Category Archives: Canadian authors

November books: Four novels, four good reads, and four stars each

stuart-head1-bw-hires-portraitOne of the oddest novels I’ve read in recent times is Himmler’s Cook by Franz-Olivier Giesbert. I was swept along by this off-key tale of Rose, the Armenian centenarian, reminiscing about her life from the haven of her Marseille restaurant. She survives the Armenian genocide, suffers multiple sexual predators, becomes great friends with Himmler, and makes plenty of tasty dishes along the way. It’s a clever story and a smart retelling of bits of twentieth century history, but in the end, not entirely satisfying. The difficulty I had was conceptualising Rose as a person rather than a literary device. Perhaps I was looking for too much.

Francis Guenette’s The Light Never Lies took me to British Columbia. This sequel to Guenette’s Disappearing in Plain Sight preserves the central device of the void left by the death of Caleb, husband of Izzy, the glamorous youth counsellor in the remote settlement of Crater Lake. While Guenette’s work is heavy on social issues – mental health, marriage equality, youth suicide, Indigenous rights – it presents a very persuasive reality of fraught relationships, emotional pinch points, gorgeous scenery, and wholesome food you can almost eat off the page. There are a lot of characters to get to know in this longish book, but perseverance pays off.

I read Peter Hobbs’s In the Orchard, the Swallows around the time that the progressive press was fulminating over Lionel Shriver’s remarks about cultural appropriation. I sit on the fence with this topic, having done plenty of cultural appropriation in my own writing. But I felt uncomfortable with Hobbs’s first-person story of a man in the remote border regions of Pakistan recalling his long imprisonment and banal, meaningless torture – the consequence of an innocent indiscretion with a would-be girlfriend in his adolescence. Yes, the text is poetic and lyrical, but I could not drive from my mind the thought, “How would the author know this boy’s experience?” The first-person technique is, I think, the difficulty: It eliminates the distance between the author and the narrator and leaves a taste of implausibility A fine read, nevertheless, if you can ignore the clamour about who’s allowed to write about what.

And this leads me to John M W Smith’s A Crazy Act in Uganda. Smith has solved the cultural appropriation problem in the first two of his Dictator Thriller Series (see also An Unlawful Act in Libya) by interposing himself (or someone like him) as the second-hand narrator of the story. Here, Smith’s literary avatar recounts a story told by an old man about a brutal episode in Idi Amin’s Uganda. Forty years previously the man, a disease epidemic expert, accepts a contract to work on a project to eliminate smallpox; but matters are more convoluted and evil than he expects, and some truly ghastly events ensue. I enjoyed this novella for the tension built into the plot and the cleverly calibrated balance between evil and expediency. There are no laughs to be had here, but I did wonder whether Smith could have injected some of the macabre humour of An Unlawful Act in Libya. But then Uganda’s history is perhaps just too dark for humour.

I write quirky novels about love, betrayal and redemption. You can read about my books here.

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Indie authors like Francis Guenette producing stellar work

Francis Guenette - author photo (1)
Francis Guenette

These days I seem to divide my reading between carefully selected indie authors and a long backlist of classics. A week or two back I found myself reading Canadian indie author Francis Guenette’s Disappearing in Plain Sight alongside Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, which stormed the literary world in 1962.

The comparison was instructive: Both novels are driven by strong characters, and both immerse the reader in compelling settings. At the same time, there was a complementarity between the books: Porter’s scathingly critical analysis of the hapless passengers on a pre-war journey from Mexico to Europe; Guenette’s insistence on redemption for her damaged and difficult characters in rural British Columbia.

I haven’t reviewed Porter; after all, she did get a Pulitzer decades before the Kindle was a gleam in anyone’s eye. But  I did give Disappearing in Plain Sight five stars here

I’d love to ask Katherine Anne Porter some questions about Ship of Fools. Alas, I am 36 years too late. However, I popped a few questions to Francis about her thoughts on Disappearing in Plain Sight:

Q – What would you say to your character Izzy if you came across her in a coffee shop?

A – Hands down, I would ask her for more Caleb stories. Izzy’s first husband, Caleb, the man who created the paradise at Crater Lake that Izzy inhabits, is dead before the opening lines of Disappearing in Plain Sight and yet he has often been named as people’s favourite character. One reader went as far as to say that Caleb is the moral compass of the novel. Glimpses into this man’s personality and charisma saturate the entire Crater Lake Series. I know as the books add up and I move further from his death and into the lives of the people left behind, I will have to be more and more creative in my task of keeping him in the present narrative. Come on, Izzy. Help me out here.

Q – Did you fall in love with any of your characters when you were writing the book?

A – Hmmm … since a little bit of me is in every single character, I was narcissistically in love with each of them. Differing personality traits appealed to me. I admired Lisa-Marie’s feistiness. Who wouldn’t fall for Justin’s good looks and code of honour?  I fell madly in love with Beulah’s sharp wit and wry comments. My heart went out to Bethany for the cards life had dealt her. Liam’s strength and fragility wrenched my emotions every time I encountered him. And Izzy’s struggles with grief and professionalism buffeted me with echoes of many, many stories I’ve heard over the years. As you can probably tell, these characters mattered to me. If, as an author, I am not emotionally committed to my characters, how can I expect the readers to care?

Q – Do you ever wish you’d ended the book differently?

A – Absolutely not – the ending of Disappearing in Plain Sight gives me great satisfaction. The novel never started out to be the first book in a series. It was simply a story I had to tell. When I try now to answer questions about where the characters or ideas came from, I’m at a loss to provide an answer. All I do know is that the ending more than any other part of the book had the characters clamouring in my head to have the next chapters of their lives told. After three novels, they are still at it with new characters constantly making appearances and begging for attention.

The verdict after my week of parallel reading: Porter is deservedly part of the canon of English language literature, but  indie authors like Guenette are producing stellar work. Both books gave me immense satisfaction.

Read a free sample of An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity  here. Buy Stuart Campbell’s books in paperback and ebook on Amazon by clicking on these title links:An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity and The Play’s the Thing . Stuart Campbell’s covers are designed by Rachel Ainge .