Beauty at any cost: a review of The Gallery of Lost Species by Nina Berkhout

Poet Nina Berkhout seeks to explore the nuances of family, beauty, and expectation in her debut novel The Gallery of Lost Species.

Lost Species

“The fixation was with the search for the exemplary paperweight or the valuable Coney Island postcard. While Constance and Viv were off at dance class or stage coaching or vocals, these quests kept him going. My father always brought me along. He said I was endowed with special artifact-finding powers, when all I did was follow him around without discovering anything extraordinary.

– The Gallery of Lost Species, Nina Berkhout

I’m always drawn to tales of difficult families. These multilayered relationships can encompass so much love, pain, and betrayal. Poet Nina Berkhout seeks to explore the nuances of family, beauty, and expectation in her debut novel The Gallery of Lost Species. Constance Walker, a failed actress from France, and her artist/custodian/collector husband Henry struggle to raise their two daughters in the face of their own disappointments. As youngest child Edith grows up, she discovers that love may not be any more real than unicorns, no matter how hard she tries to find either. Using the motif of the unicorn and the quest of cryptozoology to frame a story of addiction, failed dreams, and tested familial bonds, Berkhout has rich material to work with.

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DeeBrief review: Chinese Cooking for Diamond Thieves by Dave Lowry

In this light mystery romp, restaurant critic Dave Lowry doles out an extra big helping of foodie flavour.

Chinese Cooking

“‘And you,’ she said, ‘the aforementioned white guy from Andover, Massachusetts, waltzed into the Eastern Palace here, and they turned over kitchen—wok, stock, and spatula, so to speak—to you?”

Chinese Cooking for Diamond Thieves, Dave Lowry

Tucker is not your average white, upper-middle-class college dropout. He’s obsessed with Chinese culture, speaks passable Mandarin, cooks traditional Chinese food with the best of them, and his chivalrous instincts have gotten him embroiled with Corinne Chang, who may or may not be involved with diamond thieves. In this light mystery romp, restaurant critic Dave Lowry doles out an extra big helping of foodie flavour.

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DeeBrief review: Elizabeth is Missing, by Emma Healey

Eighty-two-year-old Maud knows her friend Elizabeth is missing, but because Maud is elderly and suffers from dementia, no one takes her seriously.

Elizabeth is Missing

“‘Oh, Maud,’ she calls out as I leave the shop. ‘I asked for coffee and you’ve given me tea!’
I walk back through the park. There’s a plank for sitting on, a long sitting plank, by the bandstand that looks toward Elizabeth’s road, and I have a rest, watching a man top up a compost heap. It’s cold and it looks like rain, but I don’t feel like going home yet.”

– Elizabeth is Missing, Emma Healey

What do you do when no one will believe you on a matter of life and death? Eighty-two-year-old Maud knows her friend Elizabeth is missing, but because Maud is elderly and suffers from dementia, no one takes her seriously. After all, she doesn’t remember that she’s been to the shop to buy tinned peaches twice today, or that the man on the phone is angry because she called him but forgot why. But she does know that Elizabeth is missing, and she must gather her failing memory about her to find out why in Emma Healey’s heartwrenching, humourous debut novel. (I had the chance to see her read from and talk about Elizabeth is Missing at IFOA in June.)

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Simultaneously conspicuous and invisible: a review of The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez

Different motivations prompt immigration to the United States in Cristina Henríquez’s ambitious novel The Book of Unknown Americans.

Unknown Americans

“I couldn’t help but think of how in Pátzcuaro Arturo used to come home at midday and sit at the kitchen table, eating the lunch I had spent much of the morning preparing for him. Soft tortillas that I had ground from nixtamal, wrapped in a dish towel to keep them warm, a plate of shredded chicken or pork, bowls of cubed papaya and mango topped with coconut juice or cotija cheese. . . And now this? This was where I had brought him?

– The Book of Unknown Americans, Cristina Henríquez

Different motivations prompt immigration to the United States in Cristina Henríquez’s ambitious novel The Book of Unknown Americans. The Riveras arrive in Delaware from their comfortable, happy home in Mexico with the hope that their brain-damaged daughter Maribel will find help at a special school. The Toros emigrated years ago from Panama. They try to cope with alienation in their new and from their old ones, loss of identity and hope, while finding the profound importance of community.

Unknown Americans plays against the idea of America as the promised land for people running from social or political upheaval, or people running toward a shining dream of success in a different country. For the most part, the legal immigrants of the story have left loving homes, strong cultural and familial ties, and steady jobs, for an uncertain future. Henríquez alternates the point of view between Maribel’s mother Alma and the Riveras’ teenaged son Mayor to move the story forward, interspersing short interludes told from the points of view of other neighbours in the apartment complex.

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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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DeeBrief review: The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals, by Wendy Jones

On a sunny day in a Welsh village in 1924, Wilfred Price finds himself so beguiled by the lemon-curd yellow dress worn by his charming date, he proposes marriage to her—quite by accident.

Wilfred Price

“‘He looked at her fingers which were already purple and bloated, and wondered if Howard Carter had had this problem with Tutankhamun.
‘There was a tomb that Tutankhamun had!’ he remarked to Mrs. Howell-Thomas. ‘Absolutely magnificent!’
“what are you talking about in there, Wilfred?’ said his da, who was sitting on the flowerbed wall, drinking his tea. ‘Are you talking to a corpse again?'”

– The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price,
Purveyor of Superior Funerals, Wendy Jones

On a sunny day in a Welsh village in 1924, Wilfred Price finds himself so beguiled by his surroundings, his picnic lunch, and the lemon-curd yellow dress worn by his charming date, he proposes marriage to her—quite by accident. Though Wilfred tries to take it back, events conspire against him. Grace Reese, it turns out, is secretly pregnant and the proposal is a godsend that will save this doctor’s daughter’s reputation. Word gets out immediately of the proposal (and the pregnancy), and she can’t bring herself to tell her anyone it was a mistake. Wilfred, meanwhile, is a newly minted undertaker, trying to establish himself as a trusted name and grow his business. He can’t afford to tarnish his reputation with rumours either. And when the lovely Flora calls on him to bury her father, he finds himself drawn into a triangle that is deceptively complex.

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All the hovering possibilities: a review of Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

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. neck.

Frog Music

“By evening, the heat of the day has thickened like a smell. P’tit finally falls into a snuffling doze in her locked arms.
A tap at the door. . . Jenny Bonnet, the pool of purple around her eye faded to greenish yellow, the swelling gone down. It was only two days ago when the thug walloped her chez Durand, Blache calculates. That was in Blanche’s old life, before she brought P’tit home.”

– Frog Music, Emma Donoghue

San Francisco, 1876: During an unbearable heat wave and a dangerous outbreak of smallpox, Blanche Beunon bends over to unlace her boots and bullets fly over her head, killing her new friend Jenny Bonnet almost instantly. Blanche is sure her lover and his best friend are behind it, that the bullets were meant for her. Jenny, a prototypical coucher surfer who makes her living catching frogs for restaurants and has done jail time for her habit of wearing men’s clothing, was simply in the wrong place. But can it be more than that? From the notorious House of Mirrors where Blanche dances to Chinatown where she and her lover live, Frog Music draws a picture both bright and bleak of post–Gold Rush San Francsico and brings to life a real unsolved murder.

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