Monday, March 18, 2024

Snow Road Station

Snow Road Station / Elizabeth Hay
TO: Knopf Canada, c2023.
230 p.

I haven't been reading as many current Canadian novels as usual, but I did pick this one up recently after someone mentioned how much she liked it. I found it okay, a little bit slow-going but overall a decent read. I think I might have enjoyed it more if I'd read some of Hay's earlier books, as apparently these characters are ones who've reappeared from other stories. 

Actress Lulu Blake is starring in a demanding play in the winter of 2008. But she dried on stage, and as the story opens she is heading through the snow back to her past in Snow Road Station, Ontario. Her brother & his family, as well as her childhood best friend, all still live there, and she's retreating to lick her wounds. Oh, and also to attend a family wedding. And she stays long enough to help with the (thoroughly described) spring maple sugaring process. 

Not much really happens here. Lulu has a traumatic encounter with her friend's ex, a nasty man. She gets fired. But she also rebuilds relationships with her brother, niece and friend, and meets a rugged new man who she falls into an uncomplicated physical relationship with. It's all so nice. 

I'm not really sure what to say about this one. It was okay. A little plodding, a little peaceful, lots of  family stories of the past. It's the kind of book I often enjoy. I didn't dislike this one, but found it a little bland and a bit forgettable. One thing that I did find slightly confusing was that Lulu was 62, but sounded like she was at least a decade older. It was hard to remember how old everyone was supposed to be! Probably best for readers who are already fans of Elizabeth Hay's work. 

Saturday, March 16, 2024

Shubeik Lubeik

Shubeik Lubeik / Deena Mohamed
trans. from the Arabic by the author
New York : Pantheon Books, 2022.
518 p.

What would you wish for, if you knew your wish would come true? This is the question asked by Deena Mohamed in this imaginative graphic novel, set in an alternative Cairo, where wishes are real, regulated, bottled and licensed.

There are three classes of wish: first class, second class and the banned third class wish (due to their malicious unreliability). Wishes can be tricky and deceptive; the wording has to be just right for optimal results.

The story follows three characters as they each decide to use a First Class wish for different reasons, mainly non-material desires, like forgiveness or health. They each struggle with the ethics of wishing, with discussion of the religious or philosophical elements of a wish. How will it be interpreted, and will it actually give them what they need or want? Their stories cover a wide range of human experience, and bring up many aspects of the meaning of life, in a way that is accessible and sometimes humorous as well.

The artwork is a lively mix of colour and black and white, dependent on context. There are some extra nice touches – for example, when a wish bottle is opened, the Wish appears as a bubble of Arabic calligraphy. The translation (done by the author) has also left as much of the original unchanged as possible, with the book reading from right to left, as it does in Arabic.

With the engaging artistic style, and the deep themes that the storyline explores, this might be a great choice for any thoughtful reader interested in family stories, the Egyptian setting, or just the artwork itself. It might also raise philosophical questions about what we want, or need, out of life -- and what the right way is to achieve our desires.

Friday, March 15, 2024

Night Side of the River

Night Side of the River / Jeanette Winterson
NY: Atlantic Monthly Press, c2023.
320 p.

This was an interesting concept for a book -- ghost stories by literary writer Jeanette Winterson, followed by a true story of her own experience with the unknown world after each section. I found one of the true stories more haunting than anything else in the book! 

The stories are varied, with many of them exploring technology and how it interacts with life, death and grief. From immersive ghost tours to a virtual world in which a woman visits the new and improved version of her dead husband, there are elements of tech shaping the experience of loss and the afterworld. But there are also a few more traditional stories, like that of a couple who come across a haunting on their wedding weekend at an old estate, or the creepiest one for me, the title story. In it, a woman ends up on a boat in the Thames, heading toward the Night Side of the river. That felt Ray Bradbury-ish to me, with dark and strange boatmen and a nearly inescapable feeling of doom and entrapment. Shudder! 

I also found the real life stories intriguing. Winterson is a very down to earth person so her matter-of-fact relation of her own experiences with the uncanny have a lot of resonance. She has lived in old places, much older than we could find where I am, so the hauntings seem more understandable there! But these are not just stories of ghosts, they are discussions of life, perception, reality, spiritual existence and more. Thoughtful, engaging, and a great read for anyone with an interest in ghost stories in the literary tradition. 


Thursday, March 14, 2024

Drew Hayden Taylor's "Cold"

Cold / Drew Hayden Taylor
TO: McLelland & Stewart, c2024.
359 p.

This is a book I would not have normally picked up -- it's a horror/thriller with hockey, middle aged men, and gore. But, it's also by Drew Hayden Taylor. I've read quite a few of his books and usually enjoy them -- everything he does is leavened with humour, and I find his Indigenous themes are compelling and engaging. So I read it. 

It is a bit more horror-ish than I usually like, especially with the few explicitly gory scenes. But it is also horror-lite enough for this squeamish reader. The story has three character arcs, which begin to converge the further into the book you go. We start with a plane crash in Northern Ontario during a blizzard, where we meet journalist Fabiola Halan, who is originally from the Caribbean, and hates the cold. She and the pilot survive the crash, and a year or so later, Fabiola is on a Canada wide book tour with the story of her experience.

Now in Toronto, we meet Professor Elmore Trent, an Indigenous studies prof who is having an affair with a student while his marriage is falling apart. We also encounter Paul North, an aging hockey player in the IHL (Indigenous Hockey League) who is facing the end of his career. And Detective Ruby Birch, who is investigating a string of unusual murders, brings them all together. 

We uncover Indigenous folklore and monstrous creatures during this story, alongside social commentary and the individual story arcs of each character. There are ruminations and reflections on a variety of themes, whether Indigenous topics or questions of aging, relationship ethics, or the way that office politics shows up in academia and the sports world alike. I liked a lot in this story, including the way that Prof. Trent throws in references to other Indigenous writers throughout. Lots to follow up on! There were some interesting developments in the plot and some outrageously over the top scenes too. 

I did find that the writing was a bit dry in parts, for a thriller, and some editing issues that caught my attention (a copyedit eye is a curse sometimes!) I wasn't fully sold on the conclusion either; it made sense within the storyline but I didn't love it. But, it was fun and campy in parts, while also being dark and intriguing in others. It was creative and original, and could be one that a lot of different kinds of readers would enjoy. Worth a look!


Wednesday, March 13, 2024

The Skull

The Skull / Jon Klassen
Somerville, MA: Candlewick, c2023.
106 p.

This little middle grade read was recommended to me by a friend, and so I read it -- quickly, as it's barely 100 pages, with lots of illustration and minimal text. But it is quite odd and adorable, and I would pass on the recommendation to experience this story! 

It's a rewrite of a Tyrolean folk tale that Canadian writer Jon Klassen read in a collection once and when he went back to reread it, realized he had remembered it quite differently than the original. So he wrote a new version reflecting his own experience of the story.

This author has published quite a few picture books and his style is distinct. In this chapter book, he has more range for more illustrations, but it is all very recognizably his own. The story begins with young Otilla, who runs away from home through a dark forest, and comes upon a big old house in a clearing. It's inhabited by a skull. Otilla befriends the skull, and discovers that it is afraid of something that enters the house each night. But Otilla is fearless, and saves the day. And she finds her own kind of happy ending, with safety and friendship in her own manner. 

It's dark, and quiet, and sparely told, but very effective. Otilla's determination and quick thinking saves her multiple times in the story, and her character may encourage readers going through hard times. It has a folkloric charm that is really memorable. 

You can watch a talk with Jon Klassen about this book via the Winnipeg International Writers' Festival here: 

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

The Hearing Trumpet


The Hearing Trumpet / Leonora Carrington
Potter's Bar, UK: Naxos Audiobooks, 2017, c1974

This novel by Surrealist painter Leonora Carrington was certainly as surreal as her artwork! I didn't know much about it when I began listening to it in audio format, so it was quite an adventure. 

Marian Leatherby is an aged woman living with her son and his family somewhere in Mexico. She spends most of her days in her room or in the yard which she can access directly from her room. She is fairly satisfied, but her family is not. They feel that her mind is failing, that she needs to go into a home. Marian discovers the plan when her friend Carmela gives her an antique hearing trumpet as a gift; now she can actually hear people talking. 

This tool of illumination is a metaphor for Marian's beginning to understand more than just the speech of those around her. She is sent to a residence found by her daughter-in-law, an odd place in which all the individual homes are novelty shapes spread throughout a garden -- Marian is taken to a tower that's her new home. As she accustoms herself to her odd co-inhabitants and the cultish owners of the residence, she begins to undergo an illumination about the world and these new surroundings.

I found this book both fascinating and confusing. There is a portrait of a nun in their dining hall which Marian begins to fixate on, and part of the book jumps to a history of this very un-Christian nun and her witchy history. That history then ties into the situation Marian finds herself in when there is a disaster and the wider world basically ends. The women all form a coven, there is a giant ground-ship that arrives with a family of werewolves aboard, the Earth's poles change and her Mexican home becomes more like Lapland...this all happens very quickly and abruptly near the end. 

I couldn't stop listening to this strange and compelling book, but it still doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Lots of striking and memorable images, some humour, some satirical commentary. Certainly a much different take on a potential apocalyptic dystopia! It has feminist &anti-ageist themes that resonate, but it also includes moments of racism that jarred among the rest of the story. Not a perfect story, but intriguing in any case. 

Monday, March 11, 2024

The Future

The Future / Catherine Leroux
trans. from the French by Susan Ouriou
Windsor, ON : Biblioasis, c2023.
309 p.

The Future, which I read about a month ago, has just won this year's Canada Reads competition. I didn't think it would -- translations aren't always the most popular choices for things like Canada Reads. But it did, and I'm happy with that result. 

It's a dystopia of sorts; more of an exaggerated and hyperextended vision of the decline of civilization. This one's set in an alternate Detroit which was never surrendered to the Americans, and boasts a French community. Which also houses a wild band of ragged, self-governing children. I felt like this was a mix between Lord of the Flies and Peter Pan's Lost Boys, with a bit of Station Eleven mixed in for good measure. And perhaps tinges of Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl in the Ring as well. 

There are many, many characters to follow. We start with Gloria, who moves into the house where her daughter was recently murdered, looking for answers, and for her two missing granddaughters. She builds a friendship with the woman next door, and once Gloria encounters the band of children in the deep woods of a local park, they both try to build a tentative connection with the children. Gloria is sure that there is a link to her granddaughters somewhere among these children (and as it turns out she is right). 

There are houses that regenerate from ruins, community gardens built by a stubborn old gardener and his cohort of associates, wild children in various conclaves, poisoned rivers, hit and run tourism, and many more peculiar and unsettling elements to the story. It's a ride. You just have to let yourself sink in and follow the story as it goes. I'm not sure that there is a strong conclusion but there is a sense of hope as some of these children see a new future in cooperation with the adults who work to care for them. The world here is rather vaguely proposed so it's uncertain to me what will come after the end of the book, but there is a strong sense of communities helping themselves. 

I actually liked it much more than Leroux's first book which I read quite a while ago now, The Party Wall. I'm glad to have had the chance to try another book by this author. And I guess many Canadians will be reading it also, thanks to the Canada Reads effect. I hope it finds its audience!