Friday, October 31, 2014


Several years ago, I developed a list of requests to have followed for me in the event I was unable to make decisions for myself. Then things changed. Over the last two years I have visited more retirement homes, nursing homes, and hospitals providing eldercare than I care to remember. I saw and spoke to older men and women who were alert, and enjoying their lives. I also saw older people, whose minds were deteriorating, and those who now spent most of the day sleeping. Then my parents moved into a retirement home. I revised my end of life requests in response to what I saw.

I wish that I had read Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End before the events of the last few years. I’ve been reading his work for years, and think of him as the checklist doctor, who wrote The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right.  After Gawande observed a number of problems develop during the course of surgery in hospital operating rooms, he developed a checklist procedure which is now in place in many hospitals. Before an operation proceeds, the checklist involves each doctor and member of the operating team introducing themselves to each other, and describing what each member of the team is responsible for.

In Being Mortal, Gawande has examined something that many of us put off until it is too late. The gasps in the movie theatre during Michael Haneke’s film Amour, as Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) kills his beloved wife, Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), after she has become incapacitated by a stroke, suggest that many of us have not thought through “what matters in the end.” What will matter in the end, for the largest generation in history, the aging boomers, will loom very large for that generation. 

If you were born between 1946 and 1964, this is a book for you. If you’re a boomer, plan now—the last thing we need is retirement and nursing homes full of old boomers who didn’t make their end of life plans. Gawande’s book contains few examples of those who planned, and many examples of those who didn’t plan for the decisions necessary as the end of life approaches.

Talk to your parents about what they want. Talk to your partner. Talk to your kids. And do it soon. “Death has a thousand doors to let out life.” Read Being Mortal, and sort out what matters in the end, with whoever may be there for you, as you approach that last door. Before it’s too late. Gawande’s Being Mortal is a clearly written, deeply informed, and compassionate book.

And by the way, one more little thing for you guys who have stopped updating the Boomer Deathwatch site.


Sunday, October 26, 2014


There’s a good way to market a novel, and then there’s a bad way. Jessie Burton’s debut novel, The Miniaturist, is a victim of the latter, and it’s really too bad, as The Miniaturist is a fine piece of literary fiction . . . but therein lies the problem.

It’s sometimes said that genre fiction resolves and literary fiction resonates. Such is the case here, where the story of 18-year-old Nella Oortman, who’s just begun a new life in the city of Amsterdam after marrying merchant trader Johannes Brandt, winds its way toward an ending that is far more thematically satisfying than a piece of genre fiction usually is. On the flip side, however, its plot resolution is . . . well, a bit light, as knots are left untied and questions left unanswered. But the novel’s conclusion is intentional and not a flaw in the design.

The problem here revolves around the titular miniaturist who is commissioned to build a fully-furnished, cabinet-sized replica of Nella’s new home. As the novel progresses, this elusive miniaturist crafts more and more tiny replicas, though now of the people living inside the home. These new creations, however, mirror their real-life counterparts in sometimes surreal ways. As the blurb on the back of the book asks, “Does the miniaturist hold their fate in her hands? And will she be the key to the inhabitants’ salvation or the architect of their downfall?”

Sounds like a thriller, doesn’t it? But The Miniaturist most assuredly is not. The prose is vibrant and rich, and the characterization is complex and colourful, which aren’t characteristics exclusive to literary fiction, to be sure, but it does suggest that this is a serious work of fiction, as opposed to a silly story about a doll maker out for blood or some other such nonsense. Trouble is, you wouldn’t know it from reading the blub on the back of the book.

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


Let me begin this review by saying that this is simply one of the best fantasy books I have ever read. Alternatively humorous, dark, and saddening, Chris Evans' new novel is an exercise in the futility of warfare and the desperation of those involved in it.

We begin in a hot, steamy jungle with a troop of tired soldiers fighting against barely seen enemies for a kingdom whose politics are in turmoil. Evans here does a good job conveying the soldiers despair and exhaustion at doing this, especially as they tramp all over the mountain to find their foe, named “slyts” after their word for hello. Eventually, we are introduced to other characters, such as wizards, dragon pilots, and dwarves as each contributes their own viewpoint on how the war is going.

As I read, I encountered many similarities between Of Bone And Thunder and Harry Turtledove's “World War" Series; for those unfamiliar, a series of fantasy novels paralleling World War Two. While Turtledove's novels dealt with the higher up, influential people, Evans' novel is told mostly from the viewpoints of ordinary soldiers. This gives the whole book a much grittier, honest feeling. We can sympathize with these men and the stupidity of their officers and their yearning to go home.

Of Bone And Thunder has previously been called a reflection of the Vietnam War, and that comparison is clear when reading this book, from the obvious (the setting of a jungle) to the not-so-obvious (such as the fact of the slyts firing arrows at the incoming dragons, reminiscent of how Viet Cong soldiers would attempt to shoot down American aircraft). The best part of the novel has to be the death scenes. While these are common enough in both war and fantasy novels, usually there are a few major deaths surrounded by those simply created to be a body count. Not so in this novel. It is a tribute to Evans' writing that he can make the death of every character have an emotional impact, even those that died 'offscreen' as it were.

Of Bone And Thunder is heady, heavy novel and definitely not for the light-hearted, casual reader. But if you're looking to sink your teeth into a novel with something to say and a brutal way of saying it, definitely give this one a read.

Robert Green is a confirmed bibliophile and aspiring writer whose love of sci-fi has caused him to own many more books than he has physical room for. He is also the owner and creator of the up-and-coming company Verity Books, which can be seen at various cons throughout the year. Any questions or comments can be sent to or

Monday, October 20, 2014


What could be more storybook perfect than the romance of a one day fling with a charming, intelligent Parisian? (Shades of Before Sunrise for you film fans out there.) Samantha Verant’s memoir of her one day crush re-discovered 20 years later is a girl's princess dreams come true. This tale of the all American girl, now woman, teetering on the brink of a mid-life disaster is chat show territory.

Sam has lost her job to the global recession, her marriage to neglect and trust issues, and she needs a shakeup, a make-over, a hero! A girlfriend’s reminder of their glorious final day in Paris has her digging out the old unanswered love letter pile and the letters serve as the pulse of lost love to drag our heroine back to the land of hope. Jean-Luc’s beautiful love letters lift the narrative to a more personal and heartfelt place and you find yourself cheering for the gallant who so clearly left his heart with the hesitant 19 year old Sam on a train platform in Paris.

There is nothing surprising about the book: it charms your heart like a light wine or memories of your own first love or romantic travel adventure and therefore it’s a treasure. Too soon we cast off those Disney-like fluffy pink dreams and don’t believe in happy endings. Sam finally gets her sexy French rocket man--complete with the normal complications of modern life: ex-spouse, kids, and long distance relationship. I could have lived without the bridal magazine list of wedding day décor preparations, but the fillip of a modern day turnaround romance is just too delicious to miss.

- Rosslyn Bentley


Jane Austen (1775-1817) is, arguably, a household name. Adaptations of her writings and biography abound, albeit in varying degrees of faithfulness to the original. Film, mystery novels, musicals and even a video game focus on “Jane” or are inspired by her. Add to this the perennial academic interest in her works, and Jane Austen achieves the status of one of the most widely read authors in English literature.

Yet Jane Austen’s works have never taken the public by storm. She published only four novels while she was alive — Sense and Sensibility in 1810; Pride and Prejudice in 1811; Mansfield Park in 1814; and Emma in 1815. Then, only months after her death in 1817, her family published Northanger Abbey and Persuasion together.

This publication record––suggesting that Jane started writing late in her life, was prolific, and had great publication success––doesn’t do justice to the story of Jane Austen and her writing career. At various times she was able to earn significant income––for a writer and a woman at that––but it was sporadic and she lived all of her life with her immediate family whose financial situation was precarious. The Austens were, however, part of the landed gentry that Jane writes about, and often parodies.

By the 18th and 19th centuries, “landed gentry” no longer meant “nobility,” or even reliably indicated land ownership––the form of wealth considered more prestigious than that achieved through business affairs or work of any kind, beyond certain esteemed positions in the military, the clergy, and the diplomatic or judiciary system. The term did, however, still signify upper classes in Britain and carry with it prestige.

Jane Austen’s writing, focusing as it does on the trials and tribulations of such a privileged class, can appear trifling and even a bit tiresome. But the window she provides into the life of her times, along with her veiled political commentary, is deceptively revealing. She wrote anonymously for much of her career, no doubt to avoid the criticism that her biting irony could attract. When her brother published a biography of Jane, after her death, interest in her work increased. The six novels by Jane Austen have not been out of print since their appearance in a collected edition in 1833.

The publication, in 2013, of Jane Austen’s Manuscript Works adds a new dimension to any analysis of her writing. Because it’s a book by scholars, perhaps thinking they are writing mostly for scholars, little thought seems to have been given to a more scintillating title. It could just as well be called Naughty Jane or What Was Jane Austen Thinking!?

And therein lies the beauty––and fun––of this book that one can only hope will find a place beside the novels, as well as on the critical theory or textbook shelves. Jane Austen’s Manuscript Works is really a collection of her short stories, written when she was very young, along with a novella, and two novels, one unfinished, that follow chronologically. Anyone familiar with the published novels will recognize many of Jane Austen’s themes in these earlier works, particularly the antics caused by strict class structures and the fate of young women whose families can’t afford to leave them well-off. The “pride and prejudice” involved in social relationships is especially obvious in the role of marriage as a strategic alliance more often than as a coming together of lovers.

But after these basic common concerns, the unpublished early works are a source of surprise and amazement.

Consider the story of Frederic and Elfrida, betrothed for some years but held back from marrying by Elfrida’s indecision, or what might have, at the time, been called her modesty:

Elfrida, who had found her former acquaintance were growing too old and too ugly to be any longer agreable, was rejoiced to hear of the arrival of so pretty a girl as Eleanor with whom she was determined to form the strictest friendship.

But the Happiness she had expected from an acquaintance with Eleanor, she soon found was not to be received, for she had not only the mortification of finding herself treated by her a little less than an old woman, but had actually the horror of perceiving a growing passion in the Bosom of Frederic for the Daughter of the amiable Rebecca.

The instant she had the first idea of such an attachment, she flew to Frederic and in a manner truly heroick, spluttered out to him her intention of being married the next Day.

To one in his predicament who possessed less personal Courage than Frederic was master of, such a speech would have been Death; but he not being the least terrified boldly replied, “Damme Elfrida––you may be married tomorrow but I won’t.”

This is the voice of 12-year-old Jane Austen, writing in 1787.

The burlesque nature of Austen's writing is constant throughout the juvenilia and although it lessens as she matures, the writing all of the works in this volume are cutting and direct.

Here is another short excerpt from the juvenilia, this time from Henry and Eliza, Eliza having stolen money from her adoptive parents, run off with the lover of her next guardian, being destitute after a jail term and returning to her original benefactors who are reconciled with her after the following explanation from the mother to the father :

Four months after you were gone, I was delivered of this Girl, but dreading your just resentment at her not proving the Boy you wished, I took her to a Haycock and laid her down. A few weeks afterwards, you returned, and fortunately for me, made no enquiries on the subject. Satisfied within myself of the wellfare of my Child, I soon forgot I had one, insomuch that when, we shortly after found her in the very Haycock, I had placed her, I had no more idea of her being my own, than you had, and nothing I will venture to say could have recalled the circumstance to my remembrance, but my thus accidentally hearing her voice which now strikes me as being the very counterpart of my own Child’s.”

Between 1786 and 1793, Jane writes stories that she divides into 3 volumes (exercise books, really; now called her “Juvenilia.”) The family performed theatre works at home and Jane read her stories aloud to their delight. She takes a seemingly wicked pleasure in describing those who drink too much, especially women “who had partaken too freely” of the claret. Genteel conversation is, rather, “pumping her with so much dexterity” and “the elegant manners of Lucy” include her harassment of a “gentleman” with constant letters offering her hand to him in marriage, followed by her arrival at each of his homes, culminating with her being caught in a trap set in the gardens of his country house.

Although her family would for decades after her death promote her character as that of “good aunt Jane,” a docile, genteel person, the manuscript works reveal not only a record of how she created her novels, but also a surprisingly open and scathing analysis of the plight of women whose only chance for security revolves around their ability to attract a wealthy husband. The great opening line of Pride and Prejudice––“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”––rings with clearer irony after reading pages of the Juvenilia.

Jane Austen’s Manuscript Works includes approximately half of her Juvenilia, all of her later fiction––a novella called Lady Susan, an early draft of a novel, left untitled but now referred to as The Watsons, and her final novel, also untitled, but known as Sandition––along with appendices that provide some of her letters, fragments of earlier drafts of the works, along with an excerpt from Mary Wollstonecraft’s Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), and a review of Emma by the one of the most famous writers of the time, Walter Scott.

The simple clarity of the book is also a credit to the editors’ introductory essay, which provides interesting context and an illuminating guide through the book. They have all produced other detailed, scholarly works. Linda Bree is Editorial Director, Arts and Literature at the Cambridge University Press and the editor of the Broadview Edition of Jane Austen's Persuasion. Peter Sabor is Professor of English and Canada Research Chair in Eighteenth Century Studies at McGill University, and the editor of the Broadview Edition of Sarah Fielding's The History of Ophelia. Janet Todd is President of Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge and the co-editor of the Broadview Edition of Charlotte Smith's Desmond.

A sample of Austen’s handwriting on the cover of the book makes clear the contribution the editors have made: anyone who enjoys the works of Jane Austen will delight in these new stories, now approachable in easily readable form. The footnotes, far from being dense and never slowing down the narrative, add often hilarious explanations of Jane’s double meanings and constant word play. Her vocabulary is rich and her allusions to other works of the time show her to be highly literate and well read, itself an indication of the changing times in which she lived.

Sense and Sensibility, first edtion
While there is much debate about when the novel form first appeared––some arguing for its roots in ancient Greece and Rome––the new forms of printing that developed in Austen’s lifetime made books more affordable and increased the number of novels available. And increased accessibility, along with the rise of the middle class with its increase in resources of both time and money, went hand-in-hand with increased literacy throughout the population.

But another major force in Austen’s lifetime also has an impact on how we view Austen today. The few references in Austen’s works to military and political events makes it easy to forget that Austen was writing before, during and after the French Revolution and that for most of her life France and Britain were at war. And it has been said that the French Revolution––happening outside Britain––was the most important event in British history. It’s not that Austen was untouched by the Revolution: two of her brothers were in the Royal Naval Academy, another was in the Militia and her cousin Eliza’s husband––the French army officer, Jean-François Capot de Feuillide, was guillotined in Paris in 1794. Eliza later married Austen’s brother, Henry.

Not only were events of the French Revolution personally felt by Austen, but she was in the midst of the Romantic Period of British literature, for which the French Revolution was a major concern. It’s easy to forget that Austen was born just five years after Wordsworth and three after Coleridge. Although Austen is relentless at exposing social issues and the twists and turns of fate that have more to do with class and money, there is little of the Romantic concern for the limitless potential of the human being, what my professors called man’s sharing in the Godhead. Being female and poor obviously brings the heavens down to earth.

Austen deviates from the Romantic tradition in such a way as to be thought of as, perhaps, anticipating the Victorian era, which is usually considered to have begun with the reign of Queen Victoria in 1837. When we think of Victorian writers most of us would think of Charles Dickens and the “Dickensian” exposure of class differences. He was born in 1812 right near the end of Austen’s life. Scholars also attribute the start of the realist novel, with its seemingly objective narrator, psychologically developed characters, and minute descriptions of the realities of domestic life––to Austen, but they are always thinking of her published works.

That Jane Austen was to successfully engaged both in the development of the realist novel and in anticipating the Victorian concern with class ––while still in her childhood–– is truly amazing.

Reginald Sauvages, PhD, is the nom de plume of a local bibliophile (read: bookworm) who goes on building bookshelves and buying paperbacks for the beach so sand doesn’t ruin favourite clothbound books, even while owning an e-reader.

Monday, October 13, 2014


Surveying plot points in his critical introduction to the 25th Anniversary Edition of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Salmon Rushdie, seeming almost to deny the novel’s 1989 Man Booker Prize win, muses that “[n]othing much happens.” Indeed, the ostensible “high point” of Mr. Stevens’s solitary motor tour into the West Country of early Postwar Britain, suggests Rushdie, is his failed attempt to resolve a “professional matter” by persuading Darlington Hall’s former housekeeper, Miss Kenton (now Mrs. Benn), to resume her prewar post: an overworked butler is unable to relieve a household staff shortage. In short, quips Rushdie, “tiny events.”

The narrative’s surface quietude, however, provides the perfect counterpoint to this story’s muddied depths, just as the cautious formality of Stevens’s travelling clothes serves to accentuate the unseemly disorder into which his servant’s affections have fallen; similarly, the recollection of his father’s pitiful death within a dingy garret must needs be confined behind the simultaneous farewell dinner of Lord Darlington’s “unofficial,” and, as history will soon show, misguided international conference in the softened brilliance of the banqueting hall below. Stevens thereby remembers his grief as little more than cause for employer displeasure. Quickly wiping away his tears, this consummate butler laughs, apologizes. “The strains of a hard day,” he explains. The juxtaposition is devastating.

As physical spaces embody the psychological, Stevens’s movement away from the great house and towards unknown, albeit picturesque country sites, signifies his faint attempt to apprehend something as yet half-imagined and uncertain within himself. Ishiguro’s novel is the portrait of a man who has placed his faith in a way of life that is losing what remains of its former dignity; the codes of reverential service and patronage that undergird the household domestic’s raison d’être have begun to destabilize in view of the traditional oligarchs’ demotion to “gentleman amateurs.” The lately voiceless butler begins to feel, at least subconsciously, the waste born of a choking subjugation. A few rare “off duty” hours’ study of a sentimental romance novel have taken the place of true affection and relationship; even Miss Kenton, Stevens’s closest acquaintance, is observed struggling to release the thin volume from his grasp.

“While it is all very well to talk of ‘turning points,’” affirms Stevens, “one can surely only recognize such moments in retrospect. … [T]here [is] surely nothing to indicate … that such evidently small incidents would render whole dreams forever irredeemable.” To speculate otherwise, he posits, is folly. However, the act of retrospection itself necessitates a mining of the past for such veiled “turning points,” as if one were attempting to account for life’s trajectory; which “tiny events” were, well, not so very tiny after all? When was a look misinterpreted, or a cold word miscalculated? Who mattered most? And what truly remains of the day?

Though a bit of a heel, Abigail Slinger is learning that patience is a virtue, and that one catches more flies with honey.

Sunday, October 12, 2014


The all-seasons beauty and gifts of the Albany River provides a life-affirming backdrop to the colonial cruelty that Edmund Metatawabin reflects on in Up Ghost River: A Chief’s journey through the turbulent waters of native history. What Metatawabin manages to do in this book is reveal his resolve, despite pernicious abuse, to tell his own heartwrenching story and thereby carry many of his St. Anne residential school sufferers with him to the raised consciousness of anyone who reads Up Ghost River.

Metatawabin writes with a deep, sweet honesty about lifelong struggles with the residential school and its everlasting effects. With dignity and fortitude, Metatawabin makes a very difficult subject rise up from the muck of hurtful memories while he shares with us the transformative power of love.

If you want to really get to know the struggle of North Eastern Ontario’s James Bay lowlands Cree as they try to uphold and renew their indigenous values and way of life, read this book. If you want to learn more about our interconnectedness with the flora and fauna of the natural world, read this book. And if you are craving something to feel good about, if you want to read a story about hope and perseverance, Edmund Metatawabin delivers. His unpretentious honesty, understated humour and rediscovered confidence combine in a sharing of personal and societal truths that cannot be denied.

Metatawabin ends his book with thoughtful suggestions as to how all of us, together, can effect change. Whatever your passion for political and social justice, there is a way to get involved.

- Lori Ryan Gray

Monday, October 6, 2014


I have been a fan of Scott Westerfeld ever since I picked up the immensely entertaining Leviathan trilogy. When I heard that he was coming out with something new, I got excited. And I wasn't disappointed. Afterworlds is a fun little novel – or rather, two fun little novel. It's a peculiar book that is split into two halves. One is a story about a girl named Lizzie who gains the ability to travel between the worlds of the living and the dead. The other half is about a girl in our world, Darcy who wrote the novel about Lizzie. In essence, it reads almost like two distinct books, so I shall discuss it as such.

The first half, the 'real-world' aspect, is a lot of fun. Nothing really big-scope happens; there's no world to save, no villain to defeat, no crisis to avert. It is just Darcy going through the process of getting her novel published. As someone who hopes to get their own novel published sometime within the next couple of years, I found it interesting and refreshing. There are moments of humour, moments of stress, moments of indecision -- everything a budding author goes through. There are clever touches in it discussing the Lizzie half of Afterworlds; what the character should do next, where she should go. Some of these do find their way into the Lizzie half; Darcy will decide she likes the sound of a particular word, for example, and in the next chapter Lizzie will find herself using it. It's a very good way of connecting the two halves and one I enjoyed.

The Lizzie half of the book is less good. It is ostensibly a novel written by an eighteen-year-old, and I do give credit to Westerfeld for making it seem as though it actually was. Though this lends credence to the Darcy half, it does detract from Westerfeld's normally fun writing. There are several weak cliches present in the Lizzie half, in particular the character of Yamaraj, a three-thousand-year-old boy whom Lizzie falls in love with. Sadly, since the Lizzie half of the book is told in first person, we scarcely get to know Yamaraj for more than his good looks and rippling muscles, and reading constant repetitions of them gets tiring fast, since his personality isn't very developed to compensate. It does follow the familiar pattern of a YA novel -- identifiable heroine, basic good versus evil climax, and rushed romance -- but o me it just feels like an essay that was written the night before it was due.

I would recommend Afterworlds solely on the basis of the Darcy half of the book. It is constructed so that it can very nearly stand alone from the Lizzie half. And it does have fun moments and interesting thoughts on the publishing process, which is useful to know for those planning on publishing. All in all, not Westerfeld's best work, but one that can be enjoyed as a quick read nonetheless.

Robert Green is a confirmed bibliophile and aspiring writer whose love of sci-fi has caused him to own many more books than he has physical room for. He is also the owner and creator of the up-and-coming company Verity Books, which can be seen at various cons throughout the year. Any questions or comments can be sent to or