I find myself in a unique situation these days. While The Miramichi Reader is doing well and has gained a nationwide reputation for supporting Canadian authors and independent publishers, my personal reading has dropped about 66%. This is due to the responsibilities I have chosen to take on such as editing and maintaining the website, preparing the weekly newsletter, hosting the TMR Podcast and the wearing of various other hats, such as hospital employee, and man about the Fisher house.
All of this to say that not only has my reading time been reduced — for something had to give — but my writing of reviews has slipped to the point where the “to be reviewed” pile is higher than the “to be read” pile. So, I have decided to write up seven “brief and breezy” reviews of some recent reads. This will, of course, disappoint some authors and/or publishers who may have been looking for a lengthier gaze at their offerings, but “any review is better than no review” so here we go!
The Pump by Sydney Warner Brooman (Invisible Publishing)
The Pump is an intriguing collection of intertwined short stories about a fictional location that is dismal and marshy, with a toxic water supply and beavers that feast on humans. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg in The Pump (which is also the name of the town, or city, as it does have a mayor). Sydney Hegele (they prefer to use their soon-to-be-married surname) writes with humour, but also with sensitivity when called for, notably amongst the younger lovers such as Laurent and Taylor, who want to leave The Pump (which is not that easy, it appears). While this type of avant-garde storytelling is not my chosen type of reading, I did like the dream-world inventiveness of it all. The Pump is the type of novel that, had it been written in French by a Quebec writer, QC Fiction would have translated into English. It fits nicely alongside their titles by Eric Dupont and David Clerson. Definitely worth a look. A full review of The Pump by Anuja Varghese can be found here.
The Winter-Blooming Tree by Barbara Langhorst (Palimpsest Press)
Ursula and Andreas are empty-nesters who live in Humboldt, Saskatchewan and are the focus of this engaging novel about mental and physical health issues compounded by a huge communication gap between husband and wife. Their daughter Mia returns home after being downsized out of a job, and she is soon caught up in her parent’s issues and the toxic environment within her old home. Diane read this with a box of tissues at hand, but old unemotional me could not understand where the crying parts were. Take my wife’s endorsement of The Winter-Blooming Tree as well worth reading.
Food of My People, Edited by Candas Jane Dorsey and Ursula Pflug (Exile Editions)
I’ll read anything with Ursula Pflug’s name attached to it, so it was with anticipation that I read this anthology of speculative fiction, which was edited by her and Candas Jane Dorsey. Notably, this anthology contains the Sheung-King story “You Are Eating An Orange. You Are Naked” from which the recent book of the same name was developed (review here). All the stories involve food of one sort or another, from various places around the globe. There is even a recipe at the end of each story for the particular dish that appears. If you like speculative fiction in a short-story format, then I highly recommend Food of My People.
Toronto, I Love You by Didier Leclair, Translated by Elaine Kennedy (Mawenzi House)
This short novel (134 pages) was on the CBC’s “40 Canadian books coming out in May we can’t wait to read” and with a title like that and a cover image of a person walking up the stairs at the Queen subway entrance, I was immediately intrigued, being a resident of Toronto for some 20 years.
Raymond Dossougbé has just arrived in Toronto as a landed immigrant from Benin and immediately falls in love with the city: “she bewitched me before I knew what was happening”. He rooms with three friends of Eddy, his contact in his new homeland. The three are Caribbean blacks, so they really don’t understand Raymond’s fleeing from Africa. Raymond is confused by their initial rejection of him as a “brother” because they see him (or rather his ancestors) as selling their ancestors out as slaves to be sent to the sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean. In the meantime, Raymond makes friends with a free-spirited Portuguese woman who sprints him around Toronto in her Corvette and introduces him to an upscale side of the city, so different from the Jane-Finch area he lives in.
While I enjoyed reading Toronto, I love You, I found it difficult to fathom at times, such as where is Raymond getting living expenses from? Why doesn’t he look for work? Granted, the story only covers Raymond’s first few weeks in Toronto, so getting settled was still a work in progress. At any rate, this is a book that will do well in Toronto!
My Mother’s War by Eva Taylor (HarperCollins Canada)
Saddled with the lengthy subtitle “The Incredible True Story of How a Resistance Fighter Survived Three Concentration Camps”, My Mother’s War was compiled by Eva Taylor, the daughter of Sabine Zuur, from letters, photos and documents she found in 2012, just after her mother’s death at age 94. This account was particularly interesting as I had recently finished reading What is Written on the Tongue, a fictional account of the German occupation of Holland, which is where Sabine’s story begins (and, ultimately ends). The “incredible” part of Sabine’s story is her survival, especially as she could have easily been executed on many occasions. It was a totally engrossing book, but my biggest criticism is the lack of photos or any supporting evidence of what the author found in the boxes her mother so lovingly kept. It would have added a measure of authenticity to an otherwise necessary account of the Holocaust.
The Ghost of Suzuko by Vincent Brault, Translated by Benjamin Hedley (QC Fiction)
Here’s a QC Fiction book that demonstrates the style of book that sets QC Fiction out from the crowd. The Ghost of Suzuko is a quirky story set in that most familiar of unfamiliar places, Tokyo, Japan. I say “familiar” because we can all conjure up an image of Tokyo in our mind’s eye, but the “unfamiliar” part is the Japanese culture, and how it persists in a world-class city. Well, east meets west as Vincent from Montreal returns to Tokyo after the tragic death of his Japanese girlfriend Suzuko. Suzuko is a performance artist and taxidermist and the two skills are not mutually exclusive. The story starts in the present with Vincent’s return but then pivots to recount the lover’s narrative. A love story with mythical aspects, The Ghost of Suzuko is a read that entertains while asking the reader to understand the mix of cultures.
The Great Absquatulator by Frank Mackey (Baraka Books)
Here’s a great non-fiction title from Baraka Books that will surely stand as one of my favourite reads of 2021. True crime? Check. Historical true crime? Check. International true crime? Check. Well-researched? Check. This book checks all the proverbial boxes for its genre(s). Frank Mackey has compiled a truly fascinating story of the life of Alfred Thomas Wood, a truly great imposter, but an incredibly absurd one at times. Smart, but he never made much money with those smarts. This is what makes the escapades of Mr. Wood so singular. From Canada to the U.S. to England, then back to North America, Mr. Mackey follows him with preciseness thanks to his exhaustive research about this little-known black con man from the late 1800s. With photos and other archival material included, this book is everything that My Mother’s War (see above) is not. If you like historical true crime, then you’ll love The Great Absquatulator. Guaranteed.