Author Archives: Arlene Somerton Smith

Book Review: Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes

year-of-yesYear of Yes 

by Shonda Rhimes
ISBN: 9781476777092
Simon & Schuster, 2015

Am going to say yes to anything and everything that scares me. For a whole year. Or until I get scared to death and you have to bury me. Ugh.”

With those words, Shonda Rhimes embarked on a year of stepping out of her comfort zone. Prompted by a sister who mumbled about how Shonda never said yes to anything, she decided to say yes to everything that felt out of character, goofy, scary.

And she didn’t die.

An interesting puzzle for readers is why Shonda Rhimes would need such a challenge in the first place. Why would the creator and head writer of Grey’s Anatomy—a woman living the dream—need to vow to overcome fear? On her road to that kind of success did she not learn to slay the fear dragons?

Apparently not, because in this book she laid bare a soul full of trepidation. She was a woman capable of cultivating a robust garden crop of angst. At the beginning of her Year of Yes she was successful but unhappy. She decided:

  • Saying no has gotten my here.
  • Here sucks.
  • Saying yes might be my way to someplace better.
  • If not a way to someplace better, at least to someplace different.

Public speaking was a problem, so she tackled that. Body image came up, so she learned to say yes to healthy eating and exercise, and she learned how to gracefully accept compliments.

“So when you negate someone’s compliment, you are telling them they are wrong. You’re telling them they wasted their time. You are questioning their taste and judgment. You are insulting them.

She discovered the benefits of letting go of toxic people in her life and the importance of handling difficult conversations. In some cases, the surface of problems suggested the way to deal with them was with a NO, but then she dug deeper and discovered that every challenge had a YES at a root of the problem.

“So, in order to say YES to a problem, I have to find whatever it is inside the problem that challenges me or scares me or makes me just freak outand then I have to say yes to that thing.”

Her book is invigorating and inspiring. I only have one quibble, and it prompts me to do as Jon Stewart would have done on The Daily Show when he invited people to meet him on Camera 3 for “personal” conversations.

Shonda Rhimes, meet me on Camera 3.

You say that being a mother is not a job. ” “I find it offensive to motherhood to call being a mother a job,” you say. “Being a mother isn’t a job. It’s who someone is. It’s who I am. You can quit a job. I can’t quit being a mother. . . . To the naysayers, I growl, do not diminish it by calling it a job.”

I agree that being a mother is not a job. But doing mother work is. Mothers can quit that. They can quit the job of doing the laundry and changing the diapers and go to a different kind of job outside the home. When they do so, they’re trading in one job for another. You’re right—they don’t stop being a mother, but they do choose to delegate doing the jobs that go along with being a mother to someone else, who would unquestionably do those tasks as a job. Jenny McCarthy helps you because it’s her job. 

“One is not better than the other. Both choices are worthy of the same amount of respect.”

Again we agree. Some of the most devoted mothers I know choose to have some help with the tasks. Happy, fulfilled mothers. Happy, fulfilled kids.

But when you say that being a mother is not a job, it stabs me right in the solar plexus. I feel diminished. It makes me feel that the work I did for almost two decades was valueless. I wasn’t paid for it, so it wasn’t a job.

Enough of that. Enough.

Now back to it. Shonda Rhimes writes Year of Yes in a conversational style, likes she’s sitting in a wing chair across from you telling you her story.

Lots of short paragraphs and single-word sentences.


She exposes her vulnerable underbelly, which will make readers feel better about any anxieties they’ve ever had. Most of all, she gives readers plenty to think about—how they deal with fears, bad habits and toxic people.

And I think she’ll change people’s lives for the better.









Book Review: A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

13258121A Sudden Light 

by Garth Stein
ISBN13: 9781439187036
Simon & Schuster, 2014

Do you believe in ghosts? Or, if not, are you willing to suspend disbelief long enough to enjoy a story?

There be ghosts in A Sudden Light, and they help to tell a story of redemption and faith, a tale of when to take and when to give back.

If you feel you don’t have enough, you hold on to things, he said. But if you feel you have enough, you let go of things. —Grandpa Samuel in A Sudden Light

Trevor Riddell is the fourteen-year-old descendant of a Seattle lumber baron, Elijah Riddell, who took all he could from clear-cut west coast forests and then repented before his death. Elijah willed his descendants to give his land back to nature, but when do children ever listen to their fathers? Family being what it is, several stagnant and acrimonious generations pass. By the time Trevor arrives at the vast wooden mansion of his great-great-grandfather, he must deal with thwarted ghosts and unfulfilled family members—the spiritual and the nonspiritual— in his quest for the truth.

How do we reconcile the differences between what we see and what we know?

Trevor travels to the Riddell estate with his father, Jones, who is returning there for the first time in decades. They are greeted by Jones’ sister, Serena, and his aging father, Grandpa Samuel. Serena is a weak spot in the story, her motivations not perfectly clear and her intentions questionable.

But the grand wooden house itself is an interesting character. Trevor explores the hidden passageways and secret staircases of an estate that seems, magically, to live and breathe.

Perhaps that’s what life is about . . . The search for magic. The search for the inexplicable. Not in order to explain it, or contain it. Simply in order to feel it. Because in that recognition of the sublime, we see for a moment the entire universe in the palm of our hand. And in that moment, we touch the face of God.

And that is what this novel is really all about. Each strange encounter opens Trevor’s mind to new possibilities and an underlying interconnectedness.



Book Review: Road Trip Rwanda by Will Ferguson

Road Trip Rwanda: A Journey into the New Heart of Africa 9780670066421

by Will Ferguson
ISBN 9780670066421
Viking, 2015

I never thought I’d read the words “Will Ferguson” and “book about Rwanda” in the same sentence. When I did, the idea intrigued me. What on earth did Will Ferguson—a three-time winner of the Leacock Medal for Humour—and Rwanda have to do with one another? I wanted to know.

Turns out, Ferguson has a child who played soccer with the child of Jean-Claude Munyezamu, a Rwandan who escaped the genocide. Will and Jean-Claude became friends, and the friendship led to the decision to tell the story of Rwanda reborn.

So, a novelist known for humorous writing and an escapee from genocide go on a road trip.

Does the idea make you feel a little apprehensive? It did me. The horrific events of the 1994 Rwanda genocide defy description and comprehension. How would Ferguson manage to honour those killed and those who survived and still write a novel that touches the light side of our humanity?

“I’d always maintained that a sense of humour can be found in any destination, no matter how bruised, how battered, and that through humour we can find a sense of shared humanity. But Rwanda?”

Ferguson does it. He doesn’t shy away from the horror of one million people being brutally murdered in a mere 100 days—the length of an average university semester. He shares the obvious scars—a car rental agent with a thick machete slash scar from ear to ear—and the hidden scars, evidenced in the many moments when he and Jean-Claude can do nothing more than stand together in silence.

The gifts of this book come Ferguson’s exceptional storytelling ability combined with Jean-Claude’s intimate knowledge of the country, the communities, the events, the people, the recovery, the new leadership, and the damage. Ferguson writes stories that make me want to pull up a chair, lean forward on my knees and take in every nuance, as if he were recounting a tale by the fireside. He is a fine writer who describes scenes vividly, sometimes poetically, and always authentically. No pretentious literary meanderings for him.

“Kigali is draped across a loose federation of hills, and the city’s main thoroughfares often run along high-wire ridges before dropping suddenly into the valleys below. This layout—the dip and drop, the ridges and sloping descents, the whorls and loops—makes driving through the city akin to navigating a fingerprint.”

Jean-Claude and Will venture into the public sites and the private homes of the new Rwanda, a country that has a growing list of optimistic statistics indicating recovery and new growth. They share unspeakably sad moments, of course, but they share humorous moments involving fire ants, Primus beer, gorillas in the wild and a journey to the source of the Nile. (Ferguson is a descendant of David Livingstone, apparently. No, really.)

The two journey around a country dealing with “the consequences of targeting one segment of society, of singling out one specific group of people,” and in the end, find hope in children and a game of soccer in the dusty streets.



Book Review: The Art of Crash Landing by Melissa DeCarlo

9780062390554The Art of Crash Landing 

By Melissa DeCarlo
ISBN: 9780062390554
Harper Paperbacks, 2015

“Twenty-seven minutes is, if anyone ever asks, exactly how long it takes to cram everything I own into six giant trash bags.” 
—opening sentence of The Art of Crash Landing

I defy you to read that opening sentence and not keep reading.

The title of this book gives hints about the story. Before we even begin to read we know that someone’s life is spiraling out of control, and we know that someone is going to share some insights about the experience. We guess that, one way or another, the person survives. A little banged up maybe, but still in one piece.

That person is Mattie, who is 30, pregnant and couch-surfing. Her mother combined just enough love with just enough alcoholic negligence to shape her into a person who is an absolute mess, but with a capacity for daring compassion.

From that first sentence I liked Mattie. I cheered for her when she made good decisions, and I completely understood when she messed up big-time. Her character appeals to the side of us that has made mistakes, but reassures the side of us that says, “Well, I made some mistakes, but at least I didn’t screw things up that badly.”

Mattie’s mother—who died of cancer—had cut off all contact with family, so Mattie is surprised to hear that her maternal grandmother has died and left her an inheritance. The answer to her problems? Perhaps, but not without some adventures and some mystery.

“But now, my hand turning this last doorknob, the feeling is strong enough to take my breath away. Even though I already know what I’m going to find.”  —Mattie in The Art of Crash Landing

What’s behind the door? I bet you want to know. 

It takes skill to write a heartbreaking story with humour, and DeCarlo strikes the right balance. Some chapters unfold with an inescapable sense of impending doom, but those chapters are balanced by others that unfold with irrepressible hope. DeCarlo creates well-rounded characters who are flawed, but endearingly so. The extra touches she brings to the story—guinea pigs and farting dogs—make it all the more charming.


 I received the book from Harper Paperbacks for review purposes. 

I was not financially compensated for this post. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions are completely my own based on my experience.





Book Review: The Road to Atlantis by Leo Brent Robillard

RoadAtlantisFNLwebThe Road to Atlantis 

by Leo Brent Robillard
ISBN: 9780888015556
Turnstone Press, 2015

“Resonating with the familiar” is the phrase that leaps to mind when I think of The Road to Atlantis. Leo Brent Robillard touches on so many places, events and experiences known to me, almost every page had me thinking, “Oh, I know what he’s talking about.”

Some of those places, events and experiences made me smile. I live in Ottawa, and I grew up in Eastern Ontario, so I know about Canterbury High School, Bon Echo, life in a government city, and the “university town on the shore of Lake Ontario.” He even referred to the Persian Gulf and the HMCS Terra Nova. My brother served on that ship during that time. Heartwarming.

Some of the places, events and experiences landed on ouchy places: female preoccupation with weight and body image, the effects of alcohol abuse on a family and the challenges of parenting teenagers. Thought-provoking.

And then there’s the loss of a child. Thank goodness that one is not familiar to me.

In Robillard’s novel, David and Anne start out on a road trip with their daughter, Nat, and young son, Matty. Along the way, a playful stop at the beach ends in tragedy. David, Anne and Matty must do the unthinkable and learn to live as a family of three, instead of four.

“. . . in a single day and night . . . the island of Atlantis . . . disappeared in the depths of the sea. For which reason, the sea in those parts is impassable and impenetrable, because there is a shoal of mud in the way . . .” —from Plato’s Account of Atlantis, translated by Benjamin Jowett

David and Anne find themselves in a metaphorical shoal of grief, guilt and blame mud. Poor Matty, too young to really remember his sister but living in the shadow of her death his whole life, bears the brunt of the inadequate tools David and Anne choose to try to deal with their pain: obsessive overprotection, infidelity, alcohol abuse and the bottling up of emotions.

Fathers—the good, the inflexible, the absent and the damaged—play a dominant role in the story. One of the most endearing scenes involves a carload of questionable fathers driving desperately through a snowstorm to arrive at the birth of a child.

I’m an admirer of Robillard’s work. I was once accused of “gushing” about his poetic literary style. To read a Robillard book is to curl up in a comfy chair with a cup of tea and feed your poetic soul. This novel is poetic in a starker way but, as always, his professionally lean prose deftly summarizes complex life circumstances and personalities.

“. . . the boy would never leave his own child. That took a cold mechanical precision. You had to be scalpel sharp with a selective memory. You had to be able to shut doors and never again test the handles.”

Robillard covers a lot of ground in a short book (192 pages). Concise, incisive and psyche-testing, The Road to Atlantis relates one family’s evolutionary journey from submersion to surface.


 I received the book from Turnstone Press for review purposes. I was not financially compensated for this post.I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions are completely my own based on my experience.

Book Review: The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth

12870068The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language

by Mark Forsyth
ISBN13: 9781848313071
Penguin Books Canada, 2011

Don’t think this is a dry book written by a crusty, judgmental Englishman. English, he is, but crusty and judgmental? Most definitely not.

Mark Forsyth takes us on a highly entertaining circular stroll through the history of our ever-evolving language. He makes surprising connections—the Latin for witness is testis from which we get both testicles and the Old Testament—and he sets aright some unfortunate changes in meaning. Angry protesters spouting angry opposition against an event or activity might feel better if they remember that protest means to bear witness for something.

“Every weakness of human nature comes out in the history of etymology.”

We see our frailties and failings reflected in our language. Soon was the Anglo-Saxon word for now; our procrastination led to the erosion of that meaning. The Roman word probabilis meant something could be proved by experiment, but people tend to be more certain of things than they should be. As Forsyth points out, “. . . absolutely any sane Roman would tell you that it was probabilis that the Sun went round the Earth.” By the time probably made its way to English, “. . . it was already a poor, exhausted word whose best days were behind it, and only meant likely.

From protest, soon and probably, we can see that we are complaining procrastinators who obstinately believe in shaky truths.

Forsyth is funny too, in the subtle British way.

“The Latin word for sausage was botulus, from which English gets two words. One of them is the lovely botuliform, which means sausage-shaped and is a more useful word than you might think. The other word is botulism.

He tells us why black can mean white and white can mean black, and why down sometimes means up. He reassures us that being an idiot might not be as bad a thing as we thought. And, he lets us in on the secret of what John the Baptist and The Sound of Music have in common.

If you read the book, you will find out all that, and more. And the next time you enjoy a cappuccino in Starbucks, you can ponder both Moby Dick and barefoot monks, and it will all make sense to you.


Read more at the Inky Fool blog:

%d bloggers like this: