Monthly Archives: July 2017

The Kitchen House, by Kathleen Grissom

kitchenhouseI’d been hearing about this book for awhile, so it was good to finally get to read it. Set in the late 1790s-early 1800s in Virginia, this novel explores slavery from an unusual perspective. The main character, Lavinia, is a white girl, an Irish orphan who is raised among the slaves of Captain Pyke, the owner of Tall Oaks plantation. Because of her status both as an orphan and an indentured servant, she sees the black slaves with whom she lives as her family, calling Mae and George “Mama” and “Papa,” and thinking of the twins Fanny and Beattie as her sisters. Yet the colour of her skin means that as she grows older, the Pyke family begins to see Lavinia as being more like one of them, and opportunities begin to open for her that are closed to the people she thinks of as her family.

This novel does what seemed to me to be a really good job of exploring the complicated dynamics of plantation slaves and their masters through the eyes of someone who is both an insider and an outsider in both the black and white worlds. Complicating these dynamics, and well explored in the book, is the fact that skin colour is not actually a reliable way to distinguish between these people, as so many of the slaves were in fact more than half-white as a result of multiple generations of master-slave rape. Many of the women in the novel are forced to accept that bearing the master’s babies, and seeing those children — in some cases as “white” as their fathers — raised as slaves, is simply part of the burden of slavery. What really makes the difference is not the actual colour of a person’s skin but whether he or she is designated “white” or “Negro” by society. The complex web of a biological family in which some members of the family own others as property is well explored here.

This book did have its drawbacks — I found the writing style a little too straightforward sometimes, in much the same way as I’ve complained about Ken Follett’s writing: everything on the table and not enough subtlety in dialogue or character development. At least one major choice by a character has a huge impact on the plot and doesn’t seem to me to be in character or sufficiently well motivated, and the ending was resolved a bit too neatly for my liking. But these are largely matters of personal taste, and the novel’s success makes it clear that many, many readers did not find these things to be a problem at all. Certainly if you’re interested in a white writer’s view of slavery through a unique character perspective, you will want to pick up The Kitchen House.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction -- historical

The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes, by Bridget Canning

wandajaynesThis is one of several recent novels by Newfoundland writers (and one upcoming one) that I had the privilege of reading before it was published, when I got to judge an unpublished novel contest a few years ago. The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes was one of the very strongest contenders, and it’s terrific to read it in its finished form.

Wanda Jaynes is a youngish Newfoundland woman, an adult-ed instructor whose job is about to be budget-cut out of existence, and is in a long-term relationship with attractive and charismatic musician Ivan. Her life is pretty average — until the day she goes to the supermarket at the same time as a man with a gun, and finds herself in the unexpected position of stopping a mass shooting.

Overnight, with the help of a viral video, Wanda goes from being a nobody to being a local hero — a position she’s not at all comfortable with. The novel explores serious issues — post-traumatic stress, the dark side of internet fame, random acts of violence — yet manages to be wickedly funny, largely due to the wry voice of Wanda as the point of view character. There’s also a wealth of great detail here about contemporary St. John’s life that really rings true.

This connects to something I said about the last Newfoundland novel I read, Berni Stapleton’s This is the Cat: if you’re going to introduce fantastical or hard-to-believe elements into a realistic story, the realistic bits really have to ring true. The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes contains no talking cats or restless ghosts, but Wanda does find herself catapulted into a realm of experience most of us don’t share: we rarely get to take out a would-be mass murderer with a well-aimed can of coconut milk, nor do most of us become the focus of overnight online fame. But as Wanda moves through these unlikely events, the everyday details of her life feel completely believable and lived. It was those everyday details that drew me into the story originally: I, like Wanda (and, I believe, like the author) teach in an adult-education program, and while I wasn’t personally affected, I vividly remember the round of real-life budget cuts to our sector that, in Wanda’s fictional world, kicks off her horrible, no-good, very bad day. Details like this ground the reader in Wanda’s world and make it easy to follow her into her less likely adventures.

To draw yet another parallel to a book I’ve read lately, the details about Wanda’s internet fame, from her viral YouTube video to the way she becomes an instant meme, are very much grounded in the social media world of the mid-2010s, in the same way the use of teen slang and hip-hop music grounds Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give in the year it was written. Like Thomas’s YA novel, Canning’s book will feel “dated” in a few years, but I think that’s fine, because it’s a snapshot of what it means to “go viral” and become famous at this specific moment in time. It’s not meant to be a universal experience, because the way the world reacts to Wanda’s sudden notoriety is unique to this time and place.

What is universal is the way Wanda’s life starts to unspool in the face of trauma, the way the cracks in her relationships and her own view of herself can no longer be ignored once the pressure is on. Bridget Canning has written a funny, serious, fast-paced, thoughtful contemporary novel that remains light while exploring heavy subjects. This is an extremely readable and enjoyable book, and I hope to read more from Bridget Canning soon.

Leave a comment

Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- general, Newfoundland author

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- general, Newfoundland author

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction -- general

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


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!

Continue reading


Filed under Uncategorized

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.


Filed under Fiction -- fantasy, Fiction -- historical

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!

Leave a comment

Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- general