RidgewayGirl takes the TransCanada Express
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Still Missing by Chevy Stevens
Mrs. Mike by Benedict and Nancy Freedman
The Outlander by Gil Adamson
Icefields by Thomas Wharton
Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay
The Killing Circle by Andrew Pyper
Lost Girls by Andrew Pyper
Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures by Vincent Lam
The Boys in the Trees by Mary Swan
The Day the Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan
Black Fly Season by Giles Blunt
The Delicate Storm by Giles Blunt
Old City Hall by Robert Rotenberg
Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill
Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel
Black Robe by Brian Moore
The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler
February by Lisa Moore
The Birth House by Ami McKay
Prince Edward Island
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
Death on the Barrens by George James Grinnell
The Wildfire Season by Andrew Pyper
Mrs. Mike, a vintage tale first published in 1947, is about an Irish-American girl sent out to Alberta a hundred years ago for her health and how she met and married a mountie and moved up into the wilderness 700 miles north of Edmonton on the Peace River where she was the only white woman for hundred of miles. Later, her husband was reassigned to a small settlement, but life was always wild and dangerous. I was surprised to discover how good the writing is; here are the first two paragraphs of the book:
The worst winter in fifty years, the old Scotsman had told me. I'd only been around for sixteen, but it was the worst I'd seen, and I was willing to take his word for the other thirty-four.
On the north side of the train the windows were plastered with snow, and on the south side great clouds of snow were whipped along by a sixty-mile gale. There was snow on top of the train and snow under the train, and all the snow there was left in the world in front of the train, which was why we were stopped.
The Killing Circle by Andrew Pyper is pure thriller. It's set in Toronto and in the lonely towns that dot the spine of Lake Superior. There's lots about Canadian weather and Toronto is well described and each scene is set in a specific part of that city. I would definitely long to live there were it not for the really creepy serial killer. This is a very scary book, featuring the aforementioned serial killer, an endangered child, cold weather and plenty of imbalanced characters.
So after a bit of a think, and being unable to resist beginning The Outlander, I've decided to go with it and hope that eventually I'm led further afield. I'm going to review and list all my Canadian reads here and unless you all stage an intervention, there's no one to stop me.
The Outlander is very good so far!
Have fun RWG - good to hear that Outlander is a good one. Ah, so many books, so little time. I try not to think about it, it's so sad.
In keeping with my fascination with the topic, and after I finish my Early Reviewer book, I think I will have to read The Tenderness of Wolves next. It will, at least, keep with me alternating books set in Alberta with books set in Ontario.
I finished The Outlander and it was excellent. A lovely page turner of an historical novel, it concerns a young woman, fleeing for her life into the Rockies after she murdered her husband. What happened next and what happened before are both fascinating.
I continue with my task of reading books set only in Ontario or Alberta with Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures by Vincent Lam. This is a book of interconnected short stories about four doctors, following them from various points in and before medical school until they are in their forties. Each story stands alone, but putting them together adds a resonance to each individual story. This is just a very good book, very deserving of its Giller Prize.
In any case, I loved it and would not have read it without your recommendation.
So, in keeping with my habit of reading books set only in Ontario or Alberta, my next Canadian read was the excellent dark mystery novel Forty Words for Sorrow by Giles Blunt (who, just to go entirely shallow here, looks like an average forty-something guy except he has this hair that yells "I'm a sensitive artist!")
Forty Words for Sorrow is set in the fictional town of Algonquin Bay, Ontario, located between Sudbury and Mattawa, and takes place during February. The body of a missing girl is found, sending the detective who was convinced that she wasn't just another runaway back to the job of investigating her disappearance. John Cardinal lives alone; his daughter is away at university and his wife is battling depression in an asylum. He is partnered with Delorme, who has just moved to homicide from internal investigations, and Cardinal is pretty sure she's investigating him. The case quickly turns into a search for a serial killer, with many twists and turns along the way.
Forty Words for Sorrow was very well written, the characters are all multi-faceted and the plot moves along in a fast-paced, but believable way. The town of Algonquin Bay (I think it's really North Bay) is beautifully realized. This was an excellent crime novel and I'll be looking for more by Blunt, even if it means I never get to fill in more provinces on my map.
By the way, I saw the premiere episode of Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures on a flight between Montreal and Toronto last week. I'll definitely have to pick up the book sometime.
I think I might be the only person who didn't like Bloodletting overly much!
Continuing in my pattern of reading books set in Alberta or Ontario exclusively (which is odd; last year I read at least three books set in Nova Scotia) I just finished Icefields by Thomas Wharton. When I received this book, I could not for the life of me remember where I'd heard about it, and so had to begin reading it right away. I am no clearer as to how it ended up on my wishlist, but I'm very glad it did.
That's what he called himself once, the summer he left for the war, and I'd laughed. Glaciologist. I'd never heard the word before. I'd never considered there might be others like him, scientists who studied only glaciers. I thought he was the one man on earth who bothered that much with them, that this science was his alone, that he had invented it. Arcturology. The science of being distant, and receding a little every year.
Icefields by Thomas Wharton takes place during the first two decades of the last century in what was to become Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada. Byrne, a doctor, was exploring the region when he falls into into a crevasse on the Arcturus glacier. In the time it takes his group to notice his absence and haul him out, he sees something in the ice; a pale figure with huge wings. The image haunts him, even as he is rescued, revived and returned to London. Years later he is drawn back to the glacier and the book chronicles his life studying the ice and the other people who live for awhile at the hot springs hotel built at its foot. Evocative, poetic and strange, this is one of the most interesting books I've read this year.
I will admit to a bias; I spent almost every childhood holiday in the area and have been up on the Athabasca glacier. Every place name was resonant with memory. It's a spectacularly beautiful, fragile area and Wharton's descriptions of the first residents of the region and the conditions under which they lived, a peculiar mixture of Edwardian gentility and wilderness was fascinating. Alongside Byrne, Icefields tells the story of a poet come west to be a guide, a servant girl who takes charge of the running of a hotel and develops a relationship of sorts with Byrne, an intrepid female explorer and a tracker turned entrepreneur who sees opportunity in the coming railway.
The closest I've ever gotten to a glacier was on our 25th anniversary cruise of the inside passage, as our ship inched closer to the ice in Glacier Bay. Once seen, the fascination grips you. I've put this on my wishlist!
Another excellent Canadian book -- The Boys in the Trees by Mary Swan, set in Ontario in the 1880s. An apparently happy family moves into a small white house in the town of Emsden. They've come from Liverpool by way of Halifax, the father works as an accountant, the youngest daughter attends a small school nearby. The other daughter has some sort of mental illness and the family is always short of money, but they are fitting into the life of the town, when the family is murdered one afternoon by the father who is later found in the woods, the gun that killed them still in his hands. The book doesn't describe the killings; it's not that kind of book. Swan instead shows how the events rippled through the lives of the people who knew them. It's beautifully written and unbearably sad.
Hey, a book not set in Alberta or Ontario! I got Death in the Barrens in the mail yesterday and had to read it right away. It concerns an ill-fated canoe trip from Stony Rapids, SK, through a corner of the Northwest Territories and on through Nunavut to an RCMP post on Baker Lake, which is near the northwest edge of Hudson's Bay. They were a singularly badly prepared group and, after leaving late, they took their time, preferring to go on bird walks or to enjoy the scenery than to paddle their canoes. It ends badly, with one of their group dead, caught by the beginning of winter only halfway along.
I do understand that lure of the Great White North and would love to canoe along those many lakes of the Canadian Shield, but with comfortable lodges with fireplaces and showers along the way. Also, plenty of Deep Woods Off.
The Day the Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan is set in the Niagara Falls of a hundred years ago when the big hydro-electric station was being built. The author grew up in Niagara and it shows in both the physical descriptions of the falls and the political and historical details. It was also a melodramatic story about a romance across class lines. Lots of fun.
I've been reading my way through Andrew Pyper's books and have now read all of them with The Wildfire Season. This one's mostly set in Ross River in the Yukon Territory. I enjoyed this thriller about forest fires, the men who fight them and what life is like in an isolated village in the north.
I also used that nifty Google Earth thing where you can look around at street level. The difference between a place like Ross River and even a small community like Whitehorse is astonishing. The Wildfire Season captured that feeling of being in the back of beyond. As a thriller, it was good, but not great, keeping up the suspense until the last few chapters.
Early one summer, when the black flies are out en masse, a young red-headed woman wanders into the worst bar in town. She's disoriented and doesn't know who or where she is and a few of the slimier customers are ready to take advantage of her when OPP detective Jerry Commanda intervenes and takes her to the local hospital where they find that she's been shot in the head.
So begins Black Fly Season, the third in Giles Blunt's mystery series set in the fictional city of Algonquin Bay (North Bay), Ontario. As well done and atmospheric as Forty Words for Sorrow, this novel continues the story of Detective John Cardinal as well as an interesting police procedural.
I finished Greg Hollingshead's book of short stories, The Roaring Girl, but I'm not sure where it fits. Hollingshead teaches at the University of Alberta and a few stories mention the prairies, but they also seem like they have been make purposefully vague in regards to their locations. The stories were interesting, but I felt like I was held at a distance from what was happening, even when the book was written in the first person. Often the actions people took were wholly without explanation. Still, I would pick up another book by the author, if I come across one.
I wish I could remember who championed Old City Hall by Robert Rotenberg so relentlessly, because I would very much like to thank them. What a suspenseful police procedural this was, with a fantastically thought through crime, complex characters and strong atmosphere.
Kevin Brace is the beloved host of a morning radio talk show (this is Canada, y'all, where "radio talk show host" and "beloved" can exist side by side without the universe collapsing). His newspaper delivery person finds him, early one morning, with blood-covered hands admitting to having killed his wife. And with that, things get going.
There are a lot of characters and to Rotenberg's credit, he can create a large cast of different people and keep them all distinct in the reader's mind as the story blasts along. The story is set in Toronto, at the old city hall which is now the main courthouse. Toronto is a busy, multi-cultural city and Rotenberg contrasts that with the sheer whiteness of the smaller Ontario towns. And the story itself is a page turner.
Hmmm, I think it might just be the books you choose, especially in regards to Alberta. Ontario is the population centre and publishing centre (and some there think the centre of the universe), so I can see why there are more Ontario books. Personally, I've read a lot of BC books (maybe I'm drawn to them because it's home?) and I see you haven't had a literary trip out west yet. May I recommend Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland, Stanley Park, by Timothy Taylor, or The Sad Truth about Happiness, by Anne Giardini (Carol Shield's daughter). Those were my fav BC books, but I have another huge stack in Mnt. TBR --I'll let you know if I read anything good.
I tend to have more BC books than other books. I think it also depends where you live ;) I do have a fair number of Quebec books as well. I agree that it is difficult to find PEI books, the only two I have so far are Montgomery books.
I second Nickelini's recommendation of Kiss of the Fur Queen by Tomson Highway for a fascinating read.
I branched out to a new province with Still Missing by Chevy Stevens, which is set on Vancouver Island. It wasn't bad, but it also wasn't anything more than the typical mass-market thriller you'd pick up in the airport if your plane was delayed. The premise is promising; each chapter is a session a young woman is having with her shrink as she explains what happened before, during and after she was kidnapped and held captive in a cabin in the woods for a year. She's having trouble adjusting to daily life and with being a media sensation.
There was very little sense of place to the book, and I got the feeling that its Canadianess had been purposely down-played so as to appeal to the larger American audience. I did like the book and read it in an evening, but I'm pretty sure that I'll have forgotten most of it by the new year.
Look at me adding a new province! Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill takes place in Montreal in the 1970s. Baby is twelve and lives with her father, an on again off again heroin addict. The story of how she lives is heartbreaking, but the book isn't depressing; Baby's voice is that of a twelve year old who knows no other way to live and is cheerful, bright and curious about the world around her. That curiousity, and her need to be cared about, leads her into some very dangerous situations.
The depiction of the down and out parts of Montreal of forty years ago is vivid. I could very clearly picture every scene that O'Neill described. Lullabies for Little Criminals was the winner in 2007 of the Canada Reads competition and this book leaves me eager to read other books nominated. It's not for the faint of heart, however.
Ridgeway - love your comments about Lullabies for Little Criminals and I'm so glad that you liked it too. I forgot to count this as a Quebec book myself--I'll have to go check if I have one yet. I agree it has a very strong sense of place. I don't think it's forty years ago, however-- there were a lot of references to the 1980s, some from the late 80s (quickly doing math here and panicking that the 80s were indeed that long ago and I'm really getting old ... ;-) Her father dresses her in 70s clothes, but they are old and out of date.
Here's my take:
The Birth House by Ami McKay is one of this year's nominations for Canada Reads and has high ratings here on LT. It's a really bad book; preachy and shallow. I think that its popularity lies with the subject matter -- a midwife fights for the right to deliver babies in rural Nova Scotia during the First World War and so the feminine and homeopathic is set against the masculine/controlling and modern medicine. This could be an interesting book, except that women died in incredible numbers when they gave birth in unsanitary conditions and without recourse to medical and surgical help. Forceps alone have saved millions. It is easy, now that giving birth at home with a midwife is a safe and comfortable option, to forget that the reason that we have that option is that, should something go wrong, we'll be quickly moved to a hospital.
In The Birth House, Dora is an apprentice midwife whose mentor is an old woman who speaks only in aphorisms. She's fond of treating flu with a little spit and an old velvet quilt, and she can turn a breech baby by turning the mother upside down and singing into her hoo-ha. While entertaining, she's not someone you'd trust with a hangnail, but the residents of tiny, isolated Scots Bay, Nova Scotia, have little choice, until a doctor arrives who builds a maternity house in a nearby town and offers the women a safe, sanitary place to give birth.
The characterizations are either paper-thin or inconsistent. I was never sure what any of the "good guys" would think or do, because their actions were determined by the needs of the plot instead of arising from within them. As for the "bad guys" (and in this book, people are very much "bad" or "good"), they remain utterly true to stereo-type, so that Dora's aunt and cousin began to be confused in my mind with Nellie Olson and her mother and the book itself with a Very Special Episode of Little House on the Prairie.
My book club read this one a few years ago and I was too busy with school papers to participate. However, I attended the meeting and walked away thinking I had picked a good book to miss. Somehow a copy has worked it's way into my TBR pile, but now I know it will continue to sit there for quite a while. (I never liked Little House on the Prairie--book or TV show).
*Goes off to prepare rebuttal*
While I agree that some of the characters in the story were not as deeply explored as they could have been, I do not see that as the main aim of this book.
The Birth House is set in a town in Nova Scotia starting in 1916 at a time when women’s rights was a newer idea. Throughout the book we see a chance of attitude of the main character Dora as she becomes more aware of herself and her environment. This is an easily accessible book that discusses topics that not only were important at the time, but continue to be important today.
The environment is described in rich detail and allows you to get an idea of the day to day life people living in Nova Scotia at the time. I enjoyed the details about moving downstairs during the winter and stacking seaweed around the house as insulation (Who knew!).
Dora is the only girl in a long line of boys. Once she starts to blossom it becomes evident to her and her family that they are not going to treat her in the same way as her brothers. Rather than sleeping downstairs with her brothers in the winter, she is effectively pushed out of her house and into the house of the local midwife, as it ‘would not be proper’ for her to be sharing a room with her brothers at her age. This is an age where some still believed that women should not be reading as it only lead to hysterical problems.
While I agree with Ridgewaygirl that many of the medical improvements have helped save lives of women going through childbirth, that was not the focus of the medical part of this novel. The novel takes an unabashed look at how the medical community viewed women at the turn of the century. Potentially serious medical problems were labeled as ‘hysteria’ or an attempt to get out of housework. While one can accuse midwives of being ‘unscientific’, one can certainly level the same amount of criticism at the medicine of the time. The prescription to ‘eat less meat’, bloodletting and vibrators as treatments for hysteria, and chloroforming patients during childbirth if they were argumentative speak to that. And remember that medical help was often dangerous to acquire in the winter.
So rather than the contrast of old vs. new that would be appropriate today, this was more a contrast of how women were viewed by various professions, and who has control over women’s bodies. This debate still continues on today in any discussion of abortion, etc. Also touched on is the issue of whether the husband owns rights to his wife’s body. The author is quite straightforward about discussing sexual issues that other authors might have skirted around or left out entirely. This book manages to discuss many feminist issues without appearing to be a man-hating feminist book.
While some of the characters could have done with more fleshing out, I did like and could identify with the main character of Dora. It was interesting to see her development over time. From a teenager who did not feel she should leave home since she needed to care for her brothers, to an independent unmarried woman, we see her becoming more aware of herself as a person rather than as a person only in the context of others. Through her eyes we also get to see the ‘secret lives’ of the other women of the bay: During ‘knitting’ get-togethers they discuss sex, life, and their bodies in a way that would not have been allowed elsewhere. A midwife often knows far more about the women of the area than she can discuss.
Some of the ‘bad guys’ were stayed quite true to the minimal character they were given, however every book needs a character you ‘love to hate’ ;)
As a side note, did anybody else start thinking of Clara Callan when Dora was in Chicago? Some of the characters there seemed almost pulled right out of that novel to me :P
As for the mean doctor that resonated with me. The idea of " Twilight Sleep" where women are still in pain, but don't remember what happened is the sort of thing that was done to my mom in err - the early 60's. While she does not have a bad memory of that -she does not have a memory of anything. I'm personally not pro home birth because both of my sons would have perished during birth without the OB and his dreadful forceps. But at least I was not put into a twilight sleep - but rather I had an epidural knew what was going on.
I also give it big points to The BirthHouse for being very accesible to the average Canadian reader. It's one of the few Canlit books that I've successfully been able to lend out to my mom, my sister and some of my friends - and they enjoyed and read it... I can't say the same for some of the other Can Lit books that I have read. As much I love many Can Lit novels - I cannot convince others that they are a great read.
I did not equate The Birthhouse with Little House on the Prairies at all!! That was such a saccharine filled tv show and books - no way they would have touched such controversial topics.
As for Bloodletting and other Miraculous Cures , now there was one big disappointment to me!!! Such shallow short stories and characterizations, all barely hanging together by a thread! There you have my side of the discussion, but it has been quite a while since I have read The Birthhouse.
I think this book was a lost opportunity for something much better. McKey can write and she'd obviously done the research, but she forgot that even "serial killers can help old ladies cross the street" as Stephen King put it. That her aunt was banging the Baptist preacher was just a stereotypical moment too far. And what's with a doctor who is willing to meet with a local midwife, but not care for a post-partum mother? That made no sense. Or Dora's outrage at being keep out of the maternity house, but feeling smugly justified at keeping a husband away from a wife? The ethics were never consistent and Dora's only real complaint about the "Mother's Share" was that it cost money.
I have seen doctors even recently who frown upon post partum depression and don't know how to treat it, thus avoid it. The idea there is again that post partum is not 'legitimate' because it is a female issue that medical doctors were not comfortable with. Again, an issue of whose stories are worth hearing and taking seriously. The idea that 'we have come so far' only works if you don't look closely. In the 1970's some doctors felt heartburn was psychosomatic.
No argument that ob/gyn has come an awfully long way. My doctor was telling me that when a colleague retired the other doctors discovered that almost none of his patients still had a uterus.
But that's entirely beside the argument of whether The Birth House was any good or not. That a book agrees with your views doesn't make it a better book. I'd argue that "issues" make for very poor literature. Steinbeck felt strongly about the plight of the farmers fleeing the Dust Bowl, but had to throw away the first book he wrote about it because he was too passionate about the subject for the book to be any good. So he left it and then came back later and wrote The Grapes of Wrath. A strong point of view left to run rampant leaves us with those Left Behind books.
As Vancouverdeb mentioned, this book is written in a very accessible format, and I felt it highlighted some feminist issues while avoiding being preachy or hitting you over the head with them (You want to be hit over the head with them, I suggest The Handmaid's tale as a great read :) ).
This book could have been written in a longer format to allow for more development of the secondary characters. For me, this did not detract from enjoying the story surrounding the main character (Dora), and hearing about an interesting time in Canadian history through a different lens.
ps- I believe the doctor would have cared for the baby if he had arrived after the child had been born if the midwife had not been present. It was more an issue of him 'not having been in control' and wanting to cast a negative light on the midwife.
Great debate btw :)
This is a fun debate. I was worried that you wouldn't like The Birth House either and this would be boring (although vancouverdeb liked it, so we could have enticed her to comment).
I think that the disappointment for me was what I expected of the book because it was nominated for the Canada Reads shortlist. I didn't expect something preachy that would go down a treat with the elderly. (Having said that, my mother prefers books featuring serial killers and her mother had a great fondness for the World Wide Wrestling Federation.) It was too safe and one-dimensional and mainstream. I wanted something as good as Lullabies for Little Criminals.
I am not certain this book would 'go down a treat with the elderly' though. Knowing my grandfolks, they would not be happy with some of the sexual references ;) I can see where the book seems to have 'left off' earlier than it should have. I agree it is might on the one-dimensional side.
I wanted it to be as good as The Book of Negroes and felt it fell short there as well. I think The Birth House deserves to win a yearly Canadareads award. I am not convinced it deserves the 'Best Canadian book of the decade' award.
I really liked it, but I didn't totally love it. Though it flowed well, I still didn't get completely engrossed in it. I liked the main character but... somehow she didn't seem fully formed, or I didn't feel as though I really got to know her. Maybe it seemed like she wasn't challenged enough, in the sense that her midwifery apprenticeship seemed rather short and she just fell into it -- it didn't seem like any of it was hard-earned. Everything seemed to come her way (not that it went her way -- mostly, she was thrown trials and tribulations), and she adapted to circumstances, but it didn't seem like she ever worried much about things.
I rated the book pretty high (4 stars) based mostly on readability and also on being based on historical research. Now that I've read the commentary here, I can't say I disagree. But I still enjoyed the book as a good read.
Re: the historical transition from midwives to doctors -- my understanding of this (based on a paper I wrote) was that taking over birthing was very much a business decision for doctors; a way to make a practice viable, to charge for a recurring service (esp. in Quebec). I thought The Birth House really hit on the down side of it in the time and place where it was set -- the difficulty of getting to the doctor (vs. the practicality of the local midwife). Even if the doctor had better methods to offer (which is debatable, at that time), the risks of getting to the doctor were very real.
My thoughts about The Birth House were perfectly expressed by Deesirings/86. Although its been almost a year since I read it, I recall that when I closed the book, it was with a sense of dissatisfaction with the characters, but enjoyment of the place. I wrote my review, but when I went to post it, I saw that no other reviewers shared my thoughts. I concluded that I must have been having a bad day, so softened my critique before posting, and switched from 3 to 4 stars. I'm happy to have found this discussion and see that I wasn't alone after all!
My eventual review of The Birth House:
My best birthing experiences were the ones assisted by midwives, so I enjoy reading about midwifery in its different times and places. In The Birth House, Dora is 17 when her ‘accidental’ training begins in an isolated community in Nova Scotia in 1916.
A sweet old Cajun woman, whose purpose in life was “to deliver women from their pain” ~knew~, as she seemed always to know the vital things in the lives of the local women, that Dora was her successor. Miss B was a compassionate mixture of paganism and Catholicism, who despite being frowned upon by polite society, was also turned to when only her services would do. She passes her knowledge on to Dora, the only daughter of an unbending Protestant man and his wife. So Dora, of course, turns into the requisite stereotypical feminist.
To me, there were a few other jarring notes in the story. Of the Boston molasses disaster, she says, through the device of a relative’s letter, that “a house-sized fermentation tank had been topped off for a higher than usual yield of the Old Demon Rum”, so offering as fact, that which, according to Wikipedia, is just an urban legend. Also, the author has written the old midwife in a way in which she could, plausibly, utilize knowledge of both ends of the spectrum, but to me, midwifery and abortifacients just don’t seem to go together.
Looking beyond those few things, however, the story as a whole I found to be very interesting. The art of midwifery as practiced in an isolated Nova Scotia community, the ways of the local women and families, how the men made their livings, their medical resources; these made the book fascinating. And I learned, along the way, a bit of ‘medical’ history – female hysteria; a bit of local female history – groaning cake; a bit of seaside history – sailor’s graves, and a bit of Canadian history – the Halifax explosion.
I enjoyed, too, the format of the book, the “Literary scrapbook out of Dora’s days“, as the author called it. She mixes the narrative of Dora’s telling of her story with ‘clippings’ from the local newspaper, ‘letters’ between siblings and friends, and ‘excerpts’ from the ‘Book of Willow’, the midwife’s handed-down resource book. Ami McKay’s writing was thoroughly engaging. This is a ~keeper~!
I found Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel on the "New Books" shelf at my local library and thought I'd give it a try. I have the worst luck with picking books randomly, so I was expecting it to be bad, but it wasn't. It was an odd little book, though.
Lilia was abducted by her father from her mother's Quebec house in the middle of a winter night when she was seven. Since then, she and her father lived on the road, never staying long in any one place. Eventually, he settles down in a small town in New Mexico, but Lilia keeps traveling. Her longest stay was in Brooklyn, where she met Eli, moved in with him and then left one morning.
Michaela's father was a private detective hired by Lilia's mother to find her. He tracked her movements across the US, even as his daughter and wife disappeared from his life. Michaela contacts Eli, telling him that Lilia is in Montreal and that he should meet her there.
Eli has been working on his dissertation for so long that he suspects that he'll never finish. When Lilia walks out, he is unable to move on. When he receives the message from Michaela, he drops everything and goes to Montreal to find Lilia.
Last Night in Montreal is a book more concerned with style than realism. Neither of the female characters ever seem particularly real, coated as they are with so many layers of their colorful pasts. This doesn't make the story any less interesting, but it did mean that I had to adjust my expectations of what would happen. I'm left with more questions than answers, but the book was a pleasant read that evoked the odd geography of Montreal in winter.
I also have this on my list to read, I'm excited to get to it.
Black Robe by Brian Moore is set in Canada's very first days. It follows a priest, called a blackrobe by the native peoples, Laforgue, as he travels into the wilderness to help the two priests living in a Huron settlement in 1645. Laforgue feels his vocation strongly, the hope of saving people from damnation is a calling for which he is prepared to endure much. He has secret dreams of martyrdom. And then his beliefs slam up against those of the Algonquins guiding him upriver.
At that moment a great shadow passed over him, and, looking up, his prayer stillborn on his lips, he saw, high above, a huge eagle of a sort he had never seen in France, its head white, its beak and talons yellow, its great blackish wings rigid as sails, catching the wind eddies as it glided back and forth over the trees. Suddenly, swift as clashing swords, the great wings shut. The eagle plummeted between the trees. And as Laforgue knelt there, his struggles, his deafness, the dangers of this journey were transformed miraculously into a great adventure, a chance to advance God's glory here in a distant land. God was not hidden: He had shown Himself in the eagle's flight. Laforgue saw the eagle rise from the trees, its great wings beating steadily as it carried off its prey. In the beauty of this wild place, his heart sang a Te Deum of happiness.
This is Canada, Quebec, before the Europeans had more than a slight impact on those natives living near the few settlements. Europeans, coureurs de bois, who traded for furs, hadn't yet changed the native way of life. The fur traders adapted to their hosts instead. The "blackrobes" on the other hand, with their goal of saving souls for Jesus and a willingness to die in the process, were the first Europeans who wanted to change things.
The strength of this book is how is presents two sides without glorifying either of them. The 'savages' here are neither noble nor ignorant. The priests neither holy nor intent on destroying a way of life. Despite the strength of his belief, Laforgue cannot help but be shaken when unbaptized, unsaved Algonquins risk torture and death to keep their word.
What mercy? If Our Lord tests me, if He tests Daniel, then he promises us something which repays us a thousandfold for any suffering, any danger, any death. But what does He offer to these others, what mercy does He show to these Savages who will never look on His face in paradise, these He has cast into outer darkness, in this land which is the donjon of the devil and all his kind?
This wasn't an easy read, this isn't a sweet tale with a feel-good ending, but a serious book intent on historical accuracy and an examination of one man's faith. Father Laforgue is very much a product of his place and time, yet he is a thinking man forced to examine his worldview.
If an author can write, I mean really write, then I'm willing to read pretty much anything they care to put out there. Elizabeth Hay can write. It's an odd writing style, one which features both worn-out phrases and metaphors so startling that you have to read them a few times, both for comprehension and for the sheer enjoyment of the pictures she paints.
For a while I was able to carry it all inside me, like a big bouquet of peonies, and then I couldn't anymore. The moist, plump peony heads got to be too heavy. They were like pounds of raw hamburger hanging upside down.
Alone in the Classroom concerns Connie, a brand new and very young teacher sent to a small Saskatchewan school in a farming community at the brink of the Great Depression. There, she tutors an older boy who can't read and is menaced in vague and uncomfortable ways by the school's principal. Her story is told by her niece, a woman who worships the strong, independent woman Connie later became and who has an unsatisfactory relationship with her own mother.
The first part of the book is perfect; an interesting story beautifully told and with a strong sense of the isolated prairie community. The book loses momentum as it continues on, so that the final chapters seem to be just treading water. However, Hay is such an accomplished writer that I found it pleasant enough to float around with her through those final chapters.
And at first you think you will not be alone forever. You think the future is infinite. Childhood seems to have been infinite. Downstairs the saw revs and Helen hears a stick of wood fall to the floor. And so will the future be infinite, and it cannot be spent alone.
But, she has learned, it is possible: not to meet someone. The past yields, it gives way, it goes on forever. The future is unyielding. It is possible that the past has cracked off, the past has clattered to the floor, and what remains is the future and there is not very much of that. The future is the short end of the stick.
February, by Lisa Moore is about grief. Helen is a mother of three, pregnant with the fourth, when the Ocean Ranger, the oil rig her husband is working on, goes under off the coast of Newfoundland in 1982. February chronicles Helen's story, from meeting her husband to the life she manages to carve for herself from the wreckage of her earlier plans and expectations. Grief is ever present, and something that can't be shed after a suitable length of time, like an unfashionable coat. Her husband Cal is always somewhere in her mind and she is haunted by her imaginings of his final moments. But life goes on and she has four children, also marked by the loss of Cal, to care for. She doesn't get to give up or give in. The book jumps forwards and back in time to different parts of Helen's life; a good thing, because focusing too long on the intense period of sadness just after the rig went down would be unreadable.
There were long stretches in that phone call where neither of them said anything. Dave O'Mara wasn't speaking because he didn't know he wasn't speaking. He could see before him whatever he'd seen when he looked at his dead son, and he thought he was telling her all of that. But he was in his own kitchen staring silently at the floor.
Looking at his dead son must have been like watching a movie where nothing moved. It was not a photograph because it had duration. It had to be lived through. A photograph has none of that. This was a story without an ending. It would go on forever. And Helen was trying not to faint because it would scare the living daylights out of the children, and besides, she had known. She'd known the minute the bastard rig sank.
I liked G.B. Joyce's first novel, The Code, but I also like hockey, which is a pre-requisite for enjoying this hardboiled-style story. Brad Shade is an ex-hockey player who managed to play in the NHL for several years, although he was never a big name. Now he's working for a franchise, scouting out potential players to draft. His work takes him everywhere, but he mainly concentrates on the big towns and small cities of Ontario, where hockey is the only sport that matters and the teen-age players are a big deal. In Petersborough, Red Hanratty has been the coach for the junior league for decades. He's made the team a winning one and many professional players spent time skating for him. He's out-spoken and a bit of a drinker, but everyone is shocked when he is bludgeoned to death alongside the team doctor in the arena parking lot after an old-timers charity game. Shade was there, called in at the last minute to fill a slot and he was one of the last to see Hanratty alive. Shade was also there to take a close look at one of Hanratty's players, a promising young athlete who seems to have it all. While Shade isn't out to find the murderer, his interests soon make that vitally important.
When we're in the league we're not average guys with average lives. Our normal is no one else's. What we do to each other on the ice would be criminal in any jurisdiction if it were to take place on the street. Even the cleanest bodycheck would be assault. We glory in fighting. We drink to celebrate. Some do drugs, a lot steroids, but I've known some big weed smokers. A lot of guys gamble up to the line of compulsion and beyond. And we rebel against coaches who push us when we aren't inclined to be pushed, which is always, or against GMs whom we're always suspicious of. A team is just a gang by another name, playing hard, partying hard, living hard. Some harder than most. Some unable to behave differently when they hand their skates up to dry or hang them up for good.
Joyce is a sportswriter who has worked as a hockey scout and his knowledge of the inner and outer workings of the game as well as his understanding of hockey culture are what makes this book worth reading. An insider's view of how the minor leagues work is the central focus of the book, making it fascinating reading for a fan of the sport and probably unreadable for anyone else. Joyce aims for a witty hard-boiled writing style and sometimes gets there, but it mostly comes over as overly florid. The plot, while taking second stage to the atmosphere, is put together well enough to hold through the final pages. One thing that did surprise me was the author's female characters, which in this book about an entirely male sport were admittedly few. Joyce's women were as three-dimensional as the men. The love interest was better educated and comfortable in her life and skin than Shade and they interacted as equals.
I would have liked Nancy Richler's book more if it hadn't been shortlisted for Canada's Giller Prize. That nomination set my expectations higher than the book could sustain. If it hadn't been on the shortlist, on the other hand, I would never have looked twice at it. The cover art is banal and inaccurate and my copy of the book described it inaccurately on the back cover. It's marketed one way -- to appeal to the person who would enjoy a lush, romantic historical read, and it's placement on the Giller shortlist says something different -- that here is a novel of substance, that says something important in a new or especially skilled way.
The Imposter Bride falls somewhere in between these two promises. It's the story of a Polish-Jewish woman, Lily Azerov, who manages to be let into Canada in 1945 by becoming engaged to a Canadian man, Sol Kramer, who, upon seeing her emerge from the train carriage, decides that he can't follow through and marry her after all. His older brother, however, steps in and marries Lily himself and they settle into his mother's apartment in a Jewish working class neighborhood in Montreal. Lily has been scarred by her survival on the eastern edge of Poland during the war. She can't adjust to life in provincial Montreal and she is holding on to both her past and some sizable secrets, which affect her ability to form a new life in Canada.
The book may be about Lily, but she is never revealed, leaving a hole at the heart of the story. Even when the secrets of her past are brought to light, she remains in shadow, with that story, which could have been a novel of its own (and a much more exciting and powerful one), told in the most remote and unemotional way possible. What is left is the story of growing up in mid-century Montreal, in the small Jewish community there, which would have been an interesting story on its own were it not secondary to that of the enigmatic Lily's.
Richler may well someday be an author to be reckoned with, and this novel displays great research skills in depicting a small community at a specific place and time.