JC posts her views about books she has read on this page. Each mini-review, written after the book ends, will share her candid assessment of the craft and contents of books on her reading list. Reviews will be kept to around the same number of words as the characters Twitter allows per Tweet. The views expressed are entirely her own. She welcomes feedback on her Bookends comments through this website or on Twitter @jcsulzenko.


Two, New Bookends Mini-Reviews by JC

JC reviews two recent reads.

Go to Bookends on this site to find her ratings of a book that’s hard to typecast: “World of Wonders: In praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments,” written by Aimee Nezhukumatathil and illustrated by Fumi Nakamura, 2020.

The second review JC shares focuses on a very Canadian novel written in 1973, that still resonated with her: “The Book of Eve” by Constance Beresford-Howe.

The Book of Eve, Constance Beresford-Howe

One of my book clubs read Constance Beresford-Howe’s A Serious Widow. And after I discovered The Book of Eve (1973), on loan to me, on a neglected shelf amidst yet to be read poetry collections, I read it in almost one-sitting.

Not the only writer to tackle a wife/mother/slave to her time and place in the world who abandons her life (e.g., Anne Tyler, Ethel Wilson), this slim novel is a keeper. At times in some ways reminiscent of A Serious Widow, the writer captures the stages in this leave-taking unflinchingly—the discovery of self, the loss of self, degradation, second-thoughts, and ultimately acceptance of self and embracing life choices made. Beresfor-Howe’s writing is  writes honest, perceptive, touching, true to her subject 100%. And all this in the context of Montreal’s East End and downtown, where the city so familiar to me becomes a character in the story in its own right.

World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments

This 2020 book by by Aimee Nezhukumatathil and illustrated by Fumi Nakamura, was on one of my book club’s list for last year, but we didn’t get to it. Part memoir, part selective, nature exposé focussing on creatures and flora of surprising and unusual variety, part poem, part collection of mini-essays, part Cri de Coeur regarding climate change. Illustrations lovely. Short. Digestible. Memorable.

I have given away the extra copy I received. And may give away the one I meant to keep. Or not.

“The Jane Austen Society,” Natalie Jenner, St. Martin’s Press (2020)

A perfect antidote to everything pandemic, particularly for those honest enough to admit publicly how often they reread Jane Austen’s novels for sheer pleasure.

Jenner’s characters, settings and solid references to Austen’s body of work fully satisfied my cravings for escape into a world not of our time. The charm of this Canadian author’s novel offsets the somewhat predictable plot. Read this book and smile.

Suzanne, Anais Barbeau-Lavalette, 2015 (translated by Rhonda Mullins 2017)

I cannot escape the aura of this granddaughter’s singular capture of the life of her elusive artist and poet grandmother, Suzanne Meloche, in a fictionalized series of short, diary-like accounts written in the 2nd person and based on facts uncovered in personal effects and through a private investigator’s research.
The portrait is complex. Suzanne, “the woman who flees”—a literal translation of the original French title—created poetry and abstract, violent art in the context of the Automatist movement in Duplessis-repressed Quebec. Utterly selfish and cruel, except when in the thrall of new love or pity, Suzanne abandons children, lovers, cities and rarely regrets not belonging anywhere.
Her photo shows a beautiful, catlike and feral face that becomes who she became.
This 2019 CBC Canada Reads selection: a must-read. 8/10

Italian Shoes Henning Mankell 2006

This novel, where an island in the Swedish archipelago in a dying sea is a main character, represents the embodiment of John Donne’s “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of a continent.”

The island sanctuary of the protagonist, a disgraced MD, prisoner of his avoidance personality and selfishness, is invaded by past misdeeds. The force of the interventions challenge him to open his compartmentalized self to the possibility of change, reject isolation and rejoin the continent of the living by accepting responsibility for his own actions and coming to care about others.

An ‘I-couldn’t-put-the-book-down’ kind of read, the book overplays situations with violent drama (SPOILER ALERT: near rape, cat/dog/maggots, suicide by sword, death throes) plus redemption comes at a price: heart failure. Never once did I ‘like’ the protagonist, whose name I can’t recall.                                                                                                                                         7.5/10


Where’d You Go, Bernadette Maria Semple, 2012

Suggested for reading list as a book with humour, this novel is distinctly unfunny, with the exception of pages 222-223. Perhaps the ‘mis-label’ turned me off from the start. Added to that: only one likeable character, Bee, resilient daughter of a dysfunctional union (distant genius father with also genius, now fallen, falling-apart but loving mother, Bernadette); plus a staccato, email structure as the construct to advance a plot relying on exaggerated and improbable characters and situations which strain credibility. I mean, who lives in a crumbling ex-school where vines are coming through the floor? Though I put the book down at the ‘intervention’ to commit Bernadette, her escape intrigued me. I admit I was rooting for her, for Bee, and for a happy ending. Incredible but happy it was.                                                  5/10

Jonagold Peter Blendell, 2014

Laid low by flu, I took up this independently published 102-page novella, which almost stalled during “Adam,” the first and least engaging, most recitative section of three, interrelated but independent first person narratives. Even though Adam’s family relationships and connection to the land, its apple orchards and the seasons are well presented, I almost set the book aside.

I’m happy I persevered.

The second section’s staccato and compelling narrative, “David,” captures the unique voice of Adam’s younger brother who lives somewhere on the autism spectrum. Blendell’s poignant portrait makes David unforgettable. The final section belongs to Gail, Adam’s partner in life. Her way of drawing him into a conversation in the service of their relationship and future adds sweet wisdom to the spell cast by the book’s language, characters and setting.             7.5/10

On the Outside Looking Indian Rupinder Gill, 2011

Somewhat self-indulgent and narcissistic, this easy-read memoire, occasioned by Gill turning 30, offers humourous moments but isn’t really FUNNY because of the telling and touching insights she provides into growing up as an outsider in a ‘white’ culture felt and into the rigidity of her parents’ Sikh belief system.

The best part of the book? Gill sets a 5-part agenda to live experiences denied her as a child by her factory-worker parents: go to camp, own a pet, learn to swim and to dance, and visit Disney World. For this odyssey, she quits her job, lives in NYC (Brooklyn) for a couple of months and predictably returns home with the notion of a way forward to free her creative self, fuelled by endless childhood hours watching TV and junk food binges with her siblings.        6.5/10

They Left Us Everything Plum Johnson, 2015

Frankly, Plum Johnson’s pettiness intruded on my enjoyment of the book. Perhaps her mother’s letters will anchor another memoire, since “They Left Us Everything” offered only a teasing glimpse of the woman, whom Plum resented but came to appreciate through de-cluttering the family home and herself.

I also didn’t find the book humorous, one of the labels jurors for The Charles Taylor non-fiction prize gave to the 2015 winner.

That said, the memoire touched me because of how the narrative often echoed my own clearing-out experience after the death of my mother at 90. Even now, I’m reluctant to deal with boxes of her papers. Perhaps Plum’s approach to organizing and preserving such records will help me move forward, so I can leave to my children the task of deciding what to keep.                                                                                                                                                7/10


The County Murders J.D. Carpenter, 2016

Once in a while, and particularly this day of thunder and the first real rain in more than 7 weeks, I chose an easy book, one that doesn’t tax my spirit yet holds my interest. I read it almost in one sitting.

Carpenter sets this mystery in the fictional town of Saybrookmin Prince Edward County and uses recognizable sites and local family names to give the story a genuine ‘feel.’ The characters resemble folks you might run into on Picton’s Main Street, and the tension between those ‘from away’ and those born to the County provides a realistic undercurrent to a somewhat farfetched set of 4 murders, initially ruled suicides or accidents.

Some fine LOL moments and a few endearing characters add further enjoyment. For the escape it offers:                    8/10


Little Bee Chris Cleave, 2008

There are lines in this account of a 16 year-old girl’s odyssey I wish I’d written: the language/the dialogue so fine; the connection with the title character forged so skillfully. I couldn’t put the book down, in spite of scenes of appalling brutality, gory details about suicides, and the inevitability of “Little Bee’s” failure to break free of her past, even when she muses that in multi-racial London she “could disappear into the human race… as simply as a bee vanishes into the hive.” But the journalist in Cleave outweighs the novelist when he puts showing how badly Western states treat asylum seekers and refugees ahead of credible character and plot development. A second narrator doesn’t help. Nor do the inevitable capture of the girl, Udo, and her faith in a white child’s future satisfy.                                                                                 7/10

A God in Ruins Kate Atkinson, 2015

I borrowed the book because it promised to revisit characters (particularly Teddy) and situations (privileged country life) I’d appreciated in Atkinson’s Life after Life.

This novel is not a sequel or prequel. It flows in a parallel kind of way, taking detours and making inroads, which often are unexpected but drew me in.

Where Life after Life frustrated me because of the multiple lives characters were allowed to live/relive, A God in Ruins annoyed me with cute little direct comments about what only would happen later. Still, the focus on Teddy largely satisfied, though it was a challenge to accept that someone so courageous would be reduced to passivity over time. Plus his daughter Viola was overdrawn, too much a diva, so that her redemption at the end of the book was hardly credible.                                    6.5/10

The Education of Augie Merasty, A residential school memoire Joseph Auguste Merasty, with David Carpenter 2015


76 pages of straight talk—Merasty’s first-hand account of physical and sexual abuse by Catholic nuns and priests at St. Therese School— cannot fail to move the reader, even after so much of the criminal treatment of aboriginal children has already been exposed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Augie’s ‘voice,’ as captured by ‘editor,’ academic David Carpenter, rings true, though Carpenter’s tone in the introduction feels both too-much-in-your-face and condescending.

Augie doesn’t exaggerate as he recounts in a straightforward and compelling way what horrors he and others suffered. Having shared his story in the book and with the Commission, this courageous man, now in his 70’s, lives and drinks ‘on the street.’ He also now faces prostate cancer, an irony surely when he was able to survive the cancerous experiences of his youth.                                                                                                            Introduction: 2/10; text 7/10


Double review: Aspects of Louis Riel from Joseph Boyden and Gregory Scofield

Extraordinary Canadians Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont           Joseph Boyden, 2010

Louis: The Heretic Poems             Gregory Scofield, 2011

Having tried to immerse myself in Joseph Boyden’s take on Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, I came away disappointed that so much ‘telling’ was jammed into one slim volume. For me, the book missed the chance to make that tragic era of broken promises, rebellion and downfall (of Riel, Dumont, and the Métis) come alive, though the well-presented facts scream for justice denied then and to this day.       6.5/10

On the other hand, poet and artist Gregory Scofield’s collection of poems speaks convincingly in Riel’s voice and shows the man as sexual being, intellectual, politician, visionary, religious zealot, and martyr. For a while, I thought the poems could have been written by Riel himself.          9/10

In both cases, the authors provide links to source documents every Canadian should read to understand how the history of our country influences current events relating to indigenous peoples.



*A Short History of Nearly Everything Bill Bryson, 2003

I am embarrassed that I read this magnum opus 13 years after it was published, since science and technology have advanced at such rates as to date some of what Bryson covers. Even so, this accessible, often amusing and very satisfying ramble through prehistory, from how and what the cosmos to the components of matter, from the formation of the earth to the miracle of life in such an inhospitable universe, and from the evolution of homo sapiens, the species to the precarious future, is still so worth reading. Every one of its 478 pages provides so much information, it’s best to read a chapter at a time. Even savouring the text this way leaves far too much to absorb. But I know now to where I can go to check for facts, as needed.                         8/10

The Inconvenient Indian; A curious account of native people in North America Thomas King, 2012

King draws in the white reader with humour and bits of dark history, so that this reader feels ashamed/ uncomfortable but unable to put the book down. Labelling an “account” allows King to avoid the discipline of the historian and helped me accept the heavy-handed (though deserved) guilt trip for settler and Christian oppression of native first peoples with few words paid to failings within and of aboriginal communities, themselves.

Mixing US and CDN experience plays to the sovereignty of aboriginals and their relationship to the land, but I would have preferred an all-Canadian book. King ends on upbeats re: the courts recognizing aboriginal rights and effective community leadership. Plus: “The fact of native existence is we live modern lives, informed by traditional values and contemporary realities, and that we wish to live those lives on our terms.” Amen.                                                          7.5/10

The Reason You Walk Wab Kinew, 2015 Wab Kinew, 2015

A very personal, yet highly political, account by journalist, broadcaster, and musician Anishinaabe Chief Kinew of his own growth and learning in the light of /the shadow of his evolving relationship with his father, educator and political force, Tobasonakwut/Ndede.

While the writing style can be inconsistent, this work of non-fiction benefits from relentless purity and heart. To the non-aboriginal reader, it reveals, usually without false trappings, much about indigenous history, culture and belief systems.

Best of all, it respects Ndede’s teachings and faith and shares his legacy about the importance of reconciliation, forgiveness and love.

The title? From the Creator: “I created you, therefore, you walk.” ”I am your motivation.” “I am the spark …love which animates you.” “I am the destination at the end of your life…” “Miigwech aapichii. Mii’e. (That’s it.)”  8.5/10

Colourless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously Mark Frutkin, 2012

The title from Chomsky, Frutkin’s 110-page book offers an unusual and surprising collection of mini-essays which cover his philosophies and musings on writing/being a writer and poetry, on dreaming and dying, on the origins of the alphabet and possibilities in and of light, on society, culture and religion, and on myth, chaos and story.

An eclectic mixture, both magnetic and hypnotic, that drew me in, perhaps took me in a little, too. I’ll admit I underlined bits that resonated most, e.g., his commentaries about silence and about being a writer, but I dismissed a few other entries. Still, I did buy additional books, which I’ve sent to colleagues and friends. And I’ll keep my copy and likely reread sections from time to time.                                                           8/10

The Nature of the Beast                                 Louise Penny, 2015

Once I spent the summer reading the first 9 in this series and fell for Chief Inspector (retired?) Armand Gamache—his intelligence, acuity, integrity, courage, humanity, warmth, and elegance. Rarely disappointed by plot or setting, I’m impatient for each new story about him, his cohorts and family, and the village of Three Pines in Quebec’s l’Estrie, idyllic except for the violence it attracts. This 11th book draws on myths surrounding real-life artillery merchant of death, Gerald Bull. While the yarn is a good one with familiar characters and new villains, it’s a bit of stretch at times to: Accept the invisibility of constructing a huge cannon so near the village; link Gamache’s trauma with a Bernardo-like serial killer to staging a play by that murderer in the village and to his role in the whole Bull affair.  8.5/10 

Jane Austen Carol Shields, 2001

A spare biography. Shields treats Austen with respect and admiration, shows Austen’s growth as a novelist, and comments on the writing process and Jane’s societal context. A regret: distance between Carol and Jane. An irony: Shields noted Sandition “does not read like the work of a dying woman” when she, too, died of breast cancer in 2003.                        7.5/10

Emma Jane Austen, 1816

The final book in my Austen rereading odyssey, Emma, isn’t among my favourites. My main reason: I don’t really like Emma, herself. She is well drawn as a know-it-all-better-than–anyone else young woman, particularly in affairs of the heart. It is how her character develops and mellows in the last 1/3 of the novel as she comes to see her own blindness that redeems the story for me. Her father and the dread Elkins are exaggerated to the point of annoyance but serve their purpose in the context for Emma’s evolution. Mr. Knightly, her knight undeclared and then revealed, is credible as a family friend, but as her lover? It’s a bit creepy to me that so many years her senior he admits to loving her since she was thirteen. Still the romance and happy ending please. 6.7/10

Mansfield Park Jane Austen, 1814

A friend’s invitation to an all-Austen session at her book club proved irresistible. The challenge: to read/reread as many Austen novels beforehand. I love ‘rereading’  Austen, a global phenomenon as described in a recent Times Books article. I read Pride and Prejudice twice a year as an antidote to stress. Sense and Sensibility: once a year. Both checked off my list. I turned first to Persuasion, a fine exposition on (un)requited love; then to Mansfield Park. Fanny Price didn’t disappoint. Though hobbled by her situation in life and outwardly restrained to a fault, she rises to every occasion, plus shows herself to be a thoroughly ‘modern ‘woman with judgment who won’t settle for less than she knows she deserves. The language is delightful, the settings rendered skillfully. A wonderful place to escape for a reader in 2015.                        9/10

The Evening Chorus Helen Humphreys, 2015

When Ms. Humphreys spoke recently about writing fiction vs. poetry, she claimed you can have a perfect poem but not a novel. She may be right about poetry and also about her new novel, The Evening Chorus. It is as distinguished by its originality and by its often beautiful and lyrical language as it is by its imperfections.  At its best: the novel’s premise and the setting (POW survives by studying redstarts) are captivating and memorable. The offset plot and ill-fated wartime and post-war romances of the characters in England can feel less satisfying and somewhat contrived, as does the neatness of the ending. Also, the free use of free indirect style approaches the ‘no-no’ of telling rather than showing at times.     7/10


Burmese Lessons Karen Connelly, 2009

Does this non-fiction account with names-changed-to-protect-the-innocent-and-expose-the-guilty merit its accolades? Yes and no. I’m relieved that Connelly’s Touch the Dragon won the GG’s literary award for non-fiction, rather than this personal, sometimes so intimate, account of her coming to maturity and to an acceptance of reality in the cities, refugee camps and small towns embroiled in the struggle for democracy in Burma( Myanmar) and along the Thai-Burma border. But there’s good writing here, at its best when capturing the individuals she meets and the places she visits. You see the journalist/novelist and the poet at work, sometimes at odds. And that tension is often delicious.  Only the love affair—central to the narrative—disappoints somewhat. Why? Because sex often trumps desire in the telling, and the inevitability of the relationship’s failure is obvious throughout. BOOKEND RATING: 7/10.