Greater Victoria Public Library

Local Author Book Review #12: Hunter’s Daughter by Nowick Gray

This book is part of the 2016 Emerging Local Authors Collection at the Greater Victoria Public Library.

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From the back cover:

Northern Quebec, 1964: Mountie Jack McLain, baffled by a series of unsolved murders, knows the latest case will make or break his career. Eighteen-year-old Nilliq, chafing under the sullen power of her father in a remote hunting camp, risks flight with a headstrong shaman bent on a mission of his own. Their paths intersect in this tense mystery charting a journey of personal and cultural transformation.

Despite the reference to murder and a Mountie, and the word “mystery” above, this book is not a conventional “murder mystery.” Instead, it’s a character-driven, in-depth examination of cultural and personal change in Canada’s arctic. While the murders propel the plot, the substance of this book is a complicated dance of the principal characters, examining relationships and events from different points of view.

Sections narrated in first person by Jack McLain alternate with third-person chapters related from the point of view of Nilliq. This is entirely appropriate, since the author is a white man whose experience of the North was several years of teaching in Quebec Inuit villages. He does not presume to speak with the voice of an Inuit woman, but makes a great effort to represent her culture accurately. All other characters are seen through the eyes of these two; in some cases the same events and people. Rather than repetitious, I found these reiterations helpful in solidifying my understanding of events and relationships.

McLain and Nilliq are people in transition. He knows his term of service is coming to an end, due to imminent bureaucratic changes. Disillusioned with trying to administer justice in a rapidly changing and idiosyncratic cultural situation, but without any solid prospects elsewhere, McLain is a somewhat sad figure, an intelligent and well-meaning individual who too easily sees the dark side of things, but with a fundamental love for the northern way of life. Nilliq teeters on the edge of womanhood, increasingly aware of the exploitation of women by the men around them, and longing for wider horizons. Opposing them and one another are the enigmatic hunter and shaman who calls himself Wallin, although he also has other names, and the menacing figure of Nilliq’s father Sandlak.

The prose is spare and direct, tracing the narrative in a linear way, but permitting the characters to show background complexities in their interactions and conversations, finally taking the reader to a point where the issue of the murders is largely resolved, allowing the main characters to move on to new situations.

Hunter’s Daughter is a tale well told, with special relevance and interest at this time when many Canadians are trying to learn more about their country’s native peoples.

My rating: 9/10 stars.

Local Author Book Review #11: The Opera Singer by Keith M. Costain

A few weeks ago, I participated in an event at my the Greater Victoria Public Library featuring four authors who had contributed books to its Emerging Local Authors Collection. The four of us exchanged copies of our books. I declared I would read and review the other authors’ books. This is the first of those reviews.

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From the book jacket: “The book is a fictional memoir of a child’s life on the Isle-of-Man during the Second World War and focuses on the child’s relationship with a German/Jewish opera singer interned in Ramsey, the child’s home town.”

The Opera Singer by Keith M. Costain is a fascinating look at life on the Isle of Man during the Second World War. The author calls it a “fictional memoir,” but the element of memoir predominates, presenting island life at the time through vivid memories of childhood. Ten-year-old Erik relates anecdotes about family and community, easing the reader into the milieu in which the title character, Austrian opera singer Jakob Weiss, plays a crucial role. Weiss is an “enemy alien” interned on the Isle of Man, along with many others. In fact, the island was turned into a prison camp, with prisoners supplying unpaid labour to local farms as part of the war effort.

This fundamentally grim situation is enlivened with a great many humorous situations and colourful personalities, notably Erik’s choleric-tempered father (referred to as “Pop”), his refined and hard-working mother (called “Ma”), and Bessie, an opinionated neighbour. Many others are skilfully portrayed, always with an eye to their place in the big picture of the island’s society. An example of social class differences is the matter of which houses were requisitioned by the government to house military personnel. Erik’s family’s home is occupied by a shifting population of servicemen and their wives, adding to his mother’s burden of labour, but also contributing additional rations to the household.

At the centre of the book is young Erik’s relationship with Jakob, the interned Austrian who takes the role of an older brother and confidant. As the relationship progresses, Erik must deal with the prejudices of those around him and his own emotions of jealousy, fear and anger. The War is an ever-present threat that impinges on the child’s life in mundane and dramatic ways, from having to lug a gas mask around to watching a Spitfire crash into the bay and learning that its pilot has perished.

This book may be enjoyed in different ways — as a lively account of growing up in a time and setting very different from the present day, as a colourful fragment in the mosaic of 20th century history, and as a richly interesting and detailed look at family and community life as seen by a child on the border between innocence and experience.

Two minor quibbles: it seemed to me there was an absence of commas in quite a few places where they would have been useful; and I was sometimes stopped by phrases such as “asked him and I,” when I expected “asked him and me.” But these are small issues that did not interfere with my enjoyment of this wonderful book. I heartily recommend it to anyone who enjoys memoir or accounts of civilian life in the Second World War — or anyone who is looking for a warm and engrossing read.

In my 10-star rating system, The Opera Singer gets 9 stars.

 

Celebrating Local Authors

Throughout October, the Greater Victoria Public Library (in Victoria, British Columbia) is making time and space available to authors who have contributed to its Emerging Local Authors Collection.

On Saturday, October 15th, I joined three other authors for a pleasant couple of hours at the Oak Bay Branch of GVPL to display copies of our books and meet members of the public.

Local authors and their books.

Local authors and their books.

Besides yours truly, the authors were:  Rian Everest, Nowick Gray and Keith M. Costain.

About a dozen people stopped to chat, look at books, ask about publishing and cover design. Between visits by the public, the four of us had some lively conversations about writing, publishing, and cover design. One copy of one book was purchased by a library patron, and at the end of the allocated time, we authors exchanged copies of our books.

In exchange for The Friendship of Mortals, I received the following:

The Opera Singer by Keith M. Costain.

Hunter’s Daughter by Nowick Gray.

The Tangerine Tigress by Rian Everest.

It’s my intention — articulated right here for all to see — to read these books and write reviews here on the blog, and on Goodreads.

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And here’s the Herbert West Series in all its printed glory.

 

Local Author Book Review #10: Arcane by Sever Bronny

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Arcane, by Sever Bronny is the first book in a 5-book YA fantasy series, The Arinthian Line. The story is set in the Kingdom of Solia, a medieval-type society full of peasants, knights and warlocks, who possess arcane powers (which must never be referred to as “magic”).

The book begins with the sufferings and trials of Augum, a 14-year-old orphan (“obligatory orphan,” I almost said), who endures bullying and bad treatment even as he trains as a squire to the bluff and earthy knight Sir Tobias Westwood. This life is shattered by a violent raid on Willowbrook, which destroys the village and launches Augum into a new life. He is caught up by a lightning storm that brings him into the hands of Mrs. Stone, once headmistress of the Academy of Arcane Arts. Another massacre brings Bridget and Leera into the group. The three begin warlock training with Mrs. Stone, while eluding a great peril with a special and horrible connection to Augum.

Bronny combines key elements familiar to readers of fantasy — the orphan with a tragic past, the bonds of friendship, training in the arcane arts by a mentor of power and integrity. Then there is a quest for objects of power, a deserted castle full of perils and surprises — and food! Lots of food, described in loving detail guaranteed to result in trips to the fridge for snacks. The narrative language is lively and colourful, never bogging down in metaphorical mudholes.

The fictional world of Solia is solidly thought out and internally consistent. Choices made in the past have cast the fates of the young protagonists and made them dependent on one another and the development of their arcane abilities. The last 80 pages of the book are a thrilling rollercoaster ride into the unknown. The main characters and their situation are intriguing enough that the reader will want to get hold of the next book as soon as possible. Luckily, Books 2 and 3, Riven and Valor, are now available in the usual places. For a fortunate few, a copy of Arcane is part of the Greater Victoria Public Library’s Emerging Local Authors Collection.

My rating: 8 out of 10 stars.

 

Local Author Book Review #9: Cat’s Castle by Chris James

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Cat’s Castle is a collection of poems by Victoria author Christopher (Chris) James.

They were written from 2005 to 2013.

Reading these poems, I was pleasantly surprised to discover familiar place names — Fairfield, Oak Bay, Willows Beach. I know these spots well, but it was interesting to read another’s experience of them.

The cover illustration shows hands holding tools, not surprising as the poems examine everyday life from various angles and through different filters, some of them rather harsh.

I speak the language of the dead coloured leaves.

squashed a cigarette end at the end of a sidewalk mud.

this is beautiful to me.

(from “Comfort”)

In many places I could feel the poet’s intensity in presenting his chosen images, sometimes with repeated phrases to create an atmosphere.

echoes

echoes capture trying echoes

trying echoes,

back saw sound, saw sound, cutting down a trying much.

A lawn mower, its

(from “Circular Saw Sound, Signifying”)

These poems are strongly felt impressions wrung out of daily life, images of place, work, love and sadness. The book is short, and few of the poems are longer than two pages. This makes it approachable to those who may be intimidated by poetry served up in hefty tomes. Almost everyone will find words and images to which they can relate, the colours of life as though broken through a bleared prism.

My rating: 8 out of 10 stars.

 

Local Author Book Review #8: Across the River from Detroit by Giselle Loeper

In 1956, Giselle Loeper, her husband Bob and their daughter arrived in Windsor, Ontario as immigrants from post-war Germany. Across the River from Detroit is a collection of brief anecdotes about their life in Windsor. Many years later, widowed, Ms. Loeper moved to Victoria, British Columbia and began to write. These stories were originally written for a community writing workshop.

Each chapter focuses on some particular issue or incident, from relations with neighbours to raising children, family vacations, jobs, friendships, triumphs and heartbreaks. Almost any reader would relate to some of these vignettes, drawn from ordinary life and presented in a simple, direct manner.

The chapters are arranged in chronological order, taking the reader from the family’s arrival in their new home, through early struggles, the births of two sons, becoming established and making the transition from immigrants to Canadian citizens. Many of the anecdotes arise from the jobs Giselle and her husband worked at over the decades. While he was mainly in the building trades, she turned her hand to food service, retail and housekeeping. Others feature incidents from their children’s lives, from infancy to adulthood.

The stories display a practical attitude to life, not without some quirkiness and a wry humour. They are short, quick reads which would add a thoughtful brightness to a reader’s day.

My rating: 7 / 10 stars.

Unfortunately I cannot find an image of the book’s cover, but a copy of the book is available at the Greater Victoria Public Library.

Local Author Book Review #7: Triptych by Malcolm McCallum

Right at the start I will note that parts of this novel were read and discussed two or three years ago at meetings of a critique group of which I am a member. This review, however, is based on my recent reading of the complete published work.

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Here is the author’s description of the book:

In Belle Epoque France, an art patron and his wife invite three painters to their countryside villa for the summer in order to create a new art movement. Murder ensues.

Triptych is not a murder mystery, however. The mysteries it explores are human nature and the creative act. Malcolm McCallum is himself a painter, and his book is full of vivid, detailed scenes and fully-fleshed characters: Roland de Grenville, the foolish art dealer and critic, Madeleine, his beautiful, dissatisfied wife, and, of course, the three artists. They have been selected by Roland as representatives of three types — the Intellectual, the Lyric and the Romantic. He hopes they will intermingle their talents to create something that will make him famous. Charles Montaigne, a wounded bear of a man, is the Romantic. The handsome seducer Boniface Roy is the Lyric, and the wizened oldster Ambrose Ferland is the Intellectual. Ambrose brings with him a young daughter, Ghislaine, and Jacqueline, his conniving wife. Emerging at crucial moments to yank on the threads of the plot is the lecherous man-about-town Gaston Hector, a good friend of Roland’s.

These are the ingredients of a rich, thick, fruitcake of a book.  The characters are distinct and real, bringing with them complete, lived histories, foibles, emotions and ambitions. Inevitably, there are conflicts and undercurrents, seductions, connivances and misunderstandings, leading to trouble and tragedy.

The action takes place in two locales — Roland’s country house in Amance and in Paris. The summer of artistic experimentation ends abruptly with a murder, blasting most of the characters back to Paris where they regroup into new configurations. Old entanglements cannot be ignored, however, and lead to further conflicts and alliances. A new character is introduced two-thirds of the way through the book — the bowler-hatted Harry Bellamy, lawyer and sometime investigator — who propels the action in unexpected directions. (Hats, by the way, appear frequently in this book, not surprising given the time period).

The making of art is the foundation of the plot, and it is present on nearly every page. The reader is privy to the artists’ thoughts and stands at their sides as they apply pencil to paper and paint to canvas. Colours (and this book is full of colour) are given the names found on tubes of paint — viridian, ochre, umber, titanium white, alizarin. The practicalities of art are at the forefront always, holding down firmly any tendencies toward windy gushing.

McCallum’s prose is sincere and idiosyncratic, bringing the tone of this 21st century work curiously close to the time in which it is set, the late 1800s. Scenes are built up from small details, finely rendered, working up to a wrenching climax and a final scene that is not without hope. It is not a fast read, but a rewarding one.

My rating: 9 out of 10 stars.

Triptych may be obtained in print or ebook form from Lulu.com, and a copy is available to users of the Greater Victoria Public Library.