Tag Archives: book review

The Silent Wife by A.S.A Harrison

silentGone Girl by Gillian Flynn was a quick read for me this past spring. I enjoyed it yet, Flynn’s magic lay not in writing a psychological mystery of amazing literary prowess, or even much thoughtfulness, but in making a book that rippled with suspense. Gone Girl was addictive. Gone Girl was a good book, but The Silent Wife is better. A.S.A Harrison wrote The Silent Wife last year but she died before she could see it published.

Jodi and Todd, married for more than twenty years,  have survived because they were willing to see each others’ strengths and ignore their weaknesses.  It is a rattling account of a familiar story, a stalwart woman and a cheating husband living in relative peace until something sets it off.

Todd’s most recent girlfriend tells him she’s pregnant. He leaves Jodi, even evicting her out of their condo. Because the two had never married, Jodi, the one with a low-income, finds out she has no claim on her home. Jodi feels threatened, and entitled to more after putting up with Todd and his infidelity for twenty years. Todd’s actions erode Jodi’s sanity, and she falls apart until she murders him.

The book’s strength is sheer interest in the characters. From the get go (first page) the reader knows Jodi will kill Todd, so the reader is interested in the set up, not the how.  I particularly enjoyed the scenes where Jodi, a trained psychotherapist, recounts therapy she has attended in the past.  Attending therapy was for her own professional development, but these flash backs revealed not only Jodi’s family history, but also theory about human behaviour.  It ultimately shows the reader why Jodi, someone so sane and grounded, could murder her ex-husband.  The book is heavy with description, particularly the scenes of Jodi slipping into depression, but the frill of the writing is how the reader becomes a type of therapist to Jodi.

Unfortunately, this will be A.S.A Harrison’s only fiction book as she passed away. You can read about the fascinating story of her life as an artist in Toronto in this article.

A.S.A Harrison
A.S.A Harrison
Advertisements

The Last Hiccup- by Christopher Meades

ion

Tiny-Syn: lasthiccup

Vladimir lives in a small town in Russia where it’s winter most of the time. It is the 1930s and he is a small boy who wakes up one day and has hiccups that won’t go away.

After many sleepless nights (because of the hiccups) his mother brings him to a hospital in Moscow to be cured by the best doctor in the city. Thus taken from his home and mother, Vladimir is the recipient of many life experiences where eventually he comes to terms with his curse.

Larger Synopsis:

This is a wild and strangely exciting book about a boy named Vladimir who develops a serious case of the hiccups. Vladimir’s hiccups are so extreme that they keep him up at night. After three straight days, his impoverished mother brings him into Moscow to be cured by the best doctors in the Soviet Union.

The next few years for Vladimir are ones of medical intervention and trauma. This included a nightly routine of morphine to help him fall asleep at night. Through a strange rivalry between two doctors in the hospital, Vladimir is eventually ousted from Moscow and spends the rest of his childhood in an Mongolian Buddhist temple.

His hiccups remain with him until he travels back home, first to Moscow and then to see his mother.  The story ends with the good Vladimir sacrificing himself for the betterment of someone he loves, and dies a gruesome death while coming to terms with his hiccups.

Meades creates a bizarre and satirical world for Vladimir. The back cover of this novel calls The Last Hiccup a HumCanLit (a genre in which I’d been ignorant of all these years!). It is a strange tale, but not so strange as to be fantastical. The character of Vladimir lacked a bit of depth, but the premise was compelling enough that Meades pulled it off.  I don’t enjoy a lot of satirical novels, but this one I finished right to the very end!

I’m still struggling to piece my thoughts together on this one. I think the point of the book (and of the hiccups) is that as humans we struggle with the need to be recognized and appreciated. Vlady developed hiccups just at a time when he was developing a sense of self-hood. When a person’s place in the world is tentative, such as during adolescence, the desire for significance becomes important. Vladimir, in order to survive must come to term with his curse and learn to rely on his hiccups as a touchstone of who he is and ultimately how he will be defined.

And so, I recommend The Last Hiccup wholeheartedly. Unless of course, you dislike allegory. Some of the facts were a bit under-developed and puzzling, but for the most part I found the book intriguing and humorous.

Cheers!lasthiccup

Enhanced by Zemanta

The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers

If you liked Children of Men, by PD James, (book or movie) or Never Let Me Go (2010) you will enjoy this sci-fi apocalyptic-y novel. Jessie Lamb is an idealistic sixteen year old who is living in a grim world.

It is the near future. Women are unable to have children. A virus, called MDS has infected all women in the world leaving them unable to have children. Women are able to conceive, but shortly into the pregnancy, the virus kicks in and the woman dies.

Jessie’s father works in a reproductive tech lab, where they have found a way to vaccinate stored, frozen embryos against the virus MDS, offering the only hope for  the future of humanity. These vaccinated babies will be able to reproduce and populate the earth. However, they need young women to incubate the babies. These women are impregnated and then put into comas before MDS can kill them. After the baby is born, they die.

In order for there to ever be new babies, young women need to sacrifice their own lives.

Jessie volunteers as an incubator.  Her parents refuse to support her, arguing that scientists will find a cure for MDS in the future. Jessie wants to use her life for the betterment of the future, but her friends and family see her self-sacrifice as a type of suicide and a cry for help.

The ethics around reproductive technologies interest me a great deal. I also really enjoyed thinking about the dichotomy of self-sacrifice and selfishness. Jane Rogers created an extreme foil where a life must be given for humanity to continue. Especially in light of our depleting resources and the increasing ozone hole. We are still not willing to sacrifice our lifestyles. If you need some more proof that this is true of humanity, read my interview with a friend of mine about climate justiceJessieLamb

I also enjoyed the idealism (or stupidity) of Jessie. Our culture does not have examples of this type of sacrifice. We are not used to any form of sacrifice. Jessie’s gift to humanity seems unnatural.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed this book, I was not entirely sold on the main character. Jessie was a bit flat, and too resolved in her decision. I found her unconvincing. But otherwise the story was interesting enough that I’d recommend this novel.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers was shortlisted for the 2012 Booker Prize.  Cheers!

Philida- Andre Brink

What a fresh book!

I read a lot of Canadian fiction.

book cover
book cover

That is not a complaint, but I do miss other-worldly perspectives. Philida by Andre Brink was long-listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize.  The book is set in the 1820s and 1830s in South Africa.  I quickly learned that this was a pivotal time in South Africa’s history, because of the colonial power shift from the Dutch to the British.

Philida is a slave who works as a knitting girl on a Dutch plantation. She is also the lover of her boss’ son Frans and the mother of four of his children.

Philida is special. Even before the British took over the colony, she held an intrinsic sense of self-worth and dignity. She had feelings for Frans, but only because she was treated as an equal by him.

Frans turns into a big fat jerk and decides to sell Philida and his children.

There is more to the story, too. The British set a date, in advance, when slavery will be outlawed in the cape colony (by 1834). This has intense social implications for the Dutch settlers and the African slaves that have been working for them for generations.

I loved this book because it explores the link between freedom and individuality. With the promise of freedom, Philida turns from a person who lets things happen to her, into someone with agency.

I also loved this book because of the strength of Brink’s writing. The prose is humourous, his characters full of tongue in cheek one liners. And his characters have fun little names like Willempie.

Brink is also insightful, he lays out the complexity of slave and plantation just as it is breaking down.

The most impressive though, is that the novel is based on historical records that Brink has pieced together from his own family tree.

The book has strength, it has a soul. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys literary, historical fiction.

Giddy for the Giller #3: 419 by Will Ferguson

Alright- here’s the first Giddy for the Giller confession:

I did NOT finish this one, and after 4 overdue days at my library, I was disheartened and GAVE UP. It is a bit discouraging because this one is “favoured” to win the grand prize.  Hmmmm… Well, you win some an you lose some (plots that is!)

Dear Mr. Ferguson, I’ve not previously heard of you before. You aren’t really in my genre. So, maybe my opinion doesn’t matter. In my defense, I consider myself a very well rounded reader who enjoys the odd thriller, particularly ones about international issues.  Something about your book made me put it down, unable to finish it.

419 is about global consequences and the thin way in which survival loops together exploitation. A retired school teacher in Calgary commits suicide. His family soon learns that he was suffering financial ruin at the hands of a Nigerian 419 internet scam. His daughter, Laura, wants retribution for his death. The Canadian police have no ability to enact justice in Nigeria. Laura travels to Nigeria herself, putting herself in great danger because the 419 scammers are linked to crime lords who are accountable to no one.

One narrative follows Laura, the teacher’s daughter. Another narrative follows Winston, the man in Nigeria who makes a living frauding people of money. There is also a narrative about a pregnant African woman that I don’t know much about, but she is starving and traveling through Africa and looking for someone. That’s as far as I got.

The premise of 419 was interesting and the characters were decent. Dialogue was on par with any decent author. But the 340 pages of 419 were not compelling enough to keep reading. There was this lengthy diatribe about the “Shell Man”  and the oil exploitation that “white man” has imposed on the Nigerians in recent history.

As legitimate as the story of the death of a culture, and the exploitation of a vulnerable people, these chapters did not seem credible. Or perhaps they seemed to simple. But I found it bulky and boring.

Not every book is for me, and someone else might like this. It may make an interesting gift idea for a person who reads lots of National Geographic (ie my Dad).  It almost reads like investigative journalism, or maybe like a Robert Ludlum novel, but with less suspense.

The long and short of this is, it’s been an interesting Giller shortlist. This one was surprising for me.
Cheers!

Giddy for the Giller #2:The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler

The Imposter Bride is a decent read.

Ruth, the main character, is a Jewish woman growing up in Montreal in the 50s.  Ruth was abandoned by her mother as a newborn, leaving her husband and daughter and a mystery. Her mother immigrated from Russia right after the war, and leaves a past there that is hard for Ruth to reconcile. Identity seems irrelevant, and family ties loose.

Ruth is loved by her family and community, but spends her “growing up” years trying to let the people who loved and raised her, fill the void that was left by her mother.

The message of this book is compelling, especially about the immigrants after WWII who were missing people and their former lives. Immigrants coming into Canada were struggling to carry on and rebuild. I immediately pondered the relevance of a society built up on these issues. In the late 1940s, and during the 1950s, Canada received 1.5 million immigrants from Europe.  Among these numbers were all four of my grandparents.

The characters were a bit flat. I enjoyed the flashbacks in the story about Europe, but not the 1990s Montreal stuff because it felt forced and cliched. The interest for me in the story was the Jewish immigrants fleeing to Canada, or a place where they were meant to settle and rebuild halved lives.

There were a few circumstantial and non-relevant things that struck me as weird about this book: one, that it was set in Montreal (again, so was Inside by Alix Ohlin); also, Nancy Richler writes about Montreal, and so did Mordecai Richler, maybe they are related.

But the story wasn’t profound or new. It felt like a novel that could have been published thirty years ago. It detailed life in an older style of writing. One where the reader sees the character grow up and become someone. These are traditional Canadian novels, but I still finished it and felt enriched by it.

Cheers!

The Journey of Miranda Hill

*please note, this piece was originally published in November 2011’s urbanicity.

 


Writer Miranda Hill met with me in one of my favourite, unpretentious coffee shops. She leans into the dining room chair, comfortable amongst other regulars and baristas who know exactly how she likes her coffee.

Hill seems like she belongs here in this coffee shop. The community of Westdale feels like hers as well, a place where she and her family have lived for nearly three years. She has my attention; Hill is as riveting as her writing. She won the respected Writers’ Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize on November 1st for her short story and first publication, Petitions to Saint Chronic. The award is given to a new author to distinguish an impressive short story, putting Hill in the same ranks as some very gifted and renowned Canadian authors, including Yann Martel, writer of Life of Pi.

We can claim this artist as our own. Hill feels supported in Hamilton, connected to a tight circle of local writers who attend each other’s book openings. The Hamilton writers are a small enough community that they can be friends. I was pleased to hear of authors living among us, chronicling our city into stories.

Petitions to Saint Chronic was written while Hill was completing her Optional Residency at UBC’s Master’s of Fine Arts program. It is about an unnamed woman and two companions; all three are drawn to the desperation of an attempted suicide. The nearly-dead man, Gibson, is broken and comatose after falling twenty-four stories. The three individuals wait, each with their own reasons for wanting Gibson to wake up. Micheline wants to help Gibson turn his life around and make him successful. Carlos wants to give Gibson the gift of God’s love. The unnamed woman is broken herself and likes Gibson just as hopeless as he is. The story explores both how much pain the woman can take before she changes her circumstances, and ultimately what inspires her to do so.

Hill is busy as a mother, wife, and writer, but she also runs a fascinating organization called Project Bookmark Canada. The organization has erected ten plaques (Bookmarks) in locations around Ontario quoting passages from Canadian literature. The text on the plaque must relate to the exact location mentioned in the book or poem.

Hamilton was recently graced with a Bookmark of John Terpstra’s poem “Giants” at Sam Lawrence Park. Terpstra’s poem playfully describes giants sitting on the edge of the escarpment. The Bookmark allows the reader to enjoy the poem while standing on the escarpment, connecting literature with our physical geography.

Project Bookmark Canada’s hope is that with funding and time, they will have Bookmarks all across the country, emphasizing how important reading is to our everyday lives.

The idea of the Bookmarks came to her while she was living in the Distillery District in Toronto, walking with her young children around the streets of her neighbourhood. At times, she found herself reading passages in books that would mention the intersections she passed every day. As Hill said in a recent article, she felt like she stepped into the stories she was reading. Her relationship with literary texts was changed as she realized how connected literature was with her physical reality.

I encourage you to pick up a copy of Petitions to Saint Chronic. It can be found in The Journey Prize Stories 23, an anthology of the finalists for the prize. Read this story and feel proud that Miranda Hill lives and writes in our community. Her first collection of short stories is coming out next fall.

ELISHA STAM is a stay at home progeny wrangler, impulsive writer, and ravenous reader. She lives downtown Hamilton. You can read more of her reviews at elishastam.wordpress.com.