Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Stephen King’s Finders Keepers (2015)

A detective haunted by past cases left unresolved or unhappily resolved? This offers a terrific launching pad for storytelling.

Pocket Books - S&S, 2016

Pocket Books – S&S, 2016

Particularly when the detective is no longer in an official capacity and has more time on his hands to ruminate and regret.

“There’s not a day that goes by when he doesn’t think of [it], not a night when he doesn’t lie in bed thinking, If only I had been a little quicker. A little smarter.”

Finders Keepers is the second novel in the Bill Hodges trilogy and readers are naturally sympathetic to his desire to set things right.

He faces limitations however, including his own doubts and fears; some time has passed since the struggles he faced in Mr. Mercedes, but still he wonders whether he should give up.

“If he can’t crack a seventeen-year-old kid – one who’s probably dying to tell someone what’s been weighing him down – he needs to quit working and move to Florida, home of so many retired cops.”

But none of that is important at the outset of Finders Keepers, which immediately introduces another set of characters.

In fact, the link to the first volume is so thin at first that readers who are new to the author’s work might doubt the connection. (Veteran King readers will trust in the process.)

The novel opens at the scene of a new crime being committed, one which affects the lives of a family of four, in which one member was also a victim of the major crime committed at the outset of Mr. Mercedes.

Finders Keepers focusses on this ‘new’ criminal and another member of this family, who has a bird’s eye view of the devastation caused by the last volume’s villain.

There is a bookish bent to this story from an early murder, with a reference to MacBeth (“If ‘twere to be done, best it be done quickly) and there are plenty of opportunities to comment on authorship and the act of reading, with the owner of a rare bookshop playing a role as the novel unfolds.

“For readers, one of life’s most electrifying discoveries is that they are readers—not just capable of doing it (which Morris already knew), but in love with it. Hopelessly. Head over heels. The first book that does that is never forgotten, and each page seems to bring a fresh revelation, one that burns and exalts: Yes! That’s how it is! Yes! I saw that, too! And, of course, That’s what I think! That’s what I FEEL!”

A murder is no less bloody when it’s done quickly, however. (In fact, it is arguably bloodier. Or, more oatmeal-y.)

“All those stories, all those images, and what came out looked like so much oatmeal.”

There are a lot of refracted details in the novel which also cement trilogy, subtly but deliberately.

For instance, descriptors are used sparingly (often the situation is more horrifying than any detail), so the use of a breakfast food in figurative language stands out.

“’Hartsfield? He couldn’t read a Berenstain Bears book these days.’ He taps his forehead gravely. ‘Nothing left but oatmeal up top. Although sometimes he does hold out his hand for one of these.’ He picks up a Zappit e-reader. It’s a bright girly pink. ‘These jobbies have games on em.’”

These small reflections anchor the reader quietly but determinedly (there are more obvious examples, but they are connected to plot spoilers) and it’s this kind of attenion-to-detail and long-term plotting which contributes to the solid storytelling for which Stephen King is well-known.

It almost looks effortless, which fits with one character’s idea about novel-writing: a “good novelist does not lead his characters, he follows them. A good novelist does not create events, he watches them happen and then writes down what he sees. A good novelist realizes he is a secretary, not God.”

In his novels, Stephen King, does seem to play secretary, recording the details which surround this ever-more-complicated collision of story, as the lives of the criminal and this family member veer closer together, and other connections between them emerge.

For the bulk of this novel, the movement of each character is restricted, which also calls attention to a broader related theme. What do we choose to do with our freedom? “Not exactly a penthouse apartment, just six by eight, but at least there were books. Books were escape. Books were freedom.”

For some characters their freedom is overwhelming, whereas others do not possess it (whether because they are still children, for another immutable reason, or because they have made choices which directly restrict it).

Bill Hodges is still trying to earn his, while simultaneously ensuring that the true criminals lose theirs.

And, ever so quietly, a question lurks beneath this narrative, only briefly surfacing near the end of Finders Keepers: are there ways to secure our freedom which we only unearth when all other routes have been blocked?

What happens when someone truly malcious and unbalanced is once secured, but later finds a way to escape?

Thoughts on the first volume appeared here, and thoughts tomorrow on End of Watch.

Does this sound like a book you’d enjoy?


Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes (2014)

How many times have I fallen for this trick? A Stephen King novel opens with a vividly sketched scene, of ordinary and likeable people going about the business of their everyday lives, when disaster strikes, and someone dies.

Gallery Books - S&S, 2016

Gallery Books – S&S, 2016

Mr. Mercedes is no different. A job fair is planned and desperate job-hunters assemble throughout the evening to demonstrate their resilience and initiative to potential employers, when they appear first in line at opening.

Almost immediately, I am attached to the man who waits near a young woman with her snivelling baby. Though somewhat curmudgeonly, he allows her to use the sleeping bag he brought, to get warm temporarily and nurse her son. Almost immediately, I have a stake in the outcome.

But this is not my first Stephen King novel. Even as I am warming (literally) to the story of these marginalized folks, banding together to overcome adversity, I am warning myself to back off. I’m shaking my head, as if I can shake off the engagement. I remind myself that it’s likely they will die, in just a page or two.

And, something like that happens. Which is no longer remarkable (having read more than a dozen of his novels).

But what remains remarkable, beyond the fact that Stephen King can make me care in just a few pages, is that he can convince me to read on, after slightly breaking my heart. Again.

In this case, he does so by almost immediately directing my attention to another character who also is deeply incensed by these deaths: Bill Hodges.

“According to my research, during your time as a detective, you broke literally hundreds of cases, many of them the kind the press (who Ted Williams called the Knights of the Keyboard) terms ‘high profile.’ You have caught Killers and Robbery Gangs and Arsonists and Rapists. In one article (published to coincide with your Retirement Ceremony), your longtime partner (Det. 1st Grade Peter Huntley) described you as ‘a combination of by-the-book and intuitively brilliant.’”

In fact, Bill Hodges is more deeply troubled by this crime than any reader, because although he has broken hundreds of cases, he has been haunted for years by his inability to solve the case of the Mercedes Killer (whereas readers have just learned of the tragedy).

Readers, however, will soon be keenly interested in the Mercedes killer’s capture as well, for their own reasons. For in the broader context of the novel, which is only partly narrated from the perspective of Bill Hodges, readers have a direct eye on the Mercedes killer.

“Most people are fitted with Lead Boots when they are just little kids and have to wear them all their lives. These Lead Boots are called A CONSCIENCE. I have none, so I can soar high above the heads of the Normal Crowd.”

As unsympathetic as the Mercedes Killer is, the character of Bill Hodges is quintessential King, a good-hearted guy who no longer believes that being good-hearted is enough. His guilt weighs too heavily.

“Suicide proves guilt. He remembers Lieutenant Morrissey saying that, but Hodges himself has always had his doubts, and lately those doubts have been stronger than ever. What he knows now is that guilt isn’t the only reason people commit suicide.
Sometimes you can just get bored with afternoon TV.”

The Mercedes Killer reemerges in an attempt to goad Bill Hodges, poke at his sense of failure for not having solved the case.

Ironically (and Stephen King has a hyper-appreciation of irony) he goads Bill Hodges into reengaging with his determination to solve the crime.

Nonetheless, the conflict in the novel ebbs and flows. Sometimes the killer darts ahead, other times the detective enjoys a win. Sometimes, it’s a draw.

“He sits looking out the window, remembering, unaware that some of the waiters have begun to look at him uneasily—the overweight retiree sitting slumped in his seat like a robot with dead batteries.”

Everyone expects suspense in a Stephen King novel, and there is no lack of it in Mr. Mercedes. It’s a classic hunt story, from the initial scene in which the hunter is behind the wheel, and the victims are run down. Soon, the role of the hunter is transferred to the killer, who is giving chase to the flailing and retired detective. But then the role of hunter changes again, putting Bill Hodges behind the wheel. So, suspense: yes.

But what’s particularly fun in this novel are the sparks of humour. The dialogue is sharp and there are many reasons to chuckle, but then there are the moments in which King laughs at himself.

“’Creepy as hell. You ever see that TV movie about the clown in the sewer?’
Hodges shook his head. Later—only weeks before his retirement—he bought a DVD copy of the film, and Pete was right. The mask-face was very close to the face of Pennywise, the clown in the movie.”

These moments are bonuses, however. What wins my reader’s heart consistently with King is the focus on ordinary people seeking to do the right thing, the sense of struggle against mounting odds, the quiet but determined resilience, the fight against injustice.


[Tomorrow, thoughts on the second volume in the Bill Hodges’ trilogy, Finders Keepers, Wednesday End of Watch]

Which Stephen King novels have you read? Do you have a favourite?

Still the same old story? (On Trials of the Earth)

Mary Mann Hamilton’s Trials of the Earth: The True Story of a Pioneer Woman was originally writen in the 1930s, recounting her experiences pioneering. The chronicle begins in the 1880s in Missouri, moving into Arkansas, with her being crowded into a marriage, as a wife but not an equal.

Hamilton Trials of the Earth

Little Brown and Company – Hachette, 2106

The narrative is much like the Little House books as told by a spunkier Laura. This is territory filled with timber and wild turkeys, shotguns and Indian mounds, whiskey and wolves: She survives many challenges, from babies born-too-soon and dangerous mountain roads to pneumonia and strychnine, from bears and convicts to hailstorms and floods. She says: “There are times in every woman’s life when it is a greater relief to swear than to pray. Well, I did both then.”

But for all the work that Mary Mann Hamilton describes doing, there are workers alongside bearing an even heavier portion of the burden. Whether indentured or enslaved, it’s difficult to discern, but she makes no bones about the hierarchy and her commitment to preserving it (although when she presses boundaries which she personally finds restrictive, that’s necessary).

“At Webb they have a killing or a lynching on dull days between paydays and fights or some kind of amusement like that every Saturday night.” It’s not Mary Mann Hamilton who describes the settlement in these terms, calling a murder an amusement, but she does speak casually of lashings and bullpens and the need to preserve traditional, proper places in society. And she does not object to the lynchings (although she does object to someone bringing a souvenir from one of them under her roof).

Perhaps it is unfortunate that Mary Mann Hamilton’s memoir was not published when it was written, but at this juncture there have been countless pioneer memoirs, by women and men. I am longing for a different kind of story.

So, what would I suggest, in lieu of Mary Mann Hamilton’s Trials of the Earth? These stories do touch on the idea of property, the owners and the owned and the land (all someone else’s homeland, of course, which would bring another set of books to mind):

Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979)
A twentieth-century woman is drawn back in time, to the early nineteenth century in Maryland, by one of her ancestors (a bookshelf is involved). As a modern woman, she is ill-equipped to negotiate the racialized society she suddenly inhabits, which illuminates all kinds of issues related to justice and identity, subjugation and violence.

Fred D’Aguiar’s The Longest Memory (1994)
After a plantation slave escapes, a series of events is relayed from a variety of perspectives, revealing unexpectedly complicated relationships throughout. Told by a poet, the short novel is powerful and begs rereading.

Valerie Martin’s Property (2003)
Set in 1828 on a Louisiana Sugar Plantation, Valerie Martin’s slim novel takes on a monstrous subject. As the unhappy wife of a plantation owner, Manon has plenty of privilege, yet she envies the attentions paid by her husband to her maid, Sarah.

Kindred ButlerLaird Hunt’s Neverhome (2014)
A woman disguises herself as a man to fight in the American Civil War in her husband’s place. As time passes, she embodies the role of a hero but also the role of a traitor. While far from home, she ruminates on the idea of home in a way she could not while she was free to inhabit it, and what seemed to be a war-story becomes more of a quest-story.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987)
Sethe is an escaped slave, haunted by the experiences she has endured, most dramatically the death of her baby, Beloved. Just the memory of reading the first half of this book still gives me nightmares.

Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes (2007)
Following Aminata from Africa and then back across the ocean once more, as she is bought and sold. Her voice is compelling and her chronicle drags readers through uncomfortable territory like a page-turner.

Hannah Crafts’ The Bondwoman’s Narrative (c. 1853-1861)
Published by an unidentified woman after she escaped slavery on a Southern plantation, this narrative is thinly veiled autobiography of the author’s experiences in slavery.

Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone (2001)
On its own, perhaps this wouldn’t be as entertaining or powerful, but as a parody of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, it’s fiercely intelligent and seeringly observant. (I used to count GWtW as a favourite, both book and film, but I’ve rewatched and reread: no more.)

Andrea Levy’s The Long Song (2010)
This novel is told from July’s perspective as she looks back upon her long life, which began in slavery and ended with her working in the same house but as a free woman. It’s her voice, as much as her story, which still resonates with me today.

When I was a girl, I absolutely loved frontier stories. If anyone had asked me then, if I wouldn’t rather read another kind of story set on the same land? I wouldn’t’ve known what to say. What other story could there be?

But now that I know there are other stories, they are the ones I want to read. Care to add more of them to my TBR?

Storytelling or Chicanery: Trust in words

Sometimes, it’s clear who the bad guys are. Sometimes they’re clearly drawn, not only unsavoury, but also unprincipled.

Like the misogynists who people the Signy Shepherd series by Susan Philpott, in which women are rescued from life-threatening situations by other women working a type of Underground Railroad, called The Line. (Blown Red, 2015 and Dark Territory, 2016)

House of Anansi. 2016

House of Anansi. 2016

“’Trust me,’ said Wilkington, moving Stone toward a side room where they could talk in private, ‘you don’t want to go there. The woman’s like a zebra mussel; she gets into everything and is almost impossible to scrape off.’ He gave Stone a reassuring squeeze on the arm. ‘Don’t worry, though. She’ll still write you a fat cheque. She has more money than she knows what to do with.’”

And it’s just as clear in a Stephen King novel, like Mr. Mercedes (2014): “Shiny happy people don’t hold guns in their laps that way.”

The bad guys in novels like this have no conscience.

“Most people are fitted with Lead Boots when they are just little kids and have to wear them all their lives. These Lead Boots are called A CONSCIENCE. I have none, so I can soar high above the heads of the Normal Crowd.”

But sometimes it’s less clearly defined. Sometimes everyone is equally untrustworthy.

Consider Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People (2016). “She didn’t automatically trust anyone anymore. Trust was now something that required an extra beat, a moment of consideration.”

In this novel and in other stories, it’s family you cannot trust.

This is true, too, in Ian Colford’s Perfect World (2016).

Tom observes “…this is his family. He can’t escape them. Even if he got on a bus this afternoon and didn’t get off for a week, or a month, or a year. Each moment he would be reminded, simply by the act of running, of what he was running from.”

And sometimes true family stories lead to the same conclusion. Or, they lead to more questions and not conclusions. As in Deni Ellis Béchard’s memoir Cures for Hunger (2012). “My father was a bank robber. The truth was better than I’d expected. I felt as if I were reading the stories of gods and their progenitors. This was what I’d wanted, something that would set me apart forever.”

What happens when the truth cannot be captured in words. When words are inadequate, as they are for young Deni Ellis Béchard. “The more I wrote, the more I became clear; my words, my way of telling a story, the further he receded. He eluded me – the landscape of his youth, the people who’d helped create him.”

When the line between memory and imagination are blurred, as they were for Tom in Perfect World: “…he can’t be sure if the images that come to mind are the product of memory or imagination.”

When timelines shift and blur experience with remembrance. “Having her with him is what he’s referring to, the mingling of past and present to create something that is neither.” (Also, Perfect World.)

Where is the line between belief and reality? As Catherine Cooper wonders in White Elephant (2016): “She wanted her life back, and if there was any chance that believing in this could help her, she had to try.”

Can we count on narrative to reshape, to illuminate, elucidate?

“I found myself peeling back the fictions. I craved to see the characters clearly and wondered how much of what I was writing was true – not just my embellishments, but his own exaggerations and those of his family. There was so much chronology I could never iron out, so many jumbled facts. He often told his stories slightly differently, depending on his mood, on whatever truth he sought in his past at that moment.” (Béchard)

All of these ideas — belief and reality, fiction and narrative, memory and imagination — combine in Jean Marc Ah-Sen’s Grand Menteur (2016).

Book Thug, 2016

Book Thug, 2016

Readers explore them across an expanse of time (1956, 1965, 194, 1974, 1979, and 1980) and space (Mauritius, London UK, Hamilton, and Toronto).

The narrator’s father has a reputation which precedes him. “By the time he was sixteen, he had already engendered a reputation among Port Louis lowlifes as something of a smooth talker, consorting fellows were wise to avoid his badinage….”

And he is not simply a smooth talker. “For there is great reserve in a dependable liar – in somebody one can trust to be tenaciously mistrustful.”

Or he is more than a smooth talker. “Does your father lie to get at truths or to get at fictions?”

Where is the border: when is one’s father an inspired storyteller and when is he so stuffed full of chicanery that you can’t tell where the lying ends and the fathering begins (or, ends: perhaps he is not actually a father).

“A liar usually gags on the truth, responds to its pungency with lurid outbursts.”

The timeline itself must be rearranged, unfolding from the “dawn of exploitation”

The past is complicated: “a gushing rainbow of memories from the gutter, glittering on their way to the raised relief of our minds.”

Maybe he’s powerful: “What the menteur does, it’s….it’s like the breath of a hurricane. It’s a force of nature.”

Maybe he’s stultifying: “Waves of fear pressed down from the tip of my head, which gave me the sense of being flattened inside a box.” 103

Maybe his presence obliterates letters of the alphabet, literally erasing words which might have told other stories (like the newsletters which are missing the letters ‘d’ and ‘f’ sometimes, resulting in mysterious phrases, like “the eclines in onations”).

Abandonment: “It was like looking at something chaffing with inactivity at the pawnbrokers, waiting to be picked up by its owner.”

Or cloying presence: “He had the kind of face you wanted to forget soon after seeing it, it seemed to signify so comprehensively absolutely nothing at all. Like a head composed of wet sand (or a mutilated potato might be more for it), it was blank and expressionless.”

Grand Menteur is a story about teeth-grinding and bitter rivalries and revenge. “For what was stolen from me, for what was never given to me this night, I would make everyone the worse for it.”

But it’s also about a girl and her father. And what one does when one’s father is a Grand Menteur.

Which is something that many of the characters who fill the stories discussed here know something about.

I don’t want to call them out, because that would be spoilery, but they know who they are.

They have written their own definitions for storytelling and chicanery, invented their own vocabularies, drawn their own boundaries, constructed their own narratives.

Whether they’re trying to get at the lies or get at the fictions, these stories make for excellent reading.

Eowyn Ivey’s To the Bright Edge of the World (2016)

Research for Eowyn Ivey’s new book took her into the heart of Alaska and onto the Copper River, described here, long before the draft was complete and bound and the book published.

Ivey To the Bright Edge of the World

Little Brown and Company Hachette, 2016

Official publication day is today, the launch in Palmer, Alaska. On the page, the action revolves around Wolverine River, a tributary she invented for her first novel, The Snow Child.

There are many other similarities with her previous work beyond the setting, including recurring themes of exploration and discovery, life on the frontier, and the magical properties of love.

In interview, discussing her childhood reading, one can see where some of the qualities her own characters possess are those she admired as a reader, even a young one.

“Some of the first books I read on my own and adored were The Boxcar Children, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Julie of the Wolves, Little House in the Big Woods. Like a lot of young readers it seems, I was drawn to stories of children in extreme conditions, surviving by their own wit and skill, and I think that partly fed my desire to tell the story of The Snow Child.”

Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester must survive extreme conditions on his expedition up the Wolverine River, into the heart of Alaska in 1855. His travels were inspired by an historical military expedition but Allen and his wife, Sophie, are products of Eowyn Ivey’s imagination.

It is Allen’s passion for exploration which draws Sophie to him. “It is something I love very much about him. He goes not in search of obstacles, only the paths around them. Anything seems possible.” Their relationship is a companionate one, and she misses him while he is away. “When expectation falls to ruins, what is there left for love?”

She finds the company of the women left behind tiresome, with their “false-fronted and thin nature of civilized discourse”. For Sophie, too, longs to explore her environment. She is curious and strong-willed, opinionated and intelligent. “That is the excitement. We catch only glimpses, a burst of movement, a flap of wings, yet it is life itself beating at shadow’s edge. It is the unfolding of potential; all of what we might experience and see and learn awaits us.”

Readers come to know Allen and Sophie primarily through their own words. Diaries dominate but also there are some letters (there were some of these in The Snow Child too), which not only reveal character but provide essential detail to ground readers. (There are other documents too: drawings — of otter tracks and midwifery techniques — and photographs — of people and landscapes.)

“Ah, and this is the trouble with a diary. We are allowed to stand too long before its mirror and gaze at ourselves, where we unavoidably find vanity and fault.”

At times, however, when alone and suffering, both writers find it hard to record the extreme challenges they face, particularly losses (The Snow Child is haunted by losses too, some of which stem to an experience in the author’s pregnancy, which she describes in the interview linked above).

“Such pathetic instruments, this diary, this pen in my hand. What can they do but slice into the wound, flay and pin my sorrow to the page like a dissected organ? I would rather throw it all away, every page, every pitiful hope.”

But beyond the personal sorrows and difficulties, there are broader injustices which Sophie and Allen observe and attempt to combat. Both are detail-oriented and observant, willing to wait for the evidence to present itself rather than fall back on common beliefs.

Much of the ignorance of the time, in terms of a heavily racialized society and social hierarchies therein, is almost overwhelming for Sophie, who chides herself for not speaking out about another woman’s mistreatment and condemnation of a Chinese servant boy in her home.

“Why do we insist on inflicting more suffering on a word that is already fraught with it? It is here that I must part ways with Father’s romantic spirit, for I suspect that it is a curse of nature, some original instinct that we have failed to shed. And I am no better than others, for in the face of it, I would keep quiet and retreat.”

Allen and Sophie are at the core of To the Bright Edge of the World, but there is a contemporary framework, also epistolary: letters exchanged between a man who has submitted their records to a museum and the man who has transcribes their papers.

Josh and Walt develop a friendship, and their written exchanges afford the opportunity to allow some thematic elements in Allen and Sophie’s story to reverberate across the decades as well. A parallel theme about acceptance emerges in the contemporary storyline. “I’ll tell you one thng about history- we leave a lot of carnage in our wake. The only way we know, it seems, no matter how many times we see it done.”

As in The Snow Child, there is an element of the plot which can be explained by either science or magic, and that is true here too. There is also ample opportunity to explore the intersection, to recognize the wisdom and wonder of the natural world which surrounds these characters (and us, as readers).

“The others are drowsing in the sun. All is quiet along the hillside. The only livng creature spotted so far this side of the mountains is a raven that passed overhead & flew down towards the Tanana Valley.”

The raven carries particular significance in this story (which one might have guessed from the lovely cover illustration) and those who seek out the unknowable in fiction will find much to satisfy them in this element of the narrative.

Eowyn Ivey has a talent for seeing and imagining small wonders and To the Bright Edge of the World contains many of these.

Jane Ozkowski’s Watching Traffic (2016)

What Jane Ozkowski captures beautifully in Watching Traffic is the very sensation embodied in the debut novel’s title: Emily is overwhelmed by motion even while in a state of stillness.

Ozkowski Watching Traffic

Groundwood Books, 2016

It’s the summer after high-school gradulation, and Emily is working at a catering company, making egg-salad sandwiches and butter tarts, so that other people can celebrate (or, at least, recognize) all the milestone events in a lifetime, events and accomplishments which she might never experience.

“All through high school I was waiting to graduate so I could start my adult life, and now that high school is over I’m waiting for something to happen so I can figure out what I’m supposed to be doing.”

At this juncture, everything seems possible but nothing seems likely. That sense of inhabiting a small and known world, whose borders are both comforting and frustrating,that sense of being doomed to repeat all the ordinariness of the day before while all the extraordinary bits seem to be just out of reach.

Cavanaugh is the quintessential small town, but it has had to adapt to sudden and dramatic change too, its main street now virtually unrecognizable.

Emily, has been remarkably adaptive also, given her mother died when she was only three years old.

Everybody in Cavanaugh knows what Emily has survived, and their knowledge about her past interferes with her ability to dream about the future.

The narrative which has already been written about her is such a burden, that meeting someone new in town offers even more of an escape from reality than a romantic relationship might offer another teenaged girl.

And Emily has time for romance, because her best friend is seemingly overwhelmed by one of her own. Melissa is overwhelmed by her own searching and less available to Emily than ever before. “All summer Dan has been a magnet, and she’s had a metal plate where her head should be.” (If Emily was Buffy, then Melissa would be Willow, and their friend Lincoln would be Xander: however, there are no vampires in Watching Traffic.)

Emily is sharp-witted and sharp-tongued, but those who know her understand that’s a cover for her vulnerability. She has a number of folks in her corner, including her grandmother, who is the first character readers meet, beyond Emily.

It’s interesting and appropriate (given her heroine’s age and experiences) that Emily recognizes that some of the adults in her world are just as uncertain – just as frustrated, similarly caught between inertia and tumult — but doesn’t always spot the similarites.

She can see it in the guy who works in the French fry truck: “He stands with empty eyes looking out the order window toward the highway like he’s planning his escape.” It’s not that far of a stretch from mixing tuna in a basement kitchen to a food truck.

But she doesn’t recognize some of the same elements in the lives of those who are closer to her (whether because it seems inconceivable, or because of her own insecurities, or because she is preoccupied with other concerns).

This, too, aids in establishing her credibility as a young narrator and balances the savvy and clever observations that she makes (which are often snort-out-loud funny). And, as the novel unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that whether she is ready or not, Emily is going to face some surprises. (But this is a YA novel: some of those unfold beyond the last page, in readers’ imaginations.)

“Beyond these walls isn’t a world of possibilities where every door is open and every door leads to an adventure. It’s earthworms and gas lines and maybe the bones of someone’s dead cat buried in a shoebox in a backyard.”

There is a dark side to Emily’s perspective on the world which fits with her life heretofore, but her biggest supporters soften the sombre undertones. (Grandma, in particular, is a treat, with her apartment “overflowing like a dollar store threw up”  and her videotape of “The Muppets Christmas Carol” prepped to play in August.)

And there is a light-hearted (but not uncomplicated) theme which emerges as the novel nearly halfway into the novel, which also casts light against the darkness. Some younger readers might find this development particularly satisfying, although the developments in Emily’s relationship with her grandmother might be more satisfying to older readers (one could argue that the elements in both story arcs are predictable, but the secondary characters are charismatic and endearing).

Readers standing on a pedestrian overpass, watching the narrative of Jane Ozkowski’s debut novel steam below, will quite likely want to throw themselves into the fray. (An act of desire not desperation.)

When Emily leaps, I hope she lands in an open-topped convertible which is passing below at exactly the right moment to secure her speedy passage.

Crazy for CanLit: Making Lists (2016)

All published in the season which would make them eligible for this year’s Giller Prize, the kaleidoscope of covers for 2016 is now available on Pinterest, a text-based collection here.

They had me at list-making, but also there are prizes, for lucky list-makers (rules, here). The images link to the publisher’s page, the titles to my review (6 are yet to come).

My first list is the list of titles included which I can recommend.

Twenty-three = one for each year of the Giller Prize.

Book Thug, 2016

Book Thug, 2016

Jean Marc Ah-Sen’s Grand Menteur (Book Thug) [Review to come]
“For there is great reserve in a dependable liar – in somebody one can trust to be tenaciously mistrustful.”

Penguin, 2016

Penguin, 2016

Mona Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl (Penguin)
“And I hate that when I say this, she nods, nods in this way like she knows exactly what I’m going to do later. Can actually see me listening to Little Earthquakes on continuous loop while I tear my way through the takeout she left behind.”

Bart Middenrammers

Freehand Books, 2016

John Bart’s Middenrammers (Freehand Books)
“Barbara folded her apron, “Albert always told me it was harder to know if Sweport women were more trapped by their men or their religion.”

House of Anansi, 2016

House of Anansi, 2016

Deni Ellis Béchard’s Into the Sun (House of Anansi) [Review to come]
“All expats shared more than we liked to admit: a sense of addiction, an uncertainty about what we’d do if we went home, and a feeling of being awakened – our senses jolted into activity each time we went outside, perceiving every detail in the street. We felt close to the world’s brilliant core – not shielded, not squinting at screens.”

House of Anansi, 2016

House of Anansi, 2016

Nadia Bozak’s Thirteen Shells (House of Anansi)
“So Shell reads. Sometimes she walks and reads at the same time, or reads in class, a paperback hidden inside her textbook.”

Colford Perfect World

Freehand Books, 2016

Ian Colford’s Perfect World (Freehand Books)
“…this is his family. He can’t escape them. Even if he got on a bus this afternoon and didn’t get off for a week, or a month, or a year. Each moment he would be reminded, simply by the act of running, of what he was running from.”

Cooper White Elephant

Freehand Books, 2016

Catherine Cooper’s White Elephant (Freehand Books)
“This was the way she was – more like a character in a story about herself than a real person. “

Dundurn, 2016

Dundurn, 2016

Farzana Doctor’s All Inclusive (Dundurn) [Review to come]
“When I’d firt arrived in Huatulco, I’d wander to Wild Beach most evenings after my shift, dipping my toes, listening to the sea roar furiously as it crashed against the rocky shore. At some point, I stopped going as often, the ocean becoming a backdrop.”

Caitlin Press, 2016

Caitlin Press, 2016

Tricia Dower’s Becoming Lin (Caitlin Press) [Review to come]
“She holds him, amazed by the heat from such a small body and his innocent, clean smell. She wakes in the morning to clammy sheets and the stink of his pee, disoriented and stunned by what she’s done to them.”

Inanna Publications, 2016

Inanna Publications, 2016

Rhoda Rabinowitz Green’s Aspects of Nature (Inanna Publications)
“Well, it isn’t enough, is it, to march chronologically through a story, beginning to end? Every writer knows that; every reader feels that.”

ButlerHallett This Marlowe

Goose Lane Editions, 2016

Michelle Butler Hallett’s This Marlowe (Goose Lane)
“Then tell him this: I would scrape out his skull and arrange his sticky brains upon my desk and so feed crows and kites and divine a reason. For he’s got a reason, no? All this hucker-mucker? Libels and Bridewell and blood?”

Jones Were All In ThisTogether

McClelland & Stewart, 2016

Amy Jones’ We All in This Together (McClelland & Stewart)
“The whirlpool in her coffee is still spinning, and she has a strange, irrational urge to be inside it, to surrender herself to the void. Maybe she is beginning to understand what drew her mother-in-law to that waterfall.”

Livingston Crooked Heart

Random House, 2016

Billie Livingston’s The Crooked Heart of Mercy (Random House)
“Twenty-four hours ago, I couldn’t see today coming, couldn’t imagine the fear letting up. Looking back, I feel as though I had to turn out the lights to see his face, crawl into silence to hear his voice.”

Inanna Publications, 2016

Inanna Publications, 2016

Valerie Mills-Milde’s After Drowning (Inanna Publications)
“The drowning has turned over ancient soil, and with it, the bones of Pen’s past. Last night, unable to sleep, she had reimagined the scene over and over. 86”

Molson Company of Crows

Linda Leith Publishing, 2016

Karen Molson’s The Company of Crows (Linda Leith Publishing)
“Emma Bovary goes mad with despair. Anna Karenina. Scarlett O’Hara. But the thing with heroines is that none of them are stricken with acne, have to wear braces or endure thick eyeglasses – or, God forbid, all three at once.”

Inanna Publications, 2016

Inanna Publications, 2016

Gianna Patriarca’s All My Fallen Angelas (Inanna Publications)
“I believed I could make it happen. I believed that it would all come true. It would all turn out the way it was meant to be. I could live the enchantment. I would be wife to the husband prince, daughter to the King and Queen, and mother to the noble heirs to come. I would remain the dawn of every possibility.”

Philpott Dark TerritorySusan Philpott’s Dark Territory (Simon & Schuster)
“It’s remote, with no neighbours. It’s set up as a safe house. It’ll have everything you need. Food, money ,and clean cellphones. I’ll email you the directions. John will be waiting for you.”

Strube Shores of DarknessCordelia Strube’s On the Shores of Darkness There is Light (ECW Press)
“Lynne always excuses Gennedy by saying he didn’t ask for any of this, as though anybody asks for the shit that happens. The fact that Gennedy gets to live rent-free doesn’t enter into the equation, or that Irwin was already sick when they shacked up. It’s always what a good man Gennedy is because he sticks around.”

Book Thug, 2016

Book Thug, 2016

Malcolm Sutton’s Job Shadowing (Book Thug)
“Most goals, she gets to thinking, most don’t just involve other people. Most require paying other people, and some require convincing or manipulating other people. Most involve wedging oneself into new situations that demand a response from others.”

Jess Taylor PaulsJess Taylor’s Pauls (Book Thug)
“Fine is a funny word. The weather can be fine. There can be fine stitching on clothes. Fine can mean small, contained, delicate. Fine can mean okay, all right. Comme ci, comme ca. When someone asks, How are you? You can say, Fine, and mean the opposite, or you can mean, I am like a careful line of stitching, how are you? You can mean, I am delicate. Be careful that I don’t get snagged and unravel.”

Stephen Thomas JokesStephen Thomas’ The Jokes (Book Thug) [Review to come]
“Kizzy looks up at the network of geodesic trusses in the grocery storie’s extremely high ceiling.
She realizes that the squandering of human potetial is not aberrant at all, but the norm.”
House of Anansi, 2016

House of Anansi, 2016

Katherena Vermette’s The Break (House of Anansi) [Review to come]
“The dead don’t hang on, the living do. We don’t have anything to hang on to. Our bodies become nothing, and we just float around the people who love us. We go back to nothing. That is all we ever were or should ever be. […]
The living hang on, the dead long to.”

House of Anansi. 2016

House of Anansi. 2016

Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People (House of Anansi) [Review to come]
“She didn’t automatically trust anyone anymore. Trust was now something that required an extra beat, a moment of consideration.”

Next time: another list of 23, but this time 23 on my TBR because I’ve enjoyed other books by that author.

Are you Crazy For Canlit? What’s on YOUR list?

The Fourth Nina Borg Mystery: The Considerate Killer

“’What the hell makes you think,’ she said, in her most glacial voice, ‘that I am anybody’s victim?’”

Kaaberboll Friis Considerate Killer

Soho Press, 2016

Nina’s question, in an earlier volume of the series, is ironic in this context: The Considerate Killer begins with two blows to the back of Nina’s head and a lingering state of unconsciousness, while the severity of the damage is evaluated.

Other questions also arise, such as the distinction between an act of violence and an act of deadly force, whether someone was trying to injure or kill the series’ heroine.

“Damn it, he thought. They’ll never find him if that’s all they’ve got. And what if…what if it wasn’t a random robbery? What if it was personal and deliberate and directed at Nina?
If that was the case, there was every reason to expect the man to try again.”

There are more questions than answers at first glance, but Nina’s accident is met not only with concern, but also anger and frustration. Those who love her most have received too many phone calls about her being in a state of danger; this has taken its toll on her key relationships.

So And although there is a mystery at the heart of The Considerate Killer, the volume is preoccupied with some key decisions that Nina must make, regarding her personal safety (in the present and in the future).

“Afterward, lying next to him in bed, she had cried noiselessly for almost an hour. Over wasted efforts. Over good intentions. And the fact that it just wasn’t enough.”

The translation from the Danish by Elisabeth Dyssegaard captures a casual but not superficial tone; Nina is usually caught in a chaotic state, and the events are detailed succinctly, as though trauma is an everyday affair. As another character observes of her in this volume, she is at her best in a crisis and struggles with life between crises.

In this volume, she slows down just enough to reflect on some sadnesses. Her daughter, Ida, for instance, is particularly aware of the impermanence of life right now, and Nina is more concerned about this than ever before (which readers accept is because she has been able to avoid such considerations in the past, rather than that she was too self-absorbed to observe them).

“She thought of Ida’s new fear of death, of the loss of illusion that had eliminated her teenage sense of invulnerability.”

In the past, Ida and her brother have served more as anchors, deposits of guilt which Nina did her best to ignore as their mother. “As if Ida were only waiting for a chance to relegate Nina once and for all where she really belonged: Mom Hell. The place reserved for bad mothers, career women, alcoholics, and mentally unstable women where they might suffer for all eternity because they had dared to reproduce despite a complete absence of maternal qualifications.” (Invisible Murder)

The mystery revolves around a series of events which played out in the past elsewhere, with the narrative split between these scenic recollections and Nina’s situation. “Business and politics were the same thing in the Philippines, Vadim said.” As in past volumes, twinned matters of power and corruption, loyalty and betrayal, development and devastation are explored.

However, as was the case in past installments also, the intricacies are not rooted in movements or parties, but in pacts (honoured or broken) between individuals. This adds an element of unpredicability which simmers beneath the surface. “The man who loves and smiles one day can hate the next. Turn your back for a moment, and feelings will change and flow in new directions.”

As Nina’s recovery takes hold, the mystery overtakes The Considerate Killer, but efforts to resolve the matter are thwarted by an age-old challenge. “The loan madman, that invisible and ordinary man with his hidden insanity, was one of the worst nightmares of any intelligence service. Unpredictable and almost impossible to trace because he didn’t communicate with anyone, but cultivated his murderous fantasies alone. Until the day he attempted to carry them out in reality.”

In the series’ debut, Nina pondered the idea of outcomes: “But you don’t see all that many happy endings, do you? a small cynical voice commented inside her. Nothing ever really comes out the way you want it to.” (The Boy in the Suitcase)

While Nina begins this new volume as a victim, she is ultimately victorious, simply by virtue of choosing to make some decisions which she has studiously avoided to date. (Thoughts on the earlier volumes here, spoiler-free: The Boy in the Suitcase, Invisible Murder, and Death of a Nightingale.)

Have you been following this series? Enjoying another? Beginning something?

July 2016, In My Bookbag

In which I discuss some of the skinny volumes, which have nestled into my bookbag.

(Meanwhile longer works, like Timothy Findley’s The Piano Man’s Daughter and Greg Iles’ Natchez Burning, were left at home.)

Stephen Thomas JokesStephen Thomas’ The Jokes is not funny-haha, but funny-hmmm. It’s not meant to be funny-haha either, although many of the stories are designed to make readers think about other funny-haha moments (or make them reconsider what makes a story funny-haha in the first place).

Consider the beginning of “The ethicists”: “A deontological ethicist and a utilitarian are standing on the sidewalk of a bridge.”

Or, the opening of “Ethnic joke”: “A black girl and an Asian girl walk into an Italian restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama.”

They sound like jokes, but readers will be unlikely to laugh at either story (each less than a single page in length).

Then again, how many times has someone told you they had something funny to tell you, a joke which begins with a structure something like these stories, but you have not wanted to laugh at the end of it either.

In fact, how many times has someone told you a “joke” with just such a beginning and you have found yourself in the situation where you had to tell your own story afterwards, a story which explains to them not only why you don’t find that ‘joke’ funny, but now you have to outline the ways in which it is offensive, sometimes struggling to explain hundreds of years of history/oppression/tyranny with just as few sentences.

I’m not an Asian girl nor a black girl nor a utilitarian nor a deontological ethicist but neither am I humoured by these two jokes, these two stories — though neither am I offended! They are simply stories, told without names, but in such a way that readers realize the people do have names, they just aren’t relevant to the joke, er story (neither term feels quite accurate), and there is no punchline.

But sometimes there is. Other times, a story ends with more of a flatline. Occasionally, there is a flinchline. Once, there might have been a clothes-line, but he used a dryer instead. There was a strawline. And an outline. And, another time, a Logitech line.

Mostly, after I have read a few of Stephen Thomas’ stories, I can’t tell whether I am feeling nothing, or whether I am feeling so many things at once that it only feels like nothing. Because sometimes one feeling does dominate, but that feeling on its own doesn’t quite reflect the story either. I think it’s like Kizzy must feel when she looks up.

“Kizzy looks up at the network of geodesic trusses in the grocery store’s extremely high ceiling.
She realizes that the squandering of human potetial is not aberrant at all, but the norm.”

And Kizzy is going home with a bottle of wine.

(Actually, some of the characters clearly prefer beer, but otherwise, I would love to offer most of the others a glass of Kizzy’s wine. I hear it’s more economical to purchase liquor by the case. The ethicists would probably know. They seem the sort who have had a lot of late-night, liquor-fuelled philosophical debates.)

But at least one of the Shiny Metal Bunny characters almost made me smile. (Almost, but even the shiny metal bunny made me feel sad, at the same time.)

“In the morning, the shiny metal bunny rereads what they wrote the night before. There can be joy in life, and beautiful phases.”

On first reading, I thought that was “There can be joy in life, and beautiful phrases.”

And just for a moment, I was convinced that I understood everything that I needed to know about The Jokes.

But, that was just one shiny metal bunny’s story. And it was only two sentences long.

And the real story went more like this: Three shiny metal bunnies walked into a bar, and ….

*** *** ***

Last month, I read Vivek Shraya’s God Loves Hair, which nudged She of the Mountains into my bookbag.

Shraya She of the MountainsIn some ways, it appears to carry on the story, with “In the beginning, there is no he. There is no she.”

Identity is fluid and defies definition, yet presses for a sense of belonging. “He recognized that she and he could hold hands and kiss in most spaces and that landlords wouldn’t think twice about renting to them. But queer spoke to all the other places and moments his body and heart didn’t fit into.”

There are sections in the narrative for Parvati, Sati, Kali and Ganesha, and the mythic bonds and tendrils of love in old stories revisited echo in the narrator’s contemporary love story. “After years of hiding and being unseen, her touch was a deep thawing, a permission to feel, a memory of heat lost long ago.”

The illustrations by Raymond Biesinger are abstract and boldly coloured, one to herald the beginning of each segment, different fonts occasionally used to allow the text to play as much as the images do.

“And, yet, brown in and of itself, had not yet registered as a real colour to him. Brown was unremarkable, a non-colour, akin to a shade of grey. For he had been blinded by another colour: white. White expanded limitlessly and drained every other colour out until all that could be seen was.

This is not a linear or predictable love story, but it is infused with an open-heartedness which is refreshing and inspiring.

“Falling in love with her brown had unexpectedly given his own skin new value, a new sheen.”

What are you slipping into your bookbag this week?

Jane Hamilton’s The Excellent Lombards (2016)

Excerpt from my reading journal:

Having read all of Jane Hamilton’s novels, and having waited since 2009 for another, I was pretty psyched for The Excellent Lombards.

Grand Central Publishing, 2016

Grand Central Publishing, 2016

My favourites were The Short History of a Prince and The Book of Ruth, which I read very quickly, but perhaps not as quickly as Jane Rider’s Masterpiece or Disobedience (well, they were shorter works).

They all take place in Wisconsin, but perhaps no other contains so many obvious parallels between main character and author; Mary Frances Lombard was born on a Wisconsin apple farm and Jane Hamilton married a man who was a partner in one and they live there still.

That is just the kind of adulthood which Mary Frances imagines for herself, though married contentedly (if not happily) to her brother,William.

For the duration of the novel, this is the only world which Mary Frances knows, and the only world which she cares to imagine.

This creates a rather confining cocoon for the reader, for although the novel is told in the past tense, one cannot escape the sense of an endless childhood.

This suits, however, for apparently Mary Frances (who goes by many names in the novel, depending upon who’s calling her – she hasn’t yet defined her own self, you see) was named for Frankie, the twelve-year-old heroine of Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding.

In a letter to Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers wrote: “Suddenly I said: Frankie is in love with her brother and the bride…. The illumination focused the whole book.”*

And, indeed, Jane Hamilton’s Frankie is in love with her brother, holding his hand to span the distance between their bunkbeds, although her love for him is not straightforward.

“A normal brother would have gotten furious, would have swiped the oar through the water and drenched his sister. Why was William so nice? That question made me even angrier. Why did he always have to be so patient, so patient and kind, too? He made me sick. A sharp awful pain in the head. What was wrong with him? I changed my mind – I didn’t want to be an orchard partner with him. You’d have to be an idiot, you’d have to be impaired to be so good.”

In The Excellent Lombards, unlike The Member of the Wedding, Jane Hamilton’s Frankie feels a member in every way, but also feels that her membership is threatened (sometimes by a perception that others are not as committed to the success of te apple farm as she is, sometimes by external factors, which she does not quite comprehend, although adult readers can intuit their nature).

So the similarities between the works are as interesting as the departures. (Although the idea of a library-cart relay team as a public display of prowess is more amusing, to my taste, than a wedding.)

Ultimately the focus of The Excellent Lombards, as one would guess by the title, is not only membership in the family, but the question of a legacy, the succession.

In this sense, the novel reminds me more of Alexi Zentner’s The Lobster Kings, whereas initially it reminded me more of Jane Urquhart’s Sanctuary Line. There, too, is an overwhelming preoccuption with which members of the fishing family will carry on the family tradition, in a retelling of King Lear complicated with contemporary concerns about financial stability and resource exhaustion.

Urquhart’s novel is still a fine match, for its focus on the importance of memory, and the sense that one doesn’t properly recall childhood but reconstructs it, through a series of images recalled in a sequence which becomes a story.

As Frankie’s mother tells her father in The Excellent Lombards: “I do understand that for you the farm is the most important fearutre of the world,” she said quietly, and almost sadly, “I do know that. But, I’m not going to dwell on the money I put into the operation – gladly, I put the nest egg in gladly.”

What garners someone influence in the workings of the farm is sometimes difficult to recognize from the surface, so Frankie, as a young girl, does not completely comprehend the factors at work.

“We didn’t know that our parents were objecting to the other’s self, that enormous hulking thing each possessed, that a self of course is not inconsequential.”

And even when all the factors are known and understood, there are difficulties, differences of opinion.

“‘It’s always a slow process, coming around to change,’ my father said. He rubbed his eyes. ‘They’ll get there.’”

When one’s identity is fundamentally engaged with a piece of land, a way of life, it’s impossible to imagine oneself separate from it. “We weren’t just bored with the world; we were bored with ourselves, or we ere hardly in our selves anymore. It was hard to tell what was going on. Maybe, if we could remember one little trick about how we used to be, we could get there, get back, as if we ourselves were a country we’d left.”

When Frankie is asked “’Do you want to farm anywhere – do you love farming? Or is your love for farming about your love for home?'”, she is ill-equipped to respond.

All of these ideas are stirred up together for her, like a crumble with all the oats and sugar and cinnamon in with the apples (Courtlands or Empires or Macs would be especially nice).


*Quoted in Josyane Savigneau’s Carson McCullers: Her Life and Work (1968)