Archive for November, 2012


Last night, with great self-congratulatory brouhaha, CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi introduced the Canada Reads 2013 Shortlist and celebrity panelists. This is an event I’ve watched (well, more accurately, listened to) with mild interest the last few years, but never really embraced.

I confess that I am in general deeply cynical about prizes awarded by popular vote, which is the whole premise of this literary “event”, but this year the shortlist picks seem more intriguing to me than some in the past, so I’ve set myself a personal goal of reading and reviewing all five of them. This will also tie in nicely with my participation in 6th Annual Canadian Book Challenge , hosted by John Mutford of The Book Mine Set .

I may also explore among the picks in the Long List, though I have no intentions of reading all of them. We’ll see what happens. This list will find a home in my library bag, for those days when inspiration needs a little push. I’ve already read a few (a very few) of the picks, though mostly before this blog materialized. I may re-read and review. Or not! Leaving myself wide open here.

This year Canada Reads has a regional theme, which doesn’t really work in my opinion, as there are only five extremely broad regions and geographically and philosophically I think there is more variance in truly regional Canadian literature than these limited categories allow. But no one asked me, so I guess I need to go with it.

Here’s our Long List:

B.C. & Yukon:

The Prairies and North:



Atlantic Canada:

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Fickle Moment by Peter Blackmore ~ 1948. This edition: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1948. Hardcover. 244 pages.

My rating: 7/10. The epitome of light reading; pure vintage fluff. A nice diversion from the snow whirling round outside!


Elizabeth Portal rather smugly contemplates her thirtieth season as the leading star in the Watermouth Regis amateur operatic and dramatic society. She’s aging marvelously well, looks more youthful than her undeniable fifty, and only an unkind person would raise an eyebrow at Elizabeth’s coming performance as schoolgirl Yum-Yum in The Mikado. But when the other two of the Three Little Maids are Elizabeth’s daughters  Louise and Anna, more than a few sarcastic smiles are hidden behind politely shielding hands.

No matter – Elizabeth is on top of the world. Her eldest daughter, Anna, is about to marry the Watermouth Regis mayor, one Hubert Briggs, a man of varied experience: one-time jockey now turned respected undertaker after a riding accident ended his turf career and sent him back to take over the family business. People like Hubert, hence his election to the mayor’s chair; he’s unremittingly cheerful, and the funerals he presides over rocket right along, a relic (people whisper with a wink) of his sporting career and fondness for speed. Anna’s a bit of a drooper, true, but maybe marriage will pep her up?

Louise already has plenty of pep. A gorgeous young woman with a passion for tennis and swimming, Louise has attracted many admiring glances but so far has not returned the masculine attention of the local swains with anything other than polite amusement. Louise is ripe for love, ready to fall for the right man, who so far hasn’t appeared on her horizon. Or has he?

One day a rather battered sailboat, the Ayacanora, appears from nowhere and anchors just off the Portal’s private beach. Aboard is dashing sailor Richard Hardy, taking a break from his round the world voyaging, hoping to replenish stores and maybe engage in a little amorous relaxation. Lovely Louise swims by, and Richard’s interest is definitely aroused, especially when Louise glances back in her turn. Could something be about to happen?

Young Charlie Rogers, employed under the Portal patriarch Henry’s supervision at the Watermouth Regis town treasurer’s office, shows up to play the piano for the female Portals’ rehearsals. It has suddenly occurred to him that the questions his prospective employer asked him about his piano playing abilities were not so random after all. Charlie sees Louise, and fireworks go off inside his modestly manly heart. But could such a strong and vibrant girl ever look with even the remotest interest on an unathletic, sensitive and insecure (though undeniably good-looking) junior clerk?

Well, I’m thinking you can guess the answers to all of those, and I’m betting you’d be getting them all right. Shake these all together, add a generous handful of eccentric aristocrats and comic townspeople and ex-chorus girls and snobby upper-middle-class matrons, and here you have the ingredients to make a happy few hours reading.

The comeuppance of Elizabeth and the romantic flowering of Louise, plus the side stories of a nicely varied group of secondary characters makes for a narrative which dashes along at a very good pace indeed.

This one was picked up on a whim for the Gilbert and Sullivan quotation on the frontispiece: “Fickle moment, prithee stay!” Having a weakness for Penzancian pirates and Lord High Executioners and the rest of the G and S panoply of characters, my interest was piqued, especially when a closer investigation revealed a publishing date of 1948 and a Wodehousian sparkle of dialogue within.

I must say, if you’re not a devotee of The Mikado, you may find many of the scenes mildly confusing, but if you are, you will snicker along with the townspeople of Watermouth Regis at Elizabeth’s dramatic excesses.

Peter Blackmore was obviously a theatre lover, which assumption was confirmed when I researched him after reading this book and discovered that he was quite a well-known playwright and film screenwriter in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Fickle Moment also appeared in dramatic form as a play called The Blue Goose, and a play called Miranda, featuring a captivating mermaid being paraded about in a bath chair as an invalid, was made into a very successful comedy movie, detailed here. Most intriguing!

I’d never heard of Peter Blackmore before, but you can bet your sea boots I’ll be watching for his name now. Though I somehow doubt I’ll soon come across another of Blackmore’s books at such a ridiculously low price – 25¢ at the local Salvation Army’s bargain book sale. Perhaps it will average out the next one I just might have to seek out online at a probably much richer price!

I’ll be looking for Miranda on film through the regional library system; this is just the thing that our wonderful librarians like to acquire and share. Please let me know if any of you are familiar with Blackmore; I’m really interested now, and the internet is strangely uninformative, save for the playwright designation, a few Miranda discussions, his dates – 1909 to 1984, and his British nationality.

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Mention My Name in Mombasa: The Unscheduled Adventures of an American Family Abroad by Maureen Daly McGivern & William McGivern ~ 1958. This edition: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1958. First Edition. Hardcover. 312 pages.

My rating: 7/10.


This is a most interesting read; a travel memoir with a very 1950s’ feel – not surprising, seeing as it is a 1950s’ book! I enjoyed it.

The authors were literary figures of their time, and the travels herein described were, it seems from a few comments here and there, both to fulfill a personal desire for wanderlust and to collect material for future books, including this one.

If the name Maureen Daly rings a bell, it is most likely because of her extremely successful young adult novel, Seventeenth Summer, written when the author was herself just seventeen, and published in 1942. Some years later we find Maureen married to fellow writer William McGivern, a successful writer of crime-mystery novels (The Big Heat, Rogue Cop, war novel Soldiers of ’44, and almost 20 more) and film and television scriptwriter (Kojak, Adam-12, and Ben Casey, among others). They had their two children along, 6-year-old Megan and 2-year-old Patrick, when they left New York on New Year’s Eve to travel to Paris, the start of their extended travels.

Long, detailed and quite enthralling chapters describe the scenery, culture and especially the unique individuals the McGiverns came into contact with. The tone is a mixture of worldly-wise (but never condescending), travel guide (but merely to lay out the scene), and very 1950s’ American superiority (but innocent of bluster so therefore non-jarring – at least for the most part). The McGiverns were very eager to give credit where it was due regarding the superior aspects of their temporary homes and tourist destinations, which included Paris, and then a stay in the tiny fishing village of Torremolinos near Málaga, Spain, just on the verge of its discovery and development as a winter-tourist hotspot.

Then come several chapters on Spanish bullfighting, bullfighters and the ranches which raise and train the bulls. The tone here is journalistically non-judgemental much of the time; I never did get a grasp of whether the McGiverns were fully behind the “sport”, though from the farcical descriptions of a number of stereotypical bullfight aficionados which graces one of the chapters, I suspect they had marginally more sympathy for the bovine members of that elite yet widely populist pastime.

Next is a short visit (and hence a short chapter) in Gibraltar, where the McGiverns are rather disappointed in the elusiveness of the famous apes. On to Iceland, and a very travel-guide chapter this is, with loads of facts thrown at the reader, interspersed with short vignettes of some of the US Army families living on the vast NATO air base, and native Icelanders who opened their homes to our travellers.

Then comes the most memorable chapter of the book. During World War II, William had served as a US Army gunner in the European campaign, and his platoon had ended up entrenched on the mountainside near the tiny Belgian village of Fraipont, where the local people showed such generosity and warmth to their American allies that William had long planned to return in more peaceful times. Just over ten years later that sentimental visit took place, with the villagers overjoyed to recognize William and welcome his family. A poignant reminder that the war was not all that far in the past when this pilgrimage took place.

Back to Spain, and then a four-day voyage to the Canary Islands, a visit which seems not to have quite met the high expectations of the romance of the name. On to Morocco, where the McGiverns have several pleasant surprises regarding the locals, and then to Nigeria, on the cusp of independence as a full member of the British Commonwealth, after decades of colonial occupation.

A safari to Abadjan on the Ivory Coast and then to Fort Lamy in Chad doesn’t quite go as expected, but there are compensations in the people who the McGiverns meet as they wait for their travel visas to gain approval from the local bureaucracy. This does not happen, so back to Spain, through France, Belgium, and over to Ireland, where the Daly family is waiting to welcome their wayward relative and her family for an extended visit. Several months in Dublin follow, and then the trip is wound up, with a return to New York over a year after the original departure.

In this book there is a strong sense of how good it is to be an American at this point in history, and how welcome the traveller from the U.S.A. both feels and is made to feel; the McGiverns travel in their French-bought Citroën plastered with American flags fore and aft, and seldom seem to meet with a cold shoulder. Quite a change in the ensuing fifty years!

This is a fine book, and a literary time capsule of the post-war era, before things started to go wrong for the U.S.A., politically speaking.

I suspect it may be hard to come by (I ordered mine for a rather large sum from an online rare book dealer, for the Maureen Daly connection) but if your library happens to have a copy hidden in the stacks, or if you chance upon it in a used book store, it is well worth delving into.

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Greetings, faithful blog followers. It has ocurred to me, now that this blog has become a part of my life and I feel no urge to quit on it just yet, that I should tag my posts with the year I read the books, what with a whole new year coming up and all.

I’m not sure if retagging/editing posts sends them back out into the world to those of you subscribed via email, but if it does, just a heads up that you might be getting lots of duplicate posts. I think I will start at the beginning with my edits, so if these do start to come your way, just delete as the spirit moves you.

(Didn’t want anyone to think that I am hitting a super-productive streak or anything!)

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Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones ~ 1985. This edition: Greenwillow, 2002. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-06-029885-5. 420 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10. Half point off because of the typical DWJ ending – a re-read and an explanation by the author almost mandatory. Maddening. So close to perfect!


This one took two tries. The first time I didn’t make it 20 pages in, but the second go, several months later, I was completely enthralled. I knew I would like it (I always end up liking Diana Wynne Jones, but sometimes I really need to work at it), but that the timing would need to be just right. Hit it perfectly, obviously.

Okay, here we go. This is a book that deserves a long, scholarly explanation, but I will try to keep it fairly brief – I need to work on that – brevity – I really tend to ramble on. Stream of consciousness typing. Heh.

College student Polly Whittaker lies on her bed in her room in her grandmother’s house and muses on a number of things. On the coming academic year; on the mysterious photograph on her wall which she has loved since childhood – hay bales burning in a field, with a huge hemlock plant enveloped in smoke in the foreground – as a child Polly remembers seeing people in the picture, but that was surely youthful imagination, because they certainly aren’t there now; and on the book of stories she’s been reading, another childhood favourite, except that the stories are not quite as she remembered. Growing up is so dreary, Polly sighs to herself; you see things as they are.

Or do you?

As she muses and digs deeper in her mind, Polly begins to remember more details that certainly can’t – couldn’t possibly – have happened. But there they are, that second set of memories, emerging from the hidden recesses of her mind and forming as she thinks about them. This set of memories begins at the age of ten, with the meeting of Tom at the funeral…

Flashback! And we’re off. Polly now remembers meeting a rather shy, mildly dreary young man at a neighbour’s house where she has inadvertently trespassed into an after-the-funeral will reading. Tom had looked over at Polly, realized that she really shouldn’t be there, and inconspicuously spirited her away, out of the house. The two are immediately and deeply attracted to each other in some elemental way, though Polly is, as I mentioned earlier, a child of ten, and Tom Lynn is an adult. He’s a musician, a cellist in an orchestra in London, and after returning Polly to her grandmother’s house, with the fire and hemlock picture which he has given Polly from his share of his just-announced inheritance – six pictures – he vanishes from her everyday life, though a letter soon comes from him, and the two then embark on a running epistolary narrative, with Polly reinventing herself as a Hero, or rather, assistant-Hero, to the Tom figure she has embellished into a heroic crusader-for-goodness, Tan Coul.

They write, and occasionally meet, while Polly’s life goes through some shattering events, such as the separation of her parents and her mother’s disastrous relationships with new men; Polly fortunately has a haven in her grandmother’s house, and keeps emotionally afloat though we wouldn’t blame her if she gave up and let herself drown in misery; awful things happen, many of them fantastically unlikely.

This book is, by the author’s own explanation, deeply influenced by a number of legendary tales: Tam Lin is the most obvious, with Polly obviously taking on the role of Janet, and Tom Lynn the doomed hero whom she saves from the sacrificial rites of faeryland. We also have Thomas the Rhymer, who cannot speak a lie, the gift-curse of his particular faery queen; for our tale’s Tom this becomes the gift/curse of whatever Tom imagines taking on reality. Tom’s faery queen is his divorced wife Laurel, an ominous figure who maintains her grasp on Tom even though they are supposed to have parted ways. The Odyssey is in there,  with Tom/Odysseus journeying through the years and often being seduced away from his faithful Polly/Penelope labouring away at home; Cupid and Psyche, and the tragedy of Psyche’s curiosity separating her from her true love; and eventually and most hard to pick up on, unless tipped off by the author’s explanation, as I was, T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and this stanza:

In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
       You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
       You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
       You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
       You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

And this bit:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

Confused? Trust me, it will make sense when you get to the last chapter, and chaos ensues, and nothing seems to work by the rules you think you know about, about Janet clinging to Tam Lin to bring about his salvation. Something very different happens.

This is really a non-review, an un-review; you need to read this book, and, if you are in the right time and space, it will be perfect for you, and you will love it. If not, set it aside, for weeks, months, years – but do give it a second try. This may be Diana Wynne Jones masterpiece; the book which elevates her considerable body of work to the next level, to something beyond juvenile fantasy to a very mature level indeed.

(It also works beautifully as a plain and simple story, though that darned ending rather knocks the unwary reader down.)

And once you’ve read the book – and NOT before – read the author’s thoughts on Fire and Hemlock here, in an essay called The Heroic Ideal – A Personal Odyssey

Here are some more reviews you will appreciate, because the writers give proper plot summaries (unlike my wishy-washy avoidance of doing so) starting with the one which contains the links to The Heroic Ideal, copied above:

Two Sides to Nowhere – Fire and Hemlock

Valentina’s Room – Fire and Hemlock

Jenny’s Books – Fire and Hemlock

Shelf Love – Fire and Hemlock

A Musical Feast – Fire and Hemlock (a more critical review, worth reading because it puts into words the bothersome flaws in DWJ’s technique)

This is just a small sampling. Happy reading!

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Touch the wooden gate in the wall you never saw


Say “please” before you open the latch,

go through,

walk down the path.

A red metal imp hangs from the

               green-painted front door,

as a knocker,

do not touch it; it will bite your fingers.

Walk through the house. Take nothing. Eat nothing.

However, if any creature tells you that it hungers,

feed it.

If it tells you that it is dirty,

clean it.

If it cries to you that it hurts,

if you can,

ease its pain.

From the back garden you will be able to see the wild


The deep well you walk past leads down to Winter’s


there is another land at the bottom of it.

If you turn around here,

you can walk back, safely;

you will lose no face. I will think no less of you.

Once through the garden you will be in the wood.

The trees are old. Eyes peer from the undergrowth.

Beneath a twisted oak sits an old woman.

                           She may ask for something;

give it to her. She

will point the way to the castle. Inside it

are three princesses.

Do not trust the youngest. Walk on.

In the clearing beyond the castle the

                    twelve months sit about a fire,

warming their feet, exchanging tales.

They may do favors for you, if you are polite.

You may pick strawberries in December’s frost.

Trust the wolves, but do not tell them

where you are going.

The river can be crossed by the ferry.

The ferryman will take you.

(The answer to his question is this:

If he hands the oar to his passenger, he

will be free to leave the boat.

Only tell him this from a safe distance.)

If an eagle gives you a feather, keep it safe.

Remember: that giants sleep too soundly; that

witches are often betrayed by their appetites;

dragons have one soft spot, somewhere, always;

hearts can be well-hidden,

and you betray them with your tongue.

Do not be jealous of your sister.

Know that diamonds and roses

are as uncomfortable when they tumble

                    from one’s lips as toads and frogs:

colder, too, and sharper, and they cut.

Remember your name.

Do not lose hope — what you seek will be found.

Trust ghosts. Trust those that you have

                helped to help you in their turn.

Trust dreams.

Trust your heart, and trust your story.

When you come back, return the way you came.

Favors will be returned, debts will be repaid.

Do not forget your manners.

Do not look back.

Ride the wise eagle (you shall not fall).

Ride the silver fish (you will not drown).

Ride the grey wolf (hold tightly to his fur).

There is a worm at the heart of the tower;

                             that is why it will not stand.

When you reach the little house, the

                      place your journey started,

you will recognize it, although it will seem

                       much smaller than you remember.

Walk up the path, and through the garden

                           gate you never saw before but once.

And then go home. Or make a home.

Or rest.

Neil Gaiman ~ 2000

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M is for Magic by Neil Gaiman ~ 2007. This edition: Harper Collins, 2007. First Edition. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-06-1186424-4. 260 pages.

My rating: 8/10. It’s Neil Gaiman – what else can I say? When he’s good, he’s great. Some of his stuff is a bit out there and twisty for my squeamish comfort, but mostly I’m a solid fan.

But I disagree with the marketing angle for this collection – this is not a book for children. The true audience here is teens and up, in my opinion. Some of the reference are totally aimed at adults. Not to say kids shouldn’t read this – not at all! Like most of Ray Bradbury’s work, whom this collection was inspired by according to Gaiman’s forward, the fact that some of the stuff is over their heads will be immaterial.

None of the material in this book is original to it; the pieces have all been published in other anthologies and collections, with the exception of  The Witch’s Headstone, which is an excerpt from and a teaser for The Graveyard Book, which was about to be published the next year, 2008,  and Gaiman’s Introduction.


  • Introduction ~ “When I was a boy, Ray Bradbury picked stories from his books of short stories he thought younger readers might like, and he published them in R is for Rocket and S is for Space. Now I was doing the same thing, and I asked Ray if he’d mind if I called this book M is for Magic. (He didn’t.) M is for Magic. All the letters are, if you put them together properly. You can make magic with them, and dreams, and, I hope, even a few surprises…” ~ Neil Gaiman, August 2006
  • The Case of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds ~ 1984 ~ A take-off on the hardboiled detective story, a la Dashiell Hammett. The main conceit here is that the characters are nursery rhyme figures. Meh. Cute idea, but it doesn’t really work. (Starting on a low point. Don’t worry, it gets better.) 5/10.
  • Troll Bridge ~ 1993 ~ Omigosh. Angst Alert! A boy encounters a troll at the tender age of seven and bargains successfully for his life. But if you live long enough things may just come full circle. 8/10.
  • Don’t Ask Jack ~ 1995 ~ A pointless little vignette featuring a jack-in-the-box and Time. Methinks the author was reading too much Bradbury before he penned this one. 6/10.
  • How to Sell the Ponti Bridge ~ 1985 ~ Okay, now we’re warming up. The story of the perfect scam, and how to turn lust and greed back on itself. And I award this one a  perfect 10/10.
  • October in the Chair ~ 2002 ~ The Months are telling stories. Beautiful set up, and one of those endings which leaves you just hanging there gasping in mid-air. Nice. 9/10.
  • Chivalry ~ 1993 ~ Mrs. Whitaker finds the Holy Grail in an Oxfam Shop, and things get interesting. Gorgeous! And very funny.  Another 10/10.
  • The Price ~ 1997 ~ This one bothered me, being a cat person. An adopted Black Cat apparently guards his human family against the devil, but the battle is proving too much for him. Sad. 6/10.
  • How to Talk to Girls at Parties ~ 2006 ~ Vic and Enn crash the wrong party. These girls come from a long way away. 7/10.
  • Sunbird ~ 2005 ~ The Epicurean Club finds a new and mostly fatal dining experience. A strangely entrancing tale. 8/10.
  • The Witch’s Headstone ~ 2007 ~ An excerpted chapter from the yet-to-be-published (at the time of this collection) Graveyard Book. Young Bod falls in with the ghost of a witch, and does the perfect thing. 10/10.
  • Instructions ~ 2000 ~ A poem lays out the fairytale guide to life’s journey. 11/10. (No, that’s not a typo. Love this one that much. Hmm, maybe I should post it.)

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