Buried in the Crackpot file: a review of The Stonehenge Letters by Harry Karlinsky

In The Stonehenge Letters, Harry Karlinsky gleefully blends fact and fiction into what might be the most original book you’ll read this year.

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“I share in confidence that a year ago I chose to will the bulk of my fortune to the formation of a series of prizes. These will be for worthy individuals whose works have benefited mankind…I now plan to will part of my fortune for the creation of an addition prize—to be awarded to the outstanding man or woman amongst these prizewinners who can solve the mystery of Stonehenge.

– The Stonehenge Letters, Harry Karlinsky

Harry Karlinsky gleefully blends fact and fiction into what might be the most original book you’ll read this year. The Stonehenge Letters seems like a straightforward, serious piece of nonfiction about a bit of unknown history. Our narrator, a lifelong Freudian devotee, is researching why Freud was never awarded a Nobel Prize. In the archives, he comes across the Knäppskalle, or “Crackpot” files. Primarily the home of crazy submissions to the Nobel Prize, the narrator also discovers letters and documents from a secret competition: a quest to solve the mystery of Stonehenge. Which mystery of Stonehenge?, you may ask. The vagueness of the question leads to widely different approaches to and interpretations of the question from no less than Rudyard Kipling, Theodore Roosevelt, Marie Curie, and other great minds of the early 1900s.

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The best interests of women: a review of The Massey Murder by Charlotte Gray

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and
Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race
Around the WorldFor author and historian Charlotte Gray in The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master, and the Trial that Shocked a Country, the murder is an access point, a window into Toronto a hundred years ago, and into the changing social fabric of Canada.

The Massey Murder

“Now, within a city and country under stress, Carrie Davies’s actions played into contemporary disquiet about the dissolution of Old World standards of behaviour. Whatever did Carrie Davies think she was doing? Was this the kind of thing that would happen if people didn’t know their place and women were given the vote?

The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master, and the Trial that Shocked a Country, by Charlotte Gray

Carrie Davies would have been one of the countless unknown servants of wartime Toronto if not for her actions on February 8, 1915. An eighteen-year-old  immigrant from a big family in England, she was working to support herself while sending money home. But then she picked up a gun and shot the man she worked for: Charles Albert Massey, of the prominent old Ontario Massey family. For author and historian Charlotte Gray in The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master, and the Trial that Shocked a Country, the murder is an access point, a window into Toronto a hundred years ago, and into the changing social fabric of Canada.

Toronto is my adopted city, the place I moved to in 2008 to continue schooling, to pursue a career and become an adult. It’s the city I know and love best, having learned its streets, its festivals, its hidden restaurant and pub gems, in a way I never did where I grew up: savouring rather than taking the terrain from granted. I also arrived in time for a crippling garbage strike and a mayoral race that, years later, has left city hall in the grip of personal and possibly criminal scandal. I have a fascination for Toronto’s politics and its history. So The Massey Murder is exactly the book I was looking for. Less a focused true crime account and more an examination of class, gender, and history, Gray has written a compelling narrative of the Toronto that was a century ago.

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A review of The Dead in their Vaulted Arches (Flavia de Luce #6) by Alan Bradley

Flavia’s had a hell of a year, finding murdered bodies everywhere from her own garden to the church crypt. She’s met ageing philatelists, ciné folk, fortune tellers, puppeteers, and a flora-archaeologist, all while dealing with being the youngest sister in a family whose mother disappeared when Flavia was only a baby.

Vaulted Arches

“She stuck out a pale hand and touched each of them in turn on the forearm.
As she turned her head Flavia-wards, she gave me 
such a glare!
Feely had the knack of being able to screw one side of her face into a witchlike horror while keeping the other as sweet and demure as any maiden from Tennyson. It was, perhaps, the one thing I envied her.”

– The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, Alan Bradley

The Dead in their Vaulted Arches is a tough book to review without giving too much away. Book five, Speaking from Among the Bones, ended with a major cliffhanger, and this book picks up with a serious plot reveal. Forgive my vagueness, then: I don’t want to ruin the emotional impact for you with spoilers. Within the first chapter, I gasped several times in surprise. In the sixth installment of the wonderfully entertaining Flavia de Luce mysteries by Alan Bradley, our heroine Flavia is now nearly twelve. She’s had a hell of a year, finding murdered bodies everywhere from her own garden to the church crypt. She’s met ageing philatelists, ciné folk, fortune tellers, puppeteers, and a flora-archaeologist, all while dealing with being the youngest sister in a family whose mother disappeared when Flavia was only a baby.

Old questions are going to be answered in this book, but there’s still plenty of juicy mystery. Who is the young man who gives Flavia a garbled message and then winds up dead beneath the train? Why is Winston Churchill there, and what is his cryptic message to Flavia about? Just what were the elder de Luces up to during World War II? And what do pheasant sandwiches have to do with it all?

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Blog Tour: a review of My Heart is Not My Own by Michael Wuitchik

Violent political realities in Sierra Leone and their lasting physical and psychological traumas form the backdrop of Michael Wuitchik’s gritty debut My Heart is not My Own. My Heart is not My Ownneck.

“‘What you nem?’ she asks. It’s more of a command than a question. Her tone reminds me of the child soldiers during the war: pushy, demanding attention. Many of the bush wives, unwanted in their home villages, ended up here in Freetown as prostitutes. The young men had AK-47s to trade for motorbikes—the girls had nothing but themselves.

– My Heart is not My Own, Michael Wuitchik

Violent political realities in Sierra Leone and their lasting physical and psychological traumas form the backdrop of Michael Wuitchik’s gritty debut My Heart is not My Own. Once an emergency doctor working in wartorn areas, Dr. John Rourke has never fully recovered from his experiences in Freetown. Now a respected psychologist in Vancouver, he and his wife Nadia, a Croatian refugee, live in an uneasy present, agreeing never to address the horrors they have each seen. But the arrival of a mysterious package—and the news that Nadia is pregnant with their first child—forces John to face his past.

The parcel in question contains the diary of a Sierra Leonan nurse named Mariama Lahai, whom John worked with. Though John was forced to evacuate the night the rebels took control of Freetown, he has never forgiven himself for abandoning Mariama and their doctor friend Momodu Camara, another Sierra Leonan. In Mariama’s diary, he discovers what happened to her in the months after his departure. The subject matter of the novel, seen mostly through these diary entries, is intensely difficult. This fictionalized account of very real brutality doesn’t shy away from rape, mutilation, torture, and murder during the 10-year-long civil war in Sierra Leone.

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Guest Post by Alex Hoffman: How do people rate Giller Prize winners? 2013 edition!

(adapted from the original 2012 post)

Alex Hoffman, who tweets as @thatguyalex, runs the Metro Toronto Book Club and is the owner of many signed books and even more opinions. With the approach of the Giller announcement this evening, he asked if he could do a guest post. The floor is his. . . 

With the imminent announcement of either Crooked Maid or Cataract City as the 2013 winner, I decided to ruminate on some Giller questions through a guest post here on EditorialEyes.

Do Giller Winners become popular reads?


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The story I am in right now, with you: a review of MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

The end of the world has come and gone, and a handful of humans and post-humans are left in its wake. In MaddAddam, Margaret Atwood returns to the near-future apocalyptic world of Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood to tell us what happens next. Sort of.

MaddAddam

“There’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told. Then there’s what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story too.”

– MaddAddam, by Margaret Atwood

The end of the world has come and gone, and a handful of humans and post-humans are left in its wake. In MaddAddam, Margaret Atwood returns to the near-future apocalyptic world of Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood to tell us what happens next. Sort of.

Before I can talk about MaddAddam, some background: I’ve had a difficult relationship with this series. I love much of Atwood’s wit and cutting social commentaries, especially in books such as The Handmaid’s TaleGood Bones and Simple Murders, and Lady Oracle. I enjoyed Oryx & Crake very much: an allegorical tale that examined transhumanism, genetic engineering, and all-powerful corporations in a mega-capitalistic near future. But then The Year of the Flood arrived, and I was so let down. The neat, clever lessons had been taken away from their allegorical underpinnings and thrust into a real-world setting. Suddenly more characters were operating within the parameters of a world I had never read as “real,” and certain things really grated for me as a reader.

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On the surface: a review of Emancipation Day by Wayne Grady

Windsor, Ontario, may not seem like an obvious setting for a novel, but in Wayne Grady’s fiction debut Emancipation Day, tensions simmer beneath the surface, and things are not always what they seem. Jack Lewis is one of three children born to a working class black family. But Jack is born different—his skin is white.

Emancipation Day

“It felt safe, but it was dangerous for Jack in this house. He was pretty sure Peter and his mother didn’t know anything about his family, but he couldn’t be certain. Peter probably wouldn’t rat on him if he did know, but he couldn’t be sure of that either. The Barnses were white and they were rich, and he didn’t really understand such people, didn’t know what they were capable of, how fiercely they would protect one of their own. Coming to Peter’s house, talking to Peter’s mother, even calling her Della, was like putting his hand  on a hot stove to see how long he could stand the heat.”

Emancipation Day, Wayne Grady

Windsor, Ontario, may not seem like an obvious setting for a novel, but in Wayne Grady’s fiction debut Emancipation Day, tensions simmer beneath the surface, and things are not always what they seem. Jack Lewis is one of three children born to a working class black family. But Jack is born different—his skin is white. Not albino, but to all appearances caucasian. And growing up in the 1930s and 40s across the border from Detroit, this doesn’t make for an easy situation for anyone involved.

Race, family, and identity form the central tensions of the novel, each pulling at and playing with one another. Jack rejects his blackness and, in doing so, his family, passing for white as much as possible. A talented trombone player, he joins the Windsor All-Whites (who are) while rejecting the jazz music that’s rising in popularity particularly among black musicians and music lovers. When he joins the Navy during World War II, he is transferred to Newfoundland and sees the opportunity to distance himself from his family and community entirely. And when he meets, woos, and eventually marries Vivian Fanshawe, he doesn’t inform his new wife and her family of his own heritage.

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