Eclectic Closet Litblog, Book Reviews & Knitting Designs

A litblog dedicated to book reviews/recommendations, as well as literary and publishing news. Now enhanced with knitting designs.

BOOK REVIEW: Ticknor by Sheila Heti


On a rainy night, George Ticknor departs for his friend William Prescott’s dinner party, carrying a pie. During his journey, a lifetime of resentment at his own failure and jealously of Prescott’s success is reviewed as Ticknor deliberates on real and imagined slights, awkward social events and professional failure. Morose, wet and bearing a ruined pie, Ticknor would rather not arrive at Prescott’s but is incapable of returning home with yet another black mark on his character. Through his rambling recollections, a picture of the complex relationship between biographer and subject is drawn.

Ticknor is loosely based on the real-life friendship between historian William Hickling Prescott and his biographer George Ticknor. As author Sheila Heti shared in an interview with her publishers: “I picked up a fake leather-bound book…I opened to the middle and was shocked by what I read – there was something so obsessive and petty about the writer.” Heti walked out of the café with Life of William Hickling Prescott by George Ticknor and the subject for her first novel was found.

Several critics have called Ticknor “Prufrockian” and the comparison makes sense. Like T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” it is difficult to determine exactly what is occurring in Ticknor. Readers are exposed to the seething mass of thoughts, images, emotions and memories running through Ticknor’s head as he makes his way to Prescott’s dinner party. It is unclear if Ticknor is speaking directly to the reader or if he is carrying on an internal dialogue designed to rewrite his own history.

Ticknor is a bitter man and Heti has perfectly captured the obsessive nature of his character, filling the narration with repetition, self-justification, bitterness, hatred, obsession and love. Readers are quickly pulled into the mire that is Ticknor’s mind, leaving the reader in a state of heightened anxiety similar to the one experienced by Ticknor as he steps out his door.

Sheila Heti runs the popular Trampoline Hall lecture series held in Toronto and New York City, which features people speaking on subjects outside their areas of expertise. She has published a collection of short stories, The Middle Stories, and writes for a variety of journals and anthologies. Her musical “All Our Happy Days Are Stupid”, commissioned by Nightwood Theatre and featuring the music of Destroyer’s Dan Bejar, was produced in 2006.

Read the review at Curled Up with a Good Book.

ISBN10: 0374277540
ISBN13: 9780374277543

128 Pages
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication Date: April 4, 2006


BOOK REVIEW: The End of the Alphabet by CS Richardson


Ambrose Zephyr has spent his life playing with letters, first with antique type blocks and later at the advertising agency Dravot, Carnehan. Around his fiftieth birthday, Ambrose fails his medical exam and is told he has one month to live. Hoping to pay final visits to his favourite places, and visit a few on his must-see list, Ambrose and his wife Zappora Ashkenazi (Zipper) embark on a whirlwind trip. On their trip organized from A to Z – Amsterdam to Zanzibar – Ambrose and Zipper keep physically moving while their minds stand still at the momentous news. As their journey leads them to confront the upcoming change in the course of their lives, ultimately Ambrose and Zipper must face the final moments of their marriage.

The End of the Alphabet is the debut novel by CS Richardson, a Canadian book designer. This small gem explores two significant life issues: what makes a marriage and how someone faces their final moments. Richardson handles these age-old issues with gentleness, humour and panache, encouraging his readers to read between the letters for the words unsaid. Richardson provides no answers, allowing the tone and flavour of his tale to speak, and his readers to find their own meaning.

Richardson’s tender words are a masterpiece of balance, yin and yang, Ambrose’s A to Z to Zipper’s Z to A. Beginning and ending with the phrase “this story is unlikely,”
The End of the Alphabet is circular, reflecting back upon itself. In a dream a camel shares an essential truth with Ambrose: “There is no why…Life goes on. Death goes on. Love goes on. It is all as simple as that.”

Richardson’s skill as a book designer is clearly displayed in this small volume. Zipper buys a moleskin notebook to record their travels and the book’s jacket is the notebook, reflecting mementos of the trip – even Ambrose’s camel.

In spite of the subject matter, The End of the Alphabet is a joyful book, full of love. This is a book worthy of frequent samplings.

ISBN10: 0385663404
ISBN13: 9780385663403

152 Pages
Publisher: Doubleday Canada
Publication Date: January 23, 2007


BOOK REVIEW: The School for Husbands by Wendy Holden


Sophie and Mark had the perfect marriage; that is until Mark was made redundant and Arthur arrived, changing their relationship dynamic from couple to family. Now that Sophie has returned to work and Mark must prove himself as the new Director of Sales at Charlatan Publishing, the stress of parenting is tearing apart their marriage. Mark is working long hours and Sophie is convinced he is having an affair, especially since he misses her birthday dinner for a work function.

When Mark fails to come home one night, Sophie’s controlling Mum Shirley whisks her daughter and grandson away. Working in cahoots with Simon, Sophie’s ex-boyfriend (now a multi-millionaire banker from the City), Shirley is determined to see the back of her disappointing son-in-law, and convince her daughter to upgrade to Simon.

Mark however; is not so ready to be dismissed. He still loves his wife and hasn’t been unfaithful, merely thoughtless. In desperation he signs up for the “School for Husbands,” operated by Charlatan’s bestselling non-fiction author Dr. Martha Krakenhaus. He now has two weeks to save his marriage by transforming into the perfect husband, but will it be enough to win back Sophie?

Wendy Holden’s sixth novel, The School for Husbands, further explores the territory mined in Wives of Bath; that is, what happens to a marriage when “baby makes three.” Dr. Martha’s “School for Husbands” presents Holden with limitless opportunities for humour and my favourite scene is the one where the husbands are sent out to exorcise their emotional constipation by telling the residents of Royston Vasey “I love you.”

The School for Husbands works because Holden has refused to fall into the cliche of casting Mark as a villain. He is lovable, if clueless, and she develops his character with understanding. Mark means well and is desperate to provide for his family, throwing himself fully into his work with the result that Sophie is left to manage her own career and Arthur on her own. By showing both sides of the marriage and allowing readers to feel empathy for both characters, Holden allows readers to enjoy the humour and laughter without feeling guilt at liking Mark.

While Sophie, Mark and Simon are the focus, Holden, as usual, has crafted many memorable secondary characters. Sophie’s father James is perfectly drawn. He eludes the machinations of his wife by retreating into the unfashionable hobby of genealogy – digging up ancestors certain to send his wife into a swoon if they ever become public knowledge. Holden’s cutting wit is on full display in Shirley’s reactions to James’ revelations.

Two characters deserve special mention: Helen, Sophie’s new friend from daycare who is the perfect foil for all the determined “Yummy Mummies,” and Jeremy, the perfection-seeking manager of Winterton Hall. Both have a certain “je ne sais quoi” and hopefully, both will appear in future novels.

If you visit any of the North American online booksellers (, Barnes & Noble, etc.), you’re sure to notice that the publisher’s description for The School for Husbands lists the main characters’ names as Sarah, Neil and Colin. I’m not sure why such a glaring error has been made by Holden’s publisher; hopefully someone soon will ensure it is fixed. It is exactly the sort of mistake that Persephone, the inept PR person from Mark’s publishing firm, would make.

Read the review at Curled Up with a Good Book.

ISBN10: 0452285887
ISBN13: 9780452285880

Trade Paperback
320 Pages
Publisher: Plume
Publication Date: January 30, 2007
Author Website: Wendy Holden


BOOK REVIEW: And Only to Deceive by Tasha Alexander


Emily Bromley, a beautiful young woman is under persistent pressure to marry from an overbearing mother. Even though she would prefer never to marry, she accepts the proposal of wealthy Viscount Philip Ashton as a means of escape. Her new husband has a passion for hunting and shortly after their wedding departs for Africa for hunting. When the young bride is informed of her husband’s death due to fever, she feels relief rather than grief for she barely knew the man she married.

During her year of half-mourning, Emily begins to learn more about Philip from his friends as they pay condolence calls. Intrigued by the picture painted, she begins to study Greek literature and antiquities in an effort to learn more about the man she married. During her studies she develops a friendship with Cecile du Lac, a wealthy Parisian, and Colin Hargreaves and Andrew Palmer, Philip’s best friends.

As Emily learns more about her husband’s life, she begins to develop feelings for him. The more she discovers, the more worried she becomes that his death wasn’t an accident. Colin and Andrew are both behaving oddly and Emily uncovers that Philip may have been involved in unscrupulous activities. Uncertain who to trust, Emily decides to investigate on her own.

Tasha Alexander’s debut novel And Only to Deceive: a novel of suspense is a delightful mystery set during the Victorian period. While the story is engaging and the mystery fascinating, what is most compelling is the portrait she paints of the life of a young Victorian woman desiring independence. In the afterword Alexander describes her motivation in developing the character of Emily: “I was determined not to create twenty-first-century characters, drop them into bustles and corsets, and call them historical.”

She has succeeded in this novel, obviously doing extensive research to uncover the ethics and principles guiding Victorian upper class society. And Only to Deceive brings the Victorian period to life, capturing the small details of a widow’s life and the severe restrictions they face during their period of mourning. The small points of etiquette, such as opening the curtains facing the street or wearing a dress made out of a fabric other than crepe, could destroy a widow’s place within respectable society. Within this setting Alexander incorporates subtle commentary on the social politics of the time without hindering the pace of her mystery.

Lady Emily Ashton’s second adventure A Poisoned Season is scheduled for release in April 2007. Hopefully this series will maintain the historical depth exhibited by the first novel.

ISBN10: 006114844X
ISBN13: 9780061148446

Trade Paperback
336 Pages
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication Date: October 10, 2006
Author Website:


BOOK REVIEW: Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl


Since the death of his wife, itinerate professor Gareth Van Meer has traveled extensively across the United States with his daughter Blue. He never spends more than one semester at a school before moving on with the result that, by age 16, Blue has attended 24 different schools. Their travels provide fertile ground for Gareth to instruct his daughter on life, literature and everything in between, with the result that Blue is erudite, overly educated and socially awkward. To ensure Blue’s entry into an Ivy League school, Gareth is determined that his daughter will have an uninterrupted senior year and so he settles them in Stockton, North Carolina where Blue is scheduled to attend the elite St. Gallway School.

Shortly after her arrival in Stockton, Blue meets Hannah Schneider, the magnetic film studies teacher at St. Gallway School. Through Hannah, Blue is introduced to the BlueBloods, the ruling aristocracy of the school who meet each Sunday night at Hannah’s home. When a student ends up dead during a party at Hannah’s home, Blue and the BlueBloods decide to investigate and later, on a camping trip in the Great Smoky Mountains, Hannah ends up dead dangling from a tree.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics is told as a flashback and readers are aware from the start that Hannah meets her death by hanging. When readers first meet Blue, she is in her freshman year at Harvard University and is trying to make sense of the past year. Structuring her reminiscences as a survey course of “great literature,” each chapter bears the title of a classic work as well as contextual similarities to the chosen work, as a means of framing this difficult period in her life.

Blue has whole-heartedly adopted her father’s philosophy of communication: “Always have everything you say exquisitely annotated, and, where possible, provide staggering Visual Aids.” Least readers worry that the continual annotation becomes too distracting, rest reassured that Blue’s distinctive voice supports her unique style of narration. Lovers of mysteries may moan that Marisha Pessl’s love of all things literary and erudite provides an onslaught of information which interferes with their enjoyment of the mystery central to this weighty novel. For some readers this may hold true and those readers might be wise to take a pass on Special Topics in Calamity Physics.

Pessl takes time to build the tension in Special Topics in Calamity Physics, walking readers calmly through introductions to the players and the scene. However, the pace quickly escalates about a third of the way into the book and from there readers may feel like they are on a runaway train. The pace, combined with Pessl’s thousands of references to books, movies, and popular culture result in a novel that often leaves the reader off-balance and confuse as to what actually happened – a state reminiscent of teenage angst. Pessl uses language as a shield and a mirror, reflecting the emotion of her characters while protecting them from extensive scrutiny, creating an atmosphere of uncertainty and illusion.

In the end, Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a difficult novel to penetrate and within which to gauge what truly happened to Hannah Schneider. As one reviewer comments: “Pessl…is like an explosion, her energy going off in all directions, her power not under control.” This is directly attributable to her youth as a novelist. Special Topics in Calamity Physics is an amazing achievement for any writer and is extraordinary as a debut novel. Marisha Pessl is a writer to watch as she discovers her métier and matures into her talents.

Read the review at Curled Up with a Good Book.

ISBN10: 067003777X
ISBN13: 9780670037773

528 Pages
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication Date: August 3, 2006
Book Website:


BOOK REVIEW: Was She Pretty? by Leanne Shapton


In every relationship there are more than just two players, there are the specters looming in the background – the ghosts of past partners. This is the topic explored by Leanne Shapton in her debut Was She Pretty? This slender volume invites readers to explore the truths of modern love, their darkest fears and secret anxieties through her line drawings and prose.

Tracing a group of interconnected friends, the narrator outlines each ex with unemotional prose, capturing entire relationships in single lines: “Martin had never mentioned his hauntingly beautiful ex-girlfriend Carwai to Heidi.” Shapton’s spare prose leaves room for the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks based on their own experiences and emotional reaction. Don’t be surprised if she manages to conjure up ghosts from your own past.

The sparse narrative makes for a quick read but Shapton’s novel remains with the reader. She appears to suggest that jealousy refines a relationship, enhancing it – if the relationship survives. Our partners’ exes haunt us while at the same time we ourselves are exes. Was She Pretty? explores this engaging dichotomy, asking: what is it about exes that creates this love/hate relationship? While she offers no answers, the journey into one’s own psyche is a fascinating one.

ISBN10: 0374299269
ISBN13: 9780374299262

198 Pages
Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux
Publication Date: November 7, 2006


BOOK REVIEW: The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs


Tucked away on a second story in Manhattan’s Upper West Side is a hidden gem, Walker & Daughter. This treasure trove of textiles is the result of years of hard work by Georgia Walker: knitwear designer, proprietress and single Mom to Dakota. Years ago, when James walked away during her pregnancy, Georgia wasn’t sure she’d make it. Thanks to the support of her mentor (and clerk) Anita, Georgia’s business has thrived and so has Dakota.

More than just a shop, Walker & Daughter is a haven for many of the customers and the result is The Friday Night Knitting Club, started by some of the regulars. As James returns wanting a larger role in his daughter’s life and an old “friend” from high school shows up, Georgia will need all the support these supportive knitters can provide.

The Friday Night Knitting Club, Kate Jacobs’ debut novel, while set within a knitting group really could be written in any setting. Superficially about knitting, in reality this is a novel about the importance of friendship and love. Georgia has closed herself off from the world and has focused everything into Dakota and making a success of her store. She has eliminated the possibility of getting hurt again, but she has also remained aloof from the friendship offered by customers and employees. Jacobs’ message is a universal truth – life will quickly pass you by if you turn your back on possibility.

Jacobs has cleverly divided her book into sections representative of the various stages of knitting projects that also tie into her unfolding novel. These sections are written as knitting instruction but are true to life: “You have to experiment to see what works. But there’s a similarity no matter the method: you either try or you don’t…Casting on is as much a leap of faith as technique.”

After a slow start, The Friday Night Knitting Club engage its readers in the unfolding life dramas of the knitting club members. However, readers expecting a superficial, happy novel of sisterhood should be prepared for some heart-wrenching moments as The Friday Night Knitting Club takes an unexpected turn.

ISBN10: 0399154094
ISBN13: 9780399154096

352 Pages
Publisher: Putnam
Publication Date: January 18, 2007


BOOK REVIEW: Kabbalah: a Love Story by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner


“If I write Kabbalah, no one but Kabbalists will read beyond the first pages. But if I conceal the Kabbalah inside a story, then people will have to read the Kabbalah to find out how the story ends.” – Moshe de Leon from Kabbalah: a Love Story

Hidden within the bindings of an ancient copy of the Zorah (the master text of Kabbalah) is a document which answers one of the heart’s eternal questions. The document is a love letter or theology, Rabbi Kalman Stern isn’t sure which. He had received the ancient Zorah on a trip to Israel and has been using it ever since as a prop in his courses on mysticism. Today in a moment of abstraction, he fiddled with the cover and found the document which began botzina d’qardinuta (the seed point of beginning, the flash of light) and alma d’ah-tay (the mother-womb of being, the darkness).

Shortly after finding the hidden document, Rabbi Stern attends a lecture “The Seed Point of Beginning” by Dr. Isabel Benveniste, an astronomer. Isabel and Kalman meet to discuss Kabbalah and eventually develop a relationship. Their burgeoning relationship is shown in counterpoint to the one between Moshe ben Shem Tov de Guadalajara (Moshe de Leon) and his inspiration, the wife of Don Judah. Moving between the thirteenth century Castilan, the 1940s and present day, author Rabbi Lawrence Kushner slowly unveils how these various stories interconnect and in doing so, share knowledge of Kabbalah.

Kabbalah: a Love Story is Kushner’s debut novel, although he is a well-respected author of many non-fiction works on Jewish mysticism. At times the novel’s dialogue is uneven and readers may wish he had developed his characters further; however, these minor flaws are far outweighed by the manner in which Kushner weaves together his story lines.

Kushner’s novel is as complex as its subject. On the surface it is the promised love story, although an untraditional one. At its heart, it is a story of history, faith, knowledge, seeking and of course, Kabbalah. Like many of the best allegorical novels, Kabbalah: a Love Story can be read repeatedly, each reading unwraps new layers and meanings.

Read an excerpt from the book here.

ISBN10: 0767924126
ISBN13: 9780767924122

196 Pages
Publisher: Morgan Road Books
Publication Date: October 10, 2006
Author Website:


Contest Notice – Debut a Debut


West of Mars (my friend Susan) and her friend Erica are hosting a fantastic contest aptly named “Debut a Debut.” You can find all the details here however the basic details are this:

How to Enter
1. Buy, find, or borrow a novel that is an author’s debut.
2. Read the novel.
3. Write a review. It does not have to be a professional review. Provide a brief plot synopsis and then mention your likes or dislikes or other thoughts you had while reading.
4. Post the review online – either on a website or blog (reviews at BookCrossing or Gather would certainly count) between February 12th and 17th.
5. Send the permalink of the post to West of Mars or Writing Aspirations in an email message or post a comment to the main contest post with a link to your review.

I was amazed when I reviewed the list to see how many debut novels I’ve read in the past year. Here’s a list with links to my reviews:

Albyn Leah Hall — The Rhythm of the Road

Diane Setterfield — The Thirteenth Tale: A Novel

Jed Rubenfeld — The Interpretation of Murder

Julie K.L. Dam — Some Like it Haute

Keith Donohue — The Stolen Child

Melissa Clark — Swimming Upstream Slowly

Paul Cavanagh — After Helen

Sam Savage — Firmin

Tom McCarthy — Remainder

I haven’t decided yet what I’m going to read for this contest; however, a number of the titles are in my to be reviewed pile so I’ll have to go hunting.

Here’s my question for readers – are you going to participate and what are you planning to read?

BOOK REVIEW: The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier


In the not-so-distant future, a deadly plague has rampaged through the world. The Blink begins with redness of the eyes causing an uncontrollable blinking response and kills its victims within hours. Within a short period it becomes water and airborne, killing millions of people almost instantaneously.

In The City, inhabited by the recently departed, the effects of the plague are first felt as a onslaught of new arrivals. Suddenly people rapidly start disappearing and soon the exodus has disrupted the flow of The City. New arrivals, who used to stay an average 30 years until the last person remembering them dies, now move on within hours. Soon Luka Sims, the publisher of the only newspaper in The City believes himself to be the only remaining resident and wonders whom he knows who is still alive, until the day he finds the blind man. Together they explore the endless streets of The City, searching for the remaining tenants and with each new person found they piece together a puzzling truth – they are all still there because they know Laura Byrd.

Fighting her way across the frozen tundra to find a way to contact the outside world, Laura Byrd has no idea why her fellow scientists failed to return to their research station. She traces their steps to Ross Ice Shelf research station and finds it deserted. It is only then that she discovers she may the last person left alive.

In The Brief History of the Dead, Kevin Brockmeier takes these two streams of narrative and creates a novel which gains cohesion as the narratives begin to merge. The premise of The City, a step in the move to the afterlife, is fascinating. The novel as a whole is clearly a meditation on the power of memory and its resilience.

As Laura spends months in isolation and then in a fight to stay alive, her thoughts move from deliberate remembrances to free associations and fragmentary memories. At one point, a character in The City asks “how real are our memories” and this is clearly one of the central questions Brockmeier is addressing. Brockmeier’s writing suggests that he believes there to be a difference between the two types of memories; though he leaves it up to his readers to decide.

Laura’s fight for survival is compelling; however, Brockmeier’s writing is the strongest in the chapters set in The City. The voices of the dead resonate with readers and many deserved to be developed further. It is clear from the novel that the dead are aware that Laura may be the last person alive and when she dies, they may move on as well. The issue Brockmeier does not address (and one which may have strengthened the novel) is what emotions this pending departure inspires.

In an interview at, Brockmeier states: “I was curious as I wrote the book about how those residents would react to the circumstances of their existence, what kind of relationships they would form, and what they would do when it came time for them to pass out of living memory.” He has accomplished the first part of this goal brilliantly; it is only his failure to explore of the second part of this goal which keeps The Brief History of the Dead from receiving 5 stars.

Read the review at Curled Up with a Good Book.

ISBN10: 1400095956
ISBN13: 9781400095957

Trade Paperback
272 Pages
Publisher: Vintage
Publication Date: January 9, 2007


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