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Sunday, November 19, 2017

THE MARROW THIEVES: Internationally Recognized YA Fiction from Canada

When I was a teacher-librarian, I read quite a bit of Young Adult fiction.  Since I’ve retired, I’ve read very little; however, there’s a title that I think I will be picking up: The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline.  Dimaline recently won one of Canada's oldest and most prestigious prizes, the Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature ($25,000) and took home the 2017 Kirkus Prize for young readers' literature.  The American award comes with a purse of $50,000 U.S. (approximately $64,370 CAD).

Humanity has nearly destroyed its world through global warming, but now an even greater evil lurks.  The indigenous people of North America are being hunted and harvested for their bone marrow, which carries the key to recovering something the rest of the population has lost: the ability to dream.  In this dark world, Frenchie and his companions struggle to survive as they make their way up north to the old lands.  For now, survival means staying hidden … but what they don’t know is that one of them holds the secret to defeating the marrow thieves.

To listen to Shelagh Rogers's interview with Dimaline on “The Next Chapter”, listen at

Saturday, November 18, 2017

ALIAS GRACE: Miniseries and Audiobook

I recently finished watching the made-for-television adaptation of Alias Grace.  Based on the award-winning novel by Margaret Atwood and inspired by true events, Alias Grace tells the story of Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), a young, poor Irish immigrant and domestic servant in Upper Canada who - along with stable hand James McDermott (Kerr Logan) - finds herself accused and convicted of the infamous 1843 double murder of her employer Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross), and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin).  Grace is visited by handsome psychiatrist Dr. Jordan (Edward Holcroft), who could help set Grace free if he writes her a positive report, so she recites for him her long, grim life story, leading up to the murders. 

I really enjoyed all six episodes.  I agree with a BBC review:  Alias Grace is a solid, well-made piece of television that doesn't hide its intelligence under a bonnet, as costume dramas can do. Nor does it attempt to keep your attention with soap opera style cliff-hangers. It is better than that” ( The Guardian newspaper was even more glowing in its praise, calling it “a blessed adaptation” (

I would certainly recommend the miniseries, though, of course, I’d recommend reading the novel even more.  If you haven’t read the book, you might consider listening to it; Sarah Gadon, who plays the imprisoned Grace Marks in the adaptation, is narrating an audio version of Alias Grace, which has just been launched on ( 

Friday, November 17, 2017

Review of SON OF A TRICKSTER by Eden Robinson

3 Stars
Jared Martin lives in Kitimat, British Columbia, in a dysfunctional home.  His parents are divorced; his father is recovering from drug addiction and is financially strapped, while his mother, with whom Jared lives, has anger-management issues and keeps making poor relationship choices.  To financially support his father, Jared sells marijuana-laced cookies.  His life can only be described as dismal; the arrival of his neighbours’ granddaughter brings Jared some joy, but she has issues of her own.  Then things become downright weird when he starts having strange nightmares, seeing ghosts, and hearing talking animals.

There is little structure to the novel.  Just as Jared drifts through life, the novel feels adrift.  It seems to meander aimlessly through Jared’s days and nights of drinking, drug usage, being bullied, and having sex.  The endless partying and verbal and physical violence get tiresome.  After focusing on hyper realism, the novel changes shape and veers into magic realism where fireflies philosophize and conjugate French verbs and where river otters want to devour him. 

The message of the novel seems to be that “The world is hard . . . [so] You have to be harder.”  This advice is mentioned at least four times.  It is certainly a message that Jared takes to heart.  Despite his difficult circumstances, he never gives up.  He is, in fact, a person the reader will come to like.  Jared is caring, compassionate, and forgiving.  He takes responsibility for paying bills when his mother leaves without explanation; he helps his elderly neighbours; he helps his father catch up on late rent payments; and he makes time for people who once bullied him.  He is so kind and generous that people take advantage of him.  Of course he is not a perfect person; his sarcasm often gets him into trouble, and his substance abuse is certainly not admirable. 

Besides having a realistic protagonist, the novel is realistic in other ways as well.  The dialogue, especially that used in texting, is definitely that of contemporary teenagers.  Though his life may be more difficult than that of most teenagers, Jared’s concerns and interests are those of a typical adolescent:  social acceptance, school, partying, sex. 

Magic realism with its supernatural elements is not a genre I enjoy so the last third of the book had little interest for me.  What bothered me in particular is that it comes out of nowhere.  For example, there has been no indication that a character has supernatural powers but then she is identified as a witch:  “’She’s got this whole imaginary world going where she’s a big powerful witch and she’s being chased by mythical creatures.’”

This book appears on the shortlist for the 2017 Giller Prize and has received many positive reviews, but I was not overly impressed with it, other than that it is brutally realistic.  I think it would appeal to young people because it does address issues they face, though some school libraries might reject it because of its offensive language, graphic violence, and explicit scenes of sex and drug/alcohol abuse. 

I read that this book is the first of a trilogy, but I don’t think I’ll be reading any sequels.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

100 Novel Art Project: Typing 100 Novels on 100 Pages in 10 Years

Tim Youd, a performance artist, is half way through his 100 Novels project in which he plans, over a 10-year period, to type 100 novels, each on a single sheet of paper.  Each novel will be typed on the same make/model typewriter in a location charged with literary significance specific to the subject novel.  For example, he typed William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury at Faulkner’s former home in Oxford, Mississippi, and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms at Lake Maggiore in Switzerland where the novel’s protagonist crosses the lake in an escape to neutral territory.

Youd explains the process:  “Each novel is retyped on a single sheet of paper, backed by a second sheet, run repeatedly through the typewriter.  As the retyping progresses, the top sheet becomes saturated with ink, while the undersheet becomes embossed with indentation.  As the top sheet further distresses, ink bleeds through to the undersheet.  At the end of the performance, the two sheets are separated, and mounted side-by-side in a diptych.  This diptych serves as a formal relic, containing the repeated rectangle within the rectangle geometry present in two pages of an open book. The entire novel is present, but entirely illegible” ( 

Youd claims that his ability to read in a deep and devoted way has improved.  He explains that, “The performance itself is a devotional and close reading of the novel (the reading is silent, the sound is the typewriter alone).  My endeavor is not merely to copy the book, it is to experience deep engagement with the book.  As I have come to understand the project, it is at its heart an effort to be a truly good reader every time I sit down, and to become a better reader as I continue to move through the entire 100 novel cycle.  Most people have had the out-of-body experience that occurs during the course of an engrossing read.  It is a transportation to a higher plane of consciousness, and I think may be equivalent to a religious ecstasy” ( 

For some photos of the completed diptychs, go to  The site also has performance photos and a list of completed novels. 

Monday, November 13, 2017

Friendships between Famous Writers

Many people know of the friendship between Harper Lee and Truman Capote.  Lee used Capote as her inspiration for the character of Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird and she did considerable research for Capote’s In Cold Blood. 

To find out how well you know “book pals” why not try this quiz from The Guardian newspaper:

Then, if you are interested in the subject of famous literary friendships, there are a number of articles that might intrigue you:

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Review of MY ABSOLUTE DARLING by Gabriel Tallent

4 Stars
Turtle (Julia) Alveston, 14, lives with Martin, her survivalist father, in a decrepit, isolated house on the coast of northern California.  Martin has taught her how to shoot, make a fire, and forage for food.  He also abuses her physically, psychologically, and sexually.  Turtle’s life becomes more complicated when she meets two high school boys, Brett and Jacob.  They show her glimpses into another world which highlights how distorted is her own. 

The complex characterization of Turtle is the outstanding achievement of this novel.  She is a tough and resourceful girl who is totally self-sufficient in the natural world.  Because of her isolation and mistreatment by her father, however, she has a poor self-image; she is full of doubt and self-loathing.  She thinks of herself as “useless” (11) and “bitch” (62) and “goddamn slut” (80) because those are the things her father calls her.  In fact Martin always addresses her as “kibble,” thereby reducing her to dog food.  She doesn’t try at school because she is convinced she will fail.  Her daily life is wracked with anxiety and guilt.  Like many abuse victims, she blames herself:  “She thinks, maybe it was you all along.  Maybe there is something in you.  Something rotten.  You asked for it, or you wanted it.  Of course you did.  You brought him into this when you were just a child” (292).  And like her nickname suggests, she is focused on staying safe within her shell so she avoids contact with others. 

When she is forced to interact with other women, she echoes Martin’s misogynistic comments; for example, she calls a teacher, one who is trying to help her, a “sideways bitch” (127) and “fucking whore” (26) and “cunt” (27).  Turtle realizes that she shares some of Martin’s traits:  after teasing and taunting a classmate, “Turtle turns and walks away, and she thinks, that’s not me, that’s not who I am, that is Martin, that is something Martin does – his knack for finding the thing you hate about yourself and giving it a name.  She thinks, Christ, that was so much more like Martin, derisive, condescending, than it was like me. . . . She thinks, this is the part of him I hate most, the part that I revile, and I reached for it and it came easy” (143-144).  What differentiates her from her father is her ability to feel compassion for others. 

Turtle’s conflict throughout is her feelings for her father.  She both loves and hates him.  She loves her father and wants to protect him:  “She can’t bear that anyone else should see something he’s done wrong” (159).  She makes excuses for him; when a teacher suspects Turtle is being abused, Turtle reminds the teacher that “’He’s still hurt [from my mother’s death].  He hurts pretty badly’” (131).  She could run away but thinks, “I’m all Martin has, and I can’t leave him alone with that.  I can’t” (305).  But though she can admit, “I love him, I love him so goddamn much,” she will also admit, almost in the same breath, “I hate him for something, something he does, he goes too far, and I hate him, but I am unsure in my hatred; guilty and self-doubting and hating myself almost too much to hold it against him” (80).

Martin is memorable in his repulsive villainy.  He is very intelligent but uses his intelligence to manipulate others.  He is also unpredictable in his behaviour; one minute he is calm and loving and the next, his volatile temper explodes in violence.  He claims to love his daughter but it is a warped, possessive love; there is one horrific episode where he keeps repeating to Turtle, “’You are mine . . . Mine . . . You are mine . . . you little bitch, you are mine’” (140 – 141). 

Because Turtle is so connected to the natural world, there are many detailed descriptions:  “She and Jacob find iridescent-green centipedes, horned sea lemons with lacy gills unfurled, porcelain incrustations of spiral tube worms.  They shift more cobbles.  Sometimes, the water beneath will be still, the snails clattering across the mother-of-pearl carpets, the hermit crabs lifting their blue-pink clutch of limbs back into their blue-pink turban shells, the sullen-looking clingfish suckered against the stone, stone-colored themselves” (221).  Sometimes nature is used to emphasize Turtle’s situation:  her soul is like “a stalk of pig mint growing in the dark foundation, slithering toward a keyhole of light between the floorboards, greedy and sun-starved” (44).

The book is not flawless.  The prose tends to be ornate; at times it seems the author is trying too hard to be poetic.  Perhaps it is intended to be a reprieve from the sometimes breathtaking brutality being portrayed.  The dialogue attributed to Brett and Jacob is unrealistically precocious.  Sixteen-year-old boys are unlikely to be familiar with Finnegans Wake, The Odyssey, The Brothers Karamazov and To the Lighthouse (60) or be so verbally adept:  “’this is the chain-saw-wielding, shotgun-toting, Zen Buddhist, one-and-future queen of postapocalyptic  America’” (208). 

There are some problematic scenes as well.  The many descriptions of guns become tedious.  Perhaps it’s my dislike of guns that hates passages describing her shooting:  “She knows the sight is level when the edge appears as thin as a razor – if the gun tips up, she gets a telltale sheen off the sight’s top surface. . . She eases the play out of the 4.4-pound trigger, inhales, exhales to the natural slackening of her breath, and rolls on those 4.4 pounds” (5).  And since I know nothing about guns, descriptions of Turtle’s constant maintenance of her weapons are meaningless to me:  “Turtle sits cross-legged with the AR-10 broken open before her and the bolt carrier gutted from the receiver, shining red in the firelight, stripped of bolt and cam and firing pin.  She’s poured the carbon solvent into a lowball glass” (135). There are also some action scenes that I found over-the-top.  The climax seems to be drawn from an action film.

This book will not appeal to everyone.  It is dark and disturbing and graphic.  I found it an intense and exhausting read, but one I will not soon forget.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Books for Remembrance Day

Today is Remembrance Day, a day to contemplate and honour the sacrifice of our veterans.  It is so important that we never forget, but perhaps the best tribute we could pay our veterans would be to abolish war.  Doing a quick perusal, I was surprised by the number of anti-war novels on Schatje’s Shelves.  Some of these have explicit anti-war messages; others convey anti-war sentiments via their portrayal of the horrors of war and its effects on people.   

I posted the titles of these books last year but I’ve added books I’ve read this past year that belong on this list.
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shows the effects of the Nigerian civil war.
Empire of the Sun by J. G. Ballard tells of a young boy's struggle to survive World War II in China.
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson focuses on a fighter pilot’s wartime experience.
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah details the experiences of a child soldier.
The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian portrays life in German-occupied Italy.
The Lost History of Stars by Dave Boling shines a spotlight on the Anglo-Boer war and the mistreatment of women and children during the conflict.
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières is “nearly unbearable in its portrayal of European darkness during the war.”
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne explores the horror of WWII through the eyes of the young son of a concentration camp commandant.
Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave is set in London and Malta during WWII; no one escapes untransformed after experiencing the horrors and losses of war.
A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton has a Japanese woman revisiting her life before, during and after WWII.
The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa sheds light on the sailing of the SS St. Louis, a significant event in World War II history.
A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali by Gil Courtemanche is a brutally blunt account of the events that led to the Rwandan genocide of 1994.
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephan Crane depicts the harsh realities of the American Civil War.
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks has some brutal depictions of life in the trenches of WWI.
The Wars by Timothy Findley depicts the horrors of combat in WWI.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan is an account of Australian POW experiences as slave labourers and emphasizes man's inhumanity to man during war.
The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna, set in a Croation village after the War of Independence, chronicles how war reverberates in the daily lives of those touched by it.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain has been described as the Catch-22 of the Iraq War.
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank is a young girl’s journal written while her family was in hiding during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier paints a desolate picture of the American Civil War and its consequences.
The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway depicts life in Sarajevo in 1992 during the siege of that city.
The Tin Drum by Günter Grass is considered a classic of post-World War II literature.
The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek explores the pointlessness and futility of conflict.
Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi heightens the grotesqueness of life in Nazi Germany.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller is a satire on the insanity of war.
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway examines the tenuous nature of love in a time of war.
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway graphically describes the brutality of the Spanish civil war.
Hiroshima by John Hersey is an account of the aftermath of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, set in Afghanistan, examines the effect of warfare on individuals, societies and nations.
Tell by Frances Itani shows the effects of war on men returning home after WWI.
Schindler's Ark by Thomas Keneally is a testament to the horrors of Hitler's attempts to eradicate Jews from Europe.
Mischling by Affinity Konar focuses on two girls who become inhabitants of Mengele’s zoo in Auschwitz.
The Signal Flame by Andrew Krivák shows how families are often collateral damage in war.
The Translation of Love by Lynne Kutsukake describes the situation of the Japanese both during and after WWII.
The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer is partly based on the author’s experiences during the Philippines Campaign in World War II.
A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik examines the impact of the Liberian civil war.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra portrays life in war-torn Chechnya.
In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason examines the effects of the Vietnam War.
The Only Café by Linden MacIntyre is a mystery but highlights some of the horrific events of the Lebanese Civil War.
Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky depicts life in France during the German Occupation.
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen emphasizes the futility of the Vietnam War for the Americans.
Orhan's Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian examines the consequences of the Armenian genocide.
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje “traces the intersection of four damaged lives in an Italian villa at the end of World War II.”
All Quiet on the Western Front by  Erich Maria Remarque explores the impact of World War I on German troops during the war and afterwards.
Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay offers a portrait of France under occupation.
On the Beach by Nevil Shute imagines the aftermath of a nuclear war.
The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson set on the cusp of WWI reminds the reader of the horrors that await.
Maus by Art Spiegelman is a graphic novel about living and surviving in Hitler's Europe.
Sophie’s Choice by William Styron emphasizes the universality of the suffering under the Third Reich.
The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman is a Holocaust memoir which depicts the grim details of life in Warsaw under the Nazi occupation.
Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo is a classic anti-war novel narrated by a young American soldier injured during World War I.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, which depicts the horrors of bombing directed against civilians, is considered one of the world’s great anti-war novels.
Night by Elie Wiesel details the author’s experiences in Nazi German concentration camps.
Lost in Winter by Kathleen Winter focuses on the futility of war and the effects of war on a veteran of the war in Afghanistan.
My Heart is Not My Own by Michael Wuitchik explores the brutality and impact of the civil war in Sierra Leone.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, set in Nazi Germany with Death as its narrator, depicts the devastating effects of war.