A VIP READING EXPERIENCE: Welcome to the Circus by Rhonda Douglas

Circus_Cover Welcome to the Circus by Rhonda Douglas Freehand Books May 2015, 196 pages 

Reading Rhonda Douglas’ collection of short stories Welcome to the Circus is a VIP experience at a series a of intimate performances: the live fantasy shows in the family-run Porn Emporium, the execution of a famous exotic dancer during WWI, and the confessional of anger-prone God. Sharp, dark humour livened up the dialogue. Lush, poetic phrases dotted the narrative. Always was I surprised by the strange and alluring stories crafted by Douglas.

The standouts? My favorite was “Cancer Oratio” whose different vignettes take the form of a musical composition while the characters come to terms with the fate of their dying friend. And, despite being distracted by several typos in the French text, I loved “Nous and René Levesque”, the story that landed Douglas on 2014 CBC Short Story Prize longlist. It’s a fresh take on different point of views concerning a possible “séparation” of Quebec in years gone by. Although every story is unique in topic and form, each has a lot of heart and memorable characters. I look forward to reading other original, weird, and fiercely smart stories from this author.

*I’d like to thank Freehand Books for sending me a copy of this book.*

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ALIX HAWLEY WINS THE AMAZON.CA FIRST NOVEL AWARD!!!

AlixHawleyCover   Alix Hawley just won the 2015 Amazon.ca First Novel Award for  All True Not a Lie in It. It examines the life and trials of Daniel Boone in a new light. And it’s simply wonderful. Congrats to the author! Read my review to learn a little bit more about the book. Rush to your bookstore or library and read it. You’ll be happy you did.

A WEIRD, FUNNY, AND HEART-RENDING JOURNEY: BOO by Neil Smith

Boo_CoverIt’s no secret that I adored Bang Crunch, a collection of short stories by Montreal-based writer Neil Smith. So, when I heard he was coming to the city for the Ottawa International Writers Festival, to read from his first novel Boo, I was ecstatic.

Then, I heard about the premise of his book. It’s narrated by 13-year-old Oliver Dalrymple who’s dead and hanging out in Heaven—a place called “Town” inhabited solely by dead, 13-year-old American kids—trying to find out who killed him. I got a bit leery. It sounded too much like The Lovely Bones, the overrated novel that once made my eyes bleed. Profusely. But, after hearing Smith read the first chapter of Boo and explaining the inspiration for his book, I decided to give the book a chance. Thank “Zig” (aka God according to Oliver) because it was awesome.

Oliver’s a pale (hence the nickname Boo), socially-awkward kid. He’s in Town, writing his thoughts and experiences in a manuscript for his still-living parents. Early on, he reveals, “I learned I was no good at small talk, perhaps because I do not know how to make small talk.” You see, he was a loner without any friends during his short time on Earth. He’s got an outrageous IQ that explains his eloquent language and obsession with the periodic table. Full disclosure: I fell in love with this quirky character in Chapter 1.

He becomes friends with maternal, heavyset Thelma, a cynical girl with dwarfism called Esther, and Johnny with a double-crown that “according to [Oliver’s] Grandmother, meant two separate spirits inhabited a person’s body.” Johnny, it turns out, was also killed at school alongside Oliver. Having friends is a new experience for Oliver. When making Johnny laugh for the first time, he thinks, “I am normally not this playful. Maybe Zig altered my personality to better suit my surroundings.” I loved watching Oliver learn to connect with other people. By the time the gang sets out to find out who killed the boys, I was 100% engaged on how the journey transforms Oliver.

The landmarks and the streets in Town are a nod to novels and characters we loved as kids and teenagers: the Meg Murray Infirmary, The Gene Forrester Jail, the Jerry Renault Park, and Boo Bradley Street. On top of that, there are endearing scenes in Boo that emulate the Children’s Literature.  It’s fitting, considering the characters are all thirteen-year-olds. But don’t be fooled; this book is laced with dark humour and themes intended for an adult audience. It looks at suicide, murder, mental illness, and loneliness in a new light.

I loved reading this book even though the dialogue, the knowledge, and behaviors of the kids felt too mature and stable at times. I kept expecting the narrative to unravel in true Lord of the Flies fashion. It didn’t. Not really. But, that was part of the book’s charm and the reason I’m still thinking about it today. If you love dark humour and are still a child at heart, I urge you to follow Oliver on his quest. With a box of tissues at the ready.

DANIEL BOONE REINVENTED: All True Not a Lie in It by Alix Hawley

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All True Not a Lie in It by Alix Hawley
Knopf Canada, February 10, 2015.
384 pages, 29,95$.

Alix Hawley’s debut novel All True Not a Lie in It examines the life and trials of Daniel Boone in a new light. The author tells us the story of the mythic figure with such raw, powerful emotions and vivid details you’ll trick yourself into thinking it is a true narrative. In fact, this book interweaves the concepts of truth, fiction, facts, and imaginings so tightly they become indistinguishable from one another.

Daniel grew up in a Quaker community. He yearned for the American Dream —for his piece of paradise. He admired his older brother and followed in his footsteps by adopting the lifestyle of the First Nations people. He escaped in the wilderness of the American frontier for years. As a wild youth. As a newly married man. As a white man warned by the Shawnee to leave their land alone.

I travel all through the forest whenever the weather is warm, and I hunt through the autumns and winters. I bring the meat to my family, I sell the hides down in Salisbury. Selling the hides takes the shine from it. The traders’ fingers are blunt and unseeing. If there were a way, I would slap the skins back on the carcasses and send the creatures off, to have more to catch again. Selling them does bring me plenty of money, enough to bring home and keep some over. I buy a new gun. I am fond of money. And I wish for more than I have. More of everything.

The first-person narration makes you feel like you are in the thick of the action at Daniel’s side. Or better yet, in his mind. A wizened Daniel recounts his life story the ghost of his past. You’ll ache when he shares his losses and regrets. His dry humour will make you chuckle. Always, he will make you ache to learn what happens next.

Hawley brings the 1700’s to life with gorgeous prose and keen insight. My one complaint: I wanted the story to go on. The novel doesn’t cover the entire 86 years of Daniel Boone’s life. The author could have kept my undivided attention for another 300 pages. Knopf Canada is marketing Alix Hawley as the “new face of fiction” —a bold, on-the-mark statement I will second any day.

*I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.*

The Story Road: 4 of 5

Anne_CoverThe latest post for my blog The Story Road for SPINE Online Magazine is up. This week, Teagan and I read Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery.

I hope you check it out. Like and comments on that site welcome.

Thanks for reading!

COMING OF AGE IN A TIME OF UNREST: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill

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The Girl Who Was Saturday Night
by Heather O’Neill
HarperCollins Publishers Ltd
403 pages, $29.99

 

As a French-Canadian, I thought that reading The Girl Who Was Saturday Night would drive me nuts. At times it did. But my frustration had nothing to do with with cultural appropriation of voice or language issue (The characters speak in French, yet the book is written in English.) Heather O’Neill captures a people, a time, and a culture with vivid accuracy. The Québécois and the separatist ideal she relates are real to me. She invents wild yet believable characters —twins Nouschka and Nicholas Tremblay in particular— and weaves a harrowing coming-of-age plot.  When Nouschka untangles herself from her brother and his increasingly impulsive, destructive ideas and moves out of her childhood home, the world is full of uncertainties. The writer creates a mood that took me back to 1995 when I too was a 20-year-old wild child (like Nouschka), living with the looming and scary Quebec referendum (not every French-speaking Canadian supported the “oui” vote) on the horizon. Well done, O’Neill, well done.

See, I simply have a love-hate relationship with her style. Everything that is so good and so right about her storytelling gets eclipsed by an over-abundance of quirky imagery, metaphors, and similes. They appear on every page. Granted some result in brilliant passages, like this one:

“Love is like this small room where a child brings you to show you all their treasures. First the child shows you all the new toys that are bright and shiny and top of the line. But then she shows you all the stuff that he ended up at the bottom of the trunk. There are dolls with eyes that wobble, hair that is falling out of their heads, and dirt behind their ears… It has been so long since they have been held or anyone has told them that they are lovely. They lie at the bottom of the toy chest, hidden and ashamed. You are either going to be disgusted by them, or you are going to be so filled with love for them that your heart almost breaks.”

That is how Nouschka sees the world. Her first-person account is coloured with childhood-themed imaginings tainted by adult realities. These touches reflect the protagonist well as she struggles to leave her past and her childhood behind.

But at other times, I find these touches distracting. They are so numerous and far-reaching that they often take me out of the story. For instance, O’Neill adds random cats into the narrative —cats that come in and out of the Tremblay home—  to mirror the characters’ wild, bohemian lifestyle. Cool idea, but the story is over-wrought with similes like this:

Nouschka crawled into her apartment, through the window, “while a cat with beige spots that [she]’d never seen before tip-toed off the bed and down the hallway, like a naked girl heading to the bathroom after she’d had sex in an unfamiliar apartment.”

Nicolas sprawls on the couch while a “calico cat was sleeping on its back, like a girl in grey stockings with her skirt pulled up over her hips.”

O’Neill does the same with roses. Perhaps she adds rose imagery to everything —like sheets, tattoos, toilet paper, wallpaper— because it’s a symbol of the separatist movement. Perhaps it’s reminiscent of a fitting, well-known French song about dreamers: “La vie en rose” by Édith Piaf. It’s just too rich at times.

I find these tricks work best when they are more subtle and less frequent. I realise that these very details make readers fall in love with Heather O’Neill’s novels. When I start anticipating upcoming similes, I get pulled out of the narrative. That’s unfortunate, especially when otherwise fascinated by the unravelling of Nouschka and the eccentric Tremblay family.

For a more plot-focused review of this 2014 Giller shortlisted novel, check out Reeder Reads. For another French-Canadian’s take on the novel, check out Sylvie’s World is a Library.

SHAPING MEMORIES AND IMAGININGS: The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter

“It doesn’t matter that memories can sometimes be misshapen, that there are a hundred ways to fix or lose a sense of self.” —The World Before Us, Aislinn Hunter

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The World Before Us
by Aislinn Hunter

Random House of Canada Limited
September 9, 2014

432 pages, $29.95

 

 

 

I was enchanted by Aislinn Hunter’s The World Before Us, a gorgeous, complex story pulsing with life. The novel explores how time, memory, and imaginings can shape a person’s narrative and identityTheWorldBeforeUsCover. The reader flutters in and out of the past alongside a whirlwind of characters —most of them spirits who have lost their selfhood.

Hunter’s greatest triumph when writing this book: her haunting, hypnotic first-person-plural point of view. At first, the reader is uncertain who the ‘we’ represents. The indeterminate gathering of narrating voices shadow 34-year-old Jane Standen. They follow her to work at the Chester Museum and gather round when she reads the archival files —clues to their pasts. The spirits know her thoughts, feel her emotions, and pervade her dreams. It takes but a heartbeat for them to travel through time and space. Still, they remain unknowing:

“We do not know how to recover our histories, to identify what or whom we loved. We cannot see ourselves except as loose human forms—like those caught moving down the street in the museum’s early Victorian photographs, figures whose blurred shapes become clearer the longer you look at them. We only know that we are drawn to certain objects, places and people, and that we are bound to Jane like the Thale butterflies in the natural history hall—pinned to the boards in their long glass cases.”

A Victorian era mystery haunts Jane. In August of 1877, three escapees fled the Whitmore Hospital for Convalescent Lunatics. A broad-shouldered farmer, a warmhearted solicitor, and a young woman in a brown dress (known only as N-) traipsed together, for hours, in the forest. During their escape, N- disappeared. Jane cannot rest until she finds out what happened to the dark-haired woman on that late summer day.

The reader soon learns what drives Jane’s research: guilt. The story of N- parallels that of 5-year-old Lily, the charge Jane lost as a teenager in the same stretch of woods. Her own traumatic experience compels Jane to make things right —because “some poor girl from a Victorian asylum goes missing and makes a hole in a page just big enough for all of Lily to fit into.” As Jane’s sleuthing intensifies, so does the “we’s” awareness.

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While I was reading this book, a dozen hot air balloons floated overhead. Magical.

Hunter’s unconventional point of view may alienate some readers. Others will be entranced by it. Consumed by it. An intricate plot; poetic language; numerous characters: the book demands your full attention. Still, how rewarding it is to join the “we” as a remembrancer —“a human being who knows that to be a human being is to carry within yourself a responsibility, not only to your own present but to the past from which you have come.”

*I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.*