Thursday, February 19, 2015

Year of the Sheep, or Ram

Happy Lunar New Year to you all... it's a few weeks into 2015 now, so if you need a reset, take this New Year as a start-over, and begin all your plans and resolutions anew! 

The Year of the Sheep begins today. What is that all about? There's some hope for us, apparently. 

"Sheep is the symbol of the Arts. It relates to passive and nurturing times. It will help the healing process with regard to past events caused by individuals who have little respect for the human race or life itself. It will be a year of banding together in faith and in belief that good will prevail and win out over the forces that refuse to comply to a peaceful way of life. For those who trust in goodness, happiness and success will follow."

Here are a few sheepish books to read this year!


This philosophical mystery is a tale for adults to enjoy. With acerbic rams and both clever and dim-witted sheep in the herd, there is plenty to entertain you as these sheep try to determine who was responsible for the death of their beloved shepherd.

Blue Mountain

This middle-grade novel relates the adventures of Tuk, a bighorn sheep, and his herd. When their winter feeding grounds are paved over, it falls to Tuk, the strongest of his herd, to lead them to the fabled meadows of Blue Mountain where the grass is thick and plentiful. Adventure and environmental concerns mesh to make up a very readable story.


One of Murakami's early novels, this one uses the search for a mythical mutant sheep with a star on its back as a metaphor for the larger search for meaning in life. Our protagonist is inadvertently involved in the search for a sheep that appears in a photo on a postcard, one that a mad Sheep Professor has been searching for for years -- it's his Holy Grail, or should we say his Golden Fleece?


Babe thinks he's a sheepdog, and becomes even better at herding than the farm dogs...and is entered into the sheepdog trials. King-Smith's sheep are very English, with great intelligence and a wee bit of snarkiness ;)

And now to finish up...a classic picture book that celebrates sheep of all colours, involved in activities of all kinds! This is a wonderful read-aloud, great for encouraging toddler participation in the story. Also, there are many story stretching activities you can find online if you want to make this fun book the centre piece of a storytime. Such as...

Monday, February 09, 2015

Three-Legged Horse

Three-Legged Horse / Ann Hood
New York: Bantam,c1989.
293 p.

I've owned this novel for years. Really, for YEARS. So I finally picked it up and read it last weekend. It was a book I wanted to love.

I'd discovered Hood with her book Places to Stay the Night, which I'd found randomly on a library shelf years ago. I liked it so ended up reading a few of her books after that, and find her enjoyable and light for the most part.

Three-Legged Horse was an early novel, though, and it does show. It's interesting enough, but ultimately forgettable. Not one of her best.

The plot is a bit creaky: free-spirited mother who is in a folk band (named Three-Legged Horse) but who is involved in a troubled relationship with a distant, artist husband who comes and goes, sometimes for years on end. But she just can't give him up. Daughter Hannah deals with the fall-out of these emotional struggles, and with a father she barely knows. Hannah is trying to find her own way as well, now that she's a teenager, and that is causing some issues of her own. Oh yes, don't forget the glamorous New York soap opera actor Grandmother and her own dysfunctional marriage.

Too many threads trying to be woven in here. It's almost after-school special, but not quite. Hood is a good writer, and although much of the story is predictable in the sense of psychological tropes and easy answers, it still has a spark that makes it readable. It really shows the potential that Hood used to better effect in her following works.

This was a good pick to mix in between some heavier classic reads though. It's modern and it really does show some of the social norms and stock characters of the 80's. I could almost see the pastels and big hair in some of the story elements. Fun reading, but if you want to discover Hood, I'd recommend trying some of her later books first so that you can see her working at a more polished level. Her more recent books are really quite wonderful.


Further Reading:

Laura Moriarty's The Centre of Everything focuses on another 12 yr old girl, who faces a life with a mother always on the edge of employment who is having an unsatisfactory affair with a married man. Evelyn's perspective on life and love is formed in this unsettled atmosphere, and like Hannah in Three-Legged Horse, she seems more mature than the adults in the story. However, like any teenager, her tale is told from her viewpoint as the "centre of everything".

Alice Hoffman's Here On Earth tells the story of March Murray, who with her teenage daughter returns to her childhood home. There she comes across her high-school love Hollis...and learns why obsessive love is not always a good thing. (this is inspired by Wuthering Heights, the classic obsession novel)

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Phoebe's Way

20578826Phoebe's Way: a heartwarming tale of one dog's gift / Pamela Ditchoff
Toronto: ECW Press, c2104.
89 p.

(my review was first published in shorter form in my local paper, the Stratford Gazette)
January brings thoughts of passing time, of the way the year flies by in sudden jumps, from one month to the next. In Phoebe’s Way, author Pamela Ditchoff tackles the passage of time in two ways. 
The story is written from January to June, following the structure of a year and a half in Phoebe's life. Each brief chapter, set in a particular month, explores Phoebe’s work in a nursing home: she is a St. Johns Ambulance therapy dog. The residents of the nursing home have another sense of time altogether, as their memories mesh with their present existence.
Set in Nova Scotia, the story evokes the long lifetimes of teachers, fishermen, store owners, priests, and more. Phoebe has the uncanny gift of understanding (and relating to the reader) the memories that are arising in each person as they visit with her owner, whom she calls Myother. It's a compelling way to present all the many experiences and memories that have converged in the present person -- the elderly resident: often elders are perceived as 'old dears', are condescended to and undervalued as whole people, but this book puts the lie to that perception.
Some of these residents’ daily actions seem incomprehensible to others, but as the reader, getting a glimpse of the emotions and relationships of the past makes each character into a person to be cherished.
At 87 pages, with short, simple chapters, this is the kind of book that you could skim through very quickly. But you’ll want to slow down and savour each visit Phoebe makes, to read carefully between the lines, especially the opening lines of each chapter. Each begins with the same paragraph, like a poem that sets up Phoebe’s eager visit. But as the book progresses, small changes occur. Phoebe is the narrator, so we are reading from the dog’s point of view, noticing things that only this admittedly very sophisticated dog is sensing. She sees motives and longings that humans in the room miss. If you can adjust to the narrative voice and suspend your disbelief for the journey, you will appreciate what Ditchoff is trying to do with this story.
The only thing I don't like about this book is the cover -- I don't think it says anything at all about the story -- it doesn't mesh. Also, I would've left off the sappy subtitle, but maybe that's just me. I wish the book had more cover appeal, because I feel like it's getting missed by looking so sober and grim, when really it's more melancholy, with hits of  emotional sweetness.
It’s a bittersweet, small novel that will appeal to dog lovers, but also to those who appreciate a vision of life as a whole, of our memories as an inescapable part of our self. It would be a wonderful book to share with those who haven’t yet had a lot of experience with our elders; it illuminates the long history which has brought each person to their current state. It’s a book which encourages caring and connection, in their many and varying forms.


Further Reading

For another tale of a dog who is facing the death of a human, try Paul Auster's Timbuktu. While the style is different, the story is told from the old dog's perspective, and concerns itself with issues of death and what lies beyond. 

If it's the doggish angle that you like, try Every Dog Has A Gift, by Rachel McPherson shares real-life stories of dogs who've been used in therapy programs. It's a heartwarming collection for fans of series like the "Chicken Soup" books

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Young and The Crossed-In-Love

The Professor's Legacy (1914) the Professor's Legacy (1914) - Sidgwick, Cecily UllmannThe Professor's Legacy / Cecily Ullmann Sidgwick
Read online via Open Library

Now here's one that should never have been reprinted, even by a nefarious reprint house like the one pictured here. Oh my goodness, it is so dated and ridiculous! Not all vintage fiction is worth revisiting, as this title proves.

Basic plot: old widowed professor, young daughter whom he both controls and neglects, a research assistant in his 20s who meets young daughter when she is 7 YEARS OLD, professor eventually dies, young new professor returns and doomed love doesn't seem quite so doomed after all.

Full of clich├ęd characters (including the wicked stepmother trope, who is this case is actually the wicked aunt), ridiculously melodramatic events, and a creepy love story. Plus lots of clunky stereotypes of national characteristics -- the first Professor is German, while the young one is English. It's of its time, I suppose, and was entertaining when read as a dated melodrama, but honestly there aren't many redeeming factors for this one. At least not for me. However, I do clearly recall the dress that young Rosamond wore when she sneaked out to a dance with said aunt...

The Young Clementina / D.E. Stevenson
Napierville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2013, c1935.
352 p.

One of Stevenson's weaker entries into her oeuvre, The Young Clementina really reads like a classic Harlequin (great new cover, though!)

Charlotte Dean is a middle-aged lady working at a travel bookshop in London. Her days are quiet and routine, for the most part. But life changes when her sister bolts, and leaves her husband Garth (Charlotte's youthful paramour) and their child Clementina high and dry. Since Garth is a travel writer and explorer himself, he is just about to leave the country and needs someone to look after his mousy and downtrodden little girl. Charlotte to the rescue!

Charlotte spends a year caring for Clementina, building relationships with her and with the servants, learning to love life again, even after Garth is discovered to have died on his expedition. She explores who she was as a young woman and where her early relationship with Garth went wrong...but this is where this otherwise charming novel went off the rails for me. The sheer implausibility of events which caused Garth to quickly marry Charlotte's sister, and caused their resultant estrangement, was so immense I couldn't buy into it at all. I was rolling my eyes and thinking  that authorial intervention for plot requirement had gone out of control. Oh well, if you like a generally pleasing novel with lots of English charm, this one may do the trick. Just don't expect it to be totally believable.

I much enjoyed Stevenson's other work republished by Sourcebooks, especially Miss Buncle's Book & its follow-ups. If you haven't yet tried any yet, do take a look, they are generally delightful.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Who By Fire

Who By Fire / Fred Stenson
Toronto: Doubleday, c2014.
368 p.

In the mood for a balanced, complex read about environmental issues and family dynamics? Then this is one for you.

In Who By Fire, Stenson follows one farming family whose livelihood is destroyed by the construction of a large gas processing plant on the edge of their property. It begins in 1960s Alberta, with the Ryder family -- parents, 3 kids -- who try to hang on to their family farm while their neighbours are selling up. After months of sour gas, livestock deaths, sickness among the children, and no honest communication from the gas company, they've had enough of the constant stress. But it's too late; their property is now essentially unsaleable.

The story jumps between the 60s and the present, in which young Billy Ryder is now a grown man working in the oil sands in Fort MacMurray. He is a respected engineer, but he is also dealing with his own issues; a gambling addiction, a tentative new relationship, and a conflicted sense of responsibility toward his job and the local community.

I didn't expect to like this as much as I did. The writing is solid, and surprisingly fast-paced for such a dense literary read. I was completely sucked in by this story; while it tackles a big issue, it is extremely honest and balanced, and the action depends on the characters -- it doesn't feel like the idea is driving the plot to the detriment of the story, as can sometimes happen when a book takes on a contentious issue. Rather, Stenson lays out perspectives from many players in this larger story. Billy takes on the role of both affected family and later employee; his mother is tempted by a tentative affair with one of the early plant employees; their community is shaped by their interactions between employees and long-term residents. In Billy's adult life, he's also facing the conflict of what the company wants, and the rights of the local Native community. It's a long book, stuffed full of many kinds of people with different goals and different desires. But looking back at it, I only think about the characters -- they are the point of this one, not the plot.

Stenson's description of rural Alberta (landscape and communities) is both beautiful and honest, and nostalgia doesn't colour his depiction. He is equally dispassionate when he is talking about the events of the 60s as he is when completing the story of Billy and his two sisters in the present. He is not afraid to tackle the lived experience of Albertans affected by the downside of their economic powerhouse, oil & gas. In an interview with the Calgary Herald, when asked about taking one side of this issue, Stenson replied:
There’s this idea afoot that balance means you always come out in the middle. I think, well, if the truth is not in the middle, you have no business being in the middle. You should let the truth land where it lands. 
 I think he's done a fine job of that in this novel.

Highly recommended for readers who enjoy strong, complex characters facing serious change in their life and environment. It's an excellent literary depiction of a Canadian experience that is often overlooked.


Further Reading:

To get a feel for this industry, try combining David A. Finch's Hell's Half Acre: Early Days in the Great Alberta Oil Patch for a history of the years 1914 to the Second World War, with Rick Ranson's modern take on oil sands culture, Bittersweet Sands: 24 Days in Fort McMurray.

To get a sense of more character-based Alberta history, try any of Fred Stenson's other novels, most of which are set much earlier, but have the same complex yet straight-forward writing style.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Count Me In!

Count Me In / Emily White
Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, c2015.
289 p.

I liked this one -- an unexpected pleasure that I first heard of randomly. The idea of it appealed: in this book, White details how she adapted when she moved back to Toronto from small-town Newfoundland after a relationship crashed.

In her small Newfoundland community, she felt like she belonged, like place itself was a connection. Could she start to feel connected to others in such a large city? And if so, how?

Throughout this project, she tries various methods to form social connections, from volunteering to church-going to activism to hanging out at community spaces and events, to name a few. She gives many different things a try, and goes into what was good and not so good about each. I probably was an easy target for this book, since White chooses things that appeal to my own introvert nature -- like White, I wouldn't go about this by signing up for team sports or politics; rather, she chooses smaller, more flexible kinds of activities. She does note however:
     At no point in my year and a half of looking for belonging did I even stumble upon an opportunity to join the sorts of large groups that seem to have been ubiquitous in the past... Aside from faith organizations, large groups simply didn't surface. It's not that I was avoiding them. They weren't there.
     Without setting out to do so, I wound up confirming a major point in the research on belonging: the groups you'll find will probably be small and informally structured.
Something I loved about this book -- she acknowledges that not every activity is really for everyone. For example, everyone is always told that to find life more meaningful you should volunteer somewhere, anywhere! White points out that unless you're volunteering willingly and in a situation that meets your own specific needs as well as the organization's, it can be a draining and not very effective attempt at inclusion. To begin her project, she took time to focus clearly on what her values were, and what she would be looking for that would be personally meaningful. She decides on these values.
Dog, nature, faith, home, neighbourhood. The list felt a bit garbled, like clues to a mystery I'd have to tease out. But at least I had the clues.
Another thing I really liked about this book -- White's brief conversation about public spaces. She mentions the Great Good Space, the kind of public space that is open to all and that allows people to spend time with others in public at a more general level of engagement. This civic space supports us in a way that is wider and different than our family and friends, and the places in which we find this kind of atmosphere are the civic institutions that are shrinking -- parks, community centres, libraries --  the kind of spaces we need to support not only with our (shrinking) tax contributions, but with our communal use of these spaces. Not surprisingly I agree with her assessment that libraries are a public good, a 'third space' that provides opportunity for civic engagement for all.

White structures the book logically, even if the chapters bleed into one another as her experiences pile up and overlap. It's broken up into these general areas: Home, Local Place, Caring, Faith, Volunteering, Buying. Plus of course, a general introduction to both her own life and the genesis of her project, and an additional conclusion on what this year and a half has taught her.

Sometimes these kind of life-project books are too earnest or well-meaning for my tastes, coming across as dull and procedural. I was very glad to discover that this was not the case with Count Me In. I enjoyed White's writing style, and her narrative was self aware (and self-deprecating) enough that her search to overcome her sense of disconnection did not annoy me -- a sad occurrence in some similar reads I've tried. I think there are some interesting ideas here that readers could ponder and even discuss, as they build their own sense of connection in places like book clubs!

Enjoyable and great timing in publication date, too -- it's a perfect choice for the beginning of a year as people are making resolutions. If you've resolved to get out there and make some new connections, this is the perfect read for you. If you are simply interested in the idea of communal spaces and ways for people to live together with a greater sense of connection, you will also find this a good read.


Further Reading:

If the idea of spending time on a self-improvement project sounds like a good idea to you, you might want to try the classic tome on happiness, Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project.  Rubin decided to spend a year seeking what she most wanted in life... happiness.

For more from Emily White, read her first book, Lonely: Learning to live with Solitude. You will discover more about White herself, and her journey toward making connections with others.

Friday, January 09, 2015

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust / Alan Bradley
Toronto: Random House, c2015.
360 p.

I have loved this series since the very first book introduced us to Bishop's Lacey & our wonderful heroine. Flavia De Luce is a marvellous character, clever, wry, and yet still a young girl.

She's been 11 for the first 6 books -- but in this volume, she is now 12, and she's also living in Toronto, at Miss Bodycote's Female Academy, the school that her mother Harriet had attended. (I must admit to my fellow Canadians that I was rather hoping we might see a mention of Miss Scrimmage somewhere in this boarding school story...)

Flavia, as usual, starts off with a bang; in this case, a fellow student who bursts into her room and tries to hide from Miss Bodycote by climbing up the chimney...and dislodges a body. This seems like a startling way to be introduced to a new school, and a new country altogether, but nobody else at the school seems to be taking this unidentified body all that seriously.

Flavia is dreadfully homesick in this story, and so, I think, will many readers be. Where are her sisters, or Dogger, or even Gladys? Only in her recollections. While I was thrilled to read the descriptions of Toronto and to see Flavia navigate these new surroundings, there really is no place like Bishop's Lacey. All of Flavia's acquaintances in England are wonderful and quirky in their own right, but most of the girls (and teachers) at this school seem like ciphers. Not a lot of deep exploration of their characters or personalities, but then again, Flavia is really only passing through.

The plot of this story is as usual quite convoluted and complex -- I'm not going to try to go into it. The joy of this series is seeing Flavia encounter all the mayhem and try to make sense of it, we don't have to worry about it ourselves. Seeing her all alone in this setting really means that the story depends on her voice, on her perceptions (which are always shifting in this mysterious location). I thought it was a success, and builds lots of new directions into Flavia's world for her to explore in future.

If you love Flavia already, you're going to be waiting for this one. If you haven't yet encountered her, begin at the beginning to get the full Flavia effect. You may enjoy the darker undertones in this installment. Recommended!


Further Reading:

While the location and the set-up are both quite different, the Amelia Peabody books by Elizabeth Peters have a similar quirkiness and scientific outlook. Both series are driven by their main characters.

Another quirky series that is focused on character is the Erast Fandorin series by Boris Akunin. Fandorin is a Russian detective who solves unusual mysteries using the power of deduction, and has a unique perspective on life and society.