Review: Daydreams of Angels by Heather O’Neill

persons-0072-1Heather O’Neill is the perfect weirdo. She’s just the right mix of offbeat that makes you want to be her best friend, but it kind of scares you a bit too. Her imagination has the ability to be simultaneously quirky, tragic, surreal, and mysterious, while maintaining a precise control of her storylines. Heather O’Neill, author of the award magnets: Lullabies for Little Criminals and The Girl Who Was Saturday Night demonstrates this ability in her newcollection of short stories, Daydreams of Angels.

At first Daydreams of Angels sounds saccharine and a little cliche for a title, but since it’s Heather O’Neill, you know she’s going to underscore that whimsy with those sharp little jabs of tragedy and realness we’ve come to expect. Her novels tend to go for the sucker punch to the feels, but this collection of (fairy) tales stays put on the whimsical side of things than the narratives that befell Nouschka or Baby in their own stories. While her novels featured Magic Pixie Dream characters caught up in the real world, the contents of Daydreams of Angels are straight up fables for adults where everything is extraordinary.

daydreams1What was Jesus like as an elementary school student, as told by an 11-year-old Mary Magdalene? How does the protagonist of a child’s story feel when that story is left unfinished? How about the history of a small town inhabited by clones? Somehow the stories read as both classic and contemporary, incorporating tufts of inspiration from just about everywhere. They are like stories you would want tell over a bonfire when you’re feeling warm and filled with wine. They’re perfect in a setting when you can forget reality or expectation and just enjoy the ride. You may not remember what you read the next day, but you’ll remember the experience fondly.

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Review: The Devil You Know by Elisabeth de Mariaffi

This has been my “bedtime book” for a few weeks now, but choosing to read a chapter or two before I go to bed, in my apartment in the middle of Toronto, probably wasn’t the best idea for a good night’s rest. The Devil You Know by Elisabeth de Mariaffi is a thriller that follows 22 year old reporter, Evie, in 1993, when the case of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka was just starting to crack open. I missed this time completely (I was eating cheerios in a high chair at that point), but that doesn’t mean the effects of this dark period in Ontario’s history didn’t have a ripple effect through my young mother and into my sister and I as we were raised.

Details of the Scarborough Rapist/Bernardo case makes a disturbing and poignant backdrop for Evie’s story. De Mariaffi drops facts from the time to bolster her riveting plot. Evie works as reporter, writing and researching missing girls, which becomes a trigger for her since she experienced a similar situation first hand when her childhood best friend was kidnapped and later found murdered. The excellent tension is derived from Evie’s past trauma, the current atmosphere, and whether Evie’s growing suspicions are a symptom her imagination or real danger. De Mariaffi’s storytelling is sharp and compelling. As genre fiction, it’s takes a left turn from her previous Giller-nominated short story collection, but The Devil You Know offers just as much entertainment.
The Devil You Know2

Cauchemar by Alexandra Grigorescu (blog tour!)

I was asked to take part in ECW’s latest blog tour for CAUCHEMAR by debut novelist Alexandra Grigorescu. ECW has an amazing track record for debut fiction, especially by women. Amanda Leduc, Stacey May Fowles, Jennifer Lovegrove…their covers are always sharp, the writing gorgeous. This book continues on this trend, though it is a step sideways from what I usually read. But first, here’s 2Qs for Alexandra on her experience:

  1. ECW is a really great Canadian press. What was it like working with them as a first-time author?

As a first-time author, there was a lot of jolting awake—bursting with questions and concerns, and hung up on this or that sentence—but working with ECW Press has been a pleasure through and through. They have such a wonderful, talented team, and I felt myself to be in very good hands. 

I’m quite a visual person so the opportunity to have input into the cover design was deeply gratifying, and the experience of having editors that care and are excited about the book really contributed to the sense of a shared vision. 

  1. What did you do to celebrate your book being acquired? / What will you do to celebrate its release?

Hearing that the book had been acquired was an absolute joy (of the jumping up and down variety), but I knew I still had some work ahead of me. 

Now that the book is tangible, we’ve been going to bookstores and observing it in its natural habitat, with all its new shelf buddies. To celebrate, my husband and I are looking forward to a balmy vacation. But really, every day is a celebration in some small way: cracking open some wine, cooking a good pasta, feeling entitled to blink in surprise every so often and whisper, “It’s for real.” 

Cauchemar

CAUCHEMAR opens with the sudden death of Mae, the beloved mother figure of our 20-year-old protagonist, Hannah. Having lived on the edge of a secluded swamp with Mae her whole life, Hannah now faces an uncertain future alone. Enter one handsome boat man/musician and a birth mother with a very bad reputation, and we’re thrown into an intriguing story of extremes set is the lush setting of the Louisiana bayou.

In Grigorescu’s story, everything has been dialed up to the absolute maximum. The colours are very saturated, smells are rich, and the stakes are high. When there’s blood, it’s a bloodbath. Where there’s love, it’s life or death. Where there’s a silverfish, it’s the biggest effing silverfish in the world, and the sex fits into that near-cliché territory of perfection. It makes for a visceral reading experience that requires you to fully immerse yourself in the story. If you accidentally keep one foot out in reality, the illusion will shatter.

I think many readers will eat this story up. And so they should. There is a lot to chew on. Moody, spicy, sexy, vivid, and creepy-as-hell. But even with such an intense, flavourful plot, I didn’t exactly devour the novel as I was expecting to. But I think that says more about my individual taste than the book. The Gothic, swampy setting is very reminiscent of True Blood. Thankfully, Cauchemar isn’t campy like the show, though it gets up there on the melodrama ladder.

Overall, this is a rich piece of literature and Grigorescu is a gifted writer who has created a near 4D experience for her readers. There is just so much going on at all times, we jump from danger to danger, to flashbacks, to betrayal, to nightmares and visions, to magic, and an ever-present otherworldly presence blanketing everyone and everything. Yet, despite all this weight, the story moves extraordinarily quickly, which can be a bit jarring. We’re riding out this fantastical storm, white-knuckling the sides of the boat without rest. There were times where I wanted to stop and breathe and sink into the characters and this seductive world without another thing creeping up on me, but I wasn’t given the opportunity. Also, Hannah reminded me of a bit of Harry Potter in that she was often carried through the novel, piggybacking on the plot and the actions of others. Things kept happening to her and we experience them through her eyes, but so MUCH happens; one life-changing, traumatic wave crashing into her only to be followed by another (equally distressing) one immediately after. She doesn’t seem to get the chance to fully deal with all the awful things that happen to her, so neither do we. Because of this, I think the story could have been wrung out a bit, leaving a few things behind in order to bolster the impact of others, however, none of this made me want to jump ship. This isn’t a story you can just abandon and swim for shore. There is enough of a “wtf” factor to keep you reading until you find out exactly what happens in the end. CAUCHEMAR is a page-turner and Bella’s Bookshelves was right in saying it is a movie just waiting to be made, but it would definitely have to be a trilogy AT LEAST, maybe even a franchise, to do every element justice.

Thanks to Sam @ ECW for the arc and AG for answering my two little Qs!