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BOOK REVIEW: Spinning Dixie by Eric Dezenhall


Presidential Press Secretary and professional spinmeister Jonah Eastman commits hari-kari after commenting on a Yemen-born suicide bomber who killed himself and 24 football fans: “It’s hard to believe Western civilization is going to be taken down by a bunch of cabdrivers.” While his career is in a nosedive, his recent loose lips leave him free to help the mysterious blond who shows up at the White House gates carrying a letter from his teenage love Claudine Polk.

Jonah hies off to Tennessee to help save Claudine’s beloved family plantation, Rattle & Snap, from his teenage nemesis and Claudine’s soon-to-be ex-husband J.T. Hilliard. Can this Yankee spin-doctor help his southern belle start a second civil war and perhaps save his own future at the same time?

Billed as a blending of The West Wing, Gone with the Wind and The Godfather, Spinning Dixie is the fourth Eric Dezenhall novel to feature Jonah Eastman. Spinning Dixie, while on the surface a novel about politics and spin, is a novel about first love and the compelling force it can have even 25 years later. Alternating between the summer after Jonah’s senior year in high school and the present, Dezenhall has created a scenario certain to unleash havoc – a New Jersey kingpin’s grandson in Tennessee wooing the granddaughter of a Confederate general on her family’s plantation.

Not having read any of previous three novels, it was difficult to determine where Spinning Dixie fits into Jonah’s story. The novel stands on its own and is chock-full of characters certain to steal readers’ attention: Jonah’s flamboyant grandmother DeeDee; Claudine’s little brother Six; or “the Panamanian,” a colleague of Jonah’s who specializes in intelligence work.

The most compelling sections of this novel are the parts from Jonah’s teenage years. Dezenhall has captured the dichotomy of youthful passion; the hopefulness and sense of wonder, the undercurrent of doom and the inevitable painful ending. The tension between Jonah and Claudine’s worlds turn their romance into one of epic proportions, the doomed romance which has the power – even 25 years later – to draw Jonah back into Claudine’s sphere.

ISBN10: 031234063X
ISBN13: 9780312340636

336 Pages
Publisher: St. Martins Press
Publication Date: December 26, 2006
Author Website:


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BOOK REVIEW: Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee


In a suburban neighbourhood of Adelaide, Australia, a cyclist is knocked off his bicycle, a small act with far-reaching consequences. When Paul Rayment opens his eyes, he is immediately required to give consent to the operation that will amputate his leg at the knee. Refusing to consider using a prosthesis, and profoundly uncomfortable to be reliant on others, Paul returns home under the care of a string of nurses. It is only with the arrival of Marijana Joki? – a Croatian nurse – that Paul’s life begins to turn around and he falls in love with his down-to-earth caregiver. That is until Elizabeth Costello arrives on his doorstep; an unstoppable force who demands Paul take an active role in his own narrative and accept responsibility for his actions.

Slow Man, J.M. Coetzee’s first novel since his Nobel Laureate win in 2003, is his latest meditation on care, aging and the nature of existence. The “slowed man” of the title, Paul Rayment, finds himself both physically slowed by the accident and mentally slowed by depression and an inability to accept his new reality. Elizabeth Costello’s arrival (the titular character of Coetzee’s 2003 novel) and machinations are designed to force Paul out of his slowness by holding a mirror before him. She questions his motivations and demands that he face the roots of his desire for Marijana: is it his desire for love; his desperation to leave a legacy; or a fear of his own mortality which drives his desire to take Marijana and her children as his own family.

The Observer (UK) suggests that, rather than Elizabeth intruding into Paul’s novel, he has intruded into hers. “She explains her presence by quoting to Paul the opening section of his novel [Slow Man], the bike and him flying through the air and so on. Far from intruding on his novel, she suggests, he has intruded on hers: “You came to me [Paul], that is all I can say. You occurred to me, a man with a bad leg and no future and an unsuitable passion … where we go from there I have no idea. Have you any proposal?”

When Marijana shares her fears for her son Drago, Paul offers to pay for Drago’s schooling. Rather than the “help” Paul believes he is providing, in reality he is forcing himself into Marijana’s world the same way Elizabeth has forced herself into his. The consequences of this act of misguided charity ripple throughout the rest of the novel, reinforcing Coetzee’s key point on motivation. Elizabeth points out repeatedly that, no matter what the motivation behind an action, one is still responsible for the fallout – a lack of self-awareness or premeditation does not relieve one of guilt or responsibility.

A meditation on loss, motivation and the creative process, Slow Man is a thought-provoking work raising more questions than it answers. Coetzee’s spare prose is brilliantly exhibited here; however, this is not one of his more accessible works. The bickering dialogue between Elizabeth and Paul, a post-modern meditation on the creative process will not appeal to all readers. A first-time reader of J.M. Coetzee will have a better introduction to his skillful writing through reading Disgrace or Life & Times of Michael K.

Read the review at Curled Up with a Good Book.

ISBN10: 0143037897
ISBN13: 9780143037897

Trade Paperback
264 Pages
Publisher: Penguin
Publication Date: October 2006


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BOOK REVIEW: The Rhythm of the Road by Albyn Leah Hall


Josephine Pickering has grown up on the highways of the United Kingdom, in her father Bobby’s rig. Abandoned by his wife shortly after Jo’s birth, Bobby took to the road with his baby daughter. A Northern Irishman, Bobby was a country musician before he became a father and he passed his love of country music and the open road on to his daughter.

When Jo is twelve, her father stops to give hitchhiker Cosima Stewart a lift. Cosima, lead singer of Cosima Stewart and Her Goodtime Guys, quickly becomes an idol to Jo, although over time the idolization turns into obsession. When Bobby finally gives in to the depression which has haunted him for years, Jo follows Cosima’s band to America where she must finally confront the truth about her life and the choices she’s made.

Albyn Leah Hall’s debut American novel, The Rhythm of the Road is a quiet work; full of teenage angst, the desperation to belong and a search for meaning. Hall has created a strong voice for this young woman seeking roots and a place to belong and Jo’s agony is almost painful to experience. While Jo’s spiral out of control is violent at times, Hall never lets the reigns slip from her firm grasp, ensuring that Jo remains an empathetic character.

Although The Rhythm of the Road is the story of Jo’s development into a woman, by far the strongest character is Bobby. His quiet strength balances Jo and Cosima; however, it is the buried pain and words he doesn’t share which remain with the reader. While Hall’s writing in The Rhythm of the Road is at times uneven, she has a manner of character development which means she is a writer to watch.

ISBN10: 0312359446
ISBN13: 9780312359447

304 Pages
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Publication Date: January 9, 2007
Author Website:


BOOK REVIEW: The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield


Vida Winter, one of Britain’s best-loved novelists, is known for her reluctance to share the truth of her life story. Having spent the past six decades creating outlandish stories, Vida is facing death and wishes to leave the truth as her legacy.

Margaret Lea is surprised to receive the request from Miss Winter, an author she’s never spoken to, asking her to act as biographer. Margaret has published a few articles on lesser known author but is unable to fathom why an author of such reknown would choose her. In an effort to learn more about her potential subject, Margaret picks up her father’s rare copy of Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation and is mesmerized by the stories. As she nears the end of the volume she is confronted by one of Britain’s biggest literary mysteries: where is the thirteenth tale? Margaret agrees to meet with Miss Winter and is quickly engaged in the unfolding story of her complex life and the destroyed estate of Angelfield.

Diane Setterfield’s debut novel The Thirteenth Tale rocketed up the best-seller lists soon after its release mid-September and many skeptics wondered how much of this success was due to aggressive online marketing efforts rather than its merit. This reviewer is pleased to report that, in her opinion, Setterfield’s success is due to a well-crafted plot, engaging characters and frequent nods to gothic novelists of the past.

The Thirteenth Tale centres around a story-within-a-story, as Vida recounts the family history leading up to her birth and beyond. All the elements of a gothic novel are found here; a mouldering old house, mental illness, twins, neglectful parents, a domineering governess, isolation and ghosts. Margaret, an exceptional narrator, is drawn into the action as she tries to substantiate Vida’s story, while battling the specters of her own past.

Initially Margaret is reluctant to be drawn in by Vida, maintaining a professional distance from her subject. Her research, and the parallels she sees between Vida’s and her own story, eliminate her defenses and, like a du Maurier or Brontë heroine, Margaret becomes consumed by the story around her.

Setterfield uses her descriptions of place to increase the readers’ understanding of her characters. Miss Winter has spent so many years suffocating the truth that “..the other rooms were thick with the corpses of suffocated words: here in the library you could breathe.” The library, Margaret’s domain, is the place of truth, therefore a place within which light and air preside.

Essentially, The Thirteenth Tale is about the battle between truth and fiction, and the consequences of each. Fiction is easier, as Miss Winter points out: “What succour, what consolation is there in truth, compared to a story?” As readers soon learn, there is a price for each and no simple line can be drawn in the sand.

ISBN10: 038566284X
ISBN13: 9780385662840

416 Pages
Publisher: Bond Street Books
Publication Date: September 12, 2006


BOOK REVIEW: The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly


Like many of the children in the fairy tales he adores, twelve-year-old David has lost everything. His beloved mother has died; his father has married Rose, a nurse from the hospital where his mother stayed during her illness, and started a new family. To escape the German bombs, they’ve moved out of London to the house where Rose grew up and David is installed in the attic room.

Filled with books from a previous occupant, David’s aerie appears to be part of the woods surrounding the house. Ivy has worked its way through the mortar and is spreading over the interior walls. Bugs are at home in his sock draw and spiders have taken over many of the room’s dark corners. Nature’s invasion is the least of his worries; David’s books have started talking and he is having attacks that leave him with peculiar memories of wolves and faded kings. After a particularly nasty row with Rose, David hears his mother’s voice begging him to rescue her and he follows the call into the darkness.

John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things is the quintessential outsider tale. David has entered an unknown world when his father remarries and the family moves to a new home to escape the bombing of London. The move, close on the heels of the birth of Georgie, has David uncertain of his role within this new family group.

In typical fairy tale manner, the outsider embarks on a quest during which he/she endeavours to seek what has been lost. David hears his mother’s voice pleading with him to save her, providing him the opportunity to become a hero and leave behind the family he believes has no use for him.

Readers will find many familiar faces within the pages of The Book of Lost Things; however, that sense of familiarity will not last. In Connolly’s world, the forest holds cruel things that will include a lost child in a genetic experiment before eating them. Snow White didn’t ride off into the sunset with her prince and very few people live happily ever after.

Of course, what David is really seeking in the forest is himself. As divergent as Connolly’s book is from childish fairy tales, that morale centre is still present. David finds his inner strength and place within his family as he moves into adolescence. This is the expected outcome but the true ingenuity and magic in this adult tale is how Connolly reaches that ending.

Connolly has reinterpreted traditional tales, found the dark, secret core and created something fresh, new and exciting. By placing it during World War II, a time when childhood meant a gray world full of evil and very real horrors, the terrors of Connolly’s world loom in even starker contrast.

The Book of Lost Things marks a new direction in Connelly’s writing. If this reviewer’s experience is anything to go by, readers will be unable to set this book aside until David returns safely home.

Read the review at Curled Up with a Good Book.

ISBN10: 0743298853
ISBN13: 9780743298858

256 Pages
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication Date: November 2006


BOOK REVIEW: Famous Writers School by Stephen Carter


Famous Writers School is the grandiose name of Wendell Newton’s correspondence writing school. He seeks his students through advertisements in the back pages of literary magazines and what his students don’t realize is that Wendell is utterly lacking in talent. A former editorial staff member of America’s Farmer, his school is made up of a collection of unusual students. Rio is a torch singer and Ph.D. candidate with a penchant for confessional writing; Linda Trane is a housewife who may just be a stalking Wendell; and Dan, the only talented one in the bunch whose work has the potential to be published, if Wendell doesn’t steal his novel first.

Famous Writers School: a Novel is the second novel of Steven Carter (author of I was Howard Hughes). A send-up of correspondence courses for would-be writers, Carter chronicles the correspondence between a teacher and his students. Composed in an epistolary manner, the novel is made up of advertisements for the school, the welcome package sent out to lure in students and the lessons Wendell sends to his students. As the novel progresses, the reader is introduced to each of the students through their personal statements and writing assignments.

Wendell’s relationship to each student is different and it is through this interaction that the reader gains some understanding of his character. He is full of frustrations and self-important opinions and, rather than being annoying, he is a sympathetic loser. Carter possesses an understanding of the type of ego that drives Wendell and has painted him vividly for readers.

From the beginning it is obvious that the relationship between Dan and Wendell will be adversarial. Dan has the talent Wendell longs for and is seeking editorial advice Wendell is in no way equipped to give. Carter has portrayed this relationship most clearly in Famous Writers School. The relationships between Wendell and his other two students, while explored in some depth, do not possess the same resonance.

During one of his lessons, Wendell states: “True subtlety in fiction requires more than pyrotechnics with language; it requires that every sentence deliver the punch that is appropriate for the story at that particular moment and that leads to its inevitable conclusion.” Carter’s novel contains subtlety, he deftly maneuvers his plot without exposing his hand too early and he manages the novel’s pacing with a master’s skill.

Unfortunately, his obvious delight in playing with the epistolary method of novel construction becomes tedious with time and the novel’s strongest points are those when Carter sets aside his agenda and presents Dan’s “novel” in a straightforward manner.

Wendell is a character who remains with the reader long after the final page is read. Since reading Famous Writers School, this reviewer often hears his voice echoed when reading a particularly pompous piece of writing. This then, is perhaps the greatest compliment to be paid a writer – the knowledge that his creation lives on in the minds of readers.

Read an excerpt of Famous Writers School here.

ISBN10: 1582433569
ISBN13: 9781582433561

256 Pages
Publisher: Counterpoint
Publication Date: October 2006


BOOK REVIEW: The Saffron Kitchen by Yasmin Crowther


Maryam, the young daughter of an Iranian general, wants a different life than the one envisioned for her by her father. A man of influence, her father begins arranging a marriage for his beautiful sixteen-year-old daughter while Maryam longs for a life of adventure and to be a nurse. Her strong will and dreams cause her to be unsettled with her life and longing for freedome.

As violence erupts in her hometown, Maryam is left behind in the family compound and in her desperation she leaves safety to seek shelter with her father’s assistant Ali, for whom she secretly harbours feelings. Her return to the family home is noted by a family servant and – her secret out – she is summarily banished while Ali is brutally punished.

In present-day London, the arrival of Saeed, Maryam’s young nephew, sets off a chain of events whose roots extend back forty years. Maryam flees to her past in Iran leaving her daughter Sara behind to piece together long hidden secrets while caring for Saeed and her father.

Yasmin Crowther’s The Saffron Kitchen is set during the U.S.-backed 1953 coup that toppled Iran’s prime minister, Mossadegh. As the daughter of one of the Shah’s generals, Maryam’s willful behaviour causes shame for her father, an act which he is unable to forgive. His retribution is swift and fierce, setting off a deadly chain of consequences.

Maryam’s story is one of repression and a struggle for identity. Seeking a life different from that offered by her culture, she seeks a chance to be heard in a culture where her only value is as a bride and mother. “I thought of Zohreh, the deaf and dumb girl in Ehzat’s story and wondered whether I would ever be permitted to use the voice with which I had been born.”

Her punishment and subsequent banishment effectively silenced Maryam for decades. Even though she constructed a life in England and lived within a family, the violence in her history caused her to be cold and distant – a woman without country or identity.

Despite her history, Maryam’s belief that punishment made her strong and able to survive leads her to lash out at the weakness she perceives in Saeed. This act of aggression perpetuates the cycle of family violence and is the catalyst for change.

The Saffron Kitchen is told in the alternating voices of Sara and Maryam, moving through time to piece together Maryam’s fragmented story. The reader shares Sara’s quest to understand her mother and shares her anger at the wake of destruction which follows Maryam’s path.

Readers will feel horror at what Maryam lived through; however, Crowther makes the difficult choice to allow readers to feel outrage and anger toward her protagonist. Through this, Crowther forces readers to confront their own stereotypes and assess how individual choices affect family and friends, and eventually, to understand and accept Maryam’s decisions.

Yasmin Crowther shows exceptional promise with The Saffron Kitchen. It is difficult to fathom that such a strong voice is portrayed in a first novel. Where her inexperience shows is in balancing Maryam and Sara’s voices. Sara, unfortunately, is not an equal player and functions as a mechanism to move her mother’s story forward.

Read the review at Curled Up with a Good Book.

ISBN10: 0670038113
ISBN13: 9780670038114

272 Pages
Publisher: Viking Penguin
Publication Date: December 28, 2006 (United States)
(released in Canada in August 2006)


Spring/Summer 2007 Books from Europa Editions


Europa Editions is one of my favourite small press publishers. The books they publish offer a window into worlds I don’t normally view and they certainly cause me to think about new ideas.

Here are my picks from their spring/summer 2007 line.

* The Fugitive by Massimo Carlotto, trans. by Antony Shugaar (April 15, 2007)
* Prime Time Suspect by Alicia Giménez-Bartlett, trans. by Nicholas Caistor (June 24, 2007)
* The Worst Intentions by Alessandro Piperno, trans. by Ann Goldstein (July 20, 2007)

BOOK REVIEW: Remainder by Tom McCarthy


In Remainder, our narrator is a young Englishman traumatised by an accident which, while destroying his memory, has left him a very wealthy man. All he knows is something fell out of the sky and hit him, and someone very wealthy is willing to pay a lot of money to guarantee his silence about the event.

With no memories to tie him to the past and having remapped his brain to perform the most basic tasks, he obsessively tries to capture “real” moments – instances which feel fluid and natural rather than learned. He seeks the perfection achieved when he loses consciousness of and merges with his actions.

To help him achieve these moments of perfection, he spends his time and money obsessively reconstructing and re-enacting memories and situations from his past. He purchases a large building and hires actors to help match the setting to the remembered moment. When this fails to quench his thirst for authenticity, he starts reconstructing more and more violent events.

Tom McCarthy’s artistic eye is apparent in Remainder, translating into vividly described settings. The setting is as much a character as our nameless narrator. Readers are immersed in the setting which is invoked at such a visceral level that one feels the sunbeam warming one’s skin as the narrator lays in a sunbeam and smell the liver wafting through the ventilation system.

As McCarthy describes in an interview with ReadySteadyBook: “Trauma is intimately tied in with re-enactment: it brings about a compulsion to repeat…What excited me right from the crack-moment onwards was that the premise clearly had much wider implications: it was about history and time, simulation, questions of authenticity and, by extension, of our whole state of being-in-the-world. And it was about the world’s state of being-in-the-universe as well: the world, matter, this shard left over from some unnameably violent disaster – a remainder.”

While the conclusion of Remainder is unsurprising, how McCarthy reaches it is unique. This is not a novel in the traditional sense, and it is not remarkable that traditional publishers were unwilling to take it on. McCarthy’s work will make many readers uncomfortable; yet within the progression of the narrator’s obsession the world he presents is terrifyingly plausible.

ISBN10: 1846880157
ISBN13: 9781846880157

290 Pages
Publisher: Alma Books
Publication Date: September 2006


BOOK REVIEW: The Marble Orchard By Paul Johnson


After decades spent living a bohemian lifestyle spanning four continents, painter Carl Larson has finally returned to his hometown of Jamestown, New York. Expecting to spend only a few weeks there while he settles his widowed mother into a nursing home, he is unexpectedly caught by the ghosts of his past and a new artistic direction. Caught unaware by the force of his own memories, Carl is immobilized long enough for external forces to pin him in one place. Now facing the shadow of his eleven year-old self, and the events that led to his migratory lifestyle, Carl must confront the town and choices he’s spent a lifetime trying to escape.

Narrated alternately from the viewpoints of eleven year-old and fifty-three year-old Carl Larson, The Marble Orchard is both a story of self-knowledge and a ghost story. Paul Johnson explores the impact the ghosts of the past have on both memory and the present.

Carl is back in a place he worked to avoid and has returned hoping to quickly clean up his mother’s affairs and escape back to the world beyond Jamestown, New York. However, Carl has underestimated the power of his past to ensnare him – and the possibility that what he is running from isn’t Jamestown and his family, but rather self-scrutiny and awareness. As Johnson explains in an interview with the Las Vegas Optic on July 28, 2006: “the place you grew up is always full of ghosts if you go back.” The Marble Orchard is a cautionary tale of what can happen when one chances that return, and the gifts that can result.

In fact, The Marble Orchard is brimming with Johnson’s personal ghosts. In the same article with the Optic, Johnson goes on to explain that The Marble Orchard is “built around something that happened when I was 11.” One of the transformational moments in Carl Larson’s life is pulled directly from Johnson’s own childhood; a serious accident landed him in an overcrowded hospital and in a ward with men dying of gangrene. Because his own accident happened one month after the introduction of penicillin, his own leg was saved.

The man Johnson met there was the basis for the character of Carl Soderstrom. “He told marvelous stories. It gave me the notion of this great wide world out there. I couldn’t wait to get out and experience it. He had a great influence on me.”

While it is unclear what ghosts Johnson is exorcising with The Marble Orchard, he maneuvers his plot and avoids the pitfalls, which can befall semi-autobiographical novels. Johnson keeps his plot tightly focused and does not let the tone of The Marble Orchard fall into pathos and regrets, focusing instead on hope and redemption.

It is in the small details of everyday life that Johnson shows he is a consummate observer of humanity. Whether it is house-proud Lorraine, demanding sufficient praise of her home, or Carl tripping over moldering carpets, Johnson includes minute details in his novel, creating verisimilitude for readers, engaging them more deeply in his tale.

Read the review at Front Street Reviews.

ISBN10: 0976627469
ISBN13: 9780976627463

Publisher: The Wessex Collective
Publication Date: June 1, 2006
Binding: Trade Paperback


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