Quite a range in these 10 books that includes two award-winners, one poetry collection, one script, and two by favourite authors (John Boyne, Elizabeth Strout).
ALEC by William Di Canzio
The author re-imagines the E.M Forester classic book Maurice, and provides new narratives for Maurice and Alec, iconic gay lovers who fell in love with determination, courage and passion. Di Canzio invents a past for the gamekeeper (Alec) and the upper- class Maurice Hall and follows their lives through their courtship, front lines of battle and family issues. This book could be read as a stand alone (I’m curious to re-read the Forster novel) but oh-what a clever feat to bring these iconic queer characters back to life for a now generation.
AFTER LEAVING MR. MACKENZIE by Jean Rhys
Alan Cumming claimed in the New York Times that this was slim novel was one of his all-time favourite reads and so I decided to acquire copy of this 1931 title about a forlorn woman seeking adventure (and love) in interwar Paris and London. Julia Martin is a sad sad soul who struggles to pay the rent, maintain a charming image, and depend on the kindness of strangers, after leaving Mr. Mackenzie. This desperate character didn’t much appeal to me (Sorry, Mr. C) but it did keep me company on an overnight plane ride to London.
CONTROLLED DAMAGE by Andrea Scott (script)
This play explores the life of Canadian icon Viola Desmond. The incident in a Nova Scotia movie theatre, where Viola was removed from the first floor seat, starts a ripple effect of racism, social justice, and civil rights. First performed in Halifax, 2020, the play will have a production performed Grand Theatre in London Ontario in 2022. (and will likely be produced on Canadian stages in future years).
THE ECHO CHAMBER by John Boyne
Boyne is a favourite author of mine and I always look forward to a new release. I loved The Echo Chamber, but I realize that ot everyone will because the characters are not particularly likeable. This is a terrifically sharp satire on the age of social media and political correctness that we’re living in. I found the book to be very funny (often laugh-out-loud funny), farcical (if you like that sort of thing) and I was totally intrigued with the life (in five days) of the unlikeable characters of the Cleverley family: George a television host, Beverley, a novelist, Nelson, a frustrated teacher, Elizabeth, addicted to twitter, and Achilles, a scam artist. And an aged tortoise. Be prepared to delve into a world of the privileged, Racism, Transphobia, lepers, a phantom pregnancy, a ghost writer, blackmail, speed dating, a Ukranian stud, cancel culture, gender bending, an aged tortoise who’s addicted to After Eight chocolates, and a big batch of lies. A great, fun read!
THE FOUR QUARTETS by T.S. Eliot (poetry)
I was inspired to read this book because I had booked a ticket to see a performance of the poems by Ralph Fiennes in London. Can’t pretend to have understand these spiritual, philosophical of the four linked works. Something about the passing of time. Something about God. Something about nature. Was ok with the opening lines, “Time present and time past /are both present in time future/ And time future contained in time past” but got lost from page 6 onwards “Garlic and sapphires in the mud/Clot the bedded axle-tree” but I guess I can’t argue with the brilliance of T.S. Eliot. I rather preferred Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. I was thrilled to have seen Mr. Fiennes astonishing dramatization of The Four Quartets. Perhaps a re-read (and another re-read of the book might help. Perhaps.
THE LISTENERS by Jordan Tannahill
I am fond of Jordan Tannahill’s work as a playwright and was pleased to dig into his new novel, short listed for a Giller prize. A middle-aged woman named Claire hears THE HUM, an incessant sound, that causes her mental and physical distress. Who else hears The Hum? How can she convince others (husband, daughter) that this is really happening? Will The Hum go away? What causes The Hum? When Claire, a high school English teacher discovers that one of her students is haunted by the same sound the plot thickens. Eventually Claire and Kyle fall into a group of neighbours who meet regularly for support, help and inquiry. There is a thriller quality to this book, framed by a Science Fiction premise, but in the end it is a story of community, connecting, relationships and mental health. A fine writer you are, Mr. Tannahill. What a mind!
OH WILLIAM by Elizabeth Strout.
We’ve met Lucy Barton previous titles by this special author (My Name is Lucy Barton; and Anything is Possible (short stories) and in this new novel, Lucy, an author, meets up with her ex-husband, William, and joins him on an adventure to uncover a family secret he just discovered. That summarizes the plot, but oh, how the author digs into emotions through a network of anecdotes drawn from memories of Lucy’s life as a young girl living in poverty, as a wife, mother, and widow. The author has conversations with her readers but moreover has therapy-like conversations with herself as she tries to make sense of the bonds that hold people together, the influence of the past on the present, the things we know about ourselves, the things we are trying to figure out and the fact that ‘”we are all mythologies, mysterious. We are all mysteries”. Oh, Elizabeth, I so love your writing. This is absolutely one of my favourite reads of 2021.
POISON FOR BREAKFAST by Lemony Snicket
Make no mistake… this book is not targeted to the usual reader audience of 9 to 11 year olds who are enthralled with the author’s Series of Unfortunate Events. I noticed this title in the children’s section of a local book store and the title Poison for Breakfast (and the author) enticed. The jacket blurb reads This book is “different from other books Mr. Snicket has written. It could be said to be a book of philosophy, something almost no one likes, but it is also a mystery, and many people claim to like those”. In the opening chapter the protagonist (the author) is enjoying his breakfast but then notices a note slipped under his door “You had poison for breakfast’. And thus begins a journey to uncover the mystery and the author sets out find some answers to the note – and to the meaning of life (and death). The word ‘bewildered’ appears on many pages and this is a book of bewilderment, rambling, literary references (I often returned to the notes section at the end of the book) – and egg recipes. I noticed in tiny print that the book was printed by Penguin Teen Canada. Grownups who have been inspired by Lemony Snicket may now want to meet up again with this author of adventures and bewilderment.
THE PROMISE by Damon Galgut
Three funerals. Three decades. Three siblings. One family. One country. Told in 4 sections. Remarkable writing, with often out-of-synch narrative which tested my inference skills. Thought 269 pages, it too me somewhat longer to read than it should have but I hung in there and sometimes cared about the feckless older brother, the unhappy middle sister and the off-on-her own younger sister. The promise made to the Swart’s family’s black maid Salome that she will be given property rights due to her, hangs over, but doesn’t seem to predominate, as the title might suggest. The politics of a changing South Africa hangs over the story, like the backdrop of a play, always there, sometimes deserved of attention. Winner of The Booker Prize 2021,
WHAT STRANGE PARADISE by Omar El Akkad
A powerful and vivid story of the refugee experience. The narrative is told in alternating chapters, alternating time periods: Before (describing the experiences of migrant passengers on an ill-equipped boat) and After (the rescue of a Syrian boy by a teenager) The migration story is centred on Amir who is washed up on the shore of a small island. Omar El Akkad paints a vivid (and grim) portrait of those forced to flee and describes specific and dire circumstances they face aboard a vessel (Before). The relationship between Vanna and Amir, complete strangers, adds a suspense to the narrative as Vanna attempts to save Amir from being caught (After). Winner of the Giller Prize, 2022.