Friday, December 19, 2014

Blind Crescent by Michelle Berry

I may have put this on my list in error, as - if I recall correctly - there was no indication in the narrative that it was set in Toronto. Certainly it's Canadian, and the author is based in the Toronto-ish area somewhere (Peterborough I think). Regardless, all of the action takes place on one street - the titular Blind Crescent - and one of the overarching themes is the generic character of suburbs everywhere, so it works. Let's just say it's in Toronto.

The novel is about the six houses on Blind Crescent and their occupants. It starts with a mysterious squatter moving in to the deserted house where the previous owner, Roger Smith, took his own life. Roger's suicide seems to have been a turning point in the lives of everyone on the street, and the story follows them over the summer as they struggle to reconcile with the after effects of that incident in relation to their own problems.

There is Jackson, a man approaching middle age who lives with his elderly parents, waiting on them hand and foot and suffering through increasingly debilitating headaches. He also helps out Mr. Walcott, an obese widower with an unusual form of synesthesia that gives everything he sees a flavour. Then there is Holly, a single mother of two, whose ex is sending strange postcards. Oliver Rafferty is rich, married (unhappily), alcoholic, and suffering a mid-life crisis involving lusting after a teenage girl. And the teenage girl in question, Grace, and her brother are struggling to figure out where they belong in the world as their father dates a woman 15 years his junior.

All of these people are connected with each other in various ways, and their relationships develop and unfold throughout the course of the book. Always in the background is the developing news story of a sniper who is picking people off on the highway, seemingly at random. Throughout the book you will think it is several different people, but don't expect it to be a mystery that is wrapped up neatly. This isn't Agatha Christie. The story is about the people, not the puzzle.

I liked the book. I like character and dialogue-driven writing, which this is, although I felt that some of the characters could have been rounded out a bit more (Oliver's household was particularly flat, character-wise). I found it to be quite funny at times, and more than a little dark. What I enjoyed the most was that it didn't all work out for everyone - there were no easy answers.

My critique is that I wanted more. I wanted to know more about the characters, I wanted more to happen. I felt like there was a lot of great potential here that wasn't always met. The ending was, I felt, somewhat anti-climatic.

Overall I would recommend this book but my hope for the author is that she keeps getting better. Three CN towers out of five.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Barking Dog by Cordelia Strube

This novel tells the story of Greer Pentland, a middle-aged woman with breast cancer who lives with her son - a teenager on trial for brutally killing an older couple while he was sleepwalking - and her 87-year-old aunt who frequently blacks out because of her heart troubles but refuses to get a pacemaker. Greer is divorced from a man who is screwing a younger woman. Greer's sister is being physically and financially abused by her husband. If this book sounds depressing to you, is.

To begin with, the book is beautifully written and the author does truly have a gift. I don't think I could have struggled through all 400+ pages by someone not as good. However, it is a struggle still; I was so relieved to finish it, because it was really starting to affect my mood. I think if any writing could be defined as wallowing, this is it - it feels disturbingly voyeuristic to continue to read about Greer's ongoing tribulations.

The title refers to a constantly barking dog that can be heard through Greer's bedroom window; nothing ever happens with the dog except that its barking is occasionally mentioned. I'm sure it's a very clever literary device, a metaphor of some kind, but for what? The cancer, perhaps. Please be prepared to read a lot of medical stuff that you may find disturbing if you read this book.

Toronto as a setting is incidental to the novel. It could be set anywhere, which just adds to my feeling of futility for having made it all the way through the book. I don't know what else to say about it - I can't stress enough the talent of the writer, but the book itself is borderline nihilist. It was like having a weight on my shoulders, to keep working my way through it. The infrequent and too-dim hope spots are just made worse by their complete lack of payoff in this grim story.

Perhaps if you are less emotionally vulnerable than me, you will enjoy this book. In that case I will give it a middling grade because I don't want to encourage folks NOT to read something they might really be into, that is, after all, very well written.

Three CN Towers out of five.