Category Archives: Books

The Stories We Choose Not To Tell

barracks amache colorado history centre

A re-creation of the barracks at the Amache Japanese Detention Camp at the Colorado History Centre in Denver

Several years ago Dave and I visited the History Center in Denver where we learned about Amache, a Colorado detention camp where American Japanese citizens were incarcerated during World War II.  

Families lost their homes and businesses and lived in close quarters, guarded by soldiers till the war was over.  Because they were Japanese they were seen as suspicious and dangerous.  This incarceration of Japanese citizens remains a disgraceful episode in both American and Canadian history. 

kelly with her book

My friend Kelly with her book. Kelly and I worked at the same school in Hong Kong.

My friend Kelly Fumiko Weiss, who lives in Chicago has written a new novel called The Stories We Choose Not to Tell.  In the book, which I just finished reading yesterday, we see how three generations of women from a Japanese family are impacted by their matriarch’s World War II incarceration at Amache. 

The Amache story is a personal one for Kelly because her own grandmother was imprisoned at Amache and in the foreward to her book Kelly tells us about her grandmother’s experience. However for a variety of reasons Kelly has chosen to create a fictional family for her novel.  

Kelly uses different narrators to tell her story. Front and center is Angela a young television news producer trying to figure out the puzzle of her family life. The key to that puzzle may lie with Angela’s mother Judith, Angela’s aunt Pamela or Angela’s grandmother Aiko. Kelly uses journal entries and the script of an interview with Aiko to fill us in on the family’s past.  marylou with kelly's book

As the title of Kelly’s book suggests the stories from our past we choose not to share with our family members can have just as big an impact on our relationships with them as the stories we do decide to share.   The book will you have you thinking about those kinds of stories and the role they have played in your family’s life. You can learn more about the complex and interesting family in Kelly’s story by ordering her book here.     

Other posts………      

The Cube

Chicago Visit                                 

An American Nightmare

 

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From the Ashes, Smoke Show and Getting Fired

From the Ashes Jesse ThistleFrom the Ashes is a hard, hard autobiography to read because the life experiences of its Metis- Cree author Jesse Thistle are so dark and devastating.  His parents weren’t really capable of raising little Jesse and his two brothers. The children were horribly neglected.  Eventually, they are sent to live with their grandparents who are well-meaning and provide structure and security but don’t really know how to deal with their deeply troubled grandchildren. Jesse drops out of high school, starts using drugs and ends up as an addict living on the streets.

jesse thistle

Jesse Thistle

Today Jesse is a professor at York University in Toronto and is a highly respected advisor on homelessness to governments and medical professionals. You will have to read From the Ashes to find out how he turns his life around.  His book contains some moving poetry and is beautifully written in short chapters.  I was grateful for that because I often had to take a break after a chapter to process what I’d read.  These days Jesse is dedicated to helping Canadians understand why such a large percentage of the homeless population in our country is indigenous. Jesse has high hopes we can change that by treating people with respect, hospitality and love. 

From The Ashes was one of the books nominated for the Canada Reads contest this year which was unfortunately cancelled due to COVID-19.  From the Ashes is an eye-opener for anyone concerned about homelessness, racism, addictions and poverty in our country.

What is a smoke show?  A man I know posted an Instagram photo of him and his wife celebrating their anniversary.  He wrote, “Happy Anniversary to this smoke show.”  What was a smoke show? I looked it up. I found out smoke show is slang for “an extremely physically attractive person.” By calling his wife a smoke show the man who posted their anniversary picture was telling us how beautiful he thought his wife was. He didn’t only praise her physical attributes however, he also said she was the glue that held their family together.  Apparently, the term smoke show comes from an older phrase ‘smoking hot’ that was used to describe someone who was extremely good looking.  Sometimes it’s hard to keep up with all the new words being added to our cultural vocabularies on an almost daily basis. 

group of people walking on street with flag

Photo by Rosemary Ketchum on Pexels.com

The firing of LGBTQ employees was the central issue of a landmark case decided by the United States Supreme Court yesterday.  It ruled 6-3 that is was illegal for employers to fire their employees simply on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender choice. What really surprised many people is that Neal Gorsuch, a justice who was appointed by President Trump, broke from his conservative colleagues and authored the landmark ruling that affirmed an employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the American Civil Rights Act of 1964.  This Supreme Court decison in favour of protection for LGBTQ citizens was announced just days after President Trump had removed regulations that protected LGBTQ people with regards to health care and health insurance. 

Other posts……….

Steinbach Pride- Homecoming, Forgiveness and Hope

Born a Crime

New Words and Animal Drawings

Hot Wives and Christian Leaders

 

 

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You Don’t Have to Die in the End

After reading the first five chapters of Anita Daher’s new book You Don’t Have to Die in the End I considered not finishing the novel because Eugenia Grimm, the teenage protagonist has such a troubled life! It was tough allowing myself to be drawn into her dark world. Her father has committed suicide and her mother has abandoned her. Eugenia’s brother and his wife, who live in a small Western Canadian town, have taken her in, but Eugenia is understandably angry and confused. She is making such bad decisions! Eugenia seems to be hurtling towards an early death but……… the title of the book You Don’t Have To Die in the End assured me she’d survive. So I kept reading.

You Don’t Have to Die in the End is from Great Plains Publishing

The novel becomes much more hopeful both for the reader and our heroine Eugenia when she is arrested and qualifies for a special youth program that sends her winging up on a plane to a remote ranch in northern British Columbia. There Eugenia’s relationship with the caring but tough staff, the other kids, and the ranch horses help her begin to pull her life together.  The wilderness setting is like a breath of fresh air and inspires optimism, but Eugenia still faces enough pitfalls and obstacles to keep readers intrigued with her story.

On Wednesday Anita Daher, the author of You Don’t Have To Die in the End was the featured guest for an online event sponsored by the Manitoba Writer’s Guild. Anita has fifteen published books to her credit and is the current chair of the Writers Union of Canada.    It was great to be able to take advantage of her expertise and ask questions about the writing and publishing process and how to access writing grants. Anita also talked about some of the unique challenges of having your book published during a pandemic.

Anita is an enthusiastic and interesting speaker and it was so valuable for a developing children’s writer like me, to have access to the insight of an author with Anita’s experience. I hadn’t met Anita in person before, even though I have belonged to a children’s writers’ group named in her honour for many years.  The Anita Factor was founded by a cohort of Winnipeg authors who had taken a writing course with Anita. 

My Manitoba writer friend, Mitch Toews who used to play basketball with my husband, colourfully noted in a recent rant on his Facebook page that the path to publishing your work affords no easy lay-ups.  He’s right! But……. organizations like the Writers Guild and experienced authors like Anita Daher who are generous with their advice and interest make the challenging journey a collegial meaningful learning experience that enriches the writer’s life. 

Other posts………..

Top Ten Pieces of Writing Advice from David Robertson

A Top Ten List From Ruth Ohi a Top-Notch Writer

A Glamorous Night For Manitoba Writing

 

 

 

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How I Became Aware of Racism

I’ve been thinking about how old I was when I first became aware of the idea of racism.  I grew up in a small Mennonite Canadian town where almost everyone was white.  Take a look at my elementary and junior high school class pictures and that’s clearly evident.

Three things stand out in my mind when I think of racism awareness in my childhood and teen years.  

My Grade Five Class in 1963 with our teacher Mr Klassen. 

In grade five I had a very innovative teacher, Mr Helmut Klassen.  I loved him because we did all sorts of hands-on projects. He taught us how to have a debate. We learned the rules and format of debating, and the best way to prepare and present our case.  

The topic of one of the debates we had in our class was whether black and white people should be treated equally. I argued for the affirmative and the research and planning I did for that debate was probably my first introduction to racism.  I can still see myself up on the stage at the old Southwood School in Steinbach drawing an illustration on a portable chalk blackboard to illustrate one of my points.

Now, of course, the very fact that we had a DEBATE over whether there should be racial equality seems hard to believe. I memorized a poem to recite during that debate called Incident.  It was by a black American writer Countee Cullen and it brought me to tears every time I read it. I can still recite it by heart. You can read it here. 

I will never forget that around the same time I heard an elderly relative of mine use the N-word.  And I remember how horrified I was. I knew enough about racism to be shocked. My mother explained that the woman had grown up in the American south and it was a word she used out of habit. I knew her as the sweetest and kindest of souls but it got me thinking about how even ‘good people’ could be racist and how I might be racist too. Then in high school, I read a book called Five Smooth Stones by Ann Fairbairn. It was published the year I was thirteen but I was a bit older when I read it. I don’t remember where I got it. I was a voracious reader growing up in a town without a library so I was always gathering books like a packrat, from a whole variety of sources.  

The novel was the life story of a young man named David, a civil rights activist from Mississippi.  The title alluded to the Biblical hero David who challenged the giant Goliath with only five smooth stones as his weapons. Part of the attraction of the novel for me was David’s turbulent romantic relationship with a white woman named Sara. It faced insurmountable obstacles because of the laws against interracial marriage, but the 900-page saga also introduced me, a sheltered white teenager, to the horrors of the Jim Crow laws, legal discrimination and the legacy of slavery.  

I read and re-read it many times until the book was literally falling apart.  I just looked it up on Good Reads and was surprised how many people said that growing up in the 1960s this book was what shook their world of white privilege.  I haven’t read it in decades and I am sure it would seem dated were I to read it now, and certainly would seem less than authentic because it was penned by a white author, but at the time it was such an eye-opener. 

If you are white and of a generation similar to mine how did you become aware of the idea of racism? 

Other posts……….

Racism- Pure and Simple

A Display of Racist Anger

A Racist Statue

 

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Good News and Good People-Not Good Parents

Photo from Niigaan Sinclair’s Twitter page

I faithfully read Niigaan Sinclair’s columns in the Winnipeg Free Press and think it is important the paper has an indigenous columnist who can help facilitate the journey toward reconciliation in our province. Most of the time I find Mr Sinclair’s columns troubling and difficult to read.  They can make me sad, force me to ask hard questions and inspire frustration.  

As I scroll through the comments readers post about Mr Sinclair’s columns I am often shocked and startled by their tone of venom, exasperation and brusqueness. Those feelings are directed both towards Mr Sinclair in particular and indigenous people in general.  It only points out why it is so necessary to have Mr Sinclair’s columns in the paper.

 Today’s column, however, is the kind I wish could be written more often.  It is full of good news. Mr Sinclair writes about non-indigenous and indigenous people working together to help provide shelter for homeless folks during the pandemic, about indigenous filmmakers being celebrated and the positive impact a Metis educator has had on the lives of thousands of students. I wish Mr Sinclair could write those kinds of columns more often but I understand why he can’t. 

Felix has a pet gerbil named Horatio and he sorely misses his beloved Grandma who has died. He has two bright and interesting best friends and they work on the newspaper staff at his French immersion school in Vancouver together. Both of Felix’s parents are artists.  He lives with his Mom and sees his Dad a couple of times a year. He’s a whiz at answering questions on a television quiz program he loves to watch. He has amazing powers of observation, has developed ingenous categories for different kinds of lies and……………..he’s homeless. Felix and his mom live in a van they have “borrowed” from his Mom’s old boyfriend.  

I just finished reading the novel No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen. She introduces the issue of homelessness and mental health to her middle-grade readers with an endearing main character.  It’s simply impossible not to like Felix who is kind, resourceful, intelligent and perceptive. Felix’s mother Astrid struggles with serious mental health issues and while I felt sympathy for her, I just kept getting angrier at her as I read the book.  Astrid LOVES her son but she constantly makes choices that place him in jeopardy. She refuses to get help and manages to alienate most people who offer assistance. 

There is a line in the book that made me really think and ask lots of questions. Felix has just had lunch with his Dad and comes to the realization that while both his mother and father are “really great people they are not great parents.” How many children have that experience?   

Felix keeps track of the items his Mom has stolen in the hopes that someday he will have enough money to pay back the stores she has robbed.

I enjoyed No Fixed Address but did wonder if some of the lifestyle choices it describes including theft and sex for money might not make the book better suited for an audience that is just a little older. I had read Susin Nielsen’s book Word Nerd previously.  It was published in 2004.  As I turned the pages of No Fixed Address the similarities between the two books were uncanny.  Both have been very popular, so Susin Nielsen obviously knows a winning formula when she finds one. 

My book club read No Fixed Address and so I can assure you that not just kids but adults find the book a good read and a good discussion starter. 

Other posts………

Why So Many Dysfunctional Parents? 

Living Beings Just Like Us

The Great Statue Debate

 

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A Mennonite on A Motorcycle

I just finished reading the book Menno Moto. Author Cameron Dueck takes his readers along on a motorcycle trip that begins on the shores of the Rat River in Manitoba and wends its way south through communities of Mennonites in Mexico, Belize, Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina.

Cameron grew up in a Mennonite community and we learn all about that experience too. Throughout the book, Cameron compares the Mennonites he meets on his journey to those in his family and in his childhood community.

Cameron on his motorcycle from his Instagram Page

Menno Moto was a fascinating read. The very idea of an adventure like Cameron’s is inspiring and exciting.  As he tells us about his personal past and as he travels from one enclave of Mennonites to another, we come to realize there really are no stereotypical Mennonites.  

The book made that point for me personally because while Cameron and I both grew up in rural Mennonite communities in Manitoba, had ancestors who immigrated to Canada from Ukraine, attended Mennonite churches and colleges, and have made our homes in Hong Kong for an extended period of time, our experiences as Mennonites are remarkably different. Mennonite readers, in particular, will find it interesting to compare their own understanding of Mennonite faith and culture to Cameron’s and those of the Mennonites we meet in his book.

If I had one critique of the book it would be that Cameron sometimes speaks too generally about Mennonites. For example, he gives the impression in one chapter that most Mennonites don’t value higher education while I come from a Mennonite family where the value of higher education was almost a sacred thing.

Mennonite Family in Mexico photo from Cameron Dueck ‘s Instagram page

Cameron doesn’t shy away from being honest and critical of the Mennonites he meets. We see how Mennonite immigrants have damaged the environment with their farming methods and have become assimilated into societies where they moved at great hardship and sacrifice precisely to be separated from society.  Certainly, Cameron makes it clear that women are far from equal with men in any of the communities he visits and when he is in Bolivia and investigates the rapes of women and the incest in Mennonite communities there, readers will shudder along with him. For those who have read Mennonite writer Miriam Toews’ Women Talking, a novel based on what some of these Bolivian Mennonite women experienced, Cameron’s account will provide an additional perspective on the tragic situation. 

Cameron took his motorcycle trip in 2012 so we are reading about it some eight years later and one wonders how much things will have changed in the communities he visited during that time and how those communities are responding now to the pandemic.

Since Cameron has made his home in Hong Kong for many years I wondered if he has ever explored what life is like for the nearly half a million Mennonites in seventeen different Asian countries. Could that be the focus of another adventure? 

Although Menno Moto has some excellent large black and white photos you will want to visit Cameron’s Instagram page to see the colour photos of his adventure that give added life to the stories in his book. 

Other posts……..

 His Dream Came True introduces another southern Manitoba Mennonite living in Hong Kong. 

Learn more about Miriam Toews and her book Women Talking in-Miriam Toews Has A Complicated Relationship With Her Hometown. 

Since Cameron lives in Asia I was reminded of the time we introduced our friends from Hong Kong and India to the Mennonite culture at the Steinbach Heritage Village Museum

 

 

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5 Thoughts on the Netflix Documentary Becoming

Last night I watched the new Netflix documentary Becoming. It chronicles the 34 city book tour Michelle Obama went on after the November 2018 release of her autobiography also called Becoming. Michelle’s book has sold more than 11 million copies since then. becoming documentary

1) Michelle’s book tour couldn’t have happened today.  Michelle spoke to crowds of up to 20,000 people or more. Large gatherings like that are now dangerous.  Michelle also met with small groups of people of all ages everywhere she went. She had conversations in churches, schools, community centres and homes. Michelle invariably ended up doling out plenty of hugs during these small group encounters something she couldn’t do now either. 

2) The documentary let us get to know some of the people who have played a crucial but fairly invisible role in Michelle’s life since her husband was first elected President. We see the warmth and trust of her relationship with Melissa Winter who has been her personal assistant for twelve years.  We see her special bond with Allen Taylor the secret service agent who has protected her for a decade. We meet Meredith Koop, who Michelle calls a member of the family. She is the stylist who guided Michelle’s fashion decisions in the White House and on her book tour. 

3)  I noticed how many times both Michelle and her husband said thank you to people who were helping them in a variety of ways. Thanking them for coming to events, thanking them for even the smallest of tasks they did, thanking them for their service.

Michelle Obama visits with children at a Child Development Centre in North Carolina

4)  I liked the way Michelle emphasized that everyone is special and has the power to do important things.  At one point a young Latino woman says to Michelle that she is nothing special. She just goes to high school and then to the part-time job she has because her family needs her income since her Dad was injured on the job. Michelle tells her the fact that she is staying in school while supporting her family is exactly what makes her special.  

Michelle says her mother often tells people Barack and Michelle are nothing special.  There are millions of Michelle and Barack Obamas all over the world.  And Michelle says that is the gift her book tour gave her.  She met so many decent, honest, good, compassionate people.  People who may think they are ‘nothing special’.  But they gave her hope for the future of her country.

Michelle Obama photo by Gage Skidmore from Wikimedia Commons

5) It is hard for Michelle not to feel like everything she and Barack tried to do is being decimated by the current president.  I just read in the New York Times yesterday that Trump vows to totally eradicate Obama Care before leaving office and he is dismissing as many of the environmental protections Barack Obama put in place as possible. Michelle seems uncharacteristically bitter about particularly the black voters and women voters who did not even bother to cast a ballot in 2016. It is Malia, Michelle’s daughter who is a junior at Harvard University, who reassures her Mom after one of her book tour sessions that Michelle and Barack have made a difference.    “You see that huge crowd out there…people are here because people still really believe in love and hope.” 


Other posts………....

It’s Harder to Hate Up Close

The House With the Obama Chair

Six Things That Help Me Stay Positive About Our World

Thanks for Visiting President Obama

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10 Things About The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

  1. Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is really different than most books I’ve read.  I’m not sure how to classify it genre-wise. In the novel, a pair of master magicians set up a competition involving their two young apprentices Celia and Marco.

    With my niece Amanda

  2. The book was recommended by my niece Amanda who often steers me to interesting books.  Was my niece drawn to the addictive descriptions of the unusual circus which is the setting for the competition between the two young magicians? I know I certainly was.

    With our friends the Nikkels visiting the Ringling Brothers Circus Museum in Sarasota Florida

  3. The novel reminded me of my visit to the Circus Museum in Sarasota Florida. There I learned about the cast of thousands needed to keep a circus going. The circus family in Morgenstein’s novel is huge and the characters who populate it very intriguing. There’s a Japanese contortionist, a pair of young twins each with unique magical gifts, a skilled clockmaker, and an extraordinary fashion designer and seamstress just to name a few.
  4. The Night Circus has connections to The Tempest, the Shakespeare play I know best. Celia one of protagonists in Morgenstein’s book is haunted by her father who is the namesake of Shakespeare’s The Tempest character Prospero. Prospero’s relationship with his daughter Celia is an important source of conflict in the novel’s plot.

    New York Times graphic for the novel by André da Loba

  5.  I love a good romance in novels and the one in this book is most unconventional. It makes you think about how much of any love relationship is grounded in fantasy. The tension about whether Celia and Marco the competitors will eventually end up together is at the very heart of the book.
  6. The book is set at the turn of the century during a time period I’ve researched extensively for a novel I’ve written.  The time period is particularly important in the case of a young man named Bailey who will become crucial to the story but Morgenstein takes a long time letting us know how that will happen even though we meet Bailey early on in the novel.
  7. The book is being made into a movie and I am not sure how I feel about that.  Each tent in the circus in this novel is a wondrous place and one of the things I enjoyed about The Night Circus was the way I had to use my imagination to envision each of the tents.  I think I may be disappointed when I see how the film director envisions them.

  8. Reviewers feel very strongly about this book. They either seem to love it or hate it.  I would not be as passionate one way or the other.  I loved many things about the novel and I was glad I read it, but it did jump around in time a fair bit and I found myself checking the dates at the start of each chapter to help me keep things straight and the plot did tie up perhaps a little too neatly at the end.
  9. Life takes us to unexpected places sometimes.  The future is never set in stone. That’s a quote from the novel that’s gone viral. You can get posters, T-shirts and dresses imprinted with those words.
  10. As an author who is trying to get a book published herself I am always a sucker for a novel by a new author who landed a dream deal after endless rejections.  The Night Circus manuscript was rejected by thirty literary agents before one accepted it and sold the manuscript to Doubleday. It spent seven weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. 

Other posts…………

Ten Things About Singer Bessie Smith the World’s Greatest Blues Singer

Six Things That Help Me Stay Positive About Our World

Five Things I Believe About Children

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My Dutch House

A house is the main character in Ann Patchett’s latest novel The Dutch House.  The mansion got its moniker from the VanHoebeeks, a couple from Holland who originally built The Dutch House. The house retains a special place in the hearts of Maeve and Danny Conroy whose father purchased it complete with all the furniture, art and books the VanHoebeeks left behind when the last member of their family died. 

Sonia Pulido’s Dutch House illustration for the review in the New York Times

Even though Maeve and Danny are eventually evicted from the house by their stepmother they continue to go back to look at it constantly throughout their lives reminiscing about the people and events from their past connected to the house.  The house and what happened there creates a supportive and essential bond between the siblings and remains an ongoing part of the Conroy family narrative for generations. 

I just finished reading Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House and it had me reflecting on how certain homes take hold of our imagination like the house in Patchett’s novel.

Outside our house on Beaverbrook Street in Winnipeg, ready to go to the lake with my Auntie Millie and her children.

I have lived in twenty-six different homes in my life. But the one that I think of the most often, the one whose rooms are brought to mind as locations for scenes in almost every novel I read is the house my family lived in for just a year on Beaverbrook Street in Winnipeg.  I am not sure why that house has such a hold on me.

Hanging stockings on our fireplace in the house on Beaverbrook Street

Again when I was reading The Dutch House I imagined the scenes in the novel taking place in the bedrooms,  living room, kitchen, yard and hallways of that house even though our home on Beaverbrook was certainly no mansion and really in no way resembled the house in Patchett’s novel.

With my mother and siblings in front of our house on Beaverbrook Street.

I once interviewed an architect who truly believed that buildings had souls. The Dutch House certainly has a soul for Maeve and Danny Conroy much the way that house on Beaverbrook Street has a soul for me.  In the novel Maeve and Danny are hard-pressed to adequately explain their connection to the house just as I can’t explain my connection to that house on Beaverbrook Street or why it continues to take up so much space in my imagination compared to the other twenty-five places I have lived. 

Do you have a house like that from your past? 

Other posts………..

Who Do Family Stories Belong To?

Do Buildings Have Souls?

Little Bee-Three Connections

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Albatross

albatrossAlbatross is the third Terry Fallis book I’ve read. Fallis novels are quirky and interesting.  The intriguing premise in this one is that there is a mathematical formula to determine whether someone has the perfect body for a certain sport.  The protagonist of Albatross Adam Coryell has the perfect body for golf. His highschool physical education teacher discovers this and Adam goes on to great recognition and wealth as a golfer. But…… he is not happy.  He may be the greatest golfer in the world but what he really wants is to be a great writer. 

Terry Fallis makes us think about what it means to be successful in Albatross. He also introduces us to the fascinating world of fountain pens, throws in a charming romance and passes commentary on the state of publishing in Canada which is dire.  He also gets us to think about the importance of making libraries available and accessible to everyone.  We are a society that exalts and worships sports stars.  Adam Coryell isn’t interested in that kind of recognition even though he is an Olympic champion, multi-millionaire and has worn the Masters’ green jacket.  Fallis makes us think about whether our adulation of sports figures may be misguided and perhaps even harmful.

Albatross is an easy read and Fallis is a straight forward writer not given to flowery description or deep literary prose.  I read this book on a bus, in a car, by a swimming pool, in a restaurant and at a ball game.  It kept me engaged.

Other posts about books by Terry Fallis……….

Best Laid Plans

Poles Apart

 

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