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South Africa 1976. Robin Conrad is the 9-year-old daughter of Jolene and Keith. They are white South Africans. Keith works for a gold mining company, and the family lives in a Johannesburg suburb with other descendants of British and European settlers. The other important person in Robin’s life is the family’s black maid, Mabel.

Beauty Mbali is an educated black woman, a teacher, a widow. Her daughter, Nomsa, came to Johannesburg to continue her education. We meet Beauty as she comes to Johannesburg in search of her daughter who has become involved in student politics, much to her mother’s dismay.

Very early in the novel, on the evening of the 16th of June 1976, Robin’s parents, who had gone out to a party, promising to return, are murdered. In the next few days, Jolene’s sister arrives to care for Robin, and Mabel chooses to return to her own family. Robin has lost everyone she loved and is removed from her home, and school, to live with Edith in Johannesburg.


Bianca Marais writes well about grief, as both Robin and Edith look for distraction to avoid coping with their overwhelming grief. It is at the funeral that Edith advises Robin to “hum if you don’t know the words”. And, I thought that was also good advice for life in general – hum, or just make it up as you go along, because it will go along, in whatever direction it takes, whether we know the words or not.

Edith finds it very difficult, though she loved Robin, to sacrifice her own independent life to care for her niece. When, by chance, Beauty comes into their lives, needing a job, it seems the perfect solution for everyone.


Hum If You Don’t Know the Words is a novel rich in character and story. The time in which it is set is one of turmoil and readers will ask themselves unanswerable questions about the difference between freedom fighters and terrorists. There are moments when some of the situations in which Robin finds herself required me to suspend my disbelief, but I found myself caring quite desperately about the welfare of this child.  

The novel begins only a few days before the Soweto Student Uprising on 16 June 1976. Some see this event as the beginning of the end of Apartheid, and since 1995 the 16th of June is known as Youth Day. It was also the beginning of a massive exodus of white South Africans, many of whom made their way to Canada.

Bianca Marais will read from Hum If You Don’t Know the Words at the Charles W. Stockey Centre on Thursday 26 October at 7:30 pm, along with Kathleen Winter and Catherine Chidgey, an evening presented by the International Festival of authors Parry Sound.

Lost in September by Kathleen Winter


Once again, summer has come to an end, fall is upon us, and The International Festival of Authors heads north from the Toronto harbour front to Georgian Bay’s Big Sound and the Charles W. Stockey Centre in Parry Sound. On the evening of Thursday 26 October we will welcome to the stage Catherine Chidgey from New Zealand, Bianca Marais from South Africa, and Canadian Kathleen Winter.

When I attended public school and high school half a century ago we learned in our Canadian History class that Wolfe defeated Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham and therefore England conquered France.

So, if you were General James Wolfe – if you had not died on the Plains of Abraham but had lived – you would be understandably confused if you walked the streets of Montreal today and saw no evidence of the English language.

Kathleen Winter must have wondered the same thing as she wandered around the city where she now lives. In her new novel Lost in September Kathleen Winter imagines James Wolfe in the present day, as he explores the city of Montreal. In fact, he is living in a tent on the slope of Mount Royal but ventures downtown to the gym for a bath. He also re-visits the Plains of Abraham and the approaches where he planned his attack, as he struggles to understand what he once experienced as a soldier, and what the future might now hold for him. All of this seems to be perfectly understandable, if completely absurd.

James Wolfe wrote letters to his family, especially his mother, during the years he was away from home as a soldier. His letters are indeed housed now at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library as the novel indicates. Mother and son were extremely close, perhaps rather too much so, as you will discover. Kathleen Winter has obviously mined these letters for her novel and they are indeed extraordinary, and fascinating to read.

The same river flows through Montreal today as it did in Wolfe’s day. The landscape is also much the same, if you can imagine it without the highways and cities of both sides of this great waterway. And Montmorency Falls looks much the same as it did in 1759, only a few kilometres from Quebec City, a protected landscape where the river drops down a steep cliff to the great Saint Lawrence River. It is easy to imagine both General James Wolfe and Commander Louis-Joseph de Montcalm in this place.


Lost in September chronicles the 11 lost days prior to the battle on the Plains of Abraham on 13 September 1759. Both Wolfe and Montcalm succumbed to their injuries. Obviously neither lived to explore Montreal or Quebec except in the imagination of a very talented writer. You will both laugh and cry as you read about the exploits and confusion of poor James Wolfe. He is at once insightful and blind, as is his friend Harold, who “looks at everyone as they were once a baby”.

James Wolfe was only 32 years old when he died, a young man, as many soldiers are, and many live no longer than did Wolfe. This novel imagines the days lost to history in the life of James Wolfe, as it also explores the same days in the present time in the life of a modern day soldier.

Best known for her novel Annabel, Kathleen Winter presents another brilliant novel that is sure to become a “must read” in the coming year.

Kathleen Winter will be in Parry Sound with The International Festival of Authors on Thursday 26 October when she will read from Lost in September. A date not to be missed!

Breaking News - Lost in September has been nominated for the 2017 Governor General's Award for Fiction! Congratulations Kathleen!




First Snow, Last Light by Wayne Johnston


A new novel by Wayne Johnston is always a cause for celebration, and his most recent, First Snow, Last Light is as satisfying as all of those that came before.

The novel begins with a child returning home from school as usual, it is late afternoon, late November. His mother was always at the window, watching and waiting for the child, but today she is not and the house is in darkness.


The story is told in turn by the child, Ned, and by Sheilagh Fielding who we’ve met before in earlier novels. The past is revealed as time moves forward from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Edgar Vatcher, born and bred in Newfoundland, and his British born wife, Megan, are Ned’s parents. Their marriage is strained, but both adore and cherish their son. No one really believes they would willingly have chosen to abandon young Ned. There is an extensive search, but with no success in finding the Vatchers, or even any clue to the reason for their disappearance. Ned will forever be obsessed with the disappearance of his parents, and will never cease searching for them.

From the first page I found myself completely immersed in this tale of an abandoned child, his parents, and his extended family. There is also the local priest, Duggan, who cares for Ned for the rest of his life. Sheilagh Fielding is a seemingly hard-nosed journalist with a reputation for drink and disorder. Sheilagh, who was Edgar’s friend first, is another who will always care for Ned.

The Vatcher family includes Ned’s grandparents, Nan and Reg, and Ned’s Uncles, some living and one dead, who are ever present. The Vatchers live on the Heights – the “wrong side of the tracks” – or harbour from the city of St. John’s. Edgar was the son who left all that and by the time he was a young man he owned a grand house in a nice neighbourhood in St. John’s. Though, by the time of his disappearance Edgar was struggling with scandal and financial problems. There was some speculation that this was the reason for his disappearance – but that would Megan abandon her child seemed impossible to everyone.

This is a novel full of the sort of characters only Dickens – or a Newfoundlander – could create. Not only Ned, the abandoned child, but his grandfather who has not spoken for many years, choosing to remain mute, though his wife berates him at every turn. There is another child, orphaned at birth and adopted into the Vatcher family, a child with his own myriad of problems.  There is such a richness of story and language as the tale is told.

Ned becomes more and more obsessed and eccentric in middle age. He may be a self made man who has acquired wealth and prestige but he is still a lost and abandoned child.

The dramatic conclusion cannot be guessed – as all is discovered and resolved and this chapter of the life of Ned Vatcher and Sheilagh Fielding comes to an end.

After reading First Snow, Last Light what I’d love to do most is retire to Newfoundland and read again all of Wayne Johnston’s earlier books. 

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore

I think of Anita Brookner, Penelope Lively and Jane Gardam as some of the best writers of their generation, and of Helen Dunmore as one who followed in their footsteps. Their books are superior in every way, always intelligent and insightful and delicious to read.

I was shocked to learn only three months ago that Helen Dunmore died, just before the publication of her last novel, Birdcage Walk.   

Helen Dunmore wrote, and had published, poetry and short stories before her first novel for adults, Zennor in Darkness was published in 1993. Set during the First World War, and imagining the lives of D H Lawrence and his German born wife, Frieda, who were living at that time in Cornwall.

Her novel Spell of Winter, published in 1996, won the inaugural Orange Prize for Fiction. Other novels for adults and children followed, often garnering nominations for prestigious awards.


Birdcage Walk tells the story of a young couple in the days just prior to, and during, the French Revolution. We know them as Diner and Lizzie, a young couple very much in love and optimistic about the future – at least on the surface. He is a builder, a speculator, designing and building grand terraced homes high above the shore of the River Severn near Bristol. Lizzie is the daughter of Julia Fawkes, a woman who writes about equality and the rights of women and the poor – radical stuff at the time. Julia’s husband, Augustus, is even more radical in his very public support for those attempting to overthrow the monarchy in France. Lizzie’s husband will have none of it, and bitterly resents Lizzie’s attachment to her family, and the political and social unrest they are part of.

The novel follow Lizzie through her days, and nights, as her husband becomes more and more unpredictable and their lives together more precarious. Diner has a past that is alluded to at the beginning of the novel, and is slowly revealed as the story progresses.

And that is all I am giving away! Birdcage Walk is an intriguing and compelling novel. The setting is fascinating, the story is both suspenseful and satisfying, the writing is sublime – a great book by a writer who gave us so much, and should have given us more.











William Shaw’s Breen and Tozer Mystery Trilogy

William Shaw’s Breen and Tozer Mystery Trilogy

Mid-summer I read the most recent mystery novel by William Shaw, The Birdwatcher.

I liked it so much I immediately ordered William Shaw’s three earlier novels and read them straight through one after the other.


The trilogy takes place in the late 1960s in London, England. The first She’s Leaving Home, and the second The Kings of London were written in 2014, and the third A Song for the Brokenhearted in 2015, and all take place over the span of only a few years.

I knew London well at this time; I often visited with friends for school holidays and then lived there the summer after I finished High School in 1969. This was a more innocent time – but it was also a time of drugs, sex and rock and roll. This is the world in which William Shaw places Detective Sergeant Cathal “Paddy” Breen, and Constable Helen Tozer, Breen’s partner.

Breen and Tozer are working in a world without cell phones, they use typewriters with carbon paper, Wednesday is half-day closing, Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton are all the rage. The Beatles are changing, Yoko Ono and John Lennon are making news, everyone has spider plants in their homes, Bobby Kennedy is assassinated, Nixon is elected, the war in Viet Nam is escalating, American draft dodgers are leaving not only for Canada but also England. Young people are travelling in Europe and into Morocco and Afghanistan, bringing drugs into Europe through Franco’s Spain.

I found myself remembering places and events I had completely forgotten – Jumbo Records where a friend worked, the Roundhouse where rock bands often performed. During my summer in London I volunteered for an organization called Street Aid – we manned a trailer at folk and rock concerts around southern England to offer assistance to those who had taken drugs and needed help – the perk, of course, seeing all the performers. Street Aid had an office high above Trafalgar Square, while I lived in a squat in Lambeth with other young Canadians and Americans, and a young Irishman we later realized was probably an IRA supporter.

It is uncommon in the 1960s for women to be in the police force and Helen Tozer experiences such verbal abuse and sexism it is hard to imagine that any woman could withstand it all and continue to pursue a career as a Detective. The sexism is relentless, and though it is disturbing it is not as disturbing as the corruption within the police force. It is hard to believe the lack of discipline and respect generally. Breen seems often to be alone in his attempt to be fair and follow procedure in his investigations.

Helen Tozer is young, a woman in her early 20s and she is completely in tune with the young people in London. She loves the place, having grown up on a farm in England’s southwest she is determined to have a great time and to be a police woman who makes a difference. She is smart and she is fearless.

Breen is a little older, though only in his early 30s he is out of touch with the young. Raised by his widowed father, an only child, Breen is a solitary man. A careful man who finds Helen Tozer a fascinating creature.

Together Breen and Tozer are a great team and spending time with them was a pleasure. Each novel moves forward their professional and personal relationship, though I found the crimes in the third volume of the trilogy a little more graphic and gruesome than I am comfortable reading, I still found myself needing to know what happens to these compelling characters.

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