Kate Atkinson’s books don’t disappoint

British crime writer Kate Atkinson’s novel Started Early, Took My Dog is the fourth book I’ve now read by this author and I can officially add her to my list of favourite writers. Crime Fiction is a genre I never paid much attention to in the past but her writing style and quirky characters get me immediately absorbed into the plot. Started Early, Took My Dog once again stars Jackson Brody as the main character. He’s a bit past-his-prime, a former policeman who pays the rent with money earned as a somewhat down-at-the-heel private investigator based in Yorkshire, Northern England. The Yorkshire culture and locations are integral to Atkinson’s plots.

When Brody receives an email from Hope in New Zealand looking for her birth parents, he takes on the case, but without a lot of enthusiasm. Atkinson introduces a lot of characters but they’re all integral to the plot and all interesting in their own way. Tracy Waterhouse is a retired Yorkshire police officer who now works as head of security at a local mall. One day while walking her mall beat, she notices someone she recognizes as a known drug user and neglectful mother of her children dragging a helpless child through the mall while screaming obscenities. Tracy follows the women to the bus stop and in a moment of abandon, offers a large sum of cash to buy the child in order to keep her safe. The woman hands her over. The ex-cop is now an accidental mother and a criminal.

Around the same time, Jackson Brodie witnesses a small dog being abused by a large bully in the local park and in an act of salvation, he does much the same as Tracy Waterhouse and snatches the dog from the owner’s car. He’s now an accidental dog owner. Meanwhile, we learn that Tracy was involved in a peculiar murder/disappearing child case early in her career that she never forgot. Tilly, an elderly actress in the early stages of dementia has come to Tracy’s attention when she’s caught surreptitiously shop-lifting various incidentals in the mall. She can’t remember committing the crimes and can hardly remember where she is when she’s on stage performing a role.

All of Atkinson’s disparate characters come together in a jolly tale of murder, mystery, roots and deception. There were still some loose ends when I finished the book and I look forward to finding the threads in another one of Atkinson’s books.  I absolutely adored Started Early, Took My Dog and couldn’t put it down. The author tends to introduce too many characters which are a challenge to keep straight, but I persisted. There are car chases, shady business dealings, cute kids, ex-wives, and all kinds of other skullduggery that come together in a great romp. I love the way Atkinson writes, with humour, sensitivity to the characters’ individual character flaws, and a complex set of circumstances that come together at the end. Not a candidate for any literary awards but a good read. I’d give it 7 out of 10.

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The Daughter’s Tale illustrates a mother’s unrelenting love for her children

Historical fiction is a genre I particularly love and find hard to resist. Reading as many non-fiction and fiction books as I do, however, about the Second World War can at times become soul-sapping.  I’ve just finished The Daughter’s Tale by Armando Lucas Correa, the story of a young Jewish woman’s last-minute escape from Berlin just before the start of World War II. Amanda Sternberg is left a widow with two young daughters, six-year-old Viera, and four-year-old Lina after the Gestapo takes her husband away in 1939.

In the aftermath of his death, she can no longer ignore the impending threat to their lives by the worsening political situation, so she sends her eldest daughter Viera off on the MS St. Louis to join Amanda’s brother who had escaped to Cuba years earlier. With Lina, she manages to escape to a small village in central France where, before he died, her husband had arranged for her to live with the Catholic wife and daughter of an old friend of his.

Upon arriving at the home of Claire Duval, also a widow, and her daughter Danielle, she is received with kindness but an understandable degree of concern. Although Amanda and Lina could easily pass for Aryan Germans, they are still German and must quickly change and adapt to their new Catholic home. They are forced to adopt a new language and culture in order to conceal their German Jewish background. Improving their French language skills is a priority and in order to blend in as much as possible, they start attending the local Catholic church. Lina is enrolled in the local school.

Despite now living in a remote French village that would appear to have no strategic value to the Nazis, they soon fall under the oppressive rule of the German occupiers and life becomes increasingly difficult. Claire has established a strong friendship with the local priest, Father Marcel, who goes above and beyond his calling to protect his flock. Young Lina becomes fast friends with Claire’s daughter Danielle, even though they are a few years apart in age. Danielle assumes an older sister role and takes Lina under her wing.

As the war progresses and the threats mount, Amanda realizes she must now take more drastic steps to protect her younger daughter. When it appears the Germans are going to lose the war, they take vindictive actions against the remaining French population, imprisoning and even murdering innocent French citizens. Amanda and Lina are taken to a local concentration camp where Amanda takes drastic action to save the life of her daughter.

The story revolves around letters Amanda has written to her older daughter, Viera, who was shipped off to Cuba in 1939. Her few letters were returned undelivered but she keeps writing anyway and saving them when they are returned, hoping to one day reunite with her older daughter. She hopes to reassure Viera that she loved her and that it was because of her love that she was sent off on the MS St. Louis to Cuba. This is the famous ship with 900 passengers, mostly escaping Jewish citizens, that was rejected by Cuba, The United States, and Canada before returning to France. Most of the returning passengers were ultimately sent to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps although some were accepted by Great Britain.

This is a fascinating story along the lines of Sarah’s Key, The Lilac Girls, The Huntress, Madame Fourcade’s Secret War, The Alice Network, The Age of Light, and The NightingaleAs I mentioned above, it can be difficult to read about the tragedy of war. I’d rate The Daughter’s Tale 7 out of 10. It’s a good read for fellow fans of historical fiction. 

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The story behind Dr. Zhivago is as fascinating as the novel itself

It’s not a coincidence that Lara Prescott, the author of The Secrets We Kept is named after one of the main characters in Dr. Zhivago by famous Nobel-prize winning writer Boris Pasternak. With the first name of one of the lead characters, Lara Prescott was obviously born with an inherent interest in the novel and its story. Boris Pasternak was one of Russia’s most famous and revered poets. As a favourite of Joseph Stalin, the position came with certain benefits such as a premium dacha in a closely monitored colony of writers and intellectuals near Moscow. Stalin even prevented Pasternak from suffering the fate of other writers who were deported to gulags in Siberia. After the death of Stalin, Pasternak devoted himself to finishing a novel that he’d been labouring over for more than ten years. Thanks to the movie, we’re all familiar with the story of Dr. Zhivago and perceive it as a classic love story between the beautiful Lara and Dr. Yuri Zhivago. The Soviet government, however, interpreted it as a put-down of the great revolution and considered it nothing short of treason. Consequently, it was banned from publication in the U.S.S.R. and anyone found to possess a copy was considered a traitor and sent to the gulag.

Prescott has created a wonderful fictional account of the true story behind the publication of Dr. Zhivago. Different characters based on real-life people relate their particular part in the story over a period of a few years in the 1950s. One of the most interesting and relevant is Olga, mistress of Pasternak until his death. As a result of her association with him even prior to publication of his book, she was sentenced to three years in a remote, brutal gulag. When she returned after completing her sentence, she was a shell of the woman she had been. She had aged considerably, her body was destroyed and had taken on a different shape, her hair was no longer shiny and she’d lost the beauty he’d so loved before her incarceration. But he still loved her and wanted her to be part of his life, much to the chagrin of his wife, Zinaida.

Pasternak set Olga up in a smaller house near his family’s dacha and she served as his muse, his agent, his proof-reader and manager. She was also the inspiration for Lara and the love affair between Lara and Yuri Zhivago. When they were not able to find a Russian publisher for his book, Olga was able to make a covert connection with an Italian publisher who agreed to publish Dr. Zhivago in Italian and act as his world-wide agent. This transpired during the 1950s when the Cold War was at its peak. Americans saw the publication of the book as an opportunity to further their interests in undermining the communist philosophy and used their intelligence agencies to support the publication of Dr. Zhivago in English and other languages.

Julie Christie and Omar Shariff were unforgettable as Lara and Yuri in the movie version of the novel.

The Americans printed contraband copies of the book in Russian and made available to traveling free-thinking Russians so they could take it back behind the iron curtain and facilitate its wider distribution in Russia. It was a subtle anti-communism act of espionage that worked. Pasternak was forced to decline his Nobel Prize for the novel in order to save his life but everyone in his sphere was under suspicion, including Olga and her children. We’re given a glimpse into what the world of espionage may have looked like in the 1950s. Women who had performed critical and crucial roles in underground and resistance work during World War II were now relegated to secretarial jobs typing reports for men who were probably less competent and qualified to be doing fieldwork. But some of these women were still active in the field and formed part of the network responsible for distributing Dr. Zhivago not only to the western world but also to sympathizers in the strictly controlled USSR.

The Secrets We Kept is fascinating from start to finish. It offered everything I like in a good book—strong characters, fictional first-person accounts, Russian literature, espionage, and mystery. Deeeelightful. There were a few anachronisms the author made that should have been edited out but who am I to nitpick? See if you spot them. The first time I viewed Dr. Zhivago in a movie theatre was in Amsterdam in 1967 when I was traveling around Europe on a Eurail pass. It was shown in English with Dutch subtitles and I was transfixed; I even bought a record of the soundtrack when I got home.

It’s interesting how reading a great book can create a thread that leads to needing to read another. In this case, I must put Boris Pasternak’s original novel Dr. Zhivago on my list of books to read. Original books are inevitably better than the movie, even movies as amazing as Dr. Zhivago. I’ve loved all the Russian authors I’ve read including Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Chekov. Seeing Russia through their eyes is fascinating. Reading about a Russian writer through the eyes of a skilled American author was also an insightful journey back in time about a fascinating subject. I’d rate Lara Prescott’s The Secrets We Kept 8 out of 10.

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My Life as a Rat was not a fair sentence for an admission of truth

A rat is someone who snitches on another person—someone who breaks a moral code by revealing the transgressions of a friend or family member. In My Life as a Rat, a new novel by Joyce Carol Oates, the snitch is a 12-year-old girl and the price she pays for breaking the code far exceeds what is fair and justified or what she deserved. Violet Kerrigan was born the youngest in an Irish Catholic family of seven children in South Niagara, near Buffalo, N.Y. They’re a working-class family in a working-class town. She loves to eavesdrop on her older teenage brothers and one night she overhears them in a highly agitated state, discussing how they’re going to cover up their murder of a young black boy who attends the same school as Violet—a murder they committed. When the stress of trying to keep her secret becomes too much for Violet to bear, she spills the entire story to the school nurse, who in turn calls in the police.

When the truth is revealed, her brothers are arrested and charged with manslaughter. Instead of her parents protecting and defending Violet’s honesty, they rise to the defense of her guilty brothers. Her family concocts a false defense that maintains the brothers were innocent victims of white hatred by the black community. Violet is disgraced and shunned by her parents and her siblings. For her protection, she is turned over to the care of a childless aunt and uncle who live many miles away where she is expected to reinvent her life while her brothers are serving prison terms.

The tragedy is that Violet loves both her parents and her sisters and cannot understand why they have turned against her. She was a favoured daughter, an excellent student, and a good Catholic.  How could this have happened? As the years go by, she enters and finishes high school, enters college and is allowed no contact with her family. She continues her education by taking part-time college courses while working and living an anonymous life. Violet now goes by the last name of her aunt and uncle to put some distance between herself and all the negative publicity arising from the heinous crimes committed earlier by her brothers.

As Violet enters adulthood, she continues to mourn the loss of her beloved family and can’t understand why she has been ostracized. By her mid-twenties, she decides to make personal contact with her next-oldest sister, Katie, to attempt a reconciliation. One of her brothers has been released from prison and she’s hoping that he can forgive her and put the past behind them. This family drama is an insight into 1970s race relations in the United States as far north as the U.S./Canada border. It’s not an uplifting story but it does shed light on the power struggles in traditional families, the difficulties arising from alcoholism in the family, economic and social struggles as well as the resiliency of a single young woman under difficult circumstances.

I found the book hard to put down even though it was about a tragic subject. I was never entirely clear why Violet’s mother chose to defend her rogue sons instead of her daughter Violet. Perhaps it was parental blindness by the father who refused to believe in his sons’ guilt and in their home at that time, patriarchy ruled. If you figure it out, let me know. We all know Joyce Carol Oates is a marvelous writer and My Life As A Rat bears this out. I’d rate it 7 out of 10.


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Jesse Thistle recounts his life From The Ashes of drugs and addiction to a life of helping others

When I saw Jesse Thistle interviewed on CTV’s The Social and heard his remarkable story, I just knew I had to read his memoir, From The Ashes, My Story of  Being Métis, Homeless, and Finding My Way. It’s an honest, horrific recounting of his journey from being a homeless drug addict living on the streets of various cities for many years and serving time in prison multiple times, then rebuilding his life to become an Assistant Professor at York University in Toronto. Stories like this always inspire me and give me hope for others in his situation.

Jesse Thistle’s physical and spiritual journey began when he was born to a teenage Cree mother in Saskatchewan and a young alcoholic, drug-addicted white father. Their brief marriage was turbulent from the beginning but did result in three sons, Josh, Jerry and Jesse. By the time the youngest, Jesse was three years old, his mother had abandoned them and they were living in a fetid, filthy apartment with their useless father who couldn’t feed them and often left them alone in the apartment at the ages of three, four and five. When a neighbour called authorities, they were temporarily placed in an inhospitable foster home before their paternal grandparents traveled from Brampton, Ontario to pick them up and take them back to Ontario to live with them.

It wasn’t easy for anyone. The grandparents were older and once again faced with raising three young boys but they did their best. The boys’ father, Sonny was a lost cause. The grandfather was a working member of the union of elevator constructors and their grandmother did her best to keep the three boys fed, clothed, disciplined and safe. The boys missed their mother but adjusted to the strict rules of their grandparents’ home. They attended school in Brampton but Jesse, in particular, fell in with a crowd of misbehavers and rebels. All three boys were strong fighters and regularly got into scraps in the schoolyard or neighbourhood.

From this Jesse Thistle (his mug shots). . .

Before long, Jesse was smoking, doing drugs, stealing and skipping classes. At the age of 14, his grandfather got him a job stocking produce at a local store which helped to temporarily keep him out of trouble and allowed him to earn his own money. When his grandfather refused to let Jesse buy his own car because his grandfather worried about his impulse control, Jesse withdrew all his bank savings and blew the money on alcohol and drugs. He eventually dropped out of school and with an old childhood friend, embarked on a life of crime, drugs and homelessness.

As his addictions and crimes escalated, his health and general well-being deteriorated. Despite life-threatening health scares and injuries resulting from his reckless lifestyle, he managed to stay alive, but barely. His brothers kept in touch and often provided accommodation when he was at his most desperate. His oldest brother, Josh became an RCMP officer and sent Jesse money to attend his wedding in Vancouver where they were briefly reunited with their mother.

Reading From The Ashes reminded me of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces that I read a few years ago. What Jesse experienced during his years of addiction and life on the streets was horrific and with each new chapter that I read, I kept hoping this would be the one where he finally reached rock bottom and “saw the light”. But, instead, one horror lead to another and the years went on. During his final stint in prison, he opted to serve his time in a last-resort rehab facility in Ottawa where he slowly and with a great deal of dedication and determination started putting the pieces of his life back together. He continued his studies to complete high school and graduated while incarcerated. His sense of recall is amazing considering he spent so many years in the stupor of drugs and addiction.

To this Jesse Thistle, Assistant Professor, winner of Governor General’s Academic Medal, Pierre Elliott Trudeau Scholar and Vanier Scholar, poet, and Ph.D. candidate.

After earning his way back into normal society, he reconnected with old friends from his Brampton high school days who were not engaged in crime and addiction. He went to work for his uncle, built new friendships and started a romantic relationship with Lucie, a woman he had known in high school. With her support and encouragement, he earned a university degree and is now working on his Ph.D. Jesse Thistle is now an Assistant Professor in Métis Studies at York University in Toronto. I didn’t mean this to be a spoiler alert as his book From The Ashes is obviously a story of rebirth and reinvention. It’s absolutely fascinating and I could not put it down. Please do yourself a favour and read Jesse Thistle’s story. It’s honest, brutal, articulate, educational and inspiring. I’d rate it 9 out of 10.



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Very Nice is not about nice people, but it is a juicy read

The only likable character in Very Nice by Marcy Dermansky is an apricot standard poodle called Princess, a.k.a. Posey. But that doesn’t mean the book is not a fun read. On the contrary. Like the characters on Seinfeld, the various characters with all their flaws are colorful, individual and even understandable. When I first started reading, I wasn’t sure if the book was a love story, a character study, a mystery, a comedy or a sex romp. Actually, it’s all of these. Each chapter is written in the first person, narrated by one of the six main characters, connected by one degree of separation, which is rather convenient.

Rachel is a student of Zahid, her creative writing professor. Naturally, she has a crush on him and at the end of term, they engage in an inappropriate liaison that she reads too much into and he regrets. Zahid is a beautiful thirty-six-year-old man-child whose contract with the university is finished, so he sublets his New York apartment to Khloe, the twin sister of his friend Kristi, when he has to travel back to Pakistan to visit his dying grandmother. But he has to find a home for his standard poodle while he’s gone, so Rachel agrees to take care of it when she returns home to her privileged family home in Connecticut for the summer. But her parents, Becca and Jonathan have just separated. Jonathan is experiencing his mid-life crisis and moved into town to live with his much-younger pilot girlfriend whose name is—what else—Mandy. Yes. She was named after the Barry Manilow song.

Things start to get complicated when Zahid returns to New York early from Pakistan, just ten days after his departure. Naturally, Khloe refuses to move out of his apartment and she does not want him sleeping on her couch. So he goes to visit Rachel at her mother Becca’s fancy home in Connecticut in search of his dog and hoping to find somewhere to couch-surf for the remainder of the summer. His plan works. But, he gets it on with the lovely Becca which leaves Rachel feeling hurt and left out. Meanwhile, ex-hubby Jonathan isn’t living happily ever after with Mandy, and Khloe and Kristi, despite being twins, are not always compatible. Khloe works in high finance for Rachel’s father, Jonathan. She’s also a lesbian who’s trying to land the affections of her childhood babysitter, Jane. But Jane’s in love with Winnie, who also has a boyfriend. Are you following all this?

Will Zahid pick Rachel or Becca? Or someone else altogether? Will Jonathan and Becca reconcile? Will Khloe find true love? Fortunately, all this intrigue could only happen in a fictional novel, which is why it’s such a delicious and fast read. So, settle into your LaZgirl chair with a glass of wine or a nice cup of tea and enjoy some escapism. It’s not a literary masterpiece but it is a fun ride. I’d rate it 7 out of 10.

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