Thursday, 10 August 2017

History of Wolves

History of Wolves
History of Wolves

 History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

Told through the perspective of 14 year old Linda/Madeline, History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund is an incredible first novel filled with emotion, power and depth exploring Linda’s coming of age in a remote community in the northeastern US. 

Linda lives in a shack on the edge of a lake in northern Minnesota. The shack is what remains of a commune where Linda spent most of her childhood, until relations among the members became strained and the commune dissolved. Linda and her parents live off the land, away from town, and Linda is often left to her own devices, her parents not asking where she goes or what she gets up to.

Linda is alone, she attends the local school and we learn a bit about her school life, which does not include any close friendships. Her tales of school revolve around her teachers, particularly one teacher who encourages Linda beyond her comfort zone, but disappears later as he is accused of child pornography. 

The greatest focus is Linda’s relationship with the new neighbours across the lake, a young couple with a small child. The father, Leo, is often away and the mother, Patra, hires Linda to watch over her young son, Paul. Linda really enjoys the time spent with this family and loves teaching Paul about nature. However, from the start we get the feeling that Paul is not your typical toddler.  Patra is very protective of Paul and sometimes snaps at Linda unexpectedly. 

The relationship Linda has with Patra’s family is interwoven with stories of her life at school and at home, and show her as an outsider in each, wanting to belong. It is this need to belong that perhaps allows Linda to be unaware of what is really happening to Paul. The reader is as unsure as Linda as nothing is told to us outright, we are continually piecing things together until the tragic end.

The dreamy magic realism writing structure gives the story a surreal feel, but at the same time the characters and action compel you to keep reading to see what happens next. I really enjoyed this story and found it a quick read as I needed to keep reading to find out if my suspicions were correct. 

For other popular reading suggestions check out Richmond Public Library's Web site at

Friday, 12 May 2017

The Japanese Lover

The Japanese Lover
The Japanese Lover
By Isabel Allende

The Japanese Lover is a love story steeped in history, using San Francisco as a backdrop for its measured progression.

The book opens with Irina, a care aide at Lark House, a seniors’ home in San Francisco.  Irina’s life begins in poverty in her native Moldova.  As an immigrant to the U.S., Irina finds that she thrives caring for elderly people and she quickly becomes the most popular staff member at Lark House.  So popular in fact, that Alma Belasco, a wealthy resident, asks Irina to become her personal assistant during her off-shift hours.  Irina, we learn, has a checkered past, but little is revealed about that for some time.

Once Irina begins working for Alma, the narrative shifts and the main storyline quickly becomes about Alma’s life, which begins in Poland in the 1930s.  Later, as Hitler rises to power, Alma is quickly shipped off to relatives in San Francisco.

She eventually grows attached to the American Belasco family, who raises her as a daughter.  At their Sea Cliff mansion, Alma meets Ichimei Fukuda, son of Takeo, the estate gardener.  A close friendship blossoms, but soon the Fukudas are removed to a Japanese internment camp.

Here the narrative switches tracks again, and we learn of the Fukudas’ life as prisoners on American soil.  A thriving family of five when they enter, the Fukudas’ tragic circumstances create rifts that cannot be healed.

Ultimately, these intertwining storylines lead us to the passionate and undying love between Alma and Ichimei.  Their relationship blossoms as they grow into adulthood, although they are often separated for many years at a time.  But in the mid-twentieth century, interracial and inter-class love is still a taboo that neither lover can overcome.

Both Alma and Ichimei lead separate lives, but never forget the passion they share.  Fast forward to Alma in her eighties.  As Alma, her grandson Seth and Irina revisit her storied life, much is revealed about her marriage and her true love.

Irina’s story reveals itself over time.  There are other characters, not mentioned here, who have stories of their own.  The slow unfolding of the narrative continually made me want to read on.  

If there’s anything lacking in the novel it’s Allende’s reluctance to delve too deeply into the characters’ emotional lives. Nevertheless, The Japanese Lover links family, marriage, love, history and tragedy and kept me interested right up until the end.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and Other Lessons From the Crematory
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
By Caitlin Doughty

In preparation for Caitlin Doughty's second book I thought I would re-read her first. This member of the Order of the Good Death is a YouTube favourite of mine. I regularly enjoy her Morbid Minutes and Ask A Mortician series.

Doughty writes very much like she speaks, making this an enjoyable read. I recommend watching a few of her episodes of Ask A Mortician before you take out this book so that you can get her voice and tone in your mind before you read.

In Smoke Gets in Your Eyes Doughty takes the reader through the beginning of her carrier as a Mortician. From her start at a crematory through her schooling to become a mortician. Readers learn many of the hidden aspects of the funeral industry; from the corporations behind many funeral homes to how the laws and regulations vary from state to state, traditional burial and natural burial, embalming and cremation and so many other topics that some readers may find hard to face. Doughty has written a clear and educated view of this sometimes taboo subject and she has placed her signature lightheartedness onto every page.

Doughty's use of humour and her complete lack of fear on the subject of death helped me understand sides of death that I didn't even know existed. She breaks down the walls and tells it like it is. One of my favourite chapters is right at the beginning when she gets her first job at the crematory. Doughty describes in detail the process and actually helped to put me at ease. I was one of those people that thought a crematory just threw a bunch of bodies in a big oven and gave the family a bag of random ashes, now I know better, thank you Caitlin!

Whether you are a Deathling or just curious about the funeral industry or maybe you just want to prepare for your own death this book as well as Caitlin Doughty's web series are helpful tools to be enjoyed and learned from.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Minds of Winter

Minds of Winter
Minds of Winter
By Ed O'Loughlin

In 1845, the Erebus, an Arctic exploration vessel captained by Sir John Franklin was lost to the harsh conditions of the North. Neither man nor artifact was ever recovered from this expedition and there has been much speculation about what happened to the ship and its crew. However, historians were stunned by the 2009 discovery of an Arnold Chronometer that was known to be on board the Erebus for this Arctic exploration. The chronometer mysteriously surfaced in London disguised as a carriage clock. 

Such is the premise for the novel, Minds of Winter, by Ed O’Loughlin, who brings us to the North through two modern day characters, Nelson and Fay, each on their own northern expedition of sorts. Nelson is searching for his brother, who has mysteriously committed suicide, but has left extensive research and notes on the various expeditions that set out to find answers to Franklin’s end. Fay comes to Inuvik to trace the life of her grandfather, who has some secretive ties to Northern exploration history. 

The novel switches back and forth between Fay and Nelson’s research and the many expeditions to find the Northwest Passage. Most of the expedition tales are written from the perspective of someone who was on the voyage, which makes it seem more vividly real. I found myself checking from time to time to see if any of the historical characters did in fact live- and many of them did!

In this in depth read, O’Loughlin has conducted a thorough research on the history of these Arctic expeditions and weaves a tale that effectively puts the reader on the ice, experiencing the loss of sanity that must have regularly occurred on these journeys that were so far from civilization in such harsh conditions. The story’s end comes quickly and leaves the reader with a sense of mystery and a sense of wonder at what just happened.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Don't I Know You?

Don't I Know You?
by Marni Jackson

There is a slightly surreal quality to Marni Jackson’s debut novel, Don’t I Know You? A novel broken into short stories, each one following Rose McEwan’s life from 16-60. These stories go through Rose’s  life chronologically, and each one contains a pop culture figure as a central character role  in the story. Whether it is wise words given by Joni Mitchell, a friendly kidnapping by Bill Murray, the best part of each story is Rose’s uncanny ability to describe the weird world she’s living in. 

Jackson is great at setting a scene and there is a languid flow to her words that really carries the reader on and through even some of the confusingly unbelievable celebrity encounters like Bob Dylan as an impromptu, guest-bedroom-crashing mooch. These stories, despite Rose’s recurrent proximity to fame and fortune, aren’t about the glamour and glitz of celebrity, but more of a sort of mundane celebrity fanfiction. And don’t let my use of “fanfiction” deter you either: these stories could exist without the celebrities and they would still be interesting, well-written vignettes. The use of celebrities allows the reader to bring their own characterization into the picture- a sort of shorthand to explore the story without worrying about having to build a character from scratch. Though certainly infused with detail from Jackson’s imagination, we all know a bit about Dylan without having to read much backstory or context. This also gives an intimacy to the storytelling- what would we do if Bob Dylan turned up at our cottage? 

There is a strong humour to Jackson’s choices of how the celebrities turn up in Rose’s life, an almost Wes Anderson-translated-to-the-page offbeatness.

I do think that this book is stronger in the first half than the second, as the stories do get a bit less believable as they go on. Another way to avoid this would be to read the book a few stories at a time, maybe even out of chronological order? Regardless, I enjoyed the writing and the premise is fun and original.