Exit, Pursued By a Bear – E.K. Johnston

Seventeen-year-old Hermione Winters is a spitfire. Co-captain of her high school bearcheerleading team, she is looking forward to one last cheerleading camp, one last year of school and then the freedom her future offers her. She is smart, fun-loving and although she loves cheerleading and takes it seriously, she is not the stereotypical cheerleader. To be honest, there isn’t actually a mean or petty girl in E.K. Johnston’s YA novel Exit, Pursued by a Bear. 

I wonder if Johnston chose Hermione’s name as an allusion -to the character from Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale. That’s where the novel’s title comes from; it’s is a famous stage direction from the same play. Never mind, as a character she is sympathetic and admirable. And her life is about to get a lot more complicated.

Every year, the cheerleaders meet at Camp Manitouwabing, which is about an hour from Parry Sound. Teams from different schools meet there for two weeks of intense training. At a dance, just before the end of the camp, someone slips something into Hermione’s drink, and when she wakes up, she’s in the hospital. She has no memory of what happened, but she spends the next year dealing with the aftermath of the event.

There are lots of YA novels out there that deal with rape, but I have to say that this is one of the better ones I have read. After the attack, Hermione’s squad closes rank, insulating her from the inevitable rumours. Only Hermione’s boyfriend, Leo, fails to step up. Not that she needs him; she’s got her bestie, Polly, a pit bull of a friend, who is always at the ready to fend of anyone who even looks sideways at Hermione.

There are lots of great people in her corner, actually. Her psychiatrist, the female police officer tasked with finding the perp, Hermione’s parents who want to protect her, but know that offering too much protection would do their daughter a great disservice at the end of the day.

The novel is brisk, but it does allow readers a glimpse into Hermione’s PTSD, and how she tries to figure out the best way to deal with what has happened to her. Will she let this one incident set the course for her life? I am happy to say that the answer is a resounding no.

One scene I particularly liked was when Hermione and Polly are interviewed by a local reporter. Their cheerleading squad is a pretty big deal, but the journalist does manage to ask a question about the attack:

“Hermione, after your attack at the end of last summer, do you have any words of advice on how other girls can be smart, and stop such awful things happening to them.”

Polly, as always, speaks the truth.

“You’re okay with asking asking a girl who was wearing a pretty dress and had nice hair, who went to the dance with her cabin mates, who drank from the same punch bowl as everyone else – you’re okay with asking that girl what mistake she made, and you wouldn’t think to ask a boy how he would avoid raping someone?”

The conversation has to change. Polly knows it. Hermione knows it. It’s time everyone did.

I really liked this book for a lot of reasons. It’s Canadian, it’s well-written, it says important things without being didactic and you will root for Hermione.

 

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood & Renee Nault

I probably shouldn’t admit this, being both a Canadian and an English teacher, but I have handmaidbestnever read Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. I haven’t watched the series, either. I know, I know. I figured that I could rectify that by reading Renee Nault’s stunning graphic novel of Atwood’s book.

First published in 1985, Atwood’s novel explores a dystopian America. Atwood imagines a totalitarian state where women are commodities without their own names or lives. Some women are sexual servants, that is if they are of the age to bear children. Their names reflect the men they serve, so the book’s narrator is Offred or “of Fred”. In another life, Offred was married, had a daughter, but the family was separated when they tried to escape to Canada. The novel won several awards, including the Governor General’s Award and the Booker.

In many ways, Atwood’s novel was prescient. Flash forward almost 35 years and reflect on what is currently happening in the States (and around the world) and The Handmaid’s Tale  should make your skin crawl.

Nault’s beautiful drawings highlight the horrific lives lived by these handmaids.

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They dress in red “the colour of blood, which defines us.” Their hats prevent “keep us from seeing, but also from being seen.”Offred reveals her defiance to her situation early on claiming that “I never looked good in red, it’s not my colour.” Friendships are discouraged between the handmaids. Their only job is to be an incubator.

It’s easy to see why Atwood’s novel was ground-breaking when it was first published. It’s difficult to read it even now. Nault’s adaptation should introduce a whole new generation of readers to Atwood’s acclaimed novel. I might just go read the original now.

Foe – Iain Reid

foeFoe is my second novel by Canadian writer Iain Reid. I read  I’m Thinking of Ending Things  a couple of summers ago. I found that book deeply unsettling. And clever. Foe is well… deeply unsettling and clever.

Junior and his wife, Henrietta, Hen for short, live a sort of isolated existence out in the country. It’s just the two of them, so the arrival of a man, Terrance, is strange because as Junior remarks: “We don’t get visitors. Never have. Not out here.”

Terrance has come to tell Junior that he’s made OuterMore’s long list.

We’re an organization formed more than six decades ago. We started in the driverless automobile sector. Our fleet of self-driving cars was the most efficient and safest in the world. Our mandate changed over the years, and today it is very specific. We’ve moved out of the auto sector and into aerospace, exploration, and development. We’re working toward the next phase of transition.

Junior has been selected to go to space as part of The Installation, “the first wave of temporary resettlement.” Junior isn’t all that chuffed, but Terrance is pretty excited on his behalf. It’s not a done deal yet, of course, and Terrance will have to make several visits over the coming months because if he is chosen, Hen will be provided with a companion – someone who looks and talks and acts just like Junior; someone who is 3D printed just for her – to stay with her while her husband is gone.

When Terrance actually moves into their house to collect data (although even that is vague enough to cause Junior unease), Junior starts to feel his marriage unraveling. Hen is distant and secretive. The structure of their very ordered lives starts to crumble. Junior becomes more paranoid. It won’t be long before you, too, will be wondering just what in the heck is going on.

You’ll be swept along by Reid’s unfussy prose and metaphysical questions. Junior tries to remember his life before Hen, but his life “was unremarkable, unmemorable.”

We only get so much mental space in which to store our memories, and there’s no reason for me to waste it on what came before.

Reid builds on these questions of identity and memory, while also creating an ominous atmosphere. I love unreliable narrators, and Reid is especially good at writing them. Reid is definitely an author to keep your eye on.

The Hesitation Cut – Giles Blunt

The Hesitation Cut is my first experience with Canadian writer Giles Blunt, who is 34AC2891-84BC-4F62-A5DA-5AAC7D6F7FEFperhaps most famous for his crime novels which feature Detective John Cardinal. (I have watched a couple of those novels brought to the small screen and have found them super intense; I can only imagine what the reading experience would be like.)

In this standalone, 30-year-old Brother William is living the cloistered life of a monk in Rochester, upstate New York. He’s been at Our Lady Of Peace for ten years, living a life punctuated by ritual. One of William’s jobs is to work in the monastery’s library and it is there he meets Lauren, a writer who has come to do research on Peter Abelard, the famous philosopher  from 12th century France, who had an ill-fated relationship with his student, Heloise.

Brother William is almost immediately smitten with Lauren. When he arrives at the library “it was like coming upon a small animal in the forest.” There is something about Lauren that draws William, like the moon pulls the water (if I can make such a clumsy comparison). He is helpless against its pull and when he notices “a scar across her wrist”, he’s done for. Lauren becomes William’s next calling. He decides she’s in trouble and he can save her.

So, he gives up his life, takes back his name (Peter, surely no coincidence) and heads to New York City. A lot of pieces click into place (his estranged brother has saved his share of the family estate, so suddenly a former monk without worldly possessions has disposable cash), he gets a job, and relatively easily in a city the size of NY, tracks Lauren down.  Although I am not sure I bought it, there’s an empty basement studio in the very same building where Lauren lives, and so Peter moves in and befriends her.

The thing about these two characters is that neither of them are even remotely likeable. While Peter pretends to be altruistic, Lauren makes no effort to hide the fact that she is damaged goods; in fact, in some ways, she seems to enjoy the wallowing.  To be fair, she tries to warn Peter:

”Peter, I have my work and nothing else. Nothing. I’m not what you think, or need, or want. I’m just a selfish bitch, you see.”

Peter almost takes this as a personal challenge. Lauren WILL love him.

Then, along comes Mick, Lauren’s former lover. He’s the proverbial bad boy, but he’s actually one of the most likeable characters in the whole book. His arrival on the scene throws Peter into a tailspin.

The Hesitation Cut was easy to read. I couldn’t put it down. Did I buy all the pieces chinking together? No. Did it matter? Probably not. Blunt has constructed a well-made play, peopled with mostly despicable characters. Whether you care about their fates won’t actually impact your enjoyment of their sad journeys.

Jar of Hearts – Jennifer Hillier

So a few years back I read and hated Jennifer Hillier’s novel Creep  and so I am DDEC3EB9-C1E8-4BA6-A35F-B2150CAEAEBDactually a bit surprised that I even picked up Jar of Hearts. I guess I didn’t put two and two together before I forked over my money. I am happy to report that Hillier has redeemed herself a little in my eyes because Jar of Hearts wasn’t nearly as cringeworthy as Creep. In face, I liked it quite a bit until the end.

Georgina (Geo) Shaw’s perfect life (rich fiancé, six-figure career) comes crashing down around her when the mutilated body of her best friend Angela Wong is found fourteen years after she disappeared. For her part in the murder, Geo will spend five years in the Hazelwood Correctional Institute. Calvin James, her boyfriend at the time, is connected to three other murders and will likely serve consecutive life sentences. This is the first time Geo has seen him in a very long time and

When their eyes meet, a tingle goes through her. That goddamned tingle, even now, even after everything. From the first day they met to the last day she saw him, that tingle has never gone away. She’s never felt anything like it before, or since.

Who doesn’t love a bad boy, eh?

Jar of Hearts follows Geo through her stint in prison, where she’s savvy enough to make friends with the right people. When she is released, she returns to her childhood home. She’s not particularly welcome in Sweetbay (a suburb of Seattle), but she has no place else to go. She reconnects with her childhood friend, Kaiser Brody, who is now a cop. And then new bodies start to show up.

I liked this novel so, so much better than Creep. While not flawless, Geo was a likeable character. I understood her attraction to Calvin (who was not straight-up evil) especially at the beginning when she was only sixteen and living in Angela’s considerable shadow.  Hillier does a good job of capturing those heady teenage years when you make dumb choices and hurt the people you love. The flashbacks allow us to see what happened to Angela and why.

Some readers will likely like the novel’s ending twist. I wasn’t a big fan, but it didn’t ruin my overall enjoyment. Jar of Hearts was fun to read.

 

Orchestra in My Garden – Linda Brooks

It probably would have made more sense to talk about Linda Brooks’ beautiful 953A7BC0-3D92-49DF-B19E-85D966DCF6A4coffee table book Orchestra in My Garden back in the spring, which is when I purchased my copy.  But spring is always a busy time at school, and then I went away, and then school  started again…you know how it goes. Now that the days are getting darker and colder, I feel like Linda’s book is the perfect antidote.  Plus,  Orchestra in My Garden would make a fabulous gift for the gardeners, wannabe gardeners and musicians on your list this holiday season.

Linda and I are cousins, although I wouldn’t say that we know each other particularly well. She is the second youngest of five and I am the oldest of four, so on the few occasions when our families would get together,  we would have been of little interest to each other. My dad and Linda’s dad are first cousins. I do have childhood memories of going to the farm where Linda grew up. It was always a lot of fun. My parents loved her parents, Jack and Margie, and I remember loving them, too.  It was probably a lot of fun for the adults to get together and let the nine of us run wild.

Orchestra in My Garden is a love song, and not just to gardening, although Linda is clearly a talented gardener. (She would say “enthusiast” not “expert”.) Her beautiful Nova Scotia garden, nurtured for over a decade, is simply the backdrop, though, for Linda’s blossoming awareness of a new season in her life. (And look at me, with all these corny gardening metaphors. They just write themselves, people!)

I was between albums with  no immediate pressure to produce more content and no outside expectations. Life was throwing some milestones my way. The approach of a 50th birthday coinciding with a first child heading off to university may have encouraged a greater awareness that my life was taking a new turn.

Linda has lead a creative life. Although she has a BA from Mt. Allison and a Bachelor of Law degree from Dalhousie, I always think of her as a musician. She has recorded several albums, two of them in Nashville, and been nominated for ECMAs.  The essays included in her book are her way of expressing herself “beyond the lyrics of a song.”

The essays in this book tackle a wide range of topics: the joys of digging deep (literally and metaphorically, I think), marriage and motherhood, family, inspiration. There really is something for everyone in Linda’s essays. The nice thing about them is that they really feel like personal reflections, rather than didactic lessons.

Supporting and nurturing and, perhaps especially, challenging each other to bloom means understanding that no one of us has all the answers and there is not only one perspective. When we learn to respect another’s growth, we accelerate our own. That’s what family, friendships, and my garden keep teaching me.

And what would a book about gardens be without pictures. First time garden photographer Mark Maryanovich has taken some truly beautiful photos for this book. This might be his first time snapping pics of flowers, but he comes with an impressive resume and it shows.

If all this weren’t enough, Linda has included a code which allows you to download 22 original songs inspired by four seasons in her garden.

Orchestra in My Garden would be a lovely book for anyone who loves nature, sure, but also for anyone who might appreciate what it means to come to a crossroad in life and consider the paths that lay ahead. Download Linda’s songs, make a cup of tea and enjoy.

 

We All Love the Beautiful Girls – Joanne Proulx

E1A054FB-47D3-4BF8-93BC-7A8F56A62626The characters in Joanne Proulx’s second novel We All Love the Beautiful Girls are so perfectly imperfect that you can’t help but fall in love with them.

At the centre of this finely crafted family drama is the Slate family, Mia and Michael, and their seventeen-year-old son, Finn. Then there’s Jess, Finn’s former babysitter who now sneaks into his bedroom at night to…you know. Frankie is the daughter of Michael’s business partner, Peter. Peter’s wife, Helen, is Mia’s best friend. Frankie and Finn have grown up together.

Mia and Michael’s perfect life starts to unravel when they get a visit from Stanley, the company accountant (I’m not sure that’s his actual his title, but it doesn’t really matter; he’s only the messenger). He’s discovered that Peter has restructured the company and written Michael out. Michael has, it turns out, been pretty lax about the financials of the company because he and Peter have “known each other since high school.”

On the same night that Michael finds himself screwed out of his own company, Finn finds out that Jess won’t be leaving her boyfriend, Eric, for him. She can’t even though Finn is “So gorgeous and so nice.”  Finn is just a kid. (She’s 23.) Eric’s a total douche and happens to be the older brother of Finn’s best friend, Eli. Finn’s at a party at their house, drunk, and after an encounter with Jess he makes a couple of bad choices. First, he hooks up with Frankie. Second, he passes out in the backyard. It’s  January. In Canada.

These two incidents are game-changers for the Slate family and their repercussions propel Proulx’s story along like a thriller. I literally could not put this book down. I finished it well past my bed-time. On a school night.

The novel flips between characters. We watch Finn’s heart break. We watch Mia and Michael’s marriage topple. We watch friends become enemies. Proulx toggles between these perspectives masterfully, the blame and the shame carefully shared. And if there is redemption or peace to be had, it’s hard won.

No one makes it through life unscathed, but perhaps the key to surviving is understanding. As Finn tells his mother: “I’m not the same as I was….I’m different now….But it’s good, you know? I’m good. Like I understand things I didn’t understand before.”

The boy becomes a man. The parents – well, I guess they do what all parents do. The best they can.

I LOVED this book.