Monday 14 December 2020

How Long 'til Black Future Month


How Long 'til Black Future Month? - Jemisin, N. K.

by N. K. Jemisin

I read Jemisin’s excellent essay of the same name online in 2013 (, so when I picked up this book I was expecting a collection of essays, but was surprised (and pleased) when it turned out to be a collection of short stories instead. And what a collection it is!

 There is Stone Hunger, an exploration of the ideas that would become The Broken Earth trilogy, and The City Born Great, which I believe is a similar exploration of an idea that became The City We Became, the first of Jemisin’s trilogy-in-progress. These are interesting stories on their own, but also give insight into how the author builds from short story to long, intricate novels, a peek behind the curtains that we as readers don’t often get to see.

The emotions of these stories run a wide gamut. There is the fairly grim, but ultimately optimistic opening tale, The Ones Who Stay and Fight, to the bittersweet story of power and race and history told in Red Dirt Witch. Then there is the playful magic realism of L’Alchemista.

One of my favourites was the final, longer story of magic and survival in New Orleans post-Katrina: Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters, with its layers of relationships between the survivors in the flooded city, who they once were, who they were in the aftermath, and who they could become.

There are 22 stories, all magical, sometimes veering closer to science fiction, sometimes further into fantasy, occasionally hewing next to realism. But regardless of the genre, all are stories about people and their relationships, whether between a mother and a daughter coming of age (and of responsibility) in Red Dirt Witch, or strangers becoming friends, allies, and more in The Effluent Engine, or striving to be the best even when everyone around tries to hold back in The Valedictorian, or missing someone so badly it becomes addictive in Cuisine des Memoires.

And, ultimately, it is those relationships that make the stories, and the book, so compelling.


Friday 27 November 2020

An Irish Country Family

An Irish Country Family       By Patrick Taylor

With the current pandemic keeping us apart from those we love, I am finding it important to connect in other ways. My reading choices of late seek comfort and escape and this has led me back to old friends, Doctor Fingal Flaherty O’Reilly, and Dr. Barry Laverty, GPs of the Irish village of Ballybucklebo. Irish born Canadian author, Patrick Taylor, brings the village to life in his Irish Country Series that is set in the 1960’s, a time of some incredible medical breakthroughs, and some political upheaval.

 My current read in the series is An Irish Country Family which, although set in 1969, contains the perfect story line for today’s times.  This chapter in the lives of the Ballybucklebo residents shows how a small village takes care of its own at a time when Northern Ireland is being torn apart by the tumultuous riots that began the 30 year “troubles.”

 While Taylor weaves in the violence, it is always just on the periphery and our little village demonstrates how the conflict does not affect how they live their daily lives. The village comes together to rebuild a family home that was destroyed by fire, to raise funds for children to attend a new camp, and to help each other in times of illness, with Protestants and Catholics, Loyalists and Republicans each working side by side to shore up the village family.

 This volume (#14) is particularly poignant as it travels back in time to Dr. Barry Laverty’s medical student days. He is beginning to practice at the Royal Hospital, where he rotates through different wards to help him decide where he wants to focus his medicine. In his work, Laverty meets many patients and fellow physicians who become friends and help steer him towards his preferred specialty.  Barry dislikes the practice of referring to patients by their affliction, rather than their name. Barry believes that each patient deserves to be treated with care and compassion, a feeling that leads him to join the general practice in Ballybucklebo. 

 The bonds of family, friends and general human kindness resonate through Ballybucklebo, and give the series the warm fuzzies we are looking for in this time of separation. It reminds us that collectively we are stronger and shows us the importance of neighbourly love and support in times of strife.



Monday 16 November 2020

Lilian Boxfish Takes a Walk

Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk

by Kathleen Rooney

New York City, New Year's Eve, 1984. A woman named Lillian Boxfish, about the same age as the century, has no particular place to be. Dressed in her favourite mink coat, she embarks on a miles-long stroll around lower Manhattan. The novel switches between Lillian's encounters with ordinary New Yorkers and her memories of six eventful decades living in the city.

Based on the life of the copywriter and poet Margaret Fishback, author Kathleen Rooney begins with Lillian's stint at Macy's department store, where she's one of the first and highest paid women in advertising. Rooney's lively prose is peppered with witty poems written by the real life Fishback.  The  crackling writing brings the Jazz Age to life: from the wood-paneled walls and elegant elevators of Macy's, to sparkling Prohibition-era cocktail parties.

Lillian is in her element as a career woman, and becomes a published poet. Eventually the self-proclaimed "single girl" falls for a charming Italian-American, and she's forced to give up her career as she becomes a wife and mother.  As Lillian’s memories turn to her middle years, life no longer seems as “bright as a penny" and she stumbles under the weight of personal problems.

Although 1980s NYC is beset by a crime wave , the elderly Lillian has clearly regained her resilience. She is undeterred when she sets out on New Year's Eve, having always been energized by long walks through the city. Lillian meets a limo driver who's baffled by her refusal to take a ride, a security guard haunted by his tour in Vietnam, a convenience store clerk with dreams of making it big, a young man traumatized by the AIDS epidemic, a barman, a maĆ®tre d’, and even three muggers. Among the many stops and landmarks mentioned along the way, Lillian visits the famous Delmonico's restaurant where she once experienced a devastating break-up. Lillian orders Delmonico's legendary steak, determined to enjoy it more than the last time she was there.

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk is a novel packed with charm, with a firecracker of a main character. It is a love letter to New York City , a meditation on the things that sustain us as we age, and an homage to pioneering career women. Like a meal at Delmonico's, this is a novel to be savoured.