Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Breast Cancer Alphabet

A Breast Cancer Alphabet
By Madhulika Sikka

I approached the book with mixed feelings. Part of me wanted to put it back on the shelf and move on to the fiction section, but my well-honed left brain couldn’t resist passing by an Alphabet guide to any topic. In this case, I was very familiar with the topic and had actually lived through many of the experiences described in the twenty-six chapters.

Madhulika Sikka and I belong to the same club. We are breast cancer survivors.

As I approach the ten-year survivor mark, I struggle to recall the specifics of my journey and often wish I had kept a journal. Reading through A Breast Cancer Alphabet, I found myself nodding and smiling at Sikka’s lively and slightly outrageous commentary. I would love to have read this book while waiting for biopsy results, dealing with the side-effects of chemo and radiation, or simply resting at home.

Like most women who have been diagnosed in the twenty-first century, I was inundated with literature about mastectomies, chemotherapy and radiation. At times, it was overwhelming and I could feel my eyes glazing while reading through the information. It would have been comforting to read short and breezy chapters with such tantalizing titles as E is for Epiphany, I is for Indignities, and P is for Pillows.

In A Breast Cancer Alphabet, Madhulika Sikka provides “a little pick-me-up...for anyone who has been diagnosed with breast cancer and needs a companion.”

After retiring from a 31-year teaching career, Joanne Guidoccio launched a second act as a writer. Her articles, book reviews and short stories have appeared in newspapers, magazines and online. Last month, Soul Mate Publishing released her debut novel, Between Land and Sea, as an ebook on Amazon. You can visit her website at

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Smarter Than You Think

Predicting the future is a strange thing. No sooner do new developments in technology (or anything else, for that matter) arise, than they're accompanied by an entourage of talking heads forecasting either a glorious new dawn or total societal collapse, depending on which channel you're tuned to. In Smarter Than You Think, Clive Thompson takes an optimistic view of the digital technologies of the past two decades. By complimenting our uniquely human faculties, he believes that they may offer us solutions to problems that have long troubled us, and expand our capabilities beyond previously assumed limits.

I was initially concerned that STYT would be a light-weight version of the heady and analytical book by Nick Harkaway, The Blind Giant, especially when Thompson declares that despite the book's subtitle of “how technology is changing our minds for the better”, he decides to wilfully exclude any mention of neuroscience or brain imaging. However, my fears were revealed to be unfounded: not only does he competently defend his decision, but in being selective about the domains addressed, he frees up additional space for in-depth analysis of the societal application of these technologies, rather than parroting a list of contextually divorced lab studies. STYT makes a point that I feel many social commentators miss: technologies (whether paper, pens or the information-sifting chimera that is Google) are tools. It is in our application of them in our daily lives that we derive their positive or negative effects.

In defending this thesis, Thompson draws from a wide array of examples. Some of the most interesting include the usage of programming classes to teach children logical thinking, and to demonstrate the underlying principles of mathematics in a more concrete and meaningful way. Here, the children are shown in real-time how the modification of different variables (in the form of a simplified coding language) create different results on-screen. They guide a small turtle around via the functions students input, and as turtle draws a line (much like an etch-a-sketch) behind it, different inputs will create different “flight paths”, resulting in different pictures. I, for one, wish that these innovations had been around when I was in elementary school.

Examples such as this abound, including the Internet's capacity for creating an ambient awareness of global events, allowing for sociopolitical action on a number of different scales at a speed scarcely fathomable before the information age; the proliferation of smartphone cameras forces accountability on normally unwilling police forces and politicians, for fear that Big Brother is being watched with just as much vigilance by his younger siblings. In all honesty, the book's subtitle may be inaccurate, as Thompson's arguments show that rather than changing the way that our minds work, technology is allowing us to make the most of the cognitive resources we already possess. With the staggering array of tools at our fingertips, the challenge now is to develop the skills to know which is the best to use for a given task. Rather than blaming the tech that we currently use, Smarter Than You Think places the responsibility on our shoulders. It’s up to us to pick the right tool for the job, even if our eventual choice is to forgo modern tech for simpler, analog methods. It is for this shift in perspective, as well as the fair-minded discussion of issues surrounding the development and usage of new machinery, that I believe Smarter Than You Think makes a great addition to any bookshelf.

Vincent Smith is a taoist, aspiring writer, and dyed-in-the-wool psychology geek at the University of Guelph. You can find his writing on video games, comics, movies, and all things geek over at The Rogue's Gallery.   

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Curiosity

Stephen P. Kiernan

Stephen P. Kiernan’s debut novel, The Curiosity, about a man who died in 1906 being revived in modern day America, is being sold as a thriller—a “poignant and thoroughly original” one, at that. But this is not really the case; rather, let’s classify The Curiosity as science fiction. No, not far future, off earth science fiction; this is certainly not Star Wars. On the contrary, The Curiosity is a compelling and thoughtful exploration of the scientific, ethical, and human consequences of reanimating the deceased. In other words, we’re talking old school sci-fi here—a story of scientific discovery.

The novel follows three key members of the Lazarus Project who, after successfully reanimating dead plankton and shrimp, are given an opportunity to up the ante when they discover a man frozen in an Arctic iceberg. Despite the possible moral objections, the frozen man is revived. As we soon learn, the man’s name is Jeremiah Rice, and the last thing he remembers is falling overboard into the Arctic Ocean over one hundred years ago. What will he make of his second chance at life? What will he make of life in the twenty-first century? And how will he respond when one of the scientists responsible for his reanimation falls in love with him?

Smart, evocatively written, and a joy to read, Kiernan’s The Curiosity shouldn’t be missed.

While a glass cutter by day, by night Z.S. Roe spends his time writing fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.  His writings have appeared in various publications, including the Cambridge Times, The Silhouette, and The Toronto Sun, among others.  Most recently, his short story “Peeping Tara” appeared in issue 13 of Dark Moon Digest.  You can visit his blog at

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Empress Dowager Cixi

Empress Dowager Cixi
By Jung Chang

Had a man accomplished just a few of Empress Dowager Cixi’s many farsighted achievements for her immense country, he would have been held up as a hero. Even if he had made more mistakes—Empress Dowager Cixi was inevitably, occasionally mistaken—they would still be passed over silently in the face of the progress, especially in the modernization, and internal reform that she eventually brought about. Jung Chang’s Empress Dowager Cixi is a stunningly good, highly needed revisionist piece of history and historical biography of a figure whose accomplishments in China have been obscured and maligned for over a century, largely because she was simply a woman.

At the root of the adversity Cixi faced was the pivotal fact that she was female. The medieval attitude toward the subjugation of Chinese women rendered them permanently dependent and immobile. There are few societies that had subjected its entire female population to such literally crippling traditions to restrict them to a passive servitude. Just to have lifted the ancient edict in China to bind from birth and thus cripple and permanently atrophy what was left of all women's feet, would have seemed impossible and would not even have occurred to a man had he been in power. But Cixi, after her several returns to power on, or behind, the Imperial Throne, simply outlawed it. As a Manchu amongst the Chinese--the ruling Dynasty was Manchu--she did not have bound feet, but her Buddhist compassion and common sense allowed her to realize the enormous pain it caused. She also removed torture in capital punishment, would that she had been able to end capital punishment altogether, but in China such a thing seems to be truly unthinkable—so far.

Cixi’s story has many villains, most of whom she had the insight and compassion to try to win over with kindness. She seems to have succeeded; some of them became trusted allies. The only antagonist Cixi was never able to get a hold of, who had tried several times to assassinate her, or have her assassinated, she would surely have had executed. Chang amusingly, almost as in a fable, always calls this villain Mad Fox Chang. It is unclear if this is her own invented sobriquet or whether he had already been labelled this way in the histories. He escaped Cixi's clutches, and  joined her worst enemies, the Japanese, with whom he continued to invent calumnies about her that were taken up into the historical account, which this book is trying to correct. The European diplomats heard Mad Fox's lies and reported them back in the courts of Europe where they distorted attitudes there toward the Chinese.

Prior studies of Cixi, like Marina Warner's The Dragon Empress, although sympathetic, were only able to repeat the frequent slanders against her in the accumulated past histories. But, being Chinese, Jung Chan has been able to do her own research and better verify her own sources. It seemed as if we would never get close enough to the facts to understand many puzzling things ascribed to Cixi, but this new account gives a satisfyingly clear picture of its subject and provides enough information to give a convincing idea of what really happened, and the decisions—or worse—the indecisions she faced.

As a very successful author in English, Chang wrote The Wild Swans, which also gives a view of history, in that case of a family negotiating three generations of life in China. She wields a very unique stylish English that bears clear traces of the Chinese mentality informing it and sometimes renders things in a brief bluntness of expression, like playful remnants of pidgin English that seem sometimes to get attitudes across more succinctly, almost pungently, than a more genteel rendering. This applied coarseness is sometimes gently amusing.

It has always been hardest to picture exactly how Cixi, as a woman, was able to bring off her several coups into and back into power, but here we can clearly understand the environment and institutions in place that allowed them. There is wonderful exposé here of the Chinese Imperial system in action, how power was conferred and how it was wielded by the Emperor, all without footnotes or didactic exposition. Chang lets us  understand everything by simply watching it function. There was still a medievally direct, almost fabulous simplicity to the Emperor's authority; Cixi simply acceded to it because there was no one else in that level of the Dynasty who could wield it. Both young 'Emperors' of whom she made herself the proxy were clearly inept, and were in danger of harming the country had they continued in power. This already supposes a very high level of civilized restraint and sophistication amongst the Chinese Court which must have been well aware of the perils and responsibilities of being on the throne, which demanded a life of unstinting service to the demands of the office. Cixi seems to have been the only one there with a true taste for it. She comes now to represent one of the most enlightened despots of history, and her mistakes now only serve to render her more human.

Michael Doleschell keeps mostly to non-fiction, and is deeply devoted to music and culture and never tires of history, and is fascinated by science and the scientific method [as long as they are well explained]. He broadcasts a program of Classical Music for 3 hours every Saturday afternoon from noon till 3 on the U of G's Radio Station: CFRU.

Sunday, November 17, 2013


Jillian Cantor

Margot brings to life the sister of Anne Frank and attempts to construct a life for her as if she had not died in Bergen-Belsen during the war, but rather survived and gone to live in America as Margie Franklin, a Gentile. Jillian Cantor revives the pain and fear World War II caused by following the life Margot Frank could have led and looking at how she could have dealt with the repercussions of living in Nazi territory, hiding in the secret annex, and enduring concentration camps while attempting to live a relatively normal American life in the 1950s. Margot displays how anti-semitism still affected Jews in America after the war had ended and the world had learned of the heinous calamity caused by concentration camps and the severe repressions generated by the Nazi government and a portion of its citizens.

I have always loved learning more about World War II and how it still affects the way we live today. Particularly, the stories that are rarely told and commonly forgotten. With a grandmother who was a just a child during the war and has recounted stories of being hunted down by Allies planes, I know there is more than just two sides to this war. As WWII drifts farther away as the memories of those who experienced it perish and our minds become preoccupied by current events, we need to strive harder to remember it and the tragedy caused by it. Not only by how many lives it cost and damaged, but by how it happened and from different perspectives. Rarely is it mandatory for schools to teach how Germans dealt with the war or how rampant fascism and anti-semitism were all around the world even in the post-war era. It was astonishing to read about how anti-semitic acts occurred in Europe and North America even after the world learned of how the Jewish people were treated during the war. Margot evokes the war in a fresh, but emotional way and looks at how Jews in America, both those who were born there and those who immigrated there after the war, dealt with the war and its aftermath.

Not much is know about Margot Frank except for what Anne provides in her diary, but that does not supply us with the feelings and emotions Margot had about the war and her experience living through it. I feel that it is a terrible misfortune that Margot is constantly overlooked in favour of her sister. A sorrow caused only by the fact that Margot’s diary was never found. A diary that I would have quite liked to read since I identify more with the quiet, sensible Margot than I ever have with Anne. Through reading a fictitious account of her memories in the annex and how she dealt with keeping her identity a secret in the post war world, I felt I got a sense of her character. I also found that though the main plot appears to be how Margot deals with her past life and the effects of the war, it is not the whole focus of the book. What she dealt with and experienced didn’t define her, but became a part of her life. Thus, I read a story about how Margot dealt with her experiences and present day life not about how Anne’s sister lived her live with the war and all of its tribulations hanging over her head. 

After dropping out of university, Madeleine Krucker has decided to spend the year figuring out what she wants to do with her life. Still no where near finding an answer, she keeps coming back to the same conclusion, that reading and writing is her passion. Madeleine thanks the Bookshelf for giving her the opportunity to combine the two things she loves most.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Waking Dark

Robin Wasserman

It's got to be tough being a horror writer these days. Between prolific writers such as Stephen King and the army of companies looking to capitalize on the recent obsession with supernatural creatures, it must be difficult to find an idea that isn't predictable, boring, or re-treaded ad nauseam. While Robin Wasserman doesn't entirely avoid these particular pitfalls, the visceral quality of her prose and rich cast of characters she creates serve to reduce any complaints I have about Waking Dark to minor quibbles when compared to the depth of enjoyment I got from reading it.

Set in the town of Oleander, Kansas, the catalyst for the story of Waking Dark is The Killing Day: a horrific event where five individuals inexplicably took the lives of twelve people before attempting to commit suicide themselves. I say attempt, but only one of the killers survived: Cass Porter has no memory of what occurred the night she smothered baby Owen in his crib, nor any idea why she did it.

Jumping forward a year, she and the soon-to-be ensemble cast of the book are still reeling from the events. Daniel Ghent witnessed a shop full of people gunned down by the normally amiable store owner; then there's Jule, outsider niece to the meth baron of the Southwest (one whose last name isn't White); Ellie is a God-fearing Christian who fears the Devil is at work in Oleander. They are joined by Jeremiah, a high-school football star who watched his boyfriend be fatally mangled, and who now wars with the guilt from keeping the secrecy of their relationship, as well as with own identity. Something violent and hungry is rising within the town, and the five survivors must find out what it is before this primeval force rips Oleander asunder from the inside.

Without spoiling anything, I will say right off the bat that Waking Dark's big reveal is more of a “Yup. Seems about right.”, than a, “OH WHAT? NO WAY.” The plot device is strongly hinted at in the first act, and is given everything but it's own neon-lit runway to point the reader towards the answer. I couldn't help but be a bit disappointed that Wasserman opted for the conventional, rather than the epic swerve I hoped she was setting up. That being said, the world she has created in the town of Oleander is so well-realized that the letdown became largely inconsequential.

I am of the opinion that horror is exponentially more effective when characters are more than bags of meat and blood waiting for a plot device with a machete to come along. To this end, Waking Dark crawls with a sense of dread not in small part because these characters are incredibly well-realized. We get to know their dreams, their insecurities, their neuroses, the impacts that life's events have had upon their view of the world, and how the characteristics that they bring to those events further direct both their own development (as well as the plot). The expression of these traits (or in some cases, the choice to repress expression) is further enriched by the other characters' perception of them. Those secondary viewers, and their reaction to the complimentary or conflicting traits of their fellow cast members create a vast and complex network of genuine human relationship; one that is all the more poignant due to the pointed questions Wasserman asks about the truth underlying human nature.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the chillingly graphic depictions of violence that the author manages to construct. Waking Dark is the literary equivalent of a David Cronenberg (director of The Thing and The Fly) movie: depicting something you've seen a thousand times, but this time, making it bother you on a deep, spine-chilling level. Wasserman's description of the murders on the Killing Day made me flashback to Toby Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre, invoking a dirty, vicious style that feels like having one's mind chained to the back of a rusted pick-up and dragged screaming down fifty miles of bad road. The way that Waking Dark marries unrelenting, Hobbesian violence with a genuine core of humanity makes it an incredibly absorbing read. 

Vincent Smith is a taoist, aspiring writer, and dyed-in-the-wool psychology geek at the University of Guelph. You can find his writing on video games, comics, movies, and all things geek over at The Rogue's Gallery.   

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Born to Run

Christopher McDougall

Born to Run is a wonderful non-fiction book written by journalist and avid runner Christopher McDougall. In it, he documents his journey to track down the elusive Tarahumara tribe in the Copper Canyons of Mexico, in an attempt to understand why his foot hurts and why they can run so very far. Along the way, he meets a host of colourful characters and details the equally colourful history of a number of ultramarathon events. McDougall has a real gift for their description, and his writing is entertaining and highly readable throughout.

In between the events of his narrative, McDougall lays out a well-researched argument that human beings are built for long distance running and that running barefoot is likely to reduce a lot of injuries typically faced by runners, including his own aching foot. His case for the former is more compelling than the latter. It’s unclear how much of his argument for barefoot running is actually supported by scientific evidence, and I wouldn’t recommend tossing your new running shoes in the nearest dumpster just yet, but the argument he makes is an interesting and passionate one.

I am not much of a runner and never have been. Having suffered knee and back injuries in recent years, the thought of ditching my shoes and jogging off down the sidewalk in bare feet gives me nightmares. It’s a testament to McDougall’s motivational and storytelling skill that after completing Born to Run, I was inspired to give it a go.

- Tom Hall

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Politics of the Pantry

Michael Mikulak

Grab your mug of fair trade coffee and a slice of home-baked sourdough bread and dig into this fantastically edifying book. Hamilton’s Michael Mikulak presents the politics of the pantry in a sophisticated and well-rounded way, encouraging readers to think critically about the source of their food and the manner in which it arrives at the table.

Mikulak doesn’t preach about his morals or try to convert the world into locavore vegans. He simply presents a compilation of his and others’ experiences in a factual and thought-provoking manner. I particularly enjoyed reading about his transition from vegetarian to omnivore and his realization that one lifestyle may not be morally superior to the another; there are benefits and detriments to all gastronomic choices. Throughout the book he provides a compelling argument for slow food while exposing capitalist motives and the promotion of “natural” and “organic” food through pastoral images. He highlights that these images rarely, if ever, match the realities of the situations.

Upon reading this book, readers will be compelled to examine their own lifestyles and make smarter choices at the market or grocery store. I certainly noticed a heightened awareness while shopping, which manifested itself in an increase in local vegetables and a total lack of processed items in my basket.  Mikulak recognizes that the luxury of buying local and spending more time and money on food may not be plausible for everyone. But he insists that even one small change is helpful if we hope to save the world we’ve been exploiting with our capitalist mode of agriculture.

I can’t stop talking about this book, both from a political standpoint and an agricultural one. This is a must read for consumers seeking insight into the politics behind their culinary choices. Bon appétit!

Laura Martin's lifelong addiction to fiction took a back seat when she went to the University of Guelph for Molecular Biology and Genetics. She became fascinated with neurological conditions like Alzheimer's Disease and dementia, and is hoping to attend Dalhousie University in the spring for a Masters in Neuroscience.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Love and Forgetting

By Julie Macfie Sobol & Ken Sobol

With an engaging opening paragraph in a recent column for the Toronto Star, Rick Salutin brought this book to my attention: “At a midpoint in the progress of Ken Sobol’s dementia, his wife of over 40 years, Julie, said: ‘You know it occurs to me there can’t be many people in the world who are writing partners with someone who has dementia.’”

The Sobols were American expatriates who moved to Canada in 1974 because it was a good place to live. They were both writers—Ken had spent 15 years with The Village Voice, when it provided fertile ground for young writers like Manohla Dargis, who now writes for the New York Times, and Peter Schjeldahl, now writing for the New Yorker. In Canada, Ken continued his writing career for a number of years, working for TVO and Elwy Yost’s enjoyable Saturday Night at the Movies.

Ken Sobol begins to exhibit a few mild symptoms at first, such as forgetfulness. Then the symptoms begin to cascade: unfounded fears, staring, nightmares, irrational thinking, tremors, and he begins shuffling instead of walking. As the symptoms worsen, the Sobols visit a number of doctors in attempts to find the cause. Finally, Ken is diagnosed with Lewy Body Disease, a little known condition. It is, however, the second most common form of dementia, after Alzheimer’s.

Eventually Ken is no longer able to write, and Julie continues the story of how Lewy Body Disease slowly devastates her beloved husband’s health. She describes in vivid detail how trying and difficult it is for her to care for him. He hallucinates people in the house who are trying to harm him. He disappears from the house at night. When the situation at home becomes impossible, she describes how difficult it is to find a place for Ken now that he can no longer live at home. At this point in the book, I became deeply thankful for our Canadian health care system. If the Sobols had remained in the United States, it is unimaginable what they would have had to deal with in the American health care system. Notwithstanding Barack Obama’s unfairly maligned attempts to fix it.

If you have ever cared for someone you loved, as they were dying, or if you have aging parents who now need your care and assistance, or if you have accepted that you may be dealing with some of these difficulties yourself, Love and Forgetting is a good guide. It provides a thoughtful and touching example of some of the humour, difficulties, joy, and grief that may accompany what we all will experience—unless we’re hit by a bus. The Sobols’ book is a bracing and deeply moving story. May we all have the love and compassion the Sobols exhibited, in order to deal with whatever inevitabilities we will face.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A Trio of Reviews

Elizabeth L. Silver

The Execution of Noa P. Singleton is a riveting tale where little happens in the present, but the past is revealed in a way that keeps the reader guessing. It is the story of a young woman, Noa, who is on death row. Her tale unravels slowly, driven by characters brimming with human weaknesses, from Caleb, Noa’s father, an ex-con who seems to really want to change and overcome his failures, to Marlene, the mother of the deceased, whose manipulations are the catalyst for disaster, to Noa herself, who refuses to do anything to help herself, and her lawyer, Oliver, who believes he can save Noa’s life.

This is a craftily wrought tale that keeps you wondering until the very last page.

By Ian Thornton

Johan Thoms, in the beginning of The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms, is a bright little boy with a big head, adept at chess, who is an excellent student.  A serious accident on the local Count’s property sets in motion a chain of events that shape the 20th century, affecting millions of people across the world. Befriended by the Count as a young man, Johan enjoys many privileges, some of them lascivious. When he needs a job, the Count arranges a position for him as a chauffeur. On the fateful day in June 1914, he drives for Franz Ferdinand, takes a wrong turn down a dead end and is unable to reverse, changing world history in those few, brief but infinite, seconds.

Interesting historical details are finely woven into this fictional tale of Johan’s inability to deal with the guilt associated with those few moments in his youth. Thornton covers heavy historical material with a light and humorous hand.

Massimo Carlotto (Trans. Antony Shugaar)

At the End of a Dull Day is an understated novel where horrific things happen, all in a day’s work. The protagonist, Giorgio Pellegrini, is a misogynist who has a controlling relationship with his straying wife. While his personal traits may not appeal to a Canadian reader’s feminist ethic, Giorgio has redeeming qualities. He uses his head and his fists in a variety of ways to get himself out of one jam, but they often land him in another. His lawyer, a frequent patron of his restaurant, has defrauded him of his life savings, and the story revolves around how Giorgio attempts to get his money back.

Against a backdrop of tainted Italian politics, there are no dull days in this novel, which is full of deceit, revenge, and retribution.

Elizabeth Dent occasionally puts her book down to work at Ed Video Media Arts Centre and volunteer at various other arts organizations in Guelph. As a local award winner in filmmaking and screenwriting, she would rather be reading.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013


Sarah Beth Durst

Conjured is a very thrilling read that involves both mystery and magic. Sarah Beth Durst combined these addictive and complimentary aspects to create a small masterpiece of a book that readers won’t want to put down.

Eve has no memory of her past. She knows she has been given a new face, name, and home, because she is part of the Witness Protection Program. But there are other things she knows that the WitSec doesn't tell her: her past memories are crucial to solving the murder of the Magician and the multiverse victims. Eve co-operates with the WitSec, but every time she tries to use her own magic, she has chilling visions of the Magician and the Storyteller, and wakes up to find she has lost days, even weeks, of memory and life.

Striking an unlikely friendship with Zachary, who helps her explore her magical boundaries, and spending time with others in the Witness Protection Program, Eve learns more than she’s supposed to, and starts to have doubts about whose side she should be on, and where she is from.

An exhilarating, spellbinding read, Conjured follows Eve as she uncovers her magical and horrific past in order to move forward in life. When the most gruesome news has surfaced (the murders have started again) Eve must choose between running away or risking everything to prove that how we start out in this world does not dictate the person we become.

Readers will love it!

Ellie Young is currently a grade 12 student at Bishop Macdonell. She loves reading with a huge passion, but when not being a complete bookworm, you can find her playing basketball, working, and having tons of fun being a teenager. She also love writing and what better way to practice then by doing reviews for The Bookshelf?

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Longings of Wayward Girls

Karen Brown

Lust. The instinct to reproduce. It’s our most primal urge (besides hunger). In this novel, Karen Brown meditates on the suffering that goes along with love and lust. This is Brown’s debut as a novelist, but Publishers Weekly named her short story collection Little Sinners and Other Stories as a Best Book of 2012.

Set in an middle-class suburb near Hartford, Connecticut, The Longings of Wayward Girls is a psychological novel. The main character, Sadie Watkins, is a thirty-six-year-old stay-at-home mother of two, and she’s grieving her recent miscarriage. In her undone state of mind, she starts an affair with a new neighbour, Ray Filley, a man she’d last seen twenty-four years ago. She senses that something unseemly happened between her mother and Ray when he was a teenager, and that hunch leads Sadie on a journey toward the painful truths hidden in her fuzzy memories of the summer of 1979, the year she turned thirteen. Sadie calls it “that summer,” when everything changed.

Brown’s powerful technique mesmerized me. First, mirroring the rift in Sadie’s memory, the chapters flip back and forth between 1979 and 2003 (the story’s current time). That structure is a hypnotic device; it drew me into Sadie’s world, in which the past often seems indistinguishable from the present. I got the eerie, dreamlike feeling that the past was living itself over again. Second, beyond its psychological effects, the novel excels at description. Heat, thunderstorms, humidity, children’s dirty feet, birds, and insects (especially cicadas)—Brown describes these things in a way that transported me to the essence of a New England summer.

This is a haunting tale, one that will enchant lovers of psychological suspense.

Bob Young's short stories have been published in the literary journals Other Voices, Postscripts to Darkness, and Great Lakes Review. Visit his website: