book review

Here’s to memories: a review of The Truth about Luck by Iain Reid

What’s a freelance writer who is a bit short on cash to do when his brother bails on their customary joint gift for Grandma’s birthday? If you’re Iain Reid, you follow said brother’s advice and give your grandmother a gift uniquely suited to you: time. The Truth about Luck is Reid’s memoir of the week he and his grandma took a staycation together. It’s an unassuming premise that unfolds into a quiet, funny, and insightful book.

Truth About Luck

“Grandma slowly brings her glass up, asking for a cheers. I clink hers with mine. ‘Here’s to stories,’ she says. ‘Old and new.’
‘And memories,’ I say.
She holds up her glass a moment longer as I take my sip. ‘Yes, she says, ‘and to not letting them go to waste.'”

– The Truth about Luck, Iain Reid

What’s a freelance writer who is a bit short on cash to do when his brother bails on their customary joint gift for Grandma’s birthday? If you’re Iain Reid, you follow said brother’s advice and give your grandmother a gift uniquely suited to you: time. The Truth about Luck is Reid’s memoir of the week he and his grandma took a staycation together. It’s an unassuming premise that unfolds into a quiet, funny, and insightful book.

Reid offers to take his 90-year-old grandmother on vacation for a week to celebrate her birthday. He doesn’t mention that due to cashflow issues, the vacation is going to take place in his apartment in Kingston, a couple of hours away from her home in Ottawa. Grandma doesn’t mind, though. In fact, she tells him that all her friends simply couldn’t believe he was doing such a nice thing for her. Reid’s guilt and neuroses that he can’t show Grandma a better time are overwhelmed by her relentless optimism and genuine pleasure at spending time with her grandson. They roadtrip together from Ottawa and over the course of the week go out for dinner, enjoying reading on rainy afternoons, take a ferry out to Wolfe Island, and find their conversation flowing more and more freely.

Continue reading “Here’s to memories: a review of The Truth about Luck by Iain Reid”

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interview

“When we explore the past we are always inventing”: An interview with Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay at the Appel Salon, Toronto. Photo © Alex Hoffman.
Guy Gavriel Kay at the Appel Salon, Toronto. Photo © Alex Hoffman.
River of Stars

Guy Gavriel Kay has been writing epic stories for many years. From the high fantasy of The Fionavar Tapestry to magic-tinted analogous histories in TiganaA Song for Arbonne, and The Sarantine Mosaic duology, Kay’s style weaves together sweeping narratives with poetic, pitch-perfect writing.

In his new book, River of Stars, now available from Penguin Canada, Kay returns to the land of Kitai, which he first introduced in Under Heaven. In a setting based on Song-Dynasty China, we meet the ambitious warrior Ren Daiyan, a second son who wants to win military glory and take back lands long lost to Kitai, and Lin Shan, a woman educated by her father in a way that only boys are allowed. Poet, songwriter, and thinker, Shan must navigate a society that wants her to be much less than what she is. As the face of Kitai shifts once more, as war looms and “barbarians” encroach, Daiyan and Shan move and are moved by the currents of history. . .

I have always been fascinated with the way you tell stories in worlds close to our own but a little removed: something like medieval Italy in Tigana, Moorish Spain in The Lions of al-Rassan—a world you revisited in the Sarantine Mosaic duologymedieval Provence in A Song for Arbonne. Can you talk a bit about how you choose time periods and geographies, and why you set your books in (historically accurate and meticulously researched) analogues rather than the actual historical places in our own world?

Huge, very good question. I’ve done speeches and essays on this, so a sound bite is hard! Certainly there is no rule or formula for “where I go” in a next book. So far (knock wood) I seem to always end up with a time and place that fascinate me. I do that “quarter turn to the fantastic” for many reasons (see “speeches and essays,” above!). One is that I am not happy about pretending I know the innermost thoughts and feelings of real people. I don’t like “piggybacking” on their fame (or even taking obscure people and allowing myself license from that obscurity). I find it creatively liberating and ethically empowering to work in the way I do. There’s a shared understanding with readers in this: that when we explore the past we are always inventing, to a degree. I also like how a slight shift to the fantastic allows me to sharpen the focus of the story towards those themes and elements I want the reader to experience most clearly, and I can even change things, keeping even those who know the history on their toes!

Art by Li Gon-lin.
Art by Li Gon-lin.

Continue reading ““When we explore the past we are always inventing”: An interview with Guy Gavriel Kay”

literary event

The Event: Guy Gavriel Kay at Toronto Reference Library’s Appel Salon

Guy Gavriel Kay. All photos in this blog © Alexander Hoffman.
Guy Gavriel Kay. All photos in this post © Alexander Hoffman.

A day that takes a quarter-turn to the fantastic…that’s how I would describe April 4th.

It took me a week to write about this event because I needed enough distance from it to say something more interesting than “Eeeeee!” We all have those particular authors, don’t we? The ones we’ve just discovered, or the ones we’ve loved all our lives, whose writing moves us, whose imminent new books make us tingle with glee and anticipation. I’ve had the privilege of meeting several authors from my own superstar pantheon, but I’d yet to have a chance to meet Guy Gavriel Kay, whom I have read and loved for more than fifteen years. With the release of his new book River of Stars, the Bram and Bluma Appel Salon series rectified that for me by presenting a wonderful evening with Mr. Kay and Chatelaine books editor Laurie Grassi.

With the exception (the exceptional exception, one might argue) of the high fantasy of the Fionavar Tapestry, Guy writes books that are deeply steeped in history and geography, writing in settings that are based on, but are not, in our world–settings similar to Moorish Spain, medieval Italy, and Viking invasions of Saxony. In his 2010 novel Under Heaven, we encounter the land of Kitai, based on China during the Tang Dynasty. In his new novel River of Stars, we are returned to Kitai some 400 years later. In conversation with Laurie Grassi, Guy discussed River, history and his not-quite-historical settings, what moves him to write, and–what else?–baseball.

Continue reading “The Event: Guy Gavriel Kay at Toronto Reference Library’s Appel Salon”

interview, Saturday Sundries

“Evil needs a doorway into our world”: An interview with The Demonologist’s Andrew Pyper

Andrew Pyper. Photo by Don Denton, LiteraryPhotographer.com
Andrew Pyper. Photo by Don Denton, LiteraryPhotographer.com
Demonologist

In Andrew Pyper’s The Demonologist, (available March 5th) Professor David Ullman discovers that demons exist—and that they are the reason his beloved young daughter has been taken from him. I recently talked with Andrew about the bread crumbs his protagonist must chase, and the world of emotional horror that opens before him. . .

What brought about the genre shift to horror?

In hindsight—because all of this is hindsight when I talk about the “category” of the book, it’s all post-facto analysis—I was just following my nose in a narrative way and going where the story took me. But I think, why did it take me there? Because I’ve always been interested in the supernatural. It appears glimpsingly through almost all the previous novels, but in a kind of partial way. And this story demanded, because it entertains the possibility of demons existing alongside us in the real world, the creation of an entire world. Whereas the previous novels required people putting up a forbidden window, this is like, no, no, you have to build an entire premise whereby all human action will be infused with the supernatural companionship with demons. So once I recognized that, it felt quite liberating. I didn’t feel like there was a constraint of rules—although you can’t go that far, because that would make it a different kind of book. There was no sense of rules that might be broken.

It’s interesting to me, the idea of demons living alongside us. You play with this Miltonic idea of Hell not being a physical place, but living in us and alongside us. Unlike, say, in a movie like Constantine, where Keanu is transported to Hell, in The Demonologist we have these hellish things happening in our minds and all around us. Is that a conscious choice to stick with this Miltonic idea? What brought about this vision of Hell for you?

It is in part born because Milton is obviously an influence on the novel, a text that I used both thematically and to a degree mechanically, but I think that commitment, that is, the commitment to realism, having the story take place in the real world with these impossible supernatural beings moving through it, that was just an aesthetic choice of my own. I love horror and I love fantasy, but when it comes to those kind of stories, I’m definitely on the muted, restrained “keep it real” end of the spectrum. I know some people are like, “No, if you’re going to talk about Pandemonium, why don’t you take us inside Pandemonium? Let’s see the floor plan.” Mine’s a more internal, psychological Pandemonium. That’s just what I prefer. I personally like those kind of stories, like Rosemary’s Baby, where this is a story about the Satanic but it actually takes place in present-day New York.

Charles Grignion (engraver) after Francis Hayman, illustration to Book VI of Paradise Lost (1749), engraving.© Christ's College Old Library
Charles Grignion (engraver) after Francis Hayman, illustration to Book VI of Paradise Lost (1749), engraving.
© Christ’s College Old Library

Continue reading ““Evil needs a doorway into our world”: An interview with The Demonologist’s Andrew Pyper”

book review

The haggis did it: a review of Eleven Pipers Piping by C.C. Benison

Murder doesn’t take a holiday in C.C. Benison’s Father Christmas Mysteries. In Eleven Pipers Piping, the second in his new series, Father Tom Christmas just can’t seem to find the “quiet” part of a quiet country life.
Tom, a widowed vicar, is still settling into Thornford Regis, his home for the past ten months. He’s moved himself and his young daughter Miranda to the tiny village in the wake of his wife’s unsolved murder in order to get them away from violence.

Eleven Pipers Piping

 “Dear Mum,
Something dreadful has happened—much, MUCH worse than my troubles with the Yorkshire pudding.”

 Eleven Pipers Piping, C.C. Benison 

Murder doesn’t take a holiday in C.C. Benison’s Father Christmas Mysteries. In Eleven Pipers Piping, the second in his new series, Father Tom Christmas just can’t seem to find the “quiet” part of a quiet country life.

Tom, a widowed vicar, is still settling into Thornford Regis, his home for the past ten months. He’s moved himself and his young daughter Miranda to the tiny village in the wake of his wife’s unsolved murder in order to get them away from violence. But death seems to find them. In the first installment, Twelve Drummers Drumming, a young woman was found dead and stuffed inside a Japanese taiko drum. This time around, Father Tom has been asked to officiate at the annual Robbie Burns’ Night dinner.

And he’s not terribly pleased about it. While he doesn’t want to alienate any of the influential townsfolk, he also really, really hates haggis and bagpipe music. Still, off he goes, only to be snowed in with half of the titular pipe band, the family who owns the inn, and a mysterious stranger (of course!). But all does not end well for this particular feast, for Will Moir, the hotel’s proprietor and member of the pipe band, turns up in his tower study dead—poisoned, to be specific.

Continue reading “The haggis did it: a review of Eleven Pipers Piping by C.C. Benison”

book review

Is that a tiger in your lifeboat or are you just happy to see me? Life of Pi, by Yann Martel

Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, is a classic, blockbuster, prize-winning, internationally renowned book that came out a decade ago. So why am I reviewing it? To answer the question “Should I read this book?”

“The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn’t that make life a story?”

Life of Pi, Yann Martel

Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, is a classic, blockbuster, prize-winning, internationally renowned book that came out a decade ago. So why am I reviewing it? To answer the question “Should I read this book?”

I, like a few other souls out there, had not read this book when it first came out. This was for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that the longer I went without reading it, the firmer I had an idea of what the book “was” in my mind. I’d heard enough people, mostly those who didn’t like it, say things like “oh, the entire thing is about some kid and a talking tiger in a rowboat.” Sounded boring, and pretentious, and capital-w Writerly to me, so I took a pass. But with the upcoming film release (which I review here), coupled with the fact that I quite liked Martel’s Beatrice & Virgil, I decided this summer that it was time to give Life of Pi a try.

Continue reading “Is that a tiger in your lifeboat or are you just happy to see me? Life of Pi, by Yann Martel”

book review, short stories

Absences and memories: a review of Dear Life by Alice Munro

This review has taken a long time to write. How do you review Alice Munro? It’s akin to being an art critic who looks at the Mona Lisa in order to write a review—only this is a brand new work, not an age-old classic.

 “People were always saying that this town was like a funeral, but in fact when there was a real funeral it put on its best show of liveliness. She was reminded of that when she saw, from a block away, the funeral-goers coming out of the church doors, stopping to chat and ease themselves out of solemnity.”

 “Corrie,” from Dear Life, by Alice Munro

This review has taken a long time to write. How do you review Alice Munro? The task is akin to being an art critic who looks at the Mona Lisa in order to write a review—only this is a brand new work, not an age-old classic.

I’m always a bit twitchy when a new work comes out from an author I love. What if it doesn’t live up to my expectations? (See, for example, J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. I may review that book here if I ever force myself to finish slogging through it.) I needn’t have worried, though. In her latest collection, Dear Life, Munro surpasses herself. This is a gathering of stories set mostly in rural Ontario (“Munroland”), mostly in the not-too-distant past, that are as much about what is remembered by the narrator as what isn’t, as much about what is left out of the story as what is brought into it. This book is a work about the shifting nature of memory and the way we build and rebuild our own narratives.

Continue reading “Absences and memories: a review of Dear Life by Alice Munro”