Monthly Archives: February, 2011

Tide Road by Valerie Compton

This book first caught my eye because of the author’s last name, Anne Compton being the author of the award winning poetry collection Processional. After I read the synopsis though I knew this was a novel I had to read. Goose Lane has a history of putting out really good historical fiction and I am always especially interested in this genre when it is set in Atlantic Canada. Tide Road, Valerie Compton’s first novel, takes place over the course more than 60 years, mostly in rural eastern Prince Edward Island. This story really captures a time in Maritime life when things seemed to be much simpler. Compton has created a memorable cast of characters that indiscreetly grow on the reader.

This novel’s style and tone would probably be best described as subtle. The author uses punchy sentences, short chapters, and a non-linear timeline in her writing. Details are worked in so smoothly and the narration is so quiet that before you know it, the story of this tormented family is exposed and branded into your mind.

Tide Road revolves around Sonia, the matriarch of a large family. We accompany Sonia through her time as a lighthouse keeper, a new mother, a widow, and beyond. Sonia’s life is shrouded by the disappearance of her oldest daughter Stella and this underlies most of the narrative. Sonia is a tortured soul. Whether it is at the hands of her family, herself, or her past, Sonia seems to be confronted with some psychological trauma around every turn. She is a tough character but also very sympathetic.

This was the first historical novel set in PEI that I have read. Valerie Compton definitely knew her way around rural Island life during this period when she sat down to write this. The detail she gives on managing the lighthouse is really interesting. As a resident of this province, there was something very familiar in this book; yes, the times and technologies have changed but ultimately the relationships that people share in this type of place hasn’t really changed at all. Tide Road was a great read and Sonia will haunt you long after you put the book down. It comes out March 4 and you can pre-order here.


A Subtle Thing by Alicia Hendley

One great thing about being active on social media and discussing books is that you discover authors and publishers that you never would have without it. Recently I was contacted by Five Rivers and given the opportunity to review a couple of their titles. When I was browsing through their catalog I came across a book that I knew I just had to read, A Subtle Thing by Alicia Hendley. This is the novel of a young woman and her struggles with depression and how difficult it is to forge a life with this dark cloud floating over your head. As some of you may know, I am in the midst of struggling with complications of depression and mental health problems (you can read my other blog about this here), so I knew this was going to be a very difficult and personal read for me. I was concerned that this novel would be more of a dissertation on life with depression and weak as a novel, fortunately my fears were unfounded. This is not a novel “about” depression, this is a novel about a wonderful character named Beth who’s life is veiled with this incapacitating disorder. A Subtle Thing is a gritty and raw novel that hits the reader in such a powerful and sincere way that putting it down is simply not an option.

The way the author navigates Beth’s life, through both the ups and downs, is very well done. There are some issues that almost always pop up in “first-books”, like some dialog that could be polished a bit more or the occasional chapter with pacing issues, but the characters are so wonderful these minor flaws are easily overlooked. In reading Hendley’s book you can tell there is definitely a lot of talent there that will become sharper and sharper as she, hopefully, releases more books. The story doesn’t follow an exact linear narrative, with many of Beth’s important episodes being told through flashbacks during therapy sessions; this technique works very well for this story and as we see more and more of the central character’s life we become further invested in her.

Beth in A Subtle Thing reminds me quite a bit of Baby in Lullabies for Little Criminals. Both are victims of outside forces and people. The darker periods of Beth’s life are hard to read; for anyone who has gone or is going through any mental health problems themselves these parts of the book are almost unbearable to read, but I have to qualify this by saying I mean that in the most positive way possible. The accuracy in the descriptions is spot on. The way the author explores this character’s thoughts as she sits in the doctor’s office doing the depression score test (which, like Beth, I am also at the point of memorization), the fear as you get that first bottle of anti-depressant medication in your hand, that moment when you suddenly realize that things just aren’t right, and of course the self-destructive thoughts and actions that come along with everything else are heart-wrenching. These chapters would move even the most hardened readers to tears.

Beth’s story is one of a very serious issue that the general public is still far from understanding. Mental illness still has a very heavy stigma and sense of shame for many people, which is 100% undeserved. Characters in this novel exemplify the damage that people who do not understand these conditions can do on those who are sitting at the bottom of this deep, dark abyss. I have always believed that literature is the truest lens with which we have as a society to examine ourselves. In my opinion this is a must read for anyone, but especially anyone working in health care, education, or anyone who has family members struggling with mental health. Alicia Hendley gets it, and with it, she has written a very memorable book.

Song of the Taxidermist by Aurian Haller

When I was browsing through Goose Lane Editions’ website looking at their spring catalog this book caught my attention for two reasons, first was the catchy title, and the second was the author. I have heard a few songs by the Aurian Haller Band and was quite taken with their unique sound. The poems in Song of the Taxidermist are very interesting and unique. The poems are collected into short sequences, with each poem being able to stand on its own but when brought together with its cohorts, a thing of eclectic beauty is created.

This is rock and roll poetry at its best. The verse is rhythmical and has a noticeable auditory quality to it. The images that the poems evoke vary from classical ideas of beauty to deeply dark and disturbing. The poem “Four Ponies” is highlighted by four pictures of Merry-Go-Round horses in unusual places taken by the author. This is a very haunting section of the book. The sequence “Dwelling” looks at the idea of “home” and what makes a home and is one of the most heartfelt parts of the book. The poems in the title sequences are framed around a taxidermist performing his work on various animals while thematically exploring what is beautiful and the role of the onlooker in making that determination.

This was a great book. This is one of those collections where at first reading you may not understand what exactly a particular poem is getting at but the language and images still fill your imagination. Writing song lyrics, especially Haller’s brand of contemporary folk rock, has become its own form of poetic expression; his lyrics are more than just words to a song. Haller has made the successful transition from songwriter to poet. I think Aurian Haller is a name we are going to be hearing for years to come in both literary and musical circles. Released today (February 11), Song of the Taxidermist is published by Goose Lane Editions and available here.

Days 1 & 2 of Canada Reads 2011

Believe it or not this is the first year that I have listened (watched actually) the Canada Reads competition live. I have listened to all of the past years at nausea but never as they happened. A lot has happened in first two days and here are a few of my thoughts about things so far:

  • Essex County, the first book voted off, was not given a fair shake whatsoever. As everyone knows, I was not a fan of a graphic novel being included in the competition, and I still haven’t warmed up to the idea, but that does not excuse how it was treated by most of the panelists. Since it was included, I would have like to seen some debate on the content of the book (themes, characters, development, quality), instead we had them jumping all over the book because of its genre. I think it was a good book, I do not think it should have won, but I feel like it was really sold short. Lorne was the only one I felt, other than Sara, who was at least somewhat fair towards the book. I was introduced to graphic novels for the first time because of its inclusion and was surprised how much I enjoyed it.
  • The Bone Cage was booted off today with 3 votes. I am bitter as this was my pick to win and favorite of the five. I didn’t hear any compelling arguments as to why people voted it off, but alas, it is gone. Georges Laraque was honest and courteous in defeat (and he had an awesome shirt on too).
  • Ali Velshi and Debbie Travis are really grating on my nerves. Travis admitted to not finishing (from what I understand, I was on the phone during this part) The Best Laid Plans. Neither panelist seems at all willing to point out any positive merits other contenders may have. Velshi seems arrogant and conceded in his defense of his book. While both have been focusing almost exclusively on their own books, they haven’t really been hitting on any points that would convince the casual reader to pick up their titles. We need panelists like we had in previous years, like Jim Cuddy, Steven Page, and Denise Bombardier, who strongly defend their titles but are also happy to discuss how good the other books are as well.
  • Lorne Cardinal is doing a great job defending Unless, which I would have bet money on being gone the first day. He is also very generous in his comments about the other contenders, acknowledging (unlike Travis and Velshi) that all of the books are in fact great books. He also gets my vote as best dressed panelist.
  • I am not sure why the format was switched this year to three 1 hour shows instead of five 30 minute shows. I much preferred the old format; I find by the end of the hour I am mentally exhausted and “booked-out”.
  • I do not like the audience in the studio. I find it takes away from the intimacy of the conversations.
  • I like how many of the authors have been active on social media. I have had the pleasure of speaking to a few of them quite often and this given me some great insight into their novels. I think this is a good thing for literature and a great way for writers to get more word out about their books

That’s my two cents. I am officially throwing my support being The Best Laid Plans now that my first pick has been voted off in a venerable orgy of poor judgement.

Guesswork by Jeffery Donaldson

Being one of my “Most Wanted” books of 2011, Guesswork has the distinction of being the first book of the 2011 publishing year that I have read. Jeffrey Donaldson’s fourth collection looks at a variety of topics in a variety of different styles. Although this is a short collection, 78 pages, it really packs a punch. The tone ranges from innocent to bitter to apprehensive to elegiac. Stylistically, the poems in Guesswork are fairly traditional, using, for the most part, a time-tested lyrical fashion. This is unique among contemporary poetry; with more and more poets pushing the envelope with varying degrees of experimentation, it is nice to see a poet return to old-school technique. Guesswork is masterful example of poetic execution.

The poem that will likely be remembered by most readers is “Enter, PUCK”, a poetic examination of hockey. Donaldson breaks down the elements of a hockey game into a romantic ode. We enter the souls of the participants as each and every nuance and word leaps off the ice. My favorite poems are the “Book” poems. Throughout the collection there are seven short lyrics, named sequentially Book I to Book VII, examining the mystique and magic of a book. These poems force the reader to appreciate the ink on the pages, the paper the pages are made of, the space they take up and their arrangement on the bookshelf, and the metaphysical properties of the unread book: “An unread book/is like a tree/falling/in an empty forest”. The best way to describe these seven poems is self-reflective post-modern literary philosophy wrapped in the form of a tradition lyric.

The poem “Fetal” really stuck out for me as well. This piece tells the life of a would-be twin that seems to have died in utero. The imagery of this poem is haunting and beautiful:

You had your whole life behind you,

laid aside a heart Mother kept listening for,

on whom it never dawned that a red womb

was all of evening skies that you would know,

a-swim in atmospheres pinked on shut eyes.

It’s hard to write a short review on a book like Guesswork that really captures the magic it contains. This collection is such a mixed bag of wonderful writing that you could literally write pages on each poem. The longer poems are thematically complex and emotional and the short lyrics are subtle and effecting. When you reach the end of this book you can tell that the author put a lot of work into each stanza and line. Every word is deliberately chosen to induce a very specific feeling in the reader; in short, you can easily tell Jeffery Donaldson put his heart and soul in this collection. This is the kind of book that prize juries tend to like. I would not be surprised, and in fact would be quite pleased, to see this on the shortlists of the Governor-General’s Award or the Griffin Prize in 2011.

Guesswork will available from Goose Lane Editions on February 25th and can be pre-ordered here.

The Good News About Armageddon by Steve McOrmond

When someone now asks me what my favorite book of poetry is I am going to have to say The Good News About Armageddon. I originally bought this book a few months ago because of the cover; I think it has one of the most eye catching cover designs I have seen. Unbeknown to me, the author, Steve McOrmond, is originally from PEI, therefore peaking my curiosity even more. The opening poem, the title poem, is perhaps one of the best poems I have read from any poet of this generation. This collection brings together thoughts that are both accessible and highly literary, examining the world around us with a painter’s eye and musician’s ear.

In most of the poems in this collection the narrator seems at odds with the world around him; whether it is through some kind of sensory perception, like TV images, advertisements, newspapers, other people, or internal factors, the reader really feels that the voice behind these poems is uncomfortable in his own skin. McOrmond makes several references to current events, both political and cultural, that really shine a mirror up to our times. While the narrator does seem the uncomfortable character, he is none-the-less an observant one.

The language and rhythms in this collection are beautiful. The author’s verse take on a life of their own and jump off the page. As you read them you almost feel as though you are mentally singing the poems; this is an art that has been lost on many contemporary poets. McOrmond also does a fine job of blending the narrative and the lyric. This is another trend in contemporary poetry but many poets fail to pull it off. The extended poem “Strait Crossing” is an especially good example.

This is a must read for everyone, not just poetry fans. Steve McOrmond and the folks at Brick Books have done everything right with this one: amazing cover art, great quality in the physical book itself, brilliant title, and of course great poems. I foresee many pieces from this collection being anthologized and added to university and high school reading lists: the title poem, “The Tunnel, the Light”, “Test Pattern”, and “I’d Like to Thank the Academy” are a few examples. The Good News About Armageddon is definitely one of the top books of 2010.

The Birth House by Ami McKay

Winner of the 2007 Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Fiction Book of the Year

Winner of the 2007 Evergreen Award

Winner of the 2007 Atlantic Book Awards Bookseller’s Choice Award

Longlisted for the 2008 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award

Selected for Canada Reads 2011

I managed to finish the last Canada Reads 2011 book just in time to get a review up before the show starts on Monday. I left The Birth House to the end of my reading simply because it was the only book which I had not formed a pre-reading opinion on yet (although 2 of these opinions ended up being very wrong). Ami McKay’s book, which is carrying the banner for us proud Atlantic Canadians this year, is  a historical novel about a young woman and her journey from a young midwife’s apprentice to a mature woman rights advocate. I had no idea what to think of this book as I opened it up, my one fear was that, like Unless, it would be a overwritten diatribe on women’s issues and the feminist fight. The Birth House was nothing of the sort. The story looks at a time in society where, for women especially, everyone’s lives were on the precipice of monumental change. Issues of reproductive and birthing rights are examined, modern medicine, at least what was considered modern at the time, was at odds with tradition holistic and faith-based healing, the dawn of electricity in rural Nova Scotia opened up a whole new world to people, The Great War and it’s effect on the wifes left behind, and the effects of other historical events like the Halifax Explosion and the Spanish Influenza pandemic. This book is a gift to the world and was much better than what I expected. I have already recommended this to most of my friends and co-workers.

One thing that made this a great book, instead of just a good piece of historical fiction, was the style in which it was written. The story is told with a combination of first-person narration, journal entries, newspaper clippings, visual additions, and correspondence between characters. With a lot of historical fiction, even the really good pieces, it often feels like you are slogging through it as the research and details become more important that the characters or forward movement. This was not the case in Ami McKay’s novel; she has weaved the historical accuracies seamlessly into the lives of Dora and her inner circle.

There are so many memorable scenes in this novel: one of the best descriptions of the Halifax Explosion I have read since Barometer Rising, the journal entries of Dora’s new medical device to help with her hysteria, and, one of my favorite parts, her explorations of the “big-city” of Boston. In her notes at the end of the book, Ami McKay says “[…]I wanted to arrange my words[…]by making a literary scrapbook out of Dora’s days”; that is exactly what she has done. Any of the scenes I just mentioned would easily stand alone as an engaging piece of writing; put them together and tie in such important themes, you get a piece of fiction that will be read by the general public for years and no doubt make it’s way onto High School and University reading lists.

Historical fiction has become a staple in Canadian literature, but I think that it has become a somewhat stale genre. We need more books like The Birth House taking this traditional type of book and injecting it with some new and creative style. I think Ami McKay is lucky to have Debbie Travis championing her book. This is someone who is very comfortable in front of a camera and is respected by literally millions of people. Even if it doesn’t result in a win for the author I am sure Ms. Travis’ support will at least result in lots of new exposure (and therefore a few more digits on the next royalty cheque.) As the Canada Reads show gets rolling tomorrow I wish Ms. McKay and all of her fellow authors the best of luck.

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