Monday, October 22, 2018

The Death of Mrs Westaway

The Death of Mrs Westaway / Ruth Ware
Toronto: Simon & Schuster, c2018.
368 p.

A great gothic read from an author better known for her domestic thrillers - yes, there are similarities, but the gothic themes of family secrets and old houses, with a young woman protagonist, are much more my thing.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this seasonal read, as I wasn't taken with this author's other, very popular novels. But this one starts out promisingly, and moves along quickly with lots of trails to follow. While I did feel the ending was fairly guessable, it was still an entertaining journey.

Harriet (Hal) Westaway reads tarot on Brighton Pier, struggling to make ends meet after her mother has died. She receives a letter saying that she has received an inheritance from her grandmother, also named Westaway -- but she knows that this is a mistake, as her grandmother died many years previously. The enticement of money, just enough to catch up and pay the loan sharks, and maybe to find a better place to live, is too much for her, though, and so she travels down to Trepassen House to meet her "relatives" and cash in a little, even though she knows that it's wrong to claim this mistaken inheritance.

When she arrives, though, she slowly realizes that there is a real family connection between herself and these Westaways. A dark, crumbling house with deadbolts on the outside of Hal's attic room; a creepy housekeeper who slinks around the house like Mrs Danvers; family secrets, unexpected bequests, and deep dark twisted love affairs of the past come to light slowly and bit by bit -- until Hal has to keep herself alive just long enough to escape. 

It's perfectly old-fashioned gothic reading, with even the landscape and climate colluding with the story's atmosphere. Hal is a modern heroine, but still plays by the gothic heroine rules of not seeing what's right in front of her and metaphorically going into the basement... but it works wonderfully. The use of Hal's tarot as symbolic foreshadowing also adds to the richness of the story. The mix of classic tropes and modern conveniences is great, setting this clearly in the present but with a strong sense of the reach of the past. 

Really a great read, shivery and mysterious in all the best ways. Companion read: Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca

Saturday, October 13, 2018

An Ocean of Minutes

An Ocean of Minutes / Thea Lim
Toronto: Viking, c2018.
322 p.

This is the only novel on the Giller 20108 shortlist that I've read so far. And honestly, I'm not 100% sure I'd have put this one on my own personal shortlist if I were a judge. It's not very Canadian at all, in setting or in feel. 

I was first attracted by the story, another dystopian tale of women and an uncertain future. I've been reading so many of these lately. In this one, it's a bit of a different setup -- it's the 80's, there's a deadly flu raging across America, and in order to afford a treatment for her boyfriend Frank, Polly takes the opportunity offered by a time travel company who will take you forward as basically an indentured servant to work off your debt. The plan is that Frank and Polly can meet up again in 15 years when he catches up to her in time, even though he'll be 15 years older while she's only a year or so older. It's perfect. 

But of course it isn't. Polly's odd skills as an upholsterer are, for some reason, in demand. When she arrives in the future, two years later than she'd been scheduled for, she tries to get to the arranged meet-up location she and Frank had set for themselves. She's part of a regimented workforce, though, with hardly any free time, and there are security barriers everywhere, making it hard for her to move anywhere. And there is a strange subplot with her boss, the reason she's been sent forward in time, although it doesn't seem like he actually does anything.

She struggles through a difficult year, trying to adjust to her new reality in a divided America. And when she finally finds a way to leave Texas to find her long-lost aunt, and hopefully Frank, things don't turn out quite as she'd planned. 

The pros of the story were its interesting set-up, and potential for some really interesting investigation of time, age, and troubled history/future timelines. 

The cons, for me, were far more in evidence. The time travel element wasn't used to full advantage, I didn't feel -- it was very mundane and dull. The dystopia was sort of believable but not entirely -- America was divided after the flu, but seems to have gone on much the same as before, though more fragmented. Polly and Frank's love story, and their very names and back stories, are painfully everyman, so bland! But worst of all for me was the emotional throughline of the book. There is no payoff for the world building Lim is doing; why did Polly go through all of this? What did she learn? What relevance does it have to a wider humanity? Does love conquer all? 

None of these questions were satisfactorily answered for me; to my tastes this was a cynical and despairing read. I think I am not in the mood for these sort of trendy ideas these days -- if I want terrible and hopeless I'll just read the news. In a dystopian novel published in times like this, I want to see some sense of meaning. We can already see the terrible path we're on -- I want some vision of redemption, which I didn't get here at all. So, not my favourite read of the year.

In its inconclusive narrative, and the idea of civilization just petering out without much thought, it reflects another recent dystopia I've just read, Liz Harmer's The Amateurs. Both of these books miss their chance to say something powerful about humanity's survival, I feel. For a dystopia that is beautiful and still resonates with hope in a terrible time, I will still go with Station Eleven for my best bet. 

Monday, October 01, 2018

12th Annual Canadian Book Challenge: October Round Up

1. Click on the icon above
2. Add a link to your review. (Please link to your specific review, not an entire webpage.)
3. Add your name and in parentheses the title of the book, such as Melwyk (Anne of Green Gables)
4. In the comment section below, tell me your grand total so far. (ex. "This brings me up to 1/13")
5. In the comment section below, note whether you've read a book which meets the monthly challenge set via email for participants.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The Saturday Night Ghost Club

The Saturday Night Ghost Club / Craig Davidson
Toronto: Knopf Canada, c2018.
272 p.

As the fall draws in, it is a good time to turn to reads that are a bit spooky, a bit shivery perhaps. The Saturday Night Ghost Club by Canadian author Craig Davidson is one of those books.

It begins with a Stranger Things, 80s vibe – young boys on their bikes, exploring strange places around Cataract City (Niagara). The cover also gives off that retro feel. But the sense of nostalgia for an 80s childhood which comes from the narrator looking back at those years and telling us all about them has a deeper significance, because this story is also about memory and trauma and how our minds manage those things. Very conveniently, the narrator, Jake, has grown up to be a neurosurgeon, with lots to say about how the brain works and how it stores memories - expanding on the theme. 

The heart of the book lies in the relationship between Jake and his Uncle Calvin. Calvin owns the Occultorium, a shop dedicated to the occult, conspiracy theories and the uncanny, and seems to be uncertain himself where that line between everyday life and the supernatural lies. He and Jake have a close relationship, partly because Uncle C seems to be a bit of a child himself, still believing in the kind of magic that gets "kicked out of you, churched out, shamed out - or worse, you steal it from yourself." As long as Jake has known him, Uncle C has never been ordinary. The summer that Jake turns twelve, Calvin invites both Jake and his new friend Billy Yellowbird to join the Saturday Night Ghost Club, in which they will visit haunted sites of Cataract City together.

After their first terrifying foray to a haunted railway tunnel, they almost call it quits. But Cal convinces them to keep checking out other locations connected to spooky urban legends. Sites which have deeper connections to their lives than any of them know. You'll have to read this fairly short book to get a sense of how these connections ultimately match up, and why. 

The tone of the story is nostalgic and folksy, with recollections of innocent adventures and misunderstandings of adult life. Jake's coming of age is centred on this summer; he loses his innocence and a belief in the world as a friendly place over the weeks of the Ghost Club. He's also experiencing his first love, once he meets Dove, Billy's tough and independent older sister. All of that 80s nostalgia and boys noticing girls thing, rolled up together with a pinch of melodrama and heartache. Perfect! 

Davidson has viscerally captured a sense of boyhood and nostalgia. The book reflects similar reads like Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine, or Stephen King's Stand By Me. It's a story you won't want to put down; it grabs you and forces you to look clearly at a summer recalled -- and to consider how we remember things and how we shape our own pasts to suit ourselves. 

I had a few quibbles with it: it did feel slightly emotionally manipulative in some ways - with dashes of sentimental writing and melodramatic revelations that made me wince slightly. And upon reflection, I'm not a fan of the golden haze laid over the intense masculinity of Jake's father and the other characters that the chubby, nerdy Jake encounters. It felt a little bit like a stage set of "the past" -- here's what real men are like, and Jake admiring it all the more because it's not what he is like. 

But as a quick literary/genre blend, with some great characters and memorable writing overall, it's a great pick. The interest in the 80s right now, even from those who didn't grow up then, added to the clear compassion that Davidson feels for his characters, equals a sure fire read. Well worth seeking out, even if it is only available in Canada for the moment. 

Friday, September 07, 2018


Starlight / Richard Wagamese
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, c2018.
239 p.

This was a fraught read: it's the last, and unfinished, novel by Richard Wagamese. I didn't want to finish it, knowing that. But, of course, I did. I was glad to have the chance to read this last work, but unfortunately it wasn't as strong as I'd hoped. 

It's a story featuring Franklin Starlight, the protagonist of Medicine Walk, which I think is probably my favourite Wagamese novel.

Franklin is now middle-aged, still living on the isolated BC farm he was raised on, and settled into a bachelor life with his friend and employee Roth. 

The other strand of this story involves Emmy and her young daughter Winnie. Emmy is in a seriously abusive relationship, and one day decides to flee. She takes her daughter and steals her partner's truck, heading west as far as she can get. But she can't shake everything; her awful ex and his partner in crime spend the next year tracking her down through city streets and squalor.

She ends up in a tiny town near Franklin's farm, squatting in an abandoned house; but through a series of incidents, ends up being taken in by him as a housekeeper of sorts. It's this relationship that is the heart of the book -- they begin to change each other as Franklin becomes a little more sociable, and Emmy begins to trust the world again as he teaches her lessons from the land. 

It's a story that has more in common with Wagamese's earlier books such as Dream Wheels that with Franklin's early story in Medicine Walk, at least I think so. The tone is even, with the relationship between Franklin and Emmy fairly low-key romantic. Franklin's approach to the land is highly individual and mystical, and sometimes also a bit too much for me -- besides farming, he is also a wildlife photographer, and the descriptions of how he gets his intimate photos were a bit purpley for my tastes. The spark of light humour comes from Roth, but even that is a little old-fashioned in some ways. 

In any case, just as the drama in the story is coming to a head, there is no more book. It ends there. But one thing I was glad for was that the publisher did not try to find someone else to write it based on Wagamese's notes. Instead, they describe what he was thinking and how he intended to end it, alongside some earlier writing that indicates the direction of this book. And they include some other relevant writing that he was doing before he passed away. 

It was a fitting way to close the book. And to convince anyone who hasn't read all of his works so far to go back and pick up those missing titles. It's definitely and unmistakably a Wagamese read. 

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

RIP Challenge XIII

It's the Thirteenth Year for the RIP (Readers Imbibing Peril) Challenge! (running Sept 1 - Oct 31) How can you not want to join a spooky challenge in its 13th year? Well, I must once again join in. I've done this challenge a number of times, since as founder Carl of Stainless Steel Droppings has said, fall is the best time for spooky reading.

This year's organizers have a blog dedicated to the challenge. What are the rules? Well, it's pretty easy!

The purpose of the R.I.P. Challenge is to enjoy books that could be classified as:

Dark Fantasy.

The emphasis is never on the word challenge, instead it is about coming together as a community and embracing the autumnal mood, whether the weather is cooperative where you live or not.
The goals are simple. 

1. Have fun reading.

2. Share that fun with others.

As we do each and every year, there are multiple levels of participation (Perils) that allow you to be a part of R.I.P. XII without adding the burden of another commitment to your already busy lives. There is even a one book only option for those who feel that this sort of reading is not their cup of tea (or who have many other commitments) but want to participate all the same.

Multiple perils await you. You can participate in just one, or participate in them all.

I'm choosing Peril the Second: read two books that fit within these parameters & review them before October 31! I am hoping to slide up to Peril the First and get  four books read but knowing myself I'm just aiming for two :)

While lists are not required for this challenge, I have a few titles on my tbr that would fit. My tentative list is:

Hopefully I can get through some of these great reads in the next month & a half or so :)

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Glass Beads

Glass Beads / Dawn Dumont
Saskatoon: Thistledown Press, c2017.
266 p.

After so much international reading last month, I've returned home -- back to Saskatchewan where I grew up, in fact! 

But this is a different Saskatchewan experience than mine was - it's the story of four Indigenous characters --  Everett Kaiswatim, Nellie Gordon, Julie Papequash, and Nathan (Taz) Mosquito --  all living in Saskatoon, the first among their families to live off the reserve.

In a set of interconnected short chapters, Dumont takes us through a couple of decades, from the 90s to the 2000s. The characters develop from shy or wild younger people to slightly older and more experienced ones, who have a deeper understanding of themselves and the elements of their lives. It's a quiet novel, in a way, often concerned with domestic decisions, and the mundane daily round of life. But this is what makes it shine.

From first dates (ie: Julie's first date with a white guy, supported by her roommates) to Everett's landlord being imprisoned for domestic violence, to their own experiences with violence, racism and figuring out who they want to be (independent? married? politician? businessperson?) the characters share a range of personalities and desires. 

As usual, I found the women more interesting; they had twice as much to manage, with sexism playing a role in their lives alongside everything else. They all seemed strong enough to survive, in their own ways, though. I did feel like Nellie was the heart of the book; from the beginning pages to the conclusion, she observed, and reset herself, and managed to find her space. 

While earlier novels I've read by Dumont had a lot more humour in them (she's a very funny writer), this more serious overview of a quartet of relationships was touching, believable, and very readable. I was involved in these lives, wanting to see how they'd sort it all out. I loved the setting, and oh, that cover! 

Definitely recommended; reflecting the concerns and desires of a particular group of people we don't hear from enough, it's honest, clear and the construction of it means you can read it bit by bit and not miss anything. Great for picking up in those short bursts of time you might have available.

It's also a nominee for the 2018 Evergreen Award, so Ontario readers, get into your libraries this month and remember to vote for your Evergreen choice!