Review: Orenda by Joseph Boyden

Joseph Boyden’s powerful historical war novel, , takes place in the mid-1600 in Lower Canada when First Nations tribes and French Jesuit priests collided with each other in their quest for supremacy. Like all wars then and now, battles were won and lost with gratuitous violence and cruelty. The detailed and vivid description of two First Nations cultures competing for power by any means possible, and the great human suffering and loss of lives involved is haunting and heart wrenching.The staggering human tragedies experienced by the characters involved as told by a Jesuit priest on a mission to impose his religion on a scared and starving people, by a young Iroquois girl whose visions of revenge are transformed into love, and a Wendat leader who comes to the realization that his vindictive actions may have caused the destruction of his people, are heartbreaking and tragic. An absolute brilliant read.



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Review: The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay

This is Moth Renwick’s story, a twelve year  trying to survive life in the slums of Manhattan in the 1870’s, who must decide to be, or not to be, a whore. Abandoned by her father, and sold to an abusive mistress by her mother, she escapes her tormented life as a lady’s maid and ends up sleeping on the street and learning how to steal to survive. Picked up by a whore-in-training, she is recruited by a madam who rescues young street girls and grooms them to become reputable young virgins to be sold to the highest bidder.Although the storyline is interesting, and I do sympathize with the horrors experienced by the poor street children of that era, on a literary level, I found the action a bit slow in some parts. The fictitious posts and poems scattered throughout disrupted the flow of the story and often weren’t connected to what was happening.Overall, I found Moth’s character likeable and courageous, and if I didn’t agree with her decisions, I reminded myself that she was only a twelve-year taking adult decisions. Ami McKay is a splendid storyteller. The Virgin Cure, although not as compelling as her previous work, is certainly a terrific read.



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Review: Stoner by John Williams

It doesn’t happen often that a character pulls at my emotions as much as John Williams, Stoner, did. The ending was so painful I had to close the book before it was finished, and come back to it a few days later to give Stoner a proper goodbye.This is fundamentally a story about the cost of love and the sacrifices and compromises involved. It is about a young man from a hard-working farming family who enrols in an agricultural college program only to fall in love with literature. He must leave his farming world to embrace his new love. He falls in love with the image of a gentle girl and ends up in a loveless marriage. His career as an English professor is stunted when he can’t embrace the politics of the university.Stoner is an ordinary man trying to confront the caprices of love. At the death of his father, he ponders whether life is worth living. “He thought of the cost exacted, year after year, by the soil: and it remained as it had been— … Nothing had changed. Their lives had been expended in cheerless labour, their wills broken, their intelligences numbed.”As he reflects about how fruitless his father’s life had been, Stoner himself thinks back about all his years of joyless teaching. It is only when he defies the status quo and brings his love of literature into his teaching methods that he feels the spring come back in his step. His dying reflections about his life comes with a crucial question— “What did you expect?”—which left me asking the very same thing.

   A profound and essential read!



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Review: The Stone Carvers by Jane Urquhart

Jane Urquhart’s historical novel, The Stone Carvers, is about ordinary people dealing with the aftermaths of the Great War and the building of the Canadian War Memorial in Vimy, France. Set in the backdrop of Bavaria, to the countryside of Ontario, and then to France, the characters go to great lengths to overcome the limitations of their mundane lives by building or sculpting monuments to immortalize their past. Father Gstir erects a great stone church in the woods to proclaim his Bavarian religion; Joseph Becker and his son Dieter sculpt beautiful religious statutes to remember past saints, Walter Allward’s builds a colossal memorial in honour of the lives sacrificed in the war. It is via her talent as a wood carver that Klara Becker is able to pay tribute to her past lover whose body has never been found.There is great movement in the story: immigrants leaving their homes to start over in a new continent, time speeding by and leaving your old self behind—somewhere, some time, you must pause and remember the past or else you will get lost in your journey. Tilman Becker, Klara’s brother who has refused at a young age to be tied to any single place, follows the great flocks of birds as they move over vast areas of the countryside. How long can he survive alone before his past claims him back?This is a novel of powerful imagery—essential reading for the history buff and lovers of redemptive story telling.



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Review: The Siver Chalice by Thomas B. Costain

This historical novel takes place in biblical times and tells the story of Basil, a young sculptor illegally sold into slavery. Because of his talent, his freedom is bought back by Luke, one of Jesus’ apostles. He is commissioned to create a silver chalice that will hold the cup used by Jesus during the last supper. The author presents a detailed account of the  early struggles of Christianity in the time of the Romans. The characters are well done and the plot, more captivating as the story progresses, includes a touching love story. This is the second reading for me, having read and loved it in high school. It has remained an authentic page-turner to be placed on my shelf of classics.



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Review: Of Mice and Men by John Steinback

Rereading, John Steinbeck’s short novel, Of Mice and Men, is like revisiting a master at work. The opening scene presents the two characters in an idyllic backdrop of nature beside the Salinas River: George, a simple migrant worker, with his protégé, Lennie, strong and built like a bull, but with the mind of a four-year-old. This is a privileged glimpse of the two simple characters as they relax and talk of their dream of buying a small house on an acre of land with their earnings on a job they’re going to in the Salinas Valley. The characterization is powerful; within a page or two of dialogue, George and Lennie become full-fleshed characters ready to confront the real dog eat dog world at the ranch. Steinbeck gives us a harsh portrait where the mentally and physically challenged are bullied and exploited; where women are sexual objects, and tough love is a way of life. The weak and sickly are cast aside in this world—survival of the fittest is the way to go.Plot and imagery are tightly woven as the characters lead us to the inevitable ending. Just as Candy, the elderly work hand, regrets not having the courage to do the right thing by his dying dog, George must take a similar stand with Lennie.A touching story told in a masterful voice.






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Review: Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

In Arthur Golden’s novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, we are presented a captivating part of Japanese culture. The story is told as the memoir of an elderly woman who has devoted her entire life to being a successful geisha. We first see her as a poor peasant girl, Chiyo, who is sold by her father into slavery. She will spend her entire youth learning how to please and entertain rich, older men. Sexual exploitation of the young girl is an integral part of her training Appearances are paramount in her trade, so she must learn to camouflage her true self behind thick make-up, sculptured hair, and beautiful silk kimonos as Sayuri the geisha. The young peasant girl, Chiyo, seemed more real to me than the older version of herself as a successful geisha. But then, being real would not make Sayuri a good geisha. Certainly an interesting, historical read.



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Review:The Book Thief by Markus Zuzak

Markus Zusak’s historical novel, The Book Thief, is a heart-wrenching rendition of a sad and shameful era in human history. It’s the story a young German girl, Liesel, who discovers the power of the written word. She first becomes a book thief on the same day her brother dies and her mother hands her over to foster care. While her mother desperately searches for help to bury her child, Liesel discovers a book hidden in the snow: The Grave Digger’s Handbook. She can’t read yet, but she picks it up, and her journey as a book thief begins. This book will shape her destiny.The imagery used to depict the pain and degradation experienced by the Jewish people in wartime Germany is so vivid and stark it will leave you shaken. The discovery of the power of the written word brings joy and a sense of purpose to Liesel’s impoverished world, but she will soon be slapped with the flip side, where words have the power to bring only pain and destruction.Highly recommended. This book cannot leave you untouched.



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Review: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje’s novel, The English Patient, is rendered in a lyrical style that will transport you back and forth from a bombed villa in Tuscany, to the blinding sands of the North African desert, to war time England, and the vibrant era of pre-war Cairo. Told in the multiple points of views of a Canadian nurse, a Sikh sapper, an Italian thief, and faceless, burned Englishman, it breaks most traditional literary conventions, yet it is done with brilliant mastery.

The horrors of war has made the characters reticent to reveal all the details of their past lives. Bits and pieces about themselves are presented cautiously. Sometimes the stories are coloured with the haze of wine or shots of morphine—to reveal too much is to make them vulnerable—not a safe position to be in times of war.This is certainly an important, historical book about the physical and emotional ravages of war, and proof that no one comes out of these horrific times unscathed.



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Review: Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden

Joseph Boyden’s, Three Day Road, is a wrenching historical novel of the day-to-day lives of two young First Nation Cree men who experience the atrocities of the Great War. Xavier Bird and Elijah Whiskeyjack have honed from a young age their hunting skills in the Canadian woods. Their sharpshooting ability makes them standout from the other infantrymen and they soon become expert snipers. Xavier, although the better marksman of the two, prefers to be the silent observer and spots the German targets for his partner. Elijah, on the other hand, revels in the kill, and soon loses touch with reality. Xavier, grandson of a beloved Cree healer and Windigo killer, is torn between the love and loyalty he has for Elijah, and the need to stop his gratuitous killing sprees.Woven into their lives is the story of the medicine woman, Niska, Xavier’s Auntie who has kidnapped him at a young age from the grasp of the Residential School to live on the land with her. She represents the dying Cree culture and must help Xavier heal from the horrors of war, and the ravages of his morphine addiction so he can help his people continue on.This is a tremendously riveting read, not an easy one considering all the realistic and violent images of war, but one that will stay firmly with you.



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