Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Kobzar Book Award

I always follow awards lists like the Governor General's or Giller prizes, for interest's sake, but never usually bother reading anything on an awards list that I hadn't already planned on reading. My one exception is always the Kobzar Book Award.

This is the way it is described on their website:
The $25,000 biennial KOBZAR™ Book Award (formerly the Kobzar™ Literary Award) recognizes outstanding contributions to Canadian literary arts by authors who write on a topic with a tangible connection to the Ukrainian Canadian experience. Genres include literary non-fiction, fiction, poetry, young readers’ literature, play, screenplay and musical.
This award is a fabulous way to discover new titles that connect me to Ukrainian Canadian writing of all sorts -- and I'm always delighted when I see that I've read some of the titles nominated. By now I've read a large number of the nominated titles since 2006. 

This year the list looks very good. And luckily, I've already read and reviewed one of the titles, David Demchuk's Bone Mother. It has been a fave which I've recommended numerous times. 

The second book I've read is Sandra Semchuk's The Stories Were Not Told, a non-fiction look at Ukrainians in internment camps across Canada during WWII. And since I haven't yet reviewed it, I'll be sharing my thoughts on it in my next post. 

The other three books on the list include a book of photography, a short story collection, and a volume of poetry. 

The range of genre and style in this award list is always inspiring -- it's nice to see an award that is arranged thematically rather than strictly by genre. The judging must be a little harder, as that theme is the vital part, but it always creates an interesting list. 

If you don't know about this particular award, I recommend checking it out for suggested Canadian titles that you may not be familiar with yet.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Strong Poison

Strong Poison / Dorothy L. Sayers
London, NEL Books, 1977. c1930
224 p.

Strong Poison is the book in the Lord Peter Wimsey series in which Harriet Vane is introduced, and as such is one of my favourite parts of the overall story arc.

It's also an entertaining read on its own. Harriet is a writer and is researching poisons for a novel. Unfortunately for her, her ex dies of poison shortly after leaving her home in a failed attempt to reconcile in some manner. She is the obvious suspect and is arrested and tried for murder.

However, Lord Peter sees her case in the papers and immediately decides she's innocent, and aside from that he also decides she is the one woman for him. From her mug shot in the paper. If only we were all so femme fatale!

He attends the trial, alongside his mother, the wonderful Dowager Duchess, who can see what is happening to her favourite son, and can only support him however she can. Lord Peter listens to the case and then tries to prove Harriet's innocence in the limited time between the trial and the date of a retrial - needed since the jury could not agree (thanks to the presence of Peter's own Miss Climpson on the jury -- and Miss Climpson and the ladies of the Cattery play a larger role as the book continues).

The romance between Peter and Harriet begins; he introduces himself and announces he wishes to marry her, she declines politely and they continue on. The pattern of Peter proposing off the cuff and Harriet not taking him seriously begins here and continues until the end of Gaudy Night (my favourite of the series, and probably most people's favourite too. My earlier thoughts on it are here)

And there is a little more romance going on among the tense search for evidence to prove Harriet's innocence -- Wimsey's sister Mary and his police friend Inspector Parker form an alliance here too. 

There is drama, sexual tension, social commentary about the situation of single women, critique of the legal system, and lots of clever writing going on. It evokes its era -- late 20s, beginning of the 30s -- very strongly and crosses classes continually. Harriet is in prison for the whole book, and there is representation of the prison system and the way even a false arrest could then overshadow someone forever, socially speaking. Especially if that someone is considered a fast-living 'modern' woman. 

You know that Harriet's going to survive, because of course most readers know what's ahead. And yet it is hard to see how Lord Peter and Bunter are going to manage this time; the evidence is scarce on the ground. They really have to use all their tricks and all their connections here.

A really enjoyable and satisfying read, definitely one to read before Gaudy Night to get the full effects of the storyline. 

This book is also a review for the 1930 Club, hosted
by Simon at Stuck in a Book & Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings

Friday, October 04, 2019

Stone Field, True Arrow

Stone Field, True Arrow / Kyoko Mori
New York: Picador, 2000.
288 p.
I picked up this book by chance recently, mostly because of a mention in the blurb that the main character is a weaver and makes clothes. These things always interest me! Later I realized that I'd also read her YA novel Shizuko's Daughter,  many years ago.

This is the author's debut adult novel, and while it is was interesting there were flaws in my reading experience.

Maya Ishida left her artist father in Japan when she was sent to live with her estranged mother in the US when she was only a child. She's always found her mother harsh and unloving, and missed her father and Japan so much that she has become an emotionally withdrawn adult.

She's created a comfortable life for herself, finding a job in a small clothing boutique, and an apartment/studio above it as her refuge. Strangely enough, she's also found a husband, a local high school teacher who isn't demanding but is also still enmeshed with his ex-wife.

Maya is detached from all of this, from life, from her relationship with her husband (which eventually breaks down, not surprisingly; there seems to be no emotional connection between them at all). But she meets someone else, a man full of spirit and energy who is also an artist -- what she has always aspired to, though she has settled into her life of weaving wearables as her art form. I found it strange that at one point Maya seems to disregard her own weaving, which has been commented on multiple times already in the book as unusually beautiful and artistic, as a secondary choice to her ideal of "real" art, painting. As a textile focused maker myself, I believe that weaving, sewing, quilting ARE art and are not secondary to painted art. Maya is a weaver; she is an artist. The author's choice in making this statement was unclear in the plot for me.

This is a very quiet, muted book. The plot has a few emotional eruptions, both positive and negative -- but there seem to be many failed relationships throughout, not just Maya's own - and Maya never leaves behind her extreme detachment from everything around her. Of course, the word Maya is also a Buddhist term for the illusory nature of the world, so perhaps that detachment is an integral part of this character.

In any case, I found this a satisfying read, though a slow one. I was in the right mood for it, and the elements around weaving, yarn, and clothing were engaging and beautifully told. The characters themselves were a bit sad sack and there is no emotional resolution to the story, which I would have preferred to see. So, while uneven and not fully satisfying, I still wanted to finish this and see what happened to all these characters. Perfect if you are looking for a quiet melancholic read as we move into the fall.

(this review first appeared on Following The Thread)

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Murder on Millionaire's Row

Murder on Millionaire's Row / Erin Lindsey
NY: Minotaur Books, c2019.
340 p.
This was a delightful and very entertaining read which I recently picked up at my library. I thought it looked good -- a Gilded Age mystery featuring a housemaid and a cook as detectives. Fun! 

But it was more than it first appeared to be. Sometimes it's fun to know next to nothing about a book prior to picking it up. I was well into the book and enjoying it, when suddenly there appeared a ghost. Wait, what? I had no idea that this story was going in that direction. But it worked very well, and I loved the way that the paranormal became, well, normal, in this book.

It's like Amanda Quick's paranormal thrillers crossed paths with a charming historical New York mystery series and interbred, resulting in a cozy-ish, ghostly story with a sense of humour about itself and some fabulous characters -- alongside a well developed paranormal structure with clear rules, and a little bit of romance too. I always love a story with strong female characters, and there are lots of those here. 

Pretty much a book that could have been written just for me! I'm so looking forward to the second volume of this series, which is now on hold at the library as well. 

In this first entry in the series, we meet Rose Gallagher, Irish maid at a Fifth Avenue brownstone, in 1880s New York. Her friend Clara Freeman (the cook, with secret medical skills) supports her even when she thinks that Rose might be overreaching. Clara teases Rose about her infatuation with their employer Thomas Wiltshire, but when he goes missing, Rose can't help but search for him after feeling that the police aren't taking the household's concerns seriously. 

Rose uncovers some hidden talents, as well as a cast of supporting characters that include mediums, witches, freemasons, ghosts, and the local Chinese grocery owners. There is a combination of clever characterizations, amusing repartee, rich descriptions of life in uptown and downtown New York in the era, and lots of fantastical occurrences to intrigue a reader. Rose and Clara in particular, and some of the other women in the story as well, are interesting enough that I can't wait to see where they go next. 

Her employer, whom she eventually rescues from hoodlums, informs her of the presence of the supernatural in their world, and reveals his chops as a paranormal investigator. Because this is a first book, there is a fair amount of explanatory text as the author sets up this world. But even with all that, the pace is quick and the story doesn't lag. There is a great deal of fun but also some discussion of the social conditions in this era which deepens some of the characters, Rose included. 

Definitely an enjoyable read for me. It felt cinematic to me; lots of imagery, description, and concrete details about their lives. Recommended! 

Monday, September 30, 2019


Asleep / Banana Yoshimoto
trans. from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich
NY: Grove, 2000, c1989.
177 p.
I feel like I've been asleep all month! I nearly missed posting a single review this month, after posting every day in August. Yikes, how does that happen? 

I still have a few books that I was finishing up at the end of my August Women in Translation marathon, and this is one of them. I love Banana Yoshimoto's work so when I saw this little book at the second hand book store I snapped it up. 

Like many of her books it has three short novellas making up the content. Each story is about a young woman who is asleep in her own life, whether metaphorically or as in the last story, often literally. 

In the first story, Night and Night's Travelers, a young woman narrates what happens to her family and her brother's girlfriends after he dies. She writes letters to his American ex-girlfriend, and is company for the Japanese one, Mari, their cousin. Mari starts sleepwalking, and the sister notes it all and takes care of her, but sees that the year of mourning has come to end for all of them except for Mari, who, she thinks, has been in mourning since her childhood. It's a soft, melancholy story.

The next, Love Songs, is a bit harsher, with more raw detail. It also has a hint of the otherworldliness that can appear in Yoshimoto's stories. A young woman who has been in a prickly love triangle, now over, is haunted in her sleep by the Other Woman. The man wasn't as important, apparently -- she doesn't really think much about him. This story is about what happens in her sleep, and in the long sleep of the other woman. Not as resonant as the first story, but interesting nonetheless. 

And the last story, Asleep, is where the literal expression of the title comes in. A young woman finds herself exhausted and sleeping all the time, when she falls into a relationship with a man whose wife is in a coma. What should she do? Break it off? Continue? She's frozen and asleep in her own life, whether she's awake or not. But after an encounter with a woman in a park, who is a little bit eerie, things change for her. She says:
"I felt like I'd just woken up a moment ago, and everything looked so clear and beautiful it was frightening. Everything really was gorgeous. Those crowds of people walking through the night, the light from the paper lanterns dotting the arcade, the line of my boyfriend's forehead as he gazed straight up, eager for the fireworks to start, as we stood there in the slightly cool wind -- it was all so beautiful." 
When she shakes off sleep, life begins anew. 

In all of these stories, death, ending, and new beginnings intermingle. It's a style that I've noticed in all of Yoshimoto's work and gives it her particular twist. The beauty of living, the reality of dying, and how to carry on -- it's all there. I find her books compelling and always rereadable. Lots to think about in all of them, this one included. 

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Women in Translation Month 2019: a conclusion

This ends another wonderful month of reading and sharing #WomenInTranslation! It was a good challenge this year -- lots of intriguing data, as usual, over at Biblibio - the originator of #WITMonth. And the 100 Best WIT! Lots to follow up on.

I enjoyed this month; I wasn't as organized as last year, and wasn't planning to review books every day, but I had a bit of a backlog of novels to talk about, and then I kept seeing such great recommendations that I just kept reading. I still have four titles that I've finished to talk about, and another half done.

And that brings me to my conclusion: Women in Translation is not just a monthly phenomenon. We should continue reading and sharing all year long. Many publishers, translators, bookstores and more are getting in on the action these days, and the more we as readers respond and ask for more, the better off we'll all be.

I'll still be sharing my reviews over the next year, and trying to read along with the 100 Best WIT list as I'm able. And also continue to read off my own shelves -- I have so many books by women in translation that I still have waiting for me. A project I'm going to try to focus on over the next year is to read more Quebecois novels as well. There are so many French Canadian writers that I haven't yet read.

I hope you have enjoyed this month as much as I have, and have added to your TBR thanks to all the wonderful reviews shared, especially on Twitter under the #WITMonth tag. Happy Reading!

Friday, August 30, 2019


 trans. from the Japanese by Megan Backus
New York: Grove Press, 2006, c1988.
152 p.
Making my list of 100 Best WIT nominees yesterday made me realize that I have never talked about one of my most cherished reads on my blog. I read it so long ago that it was pre-blog years, imagine!

So I reread it this week, and enjoyed it all over again. Reading it alongside some of Yoshimoto's later works shows that she was already an accomplished writer by the time this first work was translated.

Kitchen contains both the title novella and a slightly shorter one, Moonlight Shadow. Both are clear and simple, in her patented style, and feature food, love, loss, and a tinge of the supernatural. These themes and stylistic signatures remain in her later novellas.

In Kitchen, Mikage loses her grandmother, her last living relative. She ends up moving in with Yoichi and his mother Eriko -- she only knows them slightly but they take her in during her time of grief, when she has to move out of her grandmother's old apartment as well as dealing with her death.

She becomes emotionally involved with this eccentric duo, and when tragedy strikes again, she has to return the favour and hold Yoichi stable in his grief.

It's a beautiful story, with lovely imagery, some thoughtful commentary on love and grief, and with a thread of hope and positive resolution running through it.

Moonlight Shadow is a briefer look at the same themes: Satsuki and Hitoshi are soulmates, but when they've been together for four years, Hitoshi dies suddenly. Satsuki's overwhelming grief is shared by Hiirage, Hitoshi's younger brother, who also lost his girlfriend in the accident.

There is a much stronger presence of the supernatural in this story; Satsuki takes up running as a solace, and comes across a very unusual woman on the bridge that is the midpoint of her run. This woman invites to return on a specific day to see something unusual and wonderful that only happens once every hundred years. Satsuki is mystified but feels a strong sense that she should believe this woman -- the reader can pretty much guess what the outcome is going to be, but it's still a lovely journey through Satsuki's confusion and grief to the kind of end that we all might wish for. 

This book is still a compelling read, one that engages and wraps you in its storyline despite the brevity and the very simple narrative style. Somehow the simplicity increases the importance of the daily mundane activities that Yoshimoto describes, and imbues them with grace. 

Still a favourite. I'd recommend starting with this and then going right on to a much more recent work, Moshi Moshi, a longer and more complex book but with all the same concerns.