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 before¬†(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: Ghost Warning by Kara Stanley

 

Ghost Warning – Kara Stanley (Caitlin Press, 2017)

Lou and her dad live a simple life, just the two of them, in a small town. When her dad dies unexpectedly, Lou boards a bus and heads to Toronto. There she moves in with her older brother, Jonah, and creates a community of sorts in the midst of the big city. There’s her new best friend Isabelle, the neighbourhood crazy lady Stella, and her drunken godfather. Toronto is an entirely different place than her quiet town and the neighbourhood is currently being plagued by a serial rapist and potentially someone who is setting homeless people on fire. Lou believes her journalist father was investigating these crimes and becomes entangled in figuring out whose behind it all.

Lou is a charming and likeable kid and her story is mostly pretty believable. While she and Jonah are able to make a decent life for themselves in the city, Lou is also clearly depressed and a little unstable and this is realistic when you consider what she’s been through. Nothing in her new life takes the place of what she’s lost when her dad died. The surrounding characters all feel pretty realistic and have a decent amount of depth to them.

The weakest aspect of the novel is really the plot. It’s hard to say what the novel wants to be. It’s not really a mystery, though that seems like the most solid plot line on offer. Lou falls into the middle of the mystery a little too easily and figures it out way too easily. There isn’t really any other solution on offer, which makes any sense of a mystery here feel impossible.

The final section of the novel finds Lou on the West Coast in what seems like an entirely different novel. Here we see an attempt at some sort of conclusion, some overarching lesson that Lou has learned, but because it doesn’t involve any of her previous life or the people in it, it feels like it’s part of a different story and doesn’t offer much satisfaction to the reader.

Overall though, there is a lot here to appeal to a reader and I’ll be interested to see what Stanley produces next.

Book Review: The Wind is Not a River by Brian Payton

The Wind is not a River – Brian Payton (Ecco, 2004)

In this novel, Brian Payton explores a lesser known portion of World War II history – the Japanese invasion of Alaska. At least, this was unknown to me and I consider myself decently informed.

Our main character is John Easely, a journalist who has snuck his way into the Aleutian Islands where the native peoples have been either captured by the Japanese or forcibly evacuated by the Americans. The region is closed to media and the story is unknown in the rest of the world. The novel opens with Easely surviving a plane crash but not knowing if he’ll survive in the hostile environment. Hostile both because of the Japanese soldiers and the physical environment.

The story alternates chapters with our second main character, Helen Easely, John’s wife. The pair parted on poor terms but love each other dearly. After weeks go by without word from John, and little information is provided about what’s really happening in Alaska, Helen decides to take matters into her own hands and follow John to Alaska through any means available.

By focusing on a part of modern history unfamiliar to most readers, Payton automatically creates interest. Which helped me get through the early chapters of the book where I didn’t feel that attached to what was going on. There’s a lot of drama in Easely’s situation but Helen’s chapters mostly seem to focus on her job and her elderly father’s illness, neither of which are particularly compelling. As Helen moves towards finding out where John is, her story becomes more interesting and I found myself enjoying it more. This was a part of history that was more familiar but still something I hadn’t read about in fiction. While John’s survival is compelling, it does get repetitive and for much of the book he seems to do the same things over and over again, with varying degrees of success.

There is a kind of side story (where the title of the novel comes from) that has potential but is underdeveloped and ends up feeling unattached and strange compared to the rest of the story. Unfortunately, the ending hinges around this secondary story and characters and so I found it quite unsatisfying. There’s also a lot alluded to or mentioned in passing about the peoples of the Aleutian Island and I would have loved to learn more but Payton doesn’t delve further into it.

Overall, the novel ended up feeling like it could have used another draft or a bit more polishing. There’s a strong potential here but it’s not quite fulfilled.

Book Review: Everything Was Good-Bye by Gurjinder Basran

Everything was Good-Bye – Gurjinder Basran (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2010)

For most of high school, I lived within walking distance of a Sikh temple in East Vancouver. A lot of my friends were Punjabi and so while there’s still a lot I don’t know about Sikh culture, I’d say I’m fairly familiar with it over all. So I was excited to read Basran’s novel of a young Sikh girl growing up in Delta (a suburb of Vancouver).

Meena is the youngest of six daughters, raised by their widowed mother, and growing up in the often restrictive confines of traditional Sikh culture. While one sister has bucked tradition and run away, Meena’s older sisters have each ended up in arranged marriages and while Meena doesn’t particularly want this, she feels trapped by the expectations of her family. She’s isolated in her school as a minority and befriends Liam, a white boy who is an outcast for other reasons. Their relationship is awkward, halting, and very believable, with all the uncomfortableness and confusion of teenage romance.

I don’t Delta very well but I do know that outside of India, the Vancouver area has the largest Sikh population in the world. So I did find Meena’s isolation a little false. I find it hard to believe that she would be the only Punjabi girl in her school and wouldn’t at least be able to make friends within her own cultural community. It ends up feeling like the author is trying to force her friendship with Liam a little too hard but unnecessarily isolating Meena.

I did really enjoy the first section of the book, while Meena is still in school, trying to figure out how she feels about Liam, what her future will be, and watching the last of her sisters move into marriage. The novel then hops forward in time by several years to Meena in her early twenties. She’s finished university (which we didn’t get to see at all and I think was a missed opportunity), working but still very isolated as she lives with her mother, and being pushed toward her own arranged marriage.

There’s one more jump in time and Meena’s life changes drastically. This change felt realistic, following on what we know about Meena and what she’s narrated to us, as well as what’s come before. The ending, however, felt emotionally manipulative. Aside from being pretty unrealistic, it felt like the author keeping a happy ending from Meena for the sake of avoiding a happy ending.

The setting is great and familiar to readers who know Vancouver and its surroundings and the cultural details are authentic and interesting. Basran doesn’t drown us with them but throws them in as needed and they add to a world that feels genuine and fascinating. Some of it felt familiar to me and others were things I learned for the first time. I haven’t come across a lot of Indo-Canadian writing so I look forward to seeing more from Basran.

Book Review: The Conjoined by Jen Sookfong Lee

The Conjoined - Jen Sookfong Lee (ECW Press, 2016)

The Conjoined – Jen Sookfong Lee (ECW Press, 2016)

The Conjoined is filled with everything you hope will never happen to your daughter. Although set in the city of Vancouver whose streets and neighbourhoods I recognize, the story seems to exist in some alternate universe where Vancouver is terrible, always dangerous, where nothing good exists, everyone is evil, and you might as well not try to help anyone ever.

The novel begins shortly after Jessica Campbell’s mother Donna has died. Jessica is a burned out social worker (is there any other kind?), striving to live up to her mother, who was a foster parent while Jessica was growing up. Her entire image of Donna is thrown into chaos however when, while sorting through her mother’s home, Jessica and her dad find two bodies in the deep freeze.¬† In 1988 two sisters, Casey and Jamie, were fostered by the Campbells until they eventually ran away. Or so everyone thought.

The story is an unconventional mystery in that the question is why rather than who. Donna has clearly murdered these girls but what was her motivation? What happened? Jessica attempt to figure out who her mother was, stumbling across some long-held family secrets in the process.

The story also takes us back to 1988 to tell about the sisters, their parents and how they ended up in foster care. I wish the novel had given more from Casey and Jamie’s perspective. Although at the centre of the story, we never get to see them as more than victims. Things happen to them and they react but without more knowledge of who they really were, their actions seem strange and unwarranted. Jessica remembers them as aggressive, mean, and violent and, indeed, seems to come to blame them in a way for causing her mother to murder them, even as her investigations stir up some of her own dark memories of her mother. Jessica’s explanations don’t fit what we see of the girls in their pre-foster care story, with their own family though. During Casey and Jamie’s first (real) runaway attempt, something horrific happens to them but the action is so out of the blue and we never see how the girls react and so it ends up feeling false and exploitative.

I might have forgiven the novel all this if it weren’t for the ending. Jessica discovers a secret from her mother’s childhood that is supposed to explain Donna’s life and actions but only led me to believe that Donna was actually a psychopath and always had been. As I said before, The Conjoined seems to exist in some extra dark universe where sometimes good people slip up and commit multiple murders. I don’t buy it and I don’t accept childhood trauma as an excuse for killing children. The fact that Jessica apparently does (along with some personal choices she makes along the way) causes me to wonder if she’s more messed up than the author intended her to be. A little more balance to this novel would have gone a long way.