Nova Scotian author Charlotte R. Mendel has written a different kind of novel with A Hero (2015, Inanna Publications*). It is different in that it concerns the lives of an extended Muslim family living in an unnamed post-revolutionary Muslim country. While the family is Muslim, it could be any family living anywhere, from the inner city to the suburbs. In fact, as I started reading the book, it seemed to me like a Muslim version of “All in the Family”. That is not meant to take anything away from the story Ms. Mendel has conceived. There are similarities: a conservative, outspoken family head, his timid, loving wife, and his younger, more liberal, if not outright activist children and in-laws.
Meet the Family
But this is no TV comedy, and it is no Muslim soap opera either. It is a serious under-the-microscope study of a family (considered middle-class by their countries standards) living in close conditions under the tough-loving oversight of Mohammed Al-Fakhoury, the family patriarch. The rest of his family consists of: his wife Fatima, their children Abdul and Ali (twins), daughter Zayna and baby Naaman. Then there is: Mohammed’s older sister Rana, her husband Hamid and their only child, a son, Mazin. Finally, there is the activist Ahmed, Fatima’s younger brother.
Rana leaned towards Ahmed. “I wish I could go to the demonstrations. It’s terrible to believe in something so much and not be able to participate.” Rana couldn’t go anywhere, even if they
organized a demonstration just for women. Her brother Mohammed wouldn’t permit it, and that was that.
Sources of Tension
There are several sources of tension at play against the backdrop of a post-revolutionary regime that is having increasing difficulty in subduing revolutionaries (like Ahmed) who want the next government to be a democratic one, and they want it now. Rana supports Ahmed, and would like to participate in the demonstrations too, but women are not allowed. This causes problems between siblings Rana and Mohammed and since it is his house, his word is law. There are also other issues covered in the text, like the use of the niquab, women’s rights, and political and religious freedom. Using a middle-class conservative Muslim family allows Ms. Mendel to cleverly cover all these topics to good effect throughout A Hero.
What is a Hero?
This is the question posed by some of the characters, particularly young Zayna, the self-appointed spy of the family who listens at the doors every night so she can try to understand everyone’s feelings in order to keep household life harmonious as her father would like it to be. Of her father, Zayna thinks:
It must be very hard to behave well when everybody thinks you are unreasonable.
She scribbles all these thoughts in her journal every night. Also in her journal are four criteria for what she believes a hero is:
Someone who fights for what he believes in
Someone who protects his family from harm
Someone who is noble
Someone who helps others even when it puts them in danger
Actually, each character in the book meets one or more of the criteria, from Ahmed on one end of the scale to the women on the other. It makes for a very interesting read to see how each character develops and reacts to the worsening conditions outside the home. Ms. Mendel accomplishes this character development by making each one the main subject of a chapter so we eventually get to see the family through varying perspectives. Especially insightful are the chapters pertaining to the women. As noted earlier, Rana is the most passionate and outspoken one in the house, but timid Fatima and Zayna, the little facilitator, become more fully developed as we get to know their intimate thoughts and personal feelings.
I liked reading this book, if for no other reason than getting an insight into a ‘moderate/progressive’ Muslim family (Mohammed even prohibits Fatima to teach religion to their children). Living amongst daily demonstrations, machine gun fire, and killing in the streets is something we, in this part of the world have difficulty understanding. I think A Hero excels in both these areas and as such is a worthwhile read.
Charlotte R. Mendel was born in Canada, and has lived in England, France and Israel. Her first novel, Turn Us Again, won the H.R. Percy Novel Prize, the Beacon Award for Social Justice, and the Atlantic Book Award for First Novel. She lives in Enfield, Nova Scotia, with six goats, two cats, eleven chickens, thousands of bees, two children, and one husband.
*Inanna Publications is a registered charitable organization. Their editorial mission is to publish visionary books and journal issues that reflect the depth, breadth and diversity of women’s lives across Canada.
Just after finishing Let Us Be True (2015, Coteau Books), I rated it a 3 out of 5 stars at Goodreads. Then I changed my mind and gave it another star because I kept thinking about the story long after I finished it, which is a sign of a four-star book for me. I kept thinking about it primarily due to the way the author, Erna Buffie has written the life story of Pearl Calder. As the central character, the entire novel swirls outward and around Pearl, moving horizontally from the past to the present, yet, like the game of 3D chess they play on the Starship Enterprise, there are vertical components to the story as well. It all comes together in a wonderfully woven story that goes back and forth from the Prairies to the battlegrounds of Europe.
Primarily, the novel is about Pearl and her two daughters Darlene and Carol and begins in the year 2000 with the death of Pearl’s husband Henry. Pearl ponders a life without Henry:
Her Henry. She’d sometimes wished to God he was somebody else’s Henry, and now he was. He was God’s Henry and she was alone with…two daughters she didn’t understand.
Pearl is a brash, belligerent and opinionated woman around her daughters, but others often comment how nice Pearl is, one nurse even calling her a “sweetie pie” and a “real little peach”. The daughters never see this side of their mother, her demeanour due in large part to the secrets she is keeping from them.
[Pearl] was like her name: like sand between your toes, an irritant that had rolled itself into something hard and round and opaque but not smooth. More like a freshwater pearl: irregular and covered in ridges.
At one point, when she is seemingly on her deathbed, she confesses the truth about her life, not to one of her children, but to Athena, Darlene’s friend: “I’m going to tell you something.” She said. “And when I’m gone, I want you to tell my kids.”
There are times when Pearl looks back on her younger days, an orphan along with her sister Winnie after their parents die under tragic circumstances. They are raised by an Aunt and Uncle who don’t want them, with the older girl Winnie running away leaving Pearl alone with them, much to Pearl’s displeasure. Interestingly, the book’s cover image is that of a sad young girl in an old (hand-me-down?) print dress grasping barbed wire. Is it a young Pearl despairing of her life on her hateful Uncle’s farm? It could very well be.
So Many Secrets
Certainly, no one in Let Us Be True has an easy time of it. Everyone has their trials and their secrets, thinking them best kept to themselves, much to the consternation of their loved ones. Some, like Pearl’s father, bring back terrible memories of the war, others try to escape a dreary life on the Prairies by enlisting, never to come back at all. Yet, Let Us Be True is not really a ‘sad’ or depressing book, but one full of truth, just as the title beckons us to be. If all the characters in this book were true to their loved ones, their lives would certainly be less tragic.
Let Us Be True is Ms. Buffie’s first novel, and as such is a great accomplishment, and one she can be proud of. Her writing is not overly sentimental, but she captures the lamentable situation of each character well, in terms we can empathize, if not sympathize with. As I was reading, I kept thinking how her style was similar to that of Binnie Brennan’s whose books I also enjoy and have reviewed here for The Miramichi Reader. Ms. Buffie’s descriptions likewise provide a spark of uplifting realism.
There are a couple of such passages I really enjoyed and both occur near the end of the book; one when Pearl is airing out Winnie’s sickroom, the other when Pearl’s mother Lettie is contemplating her illness whilst putting up preserves. The attention to detail and the flow of the narrative is startling. It cannot be easy to make each character distinct (male or female), but again, Ms. Buffie accomplishes this task very well.
Something else I realized after finishing it was that I didn’t read it carefully enough in the first place. In order to do this review justice, I had to revisit the book in several places to piece the story back together. If you read this book, take the time notice the ‘small stuff’; it may not make seem to be important until later in the book! Since the book goes back and forth in various time periods, you need to pay keen attention to who does what and what happens to them at the time to fully comprehend their circumstances. Despite this, I would say that this book is very readable, and is a notable first effort from Erna Buffie, one that should get her long-listed, if not short-listed.
Jon Tattrie has written a very clever book in Limerence (2015 Pottersfield Press). What do I mean by ‘clever’? It is a clever idea, cleverly conceived and written. It concerns the life of Manitoba resident Sam Stiller who loses his wife and son in a car accident and sets out to reinvent himself on the east coast of Canada as Cain Cohen.
Cain Cohen denies he was ever Sam Stiller, but there are some telling clues: the love of Leonard Cohen’s music (which is referenced liberally throughout the book and hence his ‘new’ last name), and the biblical reference to Cain, who became an outcast after murdering his brother Abel.
Cain is also ensnared by limerence, which is the state of mind associated with the intense emotions of new love. We also learn that a human can only feign perfection in a new relationship for three months before their ‘real’ selves begin to emerge. So limerence eventually fades, and the only way to get it back is to get a new romantic interest. This is what Cain does, repeatedly. However, he meets someone whom he actually does love and who is different from any of his previous affairs. They have ‘dates’, converse on deep subjects and don’t even kiss until the third date. Then they marry, settle down in Halifax and have a child. All seems well until Cain’s past (or is it Sam’s past?) catches up to him. This is where Cain, living in relative anonymity on the east coast is cast into the legal spotlight as his new identity is challenged in the courts. Still, he firmly maintains he is not Sam Stiller.
Without having to give any spoiler alerts, the cleverly conceived part of this novel is the way the story is told, or rather the way the Sam/Cain mystery is revealed. Every so often, another voice interjects into the narrative and we gradually come to recognize that it is the voice of the author whose book we are holding. As he explains to his wife: “I interject myself into the novel from time to time to add a layer of tension and suspense.” Which it does!
Eventually, he brings us up to speed on Sam/Cain’s life so that he is writing at about the same rate we are reading, suffering along with him as he vacillates back and forth with possible endings, blank pages, dealing with his present family life, and finding a quiet place to write. The author himself is struggling with feelings of limerence watching as Cain Cohen freely lives his life going from woman to woman with very little to tie him down, even in his fifties. He says of Cain:
Maybe a little bit of him [the author] was jealous of Cain’s unattached, free-form lifestyle. But maybe that little bit was outweighed by the big bit that wanted to be free to love one woman long and deep.
This is the struggle many men face, and likely women too if the truth is told. I would say this is primarily a good read for men, but women would enjoy it too, perhaps coming to a better understanding of the struggles within the men/man they love.
So what does it mean to be a man? Get a copy of Limerence and start discovering.
About the author: Jon Tattrie is an award-winning author and journalist. His previous books include Daytrips from Halifax, Cornwallis, The Violent Birth of Halifax, The Hermit of Africvilleand Black Snow. Tattrie lives in Bedford NS with his wife Giselle and son Xavier.
Publisher : Pottersfield Press (Aug. 5 2015)
Language: : English
Paperback : 224 pages
ISBN-10 : 1897426739
ISBN-13 : 978-1897426739
*Please note if you choose to purchase this book (or Kindle version) through Amazon using the link below we will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. If you cannot see the Amazon ad below (if you are using an ad blocker, for instance) here is the link: https://amzn.to/39eVqYp Thanks!
Quattro Books (“Home of the Novella”) has just published an endearing gem with Tomas and the Gypsy Violin. It is the story of Frank and Anna Lewitt, who adopt a seven-year-old Romani (formerly ‘Gypsy’) boy named Tomas after seeing a news report of the persecution of Roma in Eastern Europe. Told by Adam, Frank’s son from a previous marriage, he pleads:
This story is different. It is personal and painful to tell…..the little boy’s story cries out to be heard. Please don’t judge us too hard- it was all new to us.
Tomas does not adapt very well to life in Toronto and Frank and Anna are at their wit’s end as to what to do to help him. He remains in his room, is not interested in TV, toys or much else for that matter and speaks very little, although Adam suspects he knows more English than he lets on. It is only by accident that a breakthrough moment occurs when, while passing a music store, Tomas is fascinated by a violin in the window. Adam takes him in and discovers that Tomas can actually play the instrument! Upon returning home and telling Anna about it, she remembers a small trunk that accompanied Tomas from Europe contains an incomplete, damaged violin. Things start to fall slowly into place: violin repairs, lessons, going to school (an ordeal in itself) and finding friends both within Toronto’s small Roma community and outside of it.
In it’s eighty-some pages, author Robert Eisenberg tells a story that all ages can enjoy. After I finished reading it (perhaps reading it too quickly, but one just has to know what happens to Tomas along the way) I thought how interesting it would have been if some of the chapters told the story from Tomas’ perspective as a stranger in a strange land. Then I thought, no. The story unfolds is as if it is all new to us too. Often, we may feel awkward around children not our own, but how much more so when the child speaks very little, comes from a background we are unfamiliar with and shows little to no interest in activities or even in other children. Engrossed in the narrative, we sail along with Frank, Anna and Adam on a voyage of frustration and disappointments, but elation as well when something positive happens and Tomas starts to bloom. We learn along with them as Tomas often plays the role of teacher.
The author, in his “Briefest of Forewords” states: “Tomas and the Gypsy Violin acknowledges the book’s connection to the Roma community and to Sistema Toronto, whose young musicians were its inspiration.” Sistema is an organisation that teaches music to children with the added bonus that the participant’s attendance, marks and conduct improve. In fact, the author has dedicated his share of the earnings from this book to Sistema Toronto and its affiliates. The Sistema New Brunswick web page is here.
As mentioned earlier, this is a book suitable for all ages, and it is especially ideal for a young adult reader in that it teaches mutual respect as well as understanding and that everyone – young or old – has something special to contribute to help us grow as human beings. Bravo, Mr. Eisenberg!
Robert Eisenberg was born, raised and lives in Toronto. He is married with four children if, as he does, you include sons-in-law, and two grandchildren, all of whom live in Toronto. The three books he has written all take place in Toronto
Back in High School English class, we had to read Margaret Laurence’s A Jest of God, which I did enjoy reading, although looking back it might have been too mature a book for teenagers to study in depth. At any rate, any book with a strong and overburdened female living back in the late 1800s/early 1900s is fated to be compared with her beleaguered Manawaka heroines. So it goes with Grist (2014, Roseway Publishing) by Linda Little which tells the story of Penelope McCabe, a single schoolteacher who marries a miller, only to find out that Ewan MacLaughlin is not the man he appears to be: “I married Ewan MacLaughlin of my own free will…As time would tell, Ewan was not a kind man.”
Penelope, who, at age 30 is happy with her life as a school teacher (‘settled in snugly’), is introduced to the miller Ewan MacLaughlin by his younger brother, the Reverend Robert MacLaughlin with whom Penelope is boarding. Shy and awkward, Ewan reminds her of her own father, and soon she finds herself the attention of Ewan’s affections. Ewan tells her: “A woman has her business at home. A woman must have sense.” To which Penelope muses:
He did not want the young and pretty. He wanted me. What more did I need to know? For all my supposed sensible-headedness, it was this vanity that sealed my fate.
Ewan has found the strong, stable woman he wants for a wife and they soon wed, the year being 1875. Penelope is enthralled by the home Ewan has built, and by his plans to build a new mill at Gunn Brook. Ewan himself is a self-taught engineer and his mill is designed to be run easily and productively. Ewan is hoping that Penelope produces sons for him to work in the mill and carry on the trade after he is gone. Unfortunately, Penelope remains barren for several years, but finally has a child, a daughter. Due to Ewan’s keen engineering skills, other mill owners around the provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are soon employing him to improve their operations, which Ewan obliging does, to Penelope’s chagrin. It is due to these extended absences that Penelope out of necessity becomes proficient at operating the mill, although it is no place for a respectable woman in that day and age.
“My whole life was the same: untenable, yet unavoidable.” – Penelope
Penelope and Ewan
As mentioned previously, Penelope is a strong female protagonist, along the lines of James Fennimore Cooper’s female characters: educated and strong willed for their time (often stronger emotionally than some of the male characters), but just this side of being considered feminists. Penelope is being gracious when she says of Ewan that he is not a ‘kind’ man (despite his earnest bedtime prayers and overly strict Christian beliefs): he forbids conversation at the table and considers her a ‘lazy’ woman because she does not rise at the first light of dawn as he does. While he is never physically abusive to her, he lacks in any type of demonstrative love, other than what is necessary to produce that vital first son.
In Chapter Five, we discover more of Ewan’s background, and by doing so, we get to understand him more as a man, yet it does not excuse his maltreatment of Penelope over the years. The chapters dealing with Penelope are told in the first person (in actuality to her granddaughter), the chapters about Ewan are in the third person, since Penelope does not really know Ewan’s history until much later in the book.
I really enjoyed reading this book; more than I thought I would in fact. There are several reasons for saying this: first, the historical setting of a small town backwater in Nova Scotia (although it could be set in any place in Canada with a grain mill), secondly for the way the story is told. It jumps right into the brief courtship of Ewan and Penelope, then gets right into the marriage, so we are swept along with Penelope as she experiences all the changes in her life. As well, we get to see Ewan’s side of things, so much so that we do not totally dislike him (as Penelope herself does not) but neither do we side with him 100% as we are compelled to do with Penelope.
The author, Linda Little tells an epic story within 230 pages, and for this she is to be commended. It could easily have encompassed many more pages, but she was able to pare it down to a swift-moving yet engrossing read that tells a complete story without getting wallowed down in details. I especially appreciated the detailed explanations about the parts of a mill and the requirements to have them all work in harmony; it makes one appreciate the genius of Ewan MacLaughlin all the more so. I looked up the term “grist’ in Wikipedia and this was part of the explanation: “A miller ground whatever grain was brought to him, and charged a portion of the final product for the service.” All of the main characters in Grist pay a heavy portion of their lives to exist and remain strong despite what life has ground out for them. I will say that Grist is a great Canadian novel, and not to be overlooked nor quickly forgotten.
Wake the Stone Man (2015, Roseway Publishing) is Nova Scotia author Carol McDougall’s latest novel and it is a very thought-provoking one. It won the 2013 Beacon Award for social justice literature, which is a prize for an unpublished novel.
I recommend Wake the Stone Man as a very good read; one that will leave you thinking for a long time after.
The issue of the mistreatment of Aboriginal children in residential schools set up by the Canadian government almost 100 years ago has been in the news for many years now as new facts come to light and the survivors are telling their stories. In 2008, Prime Minister Harper issued an official apology to the aboriginal peoples of Canada. Wake the Stone Man is a story of love, friendships and family that will appeal to readers of all ages; young adults included. The main characters of the story are Molly Bell and Nakina, who is Ojibwe, and a survivor of the abusive residential school system.
The setting of Wake the Stone Man is in the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies, when the girls are about 12 years old and living in the fictional town of Fort McKay Ontario on Lake Superior. Fort McKay is watched over by the “Stone Man” or the “Sleeping Giant” as it is actually known by. The silent Stone Man figures prominently throughout the book. Molly first encounters Nakina through the fence of St. Mary’s residential school as she makes her way to ballet class. Nakina is apparently trying to climb the fence in an attempt to escape, only to be caught by a nun and flogged with a leather strap. Horrified, Molly rushes on to her class, but the image of Nakina on the fence haunts her and she wants to meet her again to find out why she wanted to escape. It would be two years before they would meet again when they start high school together. They soon become fast friends and Nakina becomes part of Molly’s family.
The Sleeping Giant, or The Stone Man
As for Molly, she is an only child and most people think her strange (because she doesn’t talk much) so she kind of melts into the background and becomes a keen observer of people and life in general in and around the industrial town, which is slowly becoming a down and out place due the factory closures and changes in the grain shipping industry. Molly decides that Fort McKay is not where she wants to spend her life and sets her sights on places beyond the horizon. She wants to escape Fort McKay just as much as Nakina wanted to escape St. Mary’s that day.
Over the next few years, Molly silently witnesses (like the Stone Man) the abuse and racism directed toward aboriginal people, Nakina being no exception. Soon time and other incidents separate the two friends, and Molly loses track of Nakina as the two move around the country, but eventually meet again, both becoming very changed people in the intervening years.
Waking the Sleeping Giant
I started off not liking the book very much. I found the sentences very short, the phrasing abrupt and therefore irritating to read after a chapter or two. Then I recalled that since the narrative is in the first person, and Molly was only eleven at the time, Ms. McDougall was writing in the ‘voice’ of a young person and thankfully her voice does mature as the story goes on. As I continued reading, I couldn’t help think of another book I recently read, Drive-by Saviours by Chris Benjamin, whom Ms. McDougall thanks in her acknowledgements for giving her a ‘stronger voice’. Very apropos, for Molly herself is a strong character and gets even stronger (but not always sure of what she wants) as she faces tragic events almost from the beginning of the book.
I mentioned earlier that the Stone Man figures prominently throughout the book. As it is a constant geographical feature for Fort McKay-ers, it is a spiritual one for the Ojibwe people (and, in a way for Molly too). As Molly writes:
The Stone Man wasn’t just geology or mythology. To me he was personal: geology gives him structure, mythology gives him story. He is a wonder of the world and a wonder of my world. Always present, ever watching, ancient wisdom.
Molly often has dreams of waking the Stone Man, often when something is bothering her, or a major event has taken place in her life. It is the Stone Man she turns to for solace and guidance, at least in her dreams. Near the beginning of the book she says about the sleeping Giant: “When you grow up in Fort McKay, the Giant gets under your skin and inside your head.”
This is a book that as I said earlier, evolves as Molly matures and progresses through her own life. It may seem at times predictable, but just seeing how Molly handles life’s situations has the power to make us look at how we ourselves might have reacted. It also helps us to see that being a silent witness to any type of social injustice is no longer acceptable. We need to wake the Stone Man within us all. I can recommend it to both male and female readers as a very good read, and one that will leave you thinking for a long time after. There are even notes for a book club discussion at the back of the book.
Another good review (which includes an interview with the author)
“Carol McDougall has written a story that is engaging and readable from beginning to end and appealing to a wide audience. Which is good news, because it is the kind of book that everyone should read.” —Consumed by Ink
Wake the Stone Man by Carol McDougall
*Please note if you choose to purchase this book through Amazon using the link below I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks!
Carol McDougall was born in Northern Ontario and has been active in the Nova Scotia writing community for many years. In 2005 she was awarded the Mayor’s Award for cultural achievement in literature and in 2010 she received the Progress Woman of Excellence Award for the Arts. Carol’s work includes writing for children, non-fiction, and fiction. In 2013 Carol received the Beacon Award for Social Justice Literature for Wake the Stone Man, a novel about friendship and forgiveness, which was inspired by her northern roots.
Formac’s site explains the need for reprinting these all-but-forgotten classics from Canada’s past:
Though little known today, from 1860 to 1940 Canadian novelists from the Maritime provinces were writing highly successful books which were widely read in Canada, the US, and Britain. Although today only Lucy Maud Montgomery is remembered and read, there were several dozen writers who enjoyed the same level of success and renown.
In 2001, Canadian literature specialist Gwen Davies and Formac publisher James Lorimer set out to republish books by these largely forgotten Maritime authors. Readers can now discover 35 of their novels, all reprinted in Formac’s Fiction Treasures series. As Gwen Davies notes,
The Formac Fiction Treasures series is aimed at offering contemporary readers access to books that were successful, often huge best-sellers in their time, but which are now little known and often hard to find.”
As I write this, I am enjoying Under Sealed Orders, a book published in 1917 and much in the style of Anne of Green Gables: lots of kind-hearted people, a few unscrupulous ones, and a mystery thrown in to keep you guessing up to the end. I look forward to reading more of the books in this series.
It has been quite some time since I have read any ‘modern’ horror novels. Back in my younger years I was quite a fan of Stephen King, but as I got older my reading tastes changed to literature and history with the occasional novel or book of short stories thrown in for variety. Recently I was alerted to the fact that a Miramichi resident (who has since moved to Saint John) has written a book that I should take a look at. I was able to get a review copy of Finding Woods by Matt Mott (2014, Montag Press) from the author himself.
“Finding Woods is a tough, unflinching collection of smart horror”- Eden Robinson
Smart horror as opposed to dumb horror, like all those Saturday matinée b-movies I watched and cheap horror magazines such as Weird, Eerie and Creepy that I read as a teen. Oh, there were some good tales in them, but they definitely lacked in intelligence. Then I started reading Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft whose stories, although written in a past age, had (and still have) the innate ability to worm their way into the mind and make you ponder the possibilities of the imagination. Matt Mott pays tribute to those master storytellers in Finding Woods.
Three Smart Stories
At first read, what appears as three separate stories are really one, although each one can exist independent of the other.
And a Full Glass of Milk, the first story concerns the Terriault family in Miramichi, who are still dealing with the drowning death of the mother, Nancy. The oldest son Riley can ‘see’ his mother, still soaking wet with seaweed in her hair, but his father Leon is in permanent denial and prays the Our Father over and over at a shrine he has built in the living room. He thinks she is still upstairs, asleep.
The trees first catch Riley’s attention as he hitchhikes home to Miramichi on a Halloween night (wearing a priest costume of all things) from Fredericton after quitting university:
“…the sheer vitality of the trees along the road stood out the most…..He [Riley] must have grown up looking at those trees. And still they seemed so new. The branches creaked and rustled and looked hungry.”
Thereafter, the trees are a major theme (a minor theme is water), and you will soon be ‘finding woods’ throughout the book.
The second story, Playing with Rebecca, had me confused (not a difficult thing at the best of times) within the first few paragraphs. There are actually four different voices telling the story of a young boy, Kevin, and his imaginary playmate Rebecca. Once you sort out who (or what) is speaking, the tale gets somewhat easier to follow. The story is actually based on the folkloric legend of Rebecca Lutes, who, (as the story goes) was hanged in Moncton back in 1876 for being a witch. Incidentally, Rebecca’s house in this story reminds me of the “Shunned House” in the H.P. Lovecraft short story of the same name: malformed, sickly foliage growing around the house, the healthy trees keeping a safe distance away, and strange moulds growing on and within the decaying building. Then there’s Winifred the rat….
The last story, 17 Reasons Why I Rinse, brings us back to Miramichi where the aforementioned trees are now gradually taking over the city; whole streets and buildings are disappearing without anyone noticing, except Jaimie the shower-loving female protagonist of the story. Oh, and there is a serial killer called the Orange Man who is on the loose…
A Startling Good Read
Telling any more about the stories or their interconnectedness would be to spoil the fun of reading this startling good read from this New Brunswick author. I already mentioned one Lovecraft reference, but there is another one I found as well. There is also an apparent tip of the hat to Hitchcock for the Orange Man’s real name is Anthony Perkins. You may find more references to other authors unfamiliar to me. Once I discovered that there were connections between each of the three stories, I went back and read the book a second time, even marking down in the margins some cross-references. It was actually fun to re-read it and find all the Easter-eggs, so to speak.
If this is ‘smart horror’ then you would be smart to get a copy of Finding Woods. You may never look at trees the same again.
Matt Mott is from the Miramichi, but now he lives in Saint John, where he writes down the monsters he meets down by the harbour. He has taught for the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton and College of North Atlantic, Labrador City and is the Communications Officer for the James M. Hill Alumni Association. His poetry appears in The Antigonish Review #168, he was shortlisted for The Malahat Review 2012 Novella Prize, and his fiction has earned a number of Honorable Mentions in Glimmer Train Press fiction contests. Finding Woods is his debut collection and is available through any Chapters branch or online through Small Press Distributions or Amazon.ca
Harbour View (2009, Quattro Books) deals with the small inner world of a Halifax nursing home (called Harbour View Centre) in which each character adds notes of wistfulness, sadness, lightheartedness, even tragedy to be combined in a singular literary-musical tapestry that reaches through to the heart and to the mind. Ms. Brennan’s follow-up volume of short stories, A Certain Grace(2012 Quattro Books) and most recently, a novel, Like any Other Monday (2014, Gaspereau Press) are equally as impressive, firmly establishing Ms. Brennan as a writer to be taken note of. Harbour View is her first novella and was the co-winner of the 2009 Ken Klonsky Novella Prize.
Each chapter of Harbour View could well stand on its own as a short story, but Ms. Brennan cleverly weaves them all together, the staff and residents along with their daily interactions to make a complete whole. Each person has their own story: their lost loves and lives lived; one resident being 109 years old and who has, sadly, outlived all his children (his great-grandparent’s story can be found in “Duncan’s Lament” in A Certain Grace). Another resident has a picture of a young man in a silver frame whom everyone assumes is her late husband, but only she knows who he really is. Others deal with the lives of two nurses Muriel and Estella outside of the nursing home, reminding us that health care professionals have to put their own lives on hold when they enter the workplace for the day so that they can put the interests and needs of the patient first.
As Ms. Brennan is a classical violist (she plays with Symphony Nova Scotia) it is only natural to compare her writing with classical music. However, her writing style is not that of a sweeping symphonic work, but is more like the graceful, intimate, thoughtful cadences of chamber music. Indeed as I write this, I am listening to some Bach keyboard sonatas, which makes for some fitting background music for Harbour View.
Harbour View begins with a quote by Wayson Choy, an award-winning Canadian novelist:
One’s life should always be read twice, once for experience, twice for astonishment.
As the residents of Harbour View Centre look back on their lives (gently prompting us to do the same, either for ourselves or our loved ones) we find some small fragment of their astonishment, whether it is how they managed to live this long (perhaps too long!), or that they were able to accomplish something of value in their all too brief lives. This is a wonderful novella, and if you haven’t read either of Ms. Brennan’s other works, Harbour View is an excellent place to start! Recommended.
Binnie Brennan’s short stories have appeared in a number of Canadian and American literary journals, such as Existere, The Adirondack Review, Glossolalia, and All Rights Reserved, and in 2007 her children’s story “A Spider’s Tale” was adapted for the stage featuring Symphony Nova Scotia. Her best-selling novella, Harbour View, was shortlisted for an Atlantic Book Award, longlisted for the ReLit Award, and was co-winner of the 2009 Ken Klonsky Novella Contest. Binnie is a graduate of Queen’s University and the Humber School for Writers, where she was mentored by M.G. Vassanji and Alistair MacLeod. Born in Toronto, Binnie lives in Halifax, where she is a violist with Symphony Nova Scotia. Her website is here: http://binniebooks.com/
Fight Back by Brent R. Sherrard is a Young Adult (YA) novel in the SideStreets series produced by Lorimer Publishing. They are described as: “edgy, fast-paced novels that combine real-world themes and believable characters to make for short, heart-stopping books – sure to engage the most reluctant reader.” This is the first book I have read of the series and I believe it fits Lorimer’s description quite well. It is the story of Tyler Josten, a child who has experienced life in a toxic family: abusive father, unloving mother, both alcoholics. Tyler is no bully, but he fights out of anger and to prove himself, scarred by years of being told he is an idiot.
Taken (or rescued, really) from his father after a particularly vicious beating, his paternal Grandmother agrees to take him in, but she is only interested in playing Bingo and drinking. Finding a bottle of rum and a handgun in her home, Tyler goes out to find some fun, only to wake up in a hospital and under arrest! Things are not looking up for Tyler.
Tyler is no bully, but he fights out of anger and to prove himself, scarred by years of being told he is an idiot.
Fortunately, Tyler gets a break, and a big one at that. A foster family agrees to take him in temporarily after his grandmother kicks him out. The Conways, Wayne and Charlene, appear to be heaven sent and Tyler realizes he has found something good (and stable) for the first time in his life, but he is still dogged by old feelings of anger that arise from time to time. Wayne quickly realizes he needs an outlet for his anger as well as a way to build respect for himself. Since Wayne was a former boxer, he shows Tyler his home boxing gym in the garage and Tyler as a good fist-fighter is intrigued and asks Wayne to train him. All of this happens by chapter nine, fulfilling the fast-paced nature of the SideStreet series.
Reading YA novels make me think back to when I was young and what we had available to read at the time. I had lots of Hardy Boys books, comics and Ripley’s Believe it or Not paperbacks. Then in grade 5 or 6, we were introduced to the Scholastic Book Club from which we could order books suitable for all grades. I poured over the catalogues, and waited in anticipation for the order to come in weeks later. I do remember some books about gangs and drugs and the rough side of life, but they didn’t interest me much at the time. However, I enjoyed Fight Back, in fact I read it in one sitting, which wasn’t really difficult since I am not a ‘reluctant’ reader! Mr. Sherrard has written up a great story, with life lessons and a main character that doesn’t ‘go soft’ in the end. He stays tough, true to his nature, but he now has respect for himself with nothing to prove.
But to help erase his past, there is one more thing to do……
If you have a reluctant reader at home, perhaps they just haven’t discovered something they enjoy reading yet. This book would appeal to a young boy in particular. I note that the books are small enough to fit in a backpack, or to read under the sheets with a flashlight when you are supposed to be sleeping! But if your child prefers ‘books with pictures’ in them, or in other words, comic books, then maybe start them off with a superhero comic, like something from the famous universes – DC or Marvel. But be warned, they may just become obsessed with doing a detailed dc vs. marvel analysis! If your kid enjoys reading other books as well, then Fight Back is definitely worth being a Christmas or birthday present.
If the rest of the SideStreet series is as good as this book, I highly recommend them for your YA reader at home, reluctant or not.
BRENT R. SHERRARD is the author of the Lorimer SideStreets novels Final Takedown and Wasted, both of which received commendations from the Canadian Children’s Book Centre. He and his wife, Valerie, live in Miramachi, New Brunswick.
Drive-by Saviours by Chris Benjamin (2010, Roseway Publishing) is the first novel from this Halifax writer. It is a fascinating, complex story involving two men from two different worlds, Mark in Toronto, Canada and Bumi in Makassar, Indonesia. Being an expatriate Torontonian living on the East Coast, I am naturally drawn to any story with Toronto in it. It is a difficult city to describe, but Mark attempts it stating: “Toronto is everything good and everything bad about a city. It is all things to everyone and it is fully satisfactory to no one. It is not exactly my home but it is where I was born and it is where I live.” That pretty much sums it up. It doesn’t exactly feel right to call such a large city ‘home’ when you can live there all your life and still not really know all parts of it.
Mark in Toronto
Mark is a social worker that has such a knack for all the paperwork involved he rarely sees a client and only then to get the “Coles Notes” version of their problems and to make suggestions like a ‘drive-by saviour’. A turning point for Mark occurs during the Great Toronto Blackout of Thursday, August 14, 2003 when 1.5 million commuters were forced to find a way home other than “The Better Way” (Toronto Transit Commission, or TTC). The subways were not able to run, and surface buses were packed to capacity, not even stopping at their regular stops. To pass the time, Mark makes mental images of each of the passengers. One of those passengers is someone who will come to influence Mark’s life to a degree he would not think possible at the time. Typically, Mark carries a sketchbook and secretly sketches other passengers, but due to the packed conditions, all he can do is sit tight and take eye-blink snapshots until he is pressed into service by calling out street names for the bus riders. Eventually, after about five hours, at 9:30 at night, Mark makes it home to Greektown and his girlfriend Sarah, with whom he lives.
Bumi in Indonesia
Bumi’s story starts with his birth on the fishing island of Rilaka in Indonesia. At a young age he proves to be quite intelligent and very different from the other children. He is especially adept at working in the market helping his father sell his catch. However, the state takes fifteen of the children off the island and away from their families to attend school, to educate them to be better Indonesians, reminiscent of what the Canadian government did a few decades back with the Residential schools they sent aboriginal children to in order to better integrate them as Canadians. It is here the Bumi’s OCD condition develops and comes to the fore. For instance, now that he knows about germs, he constantly washes his hands. Eventually, as an adult, he is misunderstood by an intolerant society and he even comes to believe that he is somehow responsible for the poisoning deaths of three neighbourhood children simply because he works for a company that handles toxins. Incarcerated and tortured, he is at the point of confessing (since they arrested him, he must be guilty, he incorrectly reasons) but passes out. His long-time friend Robadise, who is now a member of the police, takes him home and arranges for him to be smuggled out of the country (at great expense) and get to Canada where they are more tolerant of refugees. There, he is to work in Toronto (illegally) with other illegals in an Indonesian restaurant owned by Chinese brothers who have arranged all the smuggling of these unfortunate people. The hours are long and Bumi calculates it will take years to pay off his Chinese creditors. He longs for his family.
Drive-by Saviours is like two novels in one. Each character’s story could have been told with the other character relegated to a minor role in the narrative. Bumi’s story is told right from the day of his birth but Mark’s story unfolds in a different way; starting in the present day, with occasional flashbacks to fill in the gaps in his life story. Bumi has been in Toronto for some time before he and Mark meet on the TTC in chapter 17, almost at the exact halfway point in the book. Thereafter, they quickly become friends.
Both Mark and Bumi are dealing with a plethora of complex problems that complicate their lives: Obsessive-compulsive Disease (OCD), unfulfilling work/careers, estranged family members, bad memories from the past, physical and psychological torture, even (in Mark’s case) the plight of exploited Mexican migrant farm workers just to name a few. While Bumi struggles in oppressive Indonesia, Mark (who would appear to be living the idyllic life to many, Sarah even works as a catalogue model!) struggles to cope in ways that only someone from the Western world would understand, especially not wanting anything to do with family issues. So while there are obvious dissimilarities in their characters, there are still some common things they share, such as dealing with OCD tendencies and trying to understand them. Mark, seeing Bumi act in ways his sister did, is helped to recognize the disease, then seeks to reach out to his sister living on the west coast. Thus, in a way, Bumi acts as a ‘drive-by saviour’ to Mark, for soon thereafter he is suddenly deported from Canada and pulled out of Mark’s life while he is out west trying to reconcile with his sister Michelle.
There is much, much more to the story than the little bit I have related here, and to tell any more would be to give away too much. I like the way the author has laid out the storyline; sometimes shifting each chapter between Toronto and Indonesia, other times he will devote several chapters to one character. At times, I found I couldn’t put the book down until the scene changed or a particular incident was resolved to my satisfaction. I never felt bogged down in the text, or that I couldn’t develop any interest in the characters, which is important for a novel that primarily hinges on just two people. Bumi is very likeable, and Mark and Sarah seem like the ideal next door neighbours, young professional types.
Drive-by Saviours is a broad, encompassing story of two disparate lives from disparate worlds brought together for a brief time. However, in their ‘drive-by’ the brief contact changes Mark and Bumi for a lifetime. Recommended read.
Since the author personally sent me this book to review, I am hesitant to say anything bad about it, but I thought the story was going to be different somehow. I was under the impression that this novel was about a woman’s journey across Canada to ‘find herself’ and that the subject matter would be deeper journey into the human psyche.
Benny is certainly likeable enough, but her constant reliance on prescription medication and insistence on eating healthy gets a little boring by the time she hits the Manitoba/Ontario border. So I put it aside to read some other books but recently returned to it, since I don’t like to leave a book unfinished. As Benny travels west, the mood of the book changes, and so does Benny. She begins to eat more junk and fast food and meets up with some questionable characters along the way, giving the book a dose of the dark side of life especially in remote northern towns. She also meets up with some genuinely good people who help her along in her journey and makes some good friends as well. I’m glad I returned to West of Wawa. A satisfying ending awaits the reader! West of Wawa is a fun, adventurous read if that is what you are looking for. A perfect book to take to the beach, read on an airplane, etc. so I gave it three stars on Goodreads. My rating: 3 of 5 stars View all my Goodreads reviews
Lisa de Nikolits is the author of four published novels; The Hungry Mirror (winner of 2011 IPPY Awards Gold Medal for Women’s Issues Fiction and long-listed for a ReLit Award), West of Wawa (winner of the 2012 IPPY Silver Medal Winner for Popular Fiction and a Chatelaine’s Editor’s Pick), A Glittering Chaos which was released in Spring 2013 and which tied to win the IIPY Silver Medal for Popular Fiction 2014. Her fourth novel, The Witchdoctor’s Bones was launched in Spring 2014.
Like Any Other Monday (2014, Gaspereau Press) is Halifax author Binnie Brennan’s first novel, and it is an impressive one. From the moment you handle the book, you know that you are in for something special. Gaspereau Press has done a beautiful job of printing and binding this softcover book. It even comes with its own embossed paper dust jacket. Even if the pages inside were totally blank, you would still have a handsome softcover to display.
Fortunately, the 200+ pages inside are not blank, but filled with a wondrous, meticulously researched story set in a time period that has practically been forgotten: the American Vaudeville era. The vaudeville era arose in post-Civil War America (as well as in Canada) in the late 1880s and lasted to about 1930, when moving pictures began their rise to popularity.
“On any given show night, tens of thousands of performers took to the vaudeville stages working two, three, even five or more shows a day, six days a week.”
Such was the case in 1916 with The Three Pascoes, a father-mother-son team. The son, Billy – like his father- is a master of slapstick comedy: pratfalls, flips, kicks and spins and being generally thrown about the stage by his father to peals of laughter from the delighted audience. However, his father’s increased drinking has threatened the popular headlining act. Immediately after the last show, Billy packs up and along with his mother Myra head to Muskoka to regroup and decide what to do about the act.
While in Muskoka, Billy and his mother learn about The Hart Sisters act that has had to stop performing due to one of the sisters becoming pregnant. Billy’s mother wants him to team up with Lucinda to create a new act and get back on the road. However, Lucinda is strictly a singer, and at first Billy doesn’t see the potential in working with a singer, but they, along with Lucinda’s sister Norma come up with a routine that they feel audiences will enjoy: Lucinda will sing (and be the ‘straight man’) while Billy acts the lovesick fool all around her. With Billy’s mother Myra in tow as chaperone, they go back on the road as Pascoe & Hart and refine the act to the point where they eventually become well-known across the vaudeville stages of North America.
On the surface, Like Any Other Monday may appear like a love story, but it is so much deeper than that. Billy and Lucinda, while working together out of sheer necessity, have no intentions of becoming more than that. However, after months of travelling together, doing the same act multiple times per day, several days per week, a romantic relationship emerges. Each has seen the other at their most vulnerable (chapter eight, “Diving” relates a chance encounter between Billy and Lucinda while in Muskoka that is very emotionally charged) so there is more than a working friendship there. What happens next is up to the reader to discover. I promised Ms. Brennan that I would not give out any spoilers (not that I would anyway!) so that is all I will say for the story itself! I enjoyed reading every page of it and have awarded it with a 2015 “Very Best!” Book Award for fiction.
The Binnie Brennan Interview
The author graciously agreed to an interview in which she reveals the basis for the Like any Other Monday’s (LAOM) setting, her literary influences and much more.
Miramichi Reader: Like Any Other Monday is loosely based on the life of vaudeville and early silver screen legend Buster Keaton. Where did the idea come from?
Binnie Brennan: Writing a fictional portrait of Buster Keaton took me by surprise, really. I hadn’t entertained the thought of writing historical or biographical fiction at all, but after reading Marina Endicott’s novel The Little Shadows I found myself immersed in the vaudeville era. From there came a three-year research odyssey on the early life of Buster Keaton, during which I wrote essays, prose-poetry inspired by Keaton’s short films, fictional vignettes about his childhood performances on the vaudeville stage, and finally a short story about two un-named vaudevillians breaking in a new act. I made a research trip to the Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills, California, where I had access to all manner of Buster Keaton’s papers, diaries, autograph books, and photo albums from his vaudeville years; a treasure-trove, really inspiring. Shortly afterwards I had another look at the short story I’d written, and decided to expand on it. From there came the novel. (That short story is now Chapter 13, by the way.)
MR: You have incorporated some interesting literary devices such as in your chapter changes, like “Snapshots” and the various newspaper reviews and theatre bills which I thought lent some authenticity to the book. Did you ‘invent’ the other acts on the bill as well as the newspaper columns?
BB: It made sense to include the “Snapshots”, reviews, and theatre bills as chapters in their own right. They gave a vaudevillian feel to the book, but also (I hope) they served to move the story along. Certainly the Snapshots contained within themselves a story arc. Most of the names on the various bills were actual vaudevillians I’d read about, although I fiddled with them to shape the programs to Billy and Lucinda’s needs.
One of the reasons why I wrote the book was to remind people today of these great performers who did so much to shape popular entertainment as we know it. I wonder how many readers know that Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Bob Hope had their beginnings in vaudeville; Charlie Chaplin, too. And they were the superstars. Between 1885-1925, every night across North America at least 40,000 performers took to the vaudeville stage, and most of them are now lost to history. By including their names in my story, I hope to keep them around just a little bit longer.
MR: Let’s talk about the backstage experiences in LAOM: the way you describe them, one can almost sense the commotion, the smells, and the pre-show excitement. Is this something you have taken from your own experiences as a performer with Symphony Nova Scotia?
BB: Yes, very much so. That sense of waiting in the wings and preparing to go onstage comes directly from my own experience, the mind-games and rituals that help performers along. Usually backstage during symphony concerts there is an ordered sense of calm, as we are blessed with really fine stage managers who keep things running smoothly and efficiently. But there is most definitely a heightened sense of awareness and focus among the musicians as we get ready to go on.
I’ve often been asked if I’d ever write a story about playing in an orchestra, and my answer is always a resounding “no” – too close to my own experience, and it’s something I’ve been doing for so long I wouldn’t find it particularly interesting to write about. But I was interested in writing about performance, which I think is what most people are curious to know about, anyway. The world of vaudeville, the era, and the performance demands fascinated me, particularly the life offstage.
MR: This book felt like a movie that could have been made in the golden age of Hollywood. I don’t think that there have been any movies dealing with that time period have there? Perhaps you have started something!
BB: First of all, let me say thank you for picking up on the cinematic “feel” of the book. I’ve watched a lot of silent movies over the past few years – not just Buster Keaton’s, but many of his contemporaries’ movies from the ‘teens and ‘twenties, such as Roscoe Arbuckle, Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon, and Charlie Chaplin, all of them enormously popular comedians of the silent era. I guess the shape and feel of a silent movie rubbed off on me, and my novel seemed ideal for that style of storytelling. I’ve learned, especially from Keaton, a lot about streamlining and minimalism, which is something I’ve always tried to achieve in my writing.
There haven’t been many movies made recently to do with the vaudeville era – a couple of Houdini bio-pics, and of course there was the silent movie “The Artist,” which was set in the late 1920s, and won the Academy Award in 2011. Over time there have been some great ones, notably “Cabaret” and “Singin’ in the Rain,” both of which take place later in time than does Like Any Other Monday, which is set in 1917. I like to think the time is right for a revival in interest in the vaudeville era, and if my book helps that along, then I feel I’ve done my job.
MR: It seems like you have the best of both worlds: music and writing. How do you find time to practise for the symphony and write too?
BB: I’m fortunate to be able to pursue two of my favourite creative endeavours. I’ve been a musician for as long as I’ve been an avid reader and maker-upper of stories, and to be able to carry them both through my professional life is a real gift.
It isn’t always easy to do both at once, so I just try to keep organized and a few steps ahead of myself. In the case of Like Any Other Monday, I wrote the first draft during an intensely busy time at work, smack in the middle of “Nutcracker” season. There was no stopping it, and I didn’t particularly want to stop it, but something had to give. In this case it was sleep.
MR: Tell us about some writers that inspired or influenced you.
BB: Margaret Laurence and Alistair MacLeod have been enormous influences on me. I started reading Laurence’s fiction when I was twelve years old; she was the first author to show me that you could write about ordinary people and render their lives extraordinary through great writing. MacLeod came along later. He was truly one of the great storytellers, and I had the immense good fortune to have him as a mentor through the Humber School for Writers.
MR: Who are some of your favourite composers? Other than classical music, do you enjoy other genres as well?
BB: How much time do we have? I find it impossible to narrow it down, but usually my favourite classical composer is whoever I’m listening to at the time. As for other genres, my first choice for listening is usually jazz. I feel very much at home with it.
MR: How about your favourite filmmakers? And favourite movie?
BB: Buster Keaton, hands-down. I wonder how many people today know that not only was he a superstar film comedian of the silent era, but he was also the director, chief gag-writer, and stunt man for all the films he made between 1920-1928 at the Buster Keaton Studios. Keaton was a technical wizard and a master stunt-man, and he brought about some of the most innovative and influential camera and stunt techniques of the era; and his sensitive eye for direction and pared-down storytelling have influenced filmmakers ever since. As an actor, Buster’s style was understated and natural, and his comedy was dry and unsentimental, which is my personal preference.
Choosing a favourite movie of his is like choosing a favourite piece of music – nearly impossible. Usually it’s whatever I’m watching at the time, but of Keaton’s short films, I would say “One Week” and “The Scarecrow,” and of his feature films, “Sherlock, Jr” and “The General.”
MR: What is next? Are you working on something new at the moment?
BB: A couple of things: I have a novel out being considered – nothing to do with the vaudeville era or Buster Keaton; it’s set in the 1960s during the Thalidomide crisis. And I’m writing something new, to do with family stories (not mine – pure fiction) and the reality of thwarted ambition that so many of our foremothers (and fathers) have had to face. I thought it might be another short story, but it’s just crossed the 90-page mark, which is rather long. It’s a long way from being finished, still in its infancy.
Co-winner of the 2009 Quattro Books’ Ken Klonsky Novella Contest, Binnie has also been published in several literary journals. Her novella, Harbour View, was published in the fall of 2009; in 2010 it was shortlisted for an Atlantic Book Award and longlisted for a ReLit Award. Her short story collection, A Certain Grace, was published in 2012. Binnie is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers, where she was mentored by M.G. Vassanji and Alistair MacLeod.
In 2007 Binnie’s story A Spider’s Tale was adapted for the stage in Halifax, where it received critical and popular acclaim. Since 1989 Binnie has enjoyed a career playing the viola with Symphony Nova Scotia. She lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia
Every night before turning out the lights, I do a little reading. Last night I finished A Certain Grace (2012, Quattro) by Halifax author Binnie Brennan. I quickly came to the conclusion that I shouldn’t read short stories before bed, especially the type that Ms. Brennan writes. Oh, not that they are scary in any way. I can sleep quite easily after reading H.P. Lovecraft! No, her short stories are of the type that keep the wheels turning in the mind long after you put the book down. Which is a good thing, demonstrating both the art of the short story and the genius of its author as well. There are many aspects of her stories to mull over: her characters, their emotions and actions, the imagery and the sense of a story well told, yet more is left untold, letting the reader do some of the work. Not recommended as a sleep aid!
The stories in A Certain Grace are mature stories that unfold in a calm, graceful way.
The Key Emotion
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said: “Find the key emotion; this may be all you need know to find your short story.” I believe Ms. Brennan accomplishes this task in A Certain Grace. The ‘key emotion’ running through these stories is coping with loss; whether it is a deceased loved one, a loss as in a divorce, loss of innocence (as in a war), even the temporary loss of one’s writing hand due to an injury. Indeed, death is a common theme, and why not, since it elicits our deepest emotions, and is a situation we have all had to cope with at some point in our lives. The best example of this is the story “Her Private Sorrow”, one of the longest stories in the book. It is the story of Addie Strong, who not only misses her late Grandfather (who raised her), but now has to deal with the death of her ex-husband, which brings more mixed emotions. After looking at an old photo of her ancestors dressed in mourning for a deceased family member Addie thinks:
They knew how to grieve, those blank-eyed ancestors of mine. You wear a black ribbon on your sleeve or in your hair, and you hold her favourite hanky for a family portrait of grief, something strangers can look at years from now and pause over. Then you give someone else the dead one’s name to honour her life, to try to hang on to her for a while longer. When your ex-husband dies, there is no such ritual and little comfort.
There, in one brief sentence, the writer beautifully sums up the diverse thoughts and emotions running through Addie at that particular moment.
In another story, “A While Ago” Ms. Brennan tells the story of an emotionally and mentally challenged young man named Marcus who has to deal with frustrations (he hates to make a mistake when writing with his Bic pen on paper), the sudden violent actions of others in the group home, lightning storms and ‘sad things’ from his past that he would prefer not to recall. Ms. Brennan has a real gift for creating a character like Marcus in just a few paragraphs, then developing that character over the next few pages.
Another quote came to mind, this time by Raymond Carver: “It’s possible, in a poem or short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things – a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring – with immense, even startling power.” There are an abundance of such things (‘the minutiae of ordinary life’ as it says on the back cover of the book) in A Certain Grace: from a turkey and Cheez-Whiz sandwich in “How to Kill a Mannequin” to the mix of music on a drug dealer’s iPod in “Guy in a Hoodie” to a broken fiddle in a case in “Duncan’s Lament”. Each of these commonplace things grants an insight into the person possessing them, and particularly in the case of Duncan’s Lament, become the focal point of the story itself.
There are ten stories in A Certain Grace’s 120 pages, so you get an idea of just how brief some of these are. Yet all are gems, and I enjoyed reading (and thinking about) them all. They are mature stories that unfold in a calm, graceful way, due perhaps, to Ms. Brennan being a professional musician as well as an author. Yes, there is a certain ‘pace’ to A Certain Grace. If you enjoy reading short stories, especially ones that invoke an emotional response in the reader, then you will want to read A Certain Grace.
Binnie Brennan is the author of two other books of fiction, Like Any Other Monday(Gaspereau Press), and Harbour View (Quattro Books). Co-winner of the 2009 Quattro Books’ Ken Klonsky Novella Contest, Binnie has also been published in several literary journals. Her novella, Harbour View, was published in the fall of 2009; in 2010 it was shortlisted for an Atlantic Book Award and longlisted for a ReLit Award. Binnie is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers, where she was mentored by M.G. Vassanji and Alistair MacLeod. Since 1989 Binnie has enjoyed a career playing the viola with Symphony Nova Scotia. She lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Oatcakes and Courage (2013, Quattro) by Joyce Grant-Smith was the 2013 co-winner of the Ken Klonsky Novella Contest. It’s 125 pages are filled with the tense, realistic story of a small ship (the Hector) of Scottish migrants bound for Pictou, Nova Scotia in 1773.
Among the passengers is Anne Grant, who is escaping a marriage arranged by her father to a man she does not love or is even attracted to. In fact, she is repelled by the man. Aiding her in her escape is Ian MacLeod, Anne’s life-long friend who has already booked passage for himself on the Hector in order to start a new life in Canada. Anne pleads with Ian to take her along on the passage, and Ian, seeing her determination, and feeling sorry her plight if she stays, reluctantly agrees. Under cover of darkness, they leave their homes to make the long walk to Ullapool, where the Hector is at anchor. Along the way, they are pursued by the ‘thin rider’ a mysterious man on horseback presumably sent by Anne’s father to track her down and get her married. Avoiding him, they manage to secure passage for Anne, who poses as Ian’s newlywed wife.
A Novella That Should Have Been a Novel?
This novella really excels at describing the close, inadequate and practically inhumane living conditions for the passengers aboard the Hector:
Anne pressed her way through the many bodies to her bunk.The ever-present stench of sweat and fear and human effluent hung heavily in the cramped space.
They are packed in to maximize the most monetary gain for the ship’s owner. Many prefer to live and sleep on deck, avoiding the horrid conditions below. Of course, situations like this breed disease and dysentery and smallpox outbreaks occur, affecting the young ones the most. Soon, Anne is pressed into helping other destitute wives and mothers care for their children. There are many deaths along the way to make matters worse. The narratives and dialogues during this time kept me riveted to the story. The terrible conditions on board the Hector (which turns out to be a leaky, rotten ship) and a sudden storm that blows the ship off course keep the realism of the migrant’s plight to the fore and you will find yourself relieved when, along with the passengers, land is finally sighted.
Disappointingly, this novella feels like only half a story. So much of the novella is spent at sea, that it would have been nice to see what happens when the immigrants reach terra firma. For instance, did the ‘thin rider’ give up in his pursuance of Anne, or did he follow her to the New World? Perhaps a sequel is in the works? One can only hope so.
At any rate, a well-told story and Joyce Grant-Smith is a Canadian writer to watch.