Review: The Devil You Know, by Jenn Farrell

>>Published: July 2010

>>Finally got around to it: November 2010

Barbed. That’s the first word to come to mind when attempting to describe Jenn Farrell’s second collection of short fiction, The Devil You Know. To break things down to the bare essentials, she’s got shit to say, and you’re damn well gonna listen—if you know what’s good for you.

Over the course of nine acerbic tales of lies, abuse, pregnancy, drugs and dark sexual exploration, Farrell lets us into the mind of an author who has clearly not kept her head in the sand when it comes to analyzing the human stain. Her characters are depicted as open sores—tender, damaged, and prone to causing wicked amounts of pain in return. At the same time, they’re very real, very down to earth, and deeply entrenched in the same personal, psychological and sociological issues we deal with, to varying degrees, every day of our lives. The characters might seem like extremes when looked at as a shopping-list microcosm of humanity, but digging deeper into their wounds reveals a great deal more than the surface strange would have you believe. It’s then that the tenuous connective tissue becomes something stronger and more resilient, when you realize that you know these people, or you have been one of these people—or you are one of these people.

That’s Farrell’s strength, and the strength of the collected stories in The Devil You Know: to hold up the mirror without having to first smack you across the face with it.

Review: Major Karnage, by Gord Zajac

>>Published: September 2010

>>Finally got around to it: November 2010

“You can do it, Major!”

“Damn right, Cookie.”

“You’ve got the cojones, sir!”

“You got that right, Velasquez.”

“You’ve got it in you, sir!”

“Amen to that, Koch.”

“I’ve got faith in you, Major.”

“Is that you, Heckler?”

“You bet your ass it is, John.”

Karnage grinned. Now he knew he was hearing things. Old Heckler hadn’t spoken a word in years. Not since that day in Kandahar, the worst day of—

The War!

Battle and bullets and flames! Bombers buzzing as they fly overhead. Their payloads whining as they hurtle towards the scorched earth. The night sky strobin’ and flashin’ and pulsin’ like a goddamn disco inferno. Debris and dirt and mud and pain and screams fltin’ in all directions. Forward march, soldiers! Forward! Take ‘em all! Shoot and fire and kill and die-die-die—

Karnage slapped himself. The Sanity patch crooned “Citrus Blast” as the visions of battle faded, returning to the black expanse of starry night.

***

Major John Karnage has two problems: the sanity patch at the back of his head that will take his head off if he crosses from Strawberry Shortcake to Tricycle Red, and Unidentified Flying Objects of Death! Fortunately, neither matter is anything more than a minor obstacle to a grizzled, moderately unbalanced, former army battalion leader.

Major Karnage is author Gord Zajac’s first full novel, and it’s a beast of a unique colour. As a cross between a contemporary social satire (with the Dabney corporation and its long-dead originator, Galt, filling in nicely for Walt and the cultural weight the Disney corporation has had for decades now) and a send-up of classic sci-fi serials, it works largely on the strength of its quick-off-the-mark writing and genuinely witty characterizations—seriously, Stumpy? Great name.

The segment quoted at the start of this review is indicative of a large amount of the text and the speed at which it jumps around in tone, which is a terrific source of its humour. In fact, this is one of the few books I’ve read this year that has made me laugh out loud—in public, no less, because I just love getting “WTF” stares from passers-by. The chapters work to keep the pace as quick as the writing—rarely will you find one more than five or six pages in length.

Major Karnage was a great, sit-your-ass-down-and-lose-your-mind kind of a read—it reminded me, in a way, of what Spielberg and Lucas claimed to have been shooting for with the creation of Indiana Jones, a lovingly constructed tribute to the ‘50s adventure serial mindset. Though Karnage goes in the other direction, shooting for the travesty that will be the corporate designed far-flung future, the established tone is similar, the execution just as much of a blast to ride along with.

In fact, if I were to fault Major Karnage on any one thing, it would be that it sometimes felt as if it were trying to do too much; by balancing war-based insanity, questions of discarded troops and their worth in the aftermath of harsh and unforgiving war, religious zealots and the men (and women) behind the curtain, corporate dominance, social distortion, cloning, alien supremacy and hive minds, the book is able to maintain its roller coaster pace, but at the expense of deeper exploration into a few of these areas. In the end, though, I can’t decide what I would want trimmed, or if I would simply want a longer, more detailed read. But then there’s the conundrum of what that might do to the book’s already tight pacing. I can’t fault the book for taking on so much—I only wish there could have been more space to dive into some of the more compelling strands of plot. Make no mistake though, if you want to escape from the norm for a few hours, Major Karnage will satisfy your psychotic-alien-war-lust like few others.

“So come on, buddy. Let’s go. You and me: brain to brain. Cerebro a cerebro.”

Review: Before I Wake, by Robert J. Wiersema

>>Published: August 2006

>>Finally got around to it: November 2010

“And what have you done?”

“Many things, Henry,” he said. “Time is long and old men forget…”

“That’s not an answer.”

“No, it’s Shakespeare.”

***

My introduction to Wiersema’s work came earlier this year when, after being introduced to the CZP catalogue, I found a copy of The World More Full of Weeping at my local White Rock Indigo. A mildly traumatic story about a boy lost in the woods behind his home in much the same way that his father had gotten lost in them many years earlier, The World More Full of Weeping is a sucker punch of a novella: it strikes unexpectedly, and over the course of a mere 70 or so pages, leaves you breathless and distraught. Now with his latest book, Bedtime Stories, on the market (which I hope to have a chance to read in the next few weeks), I wanted to go back and see where Wiersema’s career as a writer began.

First published back in 2006, Before I Wake tells the story of Sherry Barrett and the single moment in time that changes not only her world, but the worlds of her parents, her parents friends and family, even the entire country. The book opens with Sherry being struck and abandoned in a hit and run accident that leaves her comatose. Accepting that she has experienced brain death, her parents Simon and Karen decide to remove her from life support. Just as they do, she begins to breathe on her own, and their little miracle of a child becomes one in the literal, spiritual and religious definitions of the word.

A couple things to note right off the bat: though it is nearly 400 pages, this is a one-sitting read. Make no mistake about that. The writing is tight, intelligent, and oozes realism without ever resorting to extremes or overtly dramatic moments and gestures.

Speaking of realism, the characters are some of the most genuinely mature I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. The broken marriage slowly facing redefinition, the other woman that never once feels like the stereotypical “other”, the religious zealots with a disturbing (and potentially supernatural) depth to them that is not so easily explained away—especially not when one considers the physical nature of certain characters to some, and the total lack of physical presence those same characters might have when placed in the sights of others.

Before I Wake is a book of miracles that doesn’t rely on the reader being a believer in any way, shape or form. Its weight is transcribed through the completely down-to-earth rationality and actions of its leads, and that weight is what not only grounds the spirituality and supernatural elements to the very real Victoria, BC setting of the book, but also allows for those elements to enhance the story in very unexpected ways.

Wiersema writes with a sincerity that cannot be forced. There isn’t an instance where the tone is betrayed or subverted for the means of addressing something that the characters wouldn’t be addressing themselves. The questions we would ask are the ones they are asking—a critical conceit seemingly absent in most books that attempt to marry the real and the spiritual.

What matters most though with a story like this is whether or not it was able to sink its teeth into me. So here it is: one sitting, and by the end my eyes were watering and it certainly wasn’t from staring at the pages for too long. This is a book that shouldn’t be missed by anyone. My anticipation for Bedtime Stories is now through the roof.

Before I Wake is one of my notable experiences of the year. I can’t recommend it enough.

Review: The Obituary, by Gail Scott

>>Published: October 2010

>>Finally got around to it: November 2010

I’ve been struggling to find an angle for Gail Scott’s The Obituary, but in truth I am conflicted. On one hand, I have read the book and attempted to analyze it to the best of my abilities, but on the other hand, I feel confident in saying that I am clearly not the audience for this title.

I wish I were. God knows I found the descriptions I’ve read of the book to be absolutely enticing, but in no way indicative of my experience with it. What is billed as an exploration of the ideas of the ghosts that surround us, and who is speaking for us, to us and through us when history weaves its way through the long life of a home, is I found… impenetrable.

The book is a novel, but written through a carefully constructed style of poetic prose that, to be frank, felt too forced on the page to ever maintain a natural rhythm. Each paragraph—each line was a trial, not to understand what was being said, but how it was being said and, more importantly, why it was being said in such a manner. In that sense, I feel the attempt failed to capture any of the spirit or sense of voice it sought to explore.

I respect what Gail Scott attempted to do with The Obituary, but in the end I remain torn as to whether or not I am the audience for the book, or whether the book simply fails to succeed as a result of its very forced and deliberate stylistic choices.

Review: Bats or Swallows, by Teri Vlassopoulos

>>Published: October 2010

>>Finally got around to it: November 2010

Invisible Books is another small Canadian press that produces books with an unconventionally high dedication to artistry. Their authors are (usually) previously unpublished, and the books themselves tend to have a unique aesthetic flavour that, similarly to products from Gaspereau Press or ChiZine Publications, certainly stands out on the shelves of a bookstore. Teri Vlassopoulos’ first collection of short fiction, Bats or Swallows, with its beautiful watercolour exterior, is just such a title—instantly recognizable as an Invisible product.

The collection itself—eleven short stories in a tight 133 pages—shows a confident progression of ideas, many of them relating to farewells, as Vlassopoulos gradually transgresses from childhood discomforts and absentee siblings who are suddenly growing apart, through friends, family, teenage years, young adults struggling to follow love across borders, and coming to a close with a look at the subdued methods in which lovers later in life hurt one another—without shouts, without cursing, without the drama of youth to provide any unnecessary severity to the quiet moments when one knows the end is near.

There’s a level of attention to the structure of this book and how the stories progress, gradually revealing more sincerity as they become increasingly heartbreaking, that causes the book itself to feel less like an assortment of disparate tales and more like a mosaic of sorts. Upon first reading, I felt as if the book itself was back-loaded, with the more adept and well-written tales coming in the latter half. In retrospect, that feels intentional—as if to illustrate this transgression of ideas married through the transformation of maturity and how, as it would a person’s relationships, age and experience can only transform a writer into what they had one day hoped to be: an observer of the human condition.

Review: Annabel, by Kathleen Winter

>>Published: May 2010

>>Finally got around to it: November 2010

The Writer’s Trust Fiction Award, the Giller, and the Governor General’s Literary Award—few are the Can Lit titles that manage to snag nominations for one of those, maybe two of them. But nailing the trifecta? This year that honour is Kathleen Winter’s alone with her first novel, Annabel. Has it won anything yet? Sadly no. It was shut out of the Writer’s Trust and Giller awards by Emma Donoghue’s Room (see previous review here) and Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists respectfully. Will it win the Governor General’s award? We’ll find out tomorrow night. Does it deserve it?

Oh yes.

Full disclosure: I went into Annabel with a bit of a chip on my shoulder—hype. Namely, that I’d been hearing about the book for months, its support base was growing incredibly fast, and once the three nominations came through, the praise seemed deafening. I’d already felt that my anticipation for Room might have somewhat dampened that book’s impact (though I’d like to read it again to be sure… I still feel that the voice just wasn’t “there” for me), and I’ve been avoiding Freedom for the same reason—almost wishing I could forget about the hype before deciding to sink into the text. So yeah, I was a little dodgy with Annabel. I knew I wanted to read it, I just didn’t know if it would be best to wait a little while longer, just long enough for the awards season to pass and for the urgency to die down a little bit.

Glad I didn’t pay too much attention to my own advice.

Winter’s novel tells the tale of Wayne, a true intersex child born in Labrador in 1968, and Annabel, the female side of him that is given name and is always there, always present in some form or another within every facet of Wayne’s existence. The two coexist in this tale, even in times when one isn’t aware of the other’s presence.

It would have been tremendously easy for Winter to fall back on predictability, using the subject of an intersex child as a literary vehicle for metaphor, but she doesn’t have so little love for the character or story as to take such an easy route. Instead we have been given a rich, detailed set of characters, who never play to the expected stereotypes with which it would have been so easy to label them upon first glance, and a focussed plot that moves swiftly through nearly three decades of Wayne’s life, as he comes to learn of Annabel’s existence, and how the presence of a buried self helps to define the person he was always destined to become.

It’s a beautifully detailed work of art that shows equal love to its maritime locations as it does to Wayne, Wally, Thomasina, Jacinta, and most surprisingly, Wayne’s father, Treadway. I struggled to connect to Treadway for a great portion of the text, finding his actions deplorable, even if his motivations were without malicious intent. By the end, however, he surprised me. He grew in such a way as to tether the emotional journey of Wayne in the final chapters, enhancing our perception of the changes that they had all gone through in the course of the story. Whereas Wayne’s journey was one of self-discovery, Treadway’s was of acceptance. We were not cheated at the end—there was no character within the main cast that had not blossomed into something entirely different by the book’s final chapter, and at no time did the steps of their individual development feel in any way forced. That is certainly an impressive feat for any writer. That this is Winter’s first novel makes it all the more breathtaking of an achievement.

Whether she wins the Governor General’s award tomorrow night or not will do nothing to extinguish the beauty of Annabel. It is a remarkable book, one that anyone with a serious interest in Can Lit owes it to themselves to read.

Review: People Live Still in Cashtown Corners, by Tony Burgess

>>Published: October 2010

>>Finally got around to it: November 2010

I sit without taking my eyes off her. The hole in her forehead isn’t closing or healing, but it isn’t festering either. Her eyes are shaded prettily in blue and purple. Bruises that haven’t changed. She pulls her long black hair back behind her shoulders.

***

Tony Burgess is a very disturbed man.

From the author of Pontypool Changes Everything comes a sparse, economical novella about one gas station attendant’s sudden decision to become a mass murderer. Why would he do this? Boredom. A break from the everyday. Because it beats pumping gas for a living.

Or, more likely, because he has simply snapped—completely splintered from reality (something which is fairly evident later on when considering his connection to the girl mentioned above).

There isn’t an action in People Live Still in Cashtown Corners that isn’t unsettling. Gross. Barbaric. But that’s why it works. The “spare no unnecessary text” approach of Burgess’ writing gives the book a strange duality: on one hand, it’s incredibly quick to read, compelling enough to keep turning the pages, and will likely be breezed through in a morning; on the other hand, the bluntness to some of the events, descriptions and the main character’s internal thoughts will twist your stomach into knots, causing you to want to slow down, to want to take a breather from Bob Clark’s rampage.

From start to finish, the book reads like a disaffected child’s attempt at self acceptance—immature and removed from the behaviours of a “normal” human being, Bob Clark’s blood and brain-soaked journey is a tangent to a life he hasn’t yet figured out. The death and destruction left in Bob’s wake could be seen as the classic Mustang of some midlife crisis spending spree—the ability to accept his life for what it truly is and the inability to connect to the failed attempt at a life well wasted until the final line of text.

And fuck you, Tony Burgess, if “blood moving through the cruiser like spiders jumping” pops up in my dreams tonight.

Review: Hygiene and the Assassin, by Amélie Nothomb

>>Published (in French): 1992

>>Published (in English): October 2010

>>Finally got around to it: November 2010

There’s not much in this world more delicious than good dialogue. Banter, a back and forth that takes on a life its own, never feeling forced, driving a story to places you’d never expect to be taken. It’s not often a novel comprised of almost exclusively dialogue-driven passages has such a life to it, a three-dimensional quality that excessive detail would only hamper. But that’s exactly the situation with Nothomb’s Hygiene and the Assassin. This is the first of Nothomb’s works, published in 1992 when she was 25 years old. In October of this year, Europa Editions released the English version of the text to North America, and it’s a hell of a translation.

Conversational dialogue in small amounts lives or dies by the quality of its translation. In the case of Hygiene and the Assassin, the book itself is predicated on a tight rhythmic structure that required a pitch-perfect translation—which is exactly what it got. There’s not a word that doesn’t fit exquisitely with the flavour of the piece, which, to be honest, is sometimes difficult to stomach yet impossible to turn away from.

The story is simple: an obese, misogynistic, hate-filled Nobel Prize winning recluse of an author is dying of cancer at a very late stage in life, having completed his life’s work (leaving one novel unfinished, as any self-respecting author should, he claims). The author, Prétextat Tach, decides to allow a small group of journalists to interview him—the first interviews he has ever had. None are prepared for the level of perversity inherent in this one individual.

An example—Prétextat Tach on the persona of the Writer:

“The hand is for pleasure. This is devastatingly important. If a writer is not having pleasure, then he must stop immediately. To write without pleasure is immoral. Writing already contains all the seeds of immorality. The writer’s only excuse is his pleasure. A writer who does not have pleasure is as disgusting as some bastard raping a little girl without even getting his rocks off, just for the sake of raping, to commit a gratuitously evil act.”

One by one, the first few journalists are eviscerated by the reclusive author, and by the halfway point of the book’s sparse 167 pages, only one remains. Her name is Nina, and she knows more about the author than he would ever suspect. From this point on the book is a single, unbroken 90-page chapter as Nina and Prétextat tear each other apart in a beautifully choreographed verbal sparring.

To say anything more would be a disservice. It is a disturbing book, a sometimes difficult to stomach read, but also one of the most compelling and expertly written stories I think I’ve ever read. I admit—I am a sucker for a conversation, and to have one build its momentum for nearly 90 pages, continuously increasing the level of animosity that exists between the two while simultaneously fostering a perverted respect that can only build between two people who want nothing more than to see the other left weak and without recourse, it was something special. This is the very definition of a one-sitting read. Highly recommended.

Review: Beautiful Darkness, by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

>>Published: October 2010

>>Finally got around to it: November 2010

Harry Potter was the start of something new—a renaissance for the young adult market. The last few years have seen an absolute flood of mature, sci-fi, magic- and/or supernatural-oriented YA lit. Some of it stronger than others (The Hunger Games series), some of it more unfortunately prevalent (Twilight… and everything to do with Twilight), but for the most part we’re seeing quality writing that’s of the standard of most adult lit, with deeply engaging characters and plots that simply trim away the overt sexuality, cursing or extremely gory violence that might distinguish a title as being “too mature” for a YA audience.

I’m just going to step right out on this limb here: over the last two years I’ve read more than 200 books, and out of the top ten or so that have really burrowed into my memory, six or seven of them are aimed at the YA audience. I don’t think my tastes have changed, nor my attention span or interests. More than anything, the characters and worlds in some of these tales just feel… more authentic to me, as of late.

I remember reading an article last year about the changing face of Canadian lit—the writer in question, possibly mistakenly, called what was happening “the feminization of Canadian lit.” Without lingering on the potential sexist overtones of that statement, what was meant, when you parsed through the article, was that, by and large, more men tended to write with plot at the forefront, and more women focussed on character and the inherent emotional weight of a story, often to the expense of plot. I’m not going to say whether or not there’s any merit to this assumption, but I have noticed a change in a lot of adult-aimed books I’ve read in the past few years—stories that have been mostly middles, with little distance travelled from beginning to end. I recall really feeling this with last year’s Canada Reads victor, Nikolski, a book which I felt nothing but frustration over, following the writer on a slow bus to nowhere. By the end of the book, I felt like I’d spent an afternoon contemplating my navel and not much else.

Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh. I don’t mean to generalize Can lit in this manner—this trait is endemic in a lot of adult-oriented literature coming from the US and around the world. It all has its place and its purpose, but I find more and more I’m being drawn to the worlds of well-written YA novels because what they’re offering feels more relatable—the characters feel more a part of a tangible world, even if it so happens to be a completely supernatural one. This was my reaction upon finishing Garcia and Stohl’s Beautiful Darkness, the follow up to last year’s debut from the two authors, Beautiful Creatures.

The story takes place in a southern American town called Gatlin, following the love affair between a Caster girl, Lena Duchannes, and her mere mortal of a boyfriend, Ethan Wate. Though it was established in the prequel that these two share a bond more super than it is natural, they are still the Romeo and Juliet of the magic-laced YA world; Lena is unable to accept that her powers will likely one day be the death of Ethan, because mortals and Casters are simply never meant to be together—co-existence is thought to be the best they could ever hope for. Without giving anything away, that idea doesn’t sit well with Ethan, from whose perspective the series takes place.

There’s a harshness and severity to the story and the world of Gatlin that really propels these characters. No one is a bystander, no one is an innocent, no one is beyond screwing up royally, but none of those things ever spell the end of the world for any of them. They adjust, they rebuild, and they move on. But something in the level of writing on display pushes them further than most similar characters in other YA titles: believability of action, reaction and motivation. Nothing ever feels out of place, either with respect to the fiction revolving around Blood Incubi, Sirens, Casters, Waywards and Keepers and the centuries-old conflict that has shaped their lineage and the history of the town itself, or with the rationale behind why each character acts in a particular way. It all fits. This strong, believable structure is even more impressive when you remember that there are two writers constructing this series, yet at no point do you feel the juxtaposition of two voices trying to tell one tale. They’re unified, indistinguishable from one another in tone.

Most critically to a narrative-obsessed individual such as myself, the ending is entirely satisfying, well paced, and leaves me aching for part three. Again, to call up two previous YA examples: Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. Both were tremendous successes, and rightfully so, but both shared a common flaw: giving their endings enough space to breathe. With Harry Potter, I felt the individual titles ended well enough, but the final chapter of the seventh book left a painful amount to be desired. It was like breaking through the ocean and catching only a half breath—truncated and awkwardly paced as it was. With The Hunger Games, it was a sore spot with each title—ending abruptly with no room to really acclimate to the drastic changes the characters had undergone. The worst offender in that series was the second book, Catching Fire, which, while being my favourite in the series, took a knife to the space that the ending should have had and instead forced an info-dump down our throats in the final chapter. It felt as if the author had been told to stick within a certain page limit and that was the work-around. With Beautiful Creatures and Beautiful Darkness, I feel as if I’ve been served a complete meal, but maybe—just maybe—I’ve got a bit of room left for dessert. There’s resolution, enough to feel complete if the story were to end here, but with more than enough hooks to pull us along the way for the next step in their journey.

Supposedly there are two more titles planned in the series. If that’s true, and this is only the halfway point, then I hope they’ve got something special up their sleeves, because I’ve enjoyed both titles in this series with a level of satisfaction I feel I rarely experience these days—from narrative to characters and emotional subtext. It hits all the right notes.