Belinda’s Rings by Corinna Chong


“Squid’s got three mothers who can’t spank him.”Belinda's Rings

The story opens in a supermarket with Mum (Belinda) and Squid (Sebastian) and Grace (our narrator) shopping on the only occasion on which Mum tried spanking Squid. She had let him out of the shopping cart and he’d begun punching the cereal boxes on the bottom shelf. “So he was punching, punching away, and every box he could reach was getting a punch, Squid made sure of that. ” While Grace and Mum argue about generic brands and Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, Squid stops punching, sticks his hand in his diaper”and got it all covered in – goo. Shit. This mustardy-brown, pasty kind of shit.” A chase begins and when Mum catches Squid by the collar and “reeled him in” that was when Grace saw that “she looked like she was about to cry.” And, “that was when Mum spanked him.”

Squid’s reaction? “It was hilarious. A perfect oval, aimed right at Mum’s snarling face. And then he laughed, gleefully, like one of those evil Chucky dolls from the horror movies. Ran down the aisle, feet going so fast his wobbling body could barely keep up. He disappeared around the corner, Mum trudging behind him.”

Turns out that Grace had fed Squid some Heinz creamed corn and her Mum says “You know the Heinz ones give him diarrhea.” And so we learn that Grace does a fair amount of caring for her brother Squid and her Mum expects her to do it as well as any other mother.

“It was the first time I (Grace) knew – really knew – I was alone. Me, separate from Squid and Mum. Mum drove home like a zombie…I watched a few raindrops river down the window and imagined us underwater, all separate, in our own little bathyspheres, roving around the deep ocean. We were trapped inside, looking for the same route to the surface.”

The image is very apt in that Grace wants to be a marine biologist and often imagines being eaten by a squid. She also thinks that people are threatened by squid because they look so different from us but she thinks it is only because we don’t understand them that we fear them. She seems to be applying this to her brother.

The other members of the family, besides Squid, Grace and their mother Belinda are Jess, Grace’s older sister and Wiley, Squid’s father and Grace and Jess’ step-father. Grace and Jess’ father whom they call Da and for whom we are given the name Dazhong. There are a number of minor characters, friends, classmates, bus drivers, academics Belinda meets etc.  Alternate chapters (some with titles some without) give Grace’s and Belinda’s versions of their worlds.

Early in the narrative, Belinda leaves her home and family and goes on a trip to Wiltshire, England where she was born. “Belinda had left her mother’s home when she was seventeen, and she’d never looked back…. she’d learned everything she knew about caring for herself the hard way, and yet she never felt any desire to return to her mother’s. She’d long ago lost any desire to even think about her mother.” However, her mother still sent Christmas gifts and $150 every year. She kept the money, hidden away, so she could pretend that “ties had been severed.”

“Belinda had spent over two years researching crop circle and related phenomena, from their earliest recorded history to the present day.” She “trusted crop circles for their shape. A circle seemed natural, an instinct.” “She could never, would never believe in reducing relationships to mathematical patterns. A circle was a circle, no beginning and no end. She needed to believe that life was unmappable.”

“Concentricity. She’d been as moved by the images of the Hubble as she’d been by the first images she’d seen of crop circles. Then there was the UFO sighting. And the coincidences kept multiplying and circling back to each other the more Belinda thought about them. They were all signs, radiating from the same centre. She wore her coincidences like rings, all on one finger. They travelled with her wherever she went, and each was just as important as the rest.”

And so Grace continues to mother Squid and Jess continues to bake and be a perfect “Mum” while Wiley manifests two rather different personality types. This is a story rich in characterization, told in entertaining and realistic dialogue, and with which the reader can identify in many instances. It is a mother-daughter journey during which the daughter comes of age and gains wisdom and a recognition of her bond with her mother whose search for a route to the surface is often confusing for her children as well as for herself.Corinna Chong

This novel is written by Corinna Chong, born in Calgary and who is a writer, editor, and graphic designer working in Kelowna, B.C. She currently teaches English literature at Okanagan College.

Here is what Mark Anthony Jarman writes about her novel:

“Belinda’s Rings is about childhood and adolescence and sisters and mothers and piano lessons, but it’s also about UFOs and mysterious squids and stunningly beautiful crop circles near Stonehenge.  The writing has a mesmerizing grace and an Atwoodian fascination with science and swirling fratals and deep sea divers and puzzling family bonds. Belinda’s Rings is a vital, vibrant gem.”

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

NOTE: This story, by its very nature, contains a spoiler early on and so you cannot read past the first three short initial paragraphs below without learning of this spoiler. If you have read at least the early part of the book you will be fine but if, as some prefer, you would rather not learn of plot developments this way….SAVE THE REVIEW UNTIL LATER!

“East of the Tolly Club, after Deshapran Sashmal Road splits in two, there is a small mosque. A turn leads to a quiet enclave. A warren of narrow lanes and modest middle-class homes.

Once, within this enclave, there were two ponds, oblong, side by side. Behind them was a lowland spanning a few acres.”Lowland

As the story begins, Subhash and Udayan, our main characters, are walking across this lowland. Subash is thirteeen and Udayan is fifteen months his junior. The lowland “was a shortcut to a field on the outshirts of the neighbourhood, where they went to play football.”

Subhash and Udayan represent two different stories about India which are, like the two young men, inextricably joined. Lahiri’s novel, after a certain point, follows mainly the story of the older brother but this is of necessity and also because of the inextricable nature of the relationship which the brothers had. Udayan’s life is cut short as a result of his participation in the Naxalite movement which began in India in 1967 in a small village, Naxalbari, from which the movement took its name.

It is interesting to read in an article in the Journal of Defence Studies entitled “Naxalite Movement in India: The State’s Response”, April 2010 by Raman Dixit that the “Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (in 2008) warned, “Naxalism is the greatest threat to our internal security.” The credit for the survival of the movement for over 40 years must go to the Government, which has failed abysmally in addressing the causes and conditions that sustain the movement. The problem has been in the Indian state’s perception of the causes of the Naxal movement.””

This review cannot begin to report accurately on the Naxal movement but readers who are interested beyond the details presented by Lahiri would be wise to do a search on the internet on the Naxalite Movement. I also did a second search on the Naxalite movement in 2013 and some very interesting information resulted, including a report from the Hindustan Times from New Delhi, dated June 11, 2013 and titled, “Parties vow to contain naxal movement.” ( This, as I see it, is a gift from Jhumpa Lahiri: an opportunity to learn something about the politics of the Indian subcontinent that I have not previously encountered.

A short time before he is murdered, Udayan married a young woman named Gauri who came to live with Udayan in his parents’ home. Her marriage was acceptable to neither her parents or his but Gauri was, at least, allowed to live in the Mitra family home. Subhash has been studying marine biology in Rhode Island. When he learns how Gauri is being ostrasized in his parents’ home he offers friendship and learns that Gauri is pregnant with Udayan’s child. Subhash and Gauri go back to Rhode Island as a married couple and live separate lives in their small graduate student quarters. Their personal isolation and lonliness increases inspite of Subhash’s efforts to find his way through the dilemma. The child’s arrival does not really improve things. Gauri is not drawn to the child and Subhash becomes the predominant parent, having to make sure Gauri meets the responsibilities of caring for her (Bela) at least some of the time. Some reviews have found fault with Gauri as a character but I believe this to be misplaced and lacking in compassion: I would suggest that she was probably suffering from a variation of post traumatic stress disorder among other things.

A rich relationship develops between Subhash and Bela although it is seriously threatened when Gauri leaves and Subhash is haunted by the responsibility he has to tell Bela about her father. Bela had created an unusual relationship with her mother that was not reciprocal outwardly but, nonetheless, was a unique mother-daughter bond that Gauri could not recognize at the time.

Here are some of Gauri’s words:

“What she’d seen from the terrace, the evening the police came for Udayan, now formed a hole in her vision. Space shielded her more effectively than time: the great distance between Rhode Island and Tollygunge. As if her gaze had to span an ocean and continents to see.  It had caused those moments to recede, to turn less and less visible, then invisible. But she knew they were there. What was stored in memory was distinct from what was deliberately remembered, Augustine said.

Bela’s birth, on the other hand, remained its own yesterday for Gauri.  That summer evening formed a vivid tableau that seemed just to have occurred. She recalled the rain on the way to the hospital, the face of the nurse who’d stood at her side, the view of the marina out the window. The feel of the hospital gown against her skin, a needle inserted into the top of her hand. Just yesterday, it seemed, she had held Bela and looked at her for the first time. She remembered the ballast of pregnancy, suddenly missing. She remembered astonishment that such a specific-looking being, contained for so long within her, had emerged.”

Now and then, fragments of the political story, come through:

“Kanu Sanyal was alive but in prison. Charu Majumdar had been arrested in his hideout, put into the lockup at Lal Bazar. He had died in police custody in Calcutta, the same summer Bel was born.

So many of Udayan’s comrades were still being tortured in prisons. Siddhartha Shankar Ray, the current chief minister in Calcutta, was backed by Congress. He was refusing to hold enquiries on those who had died.

News of the movement had by now attracted the attention of some prominent intellectuals in the West.  Simone de Beauvoir and Noam Chomsky had sent a letter to Nehru’s daughter, demanding the prisoners’ release. But in the face of rising protest, against corruption, against failed government policies, Indira Gandhi had declared the Emergency.  Censoring the press, so that what was happening was not being told.

Even now, part of Gauri continued to expect some news from Udayan. For him to acknowledge Bela, and the family they might have been. At the very least to acknowledge that their lives, aware of him, unaware of him, had gone on.”Jhumpa Lahiri (Medium)

Gauri does return to Tollygunge and to the home she lived in briefly with Udayan.

“Now he stood at the edge of a lowland, in the enclave where he’d lived all his life. It was an October evening.  Tollygunge at dusk, the week before Durga Pujo.”

Lahiri smoothly brings the story full circle which produced a feeling of considerable satisfaction in this reader. If you like a strong story with rich characterizations along with the challenge of learning something you didn’t know about the world you live in (or may have known and then forgotten), this reading experience might be right for you. Enjoy!


Caught by Lisa Moore

“He lay there, flat on his back, chest hammering, looking at the stars.  It was as far as he had been from the Springhill penitentiary since the doors of that institution admitted him four years before.  It was not far enough.

He’d heaved himself off the ground and started running.

This was Nova Scotia and it was June 14, 1978.  Slaney would be twenty-five years old the next day.

…          He’d broken out of prison and he was going back to Columbia. He’d learned from the first trip down  there, the trip that had landed him in jail that the most serious  mistakes are the easiest to make.”

Slaney and Hearn. They were a pair. They walked home from school together every day. Who’d have thought they would be the perpetrators of what the local newspapers called “the biggest bust in Canadian history”? There had been a picture of some of the bales of weed being hefted into the courtroom on the shoulders of the court clerks. The young men were “folk heroes in the making. They were the new thing, as it had manifested itself in St. John’s in 1974, where they had stood trial for importing two tons of pot. They’d been searched for weapons on the court house steps, the first time in the history of the St. John’s courthouse anyone had been patted down before a trial. Hearn had revelled in it, his arms raised, as if addressing a crowd.”

Hearn’s father had liquidated his business and got a second mortgage on his house and put it all up for Hearn’s bail. Hearn jumped bail and two months later his father had a massive stroke: Hearn escaped prison and his father was “lost in a prison of his own body”.

David Slaney had a relationship with a young woman named Jennifer who had a child named Crystal.  David wanted desperately to see Jennifer again and to re-establish their relationship even though he had heard that Jennifer was now married to a man named Fred Decker and living in Ottawa. David buys a large doll in a pink box and purchases a ticket to Ottawa and looks up Decker in the telephone book. “Slaney caught her hand just before it struck her face. That was in the hall when she opened the front door.” Slaney explains that he wants to make a life for the three of them and wants to be forgiven. Jennifer tells him that she had been visited by Social Services to see if she was a fit mother since she had been associating with a drug smuggler. She came close to losing Crystal to foster care. Slaney counters with a claim that they are meant to be together. Jennifer’s response was very clear: if David will walk away from the drug business she and Crystal will pack and leave with him. Slaney says he will come back for them.

Slaney’s relationship with Hearn is a complicated one that Slaney has obviously not examined very carefully. Hearn jumped bail and Slaney went to prison for four years. Hearn tells Slaney “I’m sorry for the way it went down. I’m sorry you went to jail.” But Slaney can’t see that Hearn is setting him up as a fall guy. Or is he? What can I say? Did Lisa Moore use Caught as the title because being caught was a oax it into the open. cleverly, in fact, that the reader actually thinks Slaney might get out of this mess yet.  Slaney is a very likeable character and I really hoped he would not get caught.Caught Medium

I  appreciated Moore’s use of the word “caught” in a number of places where it was unexpected but totally appropriate. So many of the characters are caught in situations over which they have little or no control.

Another very interesting character is Patterson, a staff-sergeant in the Toronto Drug Section, marked for promotion if he can bring in Brian Hearn. Patterson has a serious perspiration problem: “It could bead up on his forehead in a meeting. His cheeks would shine under office light. It dripped down his temples very slowly and it was all he could do not to touch it, not to draw attention.” His strategy is to follow Slaney and let Slaney lead him to Hearn.

Slaney is a rich  character who, in spite of having served four years in prison, remains likeable and I find this is one of the strengths of the novel. Slaney would translate well to the movie screen and make a credible anti-hero. Slaney makes me think of a young rebellious James Dean. That the story and/or plot remains interesting, in fact, compelling, to the end, is another  strength of Moore’s writing.

Here are a couple of Slaney’s reflections on his situation early in the novel :

“…he knew the nature of mistakes. They were detectable but you had to read all the signs backwards or inside out. Those first mistakes had cost him. They meant he could never go home. He’d never see Newfoundland again.

Everything will happen from here, he thought. This time they would do it right. He could feel luck like an animal presence, feral and watchful. He would have to coax it into the open. Grab it by the throat.”

Lisa Moore is from St. John’s, Newfoundland. Her novel February was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, named a new Yorker Best Book of the Year and a Globe and Mail Top 100 Book.

February remains my favourite of her works so far but I very much enjoyed Caught and the level of crafting it demonstrated. You have to write well to keep your readers’ attention when you have given them what appears to be the plot in the title!

Her other works include Alligator (finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and winner of the Commonwealth Fiction Prize) and the story collection Open (finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and a national bestseller).

Minister Without Portfolio by Michael Winter

Note from Wikipedia: A minister without portfolio is either a government minister with no specific responsibilities or a minister who does not head a particular ministry. The sinecure is particularly common in countries ruled by coalition governments and a cabinet with decision making authority wherein a minister without portfolio, while he or she may not head any particular office or ministry, does have the right to cast a vote in cabinet decisions. In some countries where the executive branch is not composed of a coalition of parties and, more often, in countries with purely presidential systems of government, such as the United States, the position (or an equivalent position) of minister without portfolio is uncommon.

The above definition is helpful to have in mind while getting to know Henry Hayward. Winters has chosen an epigraph from W.B. Yeats for us to ponder as well in preparation for our journey:

But Love has pitched his mansion inMinister Without Portfolio

The place of excrement;

For nothing can be sole or whole

That has not been rent.

And so it begins: “She told him there wasn’t another person…and of course he was in her house, he was the one who would have to physically leave…they talked it over…she returned to what was not an ultimatum. I’m leaving you now can you please leave.”

“But I love you, he said.”

Rather than disagree, Henry “caught himself and understood that the previous words were the best words to leave on. But I love you. They would give him the high ground and he could really dig a good ditch for himself now and remain unshaven and unwashed and drink himself into a narrow hallway with no door at the end, he could do that and search for commiseration.”

He seeks and finds the commiseration with his friends, John and Sylvia and their two children, Clem and Sadie. Then John tells him there is a job in the Middle East which starts in March. John said Henry needed to break his relationship with the land because “the land is her land or it’s your land together and you can’t walk it any more alone.” The contract, John explains is in Afghanistan and they would be working with Tender Morris. “Tender Morris was in the reserves and now he’s stationed in Camp Julien.” John and Henry had gone to trade school with Tender. John decides to go with Henry to Kabul.

Tender’s real name was Patrick “but he’s been called Tender since high school – he’d been their hockey goalie.” Later in the book you will learn more about the nickname. Tender is the one who first refers to Henry as minister without portfolio. On Labour Day at the base there was a disco and they got to playing pool and there were some Americans who were going to try and take over their table because they were tired of waiting. So Henry says (loudly enough to be overheard): “What if we were Americans.

Let’s not be Americans, Tender said. Let’s be outlaws. Except for Henry – he’s our minister without portfolio.

What the hell is that.

You’re not committed to anything but you got a hand in everywhere.

Henry accepted this. He didn’t know what it meant but he accepted the position, the honour, the judgment. He didn’t have a wife or a house and he was an employee. ”

Shortly after this, disaster strikes and Henry and John fly home in a Hercules with Tender Morris’ casket in the belly of the plane with them. Tender’s girlfriend Martha Groves is on the tarmac in Toronto when they land in Canada.

Now Henry has to rethink things.

“I am a good man, Henry thought, but I’m not a good man. I’m following kinky side routes that do harm to the moral fabric of many lives. What was it Tender called me – a minister without portfolio. What a disparaging comment. Let me get a portfolio.”

Funny but a title of Terry MacMillan’s just popped into my head: How Stella Got her Groove Back. Anyway, read this book because it’s entertaining, it’s full of great domestic adventures, it’s relational and the characters grow and, somehow, it’s hopeful.

page 115  One of the characters in the book says about Henry “He wants to stay home and take care of his hundred people.

Henry looked at her. What does that mean, he said. And how do you know.

It’s written all over you.”

As Henry starts to change and become interested in fixing up the house he begins to think more about what other people need and what he needs and what he might be capable of giving to other human beings such as a child i.e. “marshalling up an inner strength to help what existed outside of himself. Not a hundred people, but two.” He thinks back to his life with Norma and realizes that “he wasn’t living a dangerous life, but taking care of his hundred people. Minister without portfolio!”

There are great and hilarious tales surrounding getting electrical power to Tender’s house and the actual moving of the house, even getting trapped in an incinerator. It’s really a  very entertaining read and surprisingly uplifting inspite of Henry’s challenges. I highly recommend it and am planning on reading more of Michael Winter’s work which includes The Death of Donna Whalen, The Architects are Here, The Big Why, This All Happened, One Last Good Look and Creaking in Their Skins.

Emancipation Day by Wayne Grady

Emancipation Day is celebrated in many former British colonies in the Caribbean and areas of the United States on various dates in observance of the emancipation of slaves of African origin. It is also observed in other areas with regard to the abolition of serfdom or other forms of servitude. ” (All items in quotation marks immediately above and in the six short paragraphs below are as found in Wikipedia on October 3rd, 2013)

“The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 ended slavery in the British Empire on August 1, 1834. Emancipation Day is widely observed in the British West Indies during the first week of August.”

“Some countries observe the holiday as August Monday.”

With reference to Canada, the Wikipedia article states that “the first colony in the British Empire to actually abolish slavery was upper Canada, now Ontario. A British army officer and later the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada (1791-1796), John Graves Simcoe, passed an Act Against Slavery in 1793, which led to the abolition of slavery in Upper Canada by 1810. It was then superseded by the Slavery Abolition Act 1833.”

“While the date of the First  August Monday holiday in Canada is historically linked to the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1834, not all of the provinces commemorate the holiday as such.”

“In 2008, the Province of Ontario dedicated its August Monday holiday as “Emancipation Day,” which had been called “Civic Holiday” in Ontario…Toronto, the capital of Ontario, also hosts the “Caribana” celebration which occurs the first Monday in August …It is the largest Caribbean festival in North America and was started in 1967…Locally, the August Holiday in Toronto has been designated as “Simcoe Day” to commemorate Ontario’s first Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe who made Upper Canada, now Ontario, the first jurisdiction in the British Empire to abolish slavery.”

Some other items I found very interesting: ‘The District of Columbia celebrates April 16 as Emancipation Day.” “In Columbus, Mississippi, Emancipation Day is celebrated May 8” and “In Texas, Emancipation Day is celebrated June 19th” while “The United States Virgin Islands celebrates Emancipation Day, an official holiday, on July 3. It commemorates the abolition of slavery by Danish Governor Peter von Scholten on July 3, 1848.”

So all this and much, much more is the story behind the title of this book in which the author presents us with a vibrant sample of the lives of some of the people for whom Emancipation Day in the years after World War II had very specific significance.

Wayne Grady’s characters are living the history only hinted at in the academic textbooks and the digital encyclopedias. He gives these characters three-dimensional lives and makes a reader believe she knows some or all of them. Jack Lewis is perhaps the most complicated of all the characters or at least the one whose life overlaps the lives of the majority of the other characters. That majority included his father, William Henry Lewis of W.H.Lewis & Sons, Ltd., Plasterers and his uncle Harlan who owned his own barbershop, his brother Benny and his mother Josie (Josephine Rickman) who didn’t know her birthplace, and Vivian Clift whom Jack met and married in Newfoundland and whom he nicknamed Lily White.

Jack was in a Navy band and posted in Newfoundland when he met Vivian. After his first stint at sea which was doing “escort duty, almost to Ireland and back”  he meets Vivian at the K of C hall where he is playing and they make plans to meet again at a lunch counter in the train station on Water Street. Vivian asks him “What do you do in Windsor?”

‘”Work for my father,” he said, his voice gloomier than ever. Then he seemed to perk up…”He owns a construction company in Windsor…’W.H.Lewis and Sons Limited’…There’s me and my brother, Benny, and Dad’s brother, Uncle Harley, when we need him. If we get too many houses to do then we hire more people. It’s a classy outfit. Not as big as your father’s, of course, but big enough. We did the Fox Theatre in Detroit. You ever hear of it?”‘

“Can’t say I have.”

“Huge job. Took six months.”

And so Vivian starts to get a picture of Jack’s life in Windsor. In the same conversation she learns that Jack joined up “to get away” and to escape “the work, the family, all that” but he explains that that only means that “a fella’s got to strike out on his own”. There are other uncomfortable moments in the conversation  but Vivian has been captured by Jack and misses the clues he has freely given. Her sister tells her “You only think you’re in love with him because he’s your ticket off the island.” But for Vivian  “The chief question wasn’t whether or not she would marry him if he asked her. Of course she would. The question was whether she would sleep with him first if he continued to press her to, and she was very much afraid that the answer to that was yes, too.”Emancipation Day (Small)

Besides Jack and Vivian’s relationship, there are several chapters devoted to Jack which provide his story. Two memories are particularly revealing. One occurs in Detroit when Jack had just turned eighteen. He had been playing in the Windsor Sea Cadet Marching Band also known as the Windsor All-Whites because of their white uniforms. His friend Peter Barnes played first trumpet in the band and Peter came from a rather wealthy family. On this particular night it turned out Peter’s mother had gone to Detroit and while Jack is hanging out at Peter’s place after band practice they learn that there is “a full-blown riot going on over there.” The young men head to Detroit to “rescue” Peter’s mother. Jack gets more than he bargained for: “Woodward Avenue was in ruins, smoldering and deserted.” This was the inspiration which led to Jack’s enlistment.

Another memory or set of memories which have particular significance for Jack are those associated with Jackson Park in Windsor and the Emancipation Day celebrations at that venue. A younger Jack thought the park had been named after his grandfather and was disappointed to learn that it had been named after a mayor of Windsor. His memories of the picnics and the reasons he stopped going to the celebrations are key factors in the reader’s understanding of Jack’s personality and behaviour.

There is much about music in this book as well because it is, of course, a part of who Jack is. You will enjoy recalling many familiar song titles. There are also a multitude of street names that will ring bells for anyone who has spent much time in Windsor and/or Detroit: Ouellette Avenue, Victoria Avenue, Walker Road, Walkerville, Woodward Avenue. I was personally dumbfounded when I read that Jack’s friend Peter lived on Victoria Avenue because I too lived on that street for two or three years probably about 20 years later. Perhaps you have had such an experience while reading a particular book?

Anyway, for many reasons, this is a book I would not have wanted to miss. It reads quickly and unfolds its mysteries smoothly although not without some surprise. The tension in Jack and Vivian’s relationship increases as the story advances and the reader cannot help but feel that tension. There is much to think about when the reading is complete.

I was particularly impressed by a review written for The Globe and Mail by Denise Balkissoon who is a Toronto-based journalist and the co-founder of the Ethnic Aisle blog but would recommend that it be read after you have read the book yourself.

For another great review and photographs of the British-American Hotel in Windsor where Jack’s dad and uncle spend a considerable time, check out