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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 2017-11-13 20:28
The Shipping News (Proulx)
The Shipping News - Annie Proulx

"Outside, an hour later, Quoyle at his fire, the aunt taking things out of the food box; eggs, a crushed bag of bread, butter, jam. Sunshine crowded against the aunt, her hands following, seizing packets. The child unwrapped the butter, the aunt spread it with a piece of broken wood for a knife, stirred the shivering eggs in the pan. The bread heel for the old dog. Bunny at the landwash, casting peckled stones. As each struck, foaming lips closed over it."
"They sat beside the fire. The smoky stingo like an offering from some stone altar, the aunt thought, watched the smolder melt into the sky. Bunny and Sunshine leaned against Quoyle. Bunny ate a slice of bread rolled up, the jelly poised at the end like the eye of a toaster oven, watched the smoke gyre."

It's all there in the quotation, pulled pretty much at random from the pages of this novel. Short, choppy fragments of sentences. Highly specific and unexpected physical detail. Metaphor and simile that more often than not cause a double-take. The occasional very odd word.

In some ways, the distinctive language of this book overpowers the rest of it for me. It's not that the characters aren't interesting - they are - nor that the book lacks incident - it most certainly does not! There is death, cultural discovery, peril in the wildness of nature, a gruesome revelation and even a miraculous resurrection (oh, and a lowish-key love story). But in the end, I enjoyed it but never felt fully drawn in, and I attribute that in large part to the idiosyncratic narrative. It's as if I were constantly dancing on the surface of the language, exploring it - and that was certainly enjoyable! - but I never fell deeply enough into it, past all those fleeting physical observations and curious insights, to really care about Quoyle, or his bratty kids, or "the aunt", brave and resourceful though she was.

I don't know if that really amounts to a serious criticism - it may just mean that this book had virtues different from the ones I usually remark on.

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review 2017-11-13 18:11
Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales (James)
Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales - P. D. James,Peter Kemp

P.D. James' estate has gone back to the well for this second annual book of short stories in time for Christmas sales, and I for one am very glad they did.  There's variety in tone and setting amongst the six stories, but they have in common James' clear prose, strong sense of character, and the "twist in the tail" that is one of the delights of this genre. Of the six, four are told in the first person, a good expedient for twists, since the narrator merely has to withhold one pertinent piece of information. Several (including the most shudder-inducing, "The Girl Who Loved Graveyards" - interestingly not one of the 1st-person ones) are tied closely to the viewpoint of a child or youth, and often are distanced from the actual telling by the lifetime of that person. Moral ambiguity abounds; there are comeuppances, but we are not allowed to rest in simple notions of good characters and bad characters, even within the narrow bounds of short fiction.

All of the stories are comfortably distanced from us in time (two are explicitly set in World War II, with all the accompanying paraphernalia of blackouts and the hovering menace of much greater disturbance than a mere country house murder or clifftop shove). No-one is distressingly poor, distressingly foreign, or distressingly gender-atypical. In this sense, but in no other, you might stretch the term "cozy" to cover these stories. I don't find some of the characters - most particularly the murderer in the aforementioned "Girl Who Loved Graveyards" to be in any way cozy or comfortable, but it's true that, the subtitle notwithstanding, this collection not only did not rob me of sleep, but sent me off happy and satisfied with another taste of P.D. James.

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review 2017-08-07 00:29
Visions in Death (Robb)
Visions in Death - J.D. Robb

This was a light and easy impulse read before I embark again on my more literary projects. I've read a couple of these "In Death" mysteries before; they're set in the 2050s in an entirely recognizable New York City. I had no trouble navigating the relatively minor tweaks that Robb introduces to make her world futuristically fresh while still operating on very familiar patterns. It's a police procedural about tracking a serial killer in a large urban area. Even the introduction of a professional psychic as a civilian assistant - and the various degrees of skepticism she encounters - would be entirely plausible in a present-day setting. It is the presence of this psychic, rebranded in Robb's future lingo as a "sensitive", that gives us the title of the novel. Our tough and sassy detective, Eve Dallas, conducts a fairly flawless case, sorting out the forensic evidence with aplomb, getting the profiling right and eventually tracking the serial killer to a country property where most of his (female, of course) victims are buried. Though the case doesn't echo the Robert Pickton horror in either perpetrator psychology or the low social status of Pickton's victims, nonetheless the timing of publication (2004) leads me to think that sensational case from a couple of years before was at least at the back of the author's mind as she detailed the grim discoveries of the bodies. To keep us all from sinking into despair, perhaps, Robb adds an interesting twist at the end that I will not disclose.

The protagonists - Eve Dallas, her detective sidekick Delia Peabody, and Peabody's main squeeze and computer nerd McNab - are very easy to like and root for. I would add Dallas' wealthy and extraordinarily helpful husband Roarke, but, as in the other books I read, I find him irritatingly just a little too perfect to be true,  and the obligatory sex scene with Dallas annoying - just Nora Roberts the romance writer intruding where she is not needed. However, it's a small flaw in an otherwise enjoyable and undemanding read.

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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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