Tag Archive | Canadian

The Truth Commission – Susan Juby

Normandy Pale, the narrator of Susan Juby’s award-winning YA novel, The Truth Commission,  lives with her parents and older sister, Keira, on Vancouver Island. Keiratruth is a celebrated graphic novelist, whose series Diana: Queen of Two Worlds, tells the story of “a suburban girl who lives with her “painfully average”  family which includes her  high-strung easily overwhelmed mother, her ineffectual father, and her dull-witted, staring lump of a sister.”

Keira published three volumes of Diana, a smash hit with a huge cult-following, and then went off to college in the States.

That’s the same time Normandy (Norm for short) started attending Green Pastures Academy of Arts and Applied Design where everyone knew who she was because of her sister. It was notoriety Norm didn’t particularly covet because “you cannot imagine how embarrassing it is to be in these books, especially when all the Earth plotlines are taken from minor and usually un-excellent incidents in our real life.”

The Truth Commission‘s conceit is that Norm is writing her Spring Special Project, a story which covers three months from the previous fall (Sept-November).

Here’s how the project is supposed to work: Each week I will write and submit chapters of my story to my excellent creative writing teacher. She will give me feedback on those chapters the following week. I will write as if I do not know what will happen next – as if I’m a reporter, which is a device used in classic works of non-fiction.

Norm’s story is about The Truth Commission, a committee consisting of Norm and her best friends Neil and Dusk (aka Dawn) who “went on a search for the truth and…found it.” Norm discovers that the truth is a complicated thing and that is especially true in her own family.

Keira has returned from college under a rather dark cloud. “She wouldn’t tell us what happened,” Norm tells us, “and when my parents asked if everything was okay, Keira got mad and said she’d leave if they asked again.”  Now she spends most of her time in her room or in the closet she and Norm share and “when she did leave, she stayed out for days and we had no idea where she went.”

Since Norm and Keira have never been particularly close, Norm is almost flattered when Keira starts sneaking into her room at night admitting “I think it’s time for me to tell someone what happened.”

I loved every minute I spent with Norm and her friends, who are equally smart and funny. There is a sort of mystery at the core of the novel: what happened to Keira? Although that is certainly one reason to turn the pages I think Normandy pretty much had me at ‘hello.’

Highly recommended and BONUS! Canadian.

 

 

 

This One Summer – Mariko Tamaki & Jillian Tamaki

thisonesummerThis One Summer by cousins Mariko and Jillian Tamaki is a Governor General’s Literary Award winner in addition to being on several Best Of…lists. I can’t claim any real expertise when it comes to graphic novels, so I don’t really know what the criteria might be for determining what makes a graphic novel superior to others. Like everyone of my generation, I used to be a big fan of Archie and horror comics, but it’s only since I returned to the classroom that I have made it a point to read graphic novels – mostly because I do have students who enjoy them and I want to be sure that I include them in my classroom library.

Rose and her family have been going to Awago Beach every summer since she can remember. Rose says, “My dad says Awago is a place where beer grows on trees and  everyone can sleep in until eleven.” It’s magical. It’s also where  Windy, Rose’s “summer cottage friend since I was five” lives.

This summer is captured in monochrome as Rose and Windy revisit old haunts and settle back into their summer routine. thisonesummer_gifIt’s clear, though, that the one and a half year difference between the girls is impactful this year. Rose, the elder, is contemplative and watchful and often reacts to Windy’s suggestions with a shrug and a “maybe.”  At Brewster’s “the only store in all of Awago” the girls buy penny candy, rent horror movies and watch (Windy with girlish disgust and Rose with curious fascination) the overtly sexual relationship between older teens Dunc and Jenny.

This one summer is different in another way. Rose is hyper aware that her parents don’t seem to be getting along all that well and Rose senses the rift is sucking them all in even when her father assures her that “It’s all  just adult junk that doesn’t mean anything.” It’s hard to navigate that tricky path from childhood to adulthood without touchstones and Rose is aware, perhaps without quite understanding it, that she is on shaky ground.

This One Summer is a coming of age novel steeped in nostalgia. It will remind adult readers of their “one” summer, that time that now seems captured in a permanently dreamy  gauze and it will ring true to young adults for whom that one summer may be this summer.

 

Juliet’s Answer – Glenn Dixon

juliets-answer-9781501135484Glenn Dixon’s memoir Juliet’s Answer has a lot going for it especially if you a) love Italy b) teach high school English and are intimately familiar with Romeo and Juliet and c) have ever been unlucky in affairs of the heart.

Dixon started out to write a book about love – all different types, all over the world. He landed in Verona and became one of Juliet’s secretaries. These are the women of Club  di Giulietta, an organization founded by Giulio Tamassia. Tamassia, a baker  by trade, took over the task of responding to the hundreds of letters which arrive in Verona yearly. Beginning in 1937,  the letters were  answered  by the groundskeeper who tended the gravestones at the Monastery of San Francesco where Juliet is said to have been buried and where the letters were first left, propped against the gravestones, and then by a poet in the 50s and finally by Tamassia and his daughter, Giovanna. Dixon was on holiday from his day job as a high school English teacher when he volunteered to help answer the letters, the only man in the group of volunteers.

Dixon admits that he’d had his own problems with love and “part of the reason I’d come to Verona was to learn something more about this all-encompassing force in our lives. To learn something, anything, that would help me understand my own heartbreak and help me, maybe, trust in love once more.”

See – there’s this girl. She’s the one; at least that’s what Dixon thinks. They’ve known each other since university and “I guess you could say that I fell in love with her right from the start. She was pretty and smart, but it was more than that. She seemed to “get” me, just as I seemed to “get” her.” But in the 20 years since university,  Dixon has never managed to get past the friend-zone. He’s watched as the woman, he calls her Claire, falls in and out of love with other men and he doesn’t disagree when she says “you can’t choose who you fall in love with.” Ain’t that the truth. So he pines.

Dixon teaches high school English. It’s probably not a coincidence that the time we spend with him in the classroom is shared with literature’s most famous lovers – Romeo and Juliet. I admit it: I am a card-carrying member of the club. It’s amazing how many of my colleagues don’t like Romeo and Juliet, but I love the play. I love teaching it. I never get sick of Shakespeare’s language or the gut-wrenching, sob-inducing, star-defying story of those two crazy kids. What can I say? I’m a romantic.

And Italy – that’s my place. I’ve only been twice, but I dream of spending an extended period of time there. I’m not sure what it is: the heat, the wine, the shuttered windows and amazing vistas, the pasta. Did I mention the wine?  I just know that I love it.

So it was a no-brainer that I was going to like Juliet’s Answer. I related to Dixon’s quest to understand the nature of love. He’s my people aka fellow English teacher. And, hey, love found him. How’s that for a happy ending?

 

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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, 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.

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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.