Book Review: A Mariner’s Guide to Self-Sabotage by Bill Gaston

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A Mariner’s Guide to Self-Sabotage – Bill Gaston (Douglas & McIntyre, 2017)

My disclaimer: I know Bill Gaston in real life. He was one of my profs in university and taught one of my favourite workshops. He was a great prof and an all-round good guy. When he was a featured writer at our local Writers’ Festival a couple of years ago I was asked to introduce him before he spoke. I also know the team at D&M that published this book. So basically, I have a lot of reasons to praise this book. Fortunately, one of those reasons is that it’s quite a good short story collection.

Bill’s work has been nominated for and won many major literary awards in Canada and he is quietly at the forefront of the Canadian lit scene. As I’ve said beforeĀ (I reviewed Bill’s last short story collection here and his most recent novel here.), I prefer his short stories to his novels and this latest collection shows off his strengths. His stories are familiar and approachable and yet each contain a dark and disconcerting undertone. A missing teenager, a plan for suicide, a secret about a sister’s dead wife – there is always something not quite right. Made even more disturbing by its very ordinariness.

This collection seems to have a theme of aging. Of bodies getting older and less reliable, of the loss of those who have surrounded us for so long. One character muses that, at fifty, middle age is past, since most of us won’t live to be a hundred.

As is Gaston’s tendency, many of these stories seem to end on the cusp of something. Some readers will dislike the feeling of being left wanting more, at the very edge of something tantalizing. I’ve come to expect it from Bill’s work and appreciate the way he takes the reader around the subject, slowly opening up the story, and allowing us to draw our own conclusions.

 

 

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Book Review: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child - Eowyn Ivey (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay Books, 2012)

The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay Books, 2012)

She had watched other women with infants and eventually understood what she craved: boundless permission – no, the absolute necessity to hold and kiss and stroke this tiny person…Where else in life, Mabel wondered, could a woman love so openly and with such abandon?

Eowyn Ivey brings a powerful edge to this re-telling of a Russian fairy tale. This is a story of motherhood in its many forms, a story of longing. Ivey captures these feelings so well that it made for an often painful read. Yet, a good pain. A pain that says, Yes, you are not alone.

Jack and Mabel are entering the second winter on their Alaskan homestead and are not sure they will survive, either physically or mentally. Early on in the novel, Mabel ventures purposefully out onto the not quite frozen river, daring the ice to break beneath her feet. They are struggling against the land, against the long and dark winters, against the rift that has grown between them in the years since their baby died at birth.

One night, the first snow of the season, they make a girl out of snow. The next day the snow sculpture is gone but a strange little girl begins to appear in the woods nearby. Mabel and Jack start to wonder if she has been borne out of their own longing or a delusion of isolation. Or is there something more sinister at play?

Ivey does a brilliant job of unfolding the novel along the line between fact and fairytale. There are hints at the possibilities on both sides and the reader is left to make their own decisions. Faina – the little girl – is otherworldly. Magical and yet with that dark edge that comes in to so many fairytales.

The story seems to expand as it progresses; more is learned about Faina, more characters are introduced as the lives of Jack and Mabel expand. The story takes a surprising turn but the conclusion feels honest to both the characterization of Faina and to the fairy tale element.

The setting of Alaska in the 1920s works well. There is, of course, the similarity to Russia in the long, dark winters, as well as the isolation and difficulty of every day existence. Ivey demonstrates both the beauty and the terror of the place. The paradox of falling in love with a place that can kill you but, if you know how, can also keep you alive. Perhaps even a little girl, alone in the forest.

It was beautiful, Mabel knew, but it was a beauty that ripped you open and scoured you clean so that you were left helpless and exposed, if you lived at all.

 

Reading with Pearl: Du Iz Tak by Carson Ellis

Two by Carson Ellis from Candlewick Press

Two by Carson Ellis from Candlewick Press

I shared my love for Carson Ellis’ picture books back in July (here) but since she has since come out with a new children’s book, I thought I’d talk about her again.

Du Iz Tak is a creative and unique story, beautifully illustrated in Ellis’ distinctive style. What really sets this little story apart though is that it’s written in a made-up language. It’s the tale of a group of insects who find something unexpected growing and how they interact with it.

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The action, as far as it’s seen through the illustrations is fairly simple and easy to follow and the dialogue is fun to read out loud. It’s short and repetitive and the meaning isn’t difficult to figure out but the made-up language means it can really be whatever the reader wants it to be. It’s a unique idea and one that lends itself to endless story-telling possibilities.

Pearl is a little young to understand the concept of a fictional language or to offer many of her own suggestions but she likes looking at the pictures and seems to enjoy the various accents I’ve put on while reading Du Iz Tak to her so far.

Book Review: The Trees by Ali Shaw

The Trees - Ali Shaw (Bloomsbury, 2016)

The Trees – Ali Shaw (Bloomsbury, 2016)

I’m not sure that I would have finished The Trees, except that it was loaned to me by an acquaintance and I didn’t want to seem like someone who doesn’t finish books. (They offered to loan it to me after I commented on how beautiful the cover is. Seriously, that’s a lovely cover, isn’t it?)

In defense of The Trees, the book did get slightly more interesting once I persevered. In my defense, that point was well over two-thirds of the way in. The main problem that I had was that while the concept of the novel is very creative, the execution and the characters themselves are poorly crafted.

The book begins “the night the trees come”. Our main character, Adrien Thomas, a lacklustre former teacher in suburban England, is awakened one night when a forest grows through his house. All through his town (and indeed, it appears, throughout the world) an ancient forest has burst through the human-made world. Suddenly, the world finds itself living in the middle of a forest. Adrien – generally lacking in survival skills or any real motivation – happens to meet up with Hannah and her son Seb and they set off west. First to find Hannah’s brother and then, maybe, to find Adrien’s wife who is on a business trip in Ireland.

Adrien is, I think, supposed to represent the weakness of modern man, softened by our luxurious lifestyle. The problem is that he’s extremely unlikeable and seems to spend most of the book whining and being carried along by the characters/action around him. I honestly didn’t care what happened to him and so it was a struggle to follow him through hundreds of pages. Most of which seemed to be the main characters walking through the forest and seeing strange things. When they finally reach their destination, it felt like too little too late and the ultimate conclusion is, frankly, bizarre. And not bizarre in a way that felt right to the novel but bizarre in a way that seemed to contradict what came before.

For an apocalyptic novel, The Trees lacks tension and excitement. While I didn’t necessarily expect a The Road style intensity, it seems likely there would be more conflict in a world where there is no longer any law or social structure. But aside from two characters, it seems like people are mostly carrying on as best they can and being respectful of others. There’s some mention of looting but even this seems very minimal. Perhaps this is the whole “stiff upper lip” British thing and this is, in fact, how the English would proceed if the world ended.