Thursday, May 31, 2012

Read Local!

Do you know about 49th Shelf's Read Local map? It is a map of books connected to different places in Canada, and it's fantastic. There are only 17 books on Toronto right now, some of which I have read (including Consolation and Helpless) and a bunch more I haven't but I'm excited about! Check it out, maybe even add some books.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Bitten by Kelley Armstrong

I will tell you right off the bat, I'm not that into werewolves and other fantasy creatures (vampires, ghosts, etc.). Even during my Wiccan years or my goth phase (yeah, it happened) this sort of stuff wasn't really my bag. I should tell you this up front because I didn't like this book, and not being that into werewolves probably had a lot to do with it.

This is the first of Kelley Armstrong's "women of the Otherworld" series. Regardless of how I feel about the actual book, it is awesome to see a woman writing popular Canlit fantasy about women (and female beasties etc.). If you are into fantasy/horror, I recommend you check it out! (If you are not, don't.)

Normally I wouldn't put so much stock into the genre when talking about a book, but it's a difference-maker for me. When I read fantasy, I want the story to be compelling, not leaning on its fantastical worlds. I read stuff like this and I think: would this still be a good story if it wasn't about (wizards/goblins/werewolves/vampires/etc.)? (Hint: for Harry Potter the answer is yes. For this book the answer - in my opinion - is no. For Twilight, the answer is that it wasn't compelling even with the beasties).

Bitten is about Elena, the only female werewolf (the explanation is complicated, I won't get into it here). She is trying to live a normal life in Toronto with a really nice guy and a job and an apartment (on Lakeshore!), while secretly changing into a wolf every week or so (apparently they kinda have to or it just happens on its own). Then her pack leader, Jeremy, calls her and asks her to come back to Stonehaven (no really, that's what it's called), the pack hideout in upstate New York, to solve an urgent problem.

The story deals with two threads: the problem, which is that non-pack werewolves (or "mutts") have been killing people on the pack territory, and Elena struggling to decide which world she wants to live in: the human world with her bland but loving boyfriend, or the werewolf world with this sexy guy named Clay, to whom she used to be engaged, but he betrayed her trust by turning her into a werewolf, but she still kinda likes him.

The main problem I had with the novel: Elena is not super likable. It is certainly a big deal that Clay turned her into a werewolf without asking her first, for sure. But she never listens to him when he tries to explain or apologize - and then continually leads him on by snuggling with him, running around with him (literally, they're werewolves) and fucking him. Elena, you are not really a feminist character, even though I wanted you to be!  Her story brings up lots of issues of consent and agency but then basically dismisses them at will. The vagina wants what it wants. Anyway, I just couldn't really sympathize with her most of the time because she was being so unreasonable, or cruel.

I also found some of the description bland and repetitive, especially the running, hunting and fighting parts (although those readers more interested in wolves might disagree). The writing in general is fine, although the sex scenes are a bit amateurish, but it must be hard to write sex and not make it seem cheesy. Also there wasn't a lot of Toronto - most of the action takes place in New York state. I would hesitate to put this on a list of fiction set in Toronto.

I guess in the end this book just didn't hold my interest. I wasn't that invested in the protagonist, I didn't care when characters I had barely met died, I wasn't that compelled by all the running and biting and so on. This book took me a lot longer than it should have to read, and that is mainly because I was reluctant to keep picking it back up.

I think probably fans of the genre will like this, especially if they are frustrated by a lack of three-dimensional female characters in general. But for me, when you take away the wolves, there is not really a lot going on here - certainly not enough to keep me reading more.

Two CN Towers out of five

Friday, May 11, 2012

Helpless by Barbara Gowdy

This novel is a very well-written and compelling story whose main theme is pedophilia. How does one review or recommend such a book? I know it was good, but...did I like it? I was upset by it, and anxious, and uncomfortable - it wasn't a pleasurable experience to read it, but in another way it was, because it was so technically well executed. It's like trying to review Hotel Rwanda.

The story follows the actions and thoughts of four main characters - Celia, a single mother working two jobs and struggling to make ends meet; Rachel, her beautiful mixed-race daughter who is happy and lovely and practical; Ron, a pedophile (but not a child molester) in denial, who runs a vacuum-repair shop; and Nancy, Ron's girlfriend, also working two jobs, struggling with addiction and a history of abusive relationships. Ron sees and starts to follow Rachel; he gets it in his head that she is being neglected by her mother and sexually abused by their landlord, Mika. Ron abducts Rachel for her "protection". Most of the book is about Ron and Nancy concealing and taking care of her, and Celia (and Mika) looking for her and freaking out, understandably. Interspersed throughout are flashbacks to the characters' pasts, lending a lot of intrigue and partial explanations without taking away from the story. 

The key to the story is Nancy, who is manipulated by Ron's belief that Rachel is being abused. She knows there is something wrong with what they're doing, but she also thinks they are protecting the girl. Her turmoil is the most compelling and excrutiating element of the story - I just wanted to grab her and tell her to call the police! Right now! Ahhhhhhhhhh!

The other fascinating element for me was Ron's point of view. He knows that he finds young girls beautiful, particularly a certain type. He often watches them. But he has himself convinced that this is not sexual, and he views child molesters as complete monsters. He not only convinces Nancy he is protecting Rachel, he convinces himself. He really believes that she is in danger (or is already being molested) and that she is safer with him. His desires are presented as complicated; there was a strong divide between his feelings and his actions. He doesn't want to hurt Rachel, but he keeps her underwear in his pocket. He fantasizes about her kissing him on the lips. He clearly wants to touch her but tells himself that it must be initiated by her - and yet he is still delusional enough to think that he does not have sexual feelings for her. It's strange, but believable. Which makes it all the more disturbing.

The city features prominently as the setting, particularly after Rachel has disappeared and a grid search is underway. It makes the story that much more terrifying to have it set in your own backyard, of course. My god I'm glad I don't have kids. One thing I found kind of interesting was an early mention of suicide by throwing oneself off the Bloor Viaduct. This is the second book I have read for this project that talks about committing suicide in that way. I just find it an interesting touch, because there is a collective subconscious in Toronto that associates that particular structure, at least partially, with suicide. You could always just say "I'm going to throw myself off a bridge", but this character says (mega paraphrase): "I'm going to throw myself off the Bloor Viaduct". It marks it as a Toronto story. Living in Toronto, I would say I'm going to throw myself off a bridge, but if I was back in Fredericton I would probably say I'm going to throw myself off the train bridge. Interesting markers of geographic specificity.

Anyway, to the task at hand. I don't know what to say about this book. I think that based on the skilled writing, the compelling plot and interesting characters, it was very very good. I can only recommend it tentatively though, and if you are at all triggered by themes of pedophilia/child sexual abuse, emotional abuse/coercion, child abduction, etc. then proceed with caution.

That said, I would definitely read Gowdy again because her writing really is terrific.

Four CN Towers out of five.