by Mary Novik, BA’66, PhD’73
Doubleday Canada
321 pages
e-book / paperback

MuseMary Novik’s newest novel, Muse, dips a steady quill into the tempestuous history of 14th-century Avignon to tell tale of Solange Le Blanc, a supposed clairvoyant who, among other audacious claims to fictional fame, inspired the Renaissance poet Francesco Petrarch. While Laura, the subject of Petrarch’s sonnets, figures in the plot, Solange is based on the “woman unknown to posterity” who was mother to Petrarch’s two children. In Novik’s imaginings, Solange  influences not only Petrarch’s poetry – he comes to trust her eye and ear more than his own – but also advises the papacy through her connection with Clement VI, the fourth Avignon pope.

Like Petrarch’s poems, Muse is a tale of unrequited love — but it’s not quite that simple. The story follows a common Renaissance theme in which the carnal and spiritual are pitted against one another.  Here that schism takes the form of Solange, offspring of a pope and a prostitute, and Laura, who is akin to Beatrice, the soul who led Dante out of hell and into heaven. In the end, rather than be revered as a saint, Solange chooses a human life as evidenced in a filmic scene that sees her peel the skin of Laura’s severed finger from Petrarch’s ring, in order to be the woman joined with him in the afterlife. Muse is rife with historical details, although this isn’t one of them.

There is smooth transition between fact and fiction. Criticism of the Avignon papacy, the devastation of the plague, and the rise of Petrarch as poet laureate are woven effortlessly into the plot. Novik details the period’s use of wormwood and artemesia to induce abortions, as well as the practice of tying crepe bows on lemons trees to lament the loss of the dead. Women are lit on fire and sacrificed on church towers, and heretics have their tongues cut out then burn at the stake. Twists and turns are crafted to page-turning fury, slowed, at points, by the author’s controlled hand. A thread from the front of the book reveals its place in the tapestry of a tale well-told only at the end.

Slow and studious immersion into a specified period and place is the hallmark of historical fiction, and Novik has carved a niche for telling tales of women silenced by history. Her first novel, Conceit (2008), explored 17th century England through the eyes of John Donne’s daughter. It won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and was chosen as book of the year by both Quill and Quire and the Globe and Mail.

With Muse, Novik is entirely in command of her craft.


by Keith Maillard, UBC Creative Writing/English Prof
self-published e-book
386 pages

MotetMotet is definitely not a book you bring to the park to read while you watch your children play. Your ability to suffer the continuing sexual tension will most certainly wane (incredible how words can transfer heat to skin), as will your ability to keep the evil images at bay. Be forewarned: the words on these pages will open wounds you didn’t know you had.

First published in 1989 by Random House, then re-issued in Canada by Harper Collins in 1997, Keith Maillard’s “darkest novel” has been cut-up, scanned and converted into an e-book. Now available on Kindle or Kobo, and for purchase through Maillard’s website, Motet spins sex, drugs, rock and roll, cool jazz and Renaissance choral music, together with an early origin of Bohemian abandon known as Adamism and atrocities from Vietnam, Auschwitz and the Inquisition. The complex character changes and rhythmic language, “delivered with assured virtuosity,” are reminiscent of the choral composition that gives the book its title.

Three characters sing Maillard’s Motet. Steven Beuhl, first a fiery then burnt-out drummer from Georgia, falls in love with Kathy, a jazz saxophonist working as a waitress in Boston. Their tragic love story (which includes graphic sex, guns, drugs, the Mafia and a madman named Lyons) is in stark contrast to the seemingly safe, sane and stable life of music professor Paul Crane. At the outer edges of this tableau floats Crane’s daughter Wendy, an enchantingly surreal representation of innocence on the knife’s edge of the “nasty buncha dirty” sung by Buddy Bolden beneath the surface of the story.

It is the build and weave of the story that make Motet sing. Maillard moves the point of view around so much that the narrative, at times confusing, draws you in and holds you captive. Maillard’s description of place (Vancouver is “the city of mist and chill” and the edge of Lake Ontario is “laid out before you sullen as mucillage”) is etched as carefully as his characters but what sets his style apart is his ability to place the reader in a scene. As June Callwood, one of Canada’s most important social justice advocates, said, “once you witness an event you are no longer an observer but a participant.” Maillard’s ability to move the reader from observer to participant is what makes Motet as relevant, complex and powerful as it was when first published more than 20 years ago.

Craft Beer Revolution

by Joe Wiebe, BFA’04, MFA’06
Douglas & McIntyre
224 pages

Craft Beer RevolutionCraft Beer Revolution: The Insider’s Guide to B.C. Breweries details the history, hot spots and people powering BC’s burgeoning micro-brewery industry, which author and beer geek Joe Wiebe says was collectively and consciously re-branded across North America as “craft beer” in the mid- to late 1990s. Wiebe, also known as the Thirsty Writer, is a knowledgeable and affable guide whose quest for high quality, complex and challenging brews is insatiable. His love of craft beer started in Europe in 1991 with a German wheat ale he describes as having “a fruity banana, bubble gum aroma.”  Craft Beer Revolution is the result of Wiebe’s Craft Beer Odyssey — a 2,364 km road trip that took eight days and covered all craft breweries and brew pubs in the bottom half of British Columbia.

The book begins with a map of the seven regions it covers, with each section headed by a chart that lists amenities at local breweries and brew pubs. Some breweries offer tours, others have beds. Some sell draft beer, some bottles and others have growlers which, according to the Glossary of Terms, are half gallon bottles that “resemble mini moonshine jugs and can be refilled at many craft breweries and brew pubs across BC.”

The tour starts with the Sea to Sky region, where the craft beer revolution started in 1982 when John Mitchell and Frank Appleton decided to refashion dairy equipment to brew a mild ale for Horseshoe Bay’s Troller Pub. Each pub and brewery has its own story  with personal tales and a list of beers on tap, including some of the Thirsty Writer’s favourites, such as Tofino Brewing’s Tuff Session Ale. Places to fill your growler are noted with hopes of inspiring a consumer craving for future filling stations. Information includes mention of nascent craft beer scenes in places like Tasmania as well as the history of the hop growing industry in Saanich, decimated by a hop louse infestation in the 1890s. The recent resurgence of BC hop production, Wiebe says, is due in part to efforts of Crannog Ales’ co-founder Rebecca Kneen, one of many females who populate BC’s craft beer industry.

Wiebe’s intent — to encourage consumers to develop an interest in craft beer — is hugely successful. History buffs and tourists will find The Insider’s Guide to B.C. Breweries insightful and enjoyable – whether or not they drink beer. For beer geeks though, this book is guerrilla warfare on weak ale. Viva la revolucion!


High Steaks: Why and How to Eat Less Meat

by Eleanor Boyle, PhD’92
New Society Publishers
208 pages

High SteaksMeat consumption, says Eleanor Boyle, is a problem of our times. With a background in behavioural science, neuroscience, food policy and journalism, she combines authoritative research and clear thinking to make a convincing case for the ways in which the modern meat system has contributed to environmental and health problems. Boyle calls this “the meat issue” and chances are this term, or another like it, will become as ubiquitous as “climate change” or the “Occupy Movement.”  While she cedes action is required at the government level, Boyle believes individual citizens and civil society organizations can jump start the process. To this end, the first part of the book bites into why we should eat less meat and the second part chews over how — followed by one appendix that provides tips and recipes for “cutting the meat,” and another with related research reports, books, articles and organizations. An occasional meat-eater herself, Boyle suggests we make our meat carefully and eat it sparingly, proceeding in a way that creates what she terms a “small food print.” She cites many academic and government studies, such as the FAO’s groundbreaking report, Livestock’s Long Shadow, that say current production systems are not tenable.

The statistics make for worthy dinner conversations. Of all arable land on earth, over 70 per cent is used to grow feed crops, not food. Cattle-farming is responsible for 80 per cent of the Amazon deforestation, with one acre lost to cattle ranchers every second.  Not so savoury table talk can be found in the section that discusses waste from confined (or concentrated) animal feeding operations or CAFOs, otherwise known as factory farms, which now dominate meat and milk production. Boyle uses Walkerton to illustrate ways in which manure contributes to disease; thirteen livestock farms were within a four km radius of Walkerton’s contaminated water wells. Not only are livestock products resource intensive and pollution producing, meat consumption has increased substantially.

This increase, combined with a substantial decrease in cost due to factory farms and government support and incentives, is one of the major contributing factors to the meat problem. But the book is not all doom and gloom. Boyle believes that the meat problem can be solved by citizens deciding to lower consumption to levels appropriate to the ecosystem and to their health. While we will need some visionary food policy at the government level, the solution starts at the table.


One comment

  1. […] and Jennifer Pawluk reviews Muse in the Winnipeg Free Press. And there’s more. Teresa Goff reviews Muse in the August 2013 issue of Trek Magazine and Dana Hansen reviews it in the September 2013 Quill […]

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