Tuesday, 28 February 2017

The Book That Changed America - A Review

This book has been described as “A compelling portrait of a unique moment in American history when the ideas of Charles Darwin reshaped American notions about nature, religion, science and race”.  That is an accurate description but the book is so much more.

THE BOOK THAT CHANGED AMERICA – How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation by Randall Fuller

In 1860 Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of Species” and I think it would be fairly safe to assume that he had steeled himself for the backlash that the publication would produce from all parts of society.  I’m not quite so sure he was prepared for the support he received or the fact that his book would be used as an argument supporting both sides of the slavery issue in America.

“Reviewers for the American popular press consistently understood Darwin as having provided a theory that showed that black and white people were related.  In truth, Darwin had refrained from addressing this issue in the “Origin” because he was unwilling to claim more for his theory than it could adequately answer.”

I found that quite interesting, as I had never come across any information about that particular use of Darwin’s theory before.  Of course, that was by no means the only impact his publication had on the world; especially when it concerned religion and science.  Botanist Asa Gray was possibly the first person in America to read Darwin’s book and he soon led the charge for acceptance of Darwin’s revolutionary theory.  Soon the book was introduced to other members of the scientific, religious and philosophical realms of society: Charles Loring, Franklin Sanborn, Bronson Alcott and Henry David Thoreau.  In researching this book Mr. Fuller not only tells us the impact the book had on those luminaries but also the influential writers of the time such as Emerson, Lousia May Alcott and Frederick Douglas. 

I cannot begin to describe all the areas Mr. Fuller touched upon in this book in a short review, but suffice it say that he packs a lot of interesting information into this 322-page book.  I not only learned more about Mr. Darwin’s theory but also enjoyed the biographical aspects about the others spotlighted. 

It’s difficult to imagine one book filled with one man’s ideas could change the thinking of an entire country, but after reading Mr. Fuller’s book I can certainly see how it happened.  Well researched and well written but more importantly it satisfied the curiosity that prompted me to pick it up and I can’t ask more than that, so five stars for this one.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from the book jacket)

Randall fuller is the author of “From Battlefields Rising: How the Civil War Transformed American Literature”, which won Phi Beta Kappa’s Christian Gauss Award for best literary criticism. 

He has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other publications and has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National endowment for the Humanities.

He is Chapman Professor of English at the University of Tulsa.

The Lady and Her Monsters - A Review

When I was in High School (yeah, I’m surprised I can remember back that far too!) we had a wonderful Advanced English teacher who allowed us to do one term on Horror books – the classics.  We read Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and, of course, Frankenstein.  (We also watched Hitchcock films and were allowed to choose a modern horror book of our choice for independent study.)  Despite dissecting and reassembling these books ad nausium I did not learn as much about Mary Shelley and her monster as I did from reading this book.  English teachers, as awesome as some of them might be, could learn a lesson here and occasionally take a few steps outside the actual book.

THE LADY AND HER MONSTERS – a Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr, Frankensteins and the Creation of Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece by Roseanne Montillo

From the frog experiments of Luigi Galvani in the mid-1700’s through to Mel Books’ “Young Frankenstein” man has always been fascinated with reanimation of the departed.  Ms. Montillo does not spare those readers of a more delicate constitution from the realities of these experiments.  Gruesome as they were it is important to understand how Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley might have come about some of her knowledge about these experiments in a time when well mannered women were kept in the dark about science.

Not only does this book offer an explanation of how Mary Shelley may have come up with Frankenstein’s monster but also serves as a comprehensive biography of Shelley and her family, as well as several of the prominent people in her life; Byron, or course and Percy Shelley are among others both well known and not.  As far as the truth behind the stories and myths surrounding the writing of the book itself … ‘twas indeed a dark and stormy night.

Ghoulish as it makes me sound, I was also quite fascinated about the goings on of the “body snatchers”.

Packed full of obviously well researched information and written in an easily readable style I definitely have to give five stars to this fascinating read.

 ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from the book jacket)

Roseanne Montillo is the author of The Lady and Her Monsters. She holds an MFA from Emerson College, where she continues to teach as a professor of literature. Roseanne lives in Boston.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

The Hidden Keys - A Review

After I read “Fifteen Dogs” several years ago Andre Alexis became on author on my “need to read more by him” list.  If you saw my TBR you would understand why that hasn’t happened until now.  When I read about the release of this book in 2016 I knew I wanted to pick it up.  It took me this long to get to it.  Shame on me!

THE HIDDEN KEYS by Andre Alexis

Tancred Palmieri is an enigma – an honourable thief who also happens to have a detective as a best friend.  He lives in and mixes with the people in a shadier area of Toronto, not somewhere you would expect to meet Willow Azarian, a billion dollar heiress with a not so secret heroin addiction.  Tancred knew nothing about Willow but she knew him by reputation.  A chance(?) meeting sitting on the bar stools in a dive bar prompts them to start a conversation.  Tancred took Willow to be what she appeared, a slightly eccentric addict with possibly delusions of grandeur – until she shows him her “mad money” bank book containing a 6 figure balance.  After saving her from some thugs Willow tells Tancred a fantastic story about a treasure hunt her father arranged for her before he died.  Each of the five Azarian siblings received an unusual gift bequest in their father’s will.  Each gift individually was simply a memento but combined they were an intricate series of clues.  Willow is convinced there is a pot of gold at the end of the hunt but her siblings believe otherwise.  Willow wants Tancred to steal each of their mementos and help her solve the puzzle.  He gives his word and Tancred is nothing if not a man of his word even when it means completing the task without Willow’s help.  He quickly finds out that others are also on the same quest but is he on the mother of all treasure hunts or the wildest goose chase of his life?

As he did in “Fifteen Dogs” Mr. Alexis gives his reader an extremely entertaining story. This one is filled with eccentric characters from all parts of the economic spectrum, he gives us moments of almost slapstick humour and at other times nail biting suspense, all combining to ask the reader to question what the true meaning of family, friendship and promises might be.  Amazingly enough he does this in an unobtrusive way.  Never obviously preaching the subtle undertones, it wasn’t until I read the last page and closed the cover that it occurred to me how meaningful this entertaining story really was. 

If I was pressed to find fault with the book I would have to admit that in one or two instances it dragged a little, more than likely because I was impatient to find out if there was a treasure.  It was fun to read a book set in Toronto, a city I know well so it’s still five stars for this one.  Mr. Alexis hit another one out of the park.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from the Wikipedia)

Andre Alexis was born in Trinidad and grew up in Canada.  His debut novel, Childhood, won the Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Trillium Book Award, and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize.

Alexis began his artistic career in the theatre, and has held the position of playwright-in-residence at the Canadian Stage Company. His short play Lambton, Kent, first produced and performed in 1995, was released as a book in 1999.  His first published work of fiction, Despair and Other Stories of Ottawa (1994), was short-listed for the Commonwealth Prize.
Alexis published Ingrid and the Wolf, his first work of juvenile fiction, in 2005. Alexis wrote the libretto for James Rolfe's opera Aeneas and Dido, which premiered at Toronto Masque Theatre in 2007.  His novel Asylum was published in 2008, and is set in Ottawa during the government of Brian Mulroney.  Fifteen Dogs, was published in 2015 and won both the Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers' Trust Award that year. The third novel, The Hidden Keys, was published in 2016.

In 2017, Alexis was announced as a juror for the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Alexis lives and works in Toronto, where he has hosted programming for CBC Radio, reviews books for The Globe and Mail, and is a contributing editor for This Magazine.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

84 Charing Cross Road - A Review

This book blipped on my radar but wasn’t readily available so I sort of forgot about it, then it magically arrived on my doorstep in my “Cozy Box Swap” and I was quite thrilled.  I had a mountainous pile of library books that had to be read and returned so it took me a while to get to this one.  I’m really sorry about that because 1. It was a gift and I wanted to read it and, 2. It is a fantastic book!

84 CHARING CROSS ROAD by Helene Hanff

Helene is looking through the Saturday Review of Literature when she comes across an ad for the bookstore at 84 Charing Cross Road.  She writes a letter to the store inquiring about purchasing some classic books she is having difficulty finding in New York City … difficult that is without leaving her apartment and spending an outrageous amount of money.  Soon enough the books arrive on her doorstep and so begins a 20-year correspondence and friendship between herself and the proprietor of the store, Frank Doel.  The story is told entirely through the letters she and Frank, as well as some other employees of the store and Frank’s family, share.  The reader is not only privy to their lives through the correspondence but is also given a very clear picture of post war London compared to New York City in the same time period.  It was a charming read.

Helene never made it to London during Frank’s lifetime, or for that matter the lifetime of the bookstore at 84 Charing Cross Road, but she did eventually manage to take her “dream trip” to London because of the letters.  

A trip paid for by their publication led to what was the second half of this book, originally published as “The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street”, it is the tale of her exploration of London.  A little bittersweet because she can never meet Frank she never the less takes her reader along as she joyfully explores this city she loved from afar.

While I enjoyed the first part of the book slightly more than the second the book taken as a whole was marvellous.  I fell a little bit in love with Helene: her brashness, her outspokenness, her feminism before it was fashionable and her frugal way of getting things done.  She charmed me as she charmed all the people she met along the way during this part of her life.

This was definitely a 5-star read and I encourage anyone who loves books and likes London to pick up this book.  This is a book that is definitely getting a permanent home on my favorites bookshelf.  I am going to make a point of picking up what amounts to the third in this original “trilogy”, “Q’s Legacy”.  I wish I had read this book before my own trip to London last year.

“I do love secondhand books that open to the page some previous owner read oftenest. ...

“I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages someone long gone has called my attention to.”
Helene Hanff


An American writer born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She is best known as the author of the book 84, Charing Cross Road which became the basis for a stage play, television play, and film of the same name.

Helene Hanff's career saw her move from unproduced playwright to creator of some of the earliest television dramas to becoming a noted writer and personality in her own right, as a quintessential New Yorker. She wrote a memoir in 1961 called Underfoot in Show Business that chronicled her struggles as an ambitious young playwright trying to make it in the world of New York theatre in the 1940s and 1950s. She worked in publicists' offices and spent summers on the "straw hat circuit" along the East Coast, all the while writing one play after another. Her plays were admired by some of Broadway's leading producers but somehow none of them ever made it to the stage.
When network television production geared up in New York City in the early 1950s, Hanff found a new career writing and editing scripts for many early television dramas. Chief among these was the Dumont Network series The Adventures of Ellery Queen. At the same time, she continued to try to get one of her plays produced on Broadway and not just be "one of the 999 out of 1,000 who didn't become Moss Hart." (In later editions of Underfoot, this reference was changed to Noël Coward.) The bulk of television production eventually moved to California, but Hanff chose to remain in New York. As her TV work dried up, she turned to writing for magazines and, eventually, to the books that made her reputation.

Hanff was never shy about her fondness for cigarettes and martinis, but nevertheless lived to be 80, dying of diabetes in 1997 in New York City. The apartment building where she lived at 305 E. 72nd Street has been named "Charing Cross House" in her honor. A bronze plaque next to the front door commemorates her residence and authorship of the book. In England, a bronze plaque on the site of the original building commemorates the bookshop at 84, Charing Cross Road.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Nocturnal Animals - A Review

Susan Morrow is comfortable in her second marriage; although it’s not perfect she enjoys her home and her children.  She tells herself this is the life she wants.  Her first marriage to Edward Sheffield was filled with her encouraging him to write and Edward making excuses.  She hasn’t thought about Edward in years and then all of a sudden a manuscript arrives in the mail with a letter from Edward asking her to read his book.  Susan waits until she has some quiet moments and then begins the book about some …


Susan is quickly drawn into the fictional life of Tony Hastings and his family.  On an ordinary drive to their summerhouse in Maine the unimaginable happened.  At first Tony is left emotionally paralysed by the violence done to himself and his family.  Slowly, he comes to terms with the fact that it happened but is unexpectedly drawn in to the often unexplainable quest for judgement both he and the local police seem to need in closing the case of what happened to Tony and his family.

Nocturnal Animals” is a book within a book that seemed like an interesting concept when I first read about it.  The first part of the book held my interest because I got caught up in Susan’s excitement at digging into the manuscript.  I could relate to her wanting a quiet place and a set time frame to do the book justice.  Reading along with Susan I was as shocked as she was at what was happening to the Hastings family.  When Susan had to close the manuscript to address her life (which I very quickly became bored with) I, like Susan, couldn’t wait to get back to the manuscript.  Unfortunately that feeling really didn’t last much past the first third of both the book and the book within the book.

I can’t say the writing was horrible – I’ve read worse – but the editor was asleep at his job on this one.  This book was previously published under the title “Susan and Tony” so you would think this being the second go round the errors might have been caught?  There were sentences that I had to read two and three times and still couldn’t make sense out of them.  I just moved on hoping I didn’t miss some important piece of information.  This does not endear me to the book I am reading.

I also kept waiting for the book to fulfill the promise in the cover description, “Susan is plunged into the past, forced to confront the darkness that inhabits her and driven to name the fear that gnaws at her future and will change her life.”  Yeah – didn’t happen.

So why did I keep reading?  There was an underlying sense that this book was going to surprise me with a big reveal at the end.  I was optimistic that my fortitude would pay off.  It didn’t.  The ending I was expecting never materialized and in the case of both books I was left disappointed.

I’m giving this one 2 stars because the first third was, aside from the editing, interesting.  It was too bad the rest didn’t live up to the hype.  This book has been made into a movie.  I may watch it if it ever makes it to the small screen but doubt I’ll go out of my way to do so.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from the Telegraph)

Austin Wright, an American novelist and English professor who died in 2003 at the age of 80. Despite having been praised by the likes of Saul Bellow, he remained little known in his lifetime. 

Between 1969 and 1977, Austin Wright wrote three experimental novels – Camden’s Eyes, First Persons and The Morley Mythology – all of which played with ideas about fiction and narrative voice. The protagonists wake up to discover they are characters in novels, or hear voices in their head so fully fledged they have real names. There are books within books and minds within minds. While the action is pulpy – sex, blackmail, murder, suicide – the context is mundane, typically involving a mild-mannered, middle-aged academic. (Katharine Wright remembers being “freaked out” by the violence in her father’s books: “It was such a leap from the man, who was very sweet and shy, to these crimes.”)

‘He was interested in how the mind works,” Katharine Wright says of her father, “how it fools itself and how it tries to rationalize things.” Wright was an inveterate player of games and puzzles – at Christmas in 1974, he waited until everyone had opened their presents, then gleefully pulled out from behind the sofa a newly invented Rubik’s Cube he had bought and wrapped for himself. He was also a compulsive recorder of facts. On long car journeys, the rest of the family would tease him about all the information he had noted in his journal: where they stopped for petrol, what they ate and so on.
Then, at the end of his life, his unique brain seemed to unpack itself, as if his most artful patterns of thought were spilling out uncontrolled. “Some horrible thing happened in his mind,” Katharine recalls. Doctors thought he might have Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, though an autopsy later proved that wrong; the cause of Wright’s death remains a mystery.

City of the Lost - A Review

Casey Duncan has three things in her life she cares about: being a detective, her best friend Diana and her no-strings-attached sometimes lover.  She also has one big secret.  When it seems like her past is catching up to her and Diana’s present is getting dangerous she realizes that they both have to disappear.  No place better than Rockton …

THE CITY OF THE LOST by Kelley Armstrong.

Rockton is a unique place.  It’s in the middle of nowhere and you will not find it on a map anywhere.  Somewhere in the Yukon, Rockton is filled with people who found it necessary to disappear from their lives … some for their own protection and some to evade the law.  Each must go through a vetting process and possess a significant amount of money to be accepted but only the Sheriff knows who is there and for what reason, yet even that information may not be trustworthy.  As each person arrives they are given tasks according to their particular skill set so Casey quickly becomes a deputy … just in time to help solve a gruesome murder.

In this, the first book of her new series, Ms. Armstrong once again does what she does so well – build a fictional world that is believable and unique.  Whether it’s her “Otherworld” or Rockton she takes us just far enough out of reality to make it ring possible.  An isolated town, a murder mystery and a little romance thrown in make “City of the Lost” an excellent read.  Originally published as six mini novellas I’m sure the reader was kept in suspense from one installment to the next.  I waited until all six parts came out in book form and am glad I did so.  Although, let’s face it, it’s a great marketing ploy but I would have found it frustrating to read it in bits and pieces.  Can’t wait for the next book in the series.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website)

I’ve been telling stories since before I could write. My earliest written efforts were disastrous. If asked for a story about girls and dolls, mine would invariably feature undead girls and evil dolls, much to my teachers’ dismay. All efforts to make me produce “normal” stories failed. Today, I continue to spin tales of ghosts and demons and werewolves, while safely locked away in my basement writing dungeon.

Friday, 10 February 2017

The Lion in the Livingroom - A Review

The mission statement of this book can be found in the description on the flyleaf “to better understand the furry strangers in our midst”.  Science writer Abigail Tucker does an admirable job but really, can anyone really understand cats?


Ms. Tucker, a cat lover herself, takes us on a masterful historic tour of the world of cats and how they came to be the most popular of pets the world over – or rather how they invaded our lives and homes to ingratiate themselves into our lives – making us not owners, but drooling love slaves.  If you are expecting a written version of a “cute cat you-tube” video BE WARNED, this book is anything but that.  In fact if I didn’t know better I would think this book was written to dissuade anyone from ever cohabitating with a feline.

Ms. Tucker takes her reader through the history of cats and how they, quite literally, domesticated (if that word can even be used in reference to cats) themselves and how they managed to travel the world over, sometimes much to the chagrin and detriment of local residents, both human and wildlife.  Yes, she tackles the ugly problem of cats, domestic and feral, and their negative impact on the wildlife in their vicinity. 

“Worldwide, house cats already outnumber dogs, their great rival for our affections, but as many as three to one, and their advantage is probably increasing.  The tally of pet cats in America rose by 50 percent between 1986 to 2006, and today approaches 100 million … Wild and tame, homebound and footloose, these cats increasingly preside over nature and culture, the concrete jungles and the real ones beyond … the house cat is the new king of beasts.”

Ms. Tucker seems to have a wide variety of scientists and researchers on speed dial and gives excellent insight into things such as the toxoplasma parasite and how it may have possible infected the human brain causes us to love our little fur-babies even more, why cats, despite the best efforts of humans manage to remain strong and plentiful in feral communities. 

From history to science, cats in literature to our obsession with cats on the internet, dogs vs. cats as pets and new specialty breeds such as rag dolls and werewolf cats Ms. Tucker has written a very comprehensive book that every cat owner/lover should read at some point.  You may not like everything you read but it is worth knowing.

While I believe Ms. Tucker has done very thorough research in writing this book I can not, because of personal experience with this amazing creature that is cat, quite bring myself to jump on the bandwagon of everything she has written … or course, that could be a touch toxoplasmosis talking?  Read the book – you’ll understand.

Despite my minor misgivings I am still rating this book at 5 stars.  Ms. Tucker managed to write a book jam-packed with information and make it a very enjoyable read that proves her flyleaf statement true “the correct reaction to a house cat isn’t ‘awwww’.  It’s awe.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website)

Abigail Tucker is a correspondent for Smithsonian magazine, where she covers a wide variety of subjects, from vampire anthropology to bioluminescent marine life to the archeology of ancient beer. Her work has been featured in the Best American Science and Nature Writing series and recognized by the National Academies of Sciences. Previously she was a reporter at The Baltimore Sun, where she won Columbia University’s Mike Berger Award for feature writing and a National Headliner award. The Lion in the Living Room is her first book.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

HauGHnt - A Review

A deathbed confession, a family curse, a dark and stormy night complete with a mysterious stranger; really, what more could you ask for in a horror story?

HauGHnt by David C. Cassidy

As his father lies on his deathbed Paul Steele finds he can barely look at the man let alone offer him any comfort as he takes his last breaths. His father’s life-long quest to find peace in the bottom of a bottle destroyed Paul’s mother and alienated Paul. What the old man has to say before he dies does nothing to change Paul’s feelings, but now Paul may understand his never ending drinking. Paul’s father committed an unimaginable crime and avoided prosecution by making the proverbial deal with the devil. “We’re all damned. It’s just a question of when”. For Paul Steele the mysterious “when” turns out to be “right now”.

This short story is the first of Mr. Cassidy’s “Dark Shapes, Dark Shadows” series and after reading “HauGHnt” I am looking forward to what’s to come. Mr. Cassidy seems to enjoy taking an ordinary person with an ordinary life and putting them in the most extraordinary situation. It certainly makes for a chilling read.

Short stories are not my usual go-to read because, by their very definition, they are – well – short. It’s difficult to come to care for characters in the few pages allotted to the read but Mr. Cassidy packs a lot into this one, so I found myself totally involved in Paul’s dilemma. I couldn’t get to the end fast enough – in the good way! And the end? Paul shocked me as did HauGHnt and that’s always a good thing in a horror story.

I admit to wishing the story were just a tad longer, but taking the “creep” factor into consideration I’m giving this one 4 ½ stars.

* I’d like to thank the author for providing me with this book at no charge in exchange for an honest review. This in no way influenced my opinion. *

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from his Goodreads page)

Award-winning author David C. Cassidy is the twisted mind behind several best-selling novels of horror and suspense, Velvet Rain, The Dark, and Fosgate’s Game. An author, photographer, and graphic designer—and a half-decent juggler—he spends his writing life creating dark and touching stories where Bad Things Happen To Good People. Raised by wolves, he grew up with a love of nature, music, science, and history, with thrillers and horror novels feeding the dark side of his seriously disturbed imagination. He talks to his characters, talks often, and most times they listen. But the real fun starts when they tell him to take a hike, and they Open That Door anyway. Idiots.

David lives in Ontario, Canada. From Mozart to Vivaldi, classic jazz to classic rock, he feels naked without his iPod. Suffering from MAD—Multiple Activity Disorder—he divides his time between writing and blogging, photography and Photoshop, reading and rollerblading. An avid amateur astronomer, he loves the night sky, chasing the stars with his telescope. Sometimes he eats.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Why Did You Lie - A Review

Yrsa Sigurdardottir has been a fave of mine since I read the first book in her Thora Gudmundsdottir series.  This standalone novel showcases what Ms. Sigurdardottir does best … chills up your spine and not just because of the cold Nordic setting

WHY DID YOU LIE by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

Nina’s life has slipped off the track a little bit.  She is a pariah among her fellow police officers for filing a sexual harassment suit.  Now she is working on dead files in the basement of the building where she has entirely too much time to think about her husband who is lying in a coma after attempting suicide.

Helgi is a photo-journalist doing a photo shoot on a very small, very remote island where a team was sent to refurbish a defunct lighthouse.  Helicopter troubles keep them on the island longer than usual and during a raging winter storm one of them disappears. 

Noi and Vala return from a trip to the United States where they had house-swapped their home with an American couple.  Coming into their house they sense that something is off but cannot put their finger on what it is. 

What do these people have in common?  At one intersecting point in their lives they lied!  Now, someone or something wants them to pay for those lies.

I enjoy Ms. Sigurdadottir because she give me the all the thrills and chills I love without the “in-your-face” horror.  In “Why Did You Lie” she tells four seemingly unconnected stories that each hold your interest independently but when she brings them together at the end of the book it is in the most deliciously unexpected way.  If you enjoy mystery thrillers with a touch of what might or might not be a supernatural element I highly recommend you add Ms. Sigurdardottir to your TBR.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from the book cover)

Yrsa Sigurdardottir works as a civil engineer and lives in Reykjavik.  She is the author of six novels in the Thora Gudmundsdottir series and two previous stand alones, “I Remember You” and “The Undesired”.  All of her books have been European bestsellers.

In 2011 "I Remember You" was awarded the Icelandic Crime Fiction Award and was nominated for the Glass Key.  The most recent Thora novel, “The Silence of the Sea”, won the Petrona Award in 2015.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Treasure Palaces - A Review

Have you ever taken a vacation and made sure to include a visit to a place or site that was mentioned in a book you read?  I know I can’t be the only one!  Over the years I’ve managed to cross a few things off my bucket list of places to visit … The Gardner Museum in Boston, The Cloisters, the Library, the Met and Central Park in NYC, The Art Institute in Chicago, and The Louvre and Versailles in Paris – yes – museums and galleries seem to be the theme of prominence.  My travel bucket list just got a whole lot longer after reading this book (now if only my lottery numbers would hit).  If this book is any indication they should definitely hire authors to write travelogues.


When Tim de Lisle took over as editor of “Intelligent Life” magazine he was inspired by a museum trip with his children to publish a series of articles titled “Authors on Museums” in which “in each issue of Intelligent Life a distinguished writer – not an art critic – would return to a museum that had played some part in their life, and write about what they liked (or didn’t) about it, weaving in a thread of memoir.”  There were some misses such as when “David Sedaris admitted that he wasn’t a museums kind of person, but a ‘gift shop and café kind of person’.” 

In the stories selected for this book it is interesting to note that most of the museums the authors chose to revisit were small, often obscure, places that spoke to them on a personal level.  The galleries and museums range, geographically, from New York City to Zagreb and from Stockholm to Australia.  Each article is, of course, written in the first person and many have a conversational tone that made this non-fiction book very easy and most enjoyable to read.  Each author’s reason for their choice of museum was as varied as the choices themselves.  If you enjoy art galleries and museums or are an armchair traveler, like myself, this book is a must read.  I promise you will have a few places to add to your personal bucket list as well.

So which ones in particular made my list?

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum (Roddy Doyle)
The first article in the book is also the top pick on my revised bucket list.  On the morning of October 1874 Mrs. Gumpertz’s husband left for work and never returned, leaving her with children to support and no income.  The story was not uncommon in the tenements of 1800’s New York City.  This museum stands as the tenement did then, when the landlord did not want the expense of doing necessary repairs and evicted all the residents.  As the author explains, “That is why the Tenement Museum is so special and why I’m here for the third time in 15 years.  No famous people lived here.  But people did. It’s hard not to expect Mrs. Grumpertz to walk in and demand to know what I’m doing here, in their home.  ‘Looking at your wallpaper would be the answer.’”

Everything is original and the walls tell the stories … “The life of the house is in the walls, behind the flaking paint and in the flaking paint.”

The Museum of Broken Relationships (Aminatta Forna)
This museum is a collection of items donated by people who have lost their loves.  A married man donated a shaving kit given to him by his 17-year old mistress in the 1980’s.  When he donated the shaving kit he wrote a note that read, “I hope she doesn’t love me any more.  I hope she doesn’t know she was the only person I ever loved.”  The museum contains everything from stuffed animals and silk dresses to hats, books and a special pair of motorcycle boots donated by a young man who purchased them for his girlfriend Anna.  He and Anna eventually broke up and over the years several other girls wore the boots on the back of his bike but in his mind those boots would always be “Anna’s boots”.  Exchanging tokens of love is something we all do and all the best sources advise to get rid of those things if the relationship ends.  Sometimes we just cannot bear to do that so why not give them a home in the “Museum of Broken Relationships”?

One article in this book moved me to tears; In Flanders Fields Museum, Ypres (Michael Morpurgo) so this museum is on my list of places I will probably never seek out, for the same reason I did not go to Ground Zero when I was in NYC and will not visit the 911 Memorial.  I will not go to Auschwitz, nor the Holocaust Museum.  As touchingly as Mr. Morpurgo wrote of the museum and its stories, and as much as I enjoy most aspects of history these museums are difficult to walk through.  I did find myself at the memorial for the Oklahoma Bombing.  It was incredible and it stays with me to this day, so many years later and that’s why I won’t go back there or seek out Flanders Fields … the voices of the ghosts are too loud and haunt me for too long.

Other notable mentions?

Musee Rodin in Paris (Allison Pearson)
Who has not seen at least a picture of Rodin’s famous “The Kiss”?  Ms Pearson visits the museum 30 years after her first introduction to the statue, “Three decades on, I wonder what I saw in this monumental snog.  It would sit perfectly in a Las Vegas chapel of lurve.  Sometimes marble feels too smooth, too chilly for Rodin’s purposes; these days I am moved by the rougher and readier terracotta Kiss that sits in a modest glass case to one side of the original.  Still, I owe that first Kiss.  For a group of weary teenagers from the Midlands, here was remarkable news.  Dead people had felt these things; and the living went on feeling them.”  Explaining a scene from a movie in which Ingrid Bergman is overcome by looking at the agonized figures cast in the ashes of Pompeii Ms. Pearson explains “I recognized the expression on her face … What Vesuvius did by accident, Rodin did by design.”

Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford (Frank Cotrell-Boyce)
The first question every visitor asks when visiting the Pitts River for the first time is “where are the shrunken heads”.  These heads are the star attraction even inspiring a scene in Harry Potter.  The Pitts Rivers is a giant cabinet of curiosities. “Nowadays it’s well signposted and staffed.  Back then it took a bit of nerve to step out of the soaring daylight of the National Museum into the shadows of the Pitt Rivers.  A museum hidden, tucked inside a museum.  Inside there were more doors to dare.”

The above were some of my personal favorites but all of those included in the book were wonderful.  I borrowed this book from the library but it will definitely find its way onto my permanent bookshelf sometime in the future, if only to use as a reference when I accumulate enough Air Miles to take another amazing trip.

Highly recommended and definitely 5 stars.

ABOUT THE EDITOR (from the book cover)

Maggie Ferguson was for many years the literary editor of “The Economist’s” lifestyle magazine, “Intelligent Life”, and is the author of two biographies, “George Mackay Brown: The Life” and “Michael Morpurgo: War Child to War Horse”.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Except the Dying - A Review

I can’t believe it’s already the first of February and I haven’t posted one review.  In my own defence I got that horrific cold that’s going around – it’s a bad one – so stay healthy everybody.  I still have the tail end of the cough.  Also, every time I fired up the computer I had other things to do on it.  After being downsized out the door at my job at the end of last year I decided that while I have the safety net of unemployment benefits I am going to try to start a small home based business – but more on that later this week.  There are some prizes in the offing so stay tuned.

Sick as I was I was still reading, mostly light stuff that I could digest through my stuffy sinuses.  My BFF has long been a fan of the television series “Murdock Mysteries”.  I finally gave it a look when I was up at strange hours because of my cough and there were reruns on at crazy morning times.  I was pretty quickly hooked because it’s a rather clever series set in turn of the 19th century Toronto.  Of course when I found out that the series was based on books – WELL! – You know I had to pick up the books.  So on to my first review of 2017 …

EXCEPT THE DYING by Maureen Jenkins

In the winter of 1895 Toronto acting Detective William Murdock is called out to a murder scene.  A young woman is found naked in an alleyway.  She is clearly not a lady of the evening and winter in Toronto is not a time anyone would be outside without clothing so obviously, this young woman met with foul play.

William Murdock knows no boundaries when it comes to looking for a killer.  He visits the lowest and highest echelons of society to look for his answers.  And answers he finds through meticulous police work without the availability of all toys and whistles a reader might be used to in more modern police procedurals.

This was Ms. Jennings debut book and it was an interesting read.  It showed some good research into that era of Toronto’s history and the dialogue was excellent.  There were a few slow spots, but I could forgive those.  Having the hindsight of reading a few more in the series before writing this review I can honestly say the books improve with each addition to the series.

The cover of the book is a bit deceptive as it pictures the characters from the television series.  For fans of the series – be forewarned – the book is similar but definitely not the same.  While the show is often humorous and tongue-in-cheek the book is deadly serious (pun intended).  I did particularly enjoy the more in-depth look into Murdock’s life away from the police station.

“Except the Dying” is well worth the read and I’m giving it 3.5 stars because I know the series improves in subsequent books.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from the book cover)

Born in England, Maureen Jennings taught English before becoming a psychotherapist.  “Except the Dying” was published in 1977 followed by 6 more books in the series.  Three of her novels were adapted into movies of the week and four years later Shaftesbury films created the Murdock Mysteries television series.

Maureen lives in Toronto with her husband and their two dogs.