Archive for the ‘2000s’ Category

the-blue-girl-charles-de-lint-2004The Blue Girl by Charles de Lint ~ 2004. This edition: Firebird, 2006. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-240545-0. 368 pages.

My rating: 6/10

This was supposed to be my “Hallowe’en theme” book post, but I kept putting it off, and by golly it’s now November 3rd so I’d better get it over and done with.

I almost put it away without mention, because it’s a minor blip on my reading radar screen, but then I remembered that Charles de Lint is Canadian, and I did promise over at John Mutford’s 10th Annual Canadian Book Challenge to review all the Canadian books I read from July 2016 to June 2017, and so far I have done this for all of one book since July. (Can that be possible? Did I miss some somehow, or am I reading strictly non-Canadian stuff lately? Hmm.)

The Blue Girl is the very first Charles de Lint fantasy I’ve been able to stick with to the end, and I rather wonder why that is. The man can write, no question about that, and sometimes even shows some flare. So perhaps it’s the genre, fantasy being so easy to go wrong with, all overdone and improbable as it so often turns out to be.

This novel is “Young Adult” all the way, and maybe that’s why I found it a relative breeze to get through, because de Lint herein shows a much lighter, surer hand with his storytelling than in his more “serious” adult-oriented fantasies, which I found put me off with their strangely plodding plots and frequent over telling.

The Blue Girl trusts the reader more, and I liked that. Of course, when one considers that Charles de Lint has written something like 70 books (!) in his career so far (his first book was published in 1984, and he’s still going strong), one expects a certain competence of craft.

Summary, from the catalogue data section on the copyright page:

New at her high school, Imogene enlists the help of her introverted friend Maxine and the ghost of a boy who haunts the school after receiving warnings through her dreams that soul-eaters are threatening her life.

Yawn, right? I mean, soul-eaters. Give us a break!

Good thing I never read the précis until after I finished the book, because I don’t think I would have started it with that sort of pre-warning.

But start it I did, and it hooked me, and I made it to the end cheering on the heroine and her sidekicks, with only one bitter moment of “Aargh! What is the author doing?!” reader’s rage when he utterly undersells the climactic confrontation-between-heroine-and-soul-eaters scene. He got me back with what turned out to be a rather charming ending, but that cop-out still rankles a bit, and will, I suspect, remain the strongest memory of this not particularly original book. Which maybe argues that de Lint is rather clever after all.

Maybe.

17-year-old Imogene, raised on a hippy commune, then experiencing life as a loner-outcast at her old highschool and by compensation getting all involved with a gang, has moved to a new city with her mom and older brother. A new school means a new life, and a chance for reinvention, and Imogene has the best of intentions.

Too bad that she runs afoul of her new school’s Mean Girl and Top Jock couple the very first day, compounding her getting-it-wrongness by befriending geeky Maxine, the previous Chief Outcast. So now there are two losers at the bottom of the pecking order. Oh my, what will happen next? (No, that’s not a real question.)

Quite a lot, in fact, much of which has little to do with the ongoing teenage highschool power struggle, because all of a sudden Imogene has a crop of newer, bigger, much more supernatural problems. Her dreams are getting really real, and center on the nightly emergence from her bedroom closet of a manifestation of her childhood imaginary friend, Pelly, accompanied by a ragged band (literally) of “patchwork creatures made out of words and rags and twigs, of bits of wool and fur, skin and bone…”

Then there’s tragically, eternally adolescent Ghost, haunting the halls of the high school since his deadly fall from the school roof some years ago, who develops a crush on Imogene, which sets her up for even more attention from the Things residing on The Other Side.

I won’t go in to explanations of all the trope-ridden happenings of the book, for de Lint doesn’t break much new ground here. My co-reader whom I pressed the book upon for a second opinion, a keen and happily cynical connoisseur of teen-market fantasy, was gleeful in confirming all of the stereotypes and clichés marching around in predictable lock-step, acting just as they were supposed to.

Ah, the light blinks on! It’s all about comfort reading, isn’t it? No rules are so strong as those that govern our fictional safe zones.

What else do I want to say?

The writing is smooth, the characters either offbeat and likeable, satisfyingly hateable, or shudderingly creepy. (There were bits when I had to have the lights on. Things in Closets. Brrr!) The story amuses, and the key characters don’t take themselves too seriously, despite their ongoing dual battle with Real World school bullies and Other World bad things. There’s a lot of witty humour in here; occasionally I laughed out loud, which is rare for me, and a mark of high enjoyment indeed.

The girl in question does indeed at one point turn blue. Which isn’t as funny as the writer seems to think it is, which lost him a full point.

A point was also lost by the non-epic dissolution of the Epic Battle Scene. And another point gone for the introduction of a Random Internet Mentor who hands out pertinent evil-fighting advice in the nick of time. One more gone because of unbelievability of the melding of Real and Other worlds – the author at some point left off trying to make it plausible, he abandoned the attempt with a “Here it is, don’t look at it too hard, just step inside.”

What does that leave us with?

6/10.

Well on the okay side of the personal rating scale, so I’m good with that.

What else?

Oh yes. If you are a parent considering this for your young reader, there are some intense-ish scenes, including a fairly graphic depiction of how Ghost got to be dead. Also a comfortably relaxed attitude towards sex, which certain of the key characters are happily enjoying with their significant others, though that action’s all off-stage.

There’s a lot worse out there, for this kind of thing.

Decent job, Charles de Lint, despite my continual panning of your plotting technique. I may try some of your stuff again someday. Maybe another of the YA targeted books versus a grownup one. The Blue Girl left me smiling.

 

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

As most of you know I’m not one to get all worked up about bestselling authors, choosing instead to let the hype die down for at least a decade or two (okay, maybe a generation or two might be more accurate) and then see if the prose holds up once the buzz dies down. But there are a few exceptions to that cynical personal rule, and Kate Atkinson is one of them.

I stumbled upon Atkinson’s first book, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, quite some time ago. It was a random shelf pull, absolutely serendipitous – for a number of years I had a long commute several times weekly to take my daughter to her faraway dance school and a goodly number of hours to kill while she was in session, so the public library was my refuge and source of much scope for readerly experimentation – and it (the book) was so brilliantly out there that I came back to the real world most reluctantly. That woman can write, I said to myself. That’s how it’s done. Give me more of that, please.

After Museum I of course went back to the A shelf and pulled everything else by Atkinson that I could find, which was not all that much – Human Croquet and Emotionally Weird – and though they were readable, they felt just slightly too raggedly experimental in comparison to the first book.  Third trip back, and I struck a vein of gold: a fairly traditionally structured suspense-murder mystery featuring (eventually, after a certain amount of build up) a retired police officer turned private investigator, one Jackson Brodie.

Case Histories hooked me, and One Good Turn reeled me in, leaving me chortling with glee at my good fortune in finding such a wickedly clever writer, and When Will There be Good News? nicked me where it hurt and the left me rejoicing with its several happily likeable strong females, and Started Early, Took My Dog had me poignantly amused and supremely satisfied and at the same time yearning for something, anything, more.

Then, game over on the novel front, until Life After Life – very much not featuring Jackson Brodie, but more in line with that mind-twisting first story – burst upon the 2013 book scene. (I have a copy, but I haven’t yet read it. Just waiting for the right time. This year’s Christmas break, perhaps? It’s mellowed for two years, and the buzz is quieter, as the companion book is now out.)

Kate Atkinson has said that her four Jackson Brodie novels may well have to stand alone – she’s written herself out in that area, at least for now. And I get that, and I am all for it, because heaven forbid such a stellar narrative deteriorate into an Elizabeth George-style endless saga that piles tragedy upon plot twist upon ever-more-bizarre murder until one forgets just how good the first books really were.

But I’ve just re-read all four of the Brodie novels, and all I can think of is that a really awesome Christmas treat in, say, 2016 or 2017 would be a fifth installment. Just sending that out into cyberspace. Kate Atkinson, did you catch that?

I will go ahead and list all the vital statistics as I usually do for books I talk about here. But I won’t get into details about plot and style and all that stuff. If you haven’t already read these, it might be fun to go into them cold, with no expectations. Definitely read them in order if you can, though it’s not absolutely essential – Kate Atkinson takes pity on the reader and does sketch in the back story just a bit, for those coming in part way through. (And if you’re really curious, the internet is jam-packed with analysis and reviews. Anything I say here will merely be a shadowy repeat of what others have already fluently said.)

The author’s website does have some excerpts, for firsthand exploration before committing.

Such good books. Such a good writer. Such a twisty, clever mind, and her coincidences click into place most satisfyingly, as we have cheerfully suspended disbelief early on. And very funny, too, though concerned throughout with the dismal awfulnesses of people to each other. But no wallowing.

Good stuff. Good, good, good.

Okay, I wasn’t going to say anything about the plots, but then I checked out the Kirkus reviews and I liked the first one quite well so I changed my mind and decided to crib from the pros. No true spoilers included, but you might wish to avoid going any further if you like your sagas unsullied by prior knowledge of details.

220px-CaseHistoriesCase Histories by Kate Atkinson ~2004. This edition: Doubleday, 2004. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-385-60799-7. 304 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Just looked up the Kirkus review from 2004, and by golly, the reviewer echoes my thoughts precisely, including my bemusement at Human Croquet and Emotionally Weird.

After two self-indulgent detours, Atkinson proves that her Whitbread Award–winning debut, Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1996), was no fluke with a novel about three interconnected mysteries.

They seem totally unrelated at first to private detective Jackson Brodie, hired by separate individuals in Cambridge, England, to investigate long-dormant cases. Three-year-old Olivia Land disappeared from a tent in her family’s backyard in 1970; 34 years later, her sisters Amelia and Julia discover Olivia’s stuffed toy in their recently deceased father’s study and want Jackson to find out what he had to do with the disappearance. Theo Wyre’s beloved 18-year-old daughter Laura was murdered by a knife-wielding lunatic in 1994, and he too hires Jackson to crack this unsolved murder. Michelle was also 18 when she went to jail in 1979 for killing her husband with an ax while their infant daughter wailed in the playpen; she vanished after serving her time, but Shirley Morrison asks Jackson to find, not her sister Michelle, but the niece she promised to raise, then was forced to hand over to grandparents. The detective, whose bitter ex-wife uses Jackson’s profound love for their eight-year-old daughter to torture him, finds all these stories of dead and/or missing girls extremely unsettling; we learn toward the end why the subject of young women in peril is particularly painful for him. Atkinson has always been a gripping storyteller, and her complicated narrative crackles with the earthy humor, vibrant characterizations, and shrewd social observations that enlivened her first novel but were largely swamped by postmodern game-playing in Human Croquet (1997) and Emotionally Weird (2000). Here, she crafts a compulsive page-turner that looks deep into the heart of sadness, cruelty, and loss, yet ultimately grants her charming p.i. (and most of the other appealingly offbeat characters, including one killer) a chance at happiness and some measure of reconciliation with the past.

Wonderful fun and very moving: it’s a pleasure to see this talented writer back on form.

501124One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson ~ 2006. This edition: Anchor Canada, 2007. Softcover. ISBN: 9978-0-385-66261-1. 386 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Kirkus, again. Again, the reviewer mostly nailed it. Disregard the snarky “the author isn’t stretching herself” bit; it’s a grand book, says me. And I cried real tears at one point – a very rare response for me so noteworthy.

A murder mystery with comic overtones from the award-winning British storyteller.

Resurrecting Jackson Brodie, the private eye from Case Histories (2004), Atkinson confects a soft-hearted thriller, short on menace but long on empathy and introspection. Her intricate, none-too-serious plot is triggered by an act of road rage witnessed by assorted characters in Edinburgh during the annual summer arts festival. Mysterious possible hit man “Paul Bradley” is rear-ended by Terence Smith, a hard-man with a baseball bat who is stopped from beating Bradley to a pulp by mild-mannered crime-novelist Martin Canning, who throws his laptop at him. Other onlookers include Brodie, accompanied by his actress girlfriend, Julia; Gloria Hatter, wife of fraudulent property-developer Graham Hatter (of Hatter Homes, Real Homes for Real People); and schoolboy Archie, son of single-mother policewoman Louise Monroe, who lives in a crumbling Hatter home. Labyrinthine, occasionally farcical plot developments repeatedly link the group. Rounding out the criminal side of the story are at least two dead bodies; an omniscient Russian dominatrix who even to Gloria seems “like a comedy Russian”; and a mysterious agency named Favors. Brodie’s waning romance with Julia and waxing one with Louise; a dying cat; children; dead parents and much more are lengthily considered as Atkinson steps away from the action to delve into her characters’ personalities. Clearly, this is where her heart lies, not so much with the story’s riddles, the answers to which usually lie with Graham Hatter, who has been felled by a heart attack and remains unconscious for most of the story. There are running jokes and an enjoyable parade of neat resolutions, but no satisfying dénouement. Everything is connected, often amusingly or cleverly, but nothing matters much.

A technically adept and pleasurable tale, but Atkinson isn’t stretching herself.

3289281When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson ~ 2008. This edition: Doubleday, 2008. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-385-66682-4. 348 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Kirkus, Take Three. I strongly suspect that the reviewer phoned this one in, but it does sum up the key points of the action.

A third appearance for former police investigator and private detective Jackson Brodie in this psychologically astute thriller from Atkinson (One Good Turn, 2006, etc.).

In the emotional opening, six-year-old Joanna witnesses the brutal killing of her mother and siblings by a knife-wielding madman in the British countryside. Thirty years later, Joanna, now a doctor in Edinburgh, has become a mother herself. Her baby’s nanny is 16-year-old Reggie. To Reggie, whose own mother recently died in a freak accident, Joanna and her baby represent an ideal family (Joanna’s husband, a struggling businessman, seems only a vaguely irritating irrelevance to fatherless Reggie). When prickly, self-loathing policewoman Louise Monroe comes to call on lovely, warm-hearted Joanna, watchful Reggie (think Ellen Page from Juno with a Scottish brogue) is struck by the similarities between the two well-dressed professional women. Actually Louise has come to warn Joanna that her family’s murderer is being released from prison. Louise chooses not to mention her other reason for visiting, a suspicion that Joanna’s husband torched one of his failing businesses for the insurance. Jackson’s connection to the others is revealed gradually: Jackson and Louise were once almost lovers although they since married others; as a youth Jackson joined the search party that found Joanna hiding in a field following the murders. Rattled after visiting a child he suspects he fathered despite the mother’s denials, Jackson mistakenly takes the train to Edinburgh instead of London. When the train crashes near the house where Reggie happens to be watching TV, she gives him CPR. Soon afterward, Joanna’s husband tells Reggie that Joanna has gone away unexpectedly. Suspecting foul play, Reggie involves Louise and Jackson in individual searches for the missing woman and baby. While Louise and Jackson face truths about themselves and their relationships, Joanna’s survival instincts are once more put to the ultimate test.

Like the most riveting BBC mystery, in which understated, deadpan intelligence illuminates characters’ inner lives within a convoluted plot.

7307795Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson ~ 2010. This edition: Doubleday, 2010. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-385-67134-7. 350 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Kirkus, with errors. Another phone-in, is my verdict on the reviewer. The wee child has actually been left with his murdered mother’s body for a gruesome three weeks, and the questing adoptee Hope is from New Zealand. Otherwise the précis is more or less accurate.

British private detective Jackson Brodie, star of three previous Atkinson novels (When Will There Be Good News, 2008, etc.), finds himself embroiled in a case which shows that defining crime is sometimes as difficult as solving it.

Tracy Waterhouse, who is middle-aged, overweight and lonely, heads security for a mall in Leeds. Retired from the local police force, she remains haunted by one of her earliest cases, when she and her partner found a little boy abandoned in the apartment where his mother had been murdered days earlier. Although the murderer was supposedly found (but died before being brought to trial), Tracy never learned what happened to the child with whom she’d formed a quick bond. When Tracy sees a known prostitute/lowlife mistreating her child at the mall, she impulsively offers to buy the child, and the woman takes the money and runs. Tracy knows she has technically broken the law and even suspects the woman might not be the real mother, but her protective instinct and growing love for the little girl named Courtney overrides common sense; she begins arrangements to flee Leeds and start a new life with the child. Meanwhile, Jackson has come to Leeds on his own case. Raised and living in Australia, adoptee Hope McMaster wants information about her birth parents, who supposedly died in a car crash in Leeds 30 years ago. As he pursues the case, Jackson considers his relationships with his own kids—a troublesome teenage daughter from his first marriage and a young son whom DNA tests have recently proved he fathered with a former lover. Jackson’s search and Tracy’s quest intertwine as Jackson’s questions make the Leeds police force increasingly nervous. It becomes clear that the 1975 murder case Tracy worked on is far from solved and has had lasting repercussions.

The sleuthing is less important than Atkinson’s fascinating take on the philosophic and emotional dimensions of her characters’ lives.

Read Full Post »

These three books were not as diverting as I’d wished them to be.

Perhaps in another mood at another time I would give them better reviews – and I do intend to give Priestley’s Adam in Moonshine a second trial at some point – but today I’m calling them as I see them.

It won’t be a brutal massacre, I hasten to say, as all three had various degrees of enjoyability, but neither do I plan to hide my disappointment in their failings to entirely amuse.

As always, one person’s opinion – please don’t take it to heart if you love these novels, and do try to convince me otherwise if you think I’ve missed the point. One of my favourite things is when someone says, “Hey, wait a minute…” and eloquently defends something I’ve scorned, inspiring a second look from a new perspective.

Here we go.

adam in moonshine j b priestleyAdam in Moonshine by J.B. Priestley ~ 1927. This edition: Heinemann, 1931. Hardcover. 293 pages.

My rating: 6/10

That “6” is a very generous rating, given mostly because of Adam in Moonshine’s “first novel” status by a writer I mostly admire, and the more than decent quality of the writing.

The plot, on the other hand, might be described as virtually non-existent. Interesting reading for a Priestley collector, but if the author was someone unknown to me I’m thinking this one would be in the box by the door, waiting to be passed along.

Of course, because it is a Priestley, and because I went to the trouble to seek out and order it from England, and because it is an interesting read in view of the author’s later works, I will keep Adam in Moonshine and, yes, eventually re-read it. But I will not recommend it to the rest of you for amusement purposes, because it is ultimately not even as solid as fluff. Like the referenced moonshine, its genuine but slight pleasures are purely transient.

Handsome young bachelor Adam Stewart, setting off on a country holiday, is in a mopish state. He should be thrilled at the thought of rambling over the dew-fresh North Country moors, hobnobbing with the birds and the bees and the little wild flowers, but he can’t seem to wind himself up to the appropriate mood. And when his railway compartment companion turns out to be a sternly bombastic, pessimistic cleric, the holiday atmosphere deteriorates even further.

But wait – what’s this?! Here comes a third man, flustered and rushing and escorted by a bevvy of lovely young ladies  – well, only three when Adam takes a closer look, but the effect is that of a bevvy – and as the train pulls out to the fervent goodbyes of the girls on the platform, Adam has perked up considerably, because it turns out that there is a rendezvous planned between the mystery man (father of one of the young lovelies) and the girls at the very village which Adam is himself heading for.

The sudden and disastrous opening of an attaché case filled with false beards catapults the action surreally forward, and before he knows it Adam is deeply embroiled in a ridiculous scenario having something to do with a conspiracy to bring back the Stuart line of royalty to the throne of England.

A case of mistaken identity – “Stewart” being assumed to be “Stuart” – takes our Adam into the heart of the not-very-clever plot, and leads to his infatuated and ultimately unfulfilling dalliances with all three of the lovely maidens.

He gets his share of wandering about the moors in all sorts of weathers, and emerges back into the sunlight of his everyday life blinking and bemused. Was it all a dream…?

If so, a jolly solid one, at 292 pages.

kitty foyle christopher morley 001Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley ~ 1939. This edition: Grosset & Dunlap, circa 1940, with movie tie-in dust jacket featuring Ginger Rogers. Hardcover. 340 pages.

My rating: 7/10

I enjoyed this one rather uneasily, as Morley’s man-writing-as-a-woman wasn’t entirely convincing, and our heroine’s stream-of-consciousness narration often felt forced.

Chock-full of casual racism towards pretty well everyone of every colour and race, but, to be fair, never in a mean-spirited way.

In our present time, “Kitty’s” casual commentary would be read as utterly politically incorrect – a heads-up for those hyper-sensitive to these nuances – but if taken with a dash of “era-acceptable” tolerance, rather an interesting take on how a character of the time might conceivably think.

The October 1939 Kirkus review had this to say:

Surprise! Surprise! This proves how facile Chris Morley can be, for this is a far cry from everything he has done, whether whimsy, humor or intellectualized satire… This is primarily the story of a shanty Irish girl, how she was born, bred, and put through the mill, done in stream-of-consciousness tough-baby style… But it’s right good reading. Kitty is a high spirited, strong, and very straight young woman. Her early childhood in Philadelphia, daughter of a crude but lovable cricket coach, is nicely done, giving quite a feel of the city, its lethargy, immutable traditions, etc. At sixteen she meets Wyn, a sweet weakling from a blueblood family, whom she is to love for all time. She lives with him, becomes pregnant, but does away with the child because she is unwilling to tie Wyn to her, knowing that he cannot buck his family if he marries her, and knowing that she will be dishonest with herself if she broadens her a’s for him. Career girl on the side, she works later in New York for a cosmetics outfit, and at the close thinks of marriage to a man she does not love for companionship and stability. There’s some telling background detail on Philadelphia, points east and west, there’s some ingenious writing on the stunt side, but all in all it’s semi-light fiction…

There you pretty well have it.

I confess I was a bit taken aback by the frankness of much of Kitty’s narration – she discusses the most sensitive topics with slangy candour – the physical relationship between her parents, her father’s prostate disorder, the realities of living with chamber pots and a “backhouse” for toilet purposes, her own adolescent physical development, including the onset of her first menstrual period while travelling alone on a train, the sometimes very active sex life of the single “white collar” working girl, an unplanned pregnancy and her subsequent abortion of the baby…all in all, rather strong stuff for a popular mainstream novel. No real surprise that it was soon labelled as “filthy” by various church groups once its bestseller hype brought it to their attention.

Mixed with this hyper-realism is a strand of fairy tale fantasy, for Kitty is portrayed as being something of a perfect person – smart, funny, beautiful, and very lucky in her casual acquaintances, and always, despite her frequent hard knocks, falling jam side up.

Sure, she voluntarily gives up her One True Love, the aristocratic Wynnewood Strafford VI, because she is so darned sterling-natured as to want to spare him the disgrace of having a not-quite-top-drawer wife, but it’s not the hardship it might be (aside from the “he and she will secretly pine forever” bit, and that abortion) because going her own way seems to be Kitty’s reward to herself, and fate proves consistently ready to cushion her every fall.

Kitty Foyle was made into a very successful 1940 movie, starring Ginger Rogers in her first “serious” movie role. “Very successful” should be repeated, as her portrayal of Kitty Foyle won Miss Rogers the 1941 Oscar for Best Actress, which would perhaps make this novel one for the vintage movie buff to investigate.

Chock full of period colour, and fast-moving enough to keep one entertained, so I will say “check it out” to those so inclined, but to be completely blunt this is a very minor sort of novel – Kirkus’s “semi-light” says it well. Solid melodrama, in case that hasn’t quite come across.

And oh, yes, this is the same Christopher Morley who wrote Parnassus on Wheels, The Haunted Bookshop, and the very weird (as in featuring anthropomorphic dogs) Where the Blue Begins, among dozens of other novels. Kitty Foyle is nothing like any of these; you have to give Morley credit for not getting stuck in any sort of a “formula” groove!

Of these three novels, Kitty Foyle is the only one I would recommend as worth going to some effort to experience, but mind the caveats and please don’t expect a masterpiece of any sort, though the writing is much more than competent.

aiding and abetting muriel sparkAiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark ~ 2000. This edition: Viking, 2000. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-670-89428-1. 182 pages.

My rating: 4.75/10

Hmmm. An odd little novel, even taking into consideration the quirkiness of this particular writer.

I occasionally felt the “chuck it across the room” urge, in particular during the cannibal scene near the end (yes, you read that correctly), but I soldiered on and made it to the end with an unwilling smile on my face. Dame Muriel pulled it off yet again, to my reluctant admiration – I finished it despite myself.

So – does everyone remember Lord Lucan? If not, go take a quick gander here.

For summation of the plot of Aiding and Abetting, I am going to fall back on yet another Kirkus review (they are so nicely succinct, when done well) this one from November of 2000.

With her usual and famous narrative economies—though without the deeper energies she’s created in other of her books—Dame Muriel weaves her own fabric out of the real-life bits and threads left by the vile Lord Lucan.

On November 7th, 1974, the seventh Earl of Lucan mistakenly bludgeoned to death his children’s nanny instead of his divorced wife—whom he managed only to wound badly in spite of his feeling that “destiny” called for her death (he was angry, it seems, that she’d been given child-custody). And then? After wreaking his cruel havoc, the shallow Lucan quickly disappeared, wanted for murder and attempted murder but aided by influential friends in escape and hiding. Twenty-five years later, as the present novel opens, there appears in the office of a Paris psychoanalyst a patient claiming to be Lucan—followed by another claiming the same. Which, if either, is the real Lucan? And what does he, or they, want? Money, not surprisingly, which he/they hope to gain by blackmailing the shrink, she being one Hildegard Wolf, herself still wanted for an earlier and successful life of criminal fraud under a previous name—a vulnerability that makes her, think the Lucans, unlikely to turn them in. But of course it’s got to be cleared up as to which Lucan is Lucan—as, meanwhile, other complications ensue, such as Hildegard Wolf’s quick disappearance into hiding in deepest London; the pursuit of the real Lucan by a pair newly in love but connected from far back indeed with Lucan and the horrible murder; and the skilled and timely maneuverings of Pierre, Hildegard’s lover back in Paris, which will result in—well, in the Waughesque end of the story.

Quick, incisive, often entertaining, sometimes mysterious, at a moment or two compelling, but overall and generally, slight…

I nod in agreement with the summation of the last line, except for the incisive bit.

I thought the tale much too repetitive, in fact, and not so much incisive as lazy. Corners were indeed cut, regarding character and plot development, but a certain cluster of sanguinary details was endlessly repeated, and in my opinion needlessly so, for I felt that they weakened the impact, though I suspect the author felt they might have some sort of talismanic effect. (“Blood, blood, blood…”)

The final fate of one of the Lucans is bizarre even for a typically morbid Spark dénouement, and do I detect a certain racist element (the “primitive” Africans) which is out of place even in a purely satirical end-of-the-20th-Century tale?

Rated rather generously at very close to a “5” because of who the author is, for I have enjoyed many of her other novels in varying degrees, though usually with some reservations.

As an example of her end-of-career work (Aiding and Abetting was her second to last published novel) it is acceptably diverting, but it’s not one of her best by a far cry. More of a novella than a novel, and not particularly well-developed or well-edited. In fact, for such a generally crisp writer, this one is sloppy. Firmly on Muriel Spark’s B-list, in my opinion.

What one is left with most memorably is the thought of all that sticky, sticky blood…

 

Read Full Post »

 

A friend has shared this poem with me, and I now share it with all of you.

Happy New Year!

??????????????????????

To the New Year

With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning

so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible

W.S. Merwin ~ 2005

 

Read Full Post »

after the falls catherine gildinerAfter the Falls: Coming of Age in the Sixties by Catherine Gildiner ~ 2009. This edition: Vintage, 2010. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-307-39823-9. 344 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Wow. That was unexpected. I was tidying up some books I’d casually piled on a corner of the couch, sorting out already-read from want-to-read, and I leafed through After the Falls to refresh my memory as to how urgently I wanted to read it, or if it could be put on the maybe-someday pile.

It caught me.

Suddenly I was sitting down, and reading away like a mad thing. Clean-up abandoned, outside chores abandoned, and it’s a good thing the roast was already in the oven or cooking my family’s evening meal would have been abandoned, too. It grew dark. I switched on my reading lamp. I read this thing right through to the end. My afternoon was completely lost. Abandoned pell mell, while I lost myself in a book.

My seduction by After the Falls was so unexpected because I knew when I purchased it that it was a sequel to an earlier volume of memoir by Catherine Gildiner, Too Close to the Falls. I had a vague little plan to get the first book and read it, and then continue on with the second if the first one was indeed as great as everyone seemed to think it was. I wasn’t really thinking about it too much; I’m fairly immune to mainstream rave reviews, having been disappointed by banality too many times.

After the Falls is not banal. It is over-the-top, frequently jaw-dropping (“Did she just say that? Did she really do that?” How much of this is fictionalized???!”), and funny and sarcastic and joyful and heart-breaking and occasionally awkward and sometimes vague as major incidents are brushed over with a single sentence or two (this, the occasional vagueness and awkwardness, lost the 1.5 points in my personal ratings system), and rather contrived here and there, but never no mind those last few criticisms. It is a very readable book, and I happily recommend it. And I’ve elevated the need-to-buy status of the first installment to high on the list, and, having learned that a third volume is coming soon, have earmarked it as a buy immediately book.

So now you’re all wondering – those few of you who haven’t already ridden this particular train – what the darned book is about. Well, the internet is seething with reviews (mostly favourable) so I will cheat this morning and steal the flyleaf blurb. (Must address all the chores I neglected yesterday; must cut this short!) It’s a tiny bit inaccurate – do these blurb writers read the whole thing? or do they just ask for the high points? – but it condenses things reasonably well.

When Cathy McClure is thirteen years old, her parents make the bold decision to move to suburban Buffalo in hopes that it will help Cathy focus on her studies and stay out of trouble. But “normal” has never been Cathy’s forte, and leaving Niagara Falls and Catholic school behind does nothing to quell her spirited nature. As the 1960s dramatically unfold, Cathy takes on many personas — cheerleader, vandal, HoJo hostess, civil rights demonstrator — with the same gusto she exhibited as a child working split shifts in her father’s pharmacy. But when tragedy strikes, it is her role as daughter that proves to be most challenging.

Actually that’s a very lame flyleaf blurb. It doesn’t at all catch the spirit of the memoir. Here’s a much better blurb, from Publisher’s Weekly, November 2010:

At age 12, Gildiner and her family moved from their Niagara Falls home to a Buffalo suburb, leaving behind a family business, smalltown contentment, and the rebellious childhood chronicled in her first memoir, Too Close to the Falls. While her uprooted parents struggle to adjust, Gildiner stumbles in making new friends and edging into puberty. Her restlessness and a fundamentally outspoken and argumentative nature regularly catapult her further than simple teenage trouble, and she frequently fails at the standard American girlhood, often with comic results. The conflicts between the narrator’s individuality and conformity propel her into her first relationship at the same time that the seismic shifts in American society, culture, and politics hit home with ever-increasing force. On the page as in life, comedy, tragedy, and elegy live right on top of each other, and as with most remarkable memoirs, the straightforward, honest voice and perspective are steady even in the most painful moments.

And I’ll link the author’s website, so you can look around there.

Cathy McClure Gildiner – After the Falls

And here is what my blog friend Jenny had to say: Reading the End: After the Falls. Everything she says, I agree with. But I think you should read Chapter 4, because it explains an awful lot about how the memoirist relates to men from that point forward.

The writer also has a blog, Gildiner’s Gospel, which made me late for bed last night, as it was as compulsively readable as her words on paper. Check it out!

One last thing. The memoir is set in the United States, and at the time she writes about, Catherine was an American citizen. She moved to Canada some forty years ago, though, and reports that she is firmly entrenched in Ontario. In my mind she unquestionably deserves the “Canadian” tag I’ve given her.

Highly recommended.

Read Full Post »

Here are a few more catch-up reviews from February of 2013.

*****

the elegance of the hedgehog muriel barberyThe Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery ~ 2006

This edition: Europa, 2008. Translated from the French by Alison Anderson. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-9833372-60-0. 325 pages.

My rating: 8/10

I was moved to read this bestseller by the recommendations of respected fellow bloggers; sadly I cannot recall exactly who those were at this point in time! But to them I must say, “Thank you.”  For this was indeed a charming story.

In an exclusive Paris apartment building there dwells, upstairs, a snobbish upper-class family: mother, father, and two daughters. The youngest of the girls, twelve-year-old Paloma, is a strangely precocious child, given to thoughts well beyond her years. In her diary, which makes up half of the book, we learn that she is seriously disillusioned with life, and plans to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday, unless something occurs to give her faith in the value of existence.

Downstairs is the stout, plain, elderly, and very obviously unintelligent concierge, Renée. Renée stumps around brusquely carrying out the tenants’ orders; she is blatantly uninterested in improving herself, and she carries out her duties with a sullen disrespect for her “betters”. Hers is the other half of the narrative.

Needless to say, for this novel follows the tried and true formula of loners uniting against the bitter world, Paloma and Renée find each other, and a friendship forms between the two social outcasts, who are soon joined by a third, new tenant Ozu, a wealthy Japanese businessman. And it will come as no surprise to readers that Renée is hiding an interior of the purest gold behind her prickly spikes – for she is indeed the hedgehog of the title, a creature of secret refinement, “deceptively indolent, fiercely solitary—and terribly elegant”.

Predictably, tragedy does indeed strike, but from an unexpected direction.

There is also a cat.

Need I say more?

god grew tired of us john bul dauGod Grew Tired of Us by John Bul Dau & Michael Sweeney ~ 2008

This edition: National Geographic, 2008. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-1-4262-0212-4. 304 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

In 1987 a young Sudanese teenager was forced out of his home by a brutal raid on his village. What followed was a barefoot 1,000 mile trek through Sudan, Ethiopia, and eventually to Kenya, to a haven in a refugee camp. There John Bul Dau joined thousands of other displaced children, the “Lost Boys” of the Sudanese civil war.

Having no way of knowing the fate of his left-behind, possibly slaughtered family, John eventually immigrated to the United States, where he worked tirelessly to educate himself, all the while striving to raise awareness of the tribulations he himself went through, and to bring assistance to those still suffering from the aftermath of the war back in Sudan.

This book and its associated National Geographic film eloquently describe the situation. An earnest and strongly emotional memoir.

through the narrow gate karen armstrong 001Through the Narrow Gate: a memoir of life in and out of the convent by Karen Armstrong ~ 1981

This edition: Vintage Canada, 2005. Softcover. ISBN: 0-676-97709-X. 350 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Intriguing and occasionally bitter memoir of an ex-nun.

In 1962 Karen Armstrong, just seventeen, and child of a not particularly religious family, entered a Roman Catholic convent as a postulant, with the aim of becoming a nun. Seven years later, while attending Oxford under the sponsorship of her order (Armstrong was in training to become a teacher-nun) she realized that she had lost her faith, and she returned fully to the secular world.

Since then, Karen Armstrong has become well known for her writings on religion, and for her outspoken criticism of the Catholic Church’s more archaic practices, and of the confusion brought about by the mandated reforms of Vatican II.

This book, Armstrong’s first, is compelling reading. A very articulate writer.

The Guardian – Profile: Karen Armstrong is well worth reading if you are curious about this now high-profile public character; it references Through the Narrow Gate near the end of the article, with an amusing anecdote from Karen’s sister telling of how the family, after dropping Karen off at the convent for her entrance into her religious life, then went on to watch a production of The Sound of Music. That same sort of dark humour and willingness to smile at oneself is evident in places in this memoir, to leaven its more serious passages.

Sstarting out in the afternoon jill fraynetarting Out in the Afternoon by Jill Frayne ~ 2003

This edition: Vintage Canada, 2003. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-679311-881. 256 pages.

My rating: 4/10

This is an autobiographical memoir of the author’s mid-life crisis, and of the solace she sought and found in communing with nature.

A solo road trip, hiking, biking, camping, sea kayaking and such all help to salve Jill Frayne’s inner pain at the dual blow of both the break up of her long-term romantic relationship back in Ontario, and the moving away of her young adult daughter. Once she begins to gain a degree of competence in her new pursuits, and to feel herself physically comfortable in nature, Frayne begins a deeper exploration of her own emotions.

While I’m sure that this was a marvelous thing for Jill Frayne herself, but sadly I had trouble relating to her angsty navel-gazing, and I felt more and more like I was reading a very private diary. I eventually lost patience with the “me-me-ME” of the author’s inner dialogue; it coloured my reaction to the book as a whole.

I certainly admire the author’s courage as a woman alone going off into challenging territory by herself, and I would have enjoyed this more it had spent more time on the scenery and nuts and bolts of solo travel, and less on the touchy feely bits. But that’s just me; others may embrace the personal narrative and find meaning there which resonates with their own lives.

Back story: the author had an almost fatal accident several years before she set off on her trip; she had been told she would never walk again. She proved everyone wrong. Extra kudos to her, and I do hope the writing of this very personal book brought her comfort and much-needed inner peace.

Read Full Post »

Looking back at my list of books read, February 2013 was obviously a good month for hitting the books, but not quite so good for writing reviews. Playing catch-up, then with a series of short impressions of things I read 9 months or so ago.

In approximate order of reading, here are some of the books not previously reviewed from February of 2013.

*****

shall we join the ladies eric nicolShall We Join the Ladies? by Eric Nicol ~ 1955

This edition: Ryerson Press, 1965. Hardcover. 110 pages.

My rating: 5/10

I suspect I was sated with Nicol’s particular brand of humour when I read this one immediately after an old favourite, Nicol’s first collection of essays, The Roving I. For I recollect that I was not terribly amused. The mood was hectic, the punchlines groan-inducing. Vintage humour, turned a bit “off” after years of shelf life, perhaps?

A keeper, because it has its moments, and it is Eric Nicol, but not one I am eager to re-read any time soon. Contemporary readers thought much more highly of it, and it won the Leacock Award in 1956.

Canus Humorous thought it was a gem, and I recommend a look at this link if you’d like more detail. Such a thoughtful review that I feel immediately guilty for my faint enthusiasm. I promise I’ll revisit this one and do it more justice. Some day.

the innocents margery sharp 001The Innocents by Margery Sharp ~ 1972

This edition: Little, Brown & Co., 1972. Hardcover. 183 pages.

My rating: 11/10. I think this may well be my very favourite Margery Sharp, and, as you all may have guessed by now, I am seriously enthusiastic about this author to start with.

This was my second time reading The Innocents; I will be rationing myself to revisiting it, oh, maybe once a year or so, because I don’t want to wear out its already special status in my favourites list. For all of that enthusiasm, this is a very quiet book, one of those minor tales concerning a few people only, with nothing terribly exciting going on within it. But it is a compelling read, and I was completely on the side of the angels right from the get go, though fully cognizant of their failings.

In brief, then.

A middle-aged spinster living in a quiet English village is visited by a younger friend who has married very well indeed, and who is now living in America. It is immediately pre-WW II, and the married couple are hoping to squeeze in a Continental holiday before things cut loose. They are also travelling with their small child, and the unstated purpose of the visit-to-an-old-friend soon becomes clear: they are hoping that they can leave the child in the peace of the country while they continue on their tour.

All is arranged, and spinster and child settle in to a peaceful routine, which quietly turns into a longer-term arrangement as war intervenes and the parents return to America without stopping to collect their child.

Here’s the hook. The young child is very obviously mentally retarded, and though the father suspects this, the beautiful and vivacious mother refuses to even consider that her offspring may be in any way “sub normal”. The child and her caregiver form a deep and complex bond in the ensuing years before the now-widowed mother returns to collect her daughter and return with her to America, to launch into society, as it were, as a charming sidekick to her fashionable mother.

The reality is much different than the dream, and the subsequent events are absolutely heart-rending. The author lets us all suffer along with the brutally dazed child until bringing things to a rather shocking conclusion, which she has already told us about on the very first page.

Margery Sharp is at her caustic best in this late novel. Loved it. A longer review shall one day follow, full of excerpts and much more detail.

in pious memory margery sharp 001In Pious Memory by Margery Sharp ~ 1967

This edition: Little, Brown & Co., 1967. Hardcover. 184 pages.

My rating: 5/10

Well, then I went on to this slightly earlier novel, and of course it couldn’t even begin to stand up to The Innocents.

An out-and-out farce, this one. Mr. and Mrs. Prelude are in a plane crash in the Swiss Alps, and while Mrs. Prelude escapes relatively unharmed, Mr. Prelude perishes. Or does he? On her return to England, Mrs. Prelude begins to second-guess her hasty identification of what she now isn’t quite sure were her husband’s mortal remains. Sixteen-year-old Lydia sets out on a quest to find her father. Much hilarity ensues.

The whole thing fell rather flat. It seemed forced, and needlessly frenetic, and Margery Sharp’s sly innuendo just plain annoyed me this time around. To be fair, I will be re-reading this one in future, and may then possibly view it with less jaded eyes. I must say that it reminded me strongly of Dodie Smith’s The New Moon with the Old, and my reaction was much the same: reluctant amusement tinged with distaste for the general tone.

the stone of chastity margery sharpThe Stone of Chastity by Margery Sharp ~ 1940

This edition: The World Publishing Co., 1945. Hardcover. 280 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

Now going back a few decades, to 1940, and Margery Sharp’s ninth novel, this one pure farce.

In the small gun-room, temporarily converted into a study, Professor Isaac Pounce was even then completing his questionnaire (later to be circulated through the unsuspecting village of Gillenham) on the subject of Chastity…

Professor Pounce is hot on the track of a piece of English folklore. He is looking for a mythical stepping stone which, when trod upon by female persons, will unfailingly support the virgins and toss off the unchaste ignominiously into the gurgling stream. Having a very good idea of where the stone might be, Professor Pounce’s first step in this very scientific study is to send his nephew Nicholas out with a questionnaire to all of the likely young village maidens. Confusion ensues as the rural rustics turn against the snoopy visitors in the Old Manor.

Another one due for a re-read, to savour the full flavour of what Margery Sharp has assembled here. She’s in fine form throughout, and the thing is most readable, though I felt that it wasn’t altogether convincing, even allowing for its obviously satirical intention.

Another snippet, to give you a taste of the flavour of the narrative within:

On the first floor Mrs. Pounce, mother to Nicholas and sister-in-law to the Professor, was lurking in her bedroom afraid to come out. She had appeared at lunch wearing a very nice necklace of scarabs and enamel, and the Professor, cocking an interested eye, had remarked that it was just such trifles – the sight of an English gentlewoman ornamented with seven phallic symbols – that made life so perennially interesting to the folklorist. Mrs. Pounce did not know what a phallic symbol was, and instinct (or perhaps a look in her son’s eye) prevented her asking; but after coffee she quietly sought out a dictionary and took it upstairs. At the moment she was feeling she could never come down again.

i the suicide's library tim bowling jacketIn the Suicide’s Library by Tim Bowling ~ 2004

This edition: Gaspereau Press, 2010. Softcover.  ISBN: 1-55447-089-7. 320 pages.

My rating: 7/10

And now, changing gears completely to something much more consciously literary.

Is it ever right to steal a book? Tim Bowling, Canadian poet, browsing a university library collection, stumbles upon a copy of poet Wallace Steven’s Ideas of Order, signed on the flyleaf by yet another poet, Weldon Kees, who disappeared mysteriously one day in 1955, with evidence suggesting his suicide by jumping of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.

As Tim Bowling allows his collector’s lust to suggest certain possibilities to him – would anyone even notice if he “liberated” such a poet’s treasure from its dusty obscurity in the stacks? – his renewed interest in both Wallace Stevens and Weldon Kees leads into a book-length examination of his own life, and the parallels between himself and his predecessors.

The angst of middle age, marriage and parenting are discussed with passionate intensity, as are such things as the relevance of poetry in the world, the desire to own objects, the new importance of the internet to the serious book collector, and much, much more.

Absolutely fascinating, but it does go on and on and on, and I absolutely hated Bowling’s final decision regarding the book, which I cannot share here, as it is the whole point of working through this thing. It made me grumpy for days, and still offends me to think about it.

Has anyone else read this one? What did you think he should have done?

And I must say that this has to be one of the most aesthetically pleasing of the contemporary books I personally own; Gaspereau Press did a fabulous job of the actual production of the physical book. The paper, the fonts, the slipcover and the undercover and the graphic design – absolutely perfect.

Read Full Post »

honeymoon in purdah alison wearingHoneymoon in Purdah: An Iranian Journey by Alison Wearing ~ 2000. This edition: Vintage Canada, 2001. Softcover. ISBN: 0-676-97362-0. 319 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10

In 1995, a decade and a half after the revolution which resulted in the deposition of the Shah and the establishment of the Islamist fundamentalist government led by Ayatollah Khomeini, a young Canadian woman and her male partner entered Iran on tourist visas. Their official reason: a honeymoon journey. The not so official reason: for Alison Wearing, the chance to explore a country and culture vilified in the Western world as impossibly backwards and more than slightly dangerous for touristing. For her partner Ian, Iran is a second-choice destination. He really wanted to go to Bulgaria, but a fear of travelling alone and, one suspects, Alison’s more focussed drive and tenacious personality, have resulted in this joint trip.

Before taking this trip together … we would spend hours poring over maps, planning long, arduous treks through desolate corners of the earth or road trips across continents.

The only problem was my strong belief in travel as a solitary pursuit. And Ian’s fear of travelling alone… We settled on Iran because it was the only place I couldn’t imagine going on my own. And for a whole stack of other reasons that had nothing to do with our relationship.

The year before we met, I had made my fifth trip to Yugoslavia. I went, in part, to visit friends trapped in the middle of war, but also because the media’s portrait of the place – full of barbarians and void of humanity – made the world seem unlivable. I refused to believe that such a place of unalloyed evil truly existed, that that was the end of the story. I went because I believed that there had to be more. And because I like to look for saints where there are said to be demons.

Iran became our destination for the same reason.

I’m going to share a major spoiler here, one that comes part way through the book. (I don’t feel particularly bound to keep this a secret; it is something of a “first line” in many of the internet reviews I’ve read.)

I have a confession to make. Ian isn’t my husband. We aren’t even lovers, just friends. We forged a marriage certificate just before leaving Montreal using photocopies of his brother and sister-in-laws document, and that is what we are using to get ourselves into hotels. Most proprietors don’t ask and of those that do, two have scrutinized the paper very seriously while holding it upside down, so we needn’t have worried so much about its appearance of authenticity. The thing we should have worried about, perhaps, is the effect that photocopying and whiting out of names on a marriage certificate might have had. By the time Ian and I had reached Iran, his brother’s marriage had collapsed.

So Ian, my fussy, gay roommate and I are romping around Iran quite illegally. And not altogether happily, if only because our interests are not as parallel as we had grown to believe. He is primarily concerned with dead things (history, buildings, wars), and I primarily with living things. Sometimes I find myself wishing he would evaporate, which isn’t to say I don’t still find him endearing. It’s just that our differences have become painfully obvious under this desert light…

So that is the explanation of the double entendre title of this exceedingly revealing (yet not quite forthcoming) travel memoir. The author has been rattling around the world quite independently for some time already, a seasoned traveller indeed. But this trip called out for a partnership, because of the difficulties inherent in a woman attempting to move about unchaperoned by a male relative in a very strictly policed, Islamic fundamentalist country. It is doubtful that, alone, Alison would ever have been permitted to cross the border, with only “tourist” as her declared motivation. A honeymoon journey, while raising some eyebrows, is accepted as a valid excuse, especially when Alison, whenever necessary, willingly dons full traditional garb: manteau, headscarf, and all-enveloping chaador.A woman in a chador mixed with modern dress underneath.

First of all, there is no such thing as “wearing” a chaador. There is only “managing to keep one on.” And I don’t say this as a frustrated novice, but as an observer of scores of women who have been dressing with it most of their lives.

The chaador is a living, wriggling entity, whose preferred habitat is the floor. Any woman trying to cover herself is not only fighting the true nature of the fabric, but also gravity, which has been in cahoots with the chaador since the beginning of time. The moment the chaador is on, wrapped in just the right way, covering all the right things, it begins its dogged descent, squirming along the sleek surface of the hair, hoping to make a clean leap to the neck, where it can secure a foothold for its plummet off the shoulders. An astonishing portion of the wearer’s energy and concentration goes into minimizing the creature’s progress, herding it back into position around her face, leashing it to her fingers and fists, or clamping its skin between her teeth. It doesn’t enjoy being corralled in this way. Thus the constant wrestling. The creature prefers damp, humid surroundings and feeds on sweat.

The literal translation of chaador is “tent”, but from my own camping experience this seems a poor translation. The sack-shaped coat and scarf I have on right now are the tent. The chaador thrown overtop feels more like the fly.

Alison Wearing fully embraces the experience of going – literally – undercover in Iran. Though she is deliciously sarcastic and witty throughout, she is also good-spirited and gracefully positive, describing her impressions on every aspect of her travels from the clothes to the food to the various characters she encounters to her long-suffering travelling companion Ian, whom, incidentally,  we don’t really get to know, aside from a few brief vignettes here and there. It is rather as if Alison has chosen to shield Ian from examination, focussing instead on her own emotional and physical journey. It would be most interesting to read a parallel account of the Iranian episode from Ian’s point of view; one suspects his inner voice would consist predominantly of one long, high-pitched scream, triggered by Alison’s continuous flittings off and nonchalant eventual returns: Ian seems to (understandably) spend much of his Iranian time in a state of high anxiety. Alison must have been an utterly exhausting partner for their five months “honeymoon” in Iran.

All criticism aside of the self-indulgence of relatively well-heeled Western travellers sightseeing in troubled Eastern countries – and Alison addresses this dichotomy in her narrative numerous times – this book is an excellent example of a modern travel memoir. It opens a window into a very different culture, and it educates and informs as much as it amuses. And it is very amusing. And poignant, and heart-rending, and – this goes without saying – thought provoking. Well done, Alison Wearing.

Many years have passed since Alison took her Iranian journey and wrote about it so wonderfully well. In the meantime she has married, had a son, and pursued numerous other interests, including the successful production and performance of a one-person stage show based on her childhood, adolescence and young womanhood, much of it centered around the situation of her father’s “coming out” as a gay man – albeit one with a wife and three children – in the 1970s, in conservative Peterborough, Ontario. Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter is Alison’s second memoir, published just this year, some thirteen years after her first book. I am looking forward to reading it with anticipation; I had thought to add it to my Christmas wish list, but I suspect I will acquire it long before then.

Read Full Post »

monkey beach eden robinsonMonkey Beach by Eden Robinson ~ 2000. This edition: Vintage Canada, 2001. Softcover. ISBN: 0676973221. 377 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10.

Fabulous writer, this Eden Robinson.

Part of the time (most of the time) the words flow effortlessly and reading them is like riding the crest of a perfect wave; occasionally the reader is tumbled out of complacence and, gasping a bit from the shock, needs to go back over what has just been read, to readjust to what’s just been thrown at you.

This would have been a solid 10, but I docked the half point because the story fell into cliché right near the end, after brilliantly flouting expectations most of the way through.

Picking snippets at random from the first page of a Google search on Monkey Beach yields these comments: “(C)ombines both joy and tragedy in a harrowing yet restrained story of grief and survival…”; “(F)illed with intense landscapes…”; “(A)ddresses issues related to race, historic oppression, and the clash between cultures in a coming-of-age ghost story…”; “(A) story about childhood, family, loss, grief and life on a 21st century Native-Canadian reserve…”

Ooh, sounds all deep and Can-Lit dark, doesn’t it? But the story transcends these sound-bite assessments. Already at the bottom of the first page I couldn’t look away; I read eagerly to the end (flagging just a little when the author stubbed her toe on the possible-but-slightly-contrived reason for her brother’s motivations regarding that trip out onto the ocean); completely accepted the rather vague ending scenario (who’s really alive? dead? what does it all mean?); and eagerly pressed it into my husband’s hands: “You must read this book!” (And he did, and he loved it, too.)

A surprisingly funny and, yes, cheerful (in places) sort of book for all of the tragedies it describes.

The internet is seething with reviews on this one; I missed it when it first came out, but apparently it was a Giller Prize finalist and a Governor General’s Award finalist in 2000. It apparently made quite a stir, and in the thirteen years since first publication has become a Can-Lit high school/college standard; likely because (cynicism alert!) of its First Nations author, characters, and themes. And (of course!) because it’s a well-written and cleverly complex tale; lots of room for exploration, and the generation of many words of student “analysis”.

I was going to give you a quickie overview, but instead I’m about to cheat big time and refer you to the Canadian Literature Quarterly of Spring 2001, to the article Beauty and Substance by Jennifer Andrews, which nicely sums things up.

Eden Robinson’s Giller-Prize nominated Monkey Beach … [creates] a darkly comic narrative about the life of Lisamarie Hill, a woman who returns to memories of her childhood and adolescence in order to cope with the disappearance of her brother, Jimmy. Robinson, a mixed-blood Haisla and Heiltsuk woman raised near the Haisla village of Kitamaat, has previously published a collection of short stories, Traplines (1996), that won the Winifred Holtby Prize, the Prism International Prize for Short Fiction, and was selected as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Like Robinson, the protagonist, Lisamarie—named after Elvis Presley’s daughter—negotiates various worlds while growing up in Kitamaat. She moves between the eclectically traditional ways of her grandmother, Ma-ma-moo, who educates Lisamarie by sharing her passion for television soap operas and teaching her the Haisla language, and the New World activism of her Uncle Mick. A complex web of contradictions, Mick is a survivor of the residential school system, a Native activist who once belonged to the American Indian Movement, a nomad who can never rest, and an Elvis fan whose passion for the “King” knows no bounds. He offers another dimension of experience to Lisamarie by encouraging her to express herself politically. After losing both Mick and Ma-ma-moo, Lisamarie must figure out a way to put her life back together and come to terms with these ghosts from her past.

The novel traces Lisamarie’s journey to discover the fate of her brother, a boat ride that gives her the time and space to recount her story. The narrative is rooted in the beauty and mystery of place, particularly Monkey Beach, a site of family outings and rumoured sasquatch sightings. Robinson’s ability to evoke characters through dialogue and create vivid images of the community, coupled with her awareness of the intricate links between individuals and the land they live on gives the novel a richly layered texture that conveys the significance of Lisamarie’s mixed-blood heritage (Haisla, Heiltsuk, and European). Although the structure of the novel suspends the immediate action of the story, a risky strategy, Robinson’s narrative weaves together multiple plot lines with subtlety and grace, delicately responding to readers’ desire to know the fate of Lisamarie’s brother and the need to recount her past. Moreover, the comic aspects of the novel provide a wonderful counterbalance to the bleakness of Lisamarie’s life, particularly when she ends up living on the streets of East Vancouver. Robinson creates a novel in which humour may lighten the moment but irony ensures that the full weight of tribal histories of colonization and genocide remains a potent force in the text. This is one case in which beauty and substance join together, creating a novel that delivers what it promises.

What else can I add? If you come across this book, pick it up and start reading. If it hooks you, go on. Its early promise holds up remarkably well.

Then, when you’ve read it, check out the author biography and interview at B.C. Book World.

Read Full Post »

outside the line christian petersen 001Outside the Line by Christian Petersen ~ 2009. This edition: Dundurn Press, 2009. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-55002-859-1. 213 pages.

My rating: 6/10. I must admit I gave this one an extra dash of “like” because it is by a hometown author. If it was by someone from somewhere else, it would likely only rate a 5. Maybe not even that high…

Christian Petersen has also had published two volumes of short stories. I read, greatly enjoyed, and subsequently reviewed the first collection, Let the Day Perish, so was eager to read Petersen’s first full-length novel.

*****

Middle-aged Peter Ellis is an auxiliary probation officer attached to a busy office in a small, unnamed city in the interior of British Columbia. (And though never named, it is very obviously Williams Lake, with a few creative liberties taken here and there; not quite sure why Petersen didn’t just go ahead and “locate” his place; the caginess is perhaps a self-protective measure by an author who lives and works in his own – though obviously slightly fictionalized – setting.)

As a former student of literature and lower-case communist who once attended rallies and freely signed all manner of petitions, (Peter) had never had any interest or intention of getting involved in the Justice System. When he first began working as a probation officer, a few of his friends questioned the move, and thereby his values. With these keen defenders of human rights he took an almost apologetic tone, claimed the job was a trial run, just a means of survival, certainly temporary. He chews gum at a range of paces, aggressively at the moment, while he swivels back and forth in his chair, prioritizing the work at hand. What he didn’t admit to anyone, even to himself for a long time, was that this job hooked him immediately. Every day it places him at the crisis point in someone’s life, tangent to a stupid mistake, a rage, an arrest.

Peter shies from judgement, despite or maybe partly to spite his Baptist upbringing. He suffers with imagination like vertigo lately, glimpsing life’s infinite heartbreaking scenarios. He wonders whether it is some errant part in himself, some piece askew, that enables his rapport with the probation clients, the offenders.

Then a client walks into Peter’s life whom he can find no common ground with, no sympathy or rapport.

Twenty-four-year-old Todd Nolin is, despite his relative youth, already washed up, and dealing with it badly. As a teenage hockey star and National Hockey League draft pick rookie player, Todd’s potentially brilliant career has gone sideways on him; he’s been quietly let go from the team with no real reason given, and he’s gone from being totally focussed on hockey and rolling in cash to working in the sports store in his old home town, where he’s come to lick his wounds after his ego-crushing letdown.

While Todd was flying high, he bought a lavish (well, lavish by small-town B.C. standards) house in the upper scale neighbourhood he grew up in, hosted wild parties, and took up with a gorgeous local girl, Marina Faro. Now, two years after the “big time”, all that remains of Todd’s fleeting time as an elite athlete is a hometown hero reputation, an appetite for alcohol and cocaine, a condo, and the lovely Marina. And he’s just screwed up the last two. The reason Todd is in Peter Ellis’ office is because of a recent enraged physical and sexual assault of Marina; one of the terms of Todd’s probation is a restraining order barring him from both his home and girlfriend.

Todd’s not taking it well at all. He takes an immediate dislike to his probation officer, and the feeling is more than mutual, especially once Peter meets Marina and feels stirrings of multiple emotions; a paternalistic protective instinct combined with admiration for her physical beauty, plus the unmistakable stirrings of sexual attraction.

Against his better judgement, Peter lets himself go with his feelings. You see, Peter’s own personal life is a bit of a mess, what with his beloved wife of eight years having walked out on him six months or so ago. She’s left Peter for another woman, and is now living in California, only connecting with Peter to inquire why their house, purchased several years ago with the idea of starting a family, hasn’t sold yet.

Facing personal bankruptcy both emotional and financial, Peter has been letting himself go in more ways than one, and when he breaks that ironclad taboo not to get personally involved with a client, he goes down hard. And Todd is on to him…

The rest of the story falls into predictable patterns, and the dramatic ending is par for the course with this type of novel; nothing out of the ordinary.

This is actually a very ordinary story, an ordinary drama. It’s a step back in some ways from Petersen’s edgy short stories, much more cliché-ridden and safer and tamer, despite attempts to keep it moving by tossing in references to the cowboy culture of the area, and a continuous scornful sub-theme of the bad attitudes and deep stupidity of the local “rednecks”.

That last term was what I found most troubling about this novel, because it shows up way too often. C’mon, Christian, is it you or your character Peter talking here? A few too many cheap digs at the less intellectual inhabitants of our “fictional” town, in my opinion.

That, and the totally stereotypical situation with the gorgeous Marina and Peter’s “urges” being too strong for him to control. No matter if she made reciprocal moves of her own, what was the man thinking?!?

Oh, right. Plot device.

*****

Outside the Line is billed as a mystery novel, but it isn’t any such thing. It’s more of a dramatic-suspense, noir-lite type of story. It also reads very much a “first novel”, a bit rough around the edges here and there, especially in the final dramatic scenes, as if the author was not quite sure how to handle his characters during the physical action. He does seem more at home with the cerebral stuff.

I think the word I’m looking for here is “promising”. What is good in Petersen’s writing is very good indeed, as his well-tailored short stories prove. This novel moves in a different direction, and Petersen occasionally falters along the way. I think I made allowances for the weaknesses in the narrative and especially the plot because I did so want to like this book, and I was curious as to what the author would make of a setting familiar to me from my own experience.

Petersen’s Peter Ellis kept reminding my vaguely of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie, in that even though he pulled off the most desperately stupid moves, I still liked him at the end. There’s some good writing going on here, and the characterization of Ellis was one of the better aspects of Outside the Line. (The plot, however, was the weakest bit.)

And as for that whole “first novel is autobiography” thing, it seems alive and well in this case. Christian Petersen is intimately familiar with the B.C. interior’s Cariboo-Chilcotin region, as he grew up in Quesnel, and currently lives in Williams Lake, where he works as a probation officer. Well, “write what you know” is good advice, and in this case it works out fairly decently. This novel was just good enough that I would readily read a second, if it ever makes it to the bookstore shelf.

Kudos to Mr. Petersen for his persistence in honing his writerly craft and branching out genre-wise. Here’s hoping that that more than abundant promise is refined even further in future books.

Note: I don’t personally know Christian Petersen, despite being the same age as he is and sharing the same communities. His author photos look darned familiar though; I’m sure we’ve crossed paths in our daily rounds. Williams Lake is really just a very small town at heart, despite its bold claim to cityhood. I’m looking forward to one day meeting the author in person, perhaps at his next novel launch, if and when that occurs. Despite this rather damning review, I have a genuine liking and admiration for his writing style.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »