The Wild Heavens

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Sarah Louise Butler
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2020 (read Jan. 2021)

I rarely buy books without first looking up the ratings and reviews on goodreads or checking out the hype about it. I like to stay on the pulse and read new and upcoming books, but I’ve been trying to stop reading books solely because of the hype and focus more on finding stories that intrigue me and that I think I will really like.

I love exploring local indie bookshops because the owners always have a deep love of reading and spend a lot of time crafting their inventory. I also love them because they’re a great place to find Canadian lit and books by local authors. The Wild Heavens was a purchase from a pop-up bookshop that showed up in my neighbourhood over the holidays and I was immediately drawn to the cover, which is gorgeous, and then the synopsis, which is set in BC.

I loved this book. It is a classic slow burn character driven novel, which is one of my favourite kinds of books, and I adored everything about it. It’s an extremely atmospheric book set in BC’s interior mountains and covers most of Sandy Langley’s life spent living there. Her grandfather settled in a cabin in the woods in the 1920’s and after the death of her mother, Sandy is brought up by her grandfather and becomes close friends with the only other kid in a neighbourhood, a young boy named Luke.

They grow up together exploring the wilderness and eventually become privy to one of Sandy’s grandfather’s greatest secrets – the encounter he had with a large 2 legged creature when he was wondering the mountains in the 1920’s and has spent the rest of his life trying to understand. The creature is known to Sandy as Charlie, but to the rest of us, names like Bigfoot or Sasquatch might sound more familiar.

Did I expect to fall in love with a book about Bigfoot? Definitely not, despite my intrigue at the story, the concept did sound just a little bit weird to me. But like any good book, the story is not always about what we think it will be about and even though Charlie formulates the narrative of the story, ultimately it’s not really about him. Rather it’s a story about growing up and growing old. It’s about the ways that life will challenge us and how our early experiences shape us into the people we become. It’s about finding love and losing it, the people who influence us, and the moments that make up a life – both happy and sad.

It’s a totally different story, but it some ways it reminded me a little of The Great Alone, which I also love. Setting is a critical part of the story and the isolated cabin in the mountains contributes to a deeply atmospheric feel that permeates the whole novel. More than anything, setting formulates these characters and I got completely lost in the romanticism of it. I love the mountains and the forests and the lakes and the snow. Despite not having a Charlie of my own to inspire me, I understood how a sense of place influenced and motivated these characters.

It is a heartbreaking story, but the characters moved me. The plot is subtle and if you’re looking for a fast paced novel, this is not it. But if you’re looking for a reflection of a life lived and a place loved, pick up The Wild Heavens and get lost in the story and setting within.

Rick Mercer Final Report

Rating: ⭐⭐
Author: Rick Mercer
Genres: Non-Fiction, Essays
Pub. date: Nov. 2018 (read Jun. 2020)

The second audiobook that I read by Newfoundland authors in June. While by a Newfoundlander, this one isn’t focused on Newfoundland, but instead features a collection of rants from the Rick Mercer Report, which ended its 15 season run in 2018. The Rick Mercer Report is a pretty beloved Canadian news show that features comedic segments filmed all over the country where Rick visits community events, or groups, or landmarks, or just has fun hanging out with Jan Arden. But every show ends with a rant from Rick about the latest scandal or event plaguing the nation.

Rick Mercer Final Report features a number of Rick’s rants, including his most popular rants over the years, as well as some unpublished rants and an update from Rick at the end of the book. I always loved watching Rick Mercer’s segments and his rants definitely galvanized some of my own political activism in University. I expected to like this book more than Mark Critch’s, Son of a Critch, and while I did still enjoy this, it wasn’t quite what I was hoping for. Or maybe I just have to acknowledge that with the way society has changed in the past decade, some of his older rants just don’t have quite the same effect. In theory it’s great to have a compilation of all Rick’s best rants, but they are of course dated, and fortunately I’m just not really interested in listening to Rick rant about Stephen Harper any more.

Rick does include some stories about the show in the book, and that’s where I thought the book really shined. Rick’s gotten into so many shenanigans over the years, I loved hearing some reflective storytelling about those experiences. I think if the book had been more focused on storytelling it would have had a little more meaning and would stand the test of time better later. But that’s okay – this book is a celebration of the show and Rick’s rants and it’s nice to have this compilation to memorialize the show. He’s been inspired by Canadians and in turn we’ve been inspired by him – I was definitely sad to see the show end.

Greenwood

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Michael Christie
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Sep. 2019 (read Mar. 2020 on Audible)

It’s been just over a month since I finished Greenwood, so I’ll do my best to review. Like a lot of my audiobooks, I didn’t really have any intention of reading this book, but I stumbled across it, liked the sound of the narrator, and thought it seemed interesting enough. The story did get bogged down in places, but overall, I really liked it.

Greenwood tells the story of the Greenwood family over 4 generations and is a mixture of literary fiction, mystery, and dystopia all rolled into one compelling book. The highlight of the storytelling for me was in the structure. The novel starts on Vancouver Island in 2034. In recent years a tree virus has felled the majority of the world’s trees, but there’s still a pristine old growth forest that remains on a small island near Pacific Rim and it’s here that ecologist Jake Greenwood works, taking wealthy vacationers walking along the last remaining giants.

From here, each part of the story takes us back in time, to Liam Greenwood in 2008, a carpenter who renovates homes using reclaimed wood. Then to Willow Greenwood in 1974, a hippy and environmentalist who protests her father’s rich timber company. Then back to Everett Greenwood in 1934, a poor hermit who lives in the woods farming maple syrup, and then finally to 1908 and the events that started everything for the Greenwood Family. Once we reach 1908, the story reverses again as we slowly start to make our way back to 2034. It’s a fascinating structure. I loved going back in time to learn more about the events that preceded each storyline, only to learn new mysteries that I won’t find the answers to until the story reverses itself again.

The majority of the story takes place in 1934 and the actions Everett takes have a lasting impact on the Greenwood Family for generations to come. It’s interesting to see how secrets are hidden and how easily history can be lost over multiple generations. How quickly the cycle of poverty can reverse itself. My favourite timelines were 1934 and 2034, but I think they all offered something unique to the story. I did think the author dragged out the 1934 storyline a little bit too much – it is the critical part of the book, but I don’t really think this book needed all it’s 500+ pages and easily could have been more in the 400-450 range.

I did love how this book takes us all over Canada and parts of America and how it incorporates trees as its central theme. Even though some of the family members use the trees as a resource for profit and others seek to protect the trees, they all make their living from the trees and are impacted by them. It’s interested to see something inanimate like a tree take on such a central role in the novel. As someone who lives in Western Canada and loves the landscape here, I really enjoyed the exploration of the value of trees and was moved by the imagination of a world without them. Our old growth forests are incredibly valuable and I can’t imagine the loss of them, much less the majority of trees on the planet. How they scape our cities, towns, and parks and the number of resources that we pull from them.

So overall I did find the story slowed down in places, but overall I really enjoyed and would recommend to lovers of Canadian lit!

Dual Citizens

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Alix Ohlin
Genres: Literary Fiction, Canadian Lit
Pub. date: Jun. 2019 (read Feb. 2020 on Audible)

Dual Citizens is one of the those weird creations of Canadian literature that I ended up really loving, yet wouldn’t necessarily recommend to everyone. It’s a bit of an artsy story with a meandering plot, but it’s ultimately about family and sisterhood and that really resonated with me.

Lark and Robin are sisters that grew up in Montreal and received little attention or praise from their young mother. So they instead look to one another for support and long for the day when they can branch out on their own. Lark is shy but very studious and does well in school, earning herself a scholarship for a college in the States. Robin learns to play the piano and has a natural talent for it. She is dismayed when Lark leaves her behind to go to school and within the year she runs away to live with Lark.

Eventually Lark discovers a love for film and Robin is accepted to study piano at Julliard. But the pressure of music school gets to her and as Lark dives further into her film degree, the sisters begin to grow apart. The separation between the two sisters was jarring and upsetting for me. They were all each other had and I felt as set adrift by the separation as Lark did. The sisters are very different and Lark struggles to understand why her sister suddenly distances herself and they begin to grow apart, each caught up in their own struggles and insecurities.

Lark spends a lot of time working in the film industry and is quite successful, but she reads like a character who just moves through life without actually engaging in it. She is passive in every scenario and I really felt like part of her was missing during her estrangement from Robin. I’m not really an artsy person and I don’t care for film, but I really loved the storytelling in this book. I just felt this ache throughout for the relationship that Lark and Robin once had and the strain and impact that the loss of communication had on Lark. The feeling of incompleteness while the two were separated and the tenseness that continued between them even once they were reunited. It’s scary to watch two people that were so close become disconnected to the point that they don’t really know who the other person is anymore.

It really reminded me of the feelings of nostalgia and sadness that you get when you return home and realize that the people you loved and spent so much time with have all changed. The feeling of moving on, but thinking fondly of the experiences you once shared, but the sadness of realizing that some experience meant more to one person than the other.

It’s hard to describe, but Lark’s longing for both motherhood and a renewed relationship with her sister were so authentic. It’s a slow moving story with little driving the plot, but I related so keenly to Lark. I think Ohlin captured a very flawed, but real relationship, and I felt really invested in Lark’s life. I don’t think it’s a story for everyone though and I’m not sure I’d want to read it again because of the emotional toll, but I’m glad to have picked it up and thoroughly enjoyed the audiobook. A great story with a lot of depth!

The Cellist of Sarajevo

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Steven Galloway
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. date: Mar. 2009 (read Dec. 2019)

It took me ages to read the Cellist of Sarajevo, but it had nothing to do with the book itself. I made the mistake of starting it right before the Goodreads Choice Awards were announced and promptly got distracted by all the awesome books that were nominated. But I made it a priority to finish before my trip to New Zealand and I ended up really liking it.

I knew the premise of the story, but I didn’t realize that the plot was split between 4 (really 3) main characters. I immediately liked the writing, but I was a little unsure of what to expect from the plot. The Cellist of Sarajevo is about the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. The people who were able to get out of the city are long gone and we are left with the civilians who never had the means to get out and haven’t been called to the front to fight. The city is under siege by the men in the hills, who regularly shell the city and set snipers at many of the major intersections. With so many of the city’s services destroyed, it makes daily life very difficult for the people trapped in the city. The safest place to be is indoors, but everyone is forced to venture into the city in search of food and water.

The Cellist, who is based on a real individual, is at the centre of the story, without the story actually being about him. After 22 people were killed lining up for bread, he decides to play his cello in the street for 22 days to honour each of the lives lost.

This book is the kind of subtle literary fiction that I love. There’s nothing really propelling the story – it is just average people trying to survive their every day life in a city beset by war – yet I can’t deny the impact of the storytelling. It’s not the plot that drives the story, but the resilience and tenacity of the individuals. At times it’s hard to discern the timeline of the story, but it never really matters because this book is really only a character study about the kind of choices we make during challenging times. I admire the author for his writing and exploration of the human psyche as someone who was neither in Bosnia during the siege or who has lived through a war. The plot is so simple, yet the characters inner monologues have such depth.

It’s hard to articulate the impact of the writing, but I particularly admired how Galloway wrote both Dragon and Kenan’s characters. Neither are heroes and they struggle with seemingly mundane things, but it rings so true of the long term impact of violence and how it can both make you hopeful and make you question your integrity. Dragon dreams of an escape from the city, while simultaneously acknowledging the gravitas of being where he is right now. Kenan struggles with the exhaustion of taking care of so many people and is tempted to abandon his obligations just to look after himself. War brings people down to their base instincts and needs and I really liked this study of what really matters when it comes down to it. Wonderful writing.