Monthly Archives: December 2015

‘The Weight of Blood’ by Laura McHugh

The Weight of BloodstarstarstarAtmospheric and creepy, this Ozarks literary thriller is full of suspense and intrigue. The first half of the book is narrated by mother and daughter. Later a voice is given to several of the townspeople. Lucy does not remember her mother Lila, who disappeared when Lucy was a baby. If her mother was killed, her body was never found. When Lucy’s friend Cheri’s mutilated body is found near the town a year after her disappearance, Lucy and her friend Daniel set out to solve both mysteries. Happily she has lots of freedom due to a mostly absent father but she soon gets over her head in a web of deceit and cover-ups in a town where everyone is related and secrets are hiding everywhere. The author does a good job of capturing the kind of place where blood ties are trump and strangers are not welcome. Danger lurks in a place where violent men are protected and women vanish without a trace. A riveting debut novel to sink into whether you are curled up in a winter storm or basking on a tropical beach.

‘Everything I Never Told You’ by Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told Youstarstarstar“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” So starts this character driven debut novel full of family dynamics and secrets. Set in the 70’s, Lydia Lee is the favourite middle child in a mixed race family. She has inherited her mother’s blue eyes and her father’s jet black hair. For some reason, Lydia has become her parents’ hope for the future and the embodiment of their unfulfilled dreams. Her brother and sister are on the fringes but have valuable information about what may have happened to her. On the surface it appears that this slightly dysfunctional family is mostly ok, but when Lydia is found floating in the lake the novel slowly reveals what was hiding under the surface all along. The title becomes an echoing refrain that brings up the truth and reveals what was hidden.

This haunting novel grew on me. Because it begins with the main event, the story is told in flashbacks with small reveals that gradually inform the reader. It is compelling in a quiet sort of way. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold is similar but I found it to be much more of a page turner and overall more profound and compelling. However, Everything I Never Told You is a sensitive and elegant cautionary tale about how families can struggle all their lives to really understand one another.

‘Fifteen Dogs’ by André Alexis

Fifteen Dogsstarstarstar
Winner of the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize

“One evening in Toronto, the gods Apollo and Hermes were at the Wheat Sheaf Tavern.”
The opening scene has gods Hermes and Apollo sitting in a pub in Toronto, arguing about whether human consciousness brings happiness or not. A drunken wager ensues. The two agree to test their bet by giving human intelligence to animals. As they stumble onto the street, they conveniently come upon a veterinary clinic where fifteen dogs are spending the night for one reason or another. That night those hapless dogs are given a taste of humanity and will be observed for the rest of their lives to see if they will indeed be happier. The dogs have no idea why they suddenly feel changed and the reader enters into a clever philosophical exploration that asks as many questions as it answers.

Fifteen DogsOn the surface this is a simple fable of the hounds and their newfound mix of dogness and humanity. It is a complex journey these canines embark on, some even enjoying the ability to speak and compose poetry. Interactions between humans and dogs are examined and there is philosophical pondering about the nature of creation and culture. “It was puzzling to be asked to ‘roll over’ after initiating a conversation about water.”

What I enjoyed most was noticing the changes wrought to animals who normally react simply to physical needs and basic instincts. Suddenly the dogs know empathy, choice, reason, problem solving, strategy, boredom, a sense of the passage of time, imagination, and improved communication. It almost felt like a reverse ‘Lord of the Flies.’ But are they now happy? Did it improve their lives? Is human intelligence a gift or no more than a useful plague?

My children will tell you that I’ve always said that dogs would be far less interesting if they could talk. And the best thing about a dog is that you can confide in them without the risk of your secrets going any further. Dogs are probably the most anthropomorphized creatures (next to cats) and a good relationship with a dog depends on understanding that dogs and people by their very nature act and react differently. The book reminded me of another where the dog has human intelligence and narrates the story, but in that case could not communicate it. I actually liked The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein better than this one, but both are entertaining and not only for dog lovers.

 

‘A Snow Garden and other stories’ by Rachel Joyce

A Snow Gardenstarstarstarstar“Compelling and rewarding, tender and funny, it portrays family relationships at a time of year that should be joyous but is so often tangled and painful, reminding us that there is always a bigger story behind the one we first see.”

Rachel Joyce has become one of my favourite authors in recent years. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, and Perfect were all a pleasure to read. So I was excited to see a new collection of modern day Christmas stories by her in the bookstore! I had to buy it and gobble it up like turkey. In the foreword she said that some of the characters and situations  were built from bits and pieces cut from her novels. Happily these are not saccharine sweet Christmas stories. They are freshly funny and human–no perfection in sight!

The collection has seven separate stories, but they are all loosely connected with characters from one story randomly popping up in others. I love it when authors do that! (Maeve Binchy did the same thing in The Lilac Bus many years ago – if you know of others, please let me know).

These stories are so easy to get into (something I appreciate in a short story!) and showcase Joyce’s skill for conveying great things in simple everyday situations…a woman finds a cure for a broken heart where she least expects it; a husband and wife build their son a bicycle and, in the process, deconstruct their happy marriage; freak weather brings the airport to a standstill on Christmas Day.

‘Spill Simmer Falter Wither’ by Sara Baume

Spill Simmer Falter WitherstarstarstarstarAn extraordinary debut novel, Baume’s beautifully poetic prose tells a quirky story of a solitary recluse and his misfit dog. In fact the narrative throughout is just the man speaking to the dog. This book won’t be for everyone, but I loved it.

Baume is a skilled writer and her apt descriptions are unique, gritty, honest, and completely unsentimental considering the sadness of the tale. This is not a page turner (aside from a few surprises), but a thoughtful journey into humanity–an original novel about loneliness, loss, and the restorative power of companionship. One can savour the author’s brilliant command of language and soak up the atmosphere she creates.

Ray avoids social interaction as much as possible, living alone in the house he grew up in with his father near the sea. On the necessary weekly trip into town (always on a Tuesday) he sees an ad for a rescue dog. I had hoped that the dog would help him to get out more and engage with others but alas, One Eye is so named because of an unfortunate encounter with a badger and he is vicious. He bites other dogs at every opportunity. But these two wounded souls have become so close that the man cannot bear to give the dog up. Together they end up on the run.

Note:  The title refers to the time frame of the book which covers four seasons, beginning with Spring.

‘The Secret River’ by Kate Grenville

The Secret RiverstarstarstarstarThe librarian where we meet for book club, described this as a very good read when she handed us our latest assignment and called it “a proper story.”

I did thoroughly enjoy this slice of Australian history because it didn’t try to be too epic nor did the author take sides in the conflict–she lets the reader decide and wonder what they would have done in the same situation. Though full of great literary themes, the story is focused primarily on one couple and their young children as they try to survive in a harsh and foreign land. This makes it simply readable as a story, but at the same time the reader cannot help but examine the choices that this couple make.

William Thornhill and his wife Sal travel to Australia from London on one of the early convict ships. Will is not a bad man, driven by impoverishment to make unsavoury choices. He escapes the gallows but ends up in another sort of prison and engages in another type of theft. Sal dreams of returning to London one day, but William falls in love with the land on the Hawkesbury River and this becomes his fatal flaw. It is a wild and lonely place except for the indigenous people who are living there already, but who are discounted as savages by those settling and ‘civilizing’ New South Wales. A settler’s dream becomes an Australian nightmare. It is a painful history familiar from so many colonial stories. Grenville does a beautiful job of quietly crafting the Aborigines’ voice and representing their loss.

Every one of the settlers in the book has chosen a different way of interaction with the indigenous people. Miscommunication and misunderstanding abound, but for some, a quiet “give and take” is what works best. In that regard it reminded me of The Poisonwood Bible, a novel offering several different approaches to missionary work in Africa embodied by various characters. Grenville’s great-great-great grandfather was a convict himself, sent from London to Australia in 1806. It was the desire to understand the history of her ancestors that motivated her to write these books.

The Secret River is part of a three book ‘Colonial Trilogy’.  The Lieutenant  and Sarah Thornhill being the other two. The Lieutenant was written after but is set before The Secret River and is an exploration of the first contacts between whites and blacks before the violence took over and when conversation was still possible. Sarah Thornhill is a loose sequel to the other two, taking up the story in a third generation that must deal with what history has created. I definitely will read the other two in the trilogy at some point. Grenville gives a masterful touch to a troubled tale–a proper story indeed. I know we will be having a great discussion at book club this month.  The Secret River has been adapted for stage and screen.

‘All the Broken Things’ by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

All the Broken Thingsstarstarstarstar“It was the shame Teacher conveyed, by trying to fix things. He wanted to shout that these things were just broken. He wanted her to understand about the pride of broken things.”

What a unique and special story, so gently told but also full of intrigue. Thanks for the recommendation Joan! This is a story about a boy and a bear: a refugee boy from Vietnam recently landed in Canada, and a bear in the circus.  It is set back in the day when the circus would come to town and one of the attractions might be a bear riding around on a tricycle wearing a pink tutu, or even a man wrestling with a bear.  There also might be a “freak” show, with all sorts of human and/or animal abnormalities on display.

The boy’s name is Bo. He helps his mother take care of his little sister called Orange. She is the family secret, severely disfigured with birth defects from Agent Orange, a farm chemical used as a weapon of war to defoliate the jungles of Vietnam. This immigrant family struggles to survive and fit in. Kuitenbrouwer captures many of the tensions that Bo experiences in always being ‘other.’ Despite efforts by his amazing teacher to help Bo fit in, he ends up street fighting a lot and one day is discovered by a circus trainer who eventually gives him his own bear to train. This becomes his passion, but being involved with the circus also brings tragedy. At one point his mother and sister disappear with the circus master and he and the bear are left to fend for themselves in the trees of High Park.

Kuitenbrouwer learned alot about bears while tree planting. So did another Canadian author Claire Cameron who wrote The Bear. Apparently both tree planters/authors wrote bear stories after their experience in the North. When they discovered this they had a moment of alarm that they had written the same story! Luckily they were not at all the same, and both are well worth a read!