Category Archives: Canadian author

Bellevue Square, by Michael Redhill

bellevue squareBellevue Square, winner of this year’s Giller Prize (Canada’s richest literary award), is one heck of a weird book. Though the Giller Prize only goes to works that are pretty clearly “literary fiction,” Redhill’s credentials as a mystery writer (under a pen name, which turns out to be significant here) are on display as Bellevue Square opens with an intriguing hook.

A middle-aged woman who owns a bookstore, the novel’s first-person narrator Jean Mason, is told by two different customers that she has a doppelganger. Both people have seen a woman who looks exactly like her on a Toronto street not far from her bookstore. Jean befriends the second of those people before she finds out that the first has died under somewhat mysterious circumstances. But even before the quest to find and confront her double has begun to consume Jean’s life, the reader has started to notice that little details about her account of her own life are slightly off. Jean tells us that her husband is a retired police officer, having left the force after making good money in the stock market. But he still wears a uniform and seems to think he is still on the force. And a good deal of her time is spent Skyping with her sister, who has a brain tumour, yet when her husband asks her who she’s been talking to, she evades the question. She has two kids she obviously cares for, yet she is able to wander the streets and sit chatting with homeless people in a city park for hours at time, oblivious to her family’s needs in a way that any mother who’s raised actual children at once realizes is not at all believable.

In short, Jean quickly proves to be a very unreliable narrator; the idea of “double lives” operates on many levels in this book; we are quickly led to question what is and isn’t real, and who is really telling us this story. This is all great stuff and kept me turning pages quickly for the first two-thirds of the book. The thing with a great set-up like this, though, is that the writer has to have the chops to pull it off. You can’t set up a bunch of intriguing mysteries unless you’re able to wrap it up with a resolution that makes the reader go “Aha!! So that was what was happening all along!” (See my review of John Darnielle’s Universal Harvester, which, despite my deep and intense love for Darnielle and everything he does, failed on this count for me).

So, does the ending of Bellevue Square — which is as action-packed and exciting as any thriller reader could hope for — pay off? Well, different readers have different takes on that. Some are left saying “Aha!” while others are left with more of an “A … ha?” reaction. I think I was in the latter category. The book is certainly well-written and intriguing, and I didn’t expect everything to be tied up with a neat and tidy bow. But I wanted at least a few answers, and I felt I was left with far more questions. What’s real and what isn’t? At the end of Bellevue Square, we’re still not entirely sure. Which may, of course, be exactly what Redhill intended.

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

The Boat People, by Sharon Bala

boatpeopleIf there’s one book by a Newfoundland-based author — in fact, if there’s one book by a Canadian author — that you’re going to hear buzz about this year, it’s going to be Sharon Bala’s novel The Boat People. It’s already been chosen as a selection for this year’s Canada Reads competition, and I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about it when awards season rolls around.

I had the privilege of reading an earlier version of The Boat People in 2014, when I judged the Percy Janes First Novel Award and picked it as the winner out of a strong field of contenders. I loved it even more on reading the final, published novel. This is an important and timely novel about immigration, racism, violence and fear, but most importantly it’s a novel full of real people who I came to care deeply about.

The background for this story is a real event: the 2010 arrival of a boat full of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka to Canada’s west coast. Earlier waves of immigrants, including irregular arrivals like boat people, had been welcomed warmly to Canada, but by 2010 the combination of fears of terrorism and the Conservative government then in power, combined with the shock effect of 500 refugees arriving at once, guaranteed these Tamil refugees a far less friendly reception. Many remained in detention for months as their claims were processed through the system. The novel’s main character, Mahindan, is a widowed father who only hopes for a better life for his son Sellian. But Sellian and Mahindan are separated, with adult men going to one detention centre and women and children to another, despite the fact that there is no mother to care for Sellian. Mahindan’s fierce love for his son and the ache of separation is a thread that runs through the novel.

But there are other characters, all equally well developed: Priya, the young law student who is unwillingly pulled into the refugee claimants’ case during her articling year; Priya’s Sri Lankan family, whose own journey to Canada decades ago hides many secrets; career civil servant Grace, daughter of Japanese-Canadians interned during the Second World War, who now finds herself adjudicating the refugees’ hearings, trying to decide which ones should be allowed to stay in Canada and which, if any, pose a danger to the public safety.

The danger, though it is used by the federal government to score political points, is not entirely illusory. Through the flashbacks of Mahindan’s story, we recognize that the Tamil Tigers are indeed a group capable of horrific acts of violence, and that while the refugees are fleeing the chaos of civil war in the country, many of them, Manhindan included, had been drawn into taking sides in that conflict in one way or another. The flashback scenes are what give the novel its power and poignancy: through these scenes we see Mahindan’s “normal” life when he was married to Chitra, their love and hope during her pregnancy, his grief when she dies in childbirth, and then how the world they shared is shattered by war and Mahindan reduced to a homeless, desperate man on the run. When the ship arrives in Canada he believes his suffering is over and a new life is beginning, but the reality is more complicated.

There is so much happening in this novel that is complex and real and relevant: the plight of refugees, the fear of terrorism, the tendency of one generation of migrants to fear the influx of newer arrivals and safeguard their position by saying things like “We came to this country legally; why can’t they go through the process like we did?” (I cannot tell  you how many American friends I have heard say this in the current refugee/immigration debates). But the characters are never just caricatures representing different groups of people or different positions; they are all drawn with humanity, depth and insight.

One of the strengths of this novel, I think, is that it’s topical without being too topical. Right now, our fears about immigration and terrorism (at least here in Canada, but I think for the most part in the US and Europe as well) are so focused on groups like the Syrian refugees and the fear of ISIS-style Muslim extremism, that we’ve almost forgotten Middle Eastern Muslims are far from the only group of people on the planet to have produced both terrorists and refugees. The author’s own family roots in Sri Lanka no doubt made the story of the Tamil refugees an interesting one for her to explore, but it also allows the reader the opportunity to explore the problems posed in this novel at one remove from the heat of current debates. In addition, it gives a much needed correction to the smugness we liberal Canadians often feel about what a welcoming and inclusive country ours is. Sure, we may look good compared the US right now, but we’re not perfect. Canadians are as susceptible to fear, suspicion, paranoia and racism as any other country — and that includes Canadians of all backgrounds.

Hauntingly real and unforgettably personal, The Boat People is a novel that will linger with most readers for a long time. It certainly will with me. Yes, it’s topical, it’s relevant, it has its finger on the pulse of current debates, but at it’s heart this is a story about human beings just longing for what we all want: a safe place to call home.

 

 

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

The Last Half of the Year, by Paul Rowe

lasthalfWhen it comes to judging books by their covers, I couldn’t have gone in with a more positive opinion of a book than I did of The Last Half of the Year, because I am SO IN LOVE with this cover. I also have a very high opinion of the author, Paul Rowe, an intelligent and kindly writer who, along with his partner Mona, came to my studio for a lovely podcast chat a few weeks ago. In the end, though, a book has to be judged on its own merits, regardless of how pretty the cover or how charming the writer. And I’m glad to say that The Last Half of the Year holds up in its own right.

This novel tells three parallel stories, switching back and forth fluidly between them. Jason Dade grows up as a golden child in a small Newfoundland outport, brilliant at school, good at everything beloved by all. The story of his father Saul, who served in the merchant marine in WW2 before settling in the little town of Birthlayn, is told through flashbacks. But we also flash forward to the story’s present, when the promising and beloved little Jason Dade has become a university dropout, apparently without direction or purpose. As his own and his father’s stories unfold in the past, present-day Jason sets off on a question that looks as if it might hold the key to his future — but his road trip takes a dark and unexpected turn.

This is the kind of book where you start out thinking you’re reading one type of book about one type of character, and then things twist 90 degrees and you realize that a lot of what you assumed about the story and the character is wrong. That things are not what they seem to be. Hop into the back seat behind Jason Dade and enjoy the twisting road ahead … and behind.

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Crying for the Moon, by Mary Walsh

cryingforthemoonCrying for the Moon is the first novel by celebrated Newfoundland actor and comedian Mary Walsh, and it is as gritty, memorable, and deeply rooted in the culture of St. John’s as anyone familiar with Walsh’s work would expect. The novel tells the story of Catholic schoolgirl Maureen Brennan, whose already-difficult life as the child of poor and sometimes abusive parents goes even further off the rails after a school choir trip to Expo ’67 in Montreal. 

Maureen is a great character, though I didn’t feel the writing was always completely consistent in portraying her — there’s a bit too much of Walsh telling us what Maureen is like, whereas the novel’s greatest strengths are always when she simply shows us. Maureen gets pregnant, drops out of school, falls through a series of unpromising relationships, and then almost accidentally commits a major crime, at which point the novel takes a sharp turn away from coming-of-age drama and into a sort of crime fiction. It’s Maureen’s voice and perspective, her dogged yet so often doomed determination to rise above the narrow downtown streets where she was raised, that propel this novel forward, even through some unlikely plot twists.

For anyone who grew up in St. John’s, there’s so much here that’s rich, relatable, and vividly drawn that Crying at the Moon was a pleasure to read. I am about 15 years younger than Maureen, Protestant and middle-class where she is Catholic and working-class, and while all those things make a difference, her world is still one in which many of the details are familiar to me. The fact that those details were so lovingly depicted made it all the more jarring the few times I stumbled across a detail that was anachronistic or geographically inaccurate; I wish I wasn’t bothered by those things, but I can’t help it. However, it didn’t diminish my enjoyment of a novel with a truly memorable heroine growing up in a very real place and time.

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

Teaching Eliza, by Riana Everly

teachingelizaSo I’m more or less of a Jane Austen fan, but I’m not that kind of hardcore Jane Austen fan who doesn’t appreciate other writers playing around with Austen’s material. My favourite riffs on Pride and Prejudice in recent years have been Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which I thought was genuinely fun and original; the novel Longbourn which I thought was a wonderful behind-the-scenes imagining of the unseen life of servants in the novel, and the YouTube series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a modern re-imagining with which I fell passionately in love.

A rabbit-hole I had not fallen into, until first-time author Riana Everly (with whom I am somewhat internet-acquainted) released Teaching Eliza, is the world of Austen fan-fiction in which myriad authors re-imagine Austen’s stories. Some of these re-imaginings include mash-ups with other stories, as in this novel, where Pride and Prejudice meets Pygmalion/My Fair Lady, with surprisingly enjoyable results.

When you think about it, the idea’s not so far-fetched. (Indeed, if you inhabit the subculture of Austen fanfic, it’s not far-fetched at all — it’s apparently such an obvious combination that two books with different approaches to the same basic idea came out this fall). The tension in both stories grows out of the attraction between an arrogant man who considers himself superior, and a strong-willed young woman whose natural intelligence and wit compensate for the shortcomings of her background. In Teaching Eliza, Everly imagines Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy much as they are in Pride and Prejudice, but with the added My Fair Lady twist that Darcy is also a professor of linguistics who considers himself an expert on regional accents and gives private elocution lessons to those who wish to rise in society without their accents betraying them. Elizabeth, offered the chance of a London season, wishes to refine her country accent so she will be accepted into London society. She and Darcy strike a bargain that appears mutually agreeable — but will, of course, bring them into close enough proximity to strike sparks!

Teaching Eliza is true both to the spirit of Pride and Prejudice and My Fair Lady, blending both stories well while adding some original elements (including some character pairings that are more satisfying than Austen’s originals, if perhaps not as completely true to the time period). It’s also a witty and enjoyable Regency romance in its own right, and shows off the talents of a debut writer with tremendous potential. If you’re looking for a historical romance that’s sharp, well-written, and pays homage to two great works while still offering something fresh and new, pick up a copy of Teaching Eliza.

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Where I Live Now, by Sharon Butala

whereiliveSharon Butala is an award-winning Canadian writer, but I’d never read  her work before randomly picking up a copy of Where I Live Now. For some reason, although I enjoyed this book, it took me forever to finish it — I kept picking it up, reading a bit, then getting into a different book and coming back to this one later. It’s a memoir of her life on a Saskatchewan ranch with her rancher husband, his death, and her attempt to make a new life for herself away from the ranch where she’d lived for thirty years. There’s some good material in here about marriage, change, grief and again, but I think where Butala’s writing really shines is when writing about the natural landscape, which she obviously loves and describes with great care and tenderness. While this may not have been a book that compelled me to devour it quickly, it was one that rewarded my many visits back to dip into its rich, descriptive detail.

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Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan

halfbloodbluesIt’s always great when a bok is able to take you to a place you have never been, geographically or historically or both. Half Blood Blues does this through the voice of jazz musician Sid Griffiths, an African-American bass player who lived in Berlin as a young man in the 1930s. All was going well for Sid and his bandmates — a collection of African-Americans and Germans, with the German members including Jews and one mixed-race German — until the Nazis came to power. Decrying jazz as a degenerate influence, the new regime began shutting down jazz was played and arresting musicians who didn’t fit the “Aryan” mold. 

Though Sid narrates the story in a quirky, memorable voice filled with old-time jazzy slang, and most of his time in the novel is spent with his lifelong frenemy, the drummer Chip, the real focus of the story is on another character. Hieronymus Falk is the one mixed-race German member of the band — the child of a white German mother and an African father, an outsider everywhere, an abomination to Nazi theories of racial purity. Hiero, the youngest member of the group and the most vulnerable, is also the most talented, a phenomenal trumpeter who wins the attention of Louis Armstrong. When those of the band members who haven’t yet been arrested are forced to flee Berlin for Paris, personal tensions and jealousies among the band members come to a head as that city falls to the invading German army.

The story is being narrated in flashbacks from the perspective of 1992, when Sid and Chip are guests at the premier of a documentary about Hiero’s life and music. The opportunity to revisit the past reveals long-hidden secrets and lies. While there were a few plot points in this novel that didn’t entirely hold together for me story-wise, it was an beautifully-drawn glimpse into a place and time rarely visited in fiction.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- historical