The Transcriptionist, by Amy Rowland

New in bookstores today, The Transcriptionist, by Amy Rowland.

The TranscriptionistFrom the book’s description: No one can find it. That’s the first thing. The Recording Room is on the eleventh floor, at the end of a rat-hued hallway that some workers at the newspaper have never seen; they give up on the ancient elevator, which makes only local stops with loud creaks of protest. Like New Yorkers who refuse to venture above Fourteenth Street, there are newspaper workers who refuse to go above the fourth floor for fear of being lost forever if they leave the well-lit newsroom for dark floors unknown. In this room you’ll find Lena. She works as a transcriptionist for the Record, a behemoth New York City newspaper. There once were many transcriptionists at the Record, but new technology and the ease of communication has put most of them out of work, so now Lena sits alone in a room on the building’s eleventh floor, far away from the hum of the newsroom that is the heart of the paper. Still, it is an important job—vital, really—a vein that connects the organs of the paper, and Lena takes it very seriously. And then one day she encounters something that shatters the reverie that has become her life—an article in the paper about a woman mauled to death by lions in the city zoo. The woman was blind and remains unidentified, but there is a picture, and Lena recognizes her as someone whom a few days before she had met and talked to briefly while riding home on a midtown bus.

Amy Rowland

Amy Rowland

Obsessed with [understanding the woman’s death], Lena begins a campaign for truth that will ultimately destroy the Record’s complacency and shake the venerable institution to its very foundation. In the process she finds a new set of truths that gives her the strength to shed what she describes as her “secondhand life” and to embrace a future filled with promise, maybe even adventure. An exquisite novel that asks probing questions about journalism and ethics, about the decline of the newspaper and the failure of language. I am so happy to recommend this wonderful debut novel to you.  I had trouble putting it down as I was completely swept into Lena’s world. In our ever more technologically dependent world, human connection has become a more important issue – we are all plugged in all the time, but how much of our time is spent engaging with people in meaningful and important ways?  Rowland explores this theme beautifully in her book, as Lena attempts to solidify her presence in her own life, in an increasingly alienating world.

Amy Rowland wrote a great essay, sharing how the idea for The Transcriptionist came about.

The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey

From the book’s description:

In Eowyn Ivey’s magical debut novel The Snow Child, a couple creates a child out of snow. When she appears on their doorstep as a little girl, wild and secretive, their lives are changed forever.

SnowChildpaperback-bannerAlaska, 1920: a brutal place to homestead, and especially tough for a couple who have never been able to conceive. Jack and Mabel are drifting apart—he breaking under the weight of the work of the farm; she crumbling from loneliness and despair. In a moment of levity during the season’s first snowfall, they build a child out of snow. The next morning the snow child is gone, but they catch sight of an elusive, blonde-haired girl running through the trees.

This little girl, who calls herself Faina, seems to be a child of the woods. She hunts with a red fox at her side, skims lightly across the snow, and leaves blizzards in her wake. As Jack and Mabel struggle to understand this child who seems to have stepped from the pages of a fairy tale, they come to love her as their own daughter. But in the Alaska wilderness, life and death are inextricable, and what they eventually learn about Faina changes their lives forever.

I first read this wonderful novel at the beginning of 2013. I very much read to both my mood and the seasons, so being in Canada, in January – it seemed like the ideal time to read a book about a ‘snow child’, set in the Alaskan wilderness!   While it was the first book I read in 2013, it stuck with me throughout the entire year, and was one of my favourite reads.

Here we are now, in 2014. I find myself in a fairly pervasive reading slump. But, given my work, and involvement in a few online book groups, a reading slump can be a problematic situation.  Two of my book groups have chosen to read The Snow Child in 2014. One group is reading it now (CBC Books, on Goodreads), and I am leading the read/discussion). The other group will be reading it in March. So…I really had to get going on the re-read of this book.

eowyn-bioLuckily, the second time reading The Snow Child was just was great as the first. Ivey, using inspiration from classic Russian fable (The Little Daughter of the Snow), has created a truly wonderful fairy tale for adults.  Don’t let that description scare you or cause you to turn up your nose. Fairy tales, while beautiful and magical, often tell hard truths and share dark realities.

It is very easy to become swept up in the world Ivey has created in The Snow Child – it all seems so bleak, remote, challenging and nearly impossible. And yet, her characters are so full of life, as is the setting of the story. So much of human survival hinges on the natural world. And the natural world is a marvel. Some may even think mother nature magical. And here is where Ivey really shines as she balances her story between naturalism and the mythical.

There is an sadness that anchors The Snow Child, and Ivey certainly does not romanticize the Alaskan frontier. But the hopes and dreams that have long lured people to Alaska, the mystery of the place, are very present in Ivey’s characters. There is such a life force in this story – I really hope it will capture your imagination and heart, as it has captured mine.


“In my old age, I see that life itself is often more fantastic and terrible than the stories we believe as children, and that perhaps there is no harm in finding magic among the trees.” 

My Favourite Reads of 2013


“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.”

~ T.S. Eliot, (from: Little Gidding)

While I am definitely thinking about all of the great reading ahead in 2014, I very much wanted to share with you my favourite reads from 2013. Lists are always subjective…I recognize this, but I read some truly wonderful books last year and I wanted to record these stand-outs. Maybe this list will help you discover some new reads, or prompt some interesting conversations; I hope it will do both!

I have broken out my list into four categories (but the books are not listed in any particular order):

  • Literary Fiction Published in 2013;
  • Contemporary Literature.;
  • Classic Literature; and
  • Nonfiction.

I. Literary Fiction Published in 2013:

1. Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, by Therese Anne Fowler. This is a wonderful novel of historical fiction. It is well-researched and Fowler has beautifully imagined (and, maybe, at moments recreated certain aspects of) the life of Zelda Fitzgerald, beyond just the wife of the famous/infamous F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fowler show Zelda forging her own identity while fighting her own personal demons and Scott’s, too? With brilliant insight and imagination, Therese Anne Fowler brings us Zelda’s irresistible story as she herself might have told it.

2. Kicking the Sky, by Anthony De Sa. I read this book in October, 2013, and shared my thoughts at that time. Three months later, I still find myself thinking about this story and wowed by De Sa’s talent.

3. The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner. This was my first time reading Kushner, and she blew my mind. I loved everything about this novel – it was tough, edgy and sensitive.

4. The Painted Girls, by Cathy Marie Buchanan.  This novel ticked all the boxes for me: ballet, belle époque Paris, Degas, Zola, La Figaro.  While fictional, I loved the way Buchanan wove the history of the real events throughout this story. I read the book quickly – two very late-night reading sessions that kept me up way, waaaay past bedtime. The subsequent daytime sleepiness was well worth it though.

5. The Crooked Maid, by Dan Vyleta. The Crooked Maid is many things – historical fiction, mystery, literary fiction, homage. Vyleta’s doing a lot with this novel, which could be a worry – but it’s very good, and Vyleta can really write. His ability with description is pretty stellar.

6. The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert. The only word that keeps rolling around in my brain, concerning Gilbert’s new novel, is: LUSH – this book is so lush and enveloping. It was pretty delightful from start to finish. And if you know me, you know I don’t really use the word ‘delightful’! This novel may have been my most surprising read this year.

II. Contemporary Literature:

1. Indian Horse (2012), by Richard Wagamese. I managed a 5 word review, after I read this novel in February, 2013: “Stunning. Beautiful. Heartbreaking. Required reading.” Wagamese’s book affected me very deeply. For all its heartbreak, it was also very much a hopeful story. This is a book that can, and should, be read by everyone.

2. The Wreckage (2005), by Michael Crummey. My love for Michael Crummey’s writing runs fairly deep – I think he is brilliant. He wowed me again with The Wreckage. Reading this novel made me want to spend some time in Crummey’s brain…or, at the very least, take a writing class with him.

3. Sweetness in the Belly (2005), by Camilla Gibb. I read this book for the third time in 2013, and man, it’s great!  Gibb is a fantastic storyteller and through her prose I could truly see, hear, smell and touch the places she created in this book – Lilly’s life in Harare, and her life in London were both so vivid.

4. A Complicated Kindness,(2004) by Miriam Toews.  Another third reading. (2013 was unusual in that regard, I don’t generally re-read much at all.) I LOVE THIS NOVEL SO HARD!  I think this books gets better with each reading. The way Toews captures the voice of 16-year-old Nomi is incredible. Sure she’s wise and precocious, but she’s also still a kid and Toews gets her voice so right.

5. The Round House, (2012) by Louise Erdrich. What a great novel! It’s evocative and hard but using a 13-year-old boy as the protagonist adds a layer of nuance that would be missing in an older main character (I think – given the arc of Joe’s story.) I really loved Erdrich’s perspective on family, love and justice. The supporting characters are all very interesting and well developed, and served to make this a very tightly woven novel.

6. Arcadia (2011), by Lauren Groff. I loved Arcadia a lot. i viscerally responded to the settings and people Groff created here, and i am kinda floored by Groff’s talent. I was totally caught up in Bit’s life. I loved the timeline and following him along life’s path.

7. The Snow Child (2012), by Eowyn Ivey. What a fantastic debut novel! It’s a magical and sometimes heartbreaking story, perfectly set for a wonderful winter read.

8. The Savage Detectives (1998), by Roberto Bolaño.


bow-lah-nyoh-verr;  noun

1. weird physical and emotional effects caused by reading the works of Roberto Bolaño. symptoms may include: confusion; anger; awe; dry eyes; headache; idolatry; exhaustion; the strong desire for alcohol, drugs or both; feelings of filthiness and the need to shower to remove the grit; wonder; sadness; curiosity; the unexplained urge to pimp out a 1970s impala. symptoms may ease with time or they may worsen.

2. a thing that has survived from the past.

III. Classic Literature:

1. Two Solitudes (1945), by Hugh MacLennan. What a dense, wonderful important novel. This was a re-read for me, but I had lost so many details over the years it was like a new experience. Following the strands of story arcs concerning ‘two solitudes’, through this novel was amazing. MacLennan wrote about so many important issues and brought heart and humanity to the telling. Certainly a canadian classic, and a book that should continue to resonate for generations to come.

2. Persuasion (1818), by Jane Austen. Late in the book there is this quote:

“Minutiae which, even with every advantage of taste and delicacy which good Mrs. Musgrove could not give, could be properly interesting only to the principals.”

And when I read that line it made me think of the details in Austen’s writing and how, in fact, the minutiae present with her manner of storytelling sucks me right in every time. But…with Persuasion I feel this is very much a novel of Anne’s restraint and resolve, as much as it is a tale of different persuasions. So given Anne’s nature, though we aren’t privy to her inner workings in great detail, I was seeing everything through her eyes and completely immersed in her world.

3. The Grapes of Wrath (1939), by John Steinbeck. Oh for the love of humanity — is there any family as hard done by as the Joads??? The Joads’ humanity and hope, in the face of utter hopelessness, is incredible. And the way Steinbeck conveyed this balance throughout the novel is brilliant. The man was a genius. But i don’t really know what I could possibly say here that hasn’t been said earlier, and better, by others? Read it! Do it!

4. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), by Harper Lee. I made it all the way to page 317 without crying…even though I felt like I could a couple of times earlier on. But page 317 did me in, the bastard! Heh. (I am not really a person who cries while reading – though Grapes of Wrath last week (see above) and this book tonight are turning me into a liarface on this front.) Now, I am all teary and soppy, and I ugly-cried and I got the hiccups and I have to try and write something here that conveys how brilliant this book is to me. So how about this: Harper Lee is so freaking amazing she will make you ugly-cry!  Yeah? Cool!

5. Twelfth Night (1602), by William Shakespeare. A re-read (again with the re-reads!!) after many years, and still as great as I remember it to be. Shakespeare can be lots of fun.

IV. Nonfiction:

1. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012), by Susan Cain. I am an introvert. But I am not shy. So I have been trying to explain the difference to people for years. Instead, I should just carry around copies of Cain’s great, great book. Being an introvert and having a good and thoughtful understanding of what this means, I still learned a lot from Quiet. Cain’s research seems very well done (and so interesting), and her style is very engaging. I think this is one of those books that everyone should read as it will likely help open some eyes and minds, and allow people to better understand and respect one another.

2. The Truth About Luck (2013), by Iain Reid. Sometimes you read a book and it becomes something you connect with so personally and deeply that it becomes nearly impossible to detach from it to assess or review it constructively. That happened with this amazing book by Iain Reid. But, I  thought about it for quite a while, and i think – my personal attachment aside – the strength of Reid’s writing, the flow of the story, and his ability to make us care about what he and his grandma are up to make this book totally worth its 5-star rating. (I wrote about the book in more detail, in March, 2013.)

3. Belonging: Home Away From Home (2003), by Isabel Huggan. This book is wonderful – and was my #1 favourite read for 2013! The majority of the book is a memoir of place – the search for home. Not just the physical: the location and the structure, but also the feeling. Feeling one is home is a big deal. At least it is to me, anyway. And it’s something I have been hoping to find my whole life.  Huggan gives voice to this search, this sensation, and does it so beautifully and naturally. There’s a lot of excavation of memory that goes on in the telling, and it felt very much like I was just listening to Huggan in conversation. Also contained in the story are small snippets of Huggan’s writing life, something I really appreciated.

4. The Arctic Grail (1988), by Pierre Berton. What a great book!!! Pierre Berton is an excellent storyteller and, it would seem, he is also an impeccable researcher. But that’s not really a surprise!! Shamefully, this is the first time I have read a Berton book. OOPS!! He definitely came up during my time in elementary and secondary school, but we were never actually given any of his books to read/study. Weird, right?? I was so amazed by the overwhelming lack of preparedness with which the majority of the expeditions undertook their quests. The British expeditions were stubbornly and fatally wrong-headed in not learning from their inuit contacts, and judging the Inuit, while useful to them, ‘savages’ and ‘unintelligent’.

5. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997), by David Foster Wallace.  Each essay in this collection has its own strength (and each is fairly brilliant), but overwhelmingly evident, when taken as a whole, is DFW’s ability to assess and read people, and analyze a situation or instance in the context of a bigger picture. It’s uncanny, really.

6. My Ideal Bookshelf (2013), by Jane Mount & Thessaly La Force. Or, as I like to call it, porn for book lovers! This is just a beautiful book to look at, and it also gives great satisfaction on the ‘snooping the bookshelves’ front.

7. Bottomfeeder (2007), by Taras Grescoe.  LOVE THIS BOOK!! Seriously; it’s fantastic. It should be required reading for everyone. Grescoe has a wonderful ability with delivering the facts and science in a very engaging and approachable way. The structure of the book is fantastic: each chapter is like a little case study. A species is examined – the supply, the demand, the problems and the science – and explained. Grescoe travelled the world while researching this book and is clearly very passionate about the seafood industry, and about the choices he makes for his diet.


So, there you have it – all of the absolute stand out books I had the pleasure of reading in 2013.  Altogether, I read 121 books last year. This was definitely not usual. Generally, I average somewhere between 60 and 70 books per year. I am not really clear on what happened in 2013 to cause my pace to double, but it was quite the adventure and I will look back fondly on ‘that one crazy reading year’.

A few stats:

  • Total books read: 121
  • Total pages read: 41,839
  • 71 female writers
  • 49 male writers
  • And 1 collection featuring male and female writers
  • 12 works in translation

You can view my full reading list on Goodreads.

Thank you for visiting Literal Life, and continuing to be interested in the books I am reading and talking about.

As always – please feel free to share your favourite reads with me – I would love to hear about them

Happy reading!

The Orenda – Joseph Boyden

The OrendaJoseph Boyden’s newest novel, The Orenda, is epic. And I don’t use this word in the over-inflated urban dictionary, affected manner. No. The Orenda is truly an epic novel. It’s sweeping and has a nearly magical feel about it. The story is set during the very early 17th century,  a time when Canada’s native people had been living without interference from outsiders. But European explorations had been making inroads, bringing white populations to the country, and Jesuit missionaries were attempting to reach the indigenous people, to convert them to the Catholic faith. The Orenda deftly presents all of these issues; it is a tough and challenging story that will awe readers.

Boyden has three narrators, and so we gain three diverse perspectives: Christophe is a French Jesuit missionary; Snow Falls, a teenaged girl of Haudenosaunee nation (Iroquois) has been kidnapped by the Wendat (a Huron nation); and Bird – a leader of the Wendats who has been grieving the deaths of his wife and children.

The book opens boldly, with a violent act and a difficult journey. And this opening, is emblematic – the book is punctuated by acts of violence. Early on in the story, we are told that ‘the orenda’ represents a life force which is present in everything – and the orenda is not reserved only for humans. But we also learn about tortures visited upon some characters. While utterly brutal, and seemingly counter to the life force, these forms of torture seem revered and are highly honoured. As a counter to the sufferings, we are also shown the power of the orenda in healing ceremonies.

This balance between opposing ideas is integral. Boyden seems to have well-captured each side – and there are always more than two – with such respect and understanding. Horrible things happen in The Orenda – but because something from our past is difficult, readers should not shy away from this novel. It is so evident, through Boyden’s beautiful and nuanced writing, just how important this story is, and how much it needed to be told.

Recently, The Orenda was selected as one of five books competing in Canada Reads 2014. The theme chosen for the 2014 edition of the program is social change: what is the one book that could change Canada?

Joseph Boyden & Wab Kinew
Photo © CBC Books

The Orenda is a very strong contender, and it has excellent representation for the debates. Championing Boyden’s novel is Wab Kinew. Kinew is an amazing guy – he’s a musician, broadcaster and educator, and has hosted programming on the CBC. In 2012, the University of Winnipeg named Kinew its first director of indigenous inclusion. At the launch event for Canada Reads, Kinew spoke so eloquently and passionately about reconciliation and hope, not only for First Nations’ people – but for all Canadians.

Reconciliation is an important theme in The Orenda and this novel seems well-poised to spark important conversations (even while it is showing us and teaching us things that are nearly irreconcilable). With hope, true change, healing and acceptance can result from reading this one novel. We need to learn from our past and we need to do better – individually, as human beings and collectively, as a nation. Joseph Boyden and Wab Kinew can help get us there, if we open our hearts and minds, listen and learn.

Book’s Description:

A visceral portrait of life at a crossroads, The Orenda opens with a brutal massacre and the kidnapping of the young Iroquois Snow Falls, a spirited girl with a special gift. Her captor, Bird, is an elder and one of the Huron Nation’s great warriors and statesmen. It has been years since the murder of his family, and yet they are never far from his mind. In Snow Falls, Bird recognizes the ghost of his lost daughter and sees that the girl possesses powerful magic that will be useful to him on the troubled road ahead. Bird’s people have battled the Iroquois for as long as he can remember, but both tribes now face a new, more dangerous threat from afar.

Christophe, a charismatic Jesuit missionary, has found his calling among the Huron, and devotes himself to learning and understanding their customs and language in order to lead them to Christ. An emissary from distant lands, he brings much more than his faith to the new world.

As these three souls dance with each other through intricately woven acts of duplicity, small battles erupt into bigger wars and a nation emerges from worlds in flux.

Publisher’s Information:

Publisher: Hamish Hamilton Canada (an imprint of Penguin Canada)

Hardcover: 496 pages

Publication Date: 10 September 2013

Language: English

ISBN-13: 978-0670064182

Penguin Blogger

I am happy to be participating in Penguin Canada’s Daily December Delights holiday campaign. As a participant in this special month-long event, I had the chance to read the most amazing novel.  And I am very happy to recommend The Orenda to you today. It truly is a novel everyone should read.

Kicking the Sky – Anthony De Sa

I am going to apologize right off the top here: this review might be a bit ramble-y. For that, I am sorry. But reading this novel was quite an emotional experience, as I thought back to the summer of 1977 and the story of Emanuel Jaques. The book is brilliant and my mind took it all in, but I seemed to also have my own experiences, away from the novel – though related and/or triggered by the story. Together, it resulted in me having ALL THE FEELINGS. It happens. But when it happens, it can cause reviews (my reviews, anyway) to go off the rails. I am going to try very hard to make this coherent and helpful for you, so as not to do a disservice to the novel, or Anthony De Sa. (Both deserve your attention!) I fully expect to come back to this review at a later time, to clean it up a bit. For now, though, I did want to capture my thoughts and hope you’ll indulge me here. Okay, enough of the pre-ramble…onto the review:

Anthony de Sa

Photo Credit: Laura Bombier, c/o RHC

Every now and then, if you are lucky, you encounter a book that is unputdownable. I stayed up way too late on Monday night, well past 2am, so I could finish reading Anthony De Sa’s new novel, Kicking the Sky.  I was pretty foggy-headed the next day, and a little cranky (I am usually asleep by 9:30pm, oops!), but my book hangover was well worth it; De Sa’s book is wonderful and I was hooked from the very first page.

Understand, Kicking the Sky is not an easy book to read but, to me, it is a necessary story. The novel is written around the true and tragic fate of one young boy, 12-year-old Emanuel Jaques.  In the summer of 1977, Jaques disappeared in downtown Toronto. Four days after he went missing, his body was found on the rooftop of a body-rub parlour on Yonge Street. Jaques had been violently beaten and raped, his body was discarded in a garbage bag. Jaques and his family were Portuguese immigrants, trying to make a good life in a new city and the boy was just trying to earn money. He was lured with the promise of $35 to help move some photographic equipment. In the press, Jacques was dubbed ‘The Shoeshine Boy’.  This crime shook the entire city, outraged the Portuguese community, and brought the police and gay communities under heavy scrutiny.

In the summer of 1977, I was 10-years-old. My family lived just a little north of the city of Toronto, and just a bit west of Yonge Street. We could easily walk to Yonge and hop on the bus to head downtown, something we often did from the age of 12 or 13 on.  My family always had a newspaper subscription (or two), and watching the nightly news was a regular part of our evenings. In 1977, I learned about, and followed, two news stories that scared me greatly, and that have sat with me as heavy sadness ever since: the disappearance and death of Emanuel Jaques was one of those stories.  Jaques’ death (how and why it happened) was perhaps still a bit abstract to my young mind, but so much was relatable and frightening. I understood a beloved young boy had been violently killed and parents were afraid for their children. I knew the city was in shock, and I grasped the anger and heartbreak within the Portuguese community. I also remember being surprised and confused over the police actions at that time.

Kicking The Sky

Cover Illustration by Todd Stewart

Anthony De Sa gives us a window into this time and place in Kicking the Sky. This is very much a coming of age story. We have a 12-year-old main character, Antonio Rebelo, who has one foot in childhood and one, prematurely, thrown into adulthood. Within the story we behold a loss of innocence, struggles with moral questions and immoral acts, and the beginnings of sexual awareness. Antonio’s story plays out in contrast to Emanuel Jaques’ and makes for an interesting parallel because, as Antonio’s mother worries, it could have just as easily been Antonio instead of Emanuel. Violence abounds in this novel, it’s almost all-encompassing as we witness it: through the story of Emanuel Jaques’ death, from violence of parents, delivered upon their children, spousal abuses, and then, too, we hear about other violent acts, as we learn more about the lives (past and present) of Antonio’s friends and family.

There is a lot going on here, but de Sa is fully in control of his story. For all of the heartbreak and cruelty within, there is also a story brimming with humanity, empathy and sensitivity. Through De Sa’s talents and personal experiences, we are invited into a world we may not otherwise be able to know well at all. I was very interested in many stylistic aspects of the novel, but there were two themes (or motifs?) in particular that stood out for me: I was very taken by the use of perspective in De Sa’s writing. By this, I don’t mean the alternating voices of different characters, I mean actual physical perspectives. De Sa often takes his story up, to an elevation above the action – rooftops,  hydro poles, a raised sleeping loft and ladder, and an uncle’s shoulders are all employed – changing the view and adding an interesting layer to the narrative. The second point of interest was the (sad) use of animals, and the harms inflicted upon them by humans. Yes, this made for upsetting reading at moments, but it serves a purpose and is not gratuitous in its inclusion.

I know this is a novel that is going to sit with me for a long time. I have taken the characters into my heart and find myself thinking about them, wondering if they are okay, hoping for the best. I want De Sa’s book to be discovered by many readers and I highly recommend you seek it out. I hope you will be as amazed by this wonderful book as I have been.

Doubleday Canada has created a moving book trailer, please take a look:

Anthony De Sa’s ‘Kicking the Sky’ – Book Trailer