Every once in a while a novel splashes to the surface of the slush pile like a big orange koi in a pool of minnows. Such a novel is Ten Good Seconds of Silence by Elizabeth Ruth (Dundurn, 414pgs, $19.99, ISBN: 0889243018), a sterling tale of a mother and daughter trying desperately to understand each other. As a teenager Lilith Boot had visions interpreted by her parents as hallucinations, and they committed her to a mental hospital. Lilith became involved with two patients, Randy, a murderer, and Mrs. Moffat, a gentle deranged woman with a baby son. Moffat's husband quietly disappears with the baby, Benjamin. Lilith discovers a unique way to be freed from the hospital and her friends make her promise to move on with her life and forget them. We move ahead almost twenty years to find Lilith with an 18-year-old daughter, Lemon, and working for the Toronto Police Force, using her psychic ability to find missing children. The one child she has never been able to find is Mrs. Moffat's son, Benjamin. Lemon has a lot of issues, mainly dealing with the mystery of who her father is, something Lilith refuses to tell her, claiming somewhat facetiously that it was an immaculate conception. Lemon travels to Vancouver in search of her father and in the process uncovers much information and opens old wounds when past and present collide. The characters come alive on the page, and as strange as they are, engender much sympathy. The ending may be over-explained with all the outstanding questions answered, but this is a powerful debut with echoes of Dickens, some John Irving and a little of Timothy Findley scattered throughout.
The Ash Garden by Dennis Bock (Harper Flamingo Canada, 281 pgs, $34.00, ISBN: 0002255243), is a brilliant novel that is difficult to review without giving away any of the superb plot twists that make it a spellbinding adventure in reading. A German scientist escapes to Spain, then to America where he is involved in the building of the atomic bomb. A young part-Jewish woman escapes the Nazis, only to be quarantined on a boat that sails the Atlantic looking for a place to dock. She ends up in a refugee camp in Canada. She and the scientist eventually meet and marry. A Japanese child is playing with her younger brother on a river bank on the outskirts of Hiroshima when the atomic bomb is dropped. How the lives of these three people intersect, their destinies entwined because of the bombing of Hiroshima, makes for fascinating storytelling. The Japanese girl is horribly disfigured and is chosen as one of 25 victims of the bomb to come to the United States for surgeries. She eventually becomes a documentary film maker and comes to Canada to interview the scientist, now long retired, who is an unrepentant defender of the use of the bomb. How this all comes together is very moving and profound and full of surprising revelations.
All the Seas of the World by Gayla Reid (Stoddart, 300pgs, $29.95, ISBN: 0773732802), is the story of two girls, Bernadette and Deirdre who grew up in an isolated Australian backwater. Deirdre becomes a reporter and the story opens with her adventures in Vietnam, where one lover is killed and she acquires another, Martin, an Argentinean journalist. Martin's best friend is Sandy a reporter from New Zealand, and gay. The three of them become best friends. This is the strongest part of the book. The setting is well realized, the characters interesting. There are then flashbacks to Deirdre and Bernadette's childhoods, their family backgrounds, and much too much about their mundane catholic girls' school upbringing. Martin and Deirdre eventually marry and move to Argentina where he is politically active and becomes one of the "disappeared". Bernadette is the shadowy teller of the tale, and as such is not fully developed as a character. After Martin disappears, Deirdre has a breakdown, is rescued by her old friend Sandy, then she too disappears, though of her own volition. Years pass and just as Deirdre and Bernadette are about to experience a reunion after twenty years with no communication, the novel ends. It could so easily have been brilliant, but becomes unfocused in the final third, and just fades away, leaving too many unanswered questions.
Tip of the Halo, by R. F. Darion, NeWest Press, 249pp, $9.95, ISBN: 1896300391). When reading a large number of books as I do it is interesting to see what writers think might interest readers. It is the publisher's job to protect the public from most of it. Since writers generally write the kind of novel they like to read I have to assume that Darion likes to read mild police procedurals where nothing happens. This novel is set in St. Michael in rural Alberta where a female bureaucrat at the Catholic School Board Office is bonked on the head in the library in broad daylight but no one sees anything. Staff Sergeant Dan Laurenson is in charge of the investigation. Laurenson's wife stayed behind at his last posting, probably because he is about as interesting as watching water find its own level, and he lives alone with an incontinent dog as a companion. The police immediately decide it was an unplanned murder, so there goes the threat of having a killer on the loose; there is no menace, no suspense. There are endless meetings of the RCMP officers where they discuss every aspect of the case. These are interspersed with endless interviews of potential suspects. There is no action. They eventually work up a good circumstantial case against a suspect. They bring the suspect in without incident, where the verbose Laurenson bores him into confessing. I suspect this resembles real life police work, but real fiction requires plot and action. A second Laurenson novel is already on the way. Spare us!
The title, Plenty of Harm in God, by Dana Bath (DC Books, 215 pgs, No price quoted, ISBN: 0919688780), will be off-putting to almost everyone; religious people won't like it, the nonreligious don't want to read about God. Bath has a poetic touch and a flare for language; she also has a touch for the melodramatic. In Newfoundland, a delusional teenybopper has a baby which she insists was fathered by God. She runs away with the baby and lives in isolation for five years with an equally strange man. The child is then taken from her. They are reunited ten years later and travel to Ireland. Needless to say the young girl, Claire, coming from such a background is emotionally disturbed. In Ireland the mother, still delusional, arranges for Clare to be sexually assaulted. The mother kills herself. Claire lives on with her aunt and Gilly, her weird cousin. There is a wild Irish girl who sings in a pub, and lots of sex takes place on the cold, windy beaches of Ireland. Clare travels to Newfoundland and returns to Ireland pregnant, trying to comprehend and come to terms with all that has happened. None of this is particularly believable and most of the characters are downright unlikable.
Beatrice by Monica Kidd (Turnstone Press, 210pgs, $18.95, ISBN: 0888012659), is a novel not ready for publication, something for which the publisher not the author must take the blame. Beatrice is not a person but a dying prairie town where conditions are about to become worse with the closing of the town elevator. The story, such as it is, tells of several townspeople and how their lives are changed. There is a loathsome old drunk who, we just know is going to die, and sure enough in Chapter 17 he, as they say, buys the farm. The dialogue is clunky and unrealistic. A character appears for no reason other than to have the residents supply him with a history of the town and its inhabitants. But worst of all the writing is amateurish, the author continually reaching and overreaching for supposedly poetic phrases that are mainly inappropriate, often clichT, sometimes just plain silly: "The world flicks from his tongue, snaps tightly into a ball and rolls away under the table." "Outside the spruce trees reach their green fingers for the sky." "Cold metal pings drift away on the evening breeze. . ."
Hail Mary Corner by Brian Payton (Beach Holme Press, 209 pgs, $18.95, ISBN: 0888784428), is yet another catholic boys at school novel, the third or fourth of the year. Well written, it is defeated by the closed environment of St. John the Divine, a seminary high school on Vancouver Island, operated by Benedictine monks. There are all the usual hijinks, sneaking in and out after hours, stealing food, pulling pranks, and the usual alliances and misalliances among the boys. One of the boys has a secret which isn't difficult to guess. One of the monks has a secret which leads to the tragic climax. First novelists and especially editors of first novels should be aware that 99 out of every 100 epilogues are unnecessary, and the one at the tail end of Hail Mary Corner is no exception.
Where She Was Standing by Maggie Helwig (ECW Press, 266 pgs, $19.95, ISBN: 1550224786), is set in the early 1990s in East Timor, where a group of protesters are attacked by the Indonesian military. A Canadian woman is among those who are wounded, and then "disappeared" in an effort to conceal the massacre. A Canadian human rights worker in London, England becomes involved in the case. The dead woman took some pictures and there is considerable intrigue involved in getting the film to the proper sources. Rachel, the human rights worker is the main focus of the story and her problem is that she is essentially unable to cope with the trauma of her job. The story is well told, is sometimes moving, sometimes preachy, and unrelentingly depressing. This will appeal to Amnesty International types, though the question of how much empathy and protection should be extended to people who intentionally become involved in the internal politics of foreign countries and suffer for the involvement, is never raised.
Bitten by Kelley Armstrong (Random House, 342pgs, $34.95, ISBN: 0679310614), does for werewolves what Anne Rice did for vampires. Elena is the only woman to be bitten by a werewolf and live to tell about it. When the story opens she is living a quiet life in Toronto with her boyfriend, and only occasionally sneaks out in the dead of night to change form and have a run in the park. Then the call comes from her old pack in the deep woods of New York. They are in trouble and she must return. There are outlaw werewolves, known as mutts, eating people here and there and the good werewolves fearing they will be discovered and blamed, must annihilate them. There follows a fast-paced adventure/love story as Elena helps her old pack dispose of the bad guys and in the process again falls in love with Clay, her werewolf sweetheart from whom she had run away to Toronto. This is somewhat of a read-by-weight book, 342 pages of very small type. I imagine readers of this genre don't mind being inundated with superfluous detail. Otherwise, the book could easily be edited down by 100 pages.
Another huge book that apparently escaped editing entirely is Last Summer at Barebones by Diane Baker Mason (McArthur & Company, 448 pgs, $24.95, ISBN: 1552782395). A freakish tabloid writer recognizes the sister she hasn't seen for 30 years, when she finds her performing at a comedy club. The fat, frowzy comic is using the tabloid writer's childhood as grist for her act, and does not recognize the now slim, formerly fat and suffering sister. The tabloid writer decides to kill the comic, whom she blames for ruining her life. The story moves back to Barebones Lake in the summer of 1970. The fat, ugly sister is tormented by her older, beautiful sister and everyone else. Writers often have a problem with what to leave in a story and what to leave out, but Mason leaves everything in, the final summer takes hundreds of pages and hundreds of references to how the obnoxious fat girl is slighted. The summer ends in a conflagration. The confrontation between sisters is an anticlimax as well as a fiasco. This book could actually be compared to a very heavy person, because somewhere inside there is a slim book struggling to get out. ò