Author, Book review, Canada, David Adams Richards, Fiction, literary fiction, McClelland & Stewart, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21

‘Nights Below Station Street’ by David Adams Richards

Fiction – paperback; McClelland & Stewart; 225 pages; 2009.

Every now and then I stumble upon a book that offers up a complete cast of characters, immerses me in their lives and makes me feel as if I know them all personally, their flaws and foibles, and then, when I come to the end, I’m left bereft at having to say goodbye. This is how I felt when I read David Adams Richards’ 1988 novel Nights Below Station Street.

The story is set in rural Canada (the blurb tells me it’s New Brunswick) in the early 1970s.

There’s no real plot; instead, we meet a handful of locals and follow their ordinary working-class lives in a small mining and timber mill community over the course of a year or so.

In effortless, stripped-back prose, Adams Richards depicts complex familial and neighbourly relationships, the day-to-day struggles of the poor, and the very personal battles faced by those with addiction (or illness) and the subsequent outfall on their families.

A family under stress

The novel largely revolves around the Walsh family, which is headed by Joe, a labourer, who injured his back at work several years earlier and now struggles to hold down a full-time job. He’s battling alcoholism and has secretly joined AA in a bid to give up the booze. But his good intentions are constantly under threat by peer pressure and a lack of family support.

Joe’s will power and resolve is also tested by his always angry and bitter teenage stepdaughter, Adele, who rails against him, claiming Joe is a no-hoper because he isn’t the breadwinner of the household. That role falls to his wife, Rita, who provides childcare in her own home in order to bring in money.

When the desperately social Rita joins a local curling club and tries to drag Joe with her, it causes all kinds of consternation because she wants to be an active participant in the community, while Joe, an introvert with a stutter, would prefer to hide under a rock.

The story features a host of other colourful, well-drawn characters, including Ralphie, Adele’s kind-hearted boyfriend; Cindi, a student at Adele’s school who has epilepsy; Myhrra, the divorced next-door neighbour struggling to raise her 12-year-old son, Bryan, who’s acting out and becoming obnoxious; and Vye, a local man, who wants to marry her.

All are linked together because they live in the same small community where everyone knows everyone else’s business — whether they like it or not.

Lost in a blizzard

While not much seems to happen over the course of the novel, everything comes to a head at the end when a snowy blizzard puts lives at risk — but the conclusion is an uplifting one.

Nights Below Station Street won the Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction at the 1988 Governor General’s Awards. It is the first volume in David Adams Richards’ Miramichi trilogy, which includes Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace (1990) and For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down (1993).

It’s a compelling account of small-town life and the ups and downs we all face as the world turns, and is a powerful portrait of a deep-seated human need to belong — and to be loved.

Fans of the late Kent Haruf will find much to admire there because the work is deeply reminiscent of Haruf’s eloquent heartfelt tales about a Colorado farming community.

This is my 13th book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it at a charity book sale earlier this month for $4 and am kind of cheating by including it in my TBR.

Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Canada, Finch Publishing, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vicki Laveau-Harvie

‘The Erratics’ by Vicki Laveau-Harvie

Non-fiction – memoir; paperback; Finch Publishing; 217 pages; 2018.

Vicki Laveau-Harvie is a retired academic and translator whose memoir The Erratics won the 2018 Finch Memoir Prize. Last month the book was longlisted for the 2019 Stella Prize.

It’s a compelling account of dealing with elderly parents — one of whom is trying to kill the other — from afar.

A memoir about a dysfunctional family

Imagine, if you will, the following scenario.

You grew up in Canada, on a big sprawling isolated property on the prairies of Alberta, with a younger sister, and a mother who had a vibrant, mercurial, some might say challenging, personality and an easy-going, hen-pecked father.

You now live in Sydney, Australia, where you have raised a family of your own. You have been estranged from your parents for a long time. In fact, they have disinherited both you and your sister, and your mother goes around telling everyone that she only has one daughter and that she died many years ago. Or sometimes she says that her two daughters disappeared decades ago and despite hiring investigators on several continents they have never been found.

Then you get a call to say your mother has been hospitalised unexpectedly. She has broken a hip.

4th Estate edition

When you fly to the other side of the world to visit her, you discover she’s as cantankerous and difficult as ever. But you are shocked to see that your father is all skin and bones. You think he might have a terminal disease. Then it slowly dawns on you that your mother has been starving him deliberately and that he has a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome. It is a disturbing and frightening realisation.

What do you do? You (and your sister) do whatever you can to ensure your mother is kept in hospital for as long as possible so that you can plan your father’s “escape” — the last thing you want is your mother returning  home to continue her abusive treatment, for he will die at her hand. But how do you convince the authorities that your mother is crazy and hellbent on killing her husband when she’s got such a forceful personality and a long track record of telling lies? How do you get them to understand that you have your father’s interests at heart and not your own?

A compulsive read

That is essentially the scope of this gripping memoir, one that I read in one, long compulsive sitting, unable to tear my eyes from the page.

Laveau-Harvie writes in an easy-going style that feels light as air despite dealing with dark and troubling issues and emotions. There’s no self-pity. Instead, there’s lots of honesty, pragmatism and self-deprecating (often sarcastic) humour. It’s heartbreaking and frightening by turn. Occasionally, it almost feels like a story that American TV producer and comedy writer Larry “Curb Your Enthusiasm” David might have come up with, it really is that funny and the family so dysfunctional.

But underpinning the narrative is a quiet strength and an almost ruthless quest to sort things out even if it means revisiting the horrors of the past. The Erratics is a brave and sometimes harrowing book, one that deserves a wide audience, but it’s also a testament to family love and the ties that bind.

UPDATE: Kate, who blogs at Books are my Favourite and Best, has also reviewed this book. She has a slightly different take on it to me.

This is my my 1st book for the 2019 Stella Prize shortlist and my 2nd book for #AWW2019. It took some effort to track it down in Western Australia, where I spent two weeks last month. It hasn’t been published outside of Australia so, sadly, it will be even harder to source if you live in the Northern Hemisphere. The publisher ceased trading at the end of 2018, but I believe the book has since been picked up by 4th Estate in Australia where it will be republished in mid-March. To purchase a copy outside of Australia, your best bet would be to place an order with Readings.com.au — sadly, it won’t be a cheap exercise.

2018 Giller Prize, Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, Harvill Secker, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting, Sheila Heti

‘Motherhood’ by Sheila Heti

Motherhood UK cover

Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 284 pages; 2018.

Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, which has been shortlisted for the 2018 Giller Prize, won’t be for everyone. I’d argue that it has a quite specific audience. It seems to be the kind of book that is aimed primarily at women of child-bearing age who haven’t quite made up their minds as to whether they want to have children or not.

It’s fictional, but because it’s written in the first person and doesn’t really have a plot (indeed, it doesn’t really have any characters aside from the narrator and her boyfriend), it feels like non-fiction. As I read through it I had to keep reminding myself it wasn’t reportage; it was an extended piece of creative writing exploring a simple idea: how do you know when it’s the right time to reproduce, and what do you do if you decide that’s not for you?

Motherhood — the Canadian edition
Canadian edition

Written in direct first-person text, almost as if the author is trying to talk herself into — or perhaps out of — making a decision, it’s occasionally humorous and often illuminating, but mostly — and I hate to say this — it’s downright self-indulgent. (Navel-gazing is another term that springs to mind.)

As you’d expect for a book with a philosophical bent, it explores lots of interesting ideas about what it is to be a mother (doing what you, as a woman, were supposedly put on earth to do, for example) as well as what it is to be woman of child-bearing age who chooses not to bear children (helping the planet by not adding to the world’s population, is just one theory posited).

There’s some thought-provoking analysis on what it is to lead a creative life — in this case, as a writer — and whether having children lessens that ability or enriches it. Does raising children take away the energy and stimulus that is required for the imagination to function properly?

But the book’s structure is odd. It over-relies on the device of flipping coins to answer certain questions (inspired by the ancient Chinese “art” of I Ching), which is novel to begin with but soon wears thin.

Should I have a child with Miles?
no
Should I have a child at all?
yes
So then I should leave Miles?
no
Should I have an affair with another man while I’m with Miles, and raise the child as Miles’s own, deceiving him about the provenance of that child?
yes

There’s also a lot of over-reliance on dreams (this is a pet hate of mine in novels) and what I would call “hocus-pocus” (whether in the form of religion, fortune-telling or destiny), but these do serve an important function: to help the narrator determine whether making the decision to have a child is something over which she can take control, or whether it’s up to the gods to decide.

It’s certainly an interesting premise for a novel, but it’s weighed down by too much middle-class angst for my liking.

As a woman who chose not to have children, I’m afraid there was nothing new in this book for me. I suspect if I had read Motherhood 10 or 15 years ago it would have resonated and perhaps shown me that there is no right answer: your life isn’t better or poorer for having children, it’s just different if you choose not to become a mother.

This is my 2nd book for 2018 Shadow Giller Prize.

2017 Giller Prize, Antarctica, Australia, Author, Book review, Canada, Ed O'Loughlin, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, riverrun, Setting, UK

‘Minds of Winter’ by Ed O’Loughlin

Minds of Winter

Fiction – hardcover; riverrun; 446 pages; 2016.

There’s no doubting the ambition of Ed O’Loughlin’s Minds of Winter. This “wide-screen” historical novel is themed around the exploration of both polar ice-caps and it also throws in a modern-day storyline for good measure.

The amount of research within its 446 pages is mind-boggling, to say the least. O’Loughlin has crammed in every conceivable fact about expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctica over more than two centuries of exploration, and he has melded together both real and fictional accounts to create a brilliantly imagined novel, which has been shortlisted for the 2017 Giller Prize.

The book is peopled with non-fictional characters, including Captain Sir John and Lady Franklin (of the famed “lost” expedition to chart the North-West Passage in 1845), the 19th century Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, and “Scott of the Antarctic” Robert Scott, amongst others. Some of the chapters are also narrated by “Eskimo Joe”, an Inuit guide and explorer who assisted many American Arctic explorers in the 1860s and 70s.

A multi-layered story spanning continents and time periods

O’Loughlin interleaves these various historical accounts, which switch between eras and hemispheres, to build up a multi-layered story showcasing the obsession of these explorers at a time when life and death often hinged upon navigation by the stars or through the use of new-fangled inventions such as the chronometer. He shows their desire for fame (or notoriety), their little madnesses, the rivalry, and the underhand tactics they sometimes employed — all in a bid to do something no-one else had ever done before.

Holding all these often disparate narrative threads together is a modern-day storyline focussed on the true mystery of the “Arnold 294” chronometer. This marine timepiece designed for celestial navigation and the measurement of longitude was thought lost forever with Sir John Franklin’s fatal expedition in the Canadian Arctic, but it reappeared 150 years later in Britain disguised as a Victorian carriage clock. (You can read about that in this article published in The Guardian in 2009.)

And then there is Nelson and Fay, who accidentally meet at the airport in Inuvik, a remote town in the Northwest Territories of Canada, and discover that there is a long-lost connection between them.

A great idea, but poorly executed

I had a couple of problems with this novel. I think the parts are better than the whole. The narrative jumps around a lot, there’s lots of (impenetrable) information and it’s hard to keep track of the characters (a dramatic personae might have helped). It’s not a book to read in fits and starts; you really need to devote large chunks of time to it otherwise it’s almost impossible to follow what’s going on.

It’s ambition is much to be admired, but when such a massive doorstep of a novel lacks a cohesive narrative thread it can be hard to generate momentum. I kept expecting all the threads to be neatly drawn together at the end, to deliver some kind of powerful shock, but I was disappointed. There will be some readers who love the challenge of the story, but for me, it felt too much like hard work.

My fellow Shadow Giller judge Naomi, who blogs at Consumed by Ink, thought more highly of it, describing it as “a marvellous journey” that “takes us to many out-of-the-way places on this earth”. You can read her review here.

This is my 5th and final book for the 2017 Shadow Giller Prize. We will announce our winner on KevinfromcCanada’s blog later today.

2017 Giller Prize, Author, Book review, Canada, Eden Robinson, Fiction, Knopf, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting

‘Son of a Trickster’ by Eden Robinson

Son of a Trickster

Fiction – hardcover; Knopf Canada; 336 pages; 2017.

Don’t you love it when you pick up a book and it takes you completely by surprise?

I was a little reluctant to read Eden Robinson’s Son of a Trickster — shortlisted for the 2017 Giller Prize — probably because the author’s bio on the inside flap of the dust jacket was cringe inducing (“Son of a Trickster was written under the influence of pan-friend tofu and nutritional yeast, which may explain things but probably doesn’t”) and expected the text inside to follow suit.

But this coming-of-age tale about Jared, an indigenous boy growing up with a drug-addicted mother, utterly charmed me. The subject matter might be bleak, but there’s so much compassion — and heart — in this book that it’s hard not to fall a little bit in love with it.

Life on the margins

We learn very early on that Jared’s upbringing hasn’t been conventional. His father has run off to be with another woman, his maternal grandmother hates him because she thinks he’s a trickster (“he’s wearing a human face, but he’s not human”) and his mother is combative, potty-mouthed and messed up on drugs.

By the time Jared is 16 he is living in the decrepit basement of his mother’s house, so that she can rent his room out to cover her bills. Sometimes she and her new boyfriend, Richie, disappear for days at a time “on business” (read: “acquiring drugs”), leaving him to his own devices. He has one constant companion — a beloved dog — but when she dies he finds it difficult to come to terms with the loss.

It doesn’t help that his life is a constant battle to keep everyone happy: his fiercely outspoken mother; his father who lives a long bus ride away; his demanding step-sister and her new baby; his “friends” at school; the customers who buy his cannabis-infused cookies, which he bakes then sells to pay his dad’s rent; and his elderly neighbours, the Jaks, who pay him to do yard work.

Compassion for others

Yet Jared, who is caught between so many competing demands, is full of empathy for other people and cares deeply about them. When Mrs Jaks is diagnosed with cancer, he helps her out by looking after her husband, who has dementia, when she goes off for treatment. He befriends their troubled granddaughter, who self harms, and spends time with a young boy whose obsession with science fiction has turned him into an outcast. And he lets his peers crash in his room when they’re drunk or in need of a place to hide from their parents.

Sometimes he’s taken advantage of — “He wished people could make undying declarations of love and loyalty to him when they weren’t half-cut or stoned out of their gourds” — but he knows how to stand his ground. When his step-sister Destiny tricks him into looking after her young baby without asking, he refuses to visit her again because he doesn’t “want to be played”; when his school friend Dylan vomits on his bedroom floor and goes home without cleaning it up, he never lets him stay over again.

The one truly positive thing in his life is his paternal grandmother, Nana Sophia, whom he keeps in contact with via text message and Facebook. She offers him advice and support from afar, and issues an open invitation for him to come and live with her in Prince Rupert.

But as the novel progresses towards its conclusion things don’t pan out the way Jared (or the reader) might expect. He begins hallucinating and the story takes a dramatic twist that shows the fragility of his young mind bent out of shape by too many drugs and too much booze and a lack of connection with his own indigenous culture.

Whip-smart humour

I really loved the whole feel and structure and mood of this book. The writing is sassy and sharp and infused with a whip-smart humour. The dialogue — and the often crude language — is spot on. But it’s the portrait of a teenage boy doing the best he can despite the circumstances which makes Son of a Trickster such a stunner of a read.

My fellow Shadow Giller judge Naomi, who blogs at Consumed by Ink, loved this book too. You can see her review here.

This is my 4th book for the 2017 Shadow Giller Prize.

2017 Giller Prize, Author, Book review, Canada, Doubleday Canada, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Michael Redhill, Publisher, Setting

‘Bellevue Square’ by Michael Redhill

Bellevue Square

Fiction – hardcover; Doubleday Canada; 262 pages; 2017.

When I found out that Michael Redhill’s Bellevue Square was billed as a thriller, I wondered how it had slipped onto this year’s Giller Prize shortlist, which is primarily for literary fiction. But when I picked up this book — ordered on import from Canada (there doesn’t even seem to be a UK publication date) — I discovered that it’s so-called billing wasn’t entirely correct.

Bellevue Square is one of those novels that starts off as one thing before it morphs into another. The opening chapters have all the hallmarks of a mystery thriller, but mid-way through it takes a dramatic turn and becomes a wonderful examination of mental illness, consciousness, identity and the blurring of lines between truth, reality and imagination.

In search of a doppelgänger

When the book opens we meet first person narrator Jean Mason, who is married with two children and runs a bookstore in downtown Toronto. One day one of her regular customers, Mr Ronan, questions her ability to change clothing and hairstyles in a matter of minutes. Jean, confused, wants to know what he’s talking about.

“You were in the market. Fifteen minutes ago. I saw you.”
“No. That wasn’t me. I wasn’t in any market.”
“Huh,” he said. He had a disagreeable expression on his face, a look halfway between fear and anger. He smiled with his teeth. “You were wearing grey slacks and a black top with little gold lines on it. I said hello. You said hello. Your hair was up to here!” He chopped at the base of his skull. “So, you have a twin, then.”
“I have a sister, but she’s older than me and we look nothing alike. […] And I’ve been here all morning.”

Jean’s continued denials make Mr Ronan angry and he becomes violent towards her. Later, he’s found dead in his apartment having hanged himself.

This sets a disturbing and somewhat puzzling chain of events into motion. More people claim to have seen Jean’s doppelgänger around Kensington Market. She learns from those people that her lookalike is named Ingrid Fox and that she is a crime writer.

Jean becomes obsessed with meeting Ingrid and spends an enormous amount of time hanging out in Bellevue Square, where Ingrid has often been spotted, to see if she can run into her. She befriends lots of the square’s regulars, a cohort of misfits and homeless people, to help her track down her quarry — with alarming results.

Impossible to pigeon-hole

Bellevue Square isn’t your run-of-the-mill thriller. In fact, it’s impossible to pigeon-hole, because it’s also part literary fiction, part medical fiction, part horror and there may even be elements of science fiction in it, too. That’s not to say its message or its contents are garbled — far from it.

It’s a totally compelling read, one that makes you question the narrator’s sanity (and perhaps even your own) as the storyline becomes increasingly more twisty and bent in on itself the further you get into the book. It’s fast-paced too, which can occasionally leave you feeling slightly disoriented, as if you’ve got lost in the market and can’t find an exit out.

The prose has an effortless but very immediate feel to it and Redhill brings many scenes alive with sentences that dazzle and delight, so that “electric lights make colour bouquets of fireworks in the wet road” or “the half-dozen machines connected to her chatter and sigh like ladies at a book club”.

This totally isn’t the type of book I expected when I picked it up. It turned out to be such a surprising read, so immersive and unsettling, that it has lingered in my mind more than two weeks after finishing it. Redhill has crafted a zinger of a novel, one that is well structured and well plotted, the kind of book you need to read again if only to try to understand how he’s done it. The good news is that it is the first in a trilogy. I can’t wait to read the next instalment.

This is my 2nd book for the 2017 Shadow Giller Prize.

2017 Giller Prize, Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, Invisible Publishing, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Michelle Winters, Publisher, Setting

‘I am a Truck’ by Michelle Winters

I am a truck

Fiction – Kindle edition; Invisible Publishing; 160 pages; 2017.

If the American filmmakers the Cohen brothers penned a novel it would be something like Michelle Winters’ I am a Truck.

This book, shortlisted for the 2017 Giller Prize, is a quirky and unconventional tale about a married couple, living in rural Acadia, whose 20-year marriage falls apart in unusual circumstances.

Throw in the wife’s forbidden obsession with rock and roll, a bat in a cage, a lonely Chevy salesman in need of a male friend, a former cheerleader who wants to study computer programming, and a military man who likes to sing out loud, and you’ll come to understand that this novel really is a peculiar and offbeat one.

Portrait of a marriage

I am a Truck revolves around the marriage between Agathe and Réjean Lapointe, who are about to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary. The couple are devoted to one another and have cut themselves off from society at large, choosing to live in a small secluded cottage, where they shun the English language in favour of French. Their motto is “ll n’y a que nous”, which means “it’s just us”.

However, a week before their big celebration, Réjean gets in his Silverado pick-up to go on a fishing trip with work colleagues and is never seen again.

The Silverado was reported sitting next to the highway with the driver-side door open just eight hours after Agathe had kissed Réjean on the front step of their cottage and sent him off fishing in the rain with a Thermos full of coffee, four sandwiches au bologne, and a dozen date squares.

No one knows where Réjean has gone and the police don’t seem that keen to find him. There’s no sign that anything untoward has happened to him, and Agathe suspects she’s simply been abandoned. Initially distraught, she realises she now has to fend for herself, so she gets herself a job and starts her life afresh.

A mystery novel that morphs into something else

The story is structured around the past and the present in interleaved chapters entitled “Then” and “Now”. This not only allows us to understand the Lapointe’s marriage before and after Réjean goes missing, it gives us insights into what makes both characters tick and introduces us to the deliciously different secondary characters — larger-than-life Debbie, who introduces Agathe to rock and roll and wild nights out, and Michael, the Chevy salesman, who has a man crush on 7ft-tall Réjean.

It begins as a mystery-cum-detective tale, but by the mid-way point, the reader discovers Réjean’s fate and it turns into a intriguing tale of what it is to become your own person — yet this does not lessen the book’s page-turning quality. It’s the zany nature of the story that makes it so compelling. It’s written in straightforward, almost pedestrian (and occasionally) laboured, prose, but it’s such a charming and bizarre tale you can’t help but want to know what happens next.

If I was to pick fault with it, I would single out the use of French throughout (all of Agathe’s dialogue, for instance, is written in French) without a translation being offered. Having to interpret what Agathe was saying according to the English side of the conversation hindered the flow of the story for me, but I’m sure anyone with basic level French will probably find it easy to understand.

Will I am a Truck win the Giller Prize? I doubt it. It’s not really a “literary” novel in the sense that it’s not doing anything particularly groundbreaking and it’s not written in the beautiful, poetic prose one might expect from a prize-winning novel. But it’s highly original, laced with wit and love, and it might just be the strangest, yet most feel-good, story I’ve read all year.

This is my 1st book for the 2017 Shadow Giller Prize.

2017 Giller Prize, Book review, Canada, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Scribner, Setting, Zoey Leigh Peterson

‘Next Year, For Sure’ by Zoey Leigh Peterson

Next year for sure

Fiction – hardcover; Scribner Book Company; 240 pages; 2017.

I neglected to mention that I am participating in the Shadow Giller Prize once again, which means reading all the shortlisted titles and then choosing a winner before the real one is named on November 20.

When the longlist was announced a few weeks ago I went on a hunt to see what books were available in the UK that I might be able to get a head start on. Admittedly Zoey Leigh Peterson’s Next Year, For Sure wouldn’t have been my first choice of Giller Prize book to read, but the hardcover was just £3.89 on Amazon so it seemed churlish not to buy it.

The book tells the story of a young couple who pursue the idea of having an open relationship — with unforetold consequences.

Nine-year itch?

Kathryn and Chris have been together nine years. They’re in love and do everything together. Sometimes it’s hard to know where one person begins and the other ends, their lives, their interests, their personalities are so intertwined.

But then Chris confesses he’s been thinking a lot about Emily, a woman he sees at the laundromat.

I think I have a crush on Emily, he tells Kathryn in the shower. This is where they confide crushes.
A heart crush or a boner crush? Kathryn says.
He doesn’t know how to choose. It’s not particularly sexual, his crush. He hasn’t thought about Emily that way. And Chris would never say boner. But it’s not just his heart, either. It’s his molecules.

So he tells Kathryn about his molecules. How the first time he met Emily, it felt like his DNA had been resequenced. How he felt an instant kinship and a tenderness that was somehow painful. How, whenever he talks to her, he comes away feeling hollowed out and nauseous like after swimming too long in a chlorinated pool.

Kathryn’s reaction isn’t what you might expect: she suggests that Chris should pursue his interest in this woman and ask her out on a date. Suddenly there’s a third person in the marriage and it causes the inevitable tensions and strains one might expect — and quite a few that you might not.

Entertaining and effortless

From the start I thought the premise of Next Year, For Sure sounded dubious, the sort of book I wouldn’t like, but I was pleasantly surprised by how entertaining and enjoyable it turned out to be. I ate it up in just a handful of sittings and even though I didn’t much like the characters — too needy, too self-centred, too feckless — Peterson does such a brilliant job of putting us in their heads, explaining their motivations, their concerns, their fears, that it was hard not to become totally immersed in their story.

She doesn’t tell us everything about Kathryn and Chris straightaway, but over the course of the novel we begin to find out things about them that challenge our preconceptions. Both characters need lots of love (and attention) but their motivations are different: Kathryn has been in an abusive relationship and her passivity is, at times, crippling; Chris simply has a roving eye and finds it difficult to settle down.

Needless to say the characterisation is superb: Peterson show us Kathryn and Chris’ flaws but refrains from casting judgement on them. They are messy, vulnerable people caught up in the ebb and flow of an intimate relationship, struggling to come to terms with the stability (and monotony) of a long-term partnership.

My only quibble — and it’s a minor one — is that perhaps Emily could have been fleshed out a bit more. She’s almost ephemeral in this story, so much so it’s hard to tell what Chris finds so appealing about her, but perhaps that was the author’s intention.

And while not a great deal happens in the story, which is set over the space of a year, from September to September, there’s enough little dramas in it to maintain interest. And to be honest, what reader couldn’t help but be intrigued by a couple breaking all the social and moral codes so ingrained in our way of life?

Next Year, For Sure is a rather charming tale about taking risks and chasing dreams, but it’s also a warning about wanting things we cannot have and of not appreciating what’s right in front of us.

I read this book as part of the 2017 Shadow Giller Prize. It is currently only available in hardcover.

20 books of summer (2017), Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Smashwords, William Weintraub

‘Why Rock the Boat’ by William Weintraub

Fiction – Kindle edition; Smashwords; 160 pages; 2011.

The first law of journalism is that something must always be found to fill the space between the advertisements.

I love a good journalism novel and this one, by Canadian writer William Weintraub, fits right into that category. First published in 1961, Why Rock the Boat is about a rookie reporter, Harry Barnes, trying to make a name for himself on a Montreal newspaper that is in serious financial trouble.

Surviving redundancy

Harry hopes he can survive the constant rounds of lay-offs on the Montreal Daily Witness by making himself indispensable, but first he has to get off the general assignment beat (doing mundane jobs such as taking down the names of funeral attendees for publication) and onto the slightly more prestigious hotel beat (interviewing interesting guests).

He knows that if he keeps practising his writing during quiet moments in the office he will get better at his job. What he doesn’t realise is that he should never leave his joke stories lying around for they are bound to get published, whether by accident or design. And so that is how one of Harry’s practise stories makes it into print:

DRUNK SENTENCED
“This man was corned, loaded and pissed to the very gills,” Judge Elphege Boisvert said in Criminal Court yesterday as he sentenced Philip L. Butcher, local newspaper executive, to two years’ hard labour. Butcher, charged with drunk and disorderly conduct, was arrested Tuesday in the lobby of the Imperial George Hotel, where he had climbed up the big Christmas tree and, with obscene cries, was throwing ornaments down on passing citizens.

Fortunately, Harry gets away with it, and an older reporter, whose career is on the slide, gets blamed — and sacked — for it instead. This sets into motion the pattern of the novel: a succession of blackly funny set pieces about Harry’s cheeky mishaps, all of which he somehow manages to get away with.

Feels contemporary

Why Rock the Boat is set in the 1940s, but there’s so much about it that feels relevant today — almost 80 years on.

It not only debunks the myth that newspapers were hugely profitable until the arrival of the internet and social media, it dismisses the idea that there was ever a “golden age” of journalism where ethics always trump the chase for profit.

And it shows how journalistic jobs have always been under threat, whether through lack of resource or a misunderstanding of what journalists actually do so that others feel they could do it better. For example, the following paragraph, about PR people taking over the world, feels deliciously spot-on today:

Public Relations, Erskine had told him in the car on the way up, was the coming thing. Reporters would eventually become relics of the past, with practically all stories “pre-written” by firms like Erskine-Gainsborough-Gotch and “tailored” to fit each paper’s needs. All of them, from the humblest Bellringers to the mightiest Rotary Club, would have their P.R. agencies to tell “their story” for them in a way that would create the best impression. Industry, labour, government, police forces, criminals, lawyers, churches – everybody would have their P.R. outlets to make sure the papers got things straight. Newspapers would just have a few editors to get the press releases ready for the printers. Eventually, Erskine said dreamily, the editors themselves might be eliminated and the press releases would go directly to the printers. What about reporters, Harry had asked. There would be no jobs for them. No, said Erskine, there would be plenty of work for them in the P.R. agencies, turning out the press releases.

Role of women

Perhaps the one element that makes the book seem slightly dated is the role of women in the media.

In this novel, Harry is bewitched by Julia Martin, a rival reporter on another title, who just happens to be female, something rare in the newspaper game. When he is put on the same beat as her, Harry’s superior, Scannell, offers the following advice:

“The whole subject of women in the newspaper business is extremely disagreeable,” Scannell was saying. “But we have to face up to it, don’t we?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Now this is – um – a little embarrassing,” Scannell said, lighting a cigarette and butting it out. “But women reporters can be fantastically competitive. There is no feminine wile they will not use to get a story. Weeping, of course, is standard procedure. Hence the term sob sister. But they have far more insidious methods. You know, of course, what I mean.”
“I’m afraid not, sir.”
“It can be pretty sordid, my boy,” said Scannell. “But a female reporter may go to great lengths to get a male rival to share his exclusive story with her. She may even – uh, how shall I put this? – she may even offer him certain – uh – favours. Do you understand?”

As you may imagine, I highlighted a great deal of quotes from this book, because it’s so deliciously funny in places. No one is immune from Weintraub’s scathing commentary: readers (or “civilians” as he describes them) are dull and small-minded, advertisers are too easily offended, editors are bullies, newspaper managers are hypocritical and only interested in money, not a free press, and reporters are cynical and manipulative.

There’s some terrific characters in it, including Philip Butcher, whose role on the paper is two-fold: to keep news out of it and to fire reporters whenever he feels like it, and Scannell, the City Editor, an anxious man who “showed an un-Witnesslike interest in the actual content of the paper”.

While the romantic element of the story is a little clichéd — young male virgin tries to impress beautiful colleague by doing and saying things that aren’t exactly true — in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter. This is a fun story with plenty of belly laughs and it makes a worthy addition to my collection of novels about journalists and old-time journalism.

This is my 12th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought this one in January 2012 after I’d seen a review by the late KevinfromCanada. We both shared a love of newspaper novels, so as soon as I saw this one on Kevin’s blog I knew I had to buy it! 

20 books of summer (2017), Author, Book review, Books in translation, Canada, Denis Thériault, Fiction, Hesperus Press, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman’ by Denis Thériault

The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman

Fiction – Kindle edition; Hesperus Press; 128 pages; 2014. Translated from the French by Liedewy Hawke.

Denis Thériault’s The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman is one of the most unusual love stories I’ve ever read. Part fable, part treatise on Japanese poetry, it also “flirts with the fantastic” (as the author states in a Q&A published at the rear of the book) and delivers a quietly understated story about the power of the written word and the Buddhist concept of Ensō.

A man on a mission

Set in Montreal, Canada (where the author hails from), we are introduced to the postman of the title: 27-year-old Bilodo, who lives on the 10th floor of a high-rise apartment block with his sole companion: a goldfish called Bill. He rarely goes out, preferring to stay home to watch TV or play video games, but he loves his job and is super-efficient at it.

It wasn’t all roses, of course. There were those blasted advertising flyers to be delivered; the backaches, the sprains and other run-of-the-mill injuries; there were the crushing summer heatwaves, the autumn rains that left you soaked to the skin, the black ice in winter, which turned the city into a perilous ice palace, and the cold that could be biting, just like the dogs for that matter – a postman’s natural enemies. But the moral satisfaction of knowing oneself to be indispensable to the community made up for these drawbacks. Bilodo felt he took part in the life of the neighbourhood, that he had a discreet but essential role in it.

But Bilodo has a bit of a moral blind spot. If he comes across a handwritten letter — an increasing rarity in today’s modern world — he takes it home, steams it open, reads it, makes a copy of it for his records, seals the letter back up again and then delivers it the next day as if nothing has happened.

Through this illegal practise Bilodo stumbles upon a correspondence between Ségolène, a woman who lives in Guadeloupe (a French overseas territory, part of the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean), and Grandpré, an academic from Quebec.

The pair send haiku poetry to each other and Bilodo, transported by the beauty of three lines of five, seven, and five syllables apiece, soon finds himself falling in love with Ségolène, a woman he knows he will never meet. And so he undergoes a psychological transformation that has him leading the peculiar life of the title.

A moral ambiguity

This short but powerful novella is deceptive in both its tone of voice (slightly mundane) and its subject matter (a dull man leading a dull life), but then about half way through it turns into something else entirely (although I will put up my hand and say that I predicted the major plot development that occurs). This is not one of those “happy” books where the lonely protagonist learns to live a more fulfilling life; there’s a really dark edge to it and a moral ambiguity at its core.

There’s something about the whole “atmosphere” of the story that is hugely reminiscent of Japanese fiction: the functional prose style, the themes of alienation, chaste love and loneliness, and the lovely poetry in it, both haiku and tanka (the oldest and most elevated classical Japanese verse form).

Even the ending, which is unexpectedly strange and unsettling but ultimately satisfying, brought to mind Taichi Yamada’s Strangers, one of the most compelling and intriguing Japanese novellas I’ve ever read. I could almost say the same about this one, although I realise it’s Canadian…

This is my 7th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it in December 2014, partly because of Susan’s review at A Life in Books, for the princely sum of 99p.