Review | Croak, Gina Damico

Lex Bartleby’s parents send her to live with her Uncle Mort for the summer in the hope that hard farm labour will help her with her anger issues. It turns out that Uncle Mort isn’t actually a farmer, but a Grim Reaper, and he is going to train Lex to be a Reaper herself. Gina Damico’s Croak has a funny premise and a cast of colourful characters. It starts off very weak, in my opinion, but the story gets better as it goes on, and I loved the ending.

My main issue with Croak is that Lex’s anger issues were just overdone. The book begins with her in the principal’s office for having bitten (literally!) a classmate because he’d called her a vampire. She’s sixteen. She’s also been a straight-A model student until a couple of years ago, when, for no apparent reason, she starts beating up practically everyone she meets. Her parents take her home and say they need to talk. “Are restraints really necessary this time?” Lex asks. I thought it was just another snark until I read that the mother really did bring out jump ropes to tie Lex to a chair, just so she won’t punch her parents when she learns she’ll be spending the summer with Uncle Mort.  Lex’s twin sister Cordy wonders if the ropes amount to child abuse, and by this point, I’m already picturing Lex as a rabid, foaming-at-the-mouth lunatic. I’m also wondering, if her parents are that scared of her, why they didn’t just ship her to a psychiatric facility at any point in those two years. For that matter, why didn’t the school do anything? Just because Cordy is still acting normal doesn’t mean that Lex’s parents are immediately cleared of all suspicion.

Over the next few chapters, Lex throws a shoe at a bus driver, stabs her uncle with a stick and threatens to beat a stranger with his sunglasses. The romance in the book kicks off with Lex giving the boy a black eye and him giving her one back. I’m not generally queasy about violence in books, and to be honest, Lex’s antics are too exaggerated, cartoon-style, to even make her scary. Still, Lex is beyond bratty. When Uncle Mort cuts off one of her rants and orders her to grow up, I wanted to hug him.

Her discipline problems are explained somewhat — apparently, all born Reapers have serious rage issues until they enter Croak, the town where Uncle Mort lives and one of the Grim Reaper centres in the US. Still, I don’t see the connection. In the Percy Jackson series, Rick Riordan explains that demigods are dyslexic because their brains are hard-wired to read Greek, and that they have ADHD because their bodies are designed to react quickly in battle. I love that, because I can understand how such characteristics can signal that one is a demigod. In Croak, however, I have no idea how wanting to beat everyone up is directly linked to being a Reaper, especially since the Reaper’s job is actually one of mercy — freeing the soul trapped a body that’s already dead.

Fortunately, it gets better. Once Lex begins training and realizes how much she enjoys being a Reaper, her anger issues fade a bit, and the book gets much more interesting. Lex and the other junior Reapers have noticed some mysterious deaths, possibly at the hands of someone from Croak, and investigate. It’s an interesting mystery, and it takes us right into the world of Grim Reaping. I really like the other junior Reapers, especially Elysia, whose bubbly personality adds some welcome cheer to the group. The whole world of Grim Reaping is very well fleshed out, and I loved learning details such as their use of jellyfish and their version of alcohol. The story just kept getting more interesting, as the mystery deepened, leading up to a powerful climax. Good on you, Ms. Damico. Brave, emotional twist, especially in what I presume is just the first book in a series, and I admire you for raising the stakes this early.

I also love that Croak raises an interesting moral dilemma. The most important rule for Reapers is that they can only take the souls of their targets. This seems fairly straightforward, but what if they enter the scene of a murder? What if they have to take the soul of an innocent child and see the man who killed her just a few feet away? In my review on Loss, I complained that the author played it safe and kept her protagonist from really exploring his dark side. In contrast, I love that Damico shows how torn up Lex is about letting murderers go. Surely it’s only justice to take the murderer’s soul as well, or at the very least, turn him in to the police. Yet such justice is beyond a Reaper’s jurisdiction, and there are dire consequences for any Reaper who disobeys this law. Lex is torn, and I love that Damico isn’t afraid to explore this subject. It’s a slippery issue, with no straightforward answer, and I enjoyed reading about it.


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Review | Loss (Riders of the Apocalypse), Jackie Morse Kessler

Imagine you’re a fifteen year old boy bullied at school. You take care of your grandfather with Alzheimer’s, you’re secretly in love with your childhood best friend, and you avoid social networking sites because the last time you checked online, you met with a barrage of taunts and insults. Now imagine you find out that, because of a deal you unknowingly made when you were five, you are now destined to become one of the four Riders of the Apocalypse. Specifically, the current Pestilence is unable to Ride, and the power to spread disease and create plagues is in your hands. That’s the choice Billy Ballard faces in Jackie Morse Kessler’s Loss, the third book in her Riders of the Apocalypse series.

What a compelling concept! I was immediately attracted by the tough moral and emotional conflict promised by such a plot. I could see Billy go from playing the victim to possessing immense power, from fear to strength to (and much more difficult) realizing that true strength goes beyond the knee jerk revenge impulse. How far will he take his abilities? Will the bullied become the bully?

Unfortunately, Kessler opts not to delve too deeply into this aspect of the story. The back blurb tells us that Billy is horrified after he makes people sick, and so he decides the current Pestilence should take back his crown. This sets into motion the next part of the story, where Billy needs to track down the current Pestilence — now “completely insane […] poised to unleash a plague” — and stop him. Does this bullied teen have the courage and the strength to face Pestilence and save the world? This is a much more ordinary quest/young-hero type story, and quite frankly, much less compelling than the first part.  I had hoped that the part where Billy has to face his own dark side would take up at least half the book. However, he’s such a good kid that he spends barely even a couple of chapters wreaking havoc before he’s plagued by guilt (sorry) and sets off to save the world.

Kessler plays it safe with Loss, and that disappointed me. This is not to say that I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone. If you’re looking for an inspirational tale about how a bullied kid can overcome fear and become a hero, Loss has that. It even includes a lesson on how learning someone’s story can help change your perspective about them — Billy finds out about the past of the current Pestilence, and this new knowledge transforms the figure from Billy’s nightmares into an old man who inspires sympathy. Personally, I would’ve preferred more action. Most of Billy’s hunt for Pestilence takes place in Pestilence’s memories and consists of Billy learning about Pestilence’s past. Worse, Kessler includes in these memories characters from literature (names changed somewhat, of course) — they did play important roles in the story, but I just found it too cutesy a device.

I found Loss too preachy, even as an anti-bullying inspirational book. I think the reason it felt so heavy-handed was that Kessler couched the message in fantasy/adventure terms and that part fell flat for me. Not enough adventure. Death, incarnated as a pale, blond street musician, is the most fascinating character in this story, and Pestilence in the past is certainly a tragic figure. Billy is definitely sympathetic, and I love the scene where he stands his best friend up because the bullies are also in the pizza parlour and he doesn’t want to face them. They just weren’t given much to do for most of the book. Kessler also reminded us several times that Billy wasn’t used to fighting back. That would then be followed with either “so he curled up into a ball and took a beating” or “but this time he’d had enough.” Good in terms of message, but also too obviously trying to get that message across.

There were several scenes I liked, particularly the one where the grandfather stands up to death and the one where Billy makes the bullies sick. I also like the idea near the end of white blood cells fighting disease; I thought that was a cool spin, and wish Kessler had done more with it. Loss had several interesting snippets, but not much of an overall impact.

To be fair, I’m not the book’s intended audience. I do think it will resonate more with a younger reader (tween/teen). Personally, I prefer books that really explore a character’s dark side (e.g. Hunger Games trilogy, or Stuart MacBride’s crime novels), and I thought this tale provided the perfect opportunity. That being said, Loss does offer a bit of hope for kids who are bullied, or who may have been conditioned to think of themselves as losers — Loss shows that they have the potential to be heroes.

Out of curiosity, have you read any particularly amazing anti-bullying YA novels?


Want a copy of Loss? Thomas Allen has kindly provided a copy for one of my readers!

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Review | The Bellwether Revivals, Benjamin Wood

Ever read a book you love so much it takes you forever to write a review for it? A book so amazing that you realize whatever you can write just won’t give it justice. That’s how I felt after reading Jo Walton’s Among Others, and that’s why it took me weeks to figure out what to write about Benjamin Wood’s amazing debut novel The Bellwether Revivals

Publisher McClelland and Stewart calls the book “part Brideshead Revisited” — how could I resist? The parallels to Brideshead are clear — nursing home care worker Oscar Lowe is drawn to the Bellwethers, a wealthy family of academics. He falls in love with Iris Bellwether, a Cambridge student, and befriends her brother Eden and their group of friends. Cambridge in fact becomes almost a character itself in this novel — characters speak of it so lovingly, so knowledgeably, that it almost takes on the mystique of Brideshead. Like Oscar, we are attracted to this world where we don’t need to worry about putting food on the table; rather, we can spend hours debating philosophy and discussing literature. The novel is set in the early 2000s, but something about the way Wood writes makes the story feel like it was set in the past. Perhaps this insulated world Oscar inhabits with Iris, Eden and their friends insulates us as well, provides us as much of an escape as it does Oscar.

With the Brideshead comparison, I was expecting the book to be mostly about Oscar’s relationship with the Bellwethers, but the story takes a much darker turn. The very first chapter, “Prelude,” does give us an idea of the tragic outcome at the end — Eden Bellwether is “still breathing, but faintly,” there are other bodies around, and Oscar says, “It’s over now…We can’t go back and change it.” What happened? We don’t know, but we know the story won’t end well. I agree with this blog review that revealing the end in advance allows us to then focus on the nuances within the events. From a lovely tale of romance and privilege, we are introduced into a chilling story of psychopathy.

Much of Bellwether Revivals focuses on music, something hinted at by the prologue being called a “prelude.” When we are introduced to the Bellwethers, it’s because Oscar is drawn to a church where Eden is playing the organ. I love Wood’s description: “There was a fragility to this music, as if the organist wasn’t pressing down on the keys but hovering his fingers above them like a puppeteer.” I imagine thready, tentative notes, and almost ethereal melody with the power to cast spells.

Eden is a gifted musician, but more than that, he believes music has the power to heal. Literally. Many acknowledge the power of music to bring comfort and influence emotions, but Eden, influenced by the ideas of Johann Mattheson, believes music can actually, physically affect behaviour. He says Oscar entered the church not just because of a generic attraction to Eden’s music, but because the music was specifically designed to get someone to enter a church and sit down. It’s a disturbing notion, one we could easily dismiss as utter nonsense, yet it also offers an intriguing possibility of hope. What if music can do more than just comfort those with terminal illnesses? What if music can actually remove tumours, reverse Alzheimer’s? What if music can, literally, heal? Eden firmly believes it can, and that he can create such music.

Iris believes her brother is a narcissist, as in actually has a psychological disorder and isn’t just being arrogant, and she turns to Oscar for help. To be honest, I thought her insistence on her brother’s psychopathy was a bit odd — it seemed a harmless enough belief, and I wasn’t sure why she was so determined to have her brother examined. I also didn’t really understand why Oscar was so willing to be involved. I found the romance between Iris and Oscar the weakest element in the story — I saw that he was attracted to her, but I didn’t really see how he became so devoted to her so quickly. I didn’t really see him in love, which bothers me mostly because he ends up having to go to such lengths to help her out in this story. That being said, it wasn’t enough to turn me off from the story, because all the other plot lines were so gripping.

As we learn more about Iris and Eden’s childhood, and as Eden takes his belief in music’s healing ability to even greater extremes, we begin to understand that Eden isn’t quite as harmless as we may have thought. One of the most fascinating characters in the novel is Dr. Herbert Crest, a psychologist who has studied Narcissistic Personality Disorder and who, losing his personal battle with cancer, is writing a book Delusions of Hope, about his failure to find an alternative cure for his condition. This makes him a prime candidate for Oscar to approach for help regarding Eden; perhaps Dr. Crest can expose Eden as a fraud. Or, perhaps, can Eden possibly prove Dr. Crest wrong?

Here’s the thing: Eden’s charisma affects even us. What if Eden isn’t a fraud? What if his music really can heal people? A rational part of my mind kept insisting that his ability couldn’t possibly be real, and yet another part of me couldn’t help but hope it was. As Dr. Crest says, “Hope is a form of madness. A benevolent one, sure, but madness all the same.” Yet it is a madness that we almost want to embrace. I’ve lost several loved ones to cancer, I also know others who have survived it, and I can’t even begin to describe how much I think cancer just really, really sucks. So when we have a character who might, conceivably, have the ability to cure cancer with music, well, it’s a seductive idea. Even within fiction, the tiniest, slimmest chance of a cure is offered, and yes, I want to believe in it. Eden, to me, had his controlling, arrogant moments, but I also wanted to believe he was a hero, that he did have this power, that, even in fiction, cancer could be conquered.

The potential of Eden’s power seduced me, and the reality of Eden’s megalomania devastated me. His desperation to have his power proven right, and to be viewed as a hero and a healer, leads to some truly horrifying acts. I think it’s because I was so sucked into this world that I was affected so completely. It was almost painful to be so disillusioned by Eden, not so much with regard to the veracity of his healing power, as with the realization that Eden is ultimately only after power.

I absolutely love Bellwether Revivals! A powerful, gripping story that seduces us much as the charismatic, frightening Eden Bellwether casts a spell over the people around him. In so many ways, Eden is a predator, and like any predator, he also has the ability to lure his victims. Bellwether is chilling because we realize how easy it is to be sucked in, indeed to want to be sucked in. For the reader, as for the characters, the return to reality is painful, but necessary. Difficult to believe this is a debut novel. Benjamin Wood is definitely an author to watch, and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

Follow Benjamin Wood on Twitter: @bwoodauthor.

Review | Someone Else’s Life, Katie Dale

When seventeen-year-old Rosie’s mother Trudie dies of Huntington’s disease, Rosie’s fear of having inherited this genetic condition leads her to a startling revelation — Trudie isn’t her real mother. Rosie decides to travel to America to find her birth mother. Katie Dale’s Someone Else’s Life is a heart-breaking, emotional read.

I had no idea what Huntington’s disease is, but from this book, I feel for whoever suffers from this condition, or is a caretaker for one who does. Rosie drops out of school to be a full-time caretaker for Trudie — a brave, selfless decision that nonetheless leads to an immensely difficult task for anyone, let alone a teenaged girl. One character mistakes Trudie’s condition for alcoholism, and while that character was sympathetic about it, I can’t even imagine how horrible it must be to watch your mother dying of a disease and having people judge her as an addict.

Rosie’s decision to find her birth mother leads to other lives being upended, and other difficult decisions that have to be made. The narrative switches between Rosie’s perspective and another’s, who isn’t identified until about halfway through the book, and both viewpoints are differentiated by their typeface. I won’t reveal who it is, as that would be a spoiler. For the first few chapters, I thought it was all from Rosie’s viewpoint, which made it confusing and made Rosie’s situation seem even worse than it already is.

To be honest, as the story progressed, I found myself being drawn more to the other narrator’s story. There were points when I was so sympathetic to the other narrator that I hated Rosie, and had to remind myself of how much she went through taking care of Trudie. I was also so pulled into this other narrator’s story that I cried. Twice. I knew this book was going to be emotional (it’s about Huntington’s disease and a search for a birth mom), but I didn’t really expect it to affect me much. My mistake. I got caught up and I got emotional, and not for the reasons I expected to either. It’s that kind of book.

Review | Victims, Jonathan Kellerman

Alex Delaware is back! I’m a huge fan of Jonathan Kellerman’s mystery series featuring child psychologist/consulting detective Alex Delaware. I’d been disappointed by the last few books in the series, because they felt more like police procedurals with Alex being a fairly generic amateur detective instead of the psychology expert that made me love the series in the first place. However, I’m happy to say that Victims, the latest in the series, is the Delaware series at its best. We have the creepy psychopathic killer, and Alex Delaware providing psychological insights that, at times, are almost uncanny.

Alex and his friend, Detective Milo Sturgis, are called in to investigate the murder of Vita Berlin. A thoroughly unpleasant woman, Vita had had a lot of enemies, but even the people who hated her admitted she didn’t deserve such a gruesome (think Jack the Ripper) death. Alex is struck by the clinical nature of Vita’s disembowelment; he is reminded of a child he’d once counselled who cut up animals not because he took pleasure in it, but because he’d been curious.

Here is the Dr. Alex Delaware-type insight that I’d been missing from the more recent books in the series — Kellerman may have put them in, but it hadn’t felt as essential to the storyline for a long time.  So when I read that, and I knew Alex and Milo were hunting a truly disturbed mind, I knew Victims was going to be classic Kellerman. More victims are then discovered, and none of them are linked, as far as Milo’s team can tell. Who is the killer, how is he choosing his victims, and why is he killing in the first place? It’s a dark, twisted, creepy psyche, which gives Alex lots of opportunities to use his psychology training.

Victims is a very chilling book. I made the mistake of beginning it at night, and I ended up reading until about two in the morning. I very reluctantly went to bed only because my eyes were literally closing, despite my mind still racing ahead and trying to figure out the solution to the mystery. I was also sufficiently creeped out by the killer that I had to gather up the courage to go into the kitchen for a glass of water. Granted, I’m a major chicken, but somehow the idea of a person who would kill others not because he is sick enough to enjoy killing, but because he is fascinated by human biology just makes me shiver.

Victims made me realize how much creepier human monsters are than supernatural ones. Then, as I learned more about the motivations behind the killings, the book just got even scarier. This feels much darker and more disturbing than previous Delaware novels, and I think it’s just because the antagonist here seems so much colder and more monstrous than I remember from Kellerman’s other books. Alex Delaware fans — this book is definitely recommended. New to Alex Delaware — Victims is a good place to start.


An Alex Delaware fan or interested in trying out the series? Random House Canada has kindly provided me with a finished copy of this book to review, and I’d love to pass it on to a fellow mystery fan!

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Creating Art Stories

True story: I was once asked to teach a group of kids karate, and was so bad at maintaining order that a parent had to call the head teacher over to rescue me. In my defence, I did get better at teaching karate. I also taught a couple of non-karate-related workshops that went pretty well. Still, every time I have to teach anything, that experience always comes to mind. I don’t have a problem with public speaking, especially in front of adults, but the thought of getting up in front of a group of young people and making them actually care about what I’m saying? Some people are naturals at it, and others, like me, quake in our boots.

So when I pitched Tell Me A Story, a Harris Burdick-inspired creative writing workshop to my boss, I wasn’t really thinking about how I’d soon have to stand in front of a bunch of kids and talk. I only knew that I love the Harris Burdick books, and that I think Chris van Allsburg’s concept would be a lot of fun to adapt for the gallery. Confession: I’m a wee bit in love with the whole idea behind Harris Burdick. I gush about it here, include it in my Twelve Books for Christmas post and recommend it to practically anyone who asks me for a great kids book. Quick background: the Harris Burdick books present illustrations with unexpected captions and challenge young readers to finish the stories the captions begin. In The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, van Allsburg posits the challenge for writers like Stephen King, Lois Lowry and Cory Doctorow, and collects all these amazing stories in a single, beautiful volume.

I work for the Art Gallery of Mississauga and thought that van Allsburg’s concept is a perfect fit for an art gallery. What if we asked kids and teens to create short stories inspired by works from the AGM’s permanent collection? I often hear people chatting about the works in the gallery exhibits and wondering what the artist was trying to say. I thought asking people to actually create their own stories would inspire them to go beyond that conventional approach towards viewing visual art. I wanted participants to take the art beyond the canvas and surprise the heck out of us.

Carol Martyn, Unknown Woman, from the Art Gallery of Mississauga Permanent Collection; image used in the workshop promo material

The AGM has also recently launched a partnership with the Mississauga Library System, so I figured it was the perfect time for an arts + book type activity. I pitched my idea to Stuart Keeler, the AGM curator and director of programmes, and he loved the idea. He was so supportive in fact that he turned my idea of a casual weekend workshop into the official AGM March Break activity — with two sessions, even! One of the best things about this whole process, to be honest, is how supportive people have been. My friend and fellow blogger Steph posted about the workshop in her LitBits, and helped proof the press release. Since the workshop was inspired by Harris Burdick, I told Canadian Harris Burdick distributor Thomas Allen Ltd about it and asked if they could perhaps donate a couple of copies of the book to give to participants. I could hardly believe my luck when they generously provided ten signed copies! The kids were thrilled, Thomas Allen, thank you!

The night before the first workshop, I barely got any sleep. I couldn’t help but think of that karate experience, and I kept imagining Stuart having to step in and tell the kids to listen to the nice bookworm lady. Great news — the workshops went amazingly well! I couldn’t have asked for a more enthusiastic and creative group of kids, and I love how excited they got about writing their stories! Literally, after each workshop, I was positively giddy at the results. I did hope the participants would surprise me with their stories, but couldn’t have predicted how much they actually did surprise me.

I decided to kick off the workshop by presenting this image and asking participants to identify it:

The idea is that book cover or movie poster designs contain iconic images inspired by the contents of stories. In much the same way, we can identify potentially iconic elements within artworks to create our own stories. I showed Stuart this image in our pre-workshop meeting/rehearsal and said that I planned to break the ice by asking students to identify its source. “Harry Potter?” Stuart guessed. (In his defence, he has actually read and watched the entire Harry Potter series.) “It’s just because you’re not a teen,” I said. “Trust me, the people in the workshop will totally get this.” I then confidently presented it at the Monday workshop, only to be met by blank stares. So much for that idea. (Bright side, the Wednesday group did recognize it.)

Lila Lewis Irving, Tristan and Isolde (diptych), 2007, acrylic on canvas, 152 x 305 cm

After a brief introduction, we warmed up with some group story writing exercises. One of the things we did was create a story for Tristan and Isolde, a diptych in the AGM’s current exhibition Lila Lewis Irving: Con Spirito | Retrospective. Because of the original Tristan and Isolde story, I provided the caption “They could never be together.” I was really impressed by the stories the group came up with. In the Monday group, Tristan and Isolde fell in love with a grocery store, but couldn’t be together because Tristan’s family were environmental activists and Isolde’s family made non-biodegradable plastic containers. That story quickly turned humorous, with Isolde attending her prom in a potato sack dress. The Wednesday group noticed that the circle on the left half of the painting looked like a bloodied bruise, while the right half looked much brighter and more peaceful. So they made the man a psychologically scarred soldier, whose girlfriend preferred to keep ignorant of the harsh realities of war, and that was the cause of their romantic tension. That story then developed into adultery (the man finds a female soldier who understands him better), murder, time travel, and a revenge that spanned several lifetimes. All that, in an impromptu, fifteen minute discussion about an abstract, completely non-representational painting. Oh yes, and most of the kids were between the ages of 10 – 16. I couldn’t wait to see what they created when I gave them forty minutes to create their own stories.

Tom Forrestall’s Tide – Ebb and Flow, from the AGM’s Permanent Collection, inspired several stories. It features a car at the edge of a pier on a grey, cloudy day, and I gave it the caption “Every day, at 3 pm, the car was there.” The stories ranged from a family tragedy to a drug deal to the car being alive and so in love with her driver that she disfigures his wife with her air bags. Jorge Correa’s The Watcher especially reminded me of the Harris Burdick images — it has a shadowy house with a figure peeking out from one of the second floor windows. I gave it the caption “The house watched back,” and I was thrilled at the creepy stories that emerged. Participants gave the house specific addresses, which I love, and which reminded me of Andrew Pyper’s The Guardians with its neighbourhood-specific horror.

While the permanent collection works I suggested were primarily representational, I also told them they could write stories about Lila’s abstract works if they felt up to the challenge. A twelve year old saw an ominous shadow is Lila’s Alla Prima, and created a haunting story from that. Another twelve year old took Lila’s piece Wozzeck, an abstract piece featuring broad strokes of various shades of red, and began a story about a time keeper who had the responsibility of caring for a time travelling device that could be used by anyone, but only once in that person’s lifetime. I love the questions that story raised — if you could travel to any time at all, where would you go? And you have to choose carefully, because you’ll never get this chance again. While typing up these stories to feature on the AGM’s blog, I confess that I wish I’d given them an entire week to write their stories — I wanted to read more!

Doing this workshop was an exhilarating experience. I can hardly believe what the participants were able to come up with in less than an hour. More than that, I’m inspired to start writing again, myself. I hope the workshop inspired these participants to continue their own writing, and to continue looking to visual art for inspiration, as well.

Thank you to Stuart Keeler, for this opportunity, as well to James Dekens, Craig Todd-Langille and the Mississauga Library System, who worked with us on this program, and wonderful AGM volunteer Victoria Gunter. Thanks as well to Thomas Allen, for their generosity — the kids who got Harris Burdick books were thrilled! Such a fun experience!

For anyone interested in reading the stories from the workshop, I will be posting them on the Art Gallery of Mississauga blog over the next couple of weeks.

Review | Web of Angels, Lilian Nattel

To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Lilian Nattel’s Web of Angels. I knew the protagonist, Sharon Lewis, was a mother with dissociative identity disorder (DID) in a small suburban town. From the cover image, I was expecting to cry at this story — I can’t even imagine how difficult it must be to have multiple personalities inside you. I get confused enough with just me in the my head! The cover model’s wistful pose and the title made me think it was a story about how hard it must be to have DID.

On the other hand, there was Primal Fear. If you haven’t watched it yet — do! It’s amazing! Edward Norton plays a young murderer with DID, and the last scene gives me chills every time I watch it. I also remembered Sidney Sheldon’s Tell Me Your Dreams, about a young woman with DID. In both stories, DID was portrayed as being really freaky. Neither Edward Norton’s character nor the young woman knew about their alternate personalities, and the solution was always to try to integrate the multiples into the original psyche. So that was the mindset I had when I began Web of Angels.

This book totally took me by surprise. DID was presented not as a disease, but as a natural survival mechanism. In fact, a therapist says that the term “disorder” is inaccurate for this condition; rather, DID is “an adaptation to early childhood trauma.” Contrary to my expectations, the story wasn’t about Sharon trying to integrate all her personalities into a single Sharon, but about her learning to acknowledge, and even listen to her other personalities. Web of Angels presents a fascinatingly unique take on multiple personalities, and to be honest, it was a bit difficult for me to buy at first. I don’t know anyone in real life with DID (at least as far as I know), and so can honestly say that I know nothing about it beyond what I read or watch. It’s a harsh wake-up call to realize that my long-held view of DID may in fact have been a form of prejudice, and this book made me wonder which portrayal of DID is more accurate. Is it a disease, where the multiples must be integrated, or is it a natural state, where the key is having the multiples learn to work together? In Web of Angels, each multiple knows his or her place, and either steps forward or steps back accordingly. For example, Sharon’s child multiple Ally knows she has to step back when it’s time for them (meaning, all the multiples inside Sharon’s body) to drive, or another multiple knows she must step forward when it’s time to reveal her condition to her husband. So they all actually work together really well; it is possible for them all to co-exist and live a happy life together.

The conflict in this story stems from the suicide of Heather, the daughter of Sharon’s neighbour and sister of Cathy, the girlfriend of Sharon’s son. As Sharon investigates the reasons behind Heather’s suicide, she realizes that she must face her own past and work with her multiples in order to help Cathy avoid Heather’s fate. I found the story of Cathy and her family fascinating, and I love how it was specifically because of Sharon’s experiences that she is able to help Cathy out. I did find the way the relationship between Cathy and Sharon’s son turned out somewhat odd. I understand that it wasn’t an important plot point, but I didn’t like how it just seemed like an inconvenient loose end to tie up quickly in the end.

I also found all the characters confusing. Nattel refers to each of Sharon’s multiples by their own name, and so while other characters are calling her Sharon or Mrs. Lewis, the narrator refers to her as Ally or Callista or Alec or whoever. Add to that a whole list of supporting characters — Sharon’s own family (including in-laws) had about ten people, then we have the neighbours and friends — and after the first few chapters, I had to stop and start from the beginning. I felt really bad for Sharon then — if I had this much trouble keeping all the multiples and all the characters straight, imagine how confusing she must find it! I do wish Nattel had cut down on the supporting cast a bit — I really didn’t care much about Sharon’s in-laws, with the exception of her sister-in-law and best friend Eleanor. It just felt cluttered, and I would have preferred to focus more on the core stories: Sharon’s facing her multiples and Cathy’s family issues.

That being said, I did enjoy meeting the different multiples. While I started out being totally confused whenever a new one emerged (even Sharon has no clue how many there are — and it turns out that it’s impolite to ask), I like how eager they were to experience aspects of life that they missed out on. For example, Alec jumps at the opportunity to go to a shooting range, and is thrilled to be a natural shot. Young multiple Callisto has never made love (Callisto was never the dominant personality in bed with their husband), and her innocence leads to an utterly beautiful kissing scene, possibly my favourite passage in this book:

Was the kiss on the forehead the only one she would ever receive? Surely this much she was allowed. She leaned forward, her lips touching Dan’s, warm lips, neither dry nor wet. His lips pressed into hers and her lips wished to part.

Remember: this is a middle-aged woman, kissing the man with whom she has had three children. Yet this is also a young girl, being kissed for the first time. I love the almost heart-breaking innocence of her lips wishing to part. I love it especially because this isn’t just a middle-aged mother, she is also a woman who had been sexually abused as a child. Even as Callista parts her lips,

Inside there was fear, little ones weeping. No burning, no hitting, someone cried. And someone answering, It’s just Dan. He won’t hurt us.

All the personalities are involved in this kiss, the more experienced ones reassuring the younger ones that their husband can be trusted. And all throughout, there’s Callista, who was experiencing her husband’s kiss for the first time. Her excitement is infectious, and the little voices of terror at the back of her mind heartbreaking. It’s a beautifully written scene of lovemaking, heightened by the realization that “through her, the others felt what it was to have made love for the first time.”

Web of Angels is a fascinating book. I like that it gave a completely new (to me anyway) take on DID, such that DID was more a strength than a weakness. I like its firm argument that the adults who abuse children and therefore cause DID should be brought to justice. I especially like that it subverted my expectations of what a book on DID would be about.