Monday, February 27, 2017

Essential Jay Macpherson

The Essential Jay Macpherson / selected by Melissa Dalgleish.
Erin, ON: Porcupine's Quill, c2017.
63 p.

This is another volume in Porcupine Quill's Essential Poets series, a series I've enjoyed over the years for its beauty and cohesion of design. Also because there have been some pretty great poets featured, from my favourite, PK Page, to this new volume of poems by a contemporary of Page but a poet I've never read despite my Canlit degree -- Jay Macpherson. I was delighted by this collection and by the discovery of a clever and witty poet whose style reminds me in some ways of the arch humour of Margaret Atwood. 

In the publisher's blurb and the intro to this book, they introduce Macpherson as "one of the leading figures of Canada’s mythopoeic modernist movement." She was acquainted with Robert Graves, influenced by Jung and by myths biblical, classical and Sumerian, and had a long-standing relationship with Northrop Frye. She also taught, and influenced generations of Canadian poets, like Atwood. 

I enjoyed these concise, deliberate poems; wry, clever, referencing literature and the bookish past, while yet being freshly modern and told with a feminine slant. She doesn't shy away from topics like racism in the academy (The Ballad of Dr. Coolie) or questions of female autonomy. There is much solemn mythologizing, but also a lot of quick humour and language play. I think I could probably read these over again a few more times before beginning to get a grasp on them -- it feels like there is a lot more to them to explore. 

When I first opened the book, I started at the end and flipped toward the front. Thus the first poem I read is the final one in the book, a very brief and funny poem called "A Winter Night (Long After Lampman)". Those who've studied Canadian poetry and had Lampman's poems of rural visioning and nature worship as part of your experience will most likely find this as entertaining as I did, as Macpherson takes the natural world extolled by Lampman and neatly turns it on its head. 

Anyhow, if you've never read one of the Essential Poets in this series, I do encourage you to take a look. This volume, as well as PK Page and Don Coles, have been favourites of mine. The beautiful paper, covers and endpapers make a lovely object as well. 

You can also read a couple of Macpherson's poems at the publisher's website, including her first poem ever published, Non-Identification, which was published when she was fifteen. 

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Banquet of Donny & Ari

The Banquet of Donny &  Ari / Naomi Guttman
London: Brick Books, c2015.
89 p.

Poetry inspired by mythological stories always appeals to me. This one is a funny one though; the premise on the back cover says:

If Dionysus and Ariadne lived in Montreal in the late twentieth century, would he serve veal stuffed with apples and paté de fois gras? Coach nubile young singers in a performance of L’Orfeo? Would Ariadne’s thread be fashioned into tapestries of furious elegy in the face of environmental catastrophe? Would their marriage survive?

But the characters themselves feel like regular modern people, not godlike at all. They're a married couple, Donny and Ari. Donny is a music professor, teaching singers (often lovely young ones) while Ari is an artist, with many poems about her weaving. She's also fallen into despair about the state of the world, and it affects her relationships, to her family and to food. Donny is a gourmet cook, Ari has distanced herself from food and its role in their lives.

They also have two sons, Onno and Stephan, and many of the tender moments in the book have to do with these boys. In one example, Donny takes them to Newfoundland for a holiday at his mother's in one poem, leaving Ari in Montreal. The three of them together are sweetly evoked, again with many food related phrases.

The poems tell a story of this marriage, of survival in our modern world with all its perils both politic and intimate. I really appreciated the style; the poems range between these characters, using their individual pursuits with their specific vocabularies to illuminate the larger picture. And the web of relationships, to children, parents, extended family, pets and objects, is finely drawn. And in the end, despite the vicissitudes of life, their relationship remains. It's an operetta composed of poems which depend on character to propel the story, but which equally rely on the beauty of Guttman's language to capture and enthrall the reader.

And for a few more days, this relationship focused collection can be found for $10 as part of Brick Books' special February offer on a selected list of their titles. Check it out while it lasts.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Two by Simone St James

When you aren't feeling all too great on a long weekend and can't really take advantage of all the time to do active things, what do you turn to? Well, that's what happened to me this weekend, and I always turn to some enjoyable comfort reads. 

So I have two books by a favourite author, Simone St James, to share with you. I've read all of her work now, and always anticipate more. You can see my earlier thoughts on The Haunting of Maddy Clare, or An Inquiry into Love and Death (still my favourite) or  Silence for the Dead. Or you can see what I thought of these two romantic, gothic, supernaturalish reads!

The Other Side of Midnight / Simone St James
New York: NAL, c2015.
318 p.

This one is a bit different from her other work: while there is a paranormal aspect, instead of a haunting we have a couple of spiritualists who can talk to the dead. 

It's set, as usual, in the 20s. This is London between the wars, when belief in spiritualism and the longing to reconnect with the many lost lives is strong. Ellie Winter gave up her practice as a spiritualist alongside her mother after an incident; however, her former rival Gloria Sutter has just been murdered at a seance and had left instructions for Ellie to find her. 

So Ellie is drawn back into the thick of things, with Gloria's brother pushing her from one side and paranormal investigator James Hawley pushing from the other. The mystery turns out to be just as much connected to the political everyday as it is supernatural. But Ellie both finds her feet as the gifted psychic she is, and finds a solid romance too, through this exercise. 

St James writes a thoroughly believable London, with description of places and feelings and social norms strongly drawn. I just wanted Ellie to succeed and be happy, and so was very satisfied with the conclusion of this novel. Once again, entertaining and page-turning reading.

Lost Among the Living / Simone St James
New York: NAL, c2016.
337 p.

It's 1921, and Jo Manders, having lost her husband Alex as MIA in WWI, needs to find a living. She ends up as a paid companion to Alex's Aunt Dottie. 

And Dottie's life is no bed of roses. When they arrive at her country home, Jo finds that there are mysteries, both real and paranormal, to contend with. Not to mention that Dottie's husband and son are both problematic - rude, withdrawn, disagreeable.

With a sense of ghosts lurking, and paranormal experiences that Jo seems to accept naturally, this is a creepy tale indeed. Alex's cousin Georgina, always considered slightly off, committed suicide at a young age, and she haunts the premises (quite literally). The mystery element and the romance element are both strong, and slightly reminiscent of DuMaurier's Rebecca.

That said, Jo is not my favourite heroine so far, and so I found that I didn't engage as deeply in her story. I found there to be quite a few coincidences & strange choices on her behalf, so didn't love this story as much as the other St. James I've read. Of course, that still means that this was a very good read, and a perfect choice for comfort reading nonetheless! The mystery is indeed very mysterious, and only reveals itself slowly, keeping the reader guessing. And the atmosphere is perfectly 20's, English, ghost story. Well worth checking out.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem

The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem / Sarit Yishai-Levi; translated from the Hebrew by Anthony Berris.
New York: Thomas Dunne, c2016.
374 p.

Amongst all my Canadian reads lately, I'm still reading some stories of other places. I'd heard this one talked about a bit online, and then it came in at my library and looked like just the thing for me. 

Somehow, I'd missed everything about it except that it was about a family of women in Jerusalem. And that turned out to be a great thing, because the story was a real surprise for me. I began reading about the Ermosa family; the matriarch Mercada, her favourite son Gabriel who falls out of favour by falling in love with an Ashkenazi, his punishment of a quick marriage to the lowly Rosa (an orphan and house cleaner) and then the succeeding lives of their children and grandchildren. It's a big, long, interwoven, historical, dramatic family saga which strongly reminds me of Latin American literature. 

When I began reading, I didn't twig to the family's name right away. On the first page, they use Spanish phrases (actually Ladino, which I comprehended shortly) and eating Spanish food and I was very confused. Then it became clear; this is a Sephardic family, who had come to Palestine from Spain long before the Mandate, and lived through all the upheaval that brought Israel into statehood. 

I knew next to nothing about either of these things, except for the basic history that is generally taught. So I found this book very illuminating about the state of life in Palestine and Israel. I found that there was a great deal of conflict between Sephardi and Ashkenazi, which I hadn't realized before. It made me sad; even in a state being created for the Jewish people there were still divisions about who was the better Jew. But it seems like this happens everywhere, to every country. 

Anyhow, the book was a bit of a lengthy read as there are many characters. It follows four generations of this family, with the lynch-pin being Rosa and Gabriel's oldest daughter, Luna. She outshines her sisters by her force of personality (though her sisters are much nicer people), and she is the centre of the world to the narrator, her daughter Gabriela, despite their rocky relationship. As we learn about her in the title drop:

   Luna talked about clothes as if they were precious objects, each dress a diamond, every skirt a pearl. Her love for clothes infected everyone who came in to the shop, and there wasn't a customer who left empty-handed. 
   The shop employed several seamstresses who made the clothes according to patterns that appeared in Burda magazine, and Luna would devour the magazine voraciously, studying it for hours on end. She spent all her wages on clothes, she purchased from the shop, and was always dressed at the height of fashion, accessorized to the most minute detail. The polish on her fingernails matched that on her toenails, which matched her lipstick, which in turn matched her dress, shoes and handbag. As she dressed, she blossomed.
   Luna grew more beautiful from day to day, and her beauty was renowned throughout Jerusalem. "The beauty queen," they called her, "the beauty queen of Jerusalem." And she , who was aware of her beauty and understood the looks of the men who were unable to tear their eyes from her, shamelessly exploited it. It accorded her an advantage and power, and she felt she could conquer the world. 

I love this excerpt because it captures both Luna's self-absorbed character, and her status in the community. And because I, like Luna, have also spent hours poring over my own Burda magazines. 

I found this a fascinating read for all it had to teach me about a culture I knew little about. And because the connection of the women around Luna was compelling. Luna herself was prickly, unlikeable, but had her own secrets. Her daughter was also not a favourite character for me, having many of the same characteristics. But Luna's sisters and mother all really caught me. The story follows their female relationships as well as their disparate romances, and reveals their opinions, whether active or dismissive, on politics.

There are some flaws with this novel; the first written by a journalist, it does have its share of dry reportage moments. And it can feel a bit melodramatic from time to time. But if you are prepared for a family saga which highlights life in Jerusalem via a Latin American feel, with some flashes of magical realism along with some gritty realism as well, you might find that you also really enjoy it. 

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Evening Chorus

Evening Chorus / Helen Humpreys
Toronto: HarperCollins, c2015.
304 p.

Now this is quite a different kind of war story. It's quieter, slower-paced, and more about three people's lives and how the war creates a 'before & after' for them, how it changes the trajectory of their lives. 

James is an English soldier, who is in a German POW camp. He survives the tedium and control, and random acts of violence, over five years by watching a family of Redstarts (birds) just outside the camp. His interest in birds and in logging his findings draws the attention of the Kommandant, who has a similar interest. Humphreys was inspired by the story of John Buxton, a birder with a similar war experience, but James is a clearly fictional character. She also used real life anecdotes a couple of more times in the book, in both of the women's stories.

The women: James' young wife Rose, who married him in a rush as he was heading off to war. She is now drawn into an affair with another RAF officer, as she really has no strong feeling for James. This will shape the rest of her life. And Enid, James' sister -- a tough and independent Londoner who loses her home, job, and lover in a bomb raid, and comes to live with Rose. The two women clash both in their approach to life in general, and in their attachment to James. But they eventually come to a livable compromise and even form a bit of an unexpected friendship. 

And then James comes home. How do the three re-engage in everyday life after such a momentous experience? That is the key to this book. Humphreys doesn't examine the daily horrors of war so much as the effects on its survivors. 

It's a very quiet and still book despite the context of war. The writing is finely polished, with every phrase considered. The emotion in the story is often described rather than shown; the British habit of reserve is reflected in this choice.  And the quiet sense of storytelling reaches into the conclusion, as well; I didn't feel that there was a big resolution, nobody suddenly solved everything and became proactive. Rather, they all just kept drifting along in the direction their actions had shifted them in. Even when those are relatively positive, ie: James writes a seminal book on Redstart behaviour, the characters don't seem all that excited by life anymore.

I thought it was beautifully written, with nature's strength and beauty highlighted. But I did find that the bird metaphors sometimes leaned toward being a little bit obvious. And in the end, the quiet and measured pace of the book felt a bit dry to me. I wanted a little more of something, anything, to happen. 

So while I admire Humphreys' skill at taking a WWII story in a much different direction than found usually in this genre, I still prefer her earlier Coventry, for its more active protagonist and sense of immersion in the war years. 

Friday, February 17, 2017

Bird's Eye View

Bird's Eye View / Elinor Florence
Toronto: Dundurn, c2014.
384 p.

This is an unusual war novel: it features Rose Joliffe, a young Canadian girl from Saskatchewan who goes to England to join the war effort, before Canadian women could join our own country's armed forces.

She ends up working for the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force as an aerial photographic interpreter -- she examines photographs of the landscape of Europe taken by pilots, aiming to notice anything unusual. Of course she discovers that she's really good at interpreting the sometimes mystifying images that her group of women receive, but I guess that's why she's the heroine ;)

Rose has gumption; she goes to England, she faces the devastation and daily fear of war in a way that those in Saskatchewan were not -- even if there was also an air base in her hometown, at which English pilots were trained. So perhaps her family was closer to war than some others. 

I thought this book was well-researched, giving a new perspective on wartime and women's roles. Rose was a good protagonist; interesting, involved, determined. She does get a little lonely in England, though, and falls into an affair with a married man who is clearly (to the reader) a complete cad. I didn't feel the affair subplot added much to the story, other than length. Rose's journey to find her role in wartime was plenty of plot, and was powerful. 

If you're looking for a straightforward historical novel, one which provides a new vantage point on the ways that women were involved in WWII, try out this read. I particularly liked the descriptions of Saskatchewan and of Rose's homesickness -- I thought that these were captured very well and added a new angle to stories of war. Rose's actual job as an aerial photographic interpreter is also really fascinating, and fits in with her background and experiences. I enjoyed learning details about this occupation and how it was used during wartime. 

The feel of the story reminds me of a tv show I'm watching now, the rather soap opera-ish "The Halcyon" on BBC -- mostly for the young woman who is a main character in that show, also set in the early years of WWII, who joins the women's voluntary service. She also resembles the cover model of this book, strangely enough!

I enjoyed this novel, learning new elements of war work that I hadn't known of previously, and also discovering a great new character who was daring and inquisitive. It's nice to see another side of women's work in these years.


Further Reading:

For another tale of Canadian women in wartime, also connected with flying (but told in a saucier tone) try Jeanette Lynes' The Factory Voice. Set entirely in Ontario, this read about factory workers building planes in Northern Ontario is snappy and strongly female-oriented as well.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Black Apple

Black Apple / Joan Crate
Toronto: Simon &; Schuster, c2016.
336 p.

This novel, set in the 40s & 50s, is written with good intent: to shine a light on the residential school system in Canadian history. It features a young Cree girl being torn from her family and placed in a school run by nuns, with the kinds of terrible things happening that we've all heard about now.

I thought it was an okay read -- certainly one with strong and timely content. However, I found the writing to be a little bit surface oriented, where there was great opportunity to go a little deeper and show the inner life of these characters fully.

Sinopaki aka Rose Marie is taken to residential school at a young age, and feels bereft of her family, who are so far away that she can't see them often, even for holidays. She begins to form an attachment to Mother Grace, and finds that she has a skill for academics. Despite the fact that Mother Grace manipulates her family and Rose Marie's own opportunities according to what she sees as "best", Rose Marie still has a strong connection to Grace even after leaving the convent. This saintly nun doing her best in the face of corruption among priests and church managment seems a little facile; she seems excused from any residential school wrongdoing altogether. I'm not sure I could believe that Grace's long service and exhaustion are a reason for her not to be responsible for what happens at the school she's running.

After Rose Marie's long years at the residential school she feels assimilated into the white culture around her; she get a job in a nearby town rather than return to her family. However, even here she faces racism and violence. But this last section of the book really comes off as a bit hokey and romance novelish, as she meets a nice man at the boarding house who protects her from other not-nice men even as he introduces her to her first sexual experience. And then Rose Marie has an awakening and realizes she must return to her family to understand herself. 

The story seemed a bit YAish, with limited complexity or examination of really dark themes. And the romance thread just didn't work for me. I thought the writing was capable, though both stark and overdone simultaneously in a few instances. I think that Lise, a reviewer on Goodreads, captured my feeling about this book when she says " I love Joan Crate's poetry, but find her fiction very thin. She wrote with an agenda, and therefore her heart doesn't speak."

I wanted to love this book; I ended up liking it but having quite a few hesitancies about the way the story turned out. And the title, while referring to the town that the school is in, has unpleasant connotations for me as well. So not a hit for this reader. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Cover Designs! #10

It's been almost a year since my last Cover Designs post. But when I saw the dress on the cover of The Three Sisters Bar & Hotel, I knew I had to post about it! What is Cover Designs? It's when I see a dress on the cover of a book and try to match up a pattern and fabric to recreate that dress in real life.

This is a classic fit & flare dress, and there were many close possibilities to choose from. But after much pondering, I've selected New Look 6143.

Made from a red crepe or even a fine boucle, this dress would match the cover nicely, with View B's mid-length sleeve, but no overlay. The skirt on the cover dress looks pleated, rather than gathered, and that is reflected in this pattern also.

Maybe it could be made with this japanese cotton:

Or this viyella (cotton-wool blend):

And accessorized with these rugged mountain-friendly brogues

 and this green bangle

And of course this rugged suitcase to carry it all with you.

Tell me, would you wear this on your next mountain escape? 


I wore something slightly similar on my own last trip to Canmore, the inspiration for the town of Gateway in this novel. But the pattern wasn't quite right, with a gathered skirt instead of pleats, and my sleeves weren't quite long enough. Also, it wasn't red ;)

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Three Sisters Bar & Hotel

The Three Sisters Bar & Hotel / Katherine Govier
Toronto: HarperAvenue, c2016
475 p.

This is a lengthy family saga full of great Canadiana -- the Rocky Mountains, American fossil hunters, generations of families descended from wilderness guides and such, the history of the Canadian Parks System, Ottawa bureaucrats, winter storms that people are lost in -- what else might be added?

If you love family stories over three generations, if you love books in which the setting becomes a character, if you have the strange predilection that I do for books featuring three sisters, then I suggest you give this one a try.

It begins in Gateway, Alberta, in 1911 (and Gateway is strangely reminiscent of Canmore, as a mountain town with a view of the Three Sisters, iconic mountain peaks that I've seen myself).

Gateway is a town that's rough and rules itself, and the government's meddling while turning the landscape into a national park isn't much appreciated by the independent souls who live there. This set of characters eventually interacts with the story of two civil servants charged with the paperwork to kick off the Parks System. The two threads don't mesh all that well, though; jumping back to dreary office life in Ottawa feels a bit dull after reading about mountain exploration, blizzards and disappearances in Alberta.

Actually, the book is structured in four parts, focusing on past -- Herbie's story, and a section focused on the Ottawa parks people (which could have been condensed significantly, I think) -- and present, in which Herbie's 3 granddaughters are called back to Gateway by their elderly parents after said parents decided it was a brilliant idea to buy the old hotel and restore it with their daughters' help. 

I loved the setting and the scientific element of the fossil expedition, in particular; I love sciencey content in my fiction!  Many of the characters of that era were really engaging. I felt less fond of the current day story, as redoing an old building with your parents and adult siblings just isn't as wildly fascinating as riding off into the uncharted mountains and facing down nature. I also thought the segments about the Parks staff were interesting (the long-suffering secretary was wonderful) but could have made another whole novel instead of being too much with us in this one.

But if you'd like to read a book about the wilds of Alberta in 1911 and onward, this is a great choice. Lots of history and research in this story, and a setting that is evocative and beautiful.  

**If you're interested, you can listen to a brief interview about this book which Katherine Govier gave on The Next Chapter a year ago.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Ellen in Pieces & The Opening Sky

And now for a quick review of a duo of novels that I didn't quite love as much as others have -- even if both of their covers are gorgeous. Both feature strong women at midlife and the messiness of mother-child dynamics, friendships, lust/love and much more.

Ellen in Pieces / Caroline Adderson
Toronto: HarperCollins, c2014.
304 p.

Ellen McGinty is the mother of two grown daughters, and is at the point in her life where she is ready to do whatever she wants. This story takes a brash, opinionated, mature woman who has no more f*ks left to give, and follows her through her relationships - with her children, her father, her new young lover, her long-standing female friends - until she receives a grim diagnosis. You don't often see this kind of woman in fiction, and I appreciated Adderson's skill at character development. The exposure of the faults & fissures of adult friendships was another strong point. I also really loved her style and her writing itself.

However, I didn't really warm to Ellen and while I thought this was a clever and fresh novel, I also felt a bit distanced from it. It feels a little like a novel in stories, which isn't always my own favourite style, and so my final sense of it was that I liked it but I probably won't read it again. Unlike other readers, such as Kerry Clare, who rave about it very eloquently. You'll have to judge for yourself! 

(ps - I really loved Adderson's earlier novel, The Sky is Falling, much more)
The Opening Sky / Joan Thomas
Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, c2014.
368 p.

This is a beautiful cover for a book with a premise that promised much. But it really didn't work for me; a little too long, and a little too uneventful.

It's set in Winnipeg, in a fairly privileged family; a self-satisfied middle-aged couple with the usual middle-aged marriage complaints, a daughter full of promise & just beginning her life as a university student...and her unexpected pregnancy.

This throws the family into turmoil both because it is rather shameful for her therapist father & Sex Ed Resource Centre manager mother, and because Sylvie & her boyfriend are both eco-warriors who had planned never to reproduce. 

There are lots of questions to ponder in this book, but the lecture-y feel of some of the ecological themes was a bit distracting, as was the frequent insertion of the meaning of words/ideas etc. that the characters are thinking about. Also, the parents of both Sylvie & her boyfriend are unbearably smug despite the secrets and history they have together. (It's those secrets from the past that were the most interesting part of the story). So while objectively this is an intriguing idea for a book, it was just not the one for me. 

Friday, February 10, 2017

Careen with Carolyn Smart

Careen / Carolyn Smart
London, ON: Brick Books, c2015.
96 p.

I first read Carolyn Smart's poetry when I discovered her collection Hooked, courtesy of the publisher, a few years ago. It features 7 women, all outsiders of some sort, telling their stories in their own voices.

Clearly, Smart wasn't done with outlaws, as this book is a multifaceted approach to the tale of Bonnie & Clyde, told in many voices, from the main characters to those of others in their gang, Clyde's brothers, their wives, mothers, neighbours, and a lawman hunting them down.

It also shares media stories, and how the newspapers got things wrong in their rush to create legends out of these two. Nothing too relevant, right? 

I felt like I knew a fair amount about the mythology of Bonnie & Clyde before I read this book. But as I went through it, hearing many angles and details I never knew, I realized most of what I knew came from the movies. And as W.D. Jones says in one of his poems, "That damn fool movie made it look so fine, / like it was sorta glamorous, our ride, but it was hell."

There is constant violence, longing, and hardscrabble living in these poems. It's a time when disaffected youth took to the road in the face of poverty and no other options for their lives. When angst and anger and weariness wore down so many families, and the lack of a future made them reckless. When the open road promised something, a kind of freedom, even if was predicated on complete alienation from social norms.

But the heart of the book is the disastrous, codependent relationships between Bonnie & Clyde, and between his brother Buck and his third wife Blanche; these women just wanted to love and be loved, to be cherished, even if this meant an outlaw life for them. It's finely drawn with shadings of desire, pathos and understanding, and creates a full and sobering life for them. As Bonnie says on first seeing Clyde Barrow:

Why don't something happen? I wrote in my diary
until one night it did.

From the first second I saw him I knew he was the one: he wanted
all I wanted from a life, to claw our way to where we aimed to be.

I found these poems both beautifully written and very touching -- somehow completely emotionally engaging without romanticizing or sentimentalizing this criminal life. It was a book that caught me and made me keep reading to find out what happened to everyone, even while wanting to avert my eyes knowing it wouldn't end well. 

And for the month of February (2017) only, Brick Books is having a $10 special on 10 specially selected reads -- and Careen is one of them! A great chance to pick it up and check out Brick Books' lovely production values as well.


Further Reading

The storytelling and raw voices in this book remind me of a couple of other reads -- both the verse novels of Ellen Hopkins, all dealing with life on the grittier side, and the great Stefan Zweig's The Post Office Girl, a story of a girl stifled by poverty and lack of a future who meets up with just the right/wrong man at the right/wrong time.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

This Godforsaken Place

This Godforsaken Place / Cinda Gault
Victoria: Brindle & Glass, c2015.
224 p.

1885: Abigail Peacock lives with her schoolteacher father in Northern Ontario, with a constrained and dull routine, until she buys a rifle. She learns to shoot, which stands her in good stead when her father dies and she must leave town & head south, to the States, to fulfill a promise she made to the outlaw who taught her to shoot.  And to avoid being caught in a small life in a small town as a wife after her role as a daughter is ended.

Complicated? Yes, a bit. Especially as she is searching out Annie Oakley & Bill Cody. She does run across them, finally, in New York, and joins the Wild West Show. She's also befriended by a journalist who becomes a love interest.

But of course all does not go smoothly, and she must enlist Gabriel Dumont & his men to break her journalist lover out of prison, where he's been wrongfully sentenced. She's been following along with the newspaper stories of Louis Riel and the Riel Rebellion all along, so is ready to involve Dumont in this scheme.

While I found the story slow moving, with Abigail telling about events that she is reading about, rather than being a part of them, I could also get behind her preference for Gabriel Dumont, as I have also always found him the most interesting figure of the whole Riel story. 

This book is heavily influenced by historical events and real people. I'm not usually a big fan of real people as fictional characters; this is always an iffy thing for me. Here, the main character is Abigail and most of the story comes through her, so taking real people and putting fictional words into their mouths wasn't as bothersome as it can be at times. But the strong non-fiction feel of the story may put some readers off.

I liked it; my degree was in history and this particular era is one I've read a lot about. The writing is well-done and reflective of the time period. But the second half of the novel wasn't as strong as the first. When we lose Abigail's rather cantankerous voice from the beginning and the story is diffused among Abigail, Annie Oakley, Bill Cody, and Gabriel Dumont, it also loses some of its propulsion. I read it to its conclusion, and thought it was an interesting take on this very unsettled historical period. But as a whole, I found it a bit measured and dry -- I'd have liked to be right in the action for more of the book, rather than hearing about it all from Abigail as she recounted newspaper stories. 


Further Reading:

Gil Adamson's The Outlander is another story of a woman alone in the wilderness at the turn of the last century, and is a little more suspenseful as well.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Liberty Street by Dianne Warren

Liberty Street / Dianne Warren
Toronto: HarperCollins, c2105.
384 p.

I absolutely loved Warren's Governor-General's Award winning  novel, Cool Water. So I was very pleased to see this book when it was published, even though it took me a little while to actually read & review it. 

Liberty Street is a bit different from the last one; it also takes place in Western Canada but this time Warren focuses mainly on one character, Frances Moon.

It's set in the very recent past, starting in the past decade as 50-something Frances blurts out a secret to her partner of 20 years -- she had & lost a baby at 19, and she's probably still married to the man she'd married then. Her partner understandably leaves in shock, and Frances returns to her hometown, the small town of Elliot, Saskatchewan, to revisit those things she'd hidden for so long.

We then discover via flashback Frances' life in Elliot from her childhood on up. We meet many side characters who have affected Frances and made her what she is -- her parents, teachers, neighbours, renters of her family's house on Liberty Street, and perhaps most powerful for her, Dooley Sullivan, a rebel with whom she went to school.

He's so important that we learn his story interwoven with Frances', and unlike any of the other characters he gets a whole chapter from his POV. Unfortunately, I felt that this didn't fit with the overall book, and wonder if perhaps my satisfaction with this novel would have been higher if it had been a collection of interlinked short stories, with more character variety. I just found Frances a little dull and the antithesis of proactive. She drifts, lets things happen around and to her, and only discovers now, rather late in life, both that she can perhaps have a little agency in her own life, and that she is not unlike other human beings in her life choices.

As usual with Warren's books, the writing is very fine, very polished and has lots to admire about it. The setting is beautifully and realistically drawn; she knows Saskatchewan & evokes it fully. But even for literary fiction this one is slow moving, and I didn't really feel that anyone gained any resolution by the end -- not Dooley, not the family of a wronged man Frances knew as a child, and certainly not Frances herself. It just didn't satisfy my readerly curiosity in the end.

So while this is a good read, I'd recommend Cool Water first, if you're looking for a great read.

Further Reading

This novel reminds me of a few other Western Canada set novels I've read in the somewhat recent past, for their focus on families & growth in women's lives. I'd suggest you might want to check out Blue Becomes You by Bettina von Kampen for another woman of a certain age resolving her disappointments about the past, or Jacqueline Baker's A Hard Witching for short stories set in the same region.