Friday, November 26, 2021

List of My Desires

The List of My Desires / Grégoire Delacourt
trans. from the French by Anthea Bell
London : Phoenix, 2014, c2013.
214 p.

Jocelyne is 47, slightly overweight, in a dull long-term marriage, and works at a dressmaking shop. She's also just started a sewing blog, and has been convinced by her best friends (twins who run a hairdressing shop) to buy a lotto ticket, for the very first time. And then she wins 18 million Euros.
She is so shocked that she doesn't tell anyone, just hides the cheque in a shoe and starts to wonder what to do with it. She doesn't want this to disrupt her placid life of small desires, even if it isn't that great. She's worried that having so much money will change everything; even the lawyers she met in Paris to pick up her cheque have warned her that sudden wealth can be dangerous. 

Jocelyne had to give up her dreams at 17, when her mother died, and she seems to have boxed herself in to not wanting much because of it. She puts up with her boring relationship, she plods along in her daily routine, and when she suddenly has the chance to change everything up, she's afraid to. 

She begins to make a list of her desires: a new bathmat, a coat, maybe a visit to her daughter in England...small desires indeed. Although, as she notes, these things are important:

Because our needs are our little daily dreams. The little things to be done that project us into tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, the future; trivial things that we plan to buy next week, allowing us to think that next week we'll still be alive.

But despite her caution, and her insistence to herself that everything is just fine the way it is, things go wrong and great wealth does indeed corrupt her intimate circle. Jocelyne must carry on, and she does, with her new sewing blog taking off and making her new friends, opening up new opportunities that will improve her life on a more human scale than 18 million Euros would.

It's a poignant story of money & desire, questioning whether it's really okay to want more, and what it means to our sense of self to have a sudden change like this. I'm sure everyone has thought about what you might do if you won the lotto, the changes you'd make to your life or the things you would buy or places you'd visit. This book makes you think about your desires and their scope, and would be a great discussion starter. If you don't mind a little French sentiment in your reading, this small book might be a great choice for you.  

Also, one of my favourite elements of the book is the fact that it's Jocelyne's work with fabric and haberdashery, and the creative outlet of her sewing blog, which anchors the book. When she's visiting a large fabric store in Paris the day she is wandering around stunned at her win, she says

My hands plunge into the fabrics, my fingers tremble at the contact with organdie, fine felt, jute, patchwork. I feel the intoxication... All the women here are beautiful. Their eyes shine. Looking at a piece of fabric, they already imagine a dress, a cushion, a doll. They make dreams; they have the beauty of the world at their fingertips.
Despite some minor flaws, this was a solid read giving a reader quite a bit to think about.  


Friday, November 19, 2021

The Prairie Chicken Dance Tour

 

The Prairie Chicken Dance Tour / Dawn Dumont
Calgary: Freehand Books, c2021
304 p.

I've been looking forward to this novel by the very funny and sharp Saskatchewan writer, Dawn Dumont. I read it as soon as it was released, and loved it. It's a return to the zany caper energy of her earlier Rose's Run, a novel I also greatly enjoyed. 

This story is set in the 70s, and it follows a ragtag group who heads to Europe to fulfill a dance tour commitment, when the real dance troupe comes down with food poisoning just before they are about to leave. John Greyeyes, retired cowboy and brother of the band chief, is arm-twisted into running this makeshift tour. He's in charge of two female dancers -- Edna, a middle aged woman with arthritis, and Desiree, her niece -- and Lucas Pretends Eagle, an American who is supposed to be a star dancer. John has to shepherd them to Europe, keep on their itinerary, teach Edna and Desiree to dance in the meantime, and get them all home again, on just a few hundred bucks upfront. Just a tiny challenge. 

There are shenanigans right from the start. From their flight to Europe which does not go as planned, to their performances at the Indigenous World Gathering and on into Germany and Italy, John is performing damage control. And it's Edna, who is keeping a journal of their trip which appears at the beginning of each chapter, who becomes the surprise star of the story (at least for me!) 

Dumont takes on many serious issues in this novel -- from misogyny, racism, the fetishization of "Indians" by Germans in particular and Europeans more widely, residential school effects, religion, and sexual orientation, to the way society turns Indigenous people against themselves, and questions of ownership of Indigenous artefacts and culture. But the book is also hilarious. In one unexpected turn after another, something nutty is happening. Beyond the plot devices, there are also sly digs at every stereotype you can think of, and Edna in particular has the same habit of sarcastic commentary as Rose did in the earlier novel mentioned above. I laughed out loud in parts, and thought the characters were engaging even while being embroiled in slightly ridiculous events. 

But there are also serious bits, and parts where you just feel for the characters, each suffering their own secret difficulties. Edna is in constant pain from arthritis but is also deeply religious due to her residential school upbringing, which is a dissonance in her life. John, a handsome loner, finds a connection with Per Ollman, their Swedish guide to the Indigenous World Gathering in Kiruna, Sweden. He is startled by his reactions to Per, and by Per's matter-of-fact recognition that they are both gay. John struggles with this but by the end of the book he's starting to accept this new understanding of himself. 

I really enjoyed the writing style, and the mix of serious and silly in the book. It was fun, entertaining, enlightening, and has a great cast of characters. Definitely one to draw out lots of discussion and opinion, and one which engages the reader and zips by. If you enjoy Thomas King or Drew Hayden Taylor's sharply humorous novels, I think you might really like this one too. 

Friday, October 22, 2021

The Dressmaker

The Dressmaker / Beryl Bainbridge
London: Abacus, 2010, c1973.
183 p.

I was drawn to this novel because I've always meant to read some Bainbridge, and also because of the title, obviously. But I was quite taken aback by the violence, squalor, and casual racism in this story.

Bainbridge is considered a classic writer, and this book was shortlisted for the Booker prize (what?) After reading it, I can't understand it. The story features two repressed women, Nellie and Margo, in 1940s Liverpool, who are raising their niece Rita, since her mother is dead and her father is weak and can't take care of a young girl. He shows up now and again to visit, but he's not a big part of Rita's emotional life. 

Rita knows that their life is grim and squalid but America, well, that's the glimmering land of plenty. When she's introduced to a GI she gloms right on, seeing her chance. But the relationship isn't really an unqualified success: she's naive and backward, he's both lecherous and unintelligent, and her aunts decide he's going to have to go. 

I was interested in seeing why this book was called The Dressmaker, and it's because Nellie is the neighbourhood seamstress -- there is description of the lovely fabrics she spreads out and cuts (the only beautiful things in the entire book), the dresses she makes for the wealthier girl down the road who is the lucky one with a charming GI, and also, some dressmaking shears play a role in the denouement of this story.

However, the characters are all awful, their living conditions are completely depressing, their personalities are all perverse, backstories dreadful, futures hopeless, and there is a shocking inclusion of racist language that persists throughout the book for no reason at all. This is written in the 70s but set in the 40s, and for a bit I was trying to figure out whether this element was meant to show the horrible nature of this family. But it seems that it is just there; was this normal in 1940s Liverpool? If so, was it necessary to use it in this book since there are many other indicators that this family is terrible? It keeps repeating due to the way it is used, and it's completely off-putting -- it's really awful and stained this story.

So despite my hopes for this slim book, I do not recommend. The only saving grace was that it was really short. 
 

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

The Iron Gates

The Iron Gates / Margaret Millar
NY: Syndicate, 2018, c1945
241 p.

The Iron Gates is the novel that really made Margaret Millar -- it was a hit when it was published and made her a lot of money. And it's so definitively a Millar -- completely character based, with strong, unique and messed-up characters all around. And a twisty plot with a surprise ending, too. I don't think anyone can throw unexpected conclusions at you the way that Margaret Millar can. Even when you're expecting something strange, you never seem to predict just how she'll do it. 

This one is pretty dark and disturbing. Lucille Morrow is the second wife of a successful Toronto physician. His first wife was murdered years before as she was crossing High Park on the way home from Lucille's -- who was her close friend. The murder was never solved, and is still a sore point between Lucille and her step-children, since they feel she comforted their father and became his second wife far too quickly. Note that the resentment doesn't carry over to their father. 

She's the ideal wife, despite having to deal with the dislike of her then teenage stepchildren, who are now young adults. In fact her stepdaughter is about to be married to a serviceman before he heads overseas, and the household is in a bit of a fuss when the story opens because he is about to come and meet the whole family before the quick wedding. 

But a few days later, just before the wedding, Lucille disappears. Why? Where is she, and what caused her mysterious flight? Could it have been her stepdaughter, or the new beau? Or perhaps her sister-in-law (who lives with them) has let her jealousy overcome her? Everyone is suspect, although Millar doesn't present it as a detective story as much as a psychological study of repression, secrets and resentments. 

The plot is wild, with Lucille found in a psychological hospital (those Iron Gates might protect her) and other randomly appearing characters becoming important allies, or suspects. It's unpredictable both by human and by storytelling norms. It's a ride, including train wrecks, drugs, seedy criminals, asylums, and more. And the creeping sense of doom and paranoia is chilling. 

So definitely a great read. I also appreciated the fact that the book is set in Toronto (see map included on the back of one edition below.) She sets a few of her novels right in Toronto (for example the wonderful An Air That Kills) though most are set in California where she lived most of her life despite being from Kitchener-Waterloo in Canada.

Map from back of a Dell edition

If you haven't read Millar yet, I encourage you to find any of her work and give her a try. Her psychological insight, skill at misdirection, and wacky plots are not to be missed. She's one of my favourite mystery writers, and thankfully I still have a few unread titles to get to. 


Sunday, October 17, 2021

Ask for Me Tomorrow

Ask For Me Tomorrow / Margaret Millar
NY: Soho Syndicate, 2017, c1976.
179 p.

Another Millar, one of a trio I've read recently, this one introduces her detective Tom Aragon, who appears in three novels. It's an interesting mystery, one that was complicated and curious, like many of her stories. It was written and is set in 1976, and has more of a sense of irony than some of the earlier books. 

Tom Aragon is a Mexican-American attorney who is now working as a private investigator, and the book is slightly noir-ish. But he's unlike your usual misogynistic, wise-cracking noir detective -- for one thing he has a delightful wife who is busy with her own life as a professor, and he calls her regularly to check in. It's a charming counterpoint to the messed up marriages he's investigating. 

In this story, he's been hired by Gilda Decker, a wealthy woman who wants to locate her ex-husband B.J., who has hidden himself somewhere in Mexico after running off with their maid years before. She needs the money he's concealed from her, since her new husband Marco had a stroke on their honeymoon and now needs constant medical care. She hires Tom to go to Mexico and track B.J. down. Obviously, Tom's a good choice -- he can speak the language and knows the lay of the land. But even he is stymied by the fact that every time he gets a good lead, that lead dissolves in a rather final way.  

But no matter how many times he returns to Gilda's home (also home to a religious nut of a housekeeper, and a medical orderly for Marco/pool boy who seems rather friendly with Gilda) and tells her he's had no luck, she is convinced he can fix things, and sends him back down again. He takes the job for the money and the belief that he can quickly solve the issues, but it's proving more complicated and involved than he'd first expected. 

Millar is a genius at convoluted plots and character building, and this one definitely has a surprise in the final pages that I was not expecting at all. The characters are strong and as twisted and confusing as usual, but I did find some of the earlier novels a little more psychologically compelling. This one feels very 70s so if you're looking for that vibe I'd definitely recommend it. Of course, I recommend reading all of Millar, who is not as widely acknowledged as she should be, in my opinion! 

If you read this and figure it out long before I did, let me know -- I think anyone who appreciates a twisty character-driven story will find this a satisfying read. 

*********************

I'm also sharing this review as part of the #1976Club hosted by Kaggsy Bookish Ramblings. If you like to read by year, check out her list of this and previous club years' reading roundups! 

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Banshee

Banshee / Margaret Millar
NY: Syndicate, 2018, c1983.
495 p.(collected volume)


I've been on a bit of a mystery kick lately, started off with picking up some more Margaret Millar. I have this collection of the complete works put out by Syndicate, and I am slowly reading my way through it. I usually only read one at a time, trying to keep some still unread for myself. But this time I couldn't stop and read three in a row! The first is Banshee, one of her later works.

Millar is a psychological writer, and her endings are always unpredictable. Everyone is slightly off balance in many of her works, and that is the case here. People are affected by what happens in her books, they do find tragedy tragic, they react, they break. 

In this novel, we first meet Annamay Hyatt, an 8 yr old leading a charmed life. She's a princess attended by her faithful servants, two big family dogs. She has a castle -- a lovely playhouse built by the young architect who also designed the family house, a friend of the family. She is a beautiful child, a delight. Until she goes missing, and her body is found in the woods months later. 

This strains her parents' already shaky marriage; her father moves into the garden house, obsessed with doing the investigation that the police can't seem to manage. He is aided by his friend, a local minister who performed Annamay's baptism and also her funeral, and has lost his faith in the meantime. Her grandfather also lives with the family, and he now spends his time staring his pond of goldfish, wondering why he and the fish are still alive at a great age and Annamay isn't. The housekeeper feels she didn't protect Annamay well enough, the architect has his own difficulty with the events while his tawdry girlfriend is angry at his attachment to the family. Even the slightly mad woman kept in a locked house across the fields has heard the Banshee and knows something. And nobody seems to be overly concerned with the way that Annamay best friend and cousin, the slightly older Dru, is dealing with (or not) her feelings about Annamay's loss. 

Into this stew of emotion and suspicion Millar adds the town's suspicions, and the strange actions of both odd neighbours and family and friends alike. Every person's life is looked into by the reader, and you're not sure which details are relevant to the mystery itself or are simply the oddity of personal life lived out of sight of anyone else. It's heart-pounding in parts, especially near the end, and I was sure I knew who'd done it, although I was wrong. The ending is a shock, and sends reverberations backward through the entire story and the way it was presented, and implicates the reader through our own suspicions. I haven't stopped thinking about this one since I finished it. Highly recommended. 
 



Sunday, September 19, 2021

A Shortcut to Paradise

A Short Cut to Paradise / Teresa Solana
Translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush 
London: Bitter Lemon Press, 2011, c2008.
310 p.

After reading and enjoying Solana's short story collection in August, I decided to pick up this mystery to try next. I was hoping it would be as entertaining as the first book. It sort of was, but didn't quite hit the mark for me. 

A Short Cut to Paradise is the name of a novel within the book, the last novel written by Marina Dolc before she was brutally murdered, immediately after winning a big literary prize. Twin detectives Borja and Eduard are asked by a literary agent to investigate, as her client, fellow writer Amadeu Cabestany has been arrested although he maintains that he's innocent. 

The reader knows that he is innocent, as we see him elsewhere during the time of the murder, on the first few pages. But Solana takes advantage of this setup to skewer Barcelona's literary establishment, the police and government, and the actions of everyday society as well.

There are some funny bits as the twins encounter suspects and sources, trying to behave like 'real detectives'. And the experiences of Amadeu Cabestany in prison are rather ironically amusing (as is his final outcome). However, the book dragged on a bit, going in circles in the middle and feeling like it was just being padded a bit. There was a completely unnecessary scene that added nothing to the mystery or its solution, it felt like a set piece dropped into the book -- an orgy at a literary party caused by hallucinogenic appetizers. 

The elements of literary pretension and satire definitely entertained me, and the mystery made sense once the solution was revealed (it was actually a bit sad). The Barcelona setting was also a strong element of this story, one of the most absorbing bits really. I found the characters of Eduard and Borja interesting enough to perhaps pick up another title in this series in future, but this is very light reading indeed and another might have to wait until next summer when I need something frivolous to read on the beach ;)