Big Town by Stephens Gerard Malone

It has always surprised me that there aren’t more stories written about Africville, and I was thrilled when an invitation to the launch of Stephens Gerard Malone’s new novel, Big Town: A Novel of Africville appeared in my inbox. (Even more so as it was my first “official” invite to a book launch.)

Despite the title, I would describe Big Town as a story of friendship more than a story of Africville. The central friendship between the dim-witted Early Okander, sick and troubled Toby and tomboy Chub unfolds with the community and its destruction as a backdrop.

Narrated by Early, seventeen but with the mental age of seven or eight, Big Town is a story of three kids who just want to be kids, while the in the background, sex, drugs, politics and racism are threatening their world. It is worth noting that both Early and Chub live outside of Africville and are white, but spend much of their time in the community visiting Toby.

Telling the story through the eyes of children too young to fully comprehend what is happening to their community and why adds a unique perspective – though I am curious if it provides enough of the required information for someone who doesn’t know the history so well to follow along. It might, I haven’t asked anyone yet.

Big Town is a heart-warming story of friendship triumphing over adversity – one that might have benefited from a little less adversity (with a few exceptions, all the white people are bad, all the black people are good and the three kids suffer illness, abuse, rape, loneliness, self-mutilation and pretty much every imaginable heartbreak).

A great read, and an excellent gift idea for fans of local and/or historical fiction who will definitely want to add it to their collections.


Paperback: 224 pages

Publisher: Nimbus Publishing (Sep 15 2011)

ISBN-10: 1551098547

ISBN-13: 978-1551098548

Note: I know, I know. I am way behind. I still have two more reviews of Giller nominated books to post. I’ve been travelling lots for work lately which I naively believed would give me more time to write. I’ll double up on review per week for the next while to get ’em all in.


A Forest for Calum by Frank MacDonald

Having not read anything in the last week that I liked enough to review, I have dug through the archives of my memory to bring you this one.

Set in the ‘fictional’ villageof Shean, a coal-mining town somewhere on the west coast of Cape Breton Island (an obvious reference to Inverness for any who know the history) A Forest for Calum is a story of growing up rural, Catholic and Gaelic – and all the drama, guilt, romance and heartbreak that comes along with it. Despite taking place more than a generation earlier than my life, the parallels are striking, and helped bring the story to life in my imagination.

Roddie Gillies lives with his grandfather, Calum, a Gaelic speaking carpenter and storyteller (sounds like my family), and a calm, quiet influence on young Roddie’s life (not as much like my family any more).

When one of his grandfather’s friends writes a poem in memory of friends lost in (or to) the mines, Roddie and his friends help the two older men to “plant” the poem, using the trees that correspond with the 18 letters in the Gaelic alphabet  creating a remarkable, 400 tree forest.

Occasionally drifting dangerously close to quaint Cape Breton cliché, A Forest for Calum is saved by MacDonald’s commendable storytelling skills. Highly recommended.

Paperback: 383 pages

Publisher: Cape Breton University Press (2005)

ISBN-10: 1897009054

ISBN-13: 978-1897009055

The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold

Helen Knightly is less shocked that she killed her mother than she is shocked to be calling her ex-husband to help her cover it up. Oh, it wasn’t planned, but it was done, so she calmly cleans her, strips her, and places her in the freezer  to “keep” while she seduces her best friend’s 30-year old son. And that’s all before you hit the 100 page mark, ladies and gentlemen.

You know, sometimes you read a book that presents the darkness within people in a realistic way, whether teaching an outright moral lesson or merely giving insight into why good people may sometimes do bad things? This is not one of those books. This is just all darkness.

I bought my copy years ago, shortly after it was published, having enjoyed The Lovely Bones very much (see: a dark story, but with some lightness to balance and make it palatable). Since then, it has sat on my shelf unread and ignored as school work, book club books and trendy reads were always picked first. I had not read a single review or talked to anyone else who had read it. I had no idea what I was getting into.

This should have been a better book. There was so much potential in the story. I read it in just two sittings because there was so much I wanted to know, and I was so sure it was in there somewhere. It was not. I am beyond disappointed.

There were beautiful lines and insights:

“She looked up at me and smiled. ‘Bitch,’ she said. The thing about dementia is that sometimes you feel like the afflicted person has a trip wire to the truth, as if they can see beneath the skin you hide in.”

And then there was absolute crap:

“This was not the first time I had been face-to-face with my mother’s genitalia.”

(WTF? IT has a face?)

We never understand Helen’s motivation. As the story unravels, rather than empathize, I found myself liking her less and less. Even sympathizing with the batty mother from time to time. (She was obviously mentally ill. Have you considered not hiding her from the world and maybe getting her some help?)

Best I can say about this one: I’m glad I finally read it.

Hardcover: 352 pages

Publisher: Picador  (October 16th 2007)

ISBN-10: 0330451324

ISBN-13:  9780330451321

Note: I don’t typically write negative reviews. They just don’t interest me. This book however was on my 2011 TBR Challenge list, and as such I had committed to reviewing it.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

Charlie and Eli Sisters are brothers, assassins for hire and on the way to California to kill prospector Hermann Kermit Warm. Eli, our narrator, wants this to be his last job and dreams of settling down, opening a trading post, and if he can lose a little weight, maybe even falling in love.

The Sisters Brothers is a Western novel, and yet then again, it isn’t. It has all the classic ingredients of a Western, most notably the odyssey, the divey-taverns, the prostitutes and the old-timey language, but it has more. At times humourous, at times poetic, and brutal throughout. It is a novel of contradictions. The brothers are remarkably different and don’t seem to like each other much, yet have an intense and loyal bond to one another. Horses die in fires and have injured eyes gouged out with spoons – yet are loved and treated tenderly. It’s written as historical fiction, yet without feeling any need for historical (or scientific) accuracy.

Their journey from Oregon City to California as narrated by Eli is frequently out of chronological order, and interspersed with his philosophical musings and longings for a simpler life – but it works. The Sisters Brothers was a highly enjoyable read: shocking, amusing and thoughtful. Strongly recommended.

Hardcover: 336 pages

Publisher: Ecco; Reprint edition (April 26, 2011)

ISBN-10: 0062041266

ISBN-13: 978-0062041265

* Short listed for the 2011 Giller Prize.

Anna Karenina – Part Eight

With Part VII ding in such a fury of action at the train station, I was surprised to find a whole two months had passed in the turning of a page. Part VIII skips the weeks following Anna’s death, and we meet our characters as they attempt to move on from the tragedy.

Vronsky is off to war with the Turks, and Levin’s brother Sergei Ivanovich praises his courage and speaks much of “the people’s” desire to help their “Slavic brothers.” Meanwhile Levin is one of the few doubters that (a) this is really what the people of Russia want, and (b) even is if is what they want – is it the right thing to do. Even Vronsky admits he is not particularly interested in the war itself, but has nothing more to live for, so might as well throw his life away on the battlefield.

The discussion of the war and the reasons to be involved is among the most interesting pieces of social commentary in the novel. Tolstoy uses these chapters to air his own pacifist views (and when first submitted for publication, when the Russo-Turkish war was still waging, the manuscript was rejected and had to be softened and resubmitted twice.)

Levin, having become so anxious about his lack of faith and the possible consequences for his son, is questioning spirituality with such fervor he becomes almost suicidal – until a chance conversation convinces him that he is and has always lived for the greater good, which is what Christianity is all about.

And with that (Part VIII was by far the shortest part of the book) I have finished reading Anna Karenina. Was it as fabulous as I hoped? Unfortunately, no. Would I recommend it? Absolutely. It is not fast-moving or adventurous, but Tolstoy has a gift for creating characters and getting to the heart of human emotion and passion. If you have the patience to get through its 800+ pages, Anna Karenina is unlike any book you have ever read.

I feel like I ought to be able to say more. This is Anna Karenina. This is classic literature. All I can come up with is “unlike any book you have ever read.” Maybe in time I will write a summary post, but having already written seven other “reviews” on the novel, I am not sure what else I can add.