Saturday, April 19, 2014


Lexicon / Max Barry
New York: Penguin, 2013.
390 p.

I read this crazy adventure story in one night -- couldn't put it down! It was a lot of fun. Basic premise: there are power words that can get past people's defenses and persuade/compel them to do your bidding.

Expert practitioners of this art of persuasion are called Poets, and go to a training school to master the power of the lexicon. As the story begins, one main character, Wil Jamieson, is attacked in an airport bathroom and kidnapped by unknown assailants. Meanwhile, Emily, a street hustler, is recruited for further education by representatives of the school. She makes it in to the academy and works her way through a couple of years in just a handful of pages -- the story moves very quickly and doesn't always indicate the sequence of events very clearly. For example, Emily's story starts years earlier than Wil's but you don't figure that out until later.

In any case, Emily ends up going rogue and leaving the school, expelled for certain actions she's taken. She is exiled to a tiny town in Australia to serve out her penance. But despite her expertise in coercion, she is vulnerable herself, and becomes implicated in a disaster in which a Bare Word is exposed and causes over 3000 deaths..... the plot thickens.....

There was a lot of creativity and certainly a massively fast-moving plot in this story. It was clever and entertaining, despite the flaws. For me, the flaws lay in the timeline -- it moves back and forth between present and flashback with no real markers -- this becomes confusing particularly near the end. You can figure it out if you just keep reading, but if you need to know where you stand at all times you might find it a bit discombobulating!

The other flaw, which I only thought about after finishing, was that Barry posits this great power of words targeted at specific personality subtypes -- it's a great invention, treating the brain like a computer that can have its code hacked -- but all that the Poets seem to use it for is death and destruction. There's no bigger plan in evidence, and we don't really know why there is even a school for this. There is a huge body count in this book, people are violently expiring every few pages, and then there's the death of an entire town all at once....

But it was a fun read, and if you like lots of action, creative invention, and don't need something to make perfect sense, (oh, and have a tolerance to violent incidents, of course) you might like this one!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Black Moon

Black Moon / Kenneth Calhoun
London: Hogarth, c2014.
277 p.

Insomnia as a plague... when no-one except for a few outliers can sleep, and they all begin to suffer the psychotic effects of sleeplessness. Panic, confusion, and murderous rage when a sleeper is discovered. Apocalyptic disaster, no cure except for a semi-cure in an isolated scientific compound.

This is indeed a black story. We follow a few key characters, in a small area of California, as they begin to understand the scope of this disaster, and then we follow them to the end of their stories. So many people die in this book! We have women dying all over the place, main characters drifting out of reach of those who might save them, others choosing to leave their place of safety and dying horrible deaths. The only survivors are a few scientists and one man who makes his way there, the only one who still sleeps a natural sleep, and dreams.

I found this a very fast-paced, thrilling read, lots of detail, lots of excitement and terror. But after I finished it I was dissatisfied with the book overall. There were plot holes, there were too many deaths, and there didn't seem to be any reason for the plague, or any point to telling this story. There was no hope at the end, there was no real cure, and nobody seemed to come to any kind of larger understanding from all their experience. I don't mind a good apocalyptic tale but there was too much gore and not enough point to this one for my tastes.

Great for a quick read when you want something not too deep and quite thrilling to read, but quite forgettable in the end.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Life Class

Toronto: Cormorant, c2013.
230 p.

This brief novel is a complex tale which travels from Venice, to New York, to Montreal, with a Croatian refugee as the primary character. Even in the sparse details, the international settings are clear and vital.

It opens with Helena, a Canadian and unofficial diplomat in Venice; she's connected with artists and is also soft-hearted, trying to help various refugees make a go of life. She has just discovered Nerina, a young woman with great potential, and is going to find her a position with opportunities to make it to America, Nerina's true dream.

Of course, things don't go as smoothly as all that, but Nerina does make to American eventually, and Helena does move in and out of the story. But the core and heart of the book is Nerina. She strives mightily to better herself, improving her English, increasing her knowledge of art, hustling to make connections. She discovers that she has a natural affinity with the art world, as well as numerous artists, though there is just one who gets through her defenses.

Once in America, she works in New York and upstate for a while, but eventually makes her way to Montreal. That was my own favourite part of the story, as I could follow along with her as she walked the streets, recalling the turns and the storefronts -- that's one of the pleasures of a story set in place you know. But besides my own connections, this was an engaging and wide-ranging story of determination and survival. Nerina was a strong, practical character; she wasn't always sweet or grateful for charity, which I found realistic, but she also watched everything and observed the niceties of how to survive in her chosen world. She takes things as they come and tries to make the best of whatever circumstances she finds herself in the midst of. There are two quotes that seem to capture Nerina's view of her life:
But she can't really see what has just taken place as anything more than a fortuitous sequence of events. The haphazard way things happen in life -- anybody's life -- may be a source of wonder, but it's no reason to bring in the heavy hand of fate.
And yet, through all of it, life goes on, ordinary and mysterious, revealing the future in random slivers -- odd jigsaw pieces with no discernible pattern -- as if the human eye were only capable of taking in the unknown one image at a time. 
It was a quick read, full of tidbits about art and perception, and with generous spirited characters who were quite appealing. It was lovely to imagine that Nerina was going to succeed with her plans, and the last pages of the novel set up a potential future for her that seemed likely given her chutzpah throughout the book. I enjoyed this one, with its quiet sense of forward movement, and a cosmopolitan feel in the action of the story.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Prairie Ostrich

Prairie Ostrich / Tamai Kobayashi
Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, c2013.
200 p.

I must start by noting how amazing this cover is. So beautiful! And the incongruous title is borne out by the story -- ostriches being raised where they don't really belong, in southern Alberta, rather reflective of who is doing the farming -- a Japanese family, the only one around.

It's a fairly bleak story, told mainly from the perspective of Egg, the youngest child. She's a bit unusual, and is seriously bullied at school for it; it's a sad, stressful thing to read about her experiences, and her stoic acceptance of her treatment, even while she internalizes the rejection. Not only this, but her older brother Albert died recently in a suspicious accident on the train bridge.

Still, Egg has a spark that keeps her going, even while her mother is drinking to excess in the aftermath of Albert's death, and her father isolates himself in the ostrich barn. Oldest sister Kathy has to run the family, but she is also going through grief for Albert along with her own struggles, since she's in love with her best friend. Big surprise, there is no room for lesbian affairs in this small town.

The setting of this novel follows the trope of small, dysfunctional prairie town, and I had to try to get past that. I've read so many of these stories, and being from the prairies, I'm not sure I find it all that interesting anymore. But this novel had some fresh perspectives to share, and I appreciated that. I liked how Egg tried to solve her own problems, and found solid refuge in the school library and in learning. The visual and olfactory reality of the ostrich barn was a strong and unusual element, and created space for parts of the story to really stand out.

I did feel that perhaps this novel tried to take on too many issues all at once, piling the misery on to this poor family. But it was a new look at an old setting, and one that exposed many shades of experience that may not be the usual suspects in this kind of story. The characters were drawn with depth and caring, and they really made the story for me. I appreciated what Kobayashi was doing here, even with my own personal reservations as to storyline. Intriguing and just different enough that it may appeal to many readers interested in the themes of bullying or family dysfunction.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Dept. of Speculation

Dept. of Speculation / Jenny Offill
New York: Knopf, c2014.
177 p.

This is a small book, a slip of a story that reads quickly, told in small paragraphs not always following one another logically. It reflects the content, as it's about a couple who slowly find their perfect marriage shattering into pieces as well. So, it's not a happy story, but it is thoughtfully told.

"The Wife", as our heroine is known, tells a story of a relationship that seems solid, all the way through struggles around having a child, to suffering through a bedbug infestation, to daily dramas -- until, that is, she discovers that her husband is having an affair with a younger woman who is, as he puts it, not taller, thinner, quieter, but "easier".

The book doesn't devolve into a woman grieving the loss of her husband, though. She fights back, and he is persuadable. They move to the country and try to get back on track...but this book is really not very focused on plot. It is focused on style, on language, on emotion. For example, the beginning of Chapter 29:

Enough already with the terrible hunted eyes of the married people. Did everyone always look this way but she is just now seeing it?
Case in point: the wife runs into C at a party, a brilliant woman married to a brilliant man. She has just had a show at a major gallery. Her husband is in the MoMA permanent collection. Brilliant, brilliant. But C does not talk to the wife about brilliant things. She talks about her dissembling contractor, about spa treatments, about waiting lists for private kindergarten. Later the husband asks, "Oh, you saw C, how was she?" "She was radiating rage," says the wife.
If only they were French, the wife thinks. This would all feel different. But no, feel isn't the word exactly. What is it that grad students say?
It would all signify differently.
General notes: if the wife becomes unwived, what should she be called? Will the story have to be rewritten? There is a time between being a wife and being a divorcée, but no good word for it. Maybe say what a politician might say. Stateless person. Yes, stateless.
Either way it's going to be terrible for a long time, the shrink says. 

I found this story harrowing but also really rewarding. The stylistic flourishes were very well done, if you are in the mood for a more cerebral, slower paced read. I was also taken with the way that neither wife nor husband is wholly blameless, but neither are they made out to be horrible or villainous. They are just complicated people, facing a difficult life moment. The book wasn't what I'd expected, but I still enjoyed it.

I admit, the (beautiful) cover design, and the blurb description starting with the phrase "the wife once exchanged love letters with her husband postmarked Dept. of Speculation, their code name for all the uncertainty that inheres in life and in the strangely fluid confines of a long relationship" somehow made me think that this was an epistolary novel. It is not. There are a couple of references to these letters in the story, but it is not told in letter form at all.

One of the blurbers on the back cover states this book "resembles no book I've read before". Hmm. Maybe he should expand his reading choices, as this story immediately brought to mind at least two other novels I've read fairly recently, Catherine Wiebe's Second Rising and Alayna Munce's When I Was Young & In My Prime. While these two Canadian novels both deal with loss in the sense of grandparents dying, they resemble this book in their style -- the small chunks of text, breaking from one point to another, revealing the scattered yet obsessive nature of moving through a dramatic and emotional situation. Perhaps Offill was just channelling a Canadian sensibility here without knowing it ;)

If you can take a disjointed tale about a potential un-joining of two spouses, you may find this one is just right for you. I'd say that a reader has to be interested in the interplay of language and content to appreciate this fully, but it is well worth delving into.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

The Caravaners

The Caravaners / Elizabeth von Arnim
London: Macmillan, 1929, c1909.
231 p.

Perhaps I just wasn't in the mood for this one, or perhaps I'm losing my taste for Elizabeth von Arnim's writing. (oh, I hope not). I picked up The Caravaners, hopeful that it would be as good as Enchanted April or Fraulein Schmidt & Mr. Anstruther, and not the crushing disappointment that I experienced with Mr. Skeffington.

It ended up somewhere in between.

It tells the story of Baron Otto van Ottringe, a humourless Prussian gentleman of complete self-absorption, of odious racism, sexism, anti-semitism, pomposity, Germanic self-satisfaction, and any other unpleasantness you may come up with. I get that von Arnim is being sly and witty, skewering him with his own inability to recognize what others think of him, with the mockery that surrounds his presence. The only evidence that he has noticed anything at all comes early on, when he comments that he doesn't think much of a neighbour because:
I do not like Flitz's tone, and never shall. It is true that I have not actually seen him do it, but one feels instinctively that he is laughing at one; and there are different ways of laughing, and not all of them appear on the face.
But this neighbour's sister is a lovely woman, one whom Otto rather fancies. Added to that, he is cheap, so when the Baroness suggests that Otto and his wife Edelgard join her caravaning party for their vacation, they agree. And off to England (the land of the enlightened and sophisticated) they go.

I found that the irony and sarcasm was too constant for enjoyment; it felt like a relentless flood of negativity, one that threatened to engulf any delight in the story. Considering that it was written in 1909, I'm sure that Otto's statements about how much better it would be if German organization and militarism just took over England to sort it out were meant to be amusing -- but as a reader from the other side of two wars, I didn't find it entertaining. His condescension to everyone beneath him on the social scale (including his wife), his currying favour with those he thought were his equals, his pompous sexism -- I just couldn't find the delight in it. There was absolutely no light of self-understanding breaking through on his horizon, and despite the party breaking up after just a week (although the story seemed to be far too full of events to have lasted only a week) he has no idea that it's because nobody could stand him. His poor wife, is all I could think.

Anyhow, if you're in the right mood you might find this amusing. Others have... but I just couldn't warm to this tale. Perhaps I'll try again with one of her other novels soon and try to reinvigorate my fondness for her writing. But for now I'll take a vacation from her pointed and rather cruel commentary in this book, and move on to other choices.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Medicine Walk

Medicine Walk / Richard Wagamese
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, c2014.
246 p.

I picked up this book at the library this week; I've been waiting for it for a while now, knowing that Wagamese is a wonderful writer (having read many of his old blog entries as well as other novels) and having heard rumblings that this was the big one for him. I'm so glad I was able to read it this weekend, because it really is a wonderful book.

The storyline is quite simple: Franklin Starlight has been contacted by his father Eldon, who is asking Frank to come and see him. Franklin has been raised by a character known as "the old man", with Eldon only appearing infrequently in his life, and most of those times drunk and unreliable. But Frank rides off to town to visit Eldon anyhow, and discovers that what his father wants from him is a very large favour: Eldon is dying, and wants to die in the wilderness and be buried in 'the warrior way', facing East.

Frank, a very adult sixteen-year-old, takes on this duty, and they begin their lone trek into the mountains. Frank and Eldon are both laconic, not given to emotion or even speaking all that much, but as they go, Eldon begins to tell Frank the story of his life, giving Franklin information about his own past and identity that he had never thought he'd know. The story weaves between present and past, illuminating motivations and reasons behind events. It balances the dramatic present with complex stories of Eldon's own childhood, the traumas that have led him to this point, and gives us background on the estrangement between father and son.  It's gripping, sad, hopeful, pathetic, and more. In a few words, Wagamese is able to communicate so much, and the narrative is rugged and believable.

This is a great Western novel. I'd recommend it to anyone who is a regular reader of Westerns, who is fascinated by strong, silent characters; by a deep description of wilderness and a character fully in tune with the wild; by the code of honour and manliness that permeates this story. I'd also recommend it to those who love a literary novel that looks at how the vagaries of chance shape a life, and the internal struggles of characters isolated in their own psyches.

This novel has been called a masterpiece, and it really is finely constructed and powerful. I was drawn in by the characters of Franklin and "the old man" in particular, and really appreciated how the book encompasses not only the Ojibway characters but all of their complicated pasts, and their present, their familial and chosen ties with many different kinds of people. It feels like a very large book, despite the fact that it's only 246 pages long, and very readable -- it carries the openness of the landscape in it, and provides a vista that is as far reaching as the ridge overlooking the valley that is Franklin and Eldon's final destination. It's an immensely rewarding read that pulls you right into the setting, and into the emotional heart of this relationship. Highly recommended.