Category Archives: Canadian author

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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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- historical

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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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.

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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.

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

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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The Reason You Walk, by Wab Kinew

reasonyouwalkOne-time rapper, long-time CBC journalist, and now politician Wab Kinew tells the story of his father’s time in one of the notorious residential schools that First Nations children in Canada were forced to attend, and the impact of that abuse on his family throughout the next generation. The Reason You Walk is also a memoir about Kinew’s own life as well as his father’s, about the relationship between the two men, and about the search for healing, peace and reconciliation for Canadian First Nations people who were subjected to the residential school system. There’s a lot going on in this book, and while the writing is straightforward and workmanlike rather than literary or showy in any way, it’s well worth reading. I learned a lot.

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Filed under Canadian author, Nonfiction -- memoir