Sunday, August 16, 2015

Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis

Fifteen Dogs / Andre Alexis
Toronto: Coach House, c2015.
160 p.

This book has a unique set-up; the gods Hermes and Apollo are drinking in a Toronto pub when they get into an argument that leads to a bet. Apollo thinks that animals, given human intelligence, will end up as miserable as human are, while Hermes says they won't.

So they give human consciousness to fifteen dogs who are overnight boarders at a nearby vet clinic. They bet one year's servitude on the chance that even one of the dogs will die happier than they would have otherwise. And the tale begins...

Each of the dogs has a name and personality, and each of them takes to this new understanding differently. Some of them want to cling to "dog's ways" and live in a pack, while others want to make the most of their new human consciousness. Prince, for example, loves his new linguistic flexibility and becomes a poet. Majnoun develops human relationships and emotional depths, as well as learning to speak some English.

But this ability to think in a human way does not always lead to happiness. Dog life has a dark streak, and the doggish violence and animal nature that blends with the human leads to many tough moments. The dogs still remain dogs, exploring smells and running and finding food sources where they can. They are dependent on humans, who are ignorant of any new consciousness -- despite these dogs having human awareness, the two-way communication is still lacking (something also quite human).

It's thoughtful, poetic, gritty, and very moving at times. Alexis tells the story from the dogs' perspective and it is enthralling. He explores our world, and our perception of it, from a new angle.

I love this sentence from the publisher's write-up -- it captures the essence of this read.

André Alexis's contemporary take on the apologue offers an utterly compelling and affecting look at the beauty and perils of human consciousness. By turns meditative and devastating, charming and strange, Fifteen Dogs shows you can teach an old genre new tricks.


Further Reading:

For more tale telling from a dog's perspective, though one with less whimsy in its set-up, try Phoebe's Way by Pamela Ditchoff. It follows a therapy dog as she works in a senior's home, and explores memory and what makes us human in the end.

If instead, you're intrigued by what happens when bored gods make wagers with one another, try Jo Walton's The Just City, a story that begins when Athena and Apollo decide to recreate Plato's Republic with human time-travellers. Knowing that there is something different about being human, Apollo also agrees to live a mortal lifetime in this ideal city. Of course, things don't go exactly as planned. Humans are like that.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Connie Gault's Beauty

20342579A Beauty / Connie Gault
Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, c2015.
336 p.

This novel immediately appealed to me; set on the Canadian prairies, centred on one woman's journey, a bit of eccentricity and some unexpected occurrences -- sounds like my kind of story!

And it was good. Gault tells a story of Depression-era Saskatchewan that manages to be light and entertaining and quirky even while also being serious, exploring loneliness and sadness.

Elena Huhtela is a Finnish girl, living with her father in Trevna, a small village in the south of Saskatchewan which is primarily Swedish. Now, to those of us on the outside, the distinction might seem minor, but it matters to those who live there. Elena is also motherless, and as the story begins her father has disappeared as well. It's assumed that the pressure of the drought has got to him, and the pity people feel for Elena increases.

Elena, though, doesn't want pity. She wants escape. So at the next community dance, when a city stranger appears, she takes advantage of the situation and skips town with him. The story then ranges through many towns, hotels, and grain fields as Elena finds ways to survive and to decide how to get where she wants to go. While she does so, she touches and influences many other lives, even if she is unaware of her role. There is a particularly strong connection between Elena and a young girl named Ruth, who picks up the story later on, once Elena has mostly vanished from its pages.

This book strongly reminds me of Dianne Warren's Cool Water -- a tale of intertwining prairie lives, told with a long view. But it's a different kind of prairie novel, focusing on Swedish and Finnish immigrants. While Elena is the "beauty" of the title, the girl who is envied because of her ability to get away, she's also a cipher to those she grew up among. And she remains pretty inscrutable even to the reader -- she makes no effort to explain her actions or give any reason for her longings. The ending of the novel is touch unsatisfactory because, even as we meet up with an older Elena, there is no big resolution with Elena spilling all her secrets. She remains as she always was, silent and self-contained. While this can be a bit frustrating when you just want to know what drove her to do the things she had done, it is also very, very realistic, reminding me of other older prairie women I have known. They just don't chatter or share their inner lives with anyone.

Anyhow, a long review which can be encapsulated by saying -- great characters, wonderful writing, and a memorable hot and dry Saskatchewan setting. I liked it. This Globe & Mail review seems to share the same view of the novel as I do, and in much better depth too.


Further Reading:

Cool Water by Dianne Warren, as I've mentioned, is another Saskatchewan novel that circles around itself and reveals glimpses of the inner lives of a wide cast of characters based in Juliet, Saskatchewan. It is told in the same kind of lovely, descriptive prose too. And it's one of my own favourite books.

In some ways I was also reminded of Marina Endicott's The Little Shadows -- while it's about 3 sisters in vaudeville, it is also focused on a prairie setting, and women escaping some of the expectations on them in a pre-WWI timeframe. It looks at a number of characters, with stories intermingling, in the same poetic style.

Monday, July 27, 2015

A Desperate Fortune with Susanna Kearsley

A Desperate Fortune / Susanna Kearsley
New York: Touchstone, c2015.
498 p.

I really enjoy Susanna Kearsley's romantic fiction. I like her style, her characters, and how she imbues her stories with history.

This latest book features amateur codebreaker Sara Thomas, who has been hired to try to break the code that a 300 year old journal is written in. The journal belonged to Mary Dundas, an exiled Jacobite who, as it turns out, was heavily involved in intrigue on the continent.

As usual with Kearsley's books, the story jumps back and forth between the present day and the historical past. In this book I much preferred the past. Mary was a young but intrepid woman, clever, curious, and loyal. Her love story was slow-moving but satisfying and thoroughly convincing. Plus all the history about the Jacobites was interesting, though perhaps a little heavy on the telling. I hope the next will move away from the Jacobite background, as it has been a major part of a few books now.

The present day story didn't really grab me. Sara is an unusual main character; she has Asperger's and has found that there are certain conditions she prefers that help her to manage her work life, such as working alone. Her preferences are certainly in opposition to most expectations of being 'political' and networky in your work life, and I found her determination to do things her way quite refreshing. That said, I also found her love story rather dull and unconvincing; her love interest is a bit flat to me, and she herself never really caught me in the same way that some of Kearsley's earlier heroines have.

The major difference between this book and many of the earlier Kearsley novels is the lack of any paranormal, timeslip elements. It's a straight ahead back-and-forth between past and present, mediated by Mary's journal. I think I missed that element, and discovered that what I really love about her books is in fact the mysteriousness of the psychic, ghostly, or timey-wimey bits.

Still, even if I didn't love this one in the same way as, say, The Shadowy Horses or The Rose Garden, I still enjoyed it and look forward to the next book with just as much anticipation as always.


Further Reading:

If you like the idea of Jacobites and Scottish intrigues, mixed in with a little romance and lot of historical fact, you could always try the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. While it's longer, and more time-travellish, it does share some elements of this story.

If the modern day story in this book is what you love, check out Katherine Neville's The Eight. It's far more mystical than this book, but it features lots of codes, ciphers and politics mixed in with multiple narratives past and present, in France as well...and has a fabulous heroine.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Two Fashionable Reads in One

I've read a few books in recent weeks that deal with fashion or dresses in some way. Not a surprise, really -- I've been really focused on my sewing lately and it's colouring my reading choices too! Here are a couple of the novels that I picked up.

The Knockoff / Lucy Sykes & Jo Piazza
New York: Doubleday, c2015.
352 p.

This book had a fun premise -- recalling the likes of The Devil Wears Prada -- Glossy magazine editor Imogen Tate returns from a leave, only to find that her fashion mag is being changed to an app.

To make matters worse, all of her reliable older staff have been sidelined, some sent off to offices in former closets, or even fired. Meanwhile, a bright young thing, Eve Morton (actually Imogen's former assistant) is now in charge.

There was a lot of potential for breezy fun in this book. And there were some bits that I genuinely enjoyed. However, even as a light summer read I found there were numerous 'cons' to the novel.

Firstly, the characters = caricatures. Only Imogen feels like a real person, with interior thoughts and actual human feelings and motivations. Eve is a frighteningly nasty person; there is no nuance to her at all. She's a selfish, cruel, boorish woman who has somehow morphed from a so-so assistant to a self-absorbed, cartoonish monster. The awfulness of Eve becomes almost ridiculously so, ie: she ends up by online bullying Imogen's young daughter, which isn't really a spoiler as it is immediately obvious to the reader that this is another of Eve's horrible acts. One of the points against her, in Imogen's mind, aside from all these blatant problems, is that Imogen was nice to her when Eve worked for her and now Eve is just so ungrateful...

Also, the concept that Imogen is just SO OLD that she's completely out of touch with technology and has to learn to keep up with these scheming youngsters by getting current with Twitter and Instagram and the whole idea of apps...well. Imogen is 42. And an editor-in-chief of a major magazine. She'd know all of this already. Perhaps I was particularly surprised by this since Imogen and I are about the same age...and I'd like to think that both myself and all of my similarly old lady friends are quite hip to this whole online thing.

So, while there are fun bits, I found that the tone of the book was pretty mean-spirited, especially in its portrayal of Eve. While you're supposed to despise her, I ended up wishing that someone would stage an intervention and get her the help she needed. It's an interesting read for the fashion world setting -- and certainly put me off the idea of working in surroundings like those!

Dress Shop of Dreams / Meena van Pragh
New York: Ballantine, c2014.
326 p.

Dresses. Books. Science. All in one.

This is another story about a magical vintage dress shop (similar to A Vintage Affair by Isabel Wolff or The Secret Lives of Dresses by Erin McKean).

It's cute, sweet, a little predictable and not altogether believable -- but still entertaining and charming.

Cora Sparks is a focused realist, a scientist whose parents died mysteriously when she was quite young. She was raised by her wonderful grandmother, the owner of said dress shop. When women try on dresses there, Etta stitches in a magical little star that brings women their dreams. Mixed in with this story is Cora's search for the truth of her parents' tragic deaths, a conspiracy with long-reaching effects. And there is also a secondhand bookseller just down the street, one who bakes a mean cherry pie. And is the velvet voice of a late night radio show. Walt has been Cora's friend since they were 5 yrs old, but she doesn't see how he adores her. Until Etta throws a little magical influence into the mix...

There are many lines in the story that cross and influence one another, just like Etta's little thread stars. If you let yourself go with the flow, you'll probably enjoy this sweet read. In some bookish ways it reminded me of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (the good parts) or maybe even the slightly loopy magical bits from stories by Sarah Addison Allen.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Happy Canada Day -- with another Canadian Book Challenge!

Happy Canada Day!

What better way to celebrate Canada Day than to sign up for the 9th annual Canadian Book Challenge? John Mutford at The BookMineSet is once again the gracious host, and this year the theme is 'music'. By which I mean that the successive levels of reading are named after the top 13 Canadian albums.

This is always a fun and easy challenge -- the goal is to read 13 Canadian books between July 1 this year and next. You can set yourself a theme or personal challenge, or just read random Canadian books. The only requirement is that you share a review somewhere online for each title you are counting toward this challenge.

There are tons of suggestions at John's blog from previous challenges -- 6523 reviews, to be exact. So join in and have fun reading and celebrating our own Canadian literary heritage!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

A Trio of Lifestyle Books

I've been reading a wide variety of all kinds of books lately, but not sharing them with you! To catch up a little, here is a roundup of a trio of "lifestyle" books that I've just finished.

My New Roots: inspired plant-based recipes for every season / Sarah Britton
Toronto: PenguinRandomHouse, c2015
256 p.
I received a review copy of this beautiful cookbook, which intrigued me because the author/chef is Canadian (though she lives in Denmark), and, of course, because it's vegetarian. This book is based on her blog, also called My New Roots - which I was unaware of previous to this. What can I say, I don't really follow food blogs! It's a good, solid, vegetable based cookbook. There are nice pictures -- both of the food and of the author & her lifestyle -- which are all one and the same in this book. Britton shares life stories and seems like a normal person, ie: one that is still based in average realities, thus the recipes are not aspirational, but ones that people might actually make. The recipes are vegetarian, and sound delicious, but most are the kind that you'll have to plan ahead for to locate special ingredients & find ample time to create; though not all of them -- some are quick and tasty dips or salads or such, which are more my speed ;) If you are a real food person I think you'll enjoy this one. It's the kind of cookbook you read through even if you're not actually intending to make anything shortly. Check out her blog to get a feel for her style. Oh, and fyi, she took all the photos for the book herself too!

Homemakers / Brit Morin
New York: HarperCollins, c2015.
437 p.

This bright and colourful book by the founder of Brit & Co. is definitely not aimed at my demographic. Morin is another young woman who has left a successful tech career and gotten into crafts and the DIY arena. The book is heavily reliant on her personality; photos feature her so often it becomes notable. Interesting fact though -- the photo locations are sourced through her partnership with Airbnb. That's a clever business idea.

I can see the appeal for a certain type of young person who doesn't have a lot of experience in these areas. But a book is not a website, and unfortunately this book feels like a bit of a dog's breakfast. There are beauty tips, design, then recipes, then crafts again. Most of the crafts are basic and can be found many places, so not terribly unique.  They might appeal to those new to crafting who aren't yet concerned about technique. Also, the idealized concept of "homemaker" is not really for me.

Best part = tech suggestions at end of each chapter. Her background in tech business comes in useful, as she suggests apps and useful online resources for each of the areas she's discussing. That is her unique selling point, and that was the most intriguing part of this book.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up / Marie Kondo
Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, c2014.
213 p.

I don't really have to tell you more about this best-seller except that I put it on hold at the library just check out all the fuss. It's another of those 'get organized' minimalist kind of books. And wow. She keeps ALL her books on a shelf in the shoe closet. That told me that I'm not her kind of person. And wantonly destroying books by ripping pages out so she doesn't have to keep the whole thing! Yikes. To me that's almost neurotic.

But there were some good points: make sure what you own doesn't own you. Things you give space to should "spark joy" -- her catch phrase but it does encapsulate the idea that what you have around you should be there by choice. I did start looking at the excess stuff I have and give some away; 3 bags of books and some clothing. But generally speaking, I like my stuff. I've worked hard to earn it, and I enjoy it. I'm more of a Victorian than a Modernist when it comes to my surroundings; I like having things in my space. I've accepted that fact, and have to just keep it to a level where I can still find everything that I own. When I start forgetting where I've put things then I know it's time to have a clear-out.

As someone who finds material culture very important, especially in terms of the historical record, I'm very leery of this kind of drastic, ground-clearing approach to throwing everything out. I think there can be a balance between hoarding and minimalism, and much of that lies in reducing our consumption in the first place. So. Another book with some good points to ponder, but which doesn't entirely convince me in the end.

And how about you? Have you read any of these titles? If so, what did you think? Or do you have a lifestyle title to recommend to me?

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Neil Smith's Boo

Toronto: Knopf, c2015.
310 p.

It’s 1979, and school is not going so great for Oliver “Boo” Dalrymple – nicknamed for his pale countenance and fly-away hair. In fact, as the story begins, he blacks out right in front of his locker.

And then he wakes up in heaven, assuming that his congenital heart defect has finally done him in. It’s an unexpected heaven, in which all of the residents are 13 year old Americans, although Oliver discovers that while everyone looks 13, some of them have been there for much longer than a year. His new world is full of weirdly specific rules that he must decipher, even as he begins to make friends – just one more difference from his past life. One of these friends is another recent arrival, Johnny, someone Oliver knew in his schooldays.

But what he finds out from Johnny is that they were both murdered…and their killer just may be in heaven with them.

This sets off a journey of discovery, with Oliver, Johnny and their friends trying to figure out what actually happened to them back at school. It also instigates a lot of soul-searching about justice and what the right punishment is for their killer, if they ever find him.

The story is complex, with a diverse cast of characters who all ‘come of age’ through their experiences despite being stuck at the age of 13. The power of friendship and trust is a strong thread that weaves each of these lives together. Smith creates engaging characters with a wide-ranging variety of personalities and characteristics, and each has something new to add to the story.

Written in the form of a letter to Boo’s parents, whom he is desperate to reassure of his continued well-being, this book is a touching portrayal of a young man struggling to find the meaning of his afterlife. It is highly imaginative, thoughtful, and at times extremely funny. I haven’t come across such an original story in ages – if you’re looking for something unusual that can spark conversation about deep themes, while also being an entertaining, eventful read, give this one a try.

(this review first appeared in the Stratford Gazette, June 4, 2015)

Further Reading:

Another novel that might appeal to readers who find Boo of interest is Cynthia Rylant's The Heavenly Village. It is also an attempt to explain the unknown, the stopping place between heaven and earth. It's short, heartfelt, and while aimed at younger readers, I think it works well for older teens and adults in its sensibility.

There have been many comparisons between this book and Lord of the Flies -- I guess the "survival without adults in a strange land" element may be similar, but I find the tone very, very different. Boo has a more inclusive set of characters and much more humour. Other comparisons have been made to The Lovely Bones; again, I think it's a very tenuous connection, residing simply in the concept of a book narrated from heaven by the main character (a teen character). The style of both books is quite different, and Boo is a tightly-written, fast-paced story that avoids many of the issues that readers found distracting in The Lovely Bones.