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review 2017-12-04 22:26
Children of the Revolution (Robinson)
Children of the Revolution - Peter Robinson

I must say I'm always a bit of a sucker for the modern-day detective-novel trope of the multi-generational case, where incidents in the past affect the crime or crimes of the current day. Just as well, because it's rare to find a detective novel these days that doesn't have a "historical" element. What I find (wryly) amusing is that "history" is more and more often within my own lifetime. In this case, the Revolution of the title is the 60s revolution, political and sexual, and the key to one murder and one attempted murder in the present day is both sexual and political shenanigans at a 60s university, juxtaposed with the highly respectable life of a certain Lady Veronica Chalmers, one of whose young relatives is about to become politically very important.

 

If you see the words "politically very important", then of course you will understand that even though Banks solves the mystery, and we are kindly let in on the secret, there is a shadowy senior figure who makes sure the solution gets no further publicity and the case goes "unsolved". I thought Robinson cheated a bit on the ending - I was not in the least convinced that the murderous person who apparently committed suicide was in the slightest suicidal, but on the other hand, there was no indication that the shadowy figure was responsible for a cover-up. And believe me, I looked back and re-read, because I'm not used to saying, "well that's implausible..." as I finish up a Banks novel.

 

Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed following Banks through all the twists and turns of his detecting, including the red herrings, mostly because as usual Robinson's characterizations are marvellous. I get only vaguely peeved when the whiff of male entitlement enters into Banks' relationships with his female fellow-officers or the latest lust object; meh, it doesn't bother me much. I'm happy to objectify Banks and his brain-power, so he can go ahead and objectify pretty young things if he likes. I'd prefer it if his much more substantial female co-workers (and, incidentally, subordinates) didn't have scenes where they seemed to be spatting over getting his attention and approval, though.

 

Four stars, because none of the basic virtues of the Banks novels are missing, despite my reservations.

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review 2017-11-13 20:56
Funny Boy (Selvadurai)
Funny Boy - Shyam Selvadurai

If the writing is decent, as it is here, I am always inclined to be generous with autobiographical first novels. At first I was decidedly worried that this tale of a gay youngster growing up in the disapproving Sri Lankan culture would prove to be too twee and clichéd for me. After all, we do get quite a lengthy introductory chapter describing how young Arjie loves to play "bride-bride" with his girl cousins. However, the story picked up both depth and grit as it went on, and the growing racial tensions between Tamil and Sinhalese are well-introduced into the relationships of the important people - mostly women - in our protagonist's life.

There's an air of quiet menace through most of this book, but it's blunted in the first instance by Arjie's childish viewpoint, which gradually disappears of course as Arjie gets older, but also as the political situation worsens and various peripheral figures in his life disappear or meet mysterious bad ends, for reasons that can only be racial or political. In school, experiencing a first love, he also has to negotiate a bullying principal and adults' near-incomprehensible motivations. The recitation of a ridiculous colonial poem praising school takes on bizarre significance, as does Arjie's deliberate flubbing of that recitation, an act of boyish protectiveness, trying to save his boyfriend by thwarting the ambitions of the aforementioned bully. The sudden and devastating advent of war results in Arjie's family's flight into hiding, the burning of their house, and the murder of his grandparents. Though in the last chapter he finally has sex with his boyfriend, it is melancholy and awkward, and we are fully aware that Arie and his family are fleeing to Canada. Like everything else, and like the transgressive loves of all the women in the book who have reflected aspects of his story, Arjie's love falls victim to the cruelties of the larger world.

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review 2017-07-31 03:26
Bear (Engel)
Bear by Marian Engel - Marian Engel

I remember the buzz around this Governor General's Award winner in the mid 70s when I was just beginning to be an active student of literature, and I also remember blinking and pushing it aside when I heard that it had woman-bear sex in it. At that point in my life, I was far more interested in the various romantic oddities of 18th and 19th century Gothic fiction (though come to think of it, that includes vampires, who are surely no less odd as lovers than a well-disposed bear).

Anyway, coming at this as part of my CanLit reading project, I was mercifully unaware that a recent mocking internet meme had caused a surge in its readership, and in online reviews. My attention was focused instead on the fact that the protagonist is a woman (my gender), an archivist (my profession) and of the 70s (roughly my generation). There were definitely moments of identification: when she reveled in her solitude and in her exploration of the "folly" home she lives and works in over the summer, and, of course, her self-conscious spinning-out of her half-fascinating, half-tedious work. But though I remember at second hand the era of sexual experimentation and freedom (new to women), the associated emptiness and lack of direction - a prevalent theme of this work - is not one that moves me in personal ways.

What pleased me about this novel was its good writing, clear and perceptive, about the progress of solitary emotions, and the quirky but believable details about cottage-country surroundings; so believable, in fact, that somehow it cajoles you into accepting the notion of a bear as well. I should add that this animal, though still very much wild in temperament, is not in his natural surroundings. There are different degrees of wildness, and this is quasi-domesticated vacation territory, not bear country. It is a particularly nuanced view of the wildness and solitude to which our city-dweller actually aspires. This is wildness colonialized and civilized, where your job is still to sort out an old library, and your encounters with a real bear are accompanied, quite literally, by annotations - found scraps of paper containing little pieces of historical bear information.

I was grateful that there was no anthropomorphism in the depiction of the bear. He remains an animal in his responses at all times, including his final, casual clawing, which brings Lou to her senses and sends her back to her own life.

Overall, the experience of reading this was somehow slight, and not just because the novel is very short. Though it did describe emotional states beautifully, I did not feel by the end either invested in Lou as a character or particularly knowledgeable about her. In a sad way, that may be the book's best expression of 1970s emotional alienation. And it's probably why I ended up going with 3 instead of 4 stars.

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review 2017-07-14 20:48
Kit's Law (Morrissey)
Kit's Law - Donna Morrissey

This is a small-town Newfoundland novel by a small-town Newfoundlander, and I found the first-person narrative both believable and entirely comprehensible, which is a fine combination.

 

Our narrator-protagonist is Kit, a teenager (fourteen at the beginning) with an old head on her shoulders. This is partly because she has to deal with an intellectually challenged mother, Josie. After her grandmother Lizzie dies (a woman for whom "feisty" is an entirely inadequate description), Kit digs in her heels and, with the advocacy of the local doctor and the grudging consent of rest of the nearby small community, stays put in her remote house upon the gully. A young man, Sid, son of the minister, comes around regularly to help with the heavy chores like wood-chopping. It sounds like a story of isolation but actually one of other joys of this book is the sharp, unsentimental delineation of a host of minor characters, most of whom are well-intentioned, and some of whom are genuinely good for Kit and her mother.

 

One character who is neither good nor well-intentioned is Shine, a figure of menace who takes advantage of Josie's adult sexuality, which is not controlled by an adult intellect. His death comes at the hands of one of the major characters, as he is in the process of terrorizing all three of Josie, Kit and Sid. The fallout from that incident deepens Kit's isolation and accelerates her growing up.

 

I won't disclose the twist that derails Kit's happy-ever-after with Sid, her first romantic interest. It was unexpected (to me) but entirely defensible from a plot point of view, especially in a setting where the characters are few and heavily interconnected.

I liked the writing in this novel: it was vivid in its sensory imagery, and there was a very strong sense of place, which had elements meaningful to the characters (Lizzie's partridgeberry patch, for instance, a secret place where the secrets of Kit's birth are - partially - told). And the unsentimental, but also unjudgmental, transcription of Josie's loud, repetitive, moody and often uncomprehending speech struck me as being probably born from real observation.

 

I would recommend this one.

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review 2017-06-01 16:04
Cereus Blooms at Night (Mootoo)
Cereus Blooms at Night - Shani Mootoo

This multiple award nominee from the mid-1990s was not familiar to me until I found it on the "100 Novels That Make You Proud to be Canadian" CBC list. Like many books on that list, this one is Canadian-ish, in that Mootoo was born in Ireland, grew up in Trinidad and at the time of publication was dividing her time between Canada (Vancouver) and the States. This novel is entirely set in the Caribbean (Trinidad, I assume). However, the original publisher was Canadian (Press Gang Publications). The copy I have is from Grove Press in the U.S. There is a brief mention of Canada as an emigration destination for a minor character.

SPOILERS AHEAD

So that's what it's not. Here's what it is: horrifying, and yet disarmingly poetic. At the centre of the story is an abusively incestuous relationship, father-daughter, and a rather Psycho-like discovery of the father's corpse in the family home, still inhabited by his mentally deranged daughter many years later. The discovery is made by a childhood friend and later suitor who failed Mala/Poh-Poh miserably by backing away when he first became aware of the abuse.

A framing device of the gentle development of a relationship between a gay male nurse and the transgender son of the failed suitor makes it all a bit more palatable, as does vivid and at times rhapsodic description of the natural world. The natural metaphors are heavy throughout the book; insects quite literally pervade every page, with little textual decorations of ants, beetles and other bugs acting as chapter breaks, etc. I actually found that a little discomfiting - but it was entirely appropriate to this set of characters and circumstances, for both Mala and Ambrose, her verbose and foreign-educated suitor (an entomologist), are intensely interested in insect life. And, then, of course there is that blocked off room where the body lies...

I think this is very obviously a first novel, in that, like the tropical setting, it is almost too brimming with all sorts of themes and ideas - about gender roles and non-conformity, and abuse, and religiosity, and the cruelty of conformist communities, and humans in the natural world, and the dream-splitting of the self to cope with the intolerable, and the evanescent flowering of passion (the title), and more. By the end, we have hopes and pleasant imagery for the second generation in the frame story. That, I think, is how this novel get away with having such a truly dark heart.

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