Two novels

I thought I’d post the reviews I wrote of two recent novels for the September issue of our local news magazine, the Harbour Spiel.

For September, 2012

I love books strongly rooted in place, where the writer is so generous with specific detail that you can visualize the land, the vistas, the houses, the weather. And I love a good mystery novel, one which places its characters in interesting situations and lets the reader get to know them slowly by adding a dramatic or unexpected element – a theft, a kidnapping, or a murder.

Or maybe a bank heist in a small fishing village on the Sunshine Coast where the culprits get away and later a man shows up badly beaten, having lost both his wife and his memory. That’s part of the plot of David Lee’s Commander Zero (Tightrope Books, 2012) and if you’re looking for a lively and intriguing read for the end of summer, this is your book.

Of course it helps that so much in it is recognizable. The fish plant, the local hardware, the markets, the credit union where the three robbers in black ski masks stuff cash into duffle bags, and then head north on the highway…Even the Harbour Spiel makes an appearance.

David Lee lived in the Harbour for some years, raising a family and working at various businesses; he was a fixture on the music scene, playing double bass for different ensembles and helping with the jazz festival. He wrote several books, one of them the very popular Chainsaws: A History (Harbour Publishing, 2006).

Though we can all identify geographical markers in this novel as well as retail businesses and industries; and though we can smile as we read about the possibility of grow operations on Mount Hallowell or romances forming after a night at the Legion, Commander Zero is more than a roman-à-clef. The main character, Joseph Windebank, has survived two accidents and suffers severe memory loss as a result. His relationships with his sister Sandy (“that angry woman”), with Rose who manages the fish plant, with the guys he works with, including Walter who owns a boat Joey worked on until he leaped overboard in some kind of panic, are all slightly mysterious. Is he really as innocent as he seems, packing prawns and returning to his trailer each night?

The writing is very clear and direct. Listen to the opening paragraph: “Between the mountains are canyons filled with salt water, and what I remember first is fishing in that water. The mountains are like the shoulders of women. The women are reaching under the water. They are searching for something there.”

Like them, we’ll search those drowned canyons and what comes up will surprise us.


Penticton writer Barbara Lambert’s new novel, The Whirling Girl (Cormorant, 2012), is set among the Etruscan ruins near Cortona, an Italian landscape she lovingly describes and notates like music.

In a meadow filled with wild flowers and curious mounds, there is an ancient house that botanical artist Clare Livingston is both delighted and dismayed to learn that she has inherited from her estranged uncle. This gift is about forgiveness – but to whom, and for what?

Travelling from her Vancouver home to Tuscany to deal with the legal complexities of her inheritance, Clare is also hoping to build on her recent success as a chronicler of endangered plants. She journeyed to the Amazon basin to paint its rare flora and even found a new species, Circaea Livingston Philippiana, named to honour her ancestor. Or did she?  Clare is nothing if not ingenuous. And she is not above telling a lie, whether it’s about the provenance of her western belt buckle or the truth of her Amazonian expedition.

Clare becomes entangled in turf wars between archaeologists with different agendas and Lambert plunges the reader into the world of tombaroli or tomb robbers, of the fascinating business of trying to reconstruct mythical gardens through pollen analysis and the faintest of traces, and the difficult excavations of desire and memory. Who is on Clare’s side? And are snakes in the meadow the only danger? In this fast-paced novel, everything shifts and changes as swiftly as the light over the ruined walls, the shadows of umbrella pines leaving their own mysterious clues.

Objects take on huge significance. The tiny blue bead that emerges in a dig at Poggio Selvaggio, for example: the story it tells of imported objects arriving in Etruria from the Middle East, or farther, is so intriguing. Or the mirrors, found in tombs, which were decorated with graphic legends and were passed from woman to woman the way a romantic novel would make the rounds in contemporary society.

I loved the careful attention to plants and terrain in this book and the rich descriptions of artistic process, how the layers of colour applied to paper tease out the shimmer of a poppy or the fragile petals of rock rose.

Near the beginning of the novel, Clare explores her new property. “The leaves ruffled silver. It felt like a memory of a different, parallel life, wandering among these trees. The sun streamed down with the sweet weight of honey. She found a grassy hollow and lay back, studying the quality of the light. Painting here would require a different palette…” And like Clare, the reader is eager to see what this palette might be.


A few weeks ago, John and I drove up Vancouver Island with Forrest and Manon  — this was after Brendan and Cristen’s wedding — and stopped in Nanaimo for lunch and some shopping. We all went our own way, arranging to meet at the Literacy Nanaimo Bookstore before taking our lunch to a park to eat in sunlight.

I poked around, looking for the elusive silver-plated punch bowl I’m certain is out there, somewhere, waiting for me to find it. There’s a beautiful one, a bit battered (but big enough to hold five or six bottles of white wine, and ice, on a summer evening) in the Plaza Hotel in Kamloops. But they won’t sell it. Oh, call me Edwardian but I want one and I keep checking second-hand stores, the elegant silver shops on Fort Street in Victoria, antique barns, and even the odd pawn shop.

At the appointed time, I went to the bookstore and found the others there, all of them with stacks of books. It’s a great store. There’s always unexpected treasure. I found Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Afterlife, her essays and critical writing, and have spent the last few days reading her wise and calm assessments of (mostly) fiction. She wrote generously. Her insights into novels such as Middlemarch and A Few Green Leaves make me want to read them again. I loved them the first time around but now I have a few things to look for, courtesy of Ms. Fitzgerald. A turn of phrase, an insight into character…

I also found my own book, Red Laredo Boots (New Star Books, 1996), for 6 dollars. I’ve only had a single reading copy for years so it’s nice to have an extra, just in case. It’s on my desk so I’ve been peeking into it, remembering the things which inspired individual essays. This morning we picked blackberries so it was serendipitous to have the book fall open to “Cool Water”:  “…I feel a certain loyalty to Himalayan blackberries, Rubes discolour, the kind I picked as a child on Matsqui prairie in the Fraser Valley. I remember my father pointed out a farm, the James Farm, and said that old James was responsible for bringing Himalayan blackberries to North America from Scotland in the last century. I don’t know how true that is, and it does have an apocryphal ring, but I thought those blackberries the very essence of high summer. Although there were occasional pies (I don’t remember jam), the way we usually had them was in yellow melmac bowls with a scant teaspoon of brown sugar strewn over and then milk. The milk turned pink and had the tiny fine hairs of the berries floating on top.”

I wrote that essay before I had access to the Internet and I know now that I’d probably spend far too long trying to figure out how and why and when Rubes discolor arrived in North America. (I think Luther Burbank had something to do with it but I’m not going to get distracted now.) And my father has died since then. But the memory is still perfectly intact – his voice intoning across Townshipline Road as he pointed to the long driveway leading to that farm, the Lombardy poplars on either side straight and true.

It’s poignant to read “Undressing the Mountains” now, too. It recalled a first trip back to the Pacific Rim area after an absence of more than twenty years. How strange it was to try to reconcile the way I’d known those long beaches as a girl of 18, camping alone, naked at times, and the mother of three who travelled there with her husband and children, her own parents, and her mother-in-law for a weekend at a resort, complete with whale-watching. I’ve returned several times since then and am more accustomed to all the posh hotels, the RVs lumbering from one parking lot to the next, and of course I’m no longer that girl, or at least she’s buried too deep to mind as much as I minded on that first return.


Last week Angelica and I wandered for a bit in Ross Bay Cemetery after her thesis defense and I kept an eye out for a few favourite stones. I saw Emily Carr’s grave, and the plot where Sir James and Amelia Douglas are buried — one summer, maybe 1962,  a friend and I kept this plot swept and tidy and were written up in the Victoria Daily Times newspaper for doing so! But I’d forgotten to look for Judge Begbie’s grave, the one my father always told us honoured a man who distinguished himself by hanging many miscreants. (I know now that this isn’t actually true.) And there’s a moment about him in Red Laredo Boots, in an essay about Barkerville:  “We eat our evening meal at Wake Up Jake’s. Fussy table linen and odd Victorian landscapes locate us in time. We eat huge plates of roast pork with applesauce, chutney, root vegetables, wonderful rhubarb pie and thick sweet cream. Judge Begbie sits at an opposite table, a bottle of claret at hand and his hat and cloak on a bentwood rack beside him. He is talking to a  young man about the finer points of a case involving claim jumping, and I want to lean to him, say “A hundred years from now I’ll be playing on your grave in Ross Bay Cemetery, a child of seven, the same age as my daughter who, as you see, won’t finish her dinner” A young woman in a long cotton dress comes out of the kitchen, wipes her hands on her apron, and sits at a harp. Closing her eyes, she plays “Star of the County Down” in such sad slow strains that I wipe a few stray tears from my own eyes. It is not only for the music I cry but for the ghosts who stand by her harp. Ned Stout, John Fraser, Madame Bendixon, coming in off the street to request, each in turn, a song, an air to keep them from passing out of memory. Outside the sun is falling behind Barkerville Mountain, the last rays gilding the fireweed with such golden flame that we are all touched by its heat.”

What you see when you’re not looking

I was watering the cucumber boxes this morning, standing with the hose nozzle on “shower”, letting the soft water fall over the lush plants. It wasn’t until the tree frog jumped that I realized I’d been noticing that there was something on one of the leaves.

This must be one of this year’s hatchlings. Yesterday I was watering tomatoes on the upper deck when a larger tree frog jumped from the plant down to the saucer but when I returned with the camera, it was nowhere to be seen.

Of course I’m wondering what else I’ve missed by not paying attention. The opening of these lilies, for one. The other day they were buds. This morning, late summer brides.

I have observed, though, that the bear scat is full of blackberry seeds so that means it’s time to go berry-picking for jam. And I’ve also noticed that the sun is different, passing from Mount Hallowell where it rises to Texada Island where it sets on a more southerly trajectory than in high summer. Our light is different, more golden and diffused.  The nights are cooler and the air smells of salal berries, autumn’s wine.

Just send me word

I’m reading Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag, by Orlando Figes. It’s a recounting of a love story between two people, Lev and Svetlana Mishchenko, separated for many years by Lev’s incarceration first as a Soviet POW in Nazi concentration camps and then in Pechora work camp in the Arctic Gulag. They managed a lively and moving correspondence, which forms the centerpiece of this book, and I’m rationing the pages, partly to make the book last and partly because the details of Lev’s life in Pechora are so harrowing. The title comes from a poem by Anna Akhmatova, “In Dream”, written in 1946, and translated here by D.M. Thomas:

Black and enduring separation

I share equally with you.

Why weep? Give me your hand,

Promise me you will come again.

You and I are like high mountains

And we cannot move closer.

Just send me word

At midnight sometime through the stars.


A defense of satiric poetry

I had the pleasure of attending my daughter Angelica Pass’s thesis defense at the University of Victoria yesterday morning. She’d written on “Juvenal, Martial and the Augustans: An Analysis of the Production and Reception of Satiric Poetry in Flavian Rome”. I shouldn’t have been surprised by her knowledge and eloquence  yet as I watched her and listened to her respond to some very difficult and interesting questions about the nature of satire and patronage, I was impressed at how she has forged her own life almost without me noticing. Impressed, and very very proud.

After the Festival

The last concert of the Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival was this afternoon. In way, it’s something of a secret, known to a devoted group of music lovers. Our lovely small venue, the Music School in Madeira Park, holds slightly more than a hundred seats, though with the new roof over our patio area, we can put out a few more chairs for the overflow crowd that has come the norm for this annual event. I’m on the organizing committee, along with Barbara Storer, Margi Skelley, Kathy Harrison, Marg Penney, Ann Munro, Janet Falk, Elaine Park, and Lee Ross. Those of us with husbands volunteer them and many community members volunteer too. They host musicians, tend bar, arrange flowers, organize the venue, manage parking, sell tickets, write programme notes and brochure copy, and every job you can think of.

This year’s Festival was the 8th. When we began in 2005, we had 5 musicians come for three days of concerts, though in truth they arrived earlier in order to rehearse together. This year there were four days of concerts, several parties, a lively and eager audience, and the most beautiful performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21 that you could imagine.

And imagine, if you can, a pretty room overlooking a harbour bright with boats, some of them pleasure craft and some part of the harbour’s fishing fleet. Huge baskets of flowers — hydrangeas, dahlias, heads of dill flowers, bullrushes, tansy, Queen Anne’s lace, sword ferns, salal, huckleberry, daisies, and gladioli. People everywhere, glad to be among the audience, holding glasses of sparkling wine. The sound of instruments being tuned in the room upstairs. Last minute pleas for tickets.

And imagine the musicians themselves: our Artistic Director, pianist Alexander Tselyakov, violist Guylaine Lemaire and her cellist-husband Julian Armour, violinists Dale Barltrop and Kai Gleusteen, Guy Few and his trumpet, pianist Catherine Ordronneau, double bassist Dylan Palmer, James Campbell and his clarinet, Salvador Ferreras performing magic on percussion instruments for one enchanted evening, and Alec Tebbutt narrating Anthony Plog’s Animal Ditties.

There were so many memorable moments. The way the ensemble made Mozart’s familiar Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K. 581 sound utterly new. The unexpected delight of Alexander Glazunov’s Album Leaf  (for trumpet and piano). The unbearable beauty of the Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano, Op. 114 by Brahms.

We’re already planning for next year. As audience members left, those who’d been to our Festival in the past said that this one was the best yet. But some said that last year. And the year before. So it goes without saying that the 2013 festival will be worth taking in. But keep an eye on the website for the programme and ticket information in early June. Seats sell out quickly and after this year, I predict that the Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival won’t be such a secret any longer.

Here’s a selection of photographs, courtesy of John Farrer.