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The second Canadian novel on this year’s Booker shortlist and, although you might not think a Western could have much in common with a story of a jazz band in Nazi Germany, I was immediately struck by the similarities to the first. Both are first person narratives involving lots of time on the road with redemption of sorts at the end of the journey.  Although the car in Half Blood Blues doesn’t infuse the narrative with the same pathos as Tub, the mangy bow-backed one-eyed nag that belongs to Eli Sister, the compassionate half of the hired assassin team that is The Sisters Brothers.

Bit of a show stealer that Tub – not in the same league as Charlie’s horse, a fine fast-paced lean machine. Tub always trailing behind, his physical problems a hindrance and a vulnerability.  Like his rider, Eli,  walking in his ruthless brother’s shadow, his self-confidence dented by the size of his girth.  All he wants is to settle down, to bail out of his life as a hired assassin.  So this cowboy goes on a diet and his resulting fixation with food and the admirable loyalty he displays to his poorly steed add both comedy and humanity to the prevailing murder and mayhem.

Make no mistake, when his blood is up, Eli is a brutal killer, quite capable of capitalising on the fear that his name invokes.  It’s just that he’s having second thoughts about his lifestyle.  Charlie, on the other hand, is mean.  When he’s not killing, he’s drinking and whoring and bickering with his brother.  The dynamics of the relationship are established early on, Charlie’s in front, Eli’s behind, though it soon becomes apparent that Charlie wouldn’t last long without his brother covering his back.

On the surface, then, The Sisters Brothers is the story of two hired guns travelling through gold rush California of the trail of their next hit and the riches that will free them from their contract killing existence.  It’s an amoral, adventurous and fabulously entertaining quest for fool’s gold with “zippability” in spades.  Beneath the surface, however, lies a seam of real gold - a story of love and loyalty and the importance of family – the quest that The Sisters Brothers didn’t realise they were on.

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There was much bemoaning and bewailing last year when not a single Canadian title appeared on the 2010 longlist.  This year the fight back is on with a double whammy on the shortlist – both of which appealed to me right away. 

Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues opens in Paris in 1940 as the remaining members of the Hot Time Swingers, a jazz band formerly based in Berlin, await their exit visas to Switzerland.  They are Sid and Chip, two American musicians and Hieronymous Falk, a young, brilliant trumpeteer.  Falk’s position as a stateless black Rhinelander is precarious and occupied Paris is not the place for him to wander around without papers.  Yet one day he does just that, searching for something to eat.   He finds an open cafe.  So do the Gestapo.  The prologue ends as he is arrested and transported to a concentration camp.

52 years later, Sid and Chip, are preparing to return from America to Berlin to a festival honouring Falk, who was never seen again and believed to have died in the concentration camp.  It is clear that Sid, the narrator,  continues to harbour feelings of guilt with regard to Falk’s arrest.  Obviously it’s not as simple as his failure to ensure that Falk had his papers.  Sid takes his time revealing the secret and its consequences, meandering back and forth in time between Berlin/Paris in 1939-1940 and Berlin/Poland in 1992.  He sheds light on the “degenerate” world of the jazz artist to use the Nazi-assigned adjective and the tightening of the terror.  He plays a close hand with regard to his own actions, gradually revealing himself to be petty, jealous and vindictive Janus.  Fortunately for Sid  there are people greater than he and that ensures a redemption of sorts.

To the author’s credit the time shifts are not at all confusing.  I particularly liked the segue on page 187/189 – the band driving through the border from Germany to France in 1939 transforming into the two older men beginning their drive to Poland in 1992.  The narrative is seamless, entertaining and educational.  The research with regard to the life of a jazz musician in Nazi Germany and the plight of the black stateless Rhinelander remains transparent at all times.  There are, however,  a couple of plot twists that stretched my credulity and the decision to tell the story from the viewpoint of the unworthy Sid rather than from the viewpoint of the victim Falk shifts the focus from the true tragedy.   None of  this affects the readability, that highly esteemed virtue according to this year’s judges.  I motored my way through the book. 

Perhaps too quickly because I made no notes.  That means that I’ve clocked the subtleties, the riffs with regard to skin tone that are at play but I can discuss them no deeper than the obvious irony.  That the Afro-German, Hiero, is far more vulnerable in Europe than the Afro-American, Sid (who can pass as a white man).  Yet Sid perceives Hiero to be an almighty threat, his nemesis almost.   Second time through, as a judge rereading the shortlist, I’d be tracking this through in more detail, paying more attention to the impact of this history on other racial hues:  the Aryan German, the Jew and the black American, Chip.  Plus Louis Armstrong with his Canadian broad.  Does the sum of the individual part add up to more than its total? Are there new insights on offer?  Is the originality of the setting - the end of the German jazz age – and the language of musicians - enough to take home the Booker Prize?  Were you a more careful reader than I was?  If so, what do you think?

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I have now read 3 of this year’s Booker shortlist and in all 3 there is a clarity of voice:  Andrea Levy’s Jamaican feisty slave July, Damon Galgut’s melancholy author-protagonist-self and now Emma Donoghue’s 5-year old captive Jack.  Such distinctive voices but I think Jack is going to haunt me more than the others.

(Please note  I assume knowledge of the book in this review.  If you haven’t read Room you may choose not to read any further as I will be including spoilers in my comments.)

Initially I found Jack’s voice so irritating: the naiveity of it, the dreadful grammar completely at odds with the vocabulary used. In fact, I put the book down after chapter 1 and left it for a couple of days.  When I picked up chapter 2, that style persisted.  Nevertheless  I found myself hooked.

This was due to the subtle shifts in Jack’s reality.  In chapter one,  the 11-foot by 11-foot room in which Jack was born and has never left, is just one big playroom.   His kidnapped Ma and his “friends” (Rug, Freezer, et al) all he needs.  What he sees on the television isn’t real.  The events in Room have no sinister undercurrents - not even when Jack has to hide in a cupboard during Old Nic’s visits.   In chapter two his Ma, who is ironically beginning to worry about their safety,  begins to enlighten him about their situation and he struggles to understand her “unlying”.   From here on there is a plot momentum that simply keeps the pages whizzing until at the end of Chapter 3,  when Jack and his Ma find themselves on the Outside.

The Outside, a desired for  yet simultaneously threatening circumstance.  Full of new boundaries such as individual privacy of which Jack has no understanding.  There follows a series of incidents that demonstrate the steep learning curve that Jack must undertake if he is to adapt to the real world.  It’s all the steeper because his Ma struggles, perhaps more than we expect.  No longer the bastion of strength that she was in Room, the psychological picture of her that emerges is complex.  Why did she not fight more for her freedom?  What emerges is the picture of a vulnerable but amazingly resilent woman and mother.  This is not a case of Stockholm Syndrome.

I found my picture of Jack changed too.  The energy and playfulness that was constricted by Room was shown to be inadequate on the Outside.  I certainly had no concept that he would emerge a small crooked figure.  Details like this demonstrating the skill with which Donoghue presents differing views of reality.  Jack’s record remains true to character, naive, on the surface of events throughout.  Adult perceptions, scattered fragment by fragment throughout the second half of the novel, detail underlying dilemmas, emotional dependencies and psychological traumas.  It’s these insights that tell the hidden story of the first half, add depth and make Room such a satisfying read.

I’m not at all surprised that Room was called in by a Booker judge, nor at its subsequent shortlisting.  It’s uniqueness sets it apart and there’s plenty to fuel a second reading.  For instance, I can see myself consciously tracking the incongruence of the simple narrative with the complexity of the underlying psychology.   Yet while it was undoubtedly the most gripping of my 3 Booker readings to date, I wouldn’t champion its winning.  There may be verisimilitude in Jack’s grammatical errors, but I want my Booker winner to set an good example, nay, to soar in its use of the English language.  I also wouldn’t like a book with such a schmaltzy end sequence to win the ultimate accolade for literature.

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Alberto Manguel is probably best known for his essays on a reading life:  A History of Reading, A Reader’s Diary and most recently A Reader on Reading have in their time received many appreciative blog inches.  The man reportedly has a personal library of some 30,000 volumes, so there’s plenty of material for a few more titles of that sort.  But he writes fiction too.  I’m looking forward to his forthcoming novel, bravely entitled All Men Are Liars, and all the more so after reading his 2004 novella, Stevenson under the Palms Trees.

It’s quickly read.  104 pages of well-spaced, simply written text, charting the final days of Robert Louis Stevenson dying of consumption on the island of Samoa.  Days which are complicated by the appearance of Mr Baker, a mysterious missionary, evidently from Scotland who bears more than a passing similarity to Stevenson himself.  His appearance a catalyst for all kinds of contradictory thought:  memories of Stevenson’s strict Calvinist upbringing in eighteenth century Edinburgh clashing with his observations (and perhaps resentment ?) of the carefree laissez-faire of the Samoans. The dark versus the light – but which is which? 

Indeed is Mr Baker the Jekyll to Stevenson’s Mr Hyde?  Because when he appears on the island, so too does serious crime, specifically, rape, arson and murder.  The finger is clearly pointed in Stevenson’s direction, alibis notwithstanding.  The question to ask is whether Baker is real, whether he is an evil alter-ego, or whether he is simply a figment of a Stevenson’s  imagination,  unafraid to say and do the things in the dying man’s subconscious.

I said the story was written simply.  I didn’t say that it was a simple story.

I’ve read a number of  fictional biographies this year and must admit that I am beginning to wonder if the “genre” is not for me.  Perversely it is the seamlessness  between fact and fiction that I find annoying.  I say perversely because it would have been this very seamlessness that the authors would have worked so hard on.  Yet I don’t  like not knowing what to believe and what not.  It’s obvious here that Manguel has added a fictional stream to the known facts, one that plays cleverly with Stevenson’s literary legacy. It makes for a very entertaining diversion.

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As I have to still to capture my thoughts about the other NTTVBG title I read, because I was and remain ambivalent, I thought I’d be more organised for today’s title which will be discussed in depth chez dovegreyreader.  It helps too that my thoughts are quite clear on this one …. in fact, I can describe the novel in one word ….. maddening!

The premise is interesting.  An unspeakable crime and a botched execution are  stones that are thrown into the water; the impact on the lives of those in the small community, the ripples that flow ever outwards. Yet the further from the centre, the weaker the ripples.  That for me is the fundamental flaw with the structure.  The stories of those who were in direct contact with the criminal  were intense.  Those who were one step removed, while interesting in their own right, less so and the overall effect was patchy.

The story of  William Heath and his family, which constituted the first 50 pages, was incredible.  At the same time though I was irritated by constant breaks in the narrative, describing medical symptoms and procedures.  Their foreshadowing relevance became clear at the end of the chapter which ended abruptly with a heartbreaking tragedy. It’s a stylistic trick that I would have accepted in a short story - a device for the telling of two stories in parallel.  Once I’d finished the novel, I discovered that the chapter in question had previously been published as a standalone short story.  It’s a pity the author didn’t revise it so that it flowed better within the context of this “novel”.

“Novel”  in inverted commas because The Boys in the Trees is, in reality,  a series of short stories that do not weave together to form a cloth.  They’re well-written in themselves.  I had no problem getting into character each time – whether that be Heath’s tragic wife, his doctor, his daughter’s friend, her teacher.  I did have problems leaving them behind  because Swan does have a skill in creating characters to invest in.  But picking up a character only to drop them again leaves too many loose threads.  A case in point -

Lying in his soft bed he (Mr Marl – William Heath’s landlord) thought how unfair it was, the things people whispered; it was never about the money. 

End of chapter, change of narrator, (I flung the book away at this point – only page 78) and never are we told what it was about!  Did I say, maddening? I obviously meant infuriating.  I only read on  for the book group.

Swan threw the stones far too early and  the demise of  William Heath left  no character of substance to drive the narrative forward.   We knew his crime and his punishment.  We knew the downward spiral that started in Britain, but the mystery of the exact circumstances that led to his catastrophic decision was never fully resolved.  That was the story I wanted to hear.  Such a shame that it was one that the author chose not to tell.

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New theories abound in this post.  The first is contained in the post’s title and more on that later.  The second is that it is no longer a challenge for a book to snuggle its way into my TBR stacks, the real challenge now is for it to be read.   So how did Andrew Kaufman’s novella claw its way to the top.  John from the Book Mine Set, blogging champion of Canadian literature,  put out a call for everyone involved in the second Canadian Challenge to read just one more Canadian book before the end of June in an effort to notch up the awe-inspiring total of 1000 Canadian reads in the past 12 months.  I think that’s a fantastic achievement and I wanted to be part of  it.   This brings my total to 7 Canadian reads in the last twelve months, which by John’s reckoning makes me a British Columbian.  That’s absolutely fine as it brings me to Vancouver, which in a very neat segue, is the final destination in Kaufman’s novella.

The central premise of  All My Friends are Superheroes is that most people have a superpower.  Not X-men style, more determinators that distinguish them from the rest of humanity.  Such as the Frog-Kisser.

The Frog-Kisser was in high school when she first discovered her power.  Dating the captain of the football team has left her drained and unfulfilled.  That’s when she discovered Brian, the head of the debating club, and her latent powers emerged.

Blessed with the ability to transform geeks into winners, she is cursed with the reality that once she enables this transformation, the origin of her initial attraction is gone.

It’s Tom’s fate to meet and, like everyone else, fall in love with the Perfectionist.  He’s a lucky guy.  She reciprocates and they marry.  Unfortunately one of her exes, Hypno, attends the wedding and, before Tom can stop it,  renders him invisible to his new bride.   The story that unfolds is of Tom attempts to undo Hypno’s spell; a tender tale, that reflects on the bridal pair’s romantic histories and their own courtship.  Interspersed with superheroes of all shapes, sizes and talents.  Smiles, laughter and cynicism.  Tears too, as it becomes clear that the Perfectionist is  also suffering deeply.   Tom has no superpowers so undoing the “spell” is no easy task..  Finally the Perfectionist decides to leave her lonely life and move to Vancouver.  If Tom doesn’t solve the puzzle by the time the plane lands, he loses his bride forever.

This is perhaps the most original read of 2009 to-date.  Entertaining, yes.  Quirky, absolutely.  A bit of a stress-buster, if truth be told.

I certainly need to meet the Stress Bunny.

If you arrive at a party and suddenly find yourself completely relaxed, there’s a good chance the Stress Bunny is there.  Blessed with the ability to absorb the stress of everyone in a fifty-foot radius, the Stress Bunny is invited to every party , every outing.


Her power originates from her strict Catholic upbringing.

For I am Lizzy cast from the don’t-know-what-day-of-the-week-it-is mould. (Surely that qualifies as a self-defeating superpowers)  Tuesday 22.6.2009 anyone?  You’re all too kind to point out my error including Ang, an e-ticket buying superheroine who flew to my rescue and has secured my seats at Edinburgh Book Festival.  (Yours too, because Lizzy will be reporting once more from the front rows.)

WonderAng, you truly deserve to be decorated with a blue cape!  Until I find one, however, my copy of All My Friends are Superheroes is  yours, should you accept it as a token of my gratitude.

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This talk of lemon polenta cake and cream teas is addictive and reminds me that I never reviewed the book I read for dessert as part of the Well-Seasoned challenge. Let’s put that right now.

It is now two months since I read the book and the reason why this review is so delayed is that I’m disappointed that it’s not joining the list of my  reads. On the back of the review available on TheMooreTheMerrier I starting reading the latest in my Mooreathon with the highest of expectations, completely and utterly expecting myself to be blown away. It didn’t happen, which is not to say that THe Emperor of Ice Cream isn’t an excellent read. I think I was expecting something to grab me in the same way as “The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne” did.  I don’t currently have much empathy with adolescent male leads – and the stupidity of this one made my blood boil in places.  (Interesting that this novel is the most autobiographical of Moore’s output – suggesting that while I admire the author, I wouldn’t have got on with the man?)  But while I was alienated from the personal drama, I was fascinated by the historical, completely amazed at the mindset that couldn’t wait for the second world war to hit Belfast. And didn’t it just, when the Luftwaffe got its sights in! I realise the foregoing sounds rather ambivalent but let me stress that The Emperor of Ice-Cream is still a   read and far superior to much contemporary fiction. I agree with John Self that it is a travesty that it is out of print.   Here’s hoping that Faber will find it and republish ..

Sometimes one pudding is not enough and because this is a virtual feast, indulging in a second won’t hurt the waistline. 

Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie was a prizewinner before it was even published – the first chapter winning the CWA debut dagger in 2007.  Since then that chapter has developed into a fine first novel, the start of what will be a 3-part series of Flavia de Luce detective novels.  Flavia de Luce, an 11-year old,  the youngest, and much put upon, daughter of 3.  Forced to withdraw from the malevolence of her elder sisters, she has esconced herself in the long abandoned Victorian chemical laboratory at the top of the family mansion. .  She’s a precocious clever-clogs, meddling in things she shouldn’t and tenacious in all she does, whether it be wreaking revenge on her  “ugly” sisters or seeking to exonerate her father from a false charge of murder.  The setting in 1950 lends much charm.  The comic timing too is masterful in places – it’s unsophisticated and clean and made me laugh out loud more than once.  You need to be accepting of Flavia’s cleverness  and if you do, you’ll learn much about stamp-collecting, magical illusions and chemistry.  Flavia does a rather fine line in poison ….. 

 

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Winner of:
2007 Hammett Prize for Crime Writing
2008 Relit Award
Amazon Ca / New Books In Canada Award

John Updike gave good advice when it comes to reviewing books.  Rule #1 states that one should not blame the author for not achieving what he did not attempt.  OK but sometimes the  dustjacket and the synopsis engender a  synaptic connection with another beloved read.  The covers  shown aren’t identical but the ingredients of snow,trees, flight through a Canadian winter,  title printed in the same colour of red, and I’m expecting a read of the calibre of The Tenderness of Wolves.

Of course, I shouldn’t because The Outlander isn’t another Tenderness of Wolves.  For a start we know the identity of the murderess  from the beginning.  She’s the young Stevie Nicks lookalike fleeing from her dead husband’s brothers.  The mystery, therefore, isn’t a whodunnit – it’s a whydunnit and gradually during lulls in the chase the layers are peeled back to reveal all.

As an adventure yarn this is a enjoyable read.  The widow’s journey through the wilderness and her eventual settling  in the  horse-rustling, wild-western but doomed town of Frank is well-paced and entertaining.  The details are vivid and the pages turn quite rapidly.  My advice is to read and enjoy the novel on this level because on closer inspection it doesn’t hold up as well.

Firstly and least significantly,  just a pet hate of mine – toilet scenes.   Why do authors insist on this?  Verisimilitude isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  Secondly, there is a feminist subtext in Mary’s back history.  Her madness caused in part through being viewed as a possession, not an intelligent human being.  Yet her survival depends on her finding male benefactors – not once, not twice, but three times.  Admittedly she becomes more independent as the story progresses, yet, when she makes the most feminist gesture of them all (in the final sentence), I didn’t buy it.  Thirdly, and this was the most frustrating element of the novel, Adamson, having carefully built up a chilling ruthlessness in Mary’s pursuers, brings the chase to an end in the most anti-climactic manner imaginable.   These mixed messages adding up to a novel that is inconsistent with itself.

As indeed is this review!  Having written what could be taken as a hachette job, I still recommend it.  As an adventure yarn.  A piece of escapist fiction.  Perfect for snuggling up with on a cold winter’s day.  A good read.  Just not a brilliant one.  Not The Tenderness of Wolves.

 

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Barbara Gowdy likes to push the boundaries of fiction.  Her backlist includes The White Bone, written from the viewpoint of an elephant, and a short story about a female necrophiliac.   Her latest novel takes on the emotive subject of child abduction.

Thrillers attract me particularly when they’re packaged in black livery and sinister moths.  But I hummed and hawed about reading this for months.  It took Gowdy herself to convince me.  Speaking at the Edinburgh Book Festival she explained her ground rules.  1) The child could not be harmed – the book would have been unbearable to write.  2) The abductor could not be a monster – the book would have been uninteresting.

So, reassured by 1) and intrigued by 2) I started what turned into an unputdownable read.  There are so many ambiguities, so many shades of grey.  Ron, the abductor, is portrayed in three-dimensions, his motivations and his self-denial (both psychologically and sexually) explained.  He has convinced himself that he is rescuing Rachel from an abusive landlord and in so doing cannot countenance surrender to his own urges.  The great controversy of the novel lies here – Gowdy explains her villain in distinctly human and not entirely unsympathetic terms.  It’s a brave move and one which has alienated parts of her readership – particularly males!

Gowdy casts her candid eye on other issues.  Rachel, the child,  is exceptionally beautiful, sought after by model agencies.  This foreshadows the abduction but also raises questions concerning the sexualisation of little girls.  She is from a single-parent family, her mother holding down two jobs to afford the best life she can.  Necessarily Rachel spends much time alone and it is this that gives her abductor the excuses and the opportunity he seeks.  Cue discussion on the lifestyle of single-parent families.

More psychological complexity in the form of the abductor’s girlfriend, Nancy.  A woman whose own neediness makes her depend on Ron and sucks her into his warped mindset.  Rachel, herself, quickly becomes attached to Nancy and Ron displaying classic signs of Stockholm Syndrome. 

While knowing groundrule 1) takes the edge from the tension, it does enable the reader to focus on the moral dilemma.   I quite understand reviewers like Joanna Briscoe in the Guardian describing Helpless as “a psychological thriller that leaves the reader feeling decidedly sullied”.  I didn’t feel sullied but I did feel icky.  In humanising the abductor, Gowdy makes outright condemnation impossible.  Does this equate to condoning? 

The novel is well crafted,  drama and pace tightly controlled.   Controversial themes, complex characterisation are handled with skill and much literary finesse.  The novel was shortlisted for the 2007 Giller Prize and was recently awarded the 2008 Trillium (English) Novel Book Award.

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 Winner of the 2007 Giller Prize

There’s been much moaning about this year’s Booker longlist from those ploughing through it.  I never summon up enough enthusiasm to read the whole list but I do watch out for any Canadiana.  So this year in the absence of any Canadian nominee (a fact I find incredible in a list the chairman claims to be “geographically balanced”), I looked elsewhere.  No better place to start than with the 2007 Giller prize winner.

The novel is set in the Northwest Territories of Canada during a time of change, the mid-1970′s: a time when the radio stations were threatened by television, and the northern landscape, by the proposed MacKenzie valley gas pipeline.  Escaping from a failed television career, Harry Boyd returns to Yellowknife to run a small radio station.  He hires two women, the wonderfully confident Dido, and the painfully shy Gwen. 

It appears that there’s a lot of the author in Gwen, who is hopeless at broadcasting.  She is quickly relegated to the late night spot where in isolation she is free to experiment, to learn her trade.  Dido, however, is a star from the offset, attracting the audiences, the men all falling in love with her at first, second or third sight. The first half of the novel is set in or around the radio station with the rivalries and the petty jealousies between the two women subtly on display.  With Dido in the ascendant, always, seemingly indestructable. Until she takes up with Eddie and then her vulnerability begins to show. 

Hay explores the fraility of the human heart gently and sensitively through the lives of her three main characters, with the subsidiary characters populating the pages to explore similar issues from different angles. They are rounded out, their stories entirely plausible and, in cases, quite saddening.  The frozen North is an isolated place and people can be lonely, either in or out of a relationship.

The landscape is not simply a backdrop.  As four friends undertake a trek across the frozen landscape, from Yellowknife to Ptarmigan Lake, the theme of human fraility and survival moves beyond the purely emotional.  Lack of preparation or a false sense of security can swiftly result in the catastrophic.  At the same time, this beautiful Arctic landscape is vulnerable, a DIdo, easily crumpled by the selfishness and inattentiveness of man.

The novel is a beautiful read.  Quiet and insistent.  Voices travelling through the air like radio waves, voices that are heard a long time after finishing the novel.  It’s not a page-turner in the traditional sense.  Hay takes her time telling the stories of her characters and landscapes.  The characters, true to life and engaging, held my attention in the first half; the landscape in the second, even though there isn’t much narrative drive.  Whether Hay recognised this herself and attempted to insert it by the use of foreshadowing, I’m not sure.  Time and time again, foreboding hints of disasters and losses to come are inserted at the beginning of each section in what seems to be an effort to pull the reader through.  Whether this betrays a lack of confidence in herself as writer, or myself as reader, I’m not sure, but so frequent was her use of the device that I became quite irritated.  It was a clumsy anomaly from an otherwise gracious and intelligent pen.  I questioned Hay about it at a recent book signing.    She explained that she wanted to convey a sense of time: that characters cannot only be placed in the present; the past tugs at us all as does the future which is impossible to resist.  Seen in that light, her insistent use of foreshadowing has its logic.  However, this reader would have preferred lighter penstrokes.  

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