The Truth About Luck by Iain Reid

The subtitle is “What I learned on my road trip with Grandma” and that is exactly what the book is about: the book is even dedicated to Grandma. No surprises here. See Iain and his Grandma here where they discuss the book briefly.

The epigraph supports what Iain and his Grandma think about their experienceThe Truth About Luck of spending time together: “Time just gets away from us.” (Charles Portis, True Grit). We hear it often…I always meant to visit him but there was always something I had to do: there are as many versions of it as there are people. It might refer to a friend, a parent, a grandparent, a neighbour, a cousin etc. etc.

The road trip started out as one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time.  The author had been at a pub in Ottawa with his older brother and they were discussing Christmas gifts. They used to give gifts as a pair: sometimes home-made, twice they gave self-portraits for which they dressed up in costume. However, this year Iain’s brother had decided that “it was time to expand his gift basket into his own, private, improved basket.” He broke the news to Iain at the pub making sure he had already bought his gifts so he couldn’t be talked out of it.

Iain began to feel stress about gift buying for the first time: it was a “new, uninvited feeling.” “I’d never understood the requisite stress others felt when giving gifts. I’d always just waited until a day or two before, and inevitably the magic would happen.” His Grandma was the last grandparent left and the only elderly relative, the last of her generation. She had been part of his life much oftener when he was growing up but he hadn’t seen much of her in the last decade. “She was on the cusp of ninety-two. Ninety-two! Considering that cusp, she was in incredible shape, mentally and physically.”

His brother suggested that the most valuable thing he could give his grandmother would be time. “I know you’re working on your writing, but you can also take time off. Time that you could then spend with Grandma. No one else in the family can o that as easily.”

“Actually, you could take her on a trip.” And that’s how it all got started.

When Iain tells his brother that he’s not really worried about Grandma and her routine, we realizethat he is worried about his routine! His brother gives excellent advice and no sympathy: “Stop worrying for three seconds of your life. Get out of your own head.”

Iain is used to being alone all the time and he is worried about what he and his Grandma are actually going to do for five days in one another’s company. He knows that his grandmother never complains but his brother explains that this is a good match because Iain always complains.

The scene when he picks up his grandmother is very cinematic:

“I finally manoeuvre room for both of Grandma’s bags in front of the duvet and behind the cooler. I slam down the rusty trunk and walk around to her side of the car. “Ther you go,” I say, opening her door. “Don’t worry, it’s comfy. Well, comfier than it looks.”
She pats my arm “It looks cozy.”
The door, like the car, is tired. It sags and groans on its rusty hinges. Grandma smiles, lowering herself gradually, carefully. She steadies herself on my left arm all the way onto the low-riding seat.
That’s when I notice my front licence is hanging on by a single screww. Theleft screw is long lost. But, as Dad had pointed out earlier, I keep it in place with grey duct tape. The most recent strips of tape must have lost their hold. I usually have to re-tape every two weeks or so. I ask Grandma to hand me the roll that I keep on the handbrake.
As I straighten and fasten the dented licence plate, my delicately positive mood disintegrates. With Grandma watching, this act makes me feel more foolish and unsophisticated than it usually does. And realizing this, that I don’t usually feel any remorse or embarrassment over continually taping my front plate, fills me with a deep self-directed sourness.”
But our endeavor is official now. It’s no longer speculative. It’s real. It’s happening. Grandma’s sitting in my car. Even while I drove to her house, part of me still didn’t believe our trip would actually happen.”

It is at this point that Iain realizes the following:

“The most difficult thing for me might be having constant company for five days, the responsibility to make conversation with another person, to make meals for another person, an older person. I suppose I can cope. I’m hoping she can.”

How this turns out for Iain and his grandmother is what we learn in the remainder of the book. Here’s a bit of Grandma’s conversation with Iain just to whet your appetite further:

“I think feeling lucky is really only important, really only helpful, in the present. It seems tempting to wait for perspective, perspective gained by time. But it becomes irrelevant in the past. Luck doesn’t really mean the same thing if it’s only understood through memory, is what I’m trying to say.”

When Grandma and Iain discover they both like books and they both like Iain’s record album collection, things start to liven up.

I personally found Grandma’s own story slightly more interesting than Iain’s story but then she does have the advantage of 64 years more experience!

I’m thinking I will try Iain Reid’s first book soon. It’s called One Bird’s Choice and I’ve got a hold on it at the library. How about you? What’s next on your TBR list?

P.S. check out this latest news re Iain Reid’s writing.

Remembering the Bones by Frances Itani

I read this book around the time of its publication in 2007 but I recently came across a reference to it in something else I was reading and was inspired to reread it. It turned out to be a delightful and rewarding experience as rereads often do. It will join the growing list of fiction about aging that provide comfort and wisdom on my own journey.

It is the recounting of an experience of  eighty-year-old Georgina Danforth Witley who is setting out on a trip in response to an invitation she received:

The Master of the Household has received Her Majesty’s command to invite Mrs. Georgina Danforth Witley to a Lunch to mark the 80th Birthday of the Queen.

Georgie has spent considerable time pondering this trip and has planned carefully what she wants to see and do. There have been 99 men and women invited and all were born on the same day as the Queen. The actual invitationRemembering the Bones event is for the 19th of April and Georgie has planned her trip to include resting up when she arrives and also doing a bit of sightseeing. “She wants to walk the streets of the ancient city and visit places she has read about all her life.She wants to sit tall in a London cab and drive past sites she has known only from photographs and her imagination: Marble Arch, Piccadilly, Downing Street, Big Ben. She’ll walk through the Abbey and remember stories of kings and queens, explorers and poets. She’ll run her hands over the bones or memorials of Handel and Hardy, Browning and Chaucer, the Brontës and Shakespeare. Her footsteps will echo over old stone.. She’ll have tea at Fortnum & Mason’s and visit the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, Dickens’ house and the Tate.She’ll buy a scarf of Liberty silk and she’ll try to get a ticket for a play, and she’ll run out of energy before she’ll run out of things to do.”

As she leaves the house she passes by the “mahogany cabinet with the glass doors where she has stored the memorabilia she has collected from the time Elizabeth was a young princess … programs, postcards, Maclean’s 1937 special Abdication issue – five cents a copy – which includes the “Message of Abdication” from King Edward VIII…maps of Royal visits, a Coronation matchbook stamped  Elizabeth R 1953 and The Princess Elizabeth Gift Book…It’s all there.”

She is driving herself to the airport, having turned down her daughter Case’s offer to drive her. “As she rounds the first curve, she checks her wrist to be certain she hasn’t forgotten her watch, the one with the wide gold strap. Because her attention is on her wrist, she allows the steering wheel to twist slightly to the right. In a split second, the right front wheel slips off the pavement. The moment the tire catches a depression in the shoulder, the entire car gives a jolt, and Georgie’s hands clamp back onto the steering wheel.

But the car, with a mind of its own now, refuses to continue the curve.”

“The car lands in the top branches of a large tree and then flips, and flips again, and brushes past another tree, and down and down.”

Georgie’s position at the bottom on Spinney’s Ravine will give her cause to remember, among many other things, the names of the bones in the body.

Concentrate. Think of the bones, she tells herself. Are there any broken bones?

The ones she can’t move.

Try the left leg.

It bends.

Try the right.

Pain, shooting through.”

She learned the bones of the body from Gray’s Anatomy, 1901, which she began examining when she was six years old and had let herself into her grandfather’s library. Her favourite diagram was the skeleton whom she named Hubley and, using her grandfather’s margin notes, told him that “Structure determines function” and he should “Be mindful ” of how he behaved.

Besides her grandfather through his books, another person who influenced Georgie was Miss Grinfeld who instructed all eight grades in the country school she attended. She learned the names of the Great Lakes by repeating “Every Man Has Socks On – Erie, Michigan, Huron, Superior, Ontario.” Also, because Miss Grinfeld revered prepositions, she wrote them on the blackboard alphabetically and had the class sing them to the tune of “The Farmer in the Dell”. Georgie could remember these and along with the bones of her body of which she was increasingly aware because of her fall she kept her mind busy reviewing them along with recalling the many stories of her mother, her grandmother and her daughter. In between she worries about dying of thirst and the sounds she hears and how long it might take her to drag herself to the car. She reviews as well her marriage to Harry and the loss of their baby son and the grief that consumed them.

Itani writes fully fleshed out characters: people the reader can recognize and become attached to very quickly. She does it through the use of details, most of them very small but very intimate. In her collection of stories, Leaning, Leaning Over Water, the first story, A Long Narrow Bungalow, contains an excellentLeaning Leaning over water example. The mother and busy wife, Maura, has arisen an hour before her children:

“This was her treasured time – before she took over the grip of household affairs, before she became what she must be.”

“Her first sip from her cup of tea was the best moment of all. She could stand at the window to drink. She could sit on a kitchen chair. She had choices. She could take a few moments to read – not poetry, as Jock liked to do, but thick books that took months to get through because she could give them only small portions of her time. She ran her fingers over the threading cover of Stories from Australia, a book she deliberately read slowly because it was about far away and she wanted it to last forever.”

What a delightful introduction to a character and how very revealing although it gives no personal details such as age, hair colour or style, height, etc. but rather some very specific details about her approach to personal time and what she does for pleasure.

In October 2014, I reviewed Itani’s Tell: you can find it here.  It has a post World War One setting in Deseronto, Ontario.

Have you read or do you have plans to read any of Itani’s books?


Galore by Michael Crummey


The invincible power that has moved the worldGalore
            is unrequited, not happy, love.

I will bring my people again from the depths of the sea.

And while we’re reading quotations, I like this one from the back of the book jacket:

“The guy can really write: atmospheric, lucid, sophisticated storytelling with real heart.”                              Anne Enright, Irish Times

Mary Tryphena appears on the first page as a child and I was taken captive by the name alone and soon by the character herself. On the beach at the end of April is a beached whale waiting to be butchered by the population of Paradise Deep. A population of “Irish and West Country English and the bushborns of uncertain provenance – were camped on the grey sand…on the feast day of St. Mark.”

“They’d scaled the whale’s back to drive a stake with a maul, hoping to strike some vital organ, and managed to set it bleeding steadily. They saw nothing for it then but to wait for God to do His work and they sat with their splitting knives and fish prongs, with their dip nets and axes and saws and barrels.”

Mary Tryphena is sent by her father to fetch Devine’s widow, her grandmother, who had that morning delivered Mary Tryphena’s brother. The work of harvesting the whale had been going on all day. Fires were burning on the beach to render the blubber, the stench was overpowering and the white underbelly was exposed with the stomach’s membrane floating free in the shallows.  “The Torcher triplets were poking idly at the massive gut with splitting knives and prongs, dirty seawater pouring from the gash they opened, a crest of blood, a school of undigested capelin and herring, and then the head appeared, the boys screaming and falling away at the sight. It was a human head, the hair bleached white. One pale arm flopped through the ragged incision and dangled into the water.”

“The body was dragged out of the water by Devine’s Widow and Mary Tryphena’s father. No one else would touch it though every soul on the beach crowded around to look. A young man’s face but the strangeness of the details made it impossible to guess his age. White eyebrows and lashes, a patch of salt-white hair at the crotch. Even the lips were colourless, nipples so pale they were nearly invisible on the chest. Mary Tryphena hugged her father’s thigh and stared, Callum holding her shoulder to stop her moving any closer.”

Eventually the bystanders decided that the “unfortunate soul was owed a Christian burial and there was the rest of the day’s work to get on with.” Jabez Trim conducted a service from his incomplete copy of the Bible and Mary Tryphena’s father and James Woundy began to haul the body off the landwash. They stopped to argue about whether the man was dead or alive and “Mary Tryphena stood watching the pale, pale figure as the argument went on. A man delivered from the wale’s belly and lying dead in his own filth on the stones. Entrance and exit. Which should have been the end of the story but somehow was not. Froth bubbled from the mouth and when the corpse began coughing all but the widow and Mary Tryphena scattered up off the beach, running fortheir homes like the hounds of hell were at their heels.”

They decide to take the man to Selina’s house which was a” Wexford-style farmhouse with a fieldstone chimney at its centre, polished wooden floors upstairs and down. Mullioned windows imported from the West Country of England, iron-latched doors. ” It was a wedding gift from Selina’s father but she had lived for seven years in a plain stud tilt, the rough logs chinked with moss and clapboarded with bark and she birthed three children in that shelter.

“On the morning of their (she and King-me Sellers) seventh anniversary, Selina refused to get out of bed. -I”ll lie here, she told her husband, until there’s a door on that house o close behind me.” Once the front door was hung,’Selina got out of bed and dressed, packed her clothes into a trunk and walked the fifty yards to her new home.”

Selina is just one example of the folks who live in Paradise Deep. You will meet her husband King-me Sellers, Jabez Trim the owner of the incomplete Bible, the Widow Devine who doctored the community, Callum Devine the son of the Widow and Mary Tryphena’s father Callum, his wife Lizzie, Father Phelan and, of course, “the albino stranger…known as Judah”. There are also King-me and Selina’s son Absalom and Saul Toucher and his ten-year-old triplets and Olive Trim, Jabez’s wife who walks on her hands. Oh, and Levi and Henley and and and………

After Judah arrived, the cod reappeared in great numbers. People began to call him the Great White or St. Jude. Many believed he could heal. He recognized his name and came when called, even followed orders, but he didn’t speak and folks treated him as if he were deaf.

The book might have been called Mary Tryphena or even Judah because it covers each of their lives. But it covers so much more! There are stories galore and characters galore and tears and smiles galore! Entertainment galore you might say. I’m planning on rereading very soon.

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

“I was used to people looking at her. It had happened often in Pátzcuaro. Maribel had the kind of beauty that reduced people to simpletons. Once upon a time grown men would break into smiles as she walked past. The boys in her school would come to the house, shoving each other awkwardly when I opened the door, asking if she was home. Of course, that was before the accident. She looked the same now as she always had, but people knew – almost everyone in our town knew – that she had changed. They seemed to believe she was no longer worthy of their attention or maybe that it was wrong to look at her now, that there was something perverse about it, and they averted their gaze.
But this boy looked. He looked because he didn’t know. And the way he looked made me uncomfortable.”

Arturo exits the store. Maribel’s mother signals the presence of the boy to Arturo who tells her to just walk as he clasps Maribel’s hand and steps out.

The setting is Delaware. The boy’s name is Mayor. Maribel’s family has just Book of Unknown Americansarrived from Mexico.The boy’s parents have learned from another tenant in the same building that their last name is Rivera and they are legal (all of them have visas). The landlord’s name is Fito. The Riveras are being sponsored by the mushroom farm where Arturo Rivera will be employed.

Mayor (Toro) gets bullied all the time at school. He s in his second year. His brother Enrique was very popular and had been awarded a full-ride soccer scholarship to Maryland. Two weeks into practice the coach told Mayor to “just sit it out for awhile”. He “felt like a loser”.

Mayor’s dad was born in Los Santos in Panamá. His father had a bad temper and he modelled himself upon his dad. His wife Celia helped him change and then Panamá was invaded and life changed and they decided to leave.  When asked where his home is now he proudly says los Estados Unidos. He and Celia miss Panamá but only the Panamá of the past. “Because a place can do many things against you, and if it’s your home or if it was your home at one time, you still love it. That’s how it works.”

The job at the mushroom farm was the only one with the a company that was near Maribel’s school that had been willing to sponsor their visas. Arturo had to stand in a warehouse for ten hours and pick mushrooms out of the dirt in the dark without water or food. There were quotas to be met. He had to take three buses to get to the job which was over the state line in Pennsylvania. In Mexico Arturo had owned a construction business.

They had to wait to hear from the school so that Maribel could start. The school they had understood that she would attend was the Evers School but Alma learns that Maribel does not have an Individualized Education Plan so she must first go to another school where it will be determined whether she is eligible for special education services.  This will take as long as two months. The doctor in Mexico had provided a letter and they had understood that entrance to Evers was a sure thing.

And so begins a new set of challenges for each member  of the family. “We had to push past trepidation and believe that by sending her off we were doing the right thing. What other choice did we have?”

Alma tried to learn English by studying people’s mouths as they spoke English. They had picked up an old television put out to the road for junk. She found the people spoke too fast and she couldn’t tell if she was “mouthing individual words or bunches of them strung together like grapes.” When she went out for food she thought she was being followed by a boy and she feared for her daughter but the landlord was able to reassure her that the boy need not be a source of worry.

The boy was Mayor and eventually he is introduced to Alma and Maribel by his mother Celia when they are shopping at the Dollar Tree. After the introductions, Mayor thinks:

“Maribel, I said to myself.  Forget about how she was dressed – white canvas sneakers straight out of another decade and a huge yellow sweater over leggings – and forget about the fact that her black hair was mussed up like she’d just woken up and the fact that she wasn’t wearing anything else that most of the girls in my school liked to pile on. Forget about all of that.  She was fucking gorgeous.
My heart was jackhammering so hard I thought people from the next aisle were going to start complaining about the noise.”

When Mayor learns that Maribel was supposed to go to the Evers School both he and his mom are surprised.

“I looked at the girl again. Evers? That was the school for retards. We all called it the Turtle School.” That’s when Mayor realized “There was something wrong with her. I never would have guessed it. I mean, to look at her…it didn’t seem possible.”

Interspersed between the ongoing story of the Riveras and the Toros are stories of other immigrants to Delaware such as Benny Quinto from Nicaragua and Gustavo Milhojas from Guatemala and Quisqueya Solis from Venezuela who lives in the same building as Alma and Arturo. And there is also the story of the landlord, Adolfo “Fito” Angelina who wanted to be a boxer but ended up as a building manager and who explains how that came about.

A love story between a boy and a girl and a love story between new citizens and their new home. You will enjoy meeting these people and you will be drawn into their stories and have a new respect for the challenges they have all faced in their lives.


No Known Grave by Maureen Jennings

No Known Grave is part of  the series,  The Detective Tom Tyler Mysteries. The two previous titles are Season of Darkness and Beware This Boy.  Maureen Jennings is also the author of the well-known Detective Murdoch Mysteries the first of which was published in 1997. In 2007 three of the latter were made into movies of the week and in 2011 the Murdoch Mysteries TV series was produced. The latter has been shown in the UK, in the United States as The Artful Detective, in much of Europe and in Canada on CBC TV.

The Detective Tom Tyler Mysteries are set in World War II England. This third in the series takes place at St. Anne’s Convalescent Hospital, Ludlow, Shropshire and begins on July 15, 1942. The dedication for the book lists “the town of Ludlow, our second home.” In an Author’s Note, Jennings explains that “St. Anne’s No Known GraveConvalescent Hospital is a figment of my imagination, as are the people who inhabit it. However, the town of Ludlow is real and has been for centuries. The events that are described in the letters that Tyler receives really happened, and I have rendered them as faithfully as I could. If in this small way I have created interest in that tragic event, I am glad. We must never forget.”

The house was an estate and the original bedrooms have been converted into wards. There were thirteen men on the second floor and four women on the third. The four women were in the former servants quarters but their small number compared to the male patients prevented them from having pleasanter rooms. The house had only been donated for the duration of the war and the sisters were grateful for the use of it.

In the first chapter we meet two of the patients at St. Anne’s: Daisy Stevens and Barbara Oakshutt. Daisy has just been given a wake up call because she goes to an early morning massage class. She pads over to the washstand to wash her face.

“The new skin on her cheek was still tender. Then she sat down at the dresser, examined the row of lipsticks courtesy of the Yank packages, and selected one. This was definitely a day for “Tru-Crimson.” She felt in need of a boost. …She had well-shaped, full lips that she was secretly rather proud of. At least they were untouched by the accident. That’s how she referred to it in her mind, although strictly speaking the bombing raid was no accident at all. It was premeditated and quite intentional. The only “accidental” part was that she’d been caught by flying shrapnel.
Her twenty-second birthday was this weekend. …She preferred to dress in her WREN outfit…the familar uniform gave her a feeling of purpose.”

Gradually, we are introduced to the other patients: Nigel Melrose, Victor Clark, and Eddie Prescott who share a room. Jeremy Bancroft stops by in his wheelchair and Melrose offers to take him down to breakfast. We learn that Victor Clark does not speak. Clark hands clothes from a chair to Eddie Prescott: “baggy black-and-white-checked trousers, a brown striped shirt, and a paisley waistcoat” then reaches for Clark’s shoulder.”Lead on. The lame leading the blind. What a bloody joke.” Through dialogue and description,  we continue to meet more characters and learn about each of them. The writing flows smoothly and the reader is quickly invested in the setting, the characters and the developing story.

Detective Inspector Tom Tyler comes to Ludlow to make a new start as the saying goes. You will very likely want to read the first two books in the series first so I will say very little about his personal life here except to say that he has one true love in his life: I’m sure you prefer to find out who that is for yourself.

He’d been in Ludlow three days when he got a telephone call at the house the local council provided for the senior officers of the constabulary. The call was from the almoner at the nearby convalescent hospital.

“The voice on the other end sounded far away. “Inspector, this is Sister Rebecca Meade. I am at St. Anne’s hospital. Can you come right away? There has been an, er, incident.” Suddenly her voice got louder. She’s moved the mouthpiece closer.  “There are two victims. One was a member of the staff, Sergeant Jock McHattie. The other is his son, Ben. They have been shot.”

I turns out that the car for the station is being repaired and the only choice is the motor cycle and sidecar in the shed.

“Damn it, I haven’t been on a motorcycle since I was a lad. I don’t think this is the time for a refresher course.”  Tyler tells Sergeant Rowell with whom he shares the house.

“The new WAPC is a qualified driver as I understand it. She’s reporting for duty this morning. She could take you.”

Tyler stared at him. “What the hell – I’m supposed to show up at a crime scene on a motorcycle? And with a woman rider.”

“I’m sure the young lady will be highly competant.” Rowell gave him an anxious smile. “These days, nobody is surprised at unorthodox travel arrangements.”

“Maybe I can hire a tractor.”

Mystery, humour, great setting and unusual characters. All the ingredients for a great read!