Monday, 26 January 2015

Birding on a very warm Sunday in January

Rough Legged Hawk

The foothills of Southern Alberta

A shy Great Horned Owl

Sunday was a gorgeous day, with temperatures of +17 C (that's about 63 F for those of you who don't do Celsius).  T-shirt weather.  Very unusual in Southern Alberta in January--we were the hot spot in Canada yesterday.  It was an excellent day to go looking for birds, though we didn't see very many.  It is, after all, really January although it felt like spring.  We had a good raptor day, seeing 3 Rough Legged Hawks, one Great Horned Owl, and one Bald Eagle (that just flew swiftly by and didn't pose for a photo).

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Shadow and Claw / Gene Wolfe

4 out of 5 stars
The Shadow of the Torturer is the tale of young Severian, an apprentice in the Guild of Torturers on the world called Urth, exiled for committing the ultimate sin of his profession -- showing mercy toward his victim.

The Claw of the Conciliator continues the saga of Severian, banished from his home, as he undertakes a mythic quest to discover the awesome power of an ancient relic, and learn the truth about his hidden destiny.

I started into this series with trepidation—I wasn’t sure exactly how I would feel about a torturer as a main character. But Severian (get it, severe, sever) turns out to be charming in his own way—he is intelligent, empathetic, and friendly. Most of all, torture is just a job. He does it because it is he is a member of the guild, not because he has some psychopathic joy in the process. He does what needs to be done, follows the rules of his guild (except that one time that gets him into trouble), and generally just tries to do a good job. His one characteristic that annoys me is his tendency to “love” which ever woman is closest to him—and they change over fairly regularly and then change back. So far (end of book 2), he hasn’t found a woman that he isn’t interested in nor has he found one who rivets his attention.

In some ways he reminds me of the Knight, Sir Percival. There are repeated mentions of his “noble looks,” suggesting that he may be the illegitimate son of someone of importance. Just as Percival spent his childhood in the forests, “ignorant of the ways of men,” so Severian spends his youth confined to a small part of the Citadel, learning his trade as torturer and very little else. Around the age of 15, when Sir Percival had his life-changing encounter with King Arthur’s knights in the forest, Severian has his life-changing evening in the necropolis where he encounters and assists the outlaw Vodalus. Like Percival, his ignorance of the ways of the world outside the Citadel often place him in perilous situations, which he comes through due to his basic honesty and ability to make friends who have the needed skills.

Urth is an interesting world too—a very old Earth, apparently formerly space-faring and technological, very much reduced to the rather Medieval state that Severian inhabits. There are occasional bits of technology that still work, continuously reminding the reader that this is in the far future, when the sun has dimmed just as the civilization has.
Wolfe’s conceit in these novels is that they are translations from a future language, hence the plethora of words that sound like we ought to know the meanings, but it takes a little bit of thought to figure out exactly where they come from. I’m always interested in linguistics and I like it when an author is too.

I’ll definitely be reading the third book in the very near future.

Since this volume is actually two books, it counts as 159 & 160 for me from the NPR list of classic science fiction and fantasy.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Saturday / Ian McEwan

3 out of 5 stars
Saturday, February 15, 2003. Henry Perowne is a contented man, a successful neurosurgeon, the devoted husband of Rosalind and the proud father of two grown-up children, one a promising poet, the other a talented blues musician. Unusually, he wakes before dawn, drawn to the window of his bedroom and filled with a growing unease. What troubles him as he looks out at the night sky is the state of the world, the impending war against Iraq, a gathering pessimism since 9/11 and a fear that his city, its openness and diversity, and his happy family life are under threat.

Later, Perowne makes his way to his weekly squash game through London streets filled with hundreds of thousands of anti-war protestors. A minor car accident brings him into a confrontation with Baxter, a fidgety, aggressive young man, on the edge of violence. To Perowne's professional eye, there appears to be something profoundly wrong with him.

Towards the end of a day rich in incident, a Saturday filled with thoughts of war and poetry, of music, mortality and love, Baxter appears at the Perowne home during a family reunion, with extraordinary consequences

I guess it speaks volumes that many days have passed since I finished Saturday and I really didn’t have too much to say about it. It was very well written—the story pulled me swiftly along until the end (once I finally committed to starting the novel). I liked the main character, Henry, well enough.

Saturday made me realize what privileged lives we lead in the developed world. What passes for a bad day for Henry (minor car accident, bad squash game, visit to his mother with dementia, disagreement with his daughter, etc.) is really a pretty excellent day compared to most people in the world. He has a job that he loves and that pays well, he has a wife and two children that he loves, and he lives very comfortably. I have said before and will say again that many pets in North America live better than the majority of humans in the world. Now, there’s nothing wrong with providing good lives for our animals, but it should give one pause, should it not?

Consumerism is the worm in the apple—as we exploit resources and contaminate the world where everyone has to live, can we really expect that there will be no resentment? When we “enjoy” capitalism and individualism and by doing so seem to devalue societies that are based on communal values and on having “enough”? Plus, there is great inequality within our own society—I heard on the CBC radio this morning that the top 1% of richest people will in 2015 own more than all the rest of us 99% all put together. And really, as Baxter, the criminal in Saturday, could attest, all the money in the world cannot give us some things—like our health.

If I have come away with anything from Saturday, it is the determination to be less focused on things and more focused on the people in my life. For years, I’ve been giving tickets to events as gifts when possible—experiences, rather than something that needs to be stored or dusted. I’ve been down-sizing my life & my needs for years and this book just encourages me to keep pursuing that path.

I guess I had more to say about this book that I thought I did.

Monday, 19 January 2015


My Christmas present to me--a trip to the second hand book store! 

Happy reading in 2015!

Thursday, 15 January 2015

2014 Reading Year Round Up

Total number of books read: 116
5 star books: 7
4 star books: 48
3 star books: 51
2 star books: 8
1 star books: 1
Unrated books: 1
Nonfiction: 27
Female authors: 39
Total no. of pages : 36,894

Books read from the NPR list of classic sci-fi & fantasy: 30

Best Books of 2014
River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay
An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield
Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
Empire Antarctica by Gavin Francis
The Martian by Andy Weir
The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Among Others by Jo Walton
My Real Children by Jo Walton
Crow Lake by Mary Lawson

Book I was excited about & thought I was going to love more but didn’t
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. This book had everything in it that should have made it every bit as enchanting as Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore, but I just didn’t get into it that much. Enjoyed it, but not hugely. I was really disappointed in the ending and I guess I have picked up the prejudice from my real-life book club—no more cancer books, please!

Favourite new author discovered in 2014
Hands down, Jo Walton (she wrote two of the books which feature in my best books of 2014).

Best book from a genre I don’t typically read/was out of my comfort zone
Maus by Art Spiegelman. My first encounter with the graphic novel. Also, outside my comfort zone in subject matter (Holocaust).

Most memorable character of 2014
Mark Watney of Andy Weir’s The Martian. For one thing, I can actually remember the main character’s name without consulting my notes—which means he made an impression. Plus, he was remarkably funny during a serious situation and a very resourceful character. Loved him!

Most beautifully written book read in 2014
River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay. Kay was my new favourite author from 2013, when I read Under Heaven for my real-life book club. Needless to say, more of his works are on my 2015 reading list!

Most thought-provoking/life changing book of 2014
It would have to be Crow Lake by Mary Lawson. Some of the events in the novel mirrored events in my own life and triggered more thought about my personal history than any other fiction that I have encountered. Wonderful new angles on an old problem.

Book I can’t believe I waited until 2014 to finally read
The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien. I’ve been a Tolkien fan since my early teens and although I attempted this book several times during earlier decades, I finally must be old enough to appreciate it.

Shortest and Longest book I read in 2014
I think my shortest book was The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The runner up: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. The longest book was definitely Dhalgren by Samuel Delaney. Runner up was Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.

Best book I read in 2014 based solely on a recommendation from somebody else/peer pressure
The Bees by Laline Paull. This book would never have entered my consciousness if not for my GoodReads friends, who were reading it, reviewing it, and giving it high marks. Although it didn’t make it into my top 10 for 2014, it is certainly one of the honourable mentions.

Book I regret reading (AKA the worst of 2014)
Good Advice from Bad People by Zac Bissonnette. An excellent idea, but not nearly as amusing as it should have been.  Ironic, isn't it, that my most regretted book was one in the Self-help genre.

The Invention of Wings / Sue Monk Kidd

3 out of 5 stars
Hetty "Handful” Grimke, an urban slave in early nineteenth century Charleston, yearns for life beyond the suffocating walls that enclose her within the wealthy Grimke household. The Grimke’s daughter, Sarah, has known from an early age she is meant to do something large in the world, but she is hemmed in by the limits imposed on women.

Kidd’s sweeping novel is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten year old Handful, who is to be her handmaid.We follow their remarkable journeys over the next thirty-five years, as both strive for a life of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement and the uneasy ways of love.
As the stories build to a riveting climax, Handful will endure loss and sorrow, finding courage and a sense of self in the process. Sarah will experience crushed hopes, betrayal, unrequited love, and ostracism before leaving Charleston to find her place alongside her fearless younger sister, Angelina, as one of the early pioneers in the abolition and women’s rights movements.

Inspired by the historical figure of Sarah Grimke, Kidd goes beyond the record to flesh out the rich interior lives of all of her characters, both real and invented, including Handful’s cunning mother, Charlotte, who courts danger in her search for something better.

I think this book and Gone With the Wind would be like matter and antimatter—if you sat them side by side on the shelf, I would expect that they would mutually annihilate each other! Despite being written about the same society and set during the same time period, they could not be more different.

Gone With the Wind is told exclusively from a white, southern view point. The Invention of Wings is told by two, equally important narrators, one white and one black. While Scarlet O’Hara is beautiful and knows how to play the society game, Sarah is plain, awkward, and has a speech impediment. Scarlet’s life revolves around various men, but Sarah refuses to lose herself in the role of wife. Scarlet is all about survival on her own terms, while Sarah is devoted to the causes of abolition and women’s rights.

It was my feeling that the chapters devoted to Sarah were the best ones. The chapters recounting Handful’s side of the story were good, but not as heartfelt. For a more authentic description of the black experience of slavery, I would recommend Octavia Butler’s Kindred, which I often had to set down for a while to get my breathing and heart-rate under control—her descriptions were that harrowing. As an African-American writer, Butler was willing to be absolutely unflinching in her descriptions. I am sure there are plenty of other African-American authors out there who have done similar things in their fiction, I just haven’t read them yet. [I am often reluctant to read about how terribly human beings are willing to treat each other, avoiding WWII, slavery, and genocide in my reading].

I was interested to learn that Sarah and her sister were historical figures that Kidd was curious about. They had that perfect combination: some historical records, but nothing too constricting. There was room to work with the facts available, to fill in the blanks, so to speak.

This book probably deserves more than 3 stars, but it is about subject matter that doesn’t thrill me, hence my “I like it” rating, rather than anything higher.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Wizard / John Varley

4 out of 5 stars
Book 2 of Varley's Gaea trilogy.

Wizard...returns us to the awesome interior of Gaea, the world-sized alien first encountered in Varley's monumental bestseeler, Titan.

Gaea's discoverer, Cirocco "Rocky" Jones, is now herself an inhabitant, plotting wizardry in the remote highlands between two of Gaea's brains. Gaea is old, perhaps dying. Wearily, she assures her usefulness to Earth by performing tawdry miracles.

Enter two pilgrims: Chris'fer, late of San Fransisco. And from the Coven on the dark side of the moon, Robin, small, nine-fingered, female with snake...

Probably around 3.5 stars, but rounded up to 4.

Wizard picks up where Titan left off in its exploration of the nature of sexuality. Gone are the frequent references to other works of science fiction, although the Greek mythology links are of course maintained. This novel is unusual in that the majority of its main characters are women, with earth-guy Chris thrown in as the token male to be used to contrast everything with. Also introduced in this second book is Robin, a young woman from an all-female space colony (known as The Coven). And yes, it is that kind of coven—women looking to establish their own matriarchal society, free of the influence of men, who are envisioned by the women of the Coven as bogeymen. It was slightly predictable that Chris & Robin would be thrown together on Gaea so that we could watch them work out their prejudices with each other.

This is very much a quest tale—both Chris and Robin have genetic anomalies that are disrupting their lives in major ways and they have come to Gaea to see if they can be healed. An audience with the Goddess reveals that there’s no such thing as a free lunch (Robert Heinlein would be pleased) and that the two must get out into the world of Gaea and be heroic if they expect any assistance. Their need to go do something is helped along when Cirocco (the Wizard of the title) and Gaby (one of the main characters from the first volume) offer to take them along on a long trip around the edges of Gaea, along with 4 of the centaur-folk known as Titanides. The reader is never allowed to forget that the Titanides have a very complex sexual life which they are absolutely pragmatic about—none of the human hang-ups concerning this essential part of life—and some of them (including one of the travel party) sometimes become enamoured of humans. Chris gets to be the lucky (?) recipient of this attention as well.

It definitely passes the Bechdel test—there are more than two women (humans), who talk to each other about many things besides men. Despite this, our lesbian witch, Robin, does take one shot at the heterosexual side of the street. Token guy, Chris, gets pushed into leadership in several places where he is just not qualified—a nod perhaps to our society where, in hospitals, people ask for (male) unqualified interns when well-qualified female doctors are on the scene. By and large, it is a feminist novel—however, Varley makes everything hinge on Chris in a way that, to my way of thinking, gives him undue influence, especially in sexual terms. Thankfully, he actually realizes it in several places in the book, making me like him better for it.

There’s lots of action and danger as the travelers make their way around Gaea, which kept me reading just to see what happened. I realize that sexuality was being explored, but it really did seem to keep taking over everyone’s attention when they probably would have been better off looking for the next cliff/predator/large unfriendly body of water. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it and will definitely read the last book in the trilogy. 

Monday, 12 January 2015

The Birds of Pandemonium / Michelle Raffin

Each morning at first light, Michele Raffin steps outside into the bewitching bird music that heralds another day at Pandemonium Aviaries. A full symphony that swells from the most vocal of more than 350 avian throats representing more than 40 species. “It knocks me out, every day,” she says.

Pandemonium, the home and bird sanctuary that Raffin shares with some of  the world’s most remarkable birds, is a conservation organization dedicated to saving and breeding birds at the edge of extinction, with the goal of eventually releasing them into the wild. In The Birds of Pandemonium, she lets us into her world--and theirs. Birds fall in love, mourn, rejoice, and sacrifice; they have a sense of humor, invent, plot, and cope. They can teach us volumes about the interrelationships of humans and animals.

Their amazing stories make up the heart of this book. There’s Sweetie, a tiny quail with an outsize personality; the inspiring Oscar, a disabled Lady Gouldian finch who can’t fly but finds a brilliant way to climb to the highest perches of his aviary to roost. The ecstatic reunion of a disabled Victoria crowned pigeon, Wing, and her brother, Coffee, is as wondrous as the silent kinship that develops between Amadeus, a one-legged turaco, and an autistic young visitor.

As we come to know the individual birds, we also come to understand how much is at stake for many of these species. One of the aviary’s greatest success stories is breeding the gorgeous green-naped pheasant pigeon, whose home in the New Guinea rainforest is being decimated. Thanks to efforts at Pandemonium, these birds may not share the same fate as the now-extinct dodo.

The Birds of Pandemonium is about one woman’s crusade to save precious lives, and it offers rare insights into how following a passion can transform not only oneself but also the world.

This is a charming memoir and very well written. Many of these personal account of birds (living with them or looking for them) are often kindly meant, but the authors are not equipped to write a truly engaging account. Raffin is not only an aviculturist but a communicator and it stands head and shoulders above the books of many enthusiasts.

My interest in the subject matter comes from two aspects of my life—many years as a birder, searching the wilds for birds like those Raffin is caring for, and as a volunteer, spending hours of my spring weekends dressed in a baggy white crane costume and rubber boots, exercising Whooping Crane chicks. I can personally attest to the different personalities of birds, although I didn’t find that Whooping Cranes exhibited many individual differences. They were very placid chicks, quite content to follow their odd leaders, draped in white, carrying a puppet to communicate with them and using a tape recorder of calls to make them feel comfortable. However, during my final year of this volunteer duty, I had occasion to exercise a group of three Sandhill Cranes and one Whooper. The differences between the two species were dramatic. The Sandhills soon figured out the game and would head off to do their own thing, while the Whooper and I would wander the enclosure, dutifully exercising together. I often called it my walking meditation—you had to remain silent and walk slowly, making sure that you didn’t step on the chick’s toes. Out on the rural facility where the crane breeding centre was located, it was a quiet environment beside a natural pond and I spent much of my time listening to and identifying the calls of wild birds beyond the enclosure.

Raffin explains clearly the challenges of keeping birds in captivity—they are sensitive creatures, often with very high blood pressures, which can easily be over-stimulated and suffer catastrophic deaths. They are susceptible to disease and often have very specific breeding or nesting needs. [For example, Flamingos require large flocks for successful nesting and zoos often put up mirrors in their winter quarters to visually increase the flock].

I think many of us can also relate to the incident which launched her into this world of breeding rare birds—that day that she stood on the side of a road, holding a wounded common bird, wondering what exactly to do with it. From such beginnings are great obsessions started.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Half-Blood Blues / Esi Edugyan

The aftermath of the fall of Paris, 1940. Hieronymous Falk, a rising star on the cabaret scene, was arrested in a cafe and never heard from again. He was twenty years old. He was a German citizen. And he was black. Fifty years later, Sid, Hiero's bandmate and the only witness that day, is going back to Berlin. Persuaded by his old friend Chip, Sid discovers there's more to the journey than he thought.

This is an extremely well written book—not surprising, I guess, since it was nominated for both the Man Booker and the Giller prizes. It took a period in history (the Second World War) that I care very little about and an aspect of that war that had never impinged on my consciousness (the Black experience of that war) and made me care very much indeed.

The story is told by Sidney Griffiths, a black jazz musician who is performing in Europe as the war is beginning. Sid is not a very likeable guy—he’s extremely jealous of any one more talented than him and is always looking for an angle to push himself forward. For me, he is a perfect example of not needing to love a main character to be interested in what happens to him and his cohort of fellow musicians. Maybe one of the reasons that I continued to care about Sid was the comparison to his life-long friend, Chip, another seemingly amoral character always looking for a way to advance his interests. Most of the time, Chip drags Sid along with him, although he’s not above dumping Sid if it becomes obvious that his pal will be a hindrance. Sid seems to do the advance planning for the group and is often on the hook for coffee or lunch bills—he can’t escape his feelings of responsibility.

I think the main reason that I continued to care about Sid was his obvious humanity. I don’t know about you, but I’ve felt competitive, I’ve been jealous of someone who could do a better job that I could, I’ve found myself unwillingly plunged into “friendship” where I’ve felt used, and I’ve been spiteful. All the sins that Sid commits, I can envisage myself committing too. And by book’s end, we realize that Sid really does care about some of the shenigans that he has pulled—enough that he confesses to them and looks for forgiveness, an admirable act of bravery, and something that I question whether I would have had the fortitude to do in similar circumstances.

Ms. Edugyan makes you feel the oppression, taste the dust, tense with fear, and long to hear the jazz that these men perform. By happy accident, I heard an interview with Herbie Hancock the same day that I finished Half Blood Blues—and I am going have to check out some jazz in the near future.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Favourite books read in 2014

I've restricted myself to a top 10 list of books that I really enjoyed this year.

1. River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay. 

 Luscious historical fantasy that has pushed Kay onto my favourite authors list.

My review:

2. An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield.

A very readable memoir by Canadian astronaut Hadfield, who has made the space program relevant again.

My review:

3. Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan.

A love letter to libraries, bookstores, museums, geek culture, the internet, secret societies--that felt like it had been written just for me.

My review:

4. Empire Antartica by Gavin Francis.

Having been a very-short-term visitor to Antarctica, I loved this memoir of a young doctor overwintering at an Antarctic station.

My review:

5. The Martian by Andy Weir.

Fast paced and chock full of humour, The Martian is an excellent hard science fiction book.

My review:

6. The Girl with All the Gifts / M.R. Carey

A new take on an old genre, zombie fiction.

My review:

7. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman.

My first encounter with Mr. Gaiman's writing, but certainly not my last.

My review:

8. Among Others by Jo Walton.

Another new favourite author discovered in 2014.  This book is perfect for science fiction readers, library & book lovers, and those who grew up in rural surroundings, especially if you are all three.

My review:

9. My Real Children by Jo Walton.

Another winner from Ms. Walton.  I found it to be a powerful examination of what it means to be female in our world.

My review:

10. Crow Lake by Mary Lawson.

A very personal book for me, dealing as it does with children putting their lives back together after losing their parents in a car accident.  A powerful, well written book by a Canadian author.

My review:

Here's hoping that 2015 holds some new favourites in store!!

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

The Silmarillion / J.R.R. Tolkien

3.5 out of 5 stars
J.R.R. Tolkien is best known for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings but those who thought these two wonderful adventures marked the height of his imagination have many more delights to come. The Silmarillion represents the source of Tolkien's later work and follows the events of the First Age of Middle Earth. For information, The Lord of the Rings concerns the end of the Third Age.

The Silmarillion is a gloriously realised story of rebellion, exile, war and the heroism of elves and men. But to gain an insight into the staggering complexity of Tolkien's world, however, the shorter works also included are must-reads. Dealing with the myth of creation, the nature of the Gods, the fall of Númenor and the Rings of Power, they paint a vivid picture not only of Middle Earth but also of the author's soaring imagination.

Reading this volume had the same feel for me as reading the Old Testament—it is the background material for a whole system of thought. I guess that reveals my religious leanings—Middle Earth is where I hope my spirit goes when I die. But seriously, reading this historical background document to Middle Earth reminded me very much of a summer when I was a teenager when I decided to read through the whole Bible, with the thought that if I could understand the whole thing I might find something in it that I could use. During both reading experiences, I learned a lot.

There were some significant aspects of The Silmarillion that were strongly reminiscent of the Old Testament, the creation story at the beginning the strongest of those. Finally, I was able to see why so many people see Tolkien as a religious writer. Both The Hobbit and LOTR have both seemed very non-religious to me, almost pagan, so I have always been confused by that view point. Now I can see that the underpinnings of Middle Earth are very much based in Christian theology.

It also answered many questions I had about Middle Earth: why is Elrond known as Half-Elven? What is the history between the Elves and the Dwarves? Why is Aragorn a Ranger when we first meet him? Who exactly is Gil-galad and why do the Elves sing of him? Who the heck is Elbereth?

This book is not for the casual reader—it is for the Middle Earth aficionado, the Elf obsessed, the Hobbitophile. I was all of the above when I tried to read it in my 20s and I still failed. Now, in my 50s, I have the patience and concentration to appreciate this interesting history and I very much enjoyed it.

Book number 156 of my reading project, the NPR list of classic science fiction and fantasy.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Crow Lake / Mary Lawson

5 out of 5 stars
Here is a gorgeous, slow-burning story set in the rural “badlands” of northern Ontario, where heartbreak and hardship are mirrored in the landscape. For the farming Pye family, life is a Greek tragedy where the sins of the fathers are visited on the sons, and terrible events occur—offstage.

Centerstage are the Morrisons, whose tragedy looks more immediate if less brutal, but is, in reality, insidious and divisive. Orphaned young, Kate Morrison was her older brother Matt’s protegee, her fascination for pond life fed by his passionate interest in the natural world. Now a zoologist, she can identify organisms under a microscope but seems blind to the state of her own emotional life. And she thinks she’s outgrown her siblings—Luke, Matt, and Bo—who were once her entire world.

In this universal drama of family love and misunderstandings, of resentments harbored and driven underground, Lawson ratchets up the tension with heartbreaking humor and consummate control, continually overturning one’s expectations right to the very end. Tragic, funny, unforgettable, Crow Lake is a quiet tour de force that will catapult Mary Lawson to the forefront of fiction writers today.

I feel like I’ve just been hit by a truck—this book blindsided me and despite the impact, I adore it. This may be because it ticks so many of my personal boxes, but I’ve been wandering the house since I finished it, ploughing my way through laundry, dinner, dishes, trying desperately to find my footing again, while I’m processing.

Within the first few pages of the book, Katherine’s parents are killed in a car accident, sending the four children on a confusing, agonizing struggle to put their lives back together again. Katherine is only seven years old—I was 34 when it happened to me, and my life was blown apart and has never fully recovered.

“You make it sound like it was centuries ago,” Daniel said. “If you parents died when you were seven, it’s barely twenty years.”
“It feels like centuries,” I said.

Lawson nails it with that tiny bit of dialog. Although it’s been 18 years since my parents’ car accident, some days it feels like yesterday—other days it feels like I never had parents. And I completely relate to Katherine’s numbness, the reluctance to feel anything about anyone—if you care, there’s a good chance that they will get yanked away from you. Not caring seems like your only defence against heart wrenching pain. The only problem is that is doesn’t work. People like Katherine’s boyfriend Daniel worm their way into your life and you reluctantly begin to care about them, all the while struggling to see them as temporary and frustrating the hell out of them, as they wonder what is wrong with you.

I clearly remember the day that I put my emotions on ice—it was about a year and a half after the funerals and I remember thinking, “I’m so tired of crying.” So I quit. It has taken years to thaw that permafrost and I’m still unsure that the process is finished. Still a bit freezer-burned, I guess.

It’s taken me eighteen years, but I’ve finally been able to engage with my family again—they’ve been very patient, they waited and I’ve been accepted back without reservation. Knowing this makes me love them fiercely—after being emotionally frozen for so many years, the strength of that love surprises me on each and every occasion that I spend time with them.

I also have a farm background like Katherine and used university as a way to do something different—I even started my university career as a biology major until I was seduced by so many other interesting subjects and wandered away into the arts and social sciences. But I have so many fond memories of wandering the coulees of home, identifying wild flowers, scooping snails out of the pond, and studying the ground squirrels as I emulated my personal idol, Jane Goodall [chimpanzees were in short supply, but ground squirrels were plentiful on the prairies].

So I may have been predisposed to love this book—still, I cannot recommend it highly enough. It is worth more than 5 stars to me.