Book Reviews

Little Beast

Julie Demers Translated by Rhonda Mullins

Coach House Books, 2018

148 pages

ISBN: 978-1552453667

$17.95

“You’re not a monster,” Mother used to say. “Just a little beast.” In the original French, the title for Little Beast was Barbe: Roman. “Barbe” means “beard” in French. Both of these titles ring true when looking at the story as a whole.

Little Beast follows an unnamed 11-year-old girl who has been hidden behind thick curtains and away from any prying eyes in the village she was born in because of a rather peculiar feature. She has grown a beard.

Fatherless, with only her mother to keep her protected from the outside world, the girl has no choice but to watch the village from the tiny window in her room. She peers behind the blinds and watches the world shift and change in a yearly cycle. The girl is forced to flee her little village, in the middle of winter, to escape the barrage of men in boots who breached her home to find her.

Her struggles in the harsh Quebec winter are interspersed with glimpses of what her life was like in the past, hidden from view and locked away. She faces down fearsome storms, a wildfire, and hunters eager to find a unique score. All the while, the girl grapples with the fear of getting caught, and coming to grips with what true isolation can mean. While she is only 11, she has the voice of someone far older. She struggles through daily trials of survival while constantly pulled into the past.

Set in 1994, the book deals with issues of identity, discrimination, and the fear of being different that many people today would find familiar. Once free from her tiny room, and no longer concerned with her followers, she begins to wonder who she is without these shackles. “When the Boots were looking for me, I was someone; with their violence came recognition.”

Written in a tone similar to a folk tale, Little Beast depicts the forests around the girl’s village as a magical, yet cruel, place. It is filled with many creatures lurking in the dark shadows between the trees, yet is far more ordinary in setting than expected.

Overall, Little Beast’s concept is both unusual and intriguing, but its brevity leaves the reader wanting more, though some aspects of the story may have been lost in translation. The story was fast paced and kept the reader engaged, but the end was less concrete and more rushed than it needed to be.

“But it is dangerous, very dangerous to keep a wild animal in a cage for too long… From the wild animal she was, the creature became a pet. Docile. Accommodating. Should they bring her back to the village?”

The Saturday Night Ghost Club

Craig Davidson,

Knopf Canada, 2018,

272 pages

ISBN: 978-0735274822

$27.00

Reviewed by Chynna Moore

Known for short story collections such as Rust and Bone (2006) and novels like Cataract City

(2013), Toronto’s Craig Davidson returns to Niagara Falls for his latest title.

            In the late 1980s, 12-year-old Jake Baker, a freckly, bullied outcast, finds both refuge and

fuel for his imagination in the form of his Uncle Calvin, the tie-dyed, Cthulhu bead-wearing

owner of the town’s struggling occult shop. Calvin’s brand of advice has helped Jake to conquer

some of his fears. One fateful day, Uncle C’s attempt to use a modified “spirit phone” to contact the dead becomes the catalyst for the titular Club, and uncovers memories of a life-changing trauma in Calvin’s life.

            Before long, the Club, made up of Jake, his new friend Billy Yellowbird, and Billy’s free-

spirited older sister Dove, starts “investigating” urban myths, local haunts, and the city’s

abandoned structures. All of this, and how Jake’s mind and fears react to them, plays in tandem

with flash-forwards to Jake’s adult life as a Toronto neurosurgeon. Within these intertwined

plots are the histories, relationships, and stories of his parents, friends, and ultimately, the pieces

of the fractured puzzle that is Uncle Calvin’s life.

            Author Craig Davidson weaves a rich tapestry, not wasting a single thread as

this unique “coming-of-age” story is brought to life. Davidson proves highly adept in finding

humor within drama, and vice versa, further cementing the transitionary themes embedded in the

story. From Jake’s opposites-attracted parents, to Dove’s “business venture” raising black

salamanders in her backyard turtle pool, characters subvert cliché from the get-go.

“Uncle C” is perhaps the novel’s most interesting character, not only due to his fragmented past,

but also thanks to his kindness and off-the-wall behavior. The Club’s first official

meeting concerns trespassing in a funeral home’s embalming room to find the body of Billy’s

grandmother. Calvin is cordial, like a chivalrous knight, while Jake is fascinated when the funeral home director gives Calvin a knowing nod, yet another clue to Calvin’s past.

            Davidson strives throughout to show just how powerful the mind can be, whether it’s

creating fear, or reacting to it. The malleability of memory touches every character, some suffering from its most devastating forms. All of this proves truth will always emerge in the end, even in a sea of falsehoods, embellishments, legends, and “little white lies” to protect the ones you love.

            What started out as a Ph. D thesis at the University of Birmingham was a finalist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. A highly-engrossing and captivating read, The Saturday Night Ghost Club shines a light on the endless complexities of the mind, memory, imagination, and love in the face of unspeakable horror.

Find You in the Dark

Nathan Ripley

Simon & Schuster, 2019

352 pages

ISBN 978-1501179037

$24.99

Reviewed by Chantelle Nazareth

Find You in the Dark, the first thriller by author Nathan Ripley, is a chilling story that will have you frantically looking over your shoulder. The book, though categorized as literary fiction, borders on mystery/suspense with the story being built around the hunt for a killer. This creepy tale showcases the violence that lurkers in the shadows of some minds, and has you questioning the sanity of several characters.

 The story follows protagonist Martin Reese, a retired tech mogul, who is obsessed with murder and finding the remains of long-missing young women who were victims of a serial killer named Jason Shurn. Reese is a family man who for years has been researching cold cases with the help of a corrupt cop. He believes he is doing the police a favour as a public servant. At the same time, he enjoys taunting the police by leaving them messages and rubbing it in their faces when he is one step ahead. “This started when I found my first body at 21 years old, the same age Jason Shurn was when he started murdering Seattle college girls in the mid-1990s.”

Reese’s obsession began with the a murder that happened 20 years prior – Tinsley Schultz. The obsession with that murder ran so deep that Reese married Tinsley’s sister, Ellen. However, things start to take a turn for the worse when Martin uncovers not only what he believes are the bones of Tinsley, but also remains of a fresh corpse.  His gravedigging soon becomes an issue when he crosses paths with the murderer. “Three bodies in a grave that should only have had two.”

Readers are unclear of Reese’s intentions and as the novel unfolds they realize that Reese is an unreliable narrator who is far from a good Samaritan. Detective Sandra Whittal pushes all boundaries and protocols in the hunt for the killer, increasingly convinced Reese is responsible for the latest body.

Is Reese being framed? Ripley jumps between characters and creates confusion, but the reader is gripped throughout. Find You in the Dark is a fast read, despite clunky dialogue, heavy tech talk, and a rushed ending. It is hard to bond with the characters as Ripley keeps readers at arm’s length to handle the twisted mind of the killer and Reese’s obsession. Even so, Ripley’s  (aka Naben Ruthnum) debut thriller by is a must read for fans of the genre.

Deep River Night

Patrick Lane

McClelland & Stewart, 2018

403 pages

ISBN: 978-0771048173

$34.00

“The dark cup of the cat’s ear moved, the long guard hairs at the tip shivering toward the crack in the window beside her. Art finished his drink, put his glass down by the whiskey bottle, and waited to see if the cat’s ear would come back to rest, but it didn’t. Instead, she lifted her head and looked out the window, both ears pointed at whatever was outside.”

So, begins Deep River Night, a novel by Patrick Lane that follows the residents of an isolated sawmill town in the interior of B.C. It opens with Art Kenning, a first aid attendant, being awoken from a drunken stupor to treat a wounded boy brought to his cabin by one of the mill workers. Lane worked in labour communities in northern BC as a first aid attendant so it is not surprising Art’s character feels particularly lived in, as if Lane is giving an account of his own experiences. Art wrestles with his personal demons while aiding the community members who struggle with the daily routines and personal demons of their lives.

The other storyline in the novel belongs to Joel, a young man who ran away from home east of the Rocky Mountains and ended up in town. Throughout the book, he struggles with his attraction to both a First Nations woman named Alice and his girlfriend Myrna Turfoot.

The characters carry with them the traumas of their past experiences. Art witnessed the atrocities of the WWII from the frontlines. The sawmill’s cook, Wang Po, escaped the massacres in Nanjing, China during the Japanese invasions. Lane masterfully showcases each character’s needs and desires through their interactions. Given the size of the mill town, the characters are in frequent contact and comment on each other to offer a more layered perspective

There is also a pronounced theme of naturalism over industrialism as the those who experience a closeness to nature like the character of Myrna and her family are depicted as being wiser and more fulfilled than those working in the town. There are many instances throughout were characters try to find meaning in the natural world with various interactions with the animal and plant life around them.

            Patrick Lane is a well-established Canadian writer known for multiple collections of poetry and the novel Red Dog, Red Dog, which was longlisted for multiple awards including the Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.

When reading Deep River Night, it’s clear that Lane’s abilities as a poet aid his prose. His arresting similes and metaphors are at once vivid and ethereal: “The opium he had used back in the cabin had begun its first quiet leaving, soft tendrils slipping away along the blood vessels in his arms and legs, thin velvet ropes undoing in him, letting him go.”

            Overall, Deep River Night is a darkly vivid journey into the mill town’s characters as they struggle with addiction, loss, and the desire to forge their place.

Cold Skies: A DreadfulWater Mystery

Thomas King

HarperCollins, 2018

464 pages

ISBN: 978-1443455145

$

Reviewed by Dirk Plante        

Cold Skies by Thomas King is the third in the Thumps DreadfulWater series, featuring a retired Cherokee LAPD detective with a keen interest in photography who is unwillingly pulled back into the force to replace Sheriff Duke Hockney in his hometown of Chinook, Montana. Hockney hands the reigns to DreadfulWater when he is ordered to go to Costa Rica, a questionable choice that casts a shadow over the whole book given that it is the FBI’s responsibility to investigate murders that occur on U.S. reservations

DreadfulWater’s starchy demeanor and cool emotions prevail even when multiple bodies are found in the vicinity: one at the airport, two on the neighbouring reservation, a fourth at a motel. All are connected to Orion Technologies, a company working on a new mechanism to map aquifers. One victim is found languishing in a newly completed luxury condo resort built by the local American Indian band. The number one suspect is Stick Merchant, anti-condo protester and wayward son of Claire Merchant, head of the tribal council and DreadfulWater’s sometimes lover.

DreadfulWater obnoxiously debate the style of eggs at the local diner or resent his doctor’s orders to change his lifestyle as a diabetic. This is classic Thomas King banter, but unfortunately Thumps thinks he’s funny, but he’s not. He is so lackluster and emotionless he comes off as indifferent, more of an observer than an active participant. He shows little empathy for the victims and solves even less; when the killer is revealed, the solution feels both remote and anticlimactic.

            Cold Skies is a small-village cozy mystery. We are exposed to the procedures and investigatory aspects of the case, but the main plot surrounds Thumps DreadfulWater’s personal life. This prevents the plot from reaching its full potential as readers have to guess at his tactics to catch a murderer. There are typical clues, red herrings, and quirky townspeople:

Archie

Beth

Duke Hockney

.

Cold Skies leaves the impression that King is still only dabbling in crime fiction rather than taking it seriously despite leaving the pseudonym Hartley GoodWeather behind for his own name on the cover. Perhaps this indicates it’s now acceptable for literary writers to publicly dabble in crime fiction.

Thomas King is an award-winning writer of Cherokee and Greek descent. He is member of the Order of Canada and recipient of the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation. His novels include Green Grass Running Water, One Good Story That One, The Back of the Turtle, and The Inconvenient Indian. The next title in the series, A Matter of Malice is due out next year.

Cobra Clutch: A Hammerhead Jed Mystery

by A.J. Devlin

NeWest Press, 2018

252 pages

ISBN: 978-1-988732-24-4

$18.95

Reviewed by Alicia Shalapata

Cobra Clutch features Jed, a retired wrestler, who returns to his previous life, a raw and gritty world relieved by comedy from his ex-military cousin, Decalin. Decalin not only has the “ability to pour the perfect pint of Guinness. But he is damn near legendary for his tendency to pick a fight after downing one too many of his masterful creations.”

Written in first-person, this novel takes us through a whirlwind of gruesome events. Its informal style suits its audience perfectly, enlightening the audience on the finer points of wrestling and how those skills can assist in solving crime. The characters throughout make numerous allusions to previous detectives, such as Columbo, or pop culture references to Predator, Transformers, Nintendo, and Davey Crocket.

The novel’s authority sweeps the reader into the combined world of wrestling and private investigating. Devlin revises classic tropes  – Jed’s father, Frank, is a tough retired cop with his own PI business who wants Jed to follow in his footsteps. Decalin is an ex-military bartender. One of the thugs, Damian, poses as a hardcore biker dude, but makes welded statues of characters from Star Wars. Then there is a sleazy PI named Melvin, and Pocket and Tubbs, two wresters whose names complement their size, and Rya, the police detective who is Frank’s protégée.

The novel is set in Vancouver’s Metrotown, Denman Street, on the Ghost train at Stanley Park, and the skytrain.

This book is a fresh, exhilarating twist on the mystery by combining both wrestling and sleuthing to create a one-of-a-kind novel.

The Boat People

Sharon Bala

McClelland & Stewart, 2018

416 pages

ISBN: 978-0771024290

$

Reviewed by Erinn Sturgeon

              The Boat People by Sharon Bala examines the ways in which a single act can connect and impact many people in various ways. Inspired by true events, the novel begins with a large boat containing 500 refugees from Sri Lanka landing illegally on the shores of Canada. While there had been rumours of this ship and the turmoil of war in Sri Lanka, the Canadian government was unprepared for such a large number of refugees, and thus had to figure out how to strike a balance between opening their arms to those in need and protecting their land from potential threat.          

              Mahindan arrives with his young son, Sellian. Bala was inspired by a real news article and a particular individual in it that stood out to her, who helped inspire the character of Mahindan. As a widower, Mahindan’s devotion to Sellian is heartwarming.

              Grace and Priya, two Canadian women who are assigned to work with the refugees, as their lawyer  and adjudicator respectively, are skeptical of their motives. These varied perspectives reinforces we are fundamentally the same, having the same basic wants and needs, despite our different homes and upbringings.

              Bala doesn’t use quotation for dialogue and has a huge cast, but these are minor critiques in the face of the novel’s many strengths. Bala conveys the colourful nature and warmth of Sri Lanka, so starkly different from the cold and vast landscape of Canada. On the other hand, the war in Sri Lanka is described in dark, gruesome detail, making the destruction of the country even more heartbreaking.

              Sharon Bala was born in Dubai but grew up in Canada, raised in Ontario and now living in St. John’s, Newfoundland with her husband. The Boat People is her debut novel, a finalist for Canada Reads 2018, and the 2018 Amazon Canada First Novel Award. The unpublished manuscript won the Percy Janes First Novel Award and was shortlisted for the Fresh Fish Award, both in 2015. In 2017, Bala won the prestigious Journey Prize  and had a second story long-listed in the anthology. A three-time recipient of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Arts and Letters Award, she has stories published in Hazlitt, Grain, Maisonneuve, The Dalhousie Review, Riddle Fence, Room, Prism International, The New Quarterly, and in an anthology called Racket: New Writing From Newfoundland (Breakwater Books, Fall 2015).

Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City

by Tanya Talaga

House of Anansi Press, 2017

ISBN: 978-1487002268

304 pages

$

Reviewed by Jesse Wilson

Seven Fallen Feathers is a well-written, eye-opening work of investigative journalism that focuses on the deaths of seven First Nations teenagers from the Nishnawbe Aski Nation in Thunder Bay, Ontario. The seven students died between 2000 and 2011. Near the end of the book, it also references a painting of the same name by one of the parents of the teens.

In the prologue, Talaga addresses an Ojibwe legend about a giant named Nanabijou. He protected the people in a small village along Lake Superior, as long as they didn’t take away any of his stash of silver. However, a Sioux man, who was taking advantage of their hospitality to get at the silver, stole some of it, and was coaxed by some European explorers to locate the rest of it was. After getting him drunk, he told the explorers where it was, and they took everything. Once Nanabijou heard what happened, he suddenly lay down and turned to stone, becoming the mountain fittingly named “Sleeping Giant.” This is a great opening to the rich First Nations and gives some insight into the setting.

Talaga then inserts herself into the story, talks to Nishnawbe Aski Grand Chief Stan Beardy about voting statistics among First Nations peoples across Canada. He doesn’t answer any of her questions, and asks her to look into the disappearance of Jordan Wabasse, who would later be, one of the Seven Feathers.

After that encounter, Talaga never appears in the story again, and dives instead into great detail about the seven teenagers, their stories, their families, and their cases. With some interconnectivity, she devotes one chapter of the book to each student, and doesn’t miss a morsel of information or testimonies.

She also reveals the conditions First Nations had to endure in residential schools. Not only were the children taken from their families and leave behind their rich Indigenous heritage, but once they got sick, they weren’t treated properly, resulting thousands of deaths.

Talaga records the statements from the families of the seven teens, heart-wrenching testimonies to their loss. At the end of Chapter 8, after finding the body of Kyle Morrisseau, his father Christian is quoted saying: “It was not easy to thank the river for taking my son.”

Despite investigation, to this day, no one knows who killed these students. The mistreatment of First Nations cases people is underscored throughout the book. A 41-year-old man’s “accidental drowning” goes uninvestigated even though his debit card was used after his death.

Tanya Talaga is an Anishinaabe Canadian investigative reporter for the Toronto Star. Seven Fallen Feathers won the 2018 RBC Taylor Prize for non-fiction and the 2017 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing.

Tiger, Tiger

Johanna Skibsrud

Hamish Hamilton, 2018

231 pages

ISBN 978-0735234567

$24.95

Reviewed by Braedan Zimmer

“One day—long after the end of this world and into the beginning of the next—the director unlocked the gates to the first museum that had existed in nearly four thousand years, and the people streamed in.”

The opening of “Outside,” a story about a museum that houses selections from all of human history, is an example of the abstract nature of Johanna Skibsrud’s short story collection, Tiger, Tiger. Skibsrud, winner of the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize for her novel The Sentimentalists, conjures up narratives each more speculative than the last.

“The Last Frontier” relates the short account of Sabrina Lowe-Mackey, who, along with six others, stars in a reality television show that records their trip to Mars. Things take a turn for the worst when the show’s ratings drop and “nobody talked anymore about future seasons—and nobody talked about bringing the pioneers home.”

“The Origin of Species” is a taxidermist’s first-person account of a “strange ball of light” that appears in the sky just after dusk, and his fiancé of three years’ disappearance shortly after.

The final story of the collection, “The Rememberer,” details a last-ditch effort to preserve 200,000 years of accumulated knowledge in the mind of a six-year-old girl with “a virtually limitless power of recall.”

            Skibsrud’s stories investigate the human condition, with a particular emphasis on how this condition might change in the future. Her skilful prose is philosophical and reflective, and the reader is often struck by the stark truths she illuminates, beautifully and precisely, in the unlikeliest of moments.

However, as a result of her emphasis on the philosophical, many of her characters share a similar sense of existential dread, and their voices often bleed into one another. Moreover, as captivating as her story premises are, Skibsrud at times sacrifices idiosyncrasy of character for inventiveness of plot. In some of her stories, especially those that feel more experimental, the characters take a decidedly back seat to the effect she is trying to create. [1] 

That being said, some of her stories hit just the right note; none more powerfully than the title story, “Tiger, Tiger,” which explores a scientist’s career insecurities and the tension it creates in his marriage. He faces a moral predicament when he acquires the genetic material necessary to reanimate the long-extinct tiger: “We had married during the dodo craze; Franziska was still in graduate school then. There had been no reason to suspect that my career would not continue as promisingly as it had begun. It wasn’t long, however, before I was more than eclipsed.”

            Everything considered, it is hard to imagine that anyone could read Tiger, Tiger without being captured by at least one of Skibsrud’s 12 fascinating narratives. The final lines of “The Last Frontier” attest to the eerie majesty of her prose: “They were being cut off, Sabrina understood, finally. The realization had been slow at first, but she couldn’t fool herself forever: it had been a long time since she’d felt that “real time” was progressing toward anything—well, real. No, it wouldn’t be long at all, she lamented candidly into the camera one night, until the red planet’s first pioneers were left to themselves, the camera gaping at them uselessly above. Until there was no one left to cut or edit or rearrange, let alone to actually witness the material of their lives.”


In addition, a few of her stories feel as though they come to an almost arbitrary ending before they’ve even properly begun, and the reader is left feeling satisfied by neither a sense of character development nor well-executed plot.

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