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2018 Travel: Books Set in Canada

I thought that I would prepare a week-long series of books which I would recommend in the countries which I have been to so far in 2018.  I have copied the official blurbs, and have also linked my review if I have written anything extensive.  I will be including seven books per destination, so as to showcase the best of the work which I have read, and not to make the posts too lengthy.  Our first stop is Canada.

331872311. The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence (1964)
In her best-loved novel, The Stone Angel, Margaret Laurence introduces Hagar Shipley, one of the most memorable characters in Canadian fiction. Stubborn, querulous, self-reliant – and, at ninety, with her life nearly behind her – Hagar Shipley makes a bold last step towards freedom and independence.  As her story unfolds, we are drawn into her past. We meet Hagar as a young girl growing up in a black prairie town; as the wife of a virile but unsuccessful farmer with whom her marriage was stormy; as a mother who dominates her younger son; and, finally, as an old woman isolated by an uncompromising pride and by the stern virtues she has inherited from her pioneer ancestors.  Vivid, evocative, moving, The Stone Angel celebrates the triumph of the spirit, and reveals Margaret Laurence at the height of her powers as a writer of extraordinary craft and profound insight into the workings of the human heart.

2. Shelter by Frances Greenslade (2011; review here)
A gorgeous, poetic literary debut from award-winning author Frances Greenslade, Shelter is a brilliant coming-of-age story of two strong, brave sisters searching for their mother.  For sisters Maggie and Jenny growing up in the Pacific mountains in the early 1970s, life felt nearly perfect. Seasons in their tiny rustic home were peppered with wilderness hikes, building shelters from pine boughs and telling stories by the fire with their doting father and beautiful, adventurous mother. But at night, Maggie—a born worrier—would count the freckles on her father’s weathered arms, listening for the peal of her mother’s laughter in the kitchen, and never stop praying to keep them all safe from harm. Then her worst fears come true: Not long after Maggie’s tenth birthday, their father is killed in a logging accident, and a few months later, their mother abruptly drops the girls at a neighbor’s house, promising to return. She never does.   With deep compassion and sparkling prose, Frances Greenslade’s mesmerizing debut takes us inside the extraordinary strength of these two girls as they are propelled from the quiet, natural freedom in which they were raised to a world they can’t begin to fathom. Even as the sisters struggle to understand how their mother could abandon them, they keep alive the hope that she is fighting her way back to the daughters who adore her and who need her so desperately.  Heartwarming and lushly imagined, Shelter celebrates the love between two sisters and the complicated bonds of family. It is an exquisitely written ode to sisters, mothers, daughters, and to a woman’s responsibility to herself and those she loves.

3. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (1996) 10192871
It’s 1843, and Grace Marks has been convicted for her involvement in the vicious murders of her employer and his housekeeper and mistress. Some believe Grace is innocent; others think her evil or insane. Now serving a life sentence, Grace claims to have no memory of the murders.  An up-and-coming expert in the burgeoning field of mental illness is engaged by a group of reformers and spiritualists who seek a pardon for Grace. He listens to her story while bringing her closer and closer to the day she cannot remember. What will he find in attempting to unlock her memories?  Captivating and disturbing, Alias Grace showcases best-selling, Booker Prize-winning author Margaret Atwood at the peak of her powers.

4. A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews (2004)
In this stunning coming-of-age novel, award-winner Miriam Toews balances grief and hope in the voice of a witty, beleaguered teenager whose family is shattered by fundamentalist Christianity.  “Half of our family, the better-looking half, is missing,” Nomi Nickel tells us at the beginning of A Complicated Kindness. Left alone with her sad, peculiar father, her days are spent piecing together why her mother and sister have disappeared and contemplating her inevitable career at Happy Family Farms, a chicken slaughterhouse on the outskirts of East Village. Not the East Village in New York City where Nomi would prefer to live, but an oppressive town founded by Mennonites on the cold, flat plains of Manitoba, Canada.  This darkly funny novel is the world according to the unforgettable Nomi, a bewildered and wry sixteen-year-old trapped in a town governed by fundamentalist religion and in the shattered remains of a family it destroyed. In Nomi’s droll, refreshing voice, we’re told the story of an eccentric, loving family that falls apart as each member lands on a collision course with the only community any of them have ever known. A work of fierce humor and tragedy by a writer who has taken the American market by storm, this searing, tender, comic testament to family love will break your heart.

17735295. The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields (1993)
The Stone Diaries is one ordinary woman’s story of her journey through life. Born in 1905, Daisy Stone Goodwill drifts through the roles of child, wife, widow, and mother, and finally into her old age. Bewildered by her inability to understand her place in her own life, Daisy attempts to find a way to tell her story within a novel that is itself about the limitations of autobiography. Her life is vivid with incident, and yet she feels a sense of powerlessness. She listens, she observes, and through sheer force of imagination she becomes a witness of her own life: her birth, her death, and the troubling missed connections she discovers between. Daisy’s struggle to find a place for herself in her own life is a paradigm of the unsettled decades of our era. A witty and compassionate anatomist of the human heart, Carol Shields has made distinctively her own that place where the domestic collides with the elemental. With irony and humor she weaves the strands of The Stone Diaries together in this, her richest and most poignant novel to date.

6. Selected Stories by Alice Munro (1985)
Spanning almost thirty years and settings that range from big cities to small towns and farmsteads of rural Canada, this magnificent collection brings together twenty-eight stories by a writer of unparalleled wit, generosity, and emotional power. In her Selected Stories, Alice Munro makes lives that seem small unfold until they are revealed to be as spacious as prairies and locates the moments of love and betrayal, desire and forgiveness, that change those lives forever. To read these stories–about a traveling salesman and his children on an impromptu journey; an abandoned woman choosing between seduction and solitude–is to succumb to the spell of a writer who enchants her readers utterly even as she restores them to their truest selves.

7. Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature by Margaret 1356546Atwood (1995)
Margaret Atwood’s witty and informative book focuses on the imaginative mystique of the wilderness of the Canadian North. She discusses the ‘Grey Owl Syndrome’ of white writers going native; the folklore arising from the mysterious– and disastrous — Franklin expedition of the nineteenth century; the myth of the dreaded snow monster, the Wendigo; the relations between nature writing and new forms of Gothic; and how a fresh generation of women writers in Canada have adapted the imagery of the Canadian North for the exploration of contemporary themes of gender, the family and sexuality. Writers discussed include Robert Service, Robertson Davies, Alice Munro, E.J. Pratt, Marian Engel, Margaret Laurence, and Gwendolyn MacEwan. This superbly written and compelling portrait of the mysterious North is at once a fascinating insight into the Canadian imagination, and an exciting new work from an outstanding literary presence.

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which ones appeal to you?

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One From the Archive: ‘Dear Life’ by Alice Munro *****

Alice Munro has been heralded as a fabulous writer by many other authors.  Margaret Atwood says that she ‘is among the major writers of English fiction of our time’, and Jonathan Franzen believes that she ‘has a strong claim to being the best fiction writer now working in North America’.  This high praise is incredibly well deserved.  Munro has been awarded many literary prizes during her writing career, and was given the Man Booker International Prize in 2009 for her contribution to world fiction.  Thus far, her collections have been translated into thirteen languages.

9780804168915In this, her new collection, Munro has chosen, as in many of her collections, to focus her attention upon individuals living in Canada – in this case, in the countryside and towns around Lake Huron.  From the very first page, the tales draw you in.  They are filled with very shrewd perceptions on characters and how the situations they have experienced have made them who they are, or have altered them in some way.

Munro presents emotions, particularly sadness, so well.  In the first story in Dear Life, ‘To Reach Japan’, the protagonist Peter’s mother made the journey from Europe to British Columbia with him when he was tiny: ‘When Peter was a baby, his mother had carried him across some mountains whose name Greta kept forgetting, in order to get out of Soviet Czechoslovakia into Western Europe.  There were other people of course.  Peter’s father had intended to be with them but he had been sent to a sanatorium just before the date for the secret departure.  He was to follow them when he could, but he died instead.’

Munro weaves many themes into her work.  These comments and musings contemplate such topics as politics, feminism, loneliness, relationships, social hierarchy, separation, friendship, religion, adultery, the consequences of certain actions, morality, age, illness and loss.  She builds her characters so deftly, and makes them incredibly believable as a result.  One gets the impression that she understands them so well.  A young child, for example, insists upon her mother reading her the same Christopher Robin story over and over again: ‘Children Katy’s age had no problem with monotony.  In fact they embraced it, diving into it and wrapping the familiar words round their tongues as if they were a candy that could last forever.’

Each of the stories here has been perfectly crafted.  Never does it feel as though Munro is leaving out any details due to the constraint which the short story as a form can so easily bring with it.  She is certainly a master of her craft, and this is another wonderful collection to add to her oeuvre.  The writing throughout is beautiful and so polished, and not a word has been wasted.  In Dear Life, Munro presents many slices of imagined lives which could so easily be real.

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Reading Around the World: Canada

The books set in Canada which I have read are largely by three authors, all of whom I have included here.  This is not a varied set of recommendations, by any stretch of the imagination; rather, they are all relatively popular and well-known books which I have just happened to enjoy.

1. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
‘”Sometimes I whisper it over to myself: Murderess. Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt along the floor.” Grace Marks. Female fiend? Femme fatale? Or weak and unwilling victim? Around the true story of one of the most enigmatic and notorious women of the 1840s, Margaret Atwood has created an extraordinarily potent tale of sexuality, cruelty and mystery.’

2. The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields 9780143105503
‘One of the most successful and acclaimed novels of our time, this fictionalized autobiography of Daisy Goodwill Flett is a subtle but affecting portrait of an everywoman reflecting on an unconventional life. What transforms this seemingly ordinary tale is the richness of Daisy’s vividly described inner life–from her earliest memories of her adoptive mother to her awareness of impending death.’

3. Runaway by Alice Munro
‘The matchless Munro makes art out of everyday lives in this exquisite collection. Here are men and women of wildly different times and circumstances, their lives made vividly palpable by the nuance and empathy of Munro’s writing. Runaway is about the power and betrayals of love, about lost children, lost chances. There is pain and desolation beneath the surface, like a needle in the heart, which makes these stories more powerful and compelling than anything she has written before. It is the winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2009.’

97818604988004. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
‘Laura Chase’s older sister Iris, married at eighteen to a politically prominent industrialist but now poor and eighty-two, is living in Port Ticonderoga, a town dominated by their once-prosperous family before the First War. While coping with her unreliable body, Iris reflects on her far from exemplary life, in particular the events surrounding her sister’s tragic death. Chief among these was the publication of The Blind Assassin, a novel which earned the dead Laura Chase not only notoriety but also a devoted cult following. Sexually explicit for its time, The Blind Assassin describes a risky affair in the turbulent thirties between a wealthy young woman and a man on the run. During their secret meetings in rented rooms, the lovers concoct a pulp fantasy set on Planet Zycron. As the invented story twists through love and sacrifice and betrayal, so does the real one; while events in both move closer to war and catastrophe. By turns lyrical, outrageous, formidable, compelling and funny, this is a novel filled with deep humour and dark drama.’

5. The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews
‘Meet the Troutmans. Hattie is living in Paris, city of romance, but has just been dumped by her boyfriend. Min, her sister back in Canada, is going through a particularly dark period. And Min’s two kids, Logan and Thebes, are not talking and talking way too much, respectively. When Hattie receives a phone call from eleven-year-old Thebes, begging her to return to Canada, she arrives home to find Min on her way to a psychiatric ward, and becomes responsible for her niece and nephew. Realising that she is way out of her league, Hattie hatches a plan to find the kids’ long-lost father. With only the most tenuous lead to go on, she piles Logan and Thebes into the family van, and they head south.’

 

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One From the Archive: ‘Lying Under the Apple Tree’ by Alice Munro *****

First published in May 2014.

As far as short stories go, Canadian Alice Munro is one of the most revered authors in the field, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature last year in recognition of her craft. Lying Under the Apple Tree is made up of selected stories, all of them previously published in some of the author’s other collections.  The tales here come from the following books respectively, demonstrating how Munro’s work has progressed over the course of just over a decade: The Love of a Good Woman (1998), Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001), Runaway (2004), The View from Castle Rock (2006) and Too Much Happiness (2009).  Many of them can also be found within the pages of the wonderful and far-reaching Selected Stories, which showcases three decades of Munro’s work. 

As one might expect, almost all of Munro’s tales are set in and around Lake Huron, where the author herself lives. Some of the stories take small towns and rural homes as their backdrops, and others are set within large and crowded cities.  The wealth of inspiration within Lying Under the Apple Tree is vast, and each story presents a clear and thoughtful slice of life.  None of the tales are similar, despite the settings which are occasionally used more than once, and the use of a couple of protagonists who carry themselves through a series of stories, rather than just one.

There are tales which include such plot details as holidays spent with families, and how such sojourns impact upon them, both as individuals and a complete unit; motherhood; grief; dementia; and those which touch upon such things as museums ‘dedicated to preserving photos and butter churns and horse harnesses and an old dentist’s chair and a cumbersome apple peeler and such curiosities as the pretty little porcelain-and-glass insulators that were used on telegraph poles’.

One noticeable element within Lying Under the Apple Tree is that the prose which Munro crafts is utterly sublime, even when she is turning her hand to describing the most mundane and everyday things.  She has the most stunning way of making both objects and events, which are so usual and are taken for granted by the majority of us in the modern world, appear afresh.  It is clear throughout her writing that she never fails to notice the magic in everything, and one gets the impression after reading just one of her many tales that she adores her craft.

Her characters throughout are so very realistic, and her turns of phrase are stunning.  Each story is marvellously built, and not a single word has been wasted throughout.  Munro manages to weave the unexpected – be it a small detail, or something rather more pivotal – into each tale.  She deftly captures emotions, and shows how they can alter over time.  Indeed, Munro’s stories are so well written and crafted that even re-reading them is a real treat.  Lying Under the Apple Tree is a stunning collection, which really does showcase Munro’s talent as an author, and one which deserves to be widely read.

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The Fifty Women Challenge: ‘Lives of Girls and Women’ by Alice Munro ***

I had been so looking forward to Alice Munro’s only novel, Lives of Girls and Women, which has recently been republished by Vintage.  First published in 1971, Lives of Girls and Women was the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.  The whole is split into several named parts, each of which can essentially function as a short story in its own right, and follows the protagonist Del Jordan during her formative years.

Throughout, Del grows up within the small town of Jubilee in Ontario.  The choice which Munro has made to sculpt Del’s own voice, and her use of the first person perspective with which to do so, has been used to excellent effect.  Her past and present have been marvellously layered, and she certainly feels like a realistic character in consequence.  Munro’s other characters are, on the whole, multi-faceted, and their differences set them apart from one another, rendering them distinctive beings. The sense of place within the tale has been well evoked too, and Munro is just as perceptive here as in her short stories.  One can certainly tell that she is more used to writing stories than novels; there is almost a concertina-like effect here, in that one sub-story leads into another, and so on.

Munro is one of my absolute favourite short story authors, and I was expecting such marvellous things from Lives of Girls and Women.  Despite the strengths which I have outlined above, sadly, I found myself rather disappointed.  Whilst I loved the novel’s premise, the piece lost itself somewhere around the middle, and never really picked up the pace again.  Rather than the four or five star rating which I felt sure I was going to give it, I shall have to settle for a middle-of-the-road three.

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Short Story Series: Part Five

I adore reading short stories, and don’t see many reviews of collections on blogs in comparison to novels and the like. I thought that I would make a weekly series to showcase short stories, and point interested readers in the direction of some of my favourite collections. Rather than ramble in adoration for every single book, I have decided to copy their official blurb. I have linked my blog reviews where appropriate.

1. The Birds by Daphne du Maurier
‘A classic of alienation and horror, ‘The Birds’ was immortalised by Hitchcock in his celebrated film. The five other chilling stories in this collection echo a sense of dislocation and mock man’s sense of dominance over the natural world. The mountain paradise of ‘Monte Verita’ promises immortality, but at a terrible price; a neglected wife haunts her husband in the form of an apple tree; a professional photographer steps out from behind the camera and into his subject’s life; a date with a cinema usherette leads to a walk in the cemetery; and a jealous father finds a remedy when three’s a crowd …’

2. Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman
‘Tenderly, observantly, incisively, Edith Pearlman captures life on the page like few other writers. She is a master of the short story, and this is a spectacular collection.’

3. Lying Under the Apple Tree by Alice Munro
‘Spanning her last five collections and bringing together her finest work from the past fifteen years, this new selection of Alice Munro’s stories infuses everyday lives with a wealth of nuance and insight. Beautifully observed and remarkably crafted, written with emotion and empathy, these stories are nothing short of perfection. It is a masterclass in the genre, from an author who deservedly lays claim to being one of the major fiction writers of our time.’

My review can be found here.

4. Delicate Edible Birds and Other Stories by Lauren Groff
‘”Delicate Edible Birds” includes nine stories of vastly different styles and structures. “L. De Bard and Aliette” recreates the tale of Abelard and Heloise in New York during the 1918 flu epidemic; “Lucky Chow Fun” returns to Templeton, the setting of Groff’s debut novel, for a contemporary account of what happens to outsiders in a small, insular town; the title story of “Delicate Edible Birds” is a harrowing, powerfully moving drama about a group of war correspondents, a lone woman among them, who fall prey to a frightening man in the French countryside while fleeing the Nazis. With a dazzling array of voices and settings, “Delicate Edible Birds” will cement Lauren Groff’s reputation as one of the foremost talents of her generation.’

5. Under a Glass Bell by Anais Nin
‘”Under a Glass Bell” is one of Nin’s finest collections of stories. First published in 1944, it attracted the attention of Edmond Wilson, who reviewed the collection in “The New Yorker.” It was in these stories that Nin’s artistic and emotional vision took shape. This edition includes a highly informative and insightful foreword by Gunther Stuhlmann that places the collection in its historical context as well as illuminates the sequence of events and persons recorded in the diary that served as its inspiration.’

6. Selected Short Stories by Virginia Woolf
‘Virginia Woolf tested the boundaries of fiction in these short stories, developing a new language of sensation, feeling and thought, and recreating in words the ‘swarm and confusion of life’. Defying categorization, the stories range from the more traditional narrative style of “Solid Objects” through the fragile impressionism of “Kew Gardens” to the abstract exploration of consciousness in “The Mark on the Wall”.’

7. Not the End of the World by Kate Atkinson
‘What is the real world? Does it exist, or is it merely a means of keeping another reality at bay? Not the End of the World is Kate Atkinson’s first collection of short stories. Playful and profound, they explore the world we think we know whilst offering a vision of another world which lurks just beneath the surface of our consciousness, a world where the myths we have banished from our lives are startlingly present and where imagination has the power to transform reality. From Charlene and Trudi, obsessively making lists while bombs explode softly in the streets outside, to gormless Eddie, maniacal cataloguer of fish, and Meredith Zane who may just have discovered the secret to eternal life, each of these stories shows that when the worlds of material existence and imagination collide, anything is possible.’

8. Selected Short Stories by Honore de Balzac
‘One of the greatest French novelists, Balzac was also an accomplished writer of shorter fiction. This volume includes twelve of his finest short stories many of which feature characters from his epic series of novels the Comedie Humaine. Compelling tales of acute social and psychological insight, they fully demonstrate the mastery of suspense and revelation that were the hallmarks of Balzac’s genius. In The Atheist’s Mass, we learn the true reason for a distinguished atheist surgeon’s attendance at religious services; La Grande Breteche describes the horrific truth behind the locked doors of a decaying country mansion, while The Red Inn relates a brutal tale of murder and betrayal. A fascinating counterpoint to the renowned novels, all the stories collected here stand by themselves as mesmerizing works by one of the finest writers of nineteenth-century France.’

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Flash Reviews: Short Stories (19th June 2014)

‘Don’t Look Now and Other Stories’

Don’t Look Now and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier ****
1. I love du Maurier’s writing, and was so excited about reading another of her short story collections.  This is a relatively thick tome, which is comprised of just five stories, many of which are almost novella length.
2. Julie Myerson’s introduction is fabulous, and suits the book perfectly.  I loved reading about her experiences with du Maurier’s work.
3. Each tale here is dark and grotesque, and they are very memorable in their entirety.  The collection is both enjoyable and thought-provoking.

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Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro ****
1. It comes as no surprise that I adore Alice Munro’s short stories.  She writes with such clarity and beauty.
2. I found, when I began to read Too Much Happiness, that I had come across the majority of the tales both in Selected Stories and Lying Under the Apple Tree.  The first new-to-me story was on page 138.  Even though much of the book was a re-read, new and surprising elements can always be found in her work, whether you are visiting the tales for the second time, or the tenth.
3. Too Much Happiness is such a strong collection, and I would urge everyone who likes short stories – or even those who simply want to start reading them – to go out and procure a copy.

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‘Lying Under the Apple Tree’ by Alice Munro *****

As far as short stories go, Canadian Alice Munro is one of the most revered authors in the field, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature last year in recognition of her craft. Lying Under the Apple Tree is made up of selected stories, all of them previously published in some of the author’s other collections.  The tales here come from the following books respectively, demonstrating how Munro’s work has progressed over the course of just over a decade: The Love of a Good Woman (1998), Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001), Runaway (2004), The View from Castle Rock (2006) and Too Much Happiness (2009).  Many of them can also be found within the pages of the wonderful and far-reaching Selected Stories, which showcases three decades of Munro’s work.

‘Lying Under the Apple Tree’ by Alice Munro (Vintage)

As one might expect, almost all of Munro’s tales are set in and around Lake Huron, where the author herself lives. Some of the stories take small towns and rural homes as their backdrops, and others are set within large and crowded cities.  The wealth of inspiration within Lying Under the Apple Tree is vast, and each story presents a clear and thoughtful slice of life.  None of the tales are similar, despite the settings which are occasionally used more than once, and the use of a couple of protagonists who carry themselves through a series of stories, rather than just one.

There are tales which include such plot details as holidays spent with families, and how such sojourns impact upon them, both as individuals and a complete unit; motherhood; grief; dementia; and those which touch upon such things as museums ‘dedicated to preserving photos and butter churns and horse harnesses and an old dentist’s chair and a cumbersome apple peeler and such curiosities as the pretty little porcelain-and-glass insulators that were used on telegraph poles’.

One noticeable element within Lying Under the Apple Tree is that the prose which Munro crafts is utterly sublime, even when she is turning her hand to describing the most mundane and everyday things.  She has the most stunning way of making both objects and events, which are so usual and are taken for granted by the majority of us in the modern world, appear afresh.  It is clear throughout her writing that she never fails to notice the magic in everything, and one gets the impression after reading just one of her many tales that she adores her craft.

Her characters throughout are so very realistic, and her turns of phrase are stunning.  Each story is marvellously built, and not a single word has been wasted throughout.  Munro manages to weave the unexpected – be it a small detail, or something rather more pivotal – into each tale.  She deftly captures emotions, and shows how they can alter over time.  Indeed, Munro’s stories are so well written and crafted that even re-reading them is a real treat.  Lying Under the Apple Tree is a stunning collection, which really does showcase Munro’s talent as an author, and one which deserves to be widely read.

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Flash Reviews (8th November 2013)

Selected Stories by Alice Munro ****
I adore Munro’s writing, as most of you probably know by now.  She has recently – and most deservedly – won the Nobel literature prize, though is sadly too ill to collect her award in person from the ceremony in Sweden.  I have read several of her collections to date, and when I saw a lovely American edition of her Selected Stories languishing on a shelf in Black Gull Books in Camden, I just had to have it.

The volume is made up of stories which Munro has selected herself, and all are presented in a roughly chronological order.  I had read several of them before in other collections, but it was lovely to reacquaint myself with them.  Munro has made a very good selection, and each story leads into the next to form a cohesive whole, despite the disparities between protagonists and their situations.  The majority of her writing here is filled with darkness, and the notion of loneliness and how it is able to affect one is woven through from the outset.  Her writing is beautiful, but this, for me, goes without saying.  Whilst I adore her titled collections, this is a great way to receive a thorough overview of Munro’s stories.  It is better to dip in and out of than to read in one go, as I did.  I very much enjoyed reading Selected Stories in this manner, but as the settings were all similar, some of the stories did run together a little, which was a shame.  Regardless, it comes with this Literary Sister’s seal of approval.

Juvenilia by Jane Austen **
I felt that, being a fan of Austen’s novels, reading her Juvenilia was a must for me.  Unfortunately, I seem to have been mistaken.  All of the stories collected here felt rushed, and the lack of editing in the volume very much annoyed me.  Yes, fair enough, Austen wasn’t the best at spelling, but there was no need, in my eyes, to keep in so many of her original mistakes.  Most of the pieces in Juvenilia are unfinished fragments, all of which share the same themes (yes, you guessed it – love and marriage, or the lack thereof).  The majority are written in the same stolid, plodding, matter-of-fact, rather bumbling way.  In comparison to the Bronte sisters’ juvenilia which I am working my way through, Austen’s early work is decidely poor.

The Secret Passage by Nina Bawden ****
The more work of Bawden’s which I read, the more I am beginning to favour her children’s stories over her adult offerings.  The last couple of the latter which I have read have been thoroughly disappointing.  I was a little apprehensive when I began The Secret Passage, but I very much enjoyed it.  The story is relatively short (only 155 pages in the lovely old Puffin edition I have), but it is so well written.  The relatively simple story – three children living in Africa suddenly have to move to England to live with her aunt after their mother passes away and their father is taken ill – has somehow been rendered unpredictable in terms of what one might expect will happen.  It reminded me a little of Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Secret Garden and Enid Blyton’s mystery stories.  A lovely, lovely book which brought a smile to my face, and which is sure to delight even the fussiest young reader.

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‘Dear Life’ by Alice Munro ****

Alice Munro has been heralded as a fabulous writer by many other authors.  Margaret Atwood says that she ‘is among the major writers of English fiction of our time’, and Jonathan Franzen believes that she ‘has a strong claim to being the best fiction writer now working in North America’.  This high praise is incredibly well deserved.  Munro has been awarded many literary prizes during her writing career, and was given the Man Booker International Prize in 2009 for her contribution to world fiction.  Thus far, her collections have been translated into thirteen languages.

In this, her new collection, Munro has chosen, as in many of her collections, to focus her attention upon individuals living in Canada – in this case, in the countryside and towns around Lake Huron.  From the very first page, the tales draw you in.  They are filled with very shrewd perceptions on characters and how the situations they have experienced have made them who they are, or have altered them in some way.

Munro presents emotions, particularly sadness, so well.  In the first story in Dear Life, ‘To Reach Japan’, the protagonist Peter’s mother made the journey from Europe to British Columbia with him when he was tiny: ‘When Peter was a baby, his mother had carried him across some mountains whose name Greta kept forgetting, in order to get out of Soviet Czechoslovakia into Western Europe.  There were other people of course.  Peter’s father had intended to be with them but he had been sent to a sanatorium just before the date for the secret departure.  He was to follow them when he could, but he died instead.’

Munro weaves many themes into her work.  These comments and musings contemplate such topics as politics, feminism, loneliness, relationships, social hierarchy, separation, friendship, religion, adultery, the consequences of certain actions, morality, age, illness and loss.  She builds her characters so deftly, and makes them incredibly believable as a result.  One gets the impression that she understands them so well.  A young child, for example, insists upon her mother reading her the same Christopher Robin story over and over again: ‘Children Katy’s age had no problem with monotony.  In fact they embraced it, diving into it and wrapping the familiar words round their tongues as if they were a candy that could last forever.’

Each of the stories here has been perfectly crafted.  Never does it feel as though Munro is leaving out any details due to the constraint which the short story as a form can so easily bring with it.  She is certainly a master of her craft, and this is another wonderful collection to add to her oeuvre.  The writing throughout is beautiful and so polished, and not a word has been wasted.  In Dear Life, Munro presents many slices of imagined lives which could so easily be real.