Lisa Moore: February (2010)


In 1982, the oil rig Ocean Ranger sinks off the coast of Newfoundland during a Valentine’s night storm. Helen O’Mara, pregnant with her fourth child, receives a call telling her that her husband, Cal, has drowned.

A quarter of a century later, Helen is woken by another phone call. It is her wayward son, John, calling from another time zone to tell her that he has made a girl pregnant and he wants Helen to decide what to do. As John grapples with what it might mean to be a father, Helen realises that she must shake off her decades of mourning in order to help.

With grace and precision and an astonishing ability to render the precise details of her characters’ physical and emotional worlds, Lisa Moore reveals the story that unfurls around those two moments.

Lisa Moore is an acclaimed Canadian author whose books are regularly nominated for awards and prizes. She won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for her novel Alligator. Her novel February was longlisted for the Man Booker in 2010. I discovered her when I was looking for authors for The Canadian Book Challenge 6. For those who are interested – Challenge 7 will start in July 2013.

February starts in 2008. Helen receives a phone call from her son John, telling her, he will be a father. John has always been the most difficult of her four children and the news fills her with joy and apprehension and triggers a flood of memories.

Helen has been a widow since 1992 when her husband died. He was working on the oil rig Ocean Ranger, which sank off the coast of Newfoundland during a stormy night. All the men died. It took three days until all the families had the certitude that nobody survived. Helen who was pregnant with her fourth child knew immediately that Cal was dead. They had such a strong connection, she felt that he would not return.

Grief holds Helen firmly in its grasp. For more than 20 years, she still belongs to the love of her life but deep down inside she knows she isn’t cut out to stay alone forever. There is a longing, a yearning. She wants to be touched, feel another person’s presence. At the time of the phone call, Helen has her house redecorated and falls in love with the man in charge of the redecoration.

The book jumps back and forth in time. A scene set in 2008 follows an episode from 1982; the next will take place in 2006 and the book will then move back to 1992 and finally return to 2008. The chapters indicate the year, it’s easy to follow but at first I didn’t understand why she chose this approach until I realized how much sense it made. Imagine you arrive at a crucial point in your life and look back on the years before that moment. I don’t think anyone would do this in a chronological order. We remember this and that, bits from that year, others from another year. That’s how February is constructed. Helen is finally ready to let go of her grief and these intense new feelings bring back the past with a new acuteness.

This is the kind of thing Helen remembers, bits of afternoon that sharpen in focus until they are too bright. Just moments. Tatters. How the kids climbed on Cal. Flung themselves. How they clambered over him. He tickled them. Gave them horseback rides. Told stories. He did the airplane. Lying on his back, his legs in the air, their little rib cages resting on his grey wool socks. Soaring.

February is a quiet, introspective book. Moore captures feelings masterfully and her style mirrors their complexity and depth. Her descriptions of love, loss, grief and hope are intense and powerful, entirely free of kitsch. Helen’s sadness is palpable, her loneliness can be felt.

February tells the story of a woman whose emotional life has come to a standstill. The man she lost was the love of her life and the relationship they shared was strong and deep. It was physical and emotional. There is incredible pain to imagine how he died, sinking into the icy cold water, with no hope to be rescued. Imagining this takes its toll. It’s as if she feels she will betray him, if she lets go of his memory.

When Helen reawakens to her needs, she feels like a young girl inside of the body of and elderly woman. She’s 58 and shocked to find out that she isn’t considered to be attractive anymore. I liked the way Moore showed this, the scenes she chose to illustrate how invisible older women become in our society which only values women who are young and beautiful. Moore shows this with so much compassion, it’s touching and painful at the same time. Here’s Helen after a date with an online acquaintance she’s been writing to daily for three months has gone an unexpected way

‘Heathcliff’ had come and looked at her and didn’t find her attractive. It was so far outside the scope of what she knew to be decent human behaviour that she could not fathom it, though some part of her also knew it exactly. She went to the bathroom and got down on her knees in front of the filthy toilet and puked. The floor of the bathroom had slush all over it and the knees of her nylons were soaked; a single stone dug sharply into her knee. What she was vomiting was the belief that getting old didn’t matter. Because it did matter. It mattered a lot and there was no stopping it, and everything inside her heaved out that idea.

Moore’s achievement is to describe the pain and the loss of the beloved man in an understated way and to pair them with the pain of lost youth and possibilities. This could be a depressing book but it’s not, it’s very beautiful because Helen learns that there may not be so many possibilities anymore but there are still some and life can start anew.

I began February last year but had to put it aside because it’s a book that demands attention. It’s best read slowly as it’s very rich and the style is fresh and diverse. It’s a very authentic book that rings true at every moment. It has what you would call a happy ending but it’s not corny as, in a way, it is a narrow escape. There is always the danger of staying alone and lonely, of spending old age abandoned from life and love.

I liked the idea that Lisa Moore chose a true story, the Ocean Ranger Disaster, and based her novel on that tragedy. Just like the Titanic, the Ocean Ranger was said to be unsinkable. Nobody saw the disaster coming. Does that make it worse? Was Helen better off because she knew right away and with an absolute certainty that Cal was gone while others were still hoping for her husbands and sons to return?

This is the second author I have discovered thanks to The Canadian Book Challenge. And, like Mary Lawson, she is an author I want to read more of. She writes beautifully and with a rare authenticity.

Louise Penny: Still Life (2005)

The discovery of a dead body in the woods on Thanksgiving Weekend brings Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his colleagues from the Surete du Quebec to a small village in the Eastern Townships. Gamache cannot understand why anyone would want to deliberately kill well-loved artist Jane Neal, especially any of the residents of Three Pines – a place so free from crime it doesn’t even have its own police force. But Gamache knows that evil is lurking somewhere behind the white picket fences and that, if he watches closely enough, Three Pines will start to give up its dark secrets…

Still Life by Canadian writer Louise Penny was a real discovery. There hasn’t been a start to a crime series since I’ve read the first of Peter Robinson’s Chief Inspector Ranks series that I enjoyed this much.

If I could I would move to Three Pines, the small fictional village, located a few hours from Montreal, in rural Québec. It’s a small village that sounds as if it was a place where time stands still and reminded me a lot of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford. Old cottages face a small village center and are surrounded by old trees and lush gardens. The place is very green and picturesque, the descriptions of it atmospheric and full of tiny details of the season. It’s the end of autumn, dead leaves are falling, it rains and the temperature is slowly dropping. A storm will come and soon it will be winter. Before the crime is solved, snow will begin to fall and a lot of the investigation will have taken place in front of a cozy fire.

It’s hard to believe a crime could happen is such an idyllic setting but it does and Chief Inspector Armand Gamache from the Sureté du Québec and his team have to leave Montreal and try to find out what happened to Jane Neal. The old woman was found dead in the forest on the morning of Thanksgiving. It is the hunting season and Jane has been shot dead by an arrow. However bow, arrow and shooter are missing. Was it maybe no hunting accident?

Gamache and his team will have to stay in Three Pines for the duration of the investigation. They move into Olivier’s and Gabri’s B&B. The two men also own the local bistro which is known for its excellent food. The investigation introduces us to Jane Neal’s friends, a small but interesting community. The painters Clara and Peter, Myrna, a former psychologist who opened a book shop in Three Pines, Ben, the son of Timmer, one of Jane’s best friends, Ruth, a poet and many more.

While Still Life has at times the feel of a cozy, it’s more complex than the average novel of that genre. Chief Inspector Gamache is a kind, intelligent but strict and far from flawless man. It will be interesting to see how he will be portayed in the following books. His team is promising as well, his subordinate is a sort of son figure for him while there is a rookie character with whom he gets into one conflict after another. The novel is well constructed, moving on a steady pace and the crime isn’t solved too easily and very plausible.

I have never read a Canadian crime novel before and I was glad Louise Penny provided a lot of interesting information about Québec, the way the French and the English live together, the peculiarities of the region.

What I liked best apart from a wide range of  psychological insights are the well-drawn characters and the wonderfully atmospheric descriptions of the place. That makes me wonder how the series will go on. It seems part two is set in Three Pines as well but the following parts are not.

If you like to immerse yourself in your crime novels and want them well constructed with detailed descriptions and some very appealing characters, you shouldn’t miss the start to this series. It’s great. And I love the cover.

David Gilmour: The Film Club (2007) A Touching Memoir of a Father and His Teenage Son Watching Their Way Through Cinema History

It was an unconventional deal: Jesse could leave school, sleep all day, not work, not pay rent – but he had to watch three films a week … of his father’s choosing. Week by week, side by side, father and son watch the world’s best (and occasionally worst) films – from True Romance to Chungking Express, A Hard Day’s Night to Rosemary’s Baby, Showgirls to La Dolce Vita. The films get them talking – about girls, music, heartbreak, work, drugs, money, love, friendship – and they open doors to a young man’s interior life at a time when parents are normally shut out. Gradually, the son develops from a chaotic teenager into a self-assured young adult, but as the film club moves towards its bittersweet and inevitable conclusion, Jesse makes a decision which surprises even his father… The Film Club is a book that goes straight to the heart. Honest, unsparing and poignant, it is the true story of one man’s attempt to chart a course for his beloved son’s rocky passage into adulthood.

David Gilmour’s The Film Club was one of the few books that I bought following a recommendation in a book shop. You know those corners where the staff piles up the books they read during the year and liked a lot? Well, this was on one of them. It is not only a memoir – the non fiction genre I like best – but a book that speaks extensively about movies. It isn’t a literary masterpiece, it is no The Liar’s Club or The Glass Castle, but it is very, very entertaining and quite touching. Gilmour is very outspoken when it comes to feelings. He writes as easily about joy as about anxieties.

Picking movies for people is a risky business. In a way it is as revealing as writing someone a letter. It shows how you think, it shows what moves you, sometimes it can even show how you think the world sees you.

When Gilmour’s teenage son starts to show an alarming disinterest in school, Gilmour decides to let him leave school under one condition, namely watching three movies per week with his father. Three movies that his father chooses, of course. It’s an experiment and when they start Gilmour is as uncertain about the outcome as the reader.

Gilmour, a novelist and journalist, has come to a major turning point in his own life. He is out of work and desperately trying to get little TV assignments here and there. Being out of work, panics him, on the other hand it gives him a lot of time to spend with his son. Knowing very well that the boy isn’t going to stay with him forever he cherishes every moment. No wonder the book is full of nostalgia and has a very bitter-sweet tone.

I return to old movies not just to watch them again but in the hope that I’ll feel the way I did when I first saw them; not just about movies either, but about everything

During the three years that follow Gilmour’s idea of letting his son drop out of school, he shows him the greatest of filmmaking there is. They watch movies by periods, by schools, by themes, by countries. I think he lists at least some 80 movies including some from the French nouvelle vague, the New Hollywood movement, Japanese film making, Western, Horror, Comedies… The first few choices are far from succesful as Jesse, Gilmour’s son, finds them unbearably boring. He has no clue how to watch a French movie for example, doesn’t know which are crucial scenes to look out for in a Hitchcock film. Normally before showing the movie to his son, Gilmour will give some background information, a lot of it was very enlightening. He explains to him why certain actors are better than others, that the best of them are even great when they don’t even say a word, he shows him special camera angles, indicates pieces of dialogue. It takes a year until Jesse starts to see and enjoy the movies they are watching and develops a taste of his own. He loves Chungking Express.

True Romance has a eight- or nine minute encounter between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken that may well be, for me, the best stand-alone scene in film. (….) Christopher Walken announcing “I am the Antichrist”.

But this book isn’t only about movies. The movies also serve as basis for discussions about everything. And life goes on. Gilmour struggles to find a job, Jesse falls in love twice and both times end in disaster. The second heart-break is so intense, you have to be really hardened to not be reminded of something similar in your own life.

Showgirls,” I said to Jesse, “is something of a cinematic oddity, a guilty pleasure without a single good performance.”

It is obvious that the experiment described in the book helps them both. Jesse finds perspective. After living as a rap musician for a while, he takes a completely new direction and David Gilmour writes this book. The relationship between these two is unique. So much honesty, trust and friendship between a father and a son is wonderful. Not every parent has the chance to spend as much time with his kid, that is for sure, but every parent has certainly spent enchanted moments with his/her child and will be touched by this story. For us film lovers it’s a great way to remind us how many movies there are still to discover, how many to watch again and in how many different ways we can watch them.

Here’s a video in which they talk about the book.

David and Jesse Gilmour talk about The Film Club

Kelley Armstrong: Bitten (2001) A Werewolf Thriller

Elena, heroine of Kelley Armstrong’s impressive debut thriller Bitten, never planned that a casual sexual encounter would transform her into a werewolf. Neither did Clay, her lover and one of the leaders of the exclusive werewolf clique known as the Pack; women do not generally change or survive if they do. Elena’s considerable reservations about her new life come to a head and she walks out on the Pack to return to something like normality, finding herself a boyfriend who turns a blind eye to her occasional disappearances in the middle of the night. She may have done with the infighting of werewolves, but they have not done with her; her former family call her back when they find themselves under threat from those they have excluded and dominated. Kelley Armstrong is very good on the sheer exhilaration of shape-changing, of running on four feet through forests, suburban greenery and urban back alleys; if there is a weakness here, it is that Elena’s relationship with the taciturn, untrustworthy Clay is sometimes a little too conventionally romantic–but the dark poetry of the best of the book overcomes this entirely.

I must admit if it hadn’t been for Kailana I would never have read Kelley Armstrong’s Bitten but some of her reviews of the Women of the Otherworld series were so enthusiastic, I simply had to try it.  And to be honest “A werewolf thriller” sounded somewhat intriguing. I was not disappointed. Besides, my late grandmother being from Brittany, I grew up with werewolf tales and did belive them until my late teens. But this is not the reason why I liked it. I liked it because I could identify with the heroine. She is such a realistically drawn person. A strong woman who grew up in foster homes, looking for a family, a home, security but never seems to get it. The years alone have hardened her. But then she meets Clay. Beautiful, intelligent, mysterious Clay who offers her everything she never had. Who even goes to a lot of pain to offer her her first proper Christmas and who takes her to Stonehaven, the home of his family, Jeremy, Antony, Nick, Logan and the others. And then the unthinkable happens. He bites her. The only secret he has kept from her, that he is a werewolf, is a fatal one. Normally no one survives a werewolf bite. Only the strongest do. And there was never a female werewolf. Elena is the first.

At the beginning of the novel, Elena lives in Toronto with Philipp. She has left Stonehaven and the pack. She doesnt’ want to be an outsider of society, she wants to fit in, lead a normal live. One day however she gets a call from Jeremy, the Alpha male of the pack. Someone is threatening the pack, wants their territory and has started killing innocent people. She is reluctant to go back at first but finally  gives in. Once she is there she realises how much she missed them. Especially Clay. The novel is action packed and fast paced. There is not only one other werewolf who wants to harm them, there are many. And they eventuallly start to kill the men from the pack. If they want to survive, they have to stick together and fight as one.

Elena fights alongside her men. As said before, she is a strong person. I would wish her as a role model for young women. Powerful and determined. What really surprised me is the writing. Did you ever want to know what it would feel like to be a werewolf? The writing is so detailed, and descriptive that you might very well have the feeling you know what it is like to smell with the nose of a wolf, to tread and run with the paws of a wolf, to hunt and to race through the forest at night. The character development of Elena is interesting too. At times I totally forgot I was reading Fantasy. The core theme is “being true to yourself” and that is certainly a theme anyone can relate to.

As you see, it is very entertaining. A werewolf thriller with a touching love story and a strong heroine. Bitten is the first in the series of Women of the Otherworld. I am not very keen on series but I might read the next one sooner or later.

Any series you like or would suggest?