Tag Archives: canadian literature

Failed Attempts at Can Lit; or, Books I Started But Didn’t Finish in the Last Two Weeks

I started, and gave substantial effort (enough that I feel okay reviewing them), to two Can lit novels in the last couple of weeks. Both are books that I ought to have really liked but didn’t. I’ll take the blame. It’s summer. There are patios. And BBQs. (And work, family and responsibilities. Whatever.)

First up was Michael Redhill’s Bellevue Square. I waited ages for it to arrive from the library because it’s a Heather’s Pick and so everyone wants to read it (note! If you bought a copy and similarly found you didn’t like it you can return it and demand a refund because Heather didn’t deliver. But of course you buy from your independent book shop or borrow from the library because you are saintly). And it was… not good? At least, the first 150 pages were not enough to make me want to finish it. Our protagonist is an unreliable narrator grappling with a break from reality. Convinced her doppleganger is haunting her neighbourhood, she sets up at Bellevue Square, a park near Kensington Market in Toronto, to stalk the doppleganger. Murder and chaos ensue as the reader tunnels around trying to sort out – along with our protagonist – what is real and what is not. And then some questions about how we – collective we, readers – conceptualize mental illness, mental health and our sane-ist expectations. Sounds like it would be pretty good, and I don’t know, the scenes of Toronto are kind of captivating, but I found the writing amateur, the connection with the protagonist tenuous and the forward moving conflict… absent. I guess we’re meant to keep reading to find out if our protagonist gets her shit together and gets sorted with her husband and kids? Anyway.

From there I decided to pick something I felt sure I’d like. I went with Ed O’Loughlin’s Minds of Winter, which had it been published circa 2006 I would have certainly included in my thesis on Canadian historical fiction that imagines the exploration of and nation building project of Canada (*yay/yawn*) (like it almost fits TOO perfectly in my thesis – it includes some of the same explorers! and same failed arctic expeditions! true true there are only so many failed arctic expeditions. but still! Like at one point I opened up my word doc version of my thesis to check that I wasn’t misremembering that one of my thesis novels narrated the. same. nautical. disaster.) Anyway. All this to say that Erin circa 2006 would have been very into this book. Erin circa 2018… not so much. Actually, my thesis buddy, P., would have probably included this one, too, as the premise is a missing chronometer from the last Franklin expedition shows up and over the course of the 500 odd page book its journey from the stranded Erebus and Terror to the present are recounted. (And to give myself credit I made it to page 300 before quitting). It makes its way through a bunch of other polar expeditions, allowing the reader to jump around in time to all these ‘critical’ historical moments. Scenes of the present are interspersed as our two present day protagonists grapple with how their personal histories are interwoven with one another and with these historical figures. It is all very capital Canadian. Very capital H historical fiction. And it just… didn’t resonate. I found the present day scenes disconnected and the characters underdeveloped. More problematic for me though was the disconnection among the historical scenes. Each lengthy historical ‘section’ (think 50 odd pages) accounts for a leg of the journey of the chronometer, but the slices of time are just long enough to become connected to the characters only to have them summarily dismissed as the section ends. I suppose there’s some connection there to our present day understanding of slices of the historical record. Whatever. I found the jumping about in time disorienting (probably purposefully so, but still) and the disconnection from the characters enough of a deal breaker to just quit.

Happy news is that I’m almost done reading my first poetry collection in the history of the blog (I’ve been taking my time with it) and I’m reading a fantastic Julian Barnes, so happy reviews to come.


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Filed under Bestseller, Canadian Literature, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Worst Books

Brother: You don’t win prizes for bad writing. (Most of the time)

David Chariandry’s Brother follows two brothers – Michael and Francis – and their experiences growing up in Toronto as young, black men. The story weaves two time lines: the present in which Michael and his mother grieve the death of Francis, and the years and then weeks leading up to his death. The effect of the woven time is to have the reader at once certain of the outcome and effect, and unsure about the cause. That’s not true. The cause of Francis’s death is as much about context and systematic racism (through education, housing, transit and policing) as it is about the single act that kills him. The reader feels certain – well before knowing what exactly killed him – that if Francis was born white he wouldn’t have died.

It’s an exquisitely written novel. Quotidian scenes speak for whole years; individual examples gesture to shared experiences. With precise language and sharp detail, the writing evokes setting and atmosphere without straying into distracting description or belabored scene-setting.

While it is a novel principally interested in masculinity, in its characterization of their mother the story proves capacious in its exploration of the intersection of gender and class and race.

I’ve made it sound like a bleak read. And in some ways it is, and that’s a good reason to read it, too. But through the distress and grief and anger there are also scenes and moments of connection, community and great care. And other alliterative ‘c’ words. Not that a story needs to balance sadness with hope. Just that this novel does. And I hope you read it.

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Giller prize, Prize Winner

Last Snow, First Light: I read a book! I read a book!

It has been… weeks. And weeks. Months, maybe. But I did it. I cracked my reader’s block, which is a real thing, I’ve come to understand. Thanks to the many of you who wrote with suggestions and sympathy for my vexed state. Ideas on how to break reader’s block included: read non-fiction, read a graphic novel, re-read an old favourite, read something short, read articles. While I appreciated all the advice, I ended up just… taking it slow. I read a few pages at a time and stopped putting pressure on myself to be reading. And worrying about why I wasn’t (had I broken my empathy?).

The book I eventually finished, Wayne Johnston’s Last Snow, First Light isn’t one you’d think would break reader’s block. It’s what you might call a slow burn. A mix of character study, realist drama and story-of-place there is – over the 400 odd pages – something of a mystery to be unraveled: what happened to Ned Vatcher’s parents, who disappear during a snow storm never to be seen again. But it’s mostly about the characters: the increasing weirdness of Ned as he gets richer and lonelier, the journey of Fielding (who some readers will recall from The Colony of Unrequited Dreams and The Navigator of New York – though tbh I’d forgotten almost all of both books. Barely a glimmer of The Colony except that Smallwood stamps around Newfoundland) to reconcile with her past by way of truth-telling and sharing, the re-defining of family from genetic bond to affiliative relations.

It’s a book that invites going slowly, and so suited my reader’s block recovery. With careful and scene-setting writing, the reader is on a leisurely pace to unravel the mystery, certainly not of the page-turning, heart-palpitating variety (and this reader could be contented whether or not it is ever solved (though Ned can’t be).

Well suited to a winter curl-up and a book club (I guess you could talk about the role of religion, the exploration of ‘family,’ and how much it is possible to drink without dying), I’m happy to recommend this one for a good read, if not a zippy one.



Filed under Book Club, Canadian Literature, Fiction, Mystery

Yiddish for Pirates: Not for me. Or for my book club people. (Or for anyone?)

I recently had a middle of the night worry that an author of a book I didn’t like might stumble across one of my I-didn’t-like-it reviews. Don’t worry. I fell quickly back to sleep. But the thought lingered. I like writing a good scathing review as much as the next blogger, but was I being fair to the novelist? Was I just having fun being a little too mean? Continue reading

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Funny, Giller prize, Governor Generals, Prize Winner, Worst Books