Volunteer Reader Review

High Clear Bell of Morning by Ann Eriksson

High Clear Bell of Morning is a moving portrayal of a family’s experience with a mentally ill family member and the environmental dangers facing sea animals, especially killer whales.

Glen, a marine biologist, has been charting the incidence of young killer whales’ deaths in the Salish Sea off the coast of British Columbia and Washington State. At the same time, his teenage daughter, Ruby, begins to exhibit startling symptoms which include hearing voices, abusing her parents and brother in various ways and behaving bizzarely. Despite her parents’ best efforts to find help for her she ends up on the street, with a drug-addicted boyfriend and becomes addicted herself. Glen, in an attempt to understand her behaviour, takes her medications and is completely incapacitated for a period of time.

High Clear Bell of Morning by Ann Eriksson

High Clear Bell of Morning by Ann Eriksson

He continues his studies of the dead killer whales, finding that they are full of toxic pollutants and tries to find parallels between them and Ruby’s situation. Eventually, Ruby is rescued from her drug filled residence and is admitted to a treatment centre where she finds a new life. Glen is incarcerated for the murder of Ruby’s boyfriend, and his wife leaves him and takes the children East.

The story is told from two points of view: Glen and Ruby. In Glen, we see the anguish of the family as they try to help their daughter, and the toll mental illness takes on a family. With Ruby, the reader has a glimpse into the hell of mental illness when the sufferer is overtaken by forces beyond her control.

The author has done much research in telling the story and it shows. For the most part, the reader sympathizes with the characters, even though they can behave in maddening ways.

Reviewed by Hilary Munro

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Threatened by Eliot Schrefer

Threatened takes us to the Central West coast on the continent of Africa. AIDS orphan Luc (about the age of twelve), is living a meager existence indebted to a brutish moneylender, when he meets an Arab man and his pet monkey, Omar. The man claims to be a professor from the University of Leipzig and on behalf of the National Geographic Society has come to the country of Gabon to study its chimpanzee population. This country is known for its natural resources of oil and lumber and sadly along with the U.S. are the only two countries left in the world that still allow legal use of chimpanzees for research purposes.

Threatened by Eliot Schrefer

Threatened by Eliot Schrefer

The professor decides to hire Luc as his assistant and together with the vervet Omar they venture into the “inside”, the very depths of the Gabonese jungle. Both man and boy manage to rise up to the challenge of the savage landscape until the night that the Professor mysteriously disappears leaving Luc to fend for himself and face the fears he has of the chimpanzee, of the ‘mock men’ as the locals call them.

Author Eliot Schrefer through his melodic prose takes the reader to a place most of us will never see. We hear the sound of the jungle, see and smell the flora and fauna. But it is through Luc that we experience the rhythm of man living along side its closest DNA relation, the chimpanzee.

Although this book is geared towards young adults and is published by Scholastic Press the message that Mr. Schrefer writes is for all mankind. In the Professors words to Luc he says, “Humans will break your heart…The same selfishness that makes so many of us hurt the ones we love makes our species hurt creatures it admires. To hunt and destroy chimpanzees, like they would never do to us.”

Nothing is more noble than to lend a voice to those that have none, bravo Eliot Schrefer. Read the book, prepare to be moved and seek out further work by this gifted author.

Reviewed by Kiara Funcillo

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Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

Medicine Walk had my undivided attention from the first page. This novel is about a father (Eldon) and son (Frank), who try to make a connection with each other during the last few days of Eldon’s life. Eldon, an alcoholic and an absentee father, feels compelled to explain to his son why his like took the direction it did. The great reveal takes place in a majestic outdoor setting.

Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

Throughout this novel the author describes beautifully the wilderness and the impact it has on Frank’s life and well being. The words were so powerful I wanted to jump into my vehicle and heads to the hills to enjoy the peace and quiet that Richard leads me to believe is there. Far from the oasis spa bathrooms that all of us seem to have in our homes today.

The author does an outstanding job in capturing the emotions of all the characters in the story, in particular Frank’s. Frank’s feelings for his father are like a roller coaster ride, and for good reason. No one appreciates broken promises and abandonment. In the end questions are answered and lives are at peace.

This novel delves into the complexities of relationships and the impact events in one’s life can have on those relationships, both good and bad. It also draws awareness to the healing power of nature and its beauty which is freely available for all of us to enjoy.

Reviewed by: Petra Mandock

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Capricious by Gabrielle Prendergas

Capricious captivated me with it’s brilliant verse. I hadn’t read many books in this style before this, and those that I had tended to be fantasy and medieval fiction. I was really impressed by its use in this book, and the way it fit into the narrator’s modern life. It managed to give just glimpses into Ella’s life, while keeping the intimacy created with a first person point of view novel.

Capricious by Gabrielle Prendergast

Capricious by Gabrielle Prendergast

Another reason that I liked the book as much as I did was the narrator. Ella was a believable and rough narrator, and though she could be self centred at times (at least in terms of her focusing on her own problems) she addressed this, which was really nice to see. I’m all for flawed narrators, especially when they are aware of their own flaws and work to address them, in some way.

The romance between each character really worked, despite the fact that it threatened, at times, to stray into the dreaded indecision filled love triangle hurting those involved. I love the way the two boys fit into Ella’s life – filling the gaps that the other could not, creating what Ella called the perfect boyfriend. Both boys had romantic appeal, and both boys had their flaws. I liked that Ella addressed the issues with what Samir was saying (especially in terms of decency) because it was bothering me. David too, in some places, said some things that were reminiscent of “nice boy” things that get under my skin.

I believe the author set out to show, as she says in her blurb, that “self serving actions can have public consequences”, by exploring a misfit narrator that struggles through the consequences of her actions. In addition, she explores concepts like romance and intimacy, mental health and cruelty that people can live through at the hands of their “friends”.

Prendergast managed to achieve this, in my opinion, because her realistic narrator took us into the mind of a hurting teenage girl. I found her relatable, even when I did not agree with her actions or decisions, because I could relate to the emotions. Additionally, the goal was achieved because as a reader you managed to see a variety of reactions to her actions – from her parents and disapproving authority figures, to the students around her.

The book is aimed at young adult/new adult audiences, particularly those in grades ten to twelve. Some of the elements, like the sexual themes, Ella’s incriminating action itself and the language, do make the book appropriate for slightly more mature readers. For this reason, I think the audience could be extended to adults as well. The complexity of the format itself, with varied verse, would appeal to lovers of poetry and readers looking for something fresh.

Reviewed by: Aimee Ferguson

 

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The Bear by Claire Cameron

Reading The Bear reminded me of Room by Emma Donoghue, as both are narrated by a five year old child. In Room, Jack has no sense of the outside world, or even that it exists. Everything is seen through the confines of the room in which he has been incarcerated since his birth. No windows, no doors – nothing that will give him a sense of a larger world. In comparison, in The Bear, Anna’s experience is filtered through the outside world, one which is more menacing and dangerous than a child can imagine.

The Bear by Claire Cameron

The Bear by Claire Cameron

Anna and her younger brother Stick, as he is known, are camping in Algonquin Park with their parents. A rogue bear attacks them, the parents are killed and the two children are left to fend for themselves. Anna refers to the bear as the black dog and doesn’t appear to understand what has happened to her parents. She only knows that the black dog means danger and she must look after her brother at all costs. Eventually they are rescued after some harrowing experiences, but everything is seen through her eyes, so it is hard to imagine the long lasting effects of her ordeal.

For the most part I enjoyed this book but by the end I was tired of seeing events through the perspective of a five year old. Many run on sentences and jumbled thoughts. Perhaps that is the way five year olds view the world – it’s been awhile since I was that age so I found it tiresome after awhile.

I was very happy with the epilogue and the realization that Anna came to, that her mother had been able to see her children get into the canoe and away from the danger of the bear.

I have my reservations about the book but I do think a joint conversation between Emma Donoghue and Claire Cameron would be interesting in terms of how they found the voices of their narrators and whether they considered this successful.

Reviewed by Hilary Munro

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A Fish Named Glub by Dan Bar-El

A Fish Named Glub, written by Dan Bar-El and illustrated by Josèe Bisaillon, is a picture book suitable for young readers who are in grade 1-3. The colourful pictures are simple and attractive. They also complement the story, making it easier to understand. Although the language used in this storybook is appropriate for young readers, adults will also enjoy the theme of this story. The story essentially focuses on the pursuit of happiness, which is a universal theme that many individuals can relate to. An old diner is the setting of the story, which is a common place for a lot of people. Such setting would naturally bring back memories for many readers.

A Fish Named Glub by Dan Bar-El

A Fish Named Glub by Dan Bar-El

This diner, like many in real life, serves customers from all walks of life. Yet, in such a busy environment, Glub (the fish) and Foster (the staff who adopted Glub) continue to feel they are in a state of loneliness. The two begin to reflect on the purpose of life by thinking about the past and future. The story progresses as the two discover their identities by offering customers dreams and visions. The fish is suddenly cherished because miracles happen when customers put their hands in the fishbowl. Throughout everyone’s discovery process, Glub and Foster also begin to realize their life purpose.

The story ultimately focuses on what it means to be a happy living being. It is a worthwhile read as it challenges readers to reflect on the fundamental value of life.

Reviewed by Annet Chu

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The Ever After of Ashwin Rao by Padma Viswanathan

A fairy tale ends with “they were married and lived happily after”. The event of a wedding supposedly creates an after effect that permanently improves the lives of the participants. But in this novel, Padma Viswananathan presents another type of event that more plausibly has ever lasting consequences.

This book is partially about the Air India bombing that killed over two hundred Canadians.  The people on that airplane were either Canadian born or naturalized. After the bombing, the Canadian Prime Minister got it into his head to send a letter of condolence to the Indian government.  The characters in this novel resent not having any government condolences conveyed to them, their family members gone, their own lives forever diminished.

Viswanathan raises the question: “Who had lost what?” She writes, “No wonder they had failed, for eighteen years, to bring it to trial.” The government and the media didn’t seem to address that this event was about Canadians. When the trial was finally held, and concluded, the result was an acquittal. The person likely responsible for building the bomb was eventually sentences to nine years for perjury, only. There has always been a sense of bewilderment over the failure of our system to investigate, coherently process findings, and efficiently take this to trial. To be diligent, in other words.

The Ever After of Ashwin Rao by Padma Viswanathan

The Ever After of Ashwin Rao by Padma Viswanathan

But this novel is about much more than the details of the case, it’s about how individuals cope with the politics and results of vengeance. The author attempts to delineate the historic details of who first sinned against whom, but since none of that is knowable, the effect is more to see how a train of vengeance careens through individual’s lives, unstoppable.

Grim though the subject matter is, this novel is fascinating. The brave author takes on the persona of a middle aged man, a psychologist who lost his sister, and her children, his beloved niece and nephew in the bombing. Ashwin Rao returns to Canada for the trial, although he doesn’t expect much of an outcome.

The author has created an utterly convincing character, who is devastated, yet doggedly getting on with his own dreary life. Consumed with imaginings of how his sister and the kids must have died, he meanders through a lakeside park. “Snow on a far peak. Goose turds on the lawn. Wild rose bush at the water’s edge. Child on a blow-up alligator. Birds in the trees, those dying generations at their song.

Turgid, clay-coloured clouds-here they came. Their unpredictability was the most predictable thing about them. I rose and turned my back on the lake. Behind me a splash, as of a boy falling out of the sky. The rain began.”

Lonely and isolated, he gloms on to a family in the fictional town, Lohikarma, in British Columbia. I confess to loving this novel partly because this Lohikarma seems to represent Nelson, BC, a town quite weird in itself, worthy of being written up as a character in a novel, although the author makes Nelson a much bigger and better place than it probably is. The university is not only still going, it’s thriving, modern and fairly large and legitimately employing people! Of course, the instructors grumble among themselves about it being a bit of a backwater. As ashram peopled with the white ladies is sulwar kameez outfits rankle an Indian born female character, especially because the outfits are old fashioned, and out of style. A sly humour snakes through this entire novel, despite the empty sadness all the characters experience.

Mostly this is a book about characters:

Ashwin Rao is the sad psychologist who narrates the novel, even from the point of view of the other characters, yet always insightfully.

There is the family whom Ashwin has become infatuated with, Seth, a kindly professor who reminds him of his own father; Lakshmi, the wife, whom Ashwin finds very sexy despite her stern correctness; and Brinda the eldest daughter, whose beauty also tantalizes Ashwin, though he tells himself he is only attracted to her because she reminds him of whom his niece might have grown into, if she had lived. They are coping with Seth’s dismal colleague Venkat, who has surrounded himself with uncaged parrots after losing his wife and son to the disaster. He teaches his favourite parrot the catch phrases of ring wing Hindu nationalism, which Ashwin finds especially apt, being repeated by a parrot. The final character is Lohikarma itself, a vision of Nelson, breathtakingly beautiful, and only slightly less weird than it really is.

The plot is complex, bizarre, unpredictable and irresistible, yet always perfectly plausible, especially if you’ve ever been to Nelson. What with this latest airplane dissapearance (Malaysian Airlines Mh370), there is an added resonance that makes this novel highly recommendable.

Reviewed by Mary Oxendale Spensley

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