Category Archives: Canadian author

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

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writers (and one upcoming one) that I had the privilege of reading before it was published, when I got to judge an unpublished novel contest a few years ago.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

Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien

donotsayThis is the best book I’ve read so far this year. Told from the perspective of a Chinese-Canadian woman learning of her late father’s life in China during the cultural revolution, it is a riveting voyage to a place and time I didn’t know much about. 

As a young girl, Marie loses her father when he leaves their family to return to China, then takes his own life in Hong Kong. Soon after that trauma, Marie’s mother offers shelter to Ai-Ming, a girl about ten years older than Marie, whose father was close friends with Marie’s father. The student protests in Tienanmen Square have recently ended and Ai-Ming, who was involved in the protests, has fled China for Canada. During the months she stays with Marie’s family, she tells the younger girl stories of their fathers’ youth in China, the music that bound them both together at the Conservatory, and a mysterious, hand-copied book that has been copied and distributed down through three generations of Ai-Ming’s family.

The narrator then takes us into the heart of these stories, not filtered through Ai-Ming’s and Marie’s perspectives but through the points of view of the people who actually lived them — Big Mother Knife, Ba Lute, Swirl, Wen the Dreamer, who live through the Japanese invasion during the Second World War and are proud to be part of the new Communist China post-war, until Mao Zedong’s dream turns against them. Their children, Sparrow and Zhuli, whose lives are forever changed when their musical careers bring them into contact with Kai (future father of the narrator Marie). These three young people, Sparrow, Zhuli, and Kai, as young artists, are targets of the Cultural Revolution, and the brutality of that revolution tears all three lives apart. The horrors of living under a totalitarian regime are depicted here with chilling precision, and the writing is beautiful. This novel won both the Governor General’s award for fiction and the Giller Prize, and the awards were richly deserved.

 

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Yiddish for Pirates, by Gary Barwin

yiddishI wanted to love this book a lot more than I did, especially since it was the only book anyone gave me for Christmas and I got not one but two copies of it. It’s crazy, inventive, witty and definitely a novel for anyone who loves playing with words — but in the end, I think all the wordplay and some of the narrative tricks kept me a little distanced from really getting involved with the characters.

It’s the story of Aaron, a talking (really talking, not just mimicking) parrot, who narrates the story of Moishe, the Jewish boy on whose shoulder he perches. Moishe embarks on a series of adventures and misadventures in fiftenth-century Spain, on the high seas, and in the New World, where he sails with Columbus. There’s a lot of humour to their adventures as narrated by the wisecracking Aaron who sprinkles his story liberally with Yiddish word and phrases, anachronisms, and puns in several languages. But there’s also a darkness that follows Moishe and all his travelling companions, Jews expelled from Spain under the shadow of the Inquisition.

The book is incredibly inventive and a delight for those who love wordplay, but after Moishe and Aaron left Spain and travelled to the New World I found the story less compelling than when they were back in Spain. Also, I found that using the parrot as narrator kept me distanced from the human characters, so that I never got quite as involved in Moishe’s story as I’d hoped to. The book certainly is brilliantly written and truly unique, but it wasn’t my most engrossing read of the year so far.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- historical