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review 2017-05-31 22:50
The Only Child - A Review

The story of Frankenstein’s monster has captured the imagination of readers of almost two centuries, not only because of the story itself but also it’s back story.  It has also been retold in many forms.  With this one Mr. Pyper hits it out of the park.

 
THE ONLY CHILD by Andrew Pyper
 
Lily Dominick was six years old when, as she looked on, her mother was brutally murdered.  The trauma caused her recollections to be hazy … she recalled only a monster knocking on the door to kill her mother and her six year old self being rescued by a white creature.  The incident still haunts her dreams and may well have led to her career choice as an adult where she is Dr. Dominick working as a psychiatrist with the worst of the worst criminals in New York’s Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Centre.  At work it sometimes seems to her she can read the mind of the incarcerated.  One morning she walks in to interview a man known only as Client 46874-A and claiming to be 200 years old.  For Lily he is an enigma; she can’t get a read on him and she feels as if he is looking into her mind instead of the other way around.  Then he throws Lily totally off balance when he claims to have known her mother and what happened to her so many years ago.
 
The next day Lily awakens to the news that Client 46874-A has escaped.  Driven by clues he leaves for her and the need to discover if he can truly help her solve the riddle of what happened on the night her mother died Lily sets out to find him and hopefully the truth.
 
Mr. Pyper takes his reader along on Lily’s quest as she travels across Europe picking up more and more information about not only “Michael”, as she named the mystery man, but about herself as well.  And for Lily the truth does indeed turn out to be stranger than fiction.
 
“The Only Child” is a well-written page-turner.  I would expect nothing less from Mr. Pyper.  This book is not only a psychological thriller with it’s share of the paranormal but is extremely entertaining in it’s explanations of the basis of not only “Frankenstein” but also “Jekyll and Hyde” and “Dracula”.  Within the context of the story it had me nodding my head and thinking “Oh yeah … makes sense”.
 
As I read closer and closer to the end I began to formulate my own theory about Lily and Michael so I was quite pleased to discover that I was at least half right.  Despite that, the reveal caught me by surprise.  I had hoped for a different outcome but the ending suited the story.  Not wanting to have to include a “spoiler alert” I do want to mention that there was one scene at the end of the book which wrapped up the story so extremely well that I still pause to think about it a few days after I’ve closed the cover – so well done Mr. Pyper.
 
* I’d like to thank the publisher, Simon and Shuster, and Netgalley for providing me with the book at no charge in exchange for an honest review.*
 
ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from his website
 
Andrew Pyper was born in Stratford, Ontario, in 1968. He received a B.A. and M.A. in English Literature from McGill University, as well as a law degree from the University of Toronto. Although called to the bar in 1996, he has never practiced.
 
Andrew’s creative writing teaching experience includes terms at Trent University, the University of Toronto, and, currently, Colorado College. Last year he won the Grant Allen Award for contributions to Canadian crime and mystery literature.
 
He lives in Toronto.
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review 2017-05-10 17:56
A Beautiful Truth / Colin McAdam
A Beautiful Truth - Colin McAdam

Told simultaneously from the perspective of humans and chimpanzees, set in a Vermont home and a Florida primate research facility, A Beautiful Truth at times brutal, at others deeply moving is about the simple truths that transcend species, the meaning of family, the lure of belonging, and the capacity for survival.

A powerful and haunting meditation on human nature told from the dual perspectives of a Vermont family that has adopted a chimp as a surrogate son, and a group of chimpanzees in a Florida research institute.

Looee, a chimp raised by a well-meaning and compassionate human couple who cannot conceive a baby of their own, is forever set apart.  He’s not human, but with his peculiar upbringing he is no longer like other chimps.  One tragic night Looee’s two natures collide and their unique family is forever changed.

At the Girdish Institute in Florida, a group of chimpanzees has been studied for decades.  The work at Girdish has proven that chimps have memories and solve problems, that they can learn language and need friends, and that they build complex cultures. They are political, altruistic, get angry, and forgive. When Looee is moved to the Institute, he is forced to try to find a place in their world.

 

I have always maintained that the best way to understand office politics is to spend some time studying chimpanzees or other apes. You will see all of the same drives and personalities, but you will see them without the veneer of civilization. Wherever you get 3 people or 3 chimps in one place, you will have politics.

This book reminded me of human hubris—the belief that we are somehow separate and different from the rest of the animal kingdom, that we are superior to other apes.

In a strange way, this book made me think of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild or White Fang. All the ways in which wild animals can or can’t be tamed and how tame animals (including humans) can become wild. It is a cautionary tale about keeping wild animals in private homes, but it is about trust—trusting those animals, trusting our friends, trusting our spouses. It is about the dangers of assigning human motivations to other species and the peril of deliberately ignoring the drives that we obviously share. Also the risk of assuming that our friends and acquaintances think about things the same way that we do. Who is worthy of our trust and why do we trust them?

ABT is also an interesting meditation on the study of our nearest kin, the chimpanzee. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, while trying to understand the evolution of speech among humans, people started to raise chimpanzee babies in their homes, hoping to encourage speech in the apes. Chimps like Gua (the experiment was terminated when her human “sibling” began to get much more chimpanzee-like than she got human-like) and Vicki (who eventually produced 4 very simple words with extreme effort). Then came Washoe, who was exposed to American Sign Language, with limited success (as were Nim Chimpsky and Koko the Gorilla), the reasoning being that apes might be unable to speak, but might still be able to grasp language. ASL should be easier for them as it uses hand gestures rather than vocal apparatus. They do seem to be able to acquire vocabulary, but show much less grasp of grammar or the significance of word order. Unsurprisingly, they possess the first stirrings towards spoken language, but humans are the only ape species to have developed it significantly. I would be more surprised if no other primates showed any aptitude for vocal communication.

Some aspects of the Girdish Institute in the book are likely based on the Yerkes Institute in real life. The Yerkes Institute developed a keyboard of lexigrams (as alluded to in ABT) which became known as Yerkish. There has been a certain amount of success using this method, including one super-star bonobo, Kanzi (born at Yerkes, but moved to the Language Research Centre at Georgia State). He communicates via keyboard and has picked up a bit of ASL as well.

All of the apes mentioned above learned to understand some human-spoken language and to respond appropriately to it (when they were in the mood). Part of the problem with these experiments is that they do not interest the apes as much as they do the humans. Interestingly, dogs seem to naturally understand human hand gestures, like pointing, more easily than chimps do. Dogs look where the hand is pointing, while apes look at the hand. Our thousands of years co-evolving with canines is showing through.

I’m impressed by how many details of human-chimp history are represented in this fictional account. I recognized many of them from non-fiction books that I’ve read over the years. If you are interested in more details on chimpanzees (and bonobos), I would recommend Frans de Waal’s excellent book Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are. I also highly recommend de Waal’s book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

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review 2017-05-03 16:19
Maud and Everett and Everything Else
Maud Lewis The Heart on the Door - Lance Gerard Woolaver

This gigantic  book (492 pages about a woman whose life was, apart from a few major exceptions, uneventful) is a candidate for being one of the strangest pieces of writing I’ve ever encountered. The title promises a biography of the Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis, and indeed, there’s a lot about her here, as much as anyone actually knows about her (and more that Woolaver has invented; but more about that later). But Maud is not by any means the only subject. Woolaver spends many chapters discussing not only the Poor Farm located next door to the little house Maud shared with her husband Everett, but also, the history of Poor Farms in Nova Scotia and elsewhere. He quite rightly justifies the significance of the Poor Farm in Everett’s childhood—he was kept there along with his entire family — and later also in Everett’s years with Maud—he was its night watchman for a long time; and he also points out that Maud, in the absence of indoor plumbing at home, often visited there to take baths and have her hair done. But Woolaver speaks often of his long-standing ambition to produce a book that would widen knowledge of the shameful Poor Farm system, and apparently thwarted by widespread lack of interest by publishers, etc., in revisiting this sad history, he has, in effect snuck the book about the Poor Farms into this one claiming to be about Maud. There’s a point where what feels like a hundred pages in a row about the Poor Farms lose sight of Maud altogether. 

 

Nor is that the only way in which Woolaver interrupts his biography of Maud with lengthy discussions of other barely relevant matters—quite often, matters concerning himself.  Attentive readers can learn at least as much about the forebears, family connections, education, work, publication and travel history, artistic and literary tastes, intense dislike of all current and past administrators of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, friendships and falling-outs, relatives, physical and mental illnesses, financial crises, bookshelf contents, filing habits, and character strengths and failings of Lance Woolaver as they can about Maud and Everett Lewis.  This is endearingly wacky, but also, quite annoying. 

 

Even when Woolaver does get around to talking about the Lewises, he tends to do so through a focus on how he learned what he knows about them—who he interviewed, what archives he visited, and so on. The first few chapters describe at astonishing length the various kinds of evidence Woolaver has gathered to support his theory that Maud was born in 1901 and not, as usually assumed, two years later. There are similar lengthy discussions of whether or not she married Everett in a church, whether she knew the work of the American artist known as Grandma Moses, and so on. At times, also, whole chapters are filled with what appear to be fictional short stories Woolaver has written, sometimes about Maud and in what purports to be her point of view, sometimes about the places she lived in and his version of what it feels like to be there.

 

At one point, Woolaver reveals his own awareness of how annoying all these dissertations and digressions might be: “Oh My,” he says after a lengthy aside about a raft of eccentric and otherwise interesting characters he has known in Digby county,“If we effect a limit on biography, and bow before convention, not much of this has to do with Maud and Everett.” He then goes on to insist that it does, since the people he has described are somehow related to or otherwise connected to people with connections to the Lewises. By this logic he might as well have included me in the book, for I bet I know people whose cousins or uncles once dated the granddaughters of people who went to school with other people who lived down the highway from Maud and Everett. And forgive me for being conventional, but somehow, I retain the conviction that a biography should actually be about the people it purports to be about, not about friends of their friends and relations of their relations, and certainly not about the biographer’s own distant friends and relations. 

 

Woolaver has clearly spend a lot of time and effort in putting together his body of knowledge of Maud and Everett Lewis. He has learned enough about them that he seems to have come to believe that he knows them intimately—so intimately that he’s entitled to reach very specific conclusions not just about what they did, but also, about who they are—what motivated them, sometimes even what they must have been thinking and feeling at certain moments in their lives. Maud and Everett Lewis may or may not have had the attitudes and motivations Woolaver is all too willing to provide for them, first as suppositions and then taken for granted as if they are incontrovertibly true. In his eyes, Maud emerges as something of a angel, and Everett an evil, self-seeking monster. I found both the overly angelic Maud and the overly malevolent Everett equally hard to believe in. Woolaver’s hostile and almost purely negative portrayal of Everett Lewis is particularly hard to accept. 

 

It’s a pity that Woolaver felt so willing to invent reasons for Maud and Everett’s behaviour and then in later pages simply assume his inventions are the truth. It’s a pity that he has allowed himself to include everything he has felt like including, even poetic fictional scenes in which he imagines, for instance, what Maud is feeling and thinking as she has a conversation with a visiting moth. It's a pity that, having chosen to publish the book himself, he didn’t consider also hiring an editor less forgiving than himself—one who would have suggested massive cuts and who would have pointed out that the author Woolaver wants to refer to is Virginia Woolf, not Wolfe, or that  the interview of one of Maud’s supportors he refers to is in a different documentary film than the one he names, or that it’s not safe for him to assume that readers will have read the same books as he has and thus immediately be able to make sense of cryptic references to Woolf or W.H. Auden or Graham Greene.

 

It's a pity especially because Woolaver has in fact, gathered  an impressive amount of material on Maud Lewis, her work, her house, and her life in general--public records, school records, reminiscences from people who knew her, and much more. Learning about someone so far from the public eye for so much of her life and therefore, so unrecorded, is not easy. Among other things, Woolaver offers a convincing argument that the illness Maud suffered from in childhood and beyond was juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, and provides evidence and makes a persuasive case for the existence of a daughter Maud had and put up for adoption while in her twenties; and his discussion of the ways in which the poor farm affected both Maud and Everett is revealing and instructive. At a quarter of the length and more rigorously centred on its subject, this could have been an excellent book—the materials to make it one are all there, buried in and overwhelmed by a huge excess of far less relevant material. I’d recommend this book to anyone who wants to know as much as there is currently to be known about the life of Maud Lewis—but with a strong warning about everything else you’ll have to put up with in order to learn about the book’s actual subject, and an equally strong warning about accepting Woolaver’s one-sided  interpretations of his central characters.

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review 2017-04-25 18:09
AB Negative
AB Negative - Kevin P Thornton,Robert Bose,Shona Jayne Barnard,R. Overwater,Al Onia,S.G. Wong,Brent Nichols,Axel Howerton,Axel Howerton,Susan Calder,Therese Greenwood,Randy McCharles,Sharon Wildwind,Dwayne E. Clayden,Janice Macdonald

A solid little collection of short stories in the mystery and noir genres.  I have the pleasure of being familiar with several of the authors because of a writers & readers conference that I attend here in Calgary each August. 

 

With short stories, I often find myself wishing that they were longer and more detailed—several of these stories would, in my opinion, have been better suited to novel-length works, or at least novellas.  As with most short story collections, some appealed to me more than others.

 

It was refreshing to read stories set in my home province and, in some cases, in my own city.  I also give kudos for the very clever title of the volume (AB is the abbreviation for Alberta, dovetailing nicely with the blood group).

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review 2017-03-06 20:13
The Conjoined / Jen Sookfong Lee
The Conjoined: A Novel - Jen Sookfong Lee

How well do we know our parents? Social worker Jessica Campbell thought, like the rest of us, that she knew her mother pretty well. Then, as she and her father clean out the family home after her mother’s death, they find a body in the bottom of a chest freezer. They call the police, who find a second body in another freezer. Leaving Jessica to wonder what is going on?

This is very readable and things are revealed by various players in the story it progresses. But it is more about the interactions between people, the hidden secrets in everyone’s lives, and the need to live your own life in your own way than it is about the who-dunnit.

If you require a clean ending with all the bits tied up in a neat knot, this may not be a good book for you. If you can enjoy the humanness of the characters in and of themselves, you will find it a better fit.

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