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S Svendsen "Uni" (Canada)
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Calling Out for You
Calling Out for You
by Karin Fossum
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 11.69
16 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

5.0 out of 5 stars A psychological Nordic mystery, April 18 2014
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This review is from: Calling Out for You (Paperback)
Note: This book, ‘Calling Out for You’ was later published in the U.S. under the title ‘The Indian Bride.’ Its original Norwegian title ‘Elskede Poona’ translates as ‘Beloved Poona.’

Fossum is perhaps Norway’s second best mystery writer, Nesbø being the best. Her books have been translated into twenty-five languages. I prefer Fossum because of her mature Inspector Sejer who is a laid back, inconspicuous, emotionally sensitive and psychologically astute sleuth. He works hand-in-glove with his handsome, more impulsive young sidekick Skarre.

This is the fifth Sejer mystery, published in 2000, but it can be enjoyed without first reading its predecessors. The main character in this novel, Gunder Jomann, is a middle aged bachelor living in a village next to a mid-sized city in Norway. He is a simple introverted guy working as a salesman in an agriculture supply firm. He is meticulous in his habits and capable in his job. He has been close to his mother who recently passed away so now he has become lonely in the house they shared. He has never had the courage or seen the necessity to initiate a relationship with a woman but now he desires the companionship of a wife. From a magazine featuring people from the world’s many diverse cultures he gets enamoured by the picture of a woman from exotic India. Ideas start percolating and he fantasizes about going to India to fetch himself an alluring Indian bride. All the pieces fall into place and the first likely candidate, a server in a restaurant, takes a liking to him. He marries the lovely, warm and genial Poona Bai. Jomann returns home to Norway. Poona is to follow when she has put her affairs in order.

As Jomann is about to pick up Poona at the airport, his dear sister Marie becomes seriously injured in a car accident. Her husband is out of the country so Gunder has to go to the hospital to be at his comatose sister’s bedside. The great anticipation he has harboured is shattered. He is forced to assign the village’s taxi driver to go to pick up Poona. But that driver is unable to find her at the busy terminal. So Poona hires her own taxi to take her to Gunder’s village. But her reunion with her husband never happens because she is found brutally murdered in a field by a lake less than a kilometre from Gunder’s house. Inspector Sejer gets assigned to the case and together with Skarre they eventually zero in on a culprit. The reader gets to know the mindsets of the different suspects and residents of the village. In a small place everyone knows everyone else and fingers point in different directions. As with one or two other Fossum mysteries the door is left ajar just a little bit at the end about who the murderer was—a literary device called ‘a mystery to conclude a mystery.’ I loved the last few pages in which Gunder self-reflects about Poona and by way of a translated letter—which she had sent to her brother before leaving India—we discover her true feelings for her new husband and her hopes for their future in a far off land. A very nice touch!

King Javan's Year
King Javan's Year
by Katherine Kurtz
Edition: Hardcover
16 used & new from CDN$ 3.59

5.0 out of 5 stars Excellently crafted intense and suspensful, April 17 2014
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This review is from: King Javan's Year (Hardcover)
Katherine Kurtz is an author who never shies away from twisted plots that often provide readers with the opposite of what they want or expect. But that doesn’t mean that readers will abandon her. In a fantasy world akin to our world’s tenth century, with the addition of a race having supernatural and magical abilities, a tension of treachery broods like a clammy fog to the landscape. It seems that victory for the righteous can never long be savoured until treason and betrayal festers to precipitate a calamitous vengeance.

This is the second novel of ‘The Heirs of Saint Camber,’ the eleventh of the fifteen Deryni novels* to be published but, confusingly, the fifth if read in chronological order (which I recommend). In the first novel of this trilogy, ‘The Harrowing of Gwynedd,’ the oldest of the late King Cinhil’s young sons, Alroy, had been drugged and manipulated by his self-serving power hungry Regents to do their bidding. Their primary task was to suppress the members of the Deryni race and legislate the removal of their rights to land, liberty and the sustenance of life. Alroy dies, having been weak and sickly for some time. After Alroy reached his age of majority, his Regents had lost some of their ability to act freely. His twin, Prince Javan, sympathetic to the Deryni, had temporarily sequestered himself for three years in a monastery, preparing to emerge to become king at the passing of Alroy. Archbishop Hubert, who sponsored Javan to assume a priestly vocation, had assumed that the youngest, immature and more pliable prince, Rhys Michael, would become king since Javan had chosen a life of religious devotion. But Javan has a surprise for Hubert and his courtly allies, he is determined to become king. Javan also has his allies and his younger brother has no interest in kingship for himself. These events lay the foundation for this novel. It becomes a year of incessant games of brinkmanship between King Javan, his allies and the ‘good’ Deryni and Archbishop Hubert, his allies and the ‘bad’ Deryni—games that frequently end in tortures, murders and battles to win and keep power through treasonous and brutal means.

Kurtz is usually big on rituals and ceremony in her books but in this novel she does not go to extremes. The book has loads of drama and presents both adversarial sides vividly through dialogue and narrative. We get to know the characters intimately, how they think, reason and plot to win power and keep it. This is an excellently crafted intense and suspenseful installment of the tragically heroic Deryni saga.

*a sixteenth novel ‘The King’s Deryni’ is scheduled for publication December, 2014

Carpathian Castle
Carpathian Castle
by Jules Verne
Edition: Mass Market Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Unexpected episodes of the macabre, April 5 2014
A famous opera soprano, her fanatical Baron admirer, her lovestruck Count fiancé, a mad scientist inventor and a collection of simple village folk in Transylvania are all brought together by Jules Verne to spin a tale of the haunted Carpathian castle. The inclusion of unexpected episodes of the macabre in this work is credibly presented. Yes, there are important elements of science fiction in the story but those are only revealed at the end. Before then the reader becomes practically convinced that there are evidences of supernatural phenomena afoot. Reading Verne over a century after he penned his books is an indulgence in literary nostalgia. (This novel was first published in 1893.) They assume a naiveté that a twenty-first century reader gladly assumes in honour of the Grand Master of the sci-fi genre. The latter part of the book comes close to being a page-turner. This is an easy and enjoyable read.

Waiting for the Galactic Bus
Waiting for the Galactic Bus
by Parke Godwin
Edition: Hardcover
31 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

2.0 out of 5 stars Shallow characters indulging in the frivolous, April 3 2014
I tried to like this book from the beginning. The concepts were good, having great potential for satiric play between two mischievous “creator” beings, cosmically out-of-bounds, and their interventionary “evolved” humanity populated by stereotypically frivolous, shallow, fanatical or violent characters. But, as is true with so many science fiction novels, the character development is artificial and shallow; there is no one for readers to like, at least not for very long. Cynicism seems a more apt a tone to describe this work than satire. The criticism of Christianity is certainly farcically cynical. I could tolerate this book up until it was four fifths complete. My tolerance ended with Chapter 33. Seldom do I read a book that close to the end without finishing it but I could no longer put up with the author manipulating the characters to act like crazed robotic caricatures with no hint of humanistic values. Too much chaos, too much nonsense, no hope for redemption from the outrageously ridiculous. I will not be reading the sequel ‘The Snake Oil Wars.’

Waiting For the Barbarians
Waiting For the Barbarians
by J.M. Coetzee
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 13.71
31 used & new from CDN$ 4.55

5.0 out of 5 stars A visceral presentation of autocratic brutishness, March 24 2014
This was the first book by Coetzee that I have read. I was immediately impressed by his wonderful ability to immerse the reader in atmosphere of the story and the plight of its characters. We soon become acquainted with the Magistrate who narrates his story. He appears to be an unambitious, harmless official living from day to day enjoying the little privileges and pleasures of his position, but he nurtures an inner nobility of character. After the arrival of a high official of the Empire, he becomes caught in a vise of autocratic brutishness. Whereas he has formerly been a dispenser of benign justice to the people in a remote colonial outpost he becomes witness to the dispensing of inhuman treatment and torture. He attempts to assist and befriending those who have been victimized but this ultimately results in he becoming accused of traitorously collaborating with the enemy. He endures terrible suffering which the author presents with visceral exactitude.

Although the story takes place in an unnamed fictional colonial ‘Empire,’ peopled by the privileged invaders and by indigenous ‘barbarians,’ we can assume that Coetzee drew many of his concepts from historical and geographical South African, and South West African (Namibian), influences. The policy of Apartheid was at its pinnacle when the book was written. But, no matter where in the world fascist colonial dictatorships have ruled their modus operandi have relied on the use of oppressive force to control the masses; a counterfeit judicial system is empowered to enforce ‘the rule of law’ which is adapted to serve the autocratic hierarchy. Even so-called democracies have frequently been known to impose their will over others on the pretext of influencing outcomes to benefit the populace when the motive was overwhelmingly to assist their own interests.

Although the reader may not realize it, the author has written a very political novel. He directly or obliquely comments on the state of suppressive authority, racial prejudice, cultural ignorance and a despondent humanity. The book, written over twenty years before Coetzee received his deserved Nobel Prize in Literature, is expertly written and is still somberly thought-provoking and relevant over thirty years later.

The Chaplain
The Chaplain
by Paul Almond
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 14.40
2 used & new from CDN$ 14.40

5.0 out of 5 stars The Boer War from a Canadian chaplain's perspective, March 20 2014
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This review is from: The Chaplain (Paperback)
This, the fifth book in the Alford saga, rooted in Maritime and Quebec history, is surprisingly short of Canadian scenario and experiences. Instead the author elects to send the hero from book four (The Pilgrim), Rev John Alford, to the Boer War in South Africa. This is explained by the fact that the novel is based on an actual character who did volunteer to be a Chaplain for the Canadian troops in that conflict. This book can stand on its own, not needing continuity from the previous books. However, since it is almost exclusively concerned with armies, soldiers and combat on foreign shores, it may not appeal to readers who have admired this series for its Canadiana. In author Paul Almond’s defence, the book does concern itself with Canada’s first offshore wartime adventure, an event that deserves to be better known by Canadians.

As outlined in five pages of ‘Acknowledgements’ at the end of the book, Almond and his dozens of collaborators did exhaustive research to put this book together. Reading this disclosure gave me the feeling that this medium-sized book of historical fiction was a massive ‘cut and paste’ operation. But I was impressed by all the effort that went into pooling all the diverse information to create a piece of literature possessing remarkable cohesion. It did disappoint me that so little of the narrative pertained to Canadian circumstances. (I was also disappointed that Almond included a partisan political jab in his acknowledgements. There is more than one side to every issue and this was not the place to editorialize.)

The narrative flows smoothly with the right intensity. John/Jack Alford’s thoughts, feelings, reasoning and emotions are very well stated. His willingness to stand up for compassion and justice is admirable. His moral failure occurs in credibly circumstances—between two people starved for loving affection. The conflicts between Catholic and Protestant doctrines and practices are ably included. The Catholic Chaplain’s resolution to Jack’s confession of sins is sensibly prudent. Jack’s confrontation with his own conscience in the struggle to find a compromise between a Christ-like pacifistic ideal and ‘murderous’ armed hostility is aptly presented. I thought the book had a rather abrupt and foreshortened ending. Fifty more pages, concerned with Alford’s return to and arrival back in Canada would have added greatly to the readers’ pleasure. Sadly, some authors have a criterion to fill a quota of pages and once that is achieved they forget about readers’ expectation to be fulfilled by a satisfactory conclusion to the book they are reading. However, I found this book to be informative as well as entertaining.

The Ice Palace
The Ice Palace
by Tarjei Vesaas
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 12.96
33 used & new from CDN$ 6.62

5.0 out of 5 stars Much like verbal accupuncture, March 15 2014
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This review is from: The Ice Palace (Paperback)
This is not a novel in the normal sense. It is a painting composed of words. Despite all its references to bright white ice and snow it has a persistent brooding aura of dark mental despair and a calamitous irredeemable finality about relationships and life itself.

Two eleven year old girls, Siss, an extrovert, the other, Unn, an introvert, are irrepressibly drawn to each other. Eventually, Unn, an orphan who has recently moved in with her aunt, invites Siss to her home. Soon they lock themselves in Unn’s bedroom to share each other’s deepest thoughts. But Siss becomes overwhelmed when Unn wants to reveal some mysterious, perhaps sinister secret. Siss departs in a hurry, breaching the delicate bond that has formed between them. Nevertheless Siss feels herself committed to place her relationship with Unn above all others. The following day Unn feels embarrassed and uncertain to face Siss and instead of going to school she elects to go wandering in the woods and to explore an ice palace formed by a frozen waterfall. Unn is never heard from again. Siss withdraws from her circle of friends; she is protective of Unn and the “secret” which she could have learned had she been more trusting and stayed longer that night. It was probably not Vesaas’ intention, but reading his narrative fifty years later, the mental and emotional attraction between Siss and Unn seems homopolar (i.e. nascent homosexual). Anyway, the reader can’t help but wonder for the rest of the book what Unn was hiding. Was it some trauma she had experienced, or was it something she wanted to experience with Siss? Did the fact that Unn wanted them both to get naked as soon as they were in her locked room provide a clue? Mystery is embedded in the iciness of this tale.

Unn’s disappearance hits Siss hard. She becomes secretive and introverted, almost taking on Unn’s persona. She suffers from loneliness, depression and guilt. She distances herself from her friends. She is drawn to the ice palace, sensing its connection with Unn’s fate. The last two thirds of the book keep the reader in suspense. Much of the prose is metaphoric and enigmatic. Conversations are stutteringly brief. This is like verbal acupuncture. This short novel could easily be dismissed but can leave an impression of succinct and timeless relevance.

Unknown Sigrid Undset: Jenny And Other Works
Unknown Sigrid Undset: Jenny And Other Works
by Sigrid Undset
Edition: Hardcover
18 used & new from CDN$ 33.36

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
28 used & new from CDN$ 10.99

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
33 used & new from CDN$ 9.74

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.

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