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The Colonial Hotel

Jonathan Bennett. ECW Press (Legato Publishers Group, U.S. dist.; Canadian Manda Group/Jaguar, Canadian dist.), $22.95 (218p) ISBN 978-1-77041-178-4

In Bennett's (Entitlement) third novel, humanitarian volunteers in an unnamed nation on the brink of civil war, Paris and Helen are lovers. When war comes, pregnant Helen is able to escape; the unfortunate Paris is captured and imprisoned by the Colonel, who appears to view the white doctor as a pet as well as a valuable hostage or physician. Paris is dragged across a nation torn by war towards a fate as uncertain as it seems likely to be unpleasant, but even in a land bent on self-destruction the possibility of unexpected love exists. The author may be aiming at universal themes, but the decision to leave the setting unidentified is problematic. The work appears to be the platonic ideal of colonialist westerners writing about far off lands. The inhabitants of this unnamed country are dark-skinned; independence and freedom from Europeans has brought only decline and calamity, the factions are given iconic, uninformative names, and if there are reasons for the conflict, the reader will never learn them. Although the author has borrowed names from the Iliad, this is not a classic that will withstand the millennia as blind Homer's work has; it borders on accidental parody. (May)

Reviewed on 04/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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I Was There the Night He Died

Ray Robertson. Biblioasis (Consortium, U.S. dist.; PGC, Canadian dist.), US$16.95/C$19.95 trade paper (223p) ISBN 978-1-927428-69-6

When novelist Sam Samson returns to his battered hometown of Chatham, Ont.—"Canada's cancer capital" and a forlorn factory town where arson and charity clothing stores are, Samson's sharp-tongued narration notes, the biggest growth industries—he is full of "death thoughts." He's deeply sad, angry, and desperate for distractions: Within a five-year span, his mother, wife and dog have died; and after a long absence, his reluctant homecoming is in response to his institutionalized father's aggressive Alzheimer's. Coming off an addiction to speed (and reliant on ample substitutions of caffeine, wine, and marijuana), and trying to write a book about the lives and deaths of important popular musicians, Samson's a bundle of contradictory impulses and swinging moods. Over the change from "wintertime's squall and shiver" to April's greater light, however, the "selfish sonofabitch" undergoes incremental changes. Between bouts of cleaning out his parents' house, he visits high school acquaintances and an uncle and befriends a troubled and cynical teenage girl. As Robertson (Home Movies) ponders family and home as well as "what it means to love someone and to lose someone and to have to go on living anyway," he presents an intriguing character whose very real troubles are offset by bright flashes of hope. Agent: Samantha Haywood, Transatlantic Agency. (June)

Reviewed on 04/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Girl Who Was Saturday Night

Heather O'Neill. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $26 (416p) ISBN 978-0-374-16266-5

O'Neill's follow up to international bestseller Lullabies for Little Criminals follows twins, Nouschka and Nicolas Tremblay, through their travails in ‘90s Quebec in an entertaining but hollow story. The story is told through Nouschka's relentlessly energetic voice and begins by outlining their childhood: their father is Quebecois folk legend Étienne Tremblay and mostly absent, and their mother left them as infants. As kids, Etienne used the twins for promotional stunts, making them minor local stars. Now, 19-years-old and dropped out of high school, Nicolas and Nouschka are adrift; partying and sleeping around. Nouschka enrolls in night school and falls in love as Nicolas attempts to forge a relationship with their mother without success. Nouschka laments that their mother "had loved us on television. The same way that everybody had loved us, which was the same thing as not loving us at all." Their father reappears with an eager documentarian who hopes to film the Tremblay family, and things begin to unravel. The ride through the twins' coming-of-age is largely enjoyable, though also forgettable. (June)

Reviewed on 04/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Further Joy

John Brandon. McSweeney's, $24 (224p) ISBN 978-1-938073-94-6

In his first collection of short stories, Brandon (A Million Heavens) puts forth 11 satisfying portraits of small-town American life and the complex lives of the people who inhabit those communities. With sprightly precision, he chronicles familiar scenes: a couple sitting on the front porch, strangers conversing at bar, neighbors chatting over the balcony. Yet behind these quaint images of quotidian life exists a common human desire for excitement, purpose, and passion. In many of the stories, characters go to extreme ends to maintain their images, create new ones, or realize their imagined lives. Some indulge in illegal schemes to regain lost wealth ("The Favorite"); others simply reflect upon the lives they've made for themselves ("The Picnickers"). While Brandon's language is accessible and humorous, at times it cannot relieve the drabness of the circumstances he's portraying. The collection does have stories that contain mysterious happenings—strange objects appear out of nowhere in one character's home in "The Differing Views," friends go missing in "Palatka," and in "The Inland News" past murder cases resurface—but these stories are less successful. Brandon is at his best when transforming the unremarkable into something worth giving a second glance. (June)

Reviewed on 04/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Paradise + Elsewhere

Kathy Page. Biblioasis (Consortium, U.S. dist.; PGC, Canadian dist.), US$15.95/C$18.95 trade paper (158p) ISBN 978-1-927428-59-7

Best known as a literary realist, Kathy Page (nominated for the Orange Prize for The Story of My Face) has created a collection of 14 fabulist short stories that marks a somewhat unsatisfying shift in her writing. The stories feature an eclectic mix of characters ranging from a poor young villager in "G'ming," to a shape-shifting selkie in "Low Tide," to a cannibalistic yet tender mother in "Lambing." Page links these tales together with a folkloric writing style which seems foreign to her and which constricts her characters' dialogue to the point where their personalities bleed together. Page addresses political issues such as globalism and feminism throughout her collection but allows these issues to overshadow the stories themselves. "Clients," the impressive standout within the collection, abandons these fetters, allowing Page the opportunity to explore the unique idea of a world in which couples hire professional conversationalists in order to speak with one another. Page's talents also shine through in "The Kissing Disease," a story about a contagious kissing virus that causes infected individuals to develop ludicrous alternate personalities. The politically-charged demi-fables in this collection tend to sound prescriptive. However, when given the freedom to develop organically and with subtlety, Page's stories demonstrate her impressive creative abilities. (June)

Reviewed on 04/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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God's Amazing World!

Eileen Spinelli, illus. by Melanie Florian. Ideals, $15.99 (32p) ISBN 978-0-8249-5661-5

Christopher Award winner Spinelli (Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch) retells the biblical creation story. With colorfully engaging illustrations by French artist Florian (My Real Name is Princess), the story follows two children as they talk about creation and play together outside. The two move around their backyard as the older child, Gracie, tell the younger child, Bo, what God did on each of the seven days when the world was created. The children then relate that day's creation to what they do in their own backyard. In talking about day two, when the sky is created, they lie in the grass watching the clouds pass by; for day three, when water is created, they splash in the sprinkler. Each day is pronounced "good." Spinelli takes the complex idea of creation and breaks it into small enough pieces that it becomes understandable for even the youngest members of its intended audience. The illustrations cheerily expand the text. Ages 4-8. Illustrator's agent: Bright Agency. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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