The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

Eleven year old Mynah is alone on a ship travelling from Colombo to London, where he will reunite with his mother. Assigned to take his meals at the “cat’s table,” with a motley collection of eccentric and socially unimportant passengers, Mynah prepares for a long, dreary 21 day voyage – but what he gets is a life changing adventure.

The Cat’s Table has been described in numerous reviews as Ondaatje’s most approachable and accessible novel yet. Unlike his previous, heavier material (I can only compare towhat I have read:  Anil’s Ghost and The English Patient) The Cat’s Table flows easily and can be read quickly. But take my advice: don’t read it too quickly. Through Mynah, we see the complex and confusing world of adults through a child’s eyes, as he deciphers the desires, motivations and relationships around him. There is a lot more going on here than you initially see (you are reading Ondaatje, remember), and you will want to pay close attention.

In the second half of the book, the story is told more and more by Mynah as an adult – as Michael, a now successful novelist living in Canada and reflecting on his youth, and how the journey affected his life in ways he could never have imagined as a child.

While the story closely resembles that of Ondaatje himself, he insists it is not autobiographical, but simply using events from his life as a basis for a story.

Put this one on your Christmas wish list. A truly entertaining read.

Shortlisted for the 2011 ScotiaBank Giller Prize.

Hardcover: 288 pages

Publisher: McClelland & Stewart (Aug 30 2011)

ISBN-10: 0771068646

ISBN-13: 978-0771068645

 


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.


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.


Halloween reads: Frankenstein retold, and The Lunenburg Werewolf

I love Halloween. I love to be scared. So this time every year, I try to find a scary story or two to read after the sun goes down. This year, I found many.

First, my book club pick for October was The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Theodore Roszak. A scholar and Frankenstein ‘expert,’ Roszak rewrites the classic tale in the voice of Frankenstein’s foster-sister-turned-bride, Elizabeth. (There is of course some ridiculous irony in a man rewriting a novel that to many proved that a woman could write ‘like a man’ – in order to give its primary female character a voice.)

The premise of the Memoirs is that Victor and Elizabeth were raised to form a prefect alchemical union or the ‘chymical marriage.’ Filled with pagan and alchemical ritual and highly erotic, the novel presents Elizabeth as a partner to Victor in his early research, sharing similar goals, but recognizing danger in his ambitions. The story is told or presented by Sir Robert Walton, who also narrates the original Mary Shelley novel, and is a combination of (often disjointed) letters and diary entries written by Elizabeth.

I will say that the novel was original and intriguing, but hardly the feminist tome it claims to be. Elizabeth is still overly diminutive and dependant on Victor and not at all a ‘strong female character.’ Adding witches and midwives and lesbians to a story does not make it feminist literature.

Worth a read if you are interested in alchemy and early science, with a mystical theme.

Mass Market Paperback

Publisher: Bantam (Oct 1 1996)

ISBN-10: 0553576372

ISBN-13: 978-0553576375

Next up in my spooky reads is Steve Vernon’s latest collection of Nova Scotia ghost stories: The Lunenburg Werewolf. I love me a good ghost story – and all the better if it is a) true/based on truth and b) local – as in, there is a very slight possibility that I could also witness the phenomena, thus making it 400 times as scary.

The Lunenburg werewolf delivers, with a great collection of well-known and obscure Nova Scotia ghost stories, from the werewolf of the title, to better known stories like Amherst’s Esther Cox and the phantom ship of the Northumberland Strait. Vernon first weaves the tale, much my grandmother once would have done, and then follows up with descriptions of alternate versions and where applicable, possible non-ghostly explanations for the phenomena. This, and his earlier collection “Haunted Harbours” are both great to add to the collection of any folklore or ghost story fan.

Paperback: 160 pages

Publisher: Nimbus Publishing (Sep 15 2011)

ISBN-10: 1551098571

ISBN-13: 978-1551098579


The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay

You know what’s really fun about reviewing books – getting to read them before anyone else. Ami McKay’s The Virgin Cure is officially released today, but I was lucky enough to score a copy a few weeks ago, and read it in advance. I am not generally one to gush, but I really, really liked this book.

Set in the slums of New York City at the turn of the 19th century, The Virgin Cure tells the story of twelve year old Moth, who dreams of riches, mansions and exotic pets, desperate to leave behind her dreary life, only to be sold into servitude by her mother. She escapes the home of her new brutal mistress, and is ‘rescued’ by Miss Emmett and her girls into a life of prostitution. When inspected for cleanliness and virginity at her new brother home, Moth first meets Dr. Sadie, the physician who records and narrates her tale.

Dr. Sadie is based on the life of McKay’s great great grandmother (I think I have the correct number of ‘great’s here), one of the first female physicians in New York City, who dedicated her life to serving the destitute women and children of the slums in and around Chrystie Street.

“I am Moth, a girl from the lowest part of Chrystie Street, born to a slum-house mystic and the man who broke her heart.”

Moth and Dr. Sadie are remarkably different but equally intriguing characters. McKay skillfully recreates New York life in the late 1800s, thrilling the reader with unique tidbits of information from the doctor, but yet making the world so alive that you hardly realize you are reading historical fiction. Filled with thieves, gypsies, circus performers, prostitutes and representatives from the highest and lowest edges of society, the Virgin Cure has a little something for everyone. I enjoyed this novel even more than McKay’s first novel, best-selling The Birth House.

McKay will be at Chapters in Bayers Lake tonight at 7pm for a reading and book signing. Get yourself out there if you can. You won’t regret it.

Also, check out her new Tumblr page, Pear Tree Planchette, filled with images which help bring Moth’s world to life.

Hardcover: 368 pages

Publisher: Knopf Canada (Oct 25 2011)

ISBN-10: 0676979564

ISBN-13: 978-0676979565

Note: This review copy was not supplied but the publisher, but purchased in a silent auction at a fundraiser.

 


Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay

It was like reading two books in one: Hay introduces us to the group of lost souls staffing CBC Radio Yellowknife in 1975 – then sends four of them on an epic trek through the barrens, changing their lives forever.

Most everyone has a time they recall – fondly or not – when their life changed. It may have been a job, a trip, a semester in college, but the friends made and lost, the experiences gathered meant you could never look at life the same again. This is the story Hay is telling. Two young women, Dido and Gwen, learn the ins and outs of radio, over a year in the Canadian north. But they learn about much more than radio.

Most striking about this novel is the contrasting of the characters to their natural environment. I’ve always been a sucker for books that do this well (hence my love for Barbara Kingsolver). Late Nights on Air tells the stories of these women, and their coworkers, against a backdrop of change in the north, with the MacKenzie Pipeline hearings bring controversy and conflict to their community, pitting economic growth and advancement against tradition and environmental protection. The pipeline is not part of the story, yet the controversy affects all of the characters, in different ways.

And then the story within the story: Gwen’s obsession with the story of John Hornby, the canoe trip through the barrens, retracing the explorer’s steps, visiting the cabin where he and his companions died. The trip tests all four would-be explorers physical and mental limitations, proving their mettle, bringing glimpses of happiness to otherwise lonely characters, yet ending in tragedy.

Overall, this was a book I found hard to put down. All characters charmed me – either by being charming, or so curmudgeonly I was charmed despite myself. There was layer upon layer of detail: radio’s struggle against television, a young woman’s journey to find herself, the history of exploration in the north, the conflict between advancement and tradition in the north, and on and on. Brilliantly done. My only complaint is there was perhaps an overuse of foreshadowing. I felt like Hay was hitting me over the head with the fact that “something bad” was going to happen, to that point that when it did it was almost anti-climactic.

Still, well worth a read. Also, makes me want to revisit Farley Mowat’s Lost in the Barrens, as I kept having flashbacks to grade six English class.

Paperback: 376 pages

Publisher: Emblem Editions; 1st Trade edition (April 1 2008)

ISBN-10: 0771040199

ISBN-13: 978-0771040191

 

 *Winner of the Giller Prize in 2007.