Waiting for Time, by Bernice Morgan


This novel set mostly in Newfoundland seemed appropriate blizzard reading. It’s a sequel to Random Passage, which I haven’t read, continuing the saga of several families on a remote cape on the Atlantic shore. We learn enough about the characters that not having read the earlier book wasn’t a problem.

Lav Andrews, a civil servant in Ottawa, anchors the frame story. She’s sent to St. John’s to oversee a report on the viability of the Atlantic fishery and discovers a journal kept by her several-generations-back Aunt Lavinia. The main story is about the life of that aunt’s best friend, Mary Bundle, whose marginalia in the journal intrigue Lav.

Life on the cape is hard. There’s never enough to eat and no industry beyond fishing and salting cod to be sold in St. John’s. Mary is different from the others. Of course, she’s known poverty and starvation her whole life, as a child in rural England and as a servant in St. John’s. Where she’s different is that she’s always looking two steps ahead: not just at the next task to be done, but how to do things better so there will be a bit more food in years to come.

While the others aren’t thrilled with her nagging, they do go along with most of her ideas. She speaks her mind and is famous for her rages, a powerful character. Shaped by hardship, she couldn’t care less what others think of her and doesn’t hide her opinion of them: that they are like sheep. Now 97 and nearing death, she is dictating to her great-granddaughter Rachel what to write in the margins of Lavinia’s journal, determined to correct what she believes are inaccuracies in her friend’s account.

Mary made me think of my mother, who became increasingly outspoken as she aged. I tried for years to get her to write a memoir but it took her brother writing one to finally get her going. Like Mary, she needed to correct his “mistakes”.

Morgan captures the details of life at the end of the 19th century in a tiny isolated fishing community. It is a hard life, for sure, but Mary’s invincible spirit and strong voice make for fascinating reading. She has a lot to say about the couple of dozen inhabitants of the cape, their squabbles and celebrations. And there is always the sea, relentlessly eating away at the land, and always winter just around the corner.

In the end we come back to Lav, setting off for the Cape to meet Rachel, now nearly 100 years old. It’s a challenge to fit so many lifetimes into one not particularly long novel. One of the ways Morgan handles it is to keep the number of named characters small and giving them distinct characters and voices, so that it isn’t hard to keep track of them. Both Lav’s and Mary’s stories are organised chronologically, which makes them easier to follow. Morgan dips in and out of their lives with scenes illuminating her major storylines.

As with other books about the first Canadian settlers, such as Charlotte Gray’s Sisters in the Wilderness : The Lives of Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill, I am shocked that people could survive such conditions. It makes our current pandemic lockdown that has spawned so many complaints seem like a picnic, and the blizzard outside something minor indeed.

What do you like to read when the weather outside is frightful?

Playlist 2020


Songs are stories too. And sometimes poetry. For this strange and difficult year, my theme was comfort. Many thanks to my friends for their music.

Aria From The Goldberg Variations -BWV 988, J.S. Bach, Julie Steinberg
Eclogue, English Suite Gerald Finzi, English String Orchestra
Shafe konnen sicher weiden (Sheep may safely graze)-BWV 208, J.S. Bach, Yo-Yo Ma
In Your Grace (Maa), Ajeet Kaur
As It Seems, Lily Kershaw
Promised Land, Lily Kershaw
American Tune, Paul Simon
Over The Hill And Over The Dale, Nowell Sing We Clear
A Fair Maid Walking, John Roberts & Tony Barrand
Beach Spring, Alchemy
Si Bheag, Si Mor, 3rd String Trio
We Meet Again/Barham Down, Alchemy
Grey Funnel Line, Windborne
Tom Kruskal’s (Sapphire Sea), The Dancehall Players
Braes Of Dornoch, Bare Necessities
St. Margaret’s Hill, Bare Necessities
Easter Morn, Bare Necessities
Fair And Softly, Bare Necessities
Tickle Cove Pond, Nightingale
Beeswing, Keith Murphy
The Lark Ascending, Vaughan Williams, Academy of St. Martin in the Field
Suite No. 1 in B Flat Major, HWV 434, George Frideric Handel, András Schiff
Requiem, Gabriel Fauré, Choir Of Trinity College Cambridge
Aria from the Goldberg Variations -BWV 988, J.S. Bach, Yo-Yo Ma

Nuclear Option, by Dorothy Van Soest


At 77, Sylvia Jensen believes her activist days are over. She is still involved with community groups and delivers Meals on Wheels, doing what she chooses to do rather than what she feels she ought to do. Then, at a funeral for a woman who had been an inspiring leader during Sylvia’s years protesting domestic and military nuclear proliferation, she is astounded to meet a ghost from the past.

In her 40s, at a meeting planning protests against Nectaral, the biggest military contractor in the state, Sylvia had met Norton, a kindred spirit with green eyes and a crooked smile. Since he was married and had a young son, they tried desperately to keep to friendship. What Sylvia didn’t know was that Norton had a time bomb inside, that he was an atomic veteran.

Now, all these years later, Norton’s son Corey, full of rage and anguished loss, crosses her path, ready to take his protests to another level. How can Sylvia not try to save him from himself?

The mystery unfolds on two levels: the past, where Sylvia and Norton and their friends are on trial for their part in the protest, and the present, where Sylvia has to draw on all her skills as a former foster care supervisor, her courage, and her friendship with investigative reporter J. B. Harrell to untangle the webs being woven around her beloved Norton’s son.

I did not know about the atomic veterans—no surprise since their existence was hidden behind the Nuclear Radiation and Secrecy Agreement Act until it was repealed in 1996. They were ordinary soldiers used as guinea pigs during nuclear tests, ordered to stand without equipment near the blast in order to study the effects of radiation, or sent in to clean up afterward, again without protective gear or being informed about the danger.

I did know about and was involved in the 1960s in protests against nuclear proliferation. The bomb and the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were very much in the forefront of things to worry about. Yet until Van Soest’s book (Full disclosure: Dorothy is a friend of mine), I hadn’t realised that anti-nuclear protests were still going on; that fear had receded into the rear of my personal chamber of horrors.

Like Sylvia and, I’m sure, others who were active in the 1960s and 70s, I have been reluctant to get involved in protests and marches again. Busy raising children and keeping a roof over their heads, I focused on what seemed immediately most important, I suppose making me no better in a way than the corporate heads prioritising short-term profits.

But the last four years have dragged me out of my comfort zone. Protestors fill our streets once again. And now this story, with its interweaving of past and present, invites me to consider what more I might be doing. It chimes with what I’ve been reading and discussing and thinking about all summer: how can I leverage my privilege—for I am surely privileged in many ways, despite my years of poverty—to help make the changes our stricken society so badly needs?

What Van Soest has accomplished in this, her fourth novel, is quite remarkable. She has given us a gripping mystery, with characters who will haunt us long after the last page is turned, placing them within a real-world context that alerts us to dangers we may not have considered. The story never falters, as we are swept into Sylvia’s quest for justice and safety for us all.

Have you read a stirring mystery lately?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Salt Path, by Raynor Winn

salt path

I was talking with some writers the other day about evoking emotion in our readers, and one asked if there could be too much emotion in a book. The incredible teacher/agent/writer Donald Maass, author of The Emotional Craft of Fiction, would say no; the problem is almost always that there isn’t enough.

Yet it’s true that sometimes I don’t have the emotional stamina for a particular book on that day. Sometimes what I need is something from what Dave King calls the gentle genre.

When I first heard of this memoir, I knew I had to read it. When Raynor Winn and her husband Moth lose their beloved Welsh farm, the one they’ve devoted decades to restoring and working, where they brought up their now-grown children, they are devastated. The long court battle to prevent their former friend from seizing their farm, lost finally on a technicality, has emptied their savings. No home, no job, no savings. In their 50s, being self-employed they have no work references, and after the court case no credit. Then they learn that Moth has a terminal illness. He might eke out a couple of years of increasing disability.

Winn writes so movingly of leaving the farm, choosing what few keepsakes to hang onto, unable to lean on their children who are in school or starter jobs that I was overwhelmed. I’ve been there myself: empty-handed, with no choice but to turn to a frayed social safety net. Yet right now, with so many griefs and losses and fears in real life, I wasn’t sure I had the stamina to go through this with her.

Yet I had to read it. Homeless, their temporary solution is to walk the 630-mile South West Coast Path, which winds around Somerset, Devon, Cornwall and Dorset. They will have to sleep wild since they don’t have money for B&Bs or campgrounds, and they will have to subsist on minimal food bought with the £48 a week tax benefit that is their only income.

I walked part of this path with friends a couple of years ago and found it challenging enough, even with B&Bs and luggage transfer. So I had to know how they managed, what they encountered, how they were changed.

And they are changed. Winn doesn’t sugarcoat the difficulties, yet finds space to describe the glories of the rocky headlands, the cliffs, the surging sea, the gulls and oystercatchers, the badgers and deer. The writing, like the path, is spare and occasionally glorious. She and Moth encounter quirky and often generous people on the path. And they find, as I did on a much smaller scale, that they are stronger—physically and emotionally—than they thought.

Their story moved me to tears. I cried at the beginning and at the end, for different reasons, filled with different emotions. Too much emotion? Not at all.

Have you read a memoir that taught you something about yourself?