“Birdcage Walk” by Helen Dunmore

This is another novel by Helen Dunmore, the American writer who has become famous for some fifteen books in which she uses huge canvases of actual history as backdrops to up-close human tragedies. Birdcage Walk is not only her latest book, it is also her last. Dunmore died in the spring of 2017.

Birdcage Walk takes place as the French Revolution is boiling up. It is set, however, in the UK, in the town of Bristol. Here, as elsewhere, England is at the height of the Romantic era and British radicalism. A young bride, Lizzie Fawkes, has grown up in radical circles where each step of the French Revolution is followed with eager idealism. She is married to John Diner Tredevant, however, who is a property developer and heavily invested in Bristol’s property boom. He is looking for money to finance a particularly fine terrace overlooking the city’s two-hundred-foot drop of the Gorge. As the Revolution in France sharpens, the investors are dropping away. John is angry that his wife continues to express her radical views and does not put his business interests first.

This is the story of a marriage and how it struggles to survive against forces far away that it can’t control. Dunmore is highly praised for writing that is both elegant and revealing.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

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“Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk” by Kathleen Rooney

This is a passionate love letter to the city of New York inspired by the life of an American woman who lived there in the 30’s and became the highest-paid female advertising copywriter in the world

The woman was called Margaret Fishback, and the author of this book bases Lillian Boxfish on her life, but apart from that writes an entirely new novel. Lilian was born in 1926 to a comfortable family living in Washington. She found she could write, and was determined to get to New York and earn her own living that way. Her family helped her initially, and insisted she live in the Christian Women’s Hotel in Midtown, until she could afford her own apartment. It didn’t take very long before Lilian landed a job at R.H. Macy’s writing advertising copy. She was original and witty and very soon earning a top salary. She also wrote poems, funny and charming. Her first book Oh, Do not ask for Promises was a smash hit and sold out, as did all her others up to the last Nobody’s Darling.

Lilian lived in six apartments altogether. She also fell deeply in love with a manager of a department at Macy’s, married and had one son whom she adored always. What distinguished her from other successful New Yorkers was her passion for the city, the actual streets. She walked every day, usually about five miles, on the way to work, at lunch time and in the evening to parties. She felt the street was the source of the latest things humans have invented and she looked for these all the time. She never ran into danger in her walking.

It’s a very original book and a new look at a city many have tried to describe before.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

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“A Distant View of Everything” by Alexander McCall Smith

With Canada on the brink of having its first female astronaut Governor General, it seems a good time to review the new book by Alexander McCall Smith in his beloved Isabel Dalhousie series.

Called A Distant View of Everything, this novel watches Isabel’s struggle with a match-making problem while simultaneously trying to coax her first-born to accept his newborn baby brother and attempting to edit her own publication on philosophical questions – her area of expertise. She does manage thanks to her own kindness and common sense, and the help of her adoring husband, a young musician.

Alexander McCall Smith has built up a number of series of books starting with the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, as well as stand-alone books. They have been translated into more than forty languages and are best-sellers world-wide.  He makes his home in Edinburgh.

Entertainment Weekly calls him genial and wise. You put down his books feeling not only entertained, but reassured and content. This one is no exception.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

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“Carbon is Yellow” by Marilyn Sargeant

In her debut collection of poetry, Marilyn Sargeant, a contemplative and introspective writer, as well as light-hearted and playful in her verses, presents her readers with both narrative and lyrical poetry that is innocent and explorative, as well as dark and brooding—touching upon topics which have stood the test of time in their truth and importance for contemporary audiences.  Her narrator observes all that is around her, often in wonderment.  Her gaze at the universe as she experiences it translates directly to her pen as though her eyes were an all-seeing lens—taking everything in.

Life experiences, real or imagined, blend seamlessly with Marilyn Sargeant’s observations and more troubling accounts of society gone awry.  Ms. Sargeant asks us to question our own behaviours, beliefs, and our treatment of the environment—particularly our natural world, which she reveres in a way that is akin to some of the great Romantics.

Venturing deeper into human experience, the poet explores themes such as mortality and inner conflict, speaking plainly and simply, yet without sacrificing depth.  She asks us to look beyond the surface and to examine the layers of our understanding(s) of the way things are, and perhaps the way they could be.

Further, Ms. Sargeant’s metaphor of rooms is threaded throughout her collection.  She likens a waiting room to society’s shifts and changes—not always for the better, mind you—the rooms representing a glimpse of modern life.  She reminds us that life is an aggregation of moments, beautiful and painful, all of which make up our “rooms.”  The nostalgia of past seasons, the familiar landscapes and soft breezes of our youth, the cages in which we are trapped in our dark hours—these “rooms” are explored elegantly by Ms. Sargeant’s nimble and clever narrator.  And, there is just enough spice to keep the reader on his or her toes.

Throughout her collection, Ms. Sargeant articulates what it means to investigate our external and internal worlds—our waiting rooms.  She has created a volume of finely crafted poetry which speaks to all of us, and which extends her (his) stories into our own.  We can relate since, in so many ways, we share the same room.  Visitors may come and go, but our room remains ours to tend to, to care for, and to appreciate in all its beauty and simplicity.

Reviewed by Anna Grace, B.A.H. Eng. Lit., M.Ed.

“The Marriage Bureau” by Penrose Halson

This is the intriguing story of two young British women who set up the first marriage bureau in the country, and made a resounding success of it.

There were the days in the 1930’s in England where there was no such thing as looking for a mate “online” – the system had not yet been invented. The result was many lonely people without means of meeting people. In this book, one young woman, a farmer’s daughter in England, visited her uncle in India where he ran a tea plantation and employed a number of young men from England to help him. The daughter was attracted to one of these men but in the end did not marry him. She saw first hand, however, how these men and hundreds like them in Britain’s other colonies, got very lonely because there were no women for them to marry. The visiting niece listened to her uncle’s suggestion that she set up an office in London where these men could meet a wife while on leave.

She knew another girl, also living in London, who was prepared to help her. They cleared the idea with legal authorities and the rest of the book tells the touching story of London in 1939, some few months before heading into World War II. Many men and women were longing to find a happy marriage.

The author, Penrose Halston, had used the Marriage Bureau herself and made a happy marriage. Later in 1986, she became the owner of a new bureau which had in fact merged with the original one. Halston had worked as a teacher and writer and handles these cases with sensitivity. They make for amusing as well as optimistic reading. In ten years the girls who ran the original Bureau created over three thousand marriages and only heard of two that ended in divorce.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

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“Earthly Remains” by Donna Leon

In this new mystery novel by Donna Leon, Commissario Guido Brunetti is taking a rare leave of absence which is rudely interrupted by the sudden death of his host.

Spending his time off in villa on Sant’Erasmo, one of the largest islands in the laguna, Brunetti is enjoying days of rowing a boat alongside the caretaker Davide Casati, who was also an excellent navigator. When a sudden and violent storm one day upset Casati’s boat at the landing, drowning its owner, Brunetti finds himself once again on the job, trying to solve a case complicated by other men’s actions at the time of the accident.

Brunetti is the starring detective in 26 stories in this beloved series by Leon. She has lived in Venice for most of her life (now dividing her time between Venice and Switzerland) and gives readers an up-close picture of the ancient city, the charm of the vaporetti rides through the lagunas, and details and rhythms of everyday life. Alongside the charm, however, lie problems from the huge influx of tourists as well as government corruption.

We have gotten to know and love Brunetti as he tracks down some of these crimes. He does it in a low-key manner, always allowing time to be with his own family, wife Paola and two children whom he loves and who become friends as we read the series. 

Earthly Remains is a powerful new addition to this celebrated series.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

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“My Italian Bulldozer” by Alexander McCall Smith

This is a new novel by the beloved Scottish author of the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency and a number of other series.

In this one, he introduces Paul Stuart, a well-known food writer in London who has written some popular books on food and wine in different parts of Europe. He was starting a new one, when his girlfriend of some time left him for her personal trainer. His editor, Gloria, suggested he travel to the part of Italy he was going to write about, for inspiration and cheer. He has already had success with books such as Paul Stuart’s Provencal Table, and Bordeaux Table, as well as books on Portugal and Spain.

Tuscany turns out to be a beautiful spot, as he settles into a charming village called Montalcano. His adventures start when his car-rental could not produce a car, and he is given a bulldozer which he proceeds to drive gingerly from place to place, getting attention to his own project along the way. The village people prove fun and competitive. A young American woman has particular appeal. In the end he finds happiness close to home in one of McCall Smith’s happy ever after endings. It makes for another of his irresistible loving books.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

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“The Meaning of Michelle” by Veronica Chambers

This is a quite inspiring book on how the United States’ first Black First Lady has shown the way for Black women all across the country.

The Latina writer, Veronica Chambers, has got 16 other writers (including a chef and a jazz musician) to explain how Michelle Obama has changed their lives. She came to the White House from a background in the poor part of Chicago. Her story is now well-known: her successful law career and marriage to Barack Obama who went on to become President.

Michelle’s quiet determination to open the world to Black women has made a huge difference to how these women see themselves in a country where race still remains a powder keg. In this collection, Veronica Chambers shows how Michelle’s sense of humour and confidence has lifted up other Black women who want to be just as comfortable in their own skin. There is a line of thankfulness that runs through the anthology. She even quotes a famous Black writer, James Baldwin, who  wrote: “your crown has been bought and paid for. All you have to do is wear it.” This book shows how.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

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“The Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben

When Peter Wohlleben began his life as a forester, he knew only what the modern forestry industry needs, i.e. to produce lumber it fells trees and plants new seedlings.

As his career  progressed, he got closer to the life of the trees themselves, discovering that they produce electrical impulses that pass through their roots and in this way communicate with their neighbours. This includes their child-saplings and the fact they can feed them sugar and other nutrients.

Wohlleben has spent some time  at a forest he manages in the Eifel mountains in Germany. In recent years Aachen University began conducting scientific research when it was realized that forests develop differently and more effectively when left to their own devices than when used merely for commercial gain. They need to communicate with each other, one of the most important ways to stay connected is a “wood wide web” of soil fungi that connects vegetation in an intimate network.

Peter Wohlleben spent over twenty years working for the forestry commission in Germany. He now runs an environmentally friendly woodland, working for the return of primeval forests. He has written a number of books about trees. This is an astonishing one and takes the reader into a brand new world.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

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“The Witches of New York” by Ami McKay

This book is set 200 years after the witch trials in Salem, Mass. Now 1880, this is the story of three modern “witches” as they ply their trade in New York city.

One of them had worked in a circus sideshow, the other was a medical student and “keeper of spells.” They cater to rich women of Manhattan, and specialize in cures, palmistry and potions. They are joined one day by a young woman who came seeking a job. It turns out she sees and hears things no one else can. One day she disappears and the desperate search turns up accusations from the past for all concerned.

It is a startling look at a world not much discussed. Ami McKay is an American, born and raised in Indiana. She now lives in Nova Scotia and has written two best sellers, The Birth House  and The Virgin Cure.

Reviewed by Anne McDougall

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