This is the Cat, by Berni Stapleton

ithisisthecatEven the most compulsive overreader would be hard-put to read every book published by a Newfoundland author every year, but I try to get through a good cross-section of local fiction. One thing that always mystifies me is why some books seem to fly under the radar, getting far less acclaim and attention than (I would think) they deserve. Berni Stapleton’s This is the Cat is one such book. Most Newfoundlanders probably know Stapleton best as an actor, comedian, and playwright, but her fiction debut shows she’s got significant talent in this area as well. 

This is the Cat tells, in short chapters and snippets of e-mail, the story of Bridie Savage, who lives the life of a modern-day Newfoundland artist, existing from contract to contract strung together with long threads of Employment Insurance to keep her balancing in between. She’s currently in an ongoing argument with Service Canada because they claim that her benefits are “exhausted,” although, as Bridie points out, her benefits aren’t nearly as exhausted as she is. Interspersed between chapters from Bridie’s point of view and her emails with Service Canada and others are chapters narrated by one of Bridie’s two cats, who is enjoying the latest in her long series of incarnations, and happy to have finally found a means to communicate with the outside world through Bridie’s Come-Pewter (the cat’s syntax and grammar leave much to be desired, but her insight and wit are on-point). Oh, and let’s not forget the ghosts inhabiting Bridie’s downtown St. John’s house, and the prostitutes camped out at the end of her street — all these characters and many more parade through this vividly detailed, funny and poignant story.

I think one of the keys to writing a story with quirky, fantastical elements (like ghosts, and cat narrators) is to keep the real-life elements as believable and grounded as possible, and this is where I feel Stapleton really shines. Anyone who has had a protracted battle with any kind of bureaucracy will be able to relate to Bridie’s Service Canada emails, but beyond this, the fact that Stapleton has lived the life of a working artist in this city for many years really shines through — even when the details of Bridie’s working (or non-working) life are clearly exaggerated for humourous effect, the author’s knowledge of the world she’s writing about shines through. It doesn’t necessarily come across as autobiographical but as “write what you know” in the best and truest sense: take what you know well and use it as a jumping-off point to explore the fantastical, including a cat who once lived with Cleopatra and is now using your computer to create an online dating profile for you without your knowledge.

The quirky main human character and her animal narrator invites, in my mind, comparisons to Jessica Grant’s Come Thou Tortoise, another witty and unusual local book that won acclaim and awards when it was released a few years back. I’m surprised This is the Cat didn’t get the same level of attention, as in my mind it certainly deserved it. While I know that Stapelton keeps pretty busy on stage, I hope that she (and possibly her cats) find the time to return to the Come-Pewter for more fiction before too long.

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The Almost Sisters, by Joshilyn Jackson

almostsistersOne of the most unfair things about being an avid reader is that it takes a favourite author two to three years to produce a new novel (and I’m talking about a writer who writes at a good clip here; I don’t mean George Freakin R.R. Martin), and then I read it in 24 hours or so and have to wait two to three years for the next one. Why can’t I have the luxury of living in the world of a wonderful book and spending time with the characters for as long as the author got to do which she was writing it? It’s fundamentally unfair.

All this to say: I’ve been waiting for a long time (like, since two days after her last book, The Opposite of Everyone, came out) for Joshilyn Jackson’s book The Almost Sisters to be released. It came out yesterday, and I finished reading it this morning, tears rolling down my face as they always are on the last page of one of her books. And now she has to get busy writing a new book and I have to get busy waiting for it.

The Almost Sisters is the story of Leia Birch Briggs, whose lifelong love-hate relationship with her “perfect” stepsister Rachel comes to a head during a fevered few weeks in a small Southern town. Leia, a successful, single comic-book artist, is unexpectedly pregnant as the result of a one-night stand. Rachel’s picture-perfect marriage is crumbling and her daughter, Leia’s adored niece Lavender, is damaged in the fallout. And the matriarch of the Birch clan, Leia’s 90-year-old grandmother Birchie, has suddenly gone from being the firm foundation on which Leia’s world rests, to being a problem Leia desperately needs to solve.

This novel tackles big issues in the guise of a deceptively light (and often wickedly funny) contemporary novel. Faced with Birchie’s dementia and the determination of her lifelong companion Wattie to help her hide it, Leia has to confront the messy realities of aging and mortality. She also has confront something she’s skated over the surface of her whole life: the racism bubbling beneath her beloved town. Her position in a well-off, respected white family has allowed her to mostly ignore or dismiss racism, but when Leia is confronted with a threat to her grandmother’s black best friend Wattie, she recognizes how much broader that threat has always been — and how it also envelops her own unborn, mixed-race baby. She sees, in a sudden shifting moment, how there has always been a “second South” lurking in the shadows of the loving and loved community she grew up in, and she rightly fears raising her child in that second South, which she knows his skin colour will not allow him to ignore.

What lurks in the shadows matters here, because the third major theme in this short novel is a Jungian meditation on embracing your shadow side. One of the things I love about Jackson’s work (and there are so many) is how fully-fleshed-out the outer as well as the inner lives of her characters are, and this always includes her protagonists’ jobs. Leia is a comic book artist, and there are far more than just perfunctory references to her work and her attendance at conventions (where she’s a bit of a superstar). Jackson shows her own nerd cred with geek references that are spot-on, and it’s clear that she’s done her research into the world of comics, but Leia’s job is far more than just interesting detail. Even as she is wrestling with the complexities of her own real life and the lives of her family, Leia is also planning a follow-up book to her hit graphic novel Violence in Violet and struggling with the relationship between  her two characters, the naive and innocent Violet and her protector Violence, a goddess-of-vengeance type superhero. The reader realizes before Leia does that Violet and Violence are two sides of the same coin; Leia has to not only accept this reality about her characters but also apply it to her own life. In order to confront of the racism of the “second South” she lives in, Leia has to embrace both sides of her own nature: the dark side that’s willing to fight fierce and dirty to protect those she loves, and the brighter side that dares to believe a better future may be possible.

Speaking of things the reader figures out before Leia does, there’s a plot twist near the end of this novel that I had worked out from about page one, but I don’t think that’s a weakness: it may be intentional. There are always deeply buried, long-held family secrets in Joshilyn Jackson’s novels: her complicated, loving, blended Southern families teem with skeletons and closets, both literal and metaphorical. Sometimes the whole point of a family secret is that it isn’t that big of a secret to an outside observer, like the reader. It’s only when you’re immersed in the world of a family, a town, a culture, as the characters are, that the truth is unthinkable — until you’re forced to confront it. Leia and her family confront a lot of hard truths in this novel, and the journey is rich, rewarding and often funny for the reader — till you find yourself on the last page, crying, and realizing you have to wait another two or three years to read a book this good again.

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Assassin’s Fate, by Robin Hobb (plus 15 previous books)

elderlings

I’ve reviewed several Robin Hobb books here on this blog in the past, and I’ve been reading her books since before I started book-blogging. She’s pretty much my favourite fantasy author (maybe tied with Guy Gavriel Kay — I think they’re both criminally underrated by fantasy fans). With the release of her latest novel Assassin’s Fate this spring promising a conclusion to at least some of the major story lines in her “Realm of the Elderlings” cycle, if not to the entire series, I decided to embark on a massive re-read of all these interconnected books. I had read them all over a period of about fifteen years, widely spaced apart and sometimes out of order, and I really wanted to get the experience of reading the whole cycle in order so that all the characters and plot threads would be fresh in my mind when I came to reading Assassin’s Fate. It turned out to be a wonderful two-month immersion in an intricately-constructed, lovingly detailed fantasy world.

Note: in the paragraphs below I’ve tried to give an overview of this series and why I love it, with as few spoilers as possible. I can’t promise NO spoilers whatsoever, but I’ve made as much effort as I can to tell you enough about this series to whet your appetite without ruining any major plot points (I hope). However, if you’re in the midst of reading these books and you’re super-sensitive to even the vaguest spoilers, proceed with caution!

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The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

buriedgiantThis was a strange and engrossing book which I read quickly, anxious to find out how it would all come together. I’ve seen people online complain that it’s very different from Ishiguro’s other novels, but as this is the first of his I’ve read I have no basis of comparison. I found it odd and haunting, a bit like the aftermath of reading a Neil Gaiman novel.

The Buried Giant starts out as if it’s going to be historical fiction — it’s set in post-Roman Britain, with an elderly Briton couple, Axl and Beatrice, who are going on a journey and along the way stop at a Saxon village. But it quickly becomes apparent this novel is more fantasy or fairy-tale than historical fiction. There are ogres and pixies as well as Britons and Saxons in the land; there’s a sleeping dragon; there are characters who still vividly remember King Arthur. 

Stranger than any of these is what Axl and Beatrice refer to as “the mist”: a mysterious forgetfulness that afflicts not just the two of them, but everyone in their village and most of the people they encounter along the way. It’s as though everyone in this world has a touch of amnesia: nobody can remember their own past clearly, and events from even earlier the same day become hazy and hard to grasp as soon as they’re over. Axl and Beatrice are trying to find their son, whom they barely remember — and of course, they can’t clearly remember how to find him or where he is now, either.

It seems obvious not only that this strange forgetfulness must have a magical cause and a magical cure (it does), but also that stopping it would be a good thing. Everyone wants to get their memories back, don’t they? Except that as the story unfolds, we begin to question this assumption. Memories are double-edged swords — not just for individuals like Axl and Beatrice, who wonder if their love would be as true if they could recall every quarrel they’ve ever had — but for nations. If we forgot old enemies and what they did to us, could we live at peace? Does memory inevitably lead to strife and revenge? These two threads — the personal and the broader social context — weave throughout the theme of memory as Axl and Beatrice’s quest comes to a poignant end. While this book may not be typical of Ishiguro’s work, here he beautifully integrates history, myth and fantasy to create a memorable meditation on love, loss and memory.

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I Wish You Happy, by Kerry Anne King

happyKerry Anne King, who also writes fantasy as Kerry Schafer, is a real-life friend of mine from nearly thirty (gasp!) years ago, so I may be a bit biased. But I’ve read everything she’s ever published and so far I Wish You Happy is my favourite book of hers.

It’s a heartwarming novel of self-discovery with a dash of romance, where the plot is kicked off by a suicide attempt and key scenes occur at the funeral of a pet rat. That will probably give you a sense of how quirky the novel is. The main character, Rae, is a nurse whose highly empathetic nature makes it easy for her to do her job and also to take in lots of stray animals in need of car, but causes her to put up barriers to intimate relationships with other people — she’s never really learned how to negotiate a friendship or a romance with appropriate boundaries.

When a cyclist swerves her bike in front of Rae’s car, that inability to set boundaries sends Rae’s tightly controlled world spiralling into chaos — but out of the chaos comes not only a deeper understanding of herself, but also (conveniently, as so often happens in novels but so rarely in real life) a hot new guy.

This novel manages to be light while still treating heavy subjects with appropriate gravity. The author’s experience with mental health crisis work shows clearly in this book as the topic of suicide is handled in a sensitive and thoughtful manner. Her characters navigate some important life lessons against the backdrop of a troubling, codependent friendship and a budding romance. Both major and minor characters in this story are well-developed, believable people, especially Kit, the cyclist with whom Rae forms a bond after the accident-that’s-maybe-not-so-much-an-accident. As Rae is forced to re-examine many of the assumptions she’s made about her life, her gentle transformation is rewarding and believable. I highly recommend this book!

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Hunger, a Memoir of (my) Body, by Roxane Gay

hungerEveryone I know has been talking about this book lately, largely because an excerpt from it published on The Guardian website was being widely shared and discussed online last weekend. I was intrigued enough to immediately buy and download the book, and read it in less than 24 hours. It’s relatively short, but that’s not why I read it so quickly: Gay’s voice is so compelling that the book is hard to put down.

The book is essentially a memoir about Gay’s lifelong struggle, not only with her weight, but with the fat-shaming and hatred that go along with being extremely overweight. It’s also a memoir about surviving trauma: Gay traces her hatred of her own body to a horrific incident of sexual assault at age 12. 

Throughout the book she is brutally honest, both about the way she has mistreated herself and the ways others have mistreated her, and her efforts to care for herself — sometimes successful, sometimes not. At times there’s a wry humour to her writing, but much of it, especially the parts dealing with the aftermath of rape, are painful to read, as well they should be.

If you’re interested in issues of weight, body image, and sexual assault, then you’ll definitely want to read this memoir — but honestly, even if you didn’t think you were deeply interested in any of those subjects but just love to read a powerful, compelling, brilliantly-written memoir,  you should still pick up Hunger. Roxane Gay has a voice that will echo in your head long after you put the book down.

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In the Name of the Family, by Sarah Dunant

nameofthefamilyIn my last review, of Margaret George’s The Confessions of Young NeroI talked about how I love it when writers take unpopular historical characters and tell the story from their point of view. Sarah Dunant did this beautifully with the Borgias in her 2013 novel Blood and BeautyHere she continues the story from the time of Lucrezia’s marriage to Alfonso d’Este, up till Pope Alexander’s death, which spelled the ruin of Cesare Borgia’s plans to rule most of Italy. In addition to Cesare, Lucrezia, and the Pope, Dunant has added a fourth viewpoint character here: Florentine diplomat Niccolo Macchiavelli, who is fascinated by Cesare Borgia and will eventually immortalize him in his book The Prince.

The end of the story (concluding with a “ten years later” epilogue that recounts what happens to Cesare and Lucrezia in the decade after their father’s death) is as satisfying as the first volume was, and the much-maligned Borgias step out of history and into fiction as fully-fleshed-out, real people — real people who, for the most part, did terrible things (not Lucrezia so much with the terrible things) — but had reasons that made sense to them for doing so. The unfolding story of Lucrezia’s marriage to Alfonso d’Este was my favourite part of this book, and ends with a wonderful scene when Lucrezia learns of her beloved father’s death. Renaissance Italy with all its blood and beauty comes alive in these two novels; seldom have I seen historical fiction written better than this.

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