remember what it was about, except for the lengthy last story. This is a good book for anyone who doesn’t have much time to read but it can also be enjoyed by novel-enthusiasts who may want a break from complicated plots and extravagant characterizations.

Potsdam Station (John Russell World War II Spy Thriller #4): A John Russell WWII Thriller
Potsdam Station (John Russell World War II Spy Thriller #4): A John Russell WWII Thriller
by David Downing
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 10.83
33 used & new from CDN$ 6.14

4.0 out of 5 stars The tragic misery of Berlin's last days of WWII, Dec 6 2013
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This was the 4th of Downing’s ‘Station’ WW II crime/thriller/spy novels that I have read. It involves the time period from April 6th to May 2nd, 1945. The locations are Berlin and Moscow. The journalist John Russell, who had to flee Berlin in 1941, has been to England and the U.S. lately he is marooned in neutral Sweden. He is increasingly worried about his girlfriend Effi and his son Paul who are back in Germany and he has lost touch with. He devises a scheme to get into Germany with the help of the Soviets. He convinces them that he can be of help to the invading Soviet army which is fast approaching Berlin. He succeeds in selling his services but becomes apprehensive that once his services have been rendered he will be liquidated.

I did not think this book was as suspenseful as the previous three. It deals mostly with the plight of Berliners as their normalcy is shattered by daily bombings and Soviet missiles. The narrative contains hundreds of street and place name references which mean very little to most readers. Downing’s research is impeccable so I am sure most every reference is correct but including so much detail can be annoying for readers; I kept asking myself whether I should be remembering this or that street or location but in the end I mostly ignored all place references, except the ones for the stations. The narrative in each chapter switches from John’s, Effi’s and Paul’s scenarios and situations. Normally there is no problem with that modus operandi except that the pages offer no indicator, like a symbol or graphic divider, to indicate that the scene is changing. In quite a few places the narrative changes from one character to another as the page is being turned. It takes reading a few sentences before realizing that now it has to do with Paul, not John, or Effi, not Paul, etc. That was annoying.

Reading this book gives the impression that the Soviet soldiers lacked any mercy or compassion. They were brutes, raping every female they would come across and sometimes nailing them to walls! They ignored protocols and conventions of war. I had some prior knowledge of Soviet atrocities—that their tactics were often based just as much with hatred and revenge against the civilians as with conquering territory and defeating an enemy. Downing followed this historical script with two exceptions: one, Shchepkin, who had collaborated with Russell before, provided some positive influence to benefit the his outcome, and two, a soldier who was going to rape Effi spared her due to what he thought was a racial connection. The greatest positive component of the book was the inclusion of the Jewish orphan Rosa and the love that developed between her and Effi.

The ending was good but compared with the other books, I was not all that happy with this one so I would give it three and a half—choosing a four stars rather than three.

In the Darkness: An Inspector Sejer Novel (Inspector Sejer 1)
In the Darkness: An Inspector Sejer Novel (Inspector Sejer 1)
Price: CDN$ 9.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A finely crafted mystery, Nov. 20 2013
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This is the 4th of Norwegian author Karin Fossum’s Inspector Konrad Sejer mysteries that I have read. I didn’t read this, the first one, before the others because it only became available this year, published by Vintage of Great Britain. From about page one hundred this becomes a page-turner. The story revolves around a singe parent artist Eva Marie Magnus. Her husband has left her for a more upbeat and buxom woman. Their overweight daughter Emma gets to spend time with her father, giving Eva free time for her art, which is uniquely black and white, impressionistic. At the beginning of the book Eva and Emma are out walking by a river. Then a man’s decomposed corpse comes drifting by. But Eva fails to notify the police. Why? Instead she takes Emma to McDonald’s for her favourite fast food. Someone else reports the body and the autopsy reveals death by multiple stab wounds. The body is connected to a man, Egil Einarsson, who has been missing for six months.

Inspector Sejer is also working on another murder, that of Maja Durban, a popular prostitute, which occurred just days before Einarsson went missing. We learn that Eva and Maja grew up in a different community and were best of friends until Maja moved away. After twenty-five years they bump into each other and renew their friendship but Eva is shocked to learn that Maja has become a high class prostitute working out of her home. Not only that but Maja confides to Eva that she has almost two million kroner (about four hundred thousand dollars) sequestered away from her earnings hidden in a family cabin up in the mountains. Maja convinces Eva that she should take on the same profession as her because the paintings are not selling forcing her and Emma to live a hand-to-mouth existence.

Sejer suspects that the two murders are somehow related and the story becomes more intriguing as new pieces of information come into play and Eva’s life changes dramatically. Fossum develops her characters well, describing thoughts and emotions in depth. There is drama and nerve tingling suspense. Sejer comes across as a likable, honest and caring character that has his faults and makes a few compromises when they are expedient. He grieves the loss to cancer of his wife Elise. He loves his married daughter and his grandson. He easily makes friends with children as they cross his path in his detective sleuthing (e.g. the son of widow Einarsson in this tale). His trusty companion is the huge dog Kollberg. An excellent read.

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