Tag Archive | Canadian

The Best Kind of People – Zoe Whittall

I have never returned a book to the bookstore before. In the past, if I read a book and the-best-kind-of-people_jpg_size_custom_crop_427x650didn’t like  it, I would normally just donate it to goodwill. Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People comes with Heather Reisman’s money back guarantee, though. Reisman is the CEO of Indigo, Canada’s largest book retailer. If she endorses a book with her Heather’s Pick sticker and you don’t like it, you can return the book – no questions asked – for a full refund. So, that’s where The Best Kind of People is going.

Although I was intrigued by the premise of Whittall’s novel, there were some negative reviews on Litsy and so I didn’t purchase it. Then it was chosen as our book club book and I had no choice but to read it.

George Woodbury is a local hero in Avalon Hills, a sleepy bedroom community in Connecticut.

George could be recognized by his trademark brown tweed jackets with the corduroy elbow pads, and his perpetual armload of books and papers. Everybody knew him, from school or from the many boards and committees he sat on. He was a fixture in town. He remained the man from Woodbury Lake who saved the children.

Ten years ago, George stopped a lone gunman who entered a school to kill his girlfriend. Now George is a beloved and respected teacher at the local private school. George has the added privilege of being extremely wealthy because of his father’s business acumen: doctor turned real estate tycoon. His two children, adult lawyer Andrew, who lives in New York City with his partner, Jared, and seventeen-year-old, Sadie, are used to being part of the inner circle. Joan, George’s wife, is a nurse who dotes on George and loves him without question. Until there’s something to question.

And there is. In present day, the police come to the Woodbury estate to arrest George for “sexual misconduct with four minors, attempted rape of a minor.” Of course, everyone believes it’s a huge misunderstanding. George assures his wife that “it’s just an error.” But it’s an error that throws everything Joan has ever believed about her marriage and her life into question. It also throws Andrew and Sadie’s life into turmoil.

It’s a pretty good hook for a book. And it might have been a pretty good book, too, if Whittall had written characters that were even remotely believable.  There’s the “stand by your man” wife who is so overwhelmed she lets her daughter move in with her boyfriend, Jimmy, and his mother. There’s Andrew, the angry gay son who races to his mother’s side but who hates the small-minded town he grew up in. (The town, by the way, where he came of age in a relationship with one of his teachers.) There’s Clara, Joan’s shrill sister who used to be a “staple on the 1990s New York City party scene.” There’s Kevin, the parasitic writer who lives with Jimmy’s mother. There’s Amanda, Sadie’s supposed best friend who and whose younger sister is one of the complainants. Her comment to Sadie: “I know your dad is a fuckin’ perv and all, but you don’t have to act like I’m dead.”

The dialogue is one of the things that irked me the most about Whittall’s narrative. I read whole sections out loud to my son because it was just so…unrealistic. For example, when Kevin moves out of the house, Elaine, Jimmy’s mother explains his absence by saying: “Right now he’s staying at the Hilton while we work through some…grown-up issues.” It’s a ridiculous comment to make to the son for whom she is providing condoms and looking the other way while he sleeps with Sadie.

The Best Kind of People offered a good opportunity to raise all sorts of questions…without being didactic (which the book often is). Instead, wooden people moved through a series of hoops towards a conclusion which is neither satisfying or brave.

Don’t waste your time.

All the Things We Leave Behind – Riel Nason

towndrownedA few years back, my bookclub read Riel Nason’s debut novel The Town That Drowned and we all fell in love with Ruby and her younger brother, Percy, inhabitants of a little town called Haventon. Nason’s story drew from actual events: the area was flooded after a dam was built. Anyone who lives in New Brunswick, Canada, where Nason’s story is set, will be familiar with the landscape and many of the place names, even if they don’t quite remember the flood that drowned the town.

All The Things We Leave Behind revisits the Saint John River Valley, this time a fictional town called Riverbend, circa 1977. On this occasion, our narrator, seventeen-year-old Violet, is taking care of the family business while her parents are on a road trip looking for her older brother, Bliss, who disappeared just after his graduation from high school.

The book starts ominously enough as Violet recalls the “boneyard deep in the woods.” She and Bliss discovered the place when they were kids even though “the boneyard’s location is supposed to be secret.  This is the final resting place for the moose and deer that have killed up and down the Trans Canada rielHighway.   When Violet recalls the time she and Bliss had stumbled upon the boneyard, aged nine, she also recalls how Bliss had tried to protect her from the gruesome sight. He assures her they’re never going back, but he also tells her “we can’t let it wreck the whole forest for us.”

Nason weaves Violet’s recollections of her brother into a narrative which is mostly concerned with Violet’s summer-time responsibilities, tending The Purple Barn, her family’s roadside antique store, literally  “an enormous rectangle, a hundred-foot-long-barn, painted purple.”  Violet isn’t too young for the gig

I know what I’m doing and I’m almost an expert on antiques from hanging around the store and listening to my father my whole life. I can rattle off statements like, “It’s a late Victorian, Eastlake period piece, factory made, ash not oak, but excellent quality.”

Violet takes her job seriously, but she is also prone to melancholy and introspection. She is not exactly a typical teenager; she is certainly not partying her way through the summer despite the fact the she is sharing a cabin at Seven Birches Campground and Cabins with her best friend, Jill,  and despite the fact that she promised Jill she’d try to have a fun summer.

All the Things We Leave Behind is a quiet novel of growing up and letting go – even when you don’t really want to do either. Nason adeptly evokes a specific time and place, but the novel’s themes are universal in scope. Even though I didn’t quite settle into the book’s rhythms in quite the same way as I settled into The Town That Drowned and even though I wasn’t totally satisfied with some of the denouement’s machinations, I would still recommend All The Things We Leave Behind because Nason’s prose is consistently good and the novel has many charms.

Coventry – Helen Humphreys

On November 14, 1940, Coventry, a city in England’s West Midlands, was devastated by a German bombing raid that  leveled two thirds of the city, including the city’s cathedral, which was built in the 14th century.

coventry-cathedral-is-extensively-damaged-in-german-bombing-raids-136394373067803901-151113164642.jpg

This event is the backdrop of Helen Humphrey’s 2008 novel, Coventry. The novel captures the horror and chaos of that night as seen through the eyes of Harriet Marsh, a 44-year-old woman who is acting as a fire-watcher on the cathedral rooftop and Maeve, an artist whose 22-year-old son, Jeremy,  is also acting as a fire-watcher the evening the Germans dropped 500 tonnes of explosives on the city.

coventryWith the exception of a flashback to introduce us to Harriet’s husband, Owen, and to allow Harriet and Maeve to briefly meet, the novel spends its time during the ten-hour raid. Although it might be hard to imagine the scene, Humphreys does capture the horrible chaos of that night in simple, unembellished prose.

The bombing shakes the ground so that people fleeing through the streets stumble as though drunk. The trembling earth shifts them one way, and then the other, and Harriet finds herself reaching out to steady herself on walls that are no longer standing. She falls in the street, picks herself up from the shaking ground, and falls again.

Nearly 600 people were killed on that night; over 1000 more were injured. It’s perhaps not easy to imagine the chaos, but Humphreys does manage to capture it as Harriet and Jeremy make their way through the city to their respective homes. The horrors of war are all around them: people who have been fatally wounded, people buried under rubble, animals wandering aimlessly. Maeve leaves the shelter of the pub and heads home, but she and Jeremy miss each other.

_86655454_gettyimages-3356152

The British were known for their stoic resilience during the Second World War. Some of that resilience is seen on display in Coventry. In one particular scene, Harriet and Jeremy happen upon a makeshift first aid station and while Jeremy jumps in to help, Harriet wanders off to see if she can’t rustle up some tea. C’mon! It doesn’t get any more British than that.

How did these people cope? They just did what they had to do and when it seemed like they couldn’t go on, they did that, too.

I am a fan of Helen Humphreys. I loved her novel The Lost Garden  which I talked about here.  I also really enjoyed Afterimage, which I read before I started this blog. What I admire about her writing is her ability to capture moments so perfectly. Perhaps that ability comes from having started her writing career as a poet.  I just know that she is one of those rare writers who make you pause and nod your head in agreement.

Coventry is a short novel that, nevertheless, captures the horror and the unexpected beauty to be found amidst  chaos.

The Dogs – Allan Stratton

Cameron and his mom have been on the run for as long as Cameron can remember. the_dogs_uk_cover_med_frontCameron’s dad is dangerous and they’ve never been able to stay in one place for very long. This last move takes them to a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, outside of a small town called Wolf Hollow.

“Whoa! Somebody! Put this place out of its misery.” That’s how Cameron describes the two-storey, ramshackle building he and his mom are going to call home. Mom notes the two staircases and says “It’s good to have more than one escape route…in case of fire.” Mr. Sinclair, the old farmer who owns the house, is secretive and slightly menacing.

But Cameron’s creepy father isn’t the only creepy thing going on in Allan Stratton’s YA novel The Dogs. Cameron discovers some drawings and a photograph in the coal room and the discovery connects him to a strange mystery that has haunted the farmhouse for decades. One of the drawings depicts “a pack of wild dogs ripping things apart.” Further investigation reveals that the previous owner, Mr. McTavish, was ripped apart by his dogs after his wife and son, Jacky, ran off with another man.

The clever things about The Dogs is that it operates on many different levels. As Cameron spends more and more time trying to figure out what really happened in the farmhouse all those years ago, he also begins to question his own memories of his father. Is his mother telling him the whole truth or is she leaving out essential details? Is his dad really as bad as his mother says?

Cameron’s traumatic childhood makes him especially suggestible and readers will share every spooky bump-in-the-night incident with him as he tries to reconcile his memories with what is happening in the house. Is he crazy, as his mother worries he might be, or are the things he sees and hears really happening?

“It’s not my fault I picture things, or talk to myself. If I try to keep all the stuff in my head inside, I’ll explode,” Cameron explains to his mother.

The Dogs is written in straight-forward prose, which will appeal to many young readers particularly reluctant readers. I think any reader will enjoy the book’s eeriness and honest portrayal of a teenage boy who despite his own difficulties shows tremendous resilience. I know I did.

 

 

 

All The Rage – Courtney Summers

Courtney Summers is Canadian – let’s just get that out of the way. I am extra disposed to courtney-summers-all-the-ragelove her because she’s, you know, Canadian. Like Ryan Gosling is Canadian. And ketchup chips. Okay, now I am just putting off talking about All The Rage because reading Summers isn’t like reading other YA writers. She hits you hard right in the solar plexus. Every. Time.

Romy Grey used to be on the inside – until a party  changes everything.  Now she finds herself navigating the shark-infested waters of her high school and her small town, Grebe, where everyone knows everyone and all those everyones are subservient to the Turners – the town sheriff and his business owner wife.

When Romy wakes up in a ditch, disoriented and with no memory of what’s happened to her, it brings her back to another night when a beautiful boy  – a boy she wanted – rapes her in the back of his pick-up truck.

…how do you get a girl to stop crying?

You cover her mouth.

Romy never tells anyone what this beautiful boy, Kellan Turner (one and the same) did to her. Instead, she pushes the trauma of it as far down inside as she can and protects herself by painting her nails and lips red. But this second incident  – the waking up on the side of the road – starts to unravel Romy. Things are further complicated by the fact that another girl, Penny, is missing. Penny and Romy used to be friends, but are no longer.

There is so much going on in All The Rage. And, frankly, Summers’ timing couldn’t be any better. We live in a world that blames the girl and, regretfully, never really holds the boy accountable. One need only recall the circumstances surrounding the victim in the Brock Turner  rape case to realize how inadequate society’s reaction to these horrific events is. (The link will take you to the victim statement, which should be required reading.)  And almost more problematic is the fact that often women don’t stand with women in these cases. Romy finds herself isolated, bullied mercilessly by other girls which I find incredibly disturbing.

Girls are told what they can and can’t wear – an ongoing issue in every single high school, I am sure – because a visible bra strap or a too-short skirt is clearly an invitation to be assaulted. The victim-blaming is insidious.

It’s all too easy for Romy to be victimized. She was never really part of the gang. Her father was the town drunk. She’s from the wrong side of town. Now everyone blames her for Penny’s disappearance. It’s no wonder that Romy  starts to come apart.

At the checkout, it’s just boys at the registers and I can’t stand the idea of them knowing what I wear underneath my shirt. I tell Mom I have a headache, give her my wallet,  and wait in the car while she pays for it all. I wish I didn’t have a body, sometimes.

There are some good things in Romy’s life. She lives with her mother, who is awesome, and her mother’s new boyfriend, Todd – whom I LOVED, btw. He’s one of the good guys. Leon, the cook at the diner where Romy waitresses, genuinely seems to care for her.

All The Rage tackles a difficult subject with respect and tremendous insight. Romy is a beautifully drawn character, fragile and tremendously brave in equal measure. If I wasn’t already a huge fan of Summers’, I certainly would be after reading this book.

Highly recommended.

Also read: Some Girls Are, This Is Not a Test

 

I Must Say – Martin Short

I think it’s probably un-Canadian not to like Martin Short. He (and his alter egos) has been
making me laugh for at least 30 years, so I was really looking forward to reading his memoir I Must Say. Just the title  alone conjures up an image of Ed Grimley, the horn-haired, high-waisted-pant wearing, triangle-playing nerd who coined the phrase.

Short was born in Hamilton, Ontario, the youngest of five. His father,  Charles, an 20604377executive at the steel plant, and his mother, Olive, a classically trained violinist created a family environment that nurtured  his offbeat creativity from an early age.

Outside, on Whitton Road, normal Canadian childhoods were taking place, with kids playing hockey in the streets until darkness fell and the streetlights came on. Inside, little Marty was snapping his fingers and  singing, “Weather-wise, it’s such a cuckoo- daaay!”

Despite his artistic leanings, Short hadn’t planned on a career in show business and he credits Eugene Levy with encouraging him to try out for a Toronto-based production of Godspell. It was 1972 and Short had just graduated from McMaster University. His intention was to do social work, but he said he’d give the acting thing a year. We all know how that turned out.

I Must Say is a chatty, name-dropping memoir that is both fun to read (mostly because you’ll know virtually every single name Short drops; it’s a veritable who’s who of Canadian comedy royalty) and also illuminating. Short makes us laugh – well, he makes me laugh at any rate – but his life has not been without its tragedies. He lost his older and much admired brother, David, when he was just twelve. He was young when both his parents died. And I read about the death of his wife of 36 years, Nancy, with a lump in my throat.

Other bits of the book are laugh-out-loud funny, especially when you are familiar with Short’s iconic characters including Lawrence Orbach, Franck from Father of the Bride  and my personal favourite, the ill-prepared, self-important, overweight celebrity interviewer, Jiminy Glick. I could watch Jiminy interview celebs for hours and pee my pants laughing every single time.

I don’t read a lot of memoirs and certainly don’t care that much about the cult of celebrity
to read those written by the rich and famous, but Short gets a pass because I have loved him for many years. Whenever I need a pick-me-up, he’s my go-to guy. I was happy to ‘read’ that despite his Rolodex of famous friends he’s a pretty down-to-earth guy – a creative, smart and self-deprecating man who often had painful bouts of self-doubt. If you have any love for SCTV, SNL or The Three Amigos, I Must Say is an enjoyable way to spend a handful of hours.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things – Iain Reid

Um. WTF? So, I saw I’m Thinking of Ending Things at the book store. Sounded good. Bought it. Read it straight through. Listened to author Iain Red talk about it on CBC Radio. You were no help at all, by the way, Iain, so I am going to work on the premise that I know what happened. Kinda. Sorta.

Im+Thinking+of+Ending+ThingsThe unnamed narrator and her boyfriend, Jake, are on their way to visit Jake’s parents for the very first time. Their relationship is new, but already the narrator is “thinking of ending things.”  It’s not that she doesn’t like Jake. They met at a party and she tells us “He wasn’t the first guy I noticed that night. But he was the most interesting.”

On the long, snowy drive to Jake’s family home Reid’s characters exchange awkward conversation about, among other things,  secrets, space, and memory. She remarks, “Part of everything will always be forgettable. No matter how good or remarkable it is. It literally has to be. To be.”

The journey also gives her an opportunity to catalogue her relationship with Jake. She mentions the way he chews, the toothpaste lingering on the corner of his mouth, his “jagged cheekbones.”  The narrator comments that “Individually, we’re both unspectacular.” But that isn’t exactly true.

When the narrator and Jake finally arrive at the family farm, it’s isolated and creepy. A tour of the outbuildings reveals dead lambs “Limp and lifeless, stacked  up outside against the side of the barn.” They visit empty pigpens and the chicken coop before the narrator catches a glimpse of a “gaunt figure, standing, looking down at us.” Don’t go in that house is probably what you’re thinking. You wouldn’t be wrong because from this point on I’m Thinking of Ending Things takes a turn off awkward street onto sinister avenue.

Jake’s parents are strange. His dad is “reserved, borderline standoffish.” Jake’s mom smiles a lot and is wearing “so much makeup I find it unsettling.” Dinner conversation is bizarre. Jake contributes nothing; “I have never seen Jake so singularly focused on his plate of food.”

A surreptitious tour of the house reveals a basement that Jake had claimed was not used, but which the narrator reveals is “not true at all.”  She discovers a disturbing painting and a bookshelf filled with pages and pages of equally disturbing drawings.

And all this would be enough to make your skin crawl, but Reid’s novel is not nearly as straightforward as this. For instance, the narrator has been receiving strange phone calls from someone she refers to as “The Caller.”  When she doesn’t answer, he leaves her strange, cryptic messages: “I feel a little crazy. I’m not lucid” says the first. The narrator also refers to a childhood memory of being watched through her bedroom window. Trying to figure out how these elements play into Reid’s narrative is half the fun of this puzzle of a book. Or half the frustration, depending on how you look at it.

By the novel’s conclusion, I thought I’d figured out what was going on. I actually thought I’d figured it out by page 88. If I’m right, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a trippy, creepy thriller that pushes lots of suspense-thriller boundaries. It also has something to say about  identity and memory. Even if I’m not right – and we’ll never know because, hello – spoilers – it’s still a great book.

Highly recommended.