All posts filed under: Reviews – The Novel

Review of Jennifer Spruit’s “A Handbook for Beautiful People.”

by Kim McCullough A Handbook for Beautiful PeopleJennifer SpruitInanna Publications (2017)ISBN: 978-1-77133-441-9 A Handbook for Beautiful People by former Calgarian Jennifer Spruit is a gentle love letter to the imperfect and broken set against the backdrop of the 2013 floods. A compelling and complicated story of making impossible choices and finding grace, Spruit’s characters are at times quirky and original, at times desperate and violent, but always filled with fierce love for one another. Marla, a young woman with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, is a free-spirited, often flighty soul, with a strong voice and a murky past that she battles to keep hidden from her emotionally-distant boyfriend, Liam. A hallmark of Marla’s FASD is her struggle to stay focused on following through on attaining even the smallest goal. Marla is late for work, forgets to return from breaks, and is easily diverted from her duties. But she knows for sure that she loves Liam, and that she is good for him, even if he sometimes seems embarrassed and overwhelmed by her. Liam is a straight-laced music teacher …

Review of Naomi K. Lewis’ “Tiny Lights for Travellers”

by Ryan Stromquist  Tiny Lights for Travellers Naomi K. LewisUniversity of Alberta Press (2019) ISBN 978-1-77212-448-4  Naomi Lewis’ memoir, Tiny Lights for Travellers, begins with an epigraph from Alain De Botton’s The Art of Travel: [a]nd I wondered, with mounting anxiety, what I was to do here, what I was to think (1). Anxiety over physical, spiritual, and the familial space in the universe is the crux of the memoir as it follows Lewis while she travels from Canada to Europe to take the same path as her Jewish grandfather (Opa) once did while escaping from a Nazi occupied Netherlands:  And by spring, I wondered what Oma would think of the fierce longing that had come over me to get as far from Calgary and the condo as I could, to take Opa’s journal and his map, and to follow it. (17)  Throughout the memoir, Lewis highlights her complex relationship with her Jewish roots and the generational trauma fromthe holocaust. The complexities of this relationship are compounded by Lewis’ mostly secular parents, the death of …

Review of JoAnn McCaig’s “An Honest Woman”

by Sarah Butson An Honest Womanby JoAnn McCaigThistledown Press (2019)ISBN 978-1-77187-178-5 JoAnn McCaig’s second novel, An Honest Woman, is not your average read. If you are looking for a linear story with a beginning, a middle, and an ending, you won’t be finding it in this beautifully-crafted piece of metafiction. Its structure is layered like an onion and tells several stories about a middle- aged single mother writer with an erotic fantasy who writes about a middle-aged single mother who writes erotic fantasy about a middle-aged single mother writer. But wait. There is so much more.  I knew nothing about metafiction when I began to read. Partway through I got the gist of it. Brilliant, I thought, to write with the insertion of self as author inside the creation of characters’ personas and circumstances, commenting on the actual process of story-writing. Quite aside from enjoying the read, that for me was exciting new learning. The onion layering was also a new experience in my reading fiction. I needed to flip a few times back and …

Interview with Stella Leventoyannis Harvey

Stella Leventoyannis Harvey is a Canadian author and the founder and artistic director of the Whistler Writing Society. Harvey was born in Cairo, Egypt and immigrated to Calgary, Alberta with her family as a child. She now lives in Whistler, British Columbia. Her books include Nicolai’s Dauhgters, The Brink of Freedom, and her latest book Finding Callidora. Crystal sat down with Stella to discuss Finding Callidora and what it means to write about family. Crystal Mackenzie: This story encompasses your own family history. What inspired you to do this and make it into a novel? Stella Leventoyanis Harvey: That’s a good question. I think, for me, and I say this often, is I missed my culture my entire life. The hole where home is, belonging, probably my entire life, and I have always been very interested in that, and so I started to do some research trying to find out. Listening to stories is the other part of it, my parents would tell us all these stories about life before Canada and piecing those things …

Review of Sophie Stocking’s “Corridor Nine”

by Skylar Kay Corridor Nine by Sophie Stocking Thistledown Press (2019) ISBN 9781771871815 Sophie Stocking’s Corridor Nine is a story of life, death, family, and rebirth. To begin, the novel places a reader in a disorienting space. Questions I asked myself included: where am I? What are these people? Why does this three-year old’s body (Fabian) have a large penis, and why do I have to imagine this? The structure of the novel does not immediately alleviate the confusion, as two storylines weave and intersect throughout. The story of Bernie is grounded in reality—recognizable to any Calgarian especially—while the other plotline follows the afterlife of her father, Fabian. These two storylines twirl around one another to slowly reveal more and more about the past, and the characters themselves in a well-orchestrated manner. However, due to the jumps from scene to scene and place to place, dialogue can be confusing, as exemplified on page 173 where there are several lines of dialogue before it becomes clear that Bernie is talking to her husband. I was wary at first …

Review of Randy Nikkel Schroeder’s “Arctic Smoke”

by Mike Thorn Arctic Smoke: A Novel by Randy Nikkel Schroeder NeWest Press (2019) ISBN 978-1-988732-70-1 Randy Nikkel Schroeder’s Arctic Smoke does not simply inhabit its multiple genres, but instead interrogates the intersections and tensions between those genres’ methodologies. That is, while advancing its own double-pronged investigation/voyage plot, the novel simultaneously destabilizes the very foundations of that which constitutes story. Deftly side-stepping the trap of tired postmodern exercise, the book instead hybridizes content and form to deliver an absorbing reading experience: while it sometimes threatens to dissolve into total abstraction, it always conducts its deconstruction within meticulous narratological architecture. In other words, Arctic Smoke is about a lot more than plot, but it is also all about plot. If it hurts your brain trying to imagine what this paradox looks like in written practice, I recommend you pick up this book and get lost in its ingenious absurdity. Arctic Smoke depicts two sets of characters undergoing journeys toward ambiguous consequences. The primary plot follows aging punk Lor Kowalski and his newly reunited bandmates as they …

Review of Cecelia Frey’s “Lovers Fall Back to Earth”

by Vivian Hansen Lovers Fall Back to Earth by Cecelia Frey Innana Press (2018) ISBN 978-1-77133-481-5 This book is about unpacking clichés; all that has been hoarded over the years. Frey pries beneath the surface, holding a formidable dexterity with the light and dark features of story. Her characters surface as those who make you laugh, and those who tick you off.  Lovers Fall Back to Earth begins with a tragedy at the death of a beloved sister. We see how a small group of flower children—two remaining sisters and the men who married them—live beyond the tragedy. We get to know Esther and George, Helena and Benjamin, and Veronica, the marginalized mistress who demands centre stage. The book is studded with extensive dialogue that reveals surface tensions, as well as soul-searching prose that navigates deep questions. Sometimes I wanted more of one and less of the other, but Frey balances the variation. The characters achieve a sympathetic pose regardless of how they surface. Frey does not allow sympathy for long, nor does she allow us to sit …

Review of “Left” by Theanna Bischoff

by Crystal Mackenzie Left by Theanna Bischoff NeWest Press (2018) ISBN 978-1-988732-43-5 I am a sucker for a good mystery. Theanna Bischoff’s LEFT is a good mystery. Set in Calgary, AB between 1981 and 2013, it is a tale spanning generations told in what feels like multiple short stories. 29-year-old Natasha has gone missing leaving behind her pregnant, 18-year-old sister, Abby, who was living with her. Foul play is the most likely suspect and I couldn’t put the book down until I had answers. The novel’s mysteries reveal themselves through a series of chapters, switching between the points of view of important players in Natasha’s life and disappearance. The chapters either reveal moments that shaped Natasha’s life leading up to the day she went missing or dips into the secrets of those around her. Do any of these revelations reveal the mystery behind her disappearance?  Like any good mystery, there are twists and turns, possible who done its, and family tensions that can either get worse or dissolve under the pressure. Abby has been estranged from her …

Review of “Only Pretty Damned” by Niall Howell

by Mike Thorn Only Pretty Damned by Niall Howell NeWest Press (2019) ISBN 978-1-988732-53-4 Niall Howell’s Only Pretty Damned is a seriously impressive debut, showcasing a sophisticated sense of craft and a deep understanding of its genre’s genealogy. Centered on a traveling circus making its way through the unforgiving environs of post-WWII America and Canada, Damned is steeped in richly detailed sociohistorical texture. It is an intensely sensory book, sticky with sweat and booze and blood, and it is unapologetically cinematic, recalling everything from Tod Browning’s silent films to the American noir output of its depicted era—the antihero, Toby, recalls Lon Chaney’s dejected carnie characters from The Unknown (1927) and He Who Gets Slapped (1924) as readily as he recalls the haunted protagonists of postwar American film noir.  A former trapeze artist forced begrudgingly into clowning, Toby has a lust for success and recognition that is reignited by his budding relationship with Gloria, a woman who dances in his circus (Howell’s clever variation on the femme fatale archetype). The two characters’ interactions intensify and deepen …

Review of Claire Tacon’s “In Search of the Perfect Singing Flamingo”

by Daryl Sneath In Search of the Perfect Singing Flamingo Claire Tacon Poplar Press (2018) ISBN 978-1928088578 Lead and driving force that she is, Starr Robinson is no ordinary hero. Born with Williams syndrome, she has not been dealt an easy hand: sometimes she feels beaten before she begins, sometimes she does not know all the rules and cannot help question them even when she does, and sometimes she holds a deck’s worth of hearts right up against her own, staunchly unwilling to part with a single one. Among a myriad of other well-drawn traits it is these—her laid-bare, uncompromising heart, her uncensored voice, her utter resolve—which make us love her. Told in a quartet of voices, the ‘search’ in Tacon’s sophomore effort is equal parts adventure, contemplative reflection, social treatise, and unconventional redemption song. Darren Leung works with Starr’s dad, Henry. Along for the ride (both literally and figuratively), the sometimes morose, unabashed believer-in-love-but-heartbroken teenager, Darren, wants nothing more than to rekindle a relationship with Luz (the ex- girlfriend archetype with whom he shares a love for film), but in …