Caught in the Tractor Beam of Home

Greg Rhyno's debut novel, To Me You Seem Giant, moves between two decades: the 1990s in which Pete Curtis is dreaming rock and roll dreams and of finally escaping his hometown, and ten years later when he's still there teaching high school while his best friend is a bonafide rockstar. His protagonist, writes Rhyno, as well as characters in the books he's selected for this recommended reading list, are not so much outsiders as "caught in the tractor beam of home." 

***** 

The Milk Chicken Bomb, by Andrew Wedderburn

A former student of mine left this book on my desk one day. The same kid had introduced me to Mitch Hedburg a few years earlier, so I figured I could trust his instincts. I was glad I did. Wedderburn’s prose has a quiet inventiveness that belies the story’s heart and intrigue. He baits us with cool and then clocks us with sincerity. The novel’s narrator is a heartbreakingly lonely and resilient ten-year-old, and the rural Alberta world he inhabits is coloured by local weirdnesses and his own eccentric fabrications. Like its namesake,The Milk Chicken Bomb is something that will stay with you for a long time, whether you want it to or not.

*  

Safety of War, by Rob Benvie

Benvie’s first novel came hot on the heels of his career as guitar player with Halifax rock band Thrush Hermit. As such, I originally approached it with the same measured anticipation I do every time I see a champion at one game try his or her hand at another. We all know Michael Jordan was not put on this earth to play baseball, but hey sure, let’s see what happens. Well, it turns out Benvie can hit. Safety of War was like nothing I’d ever read before. Experimental, but relatable. Otherworldly, but grounded in the mundane. It starts off like a bleaker Office Space and then veers into demon-raising, psychedelic horror. And on top of all that, it’s pretty funny, too. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea for Benvie to quit his day job after all.

We’re All in this Together, by Amy Jones 

I was bummed when We’re All in this Together didn’t win the Stephen Leacock Medal, and not just because Amy Jones is funny as hell, but also because she wrote her awesome novel about my hometown of Thunder Bay. Reading her story felt like a long overdue trip back home. The community of characters she creates is well drawn and fully realized. Medal or not, We’re All in this Together is undeniably hilarious, but it’s also heart-skewering in its examination of mental illness, disappointment, and how complicated it can be to stay a family. 

*  

Book Cover Scott Pilgrim

Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life, by Bryan Lee O’Malley

I know. Everybody’s seen the movie with Michael Cera and Jason Schwartzman and why bother talking about it now, right? But when I first heard about this graphic novel, I was so psyched that someone still cared about all the music and dumb stuff that I grew up thinking was cool. Then I read it, and with all the familiar references to bands, bars, video games, and comics, I felt like O’Malley had written the story just for me. When it became a such a success, I was thrilled that something so close to my heart could resonate with so many other people. It’s smart, crazy imaginative, and laugh out loud funny. When I re-read it now, it reminds me of what it felt like to be 20 and ready to take on the world. And yeah, the movie’s pretty good, too.

Book Cover Pardon Our Monsters

Pardon Our Monsters, by Andrew Hood

A friend recommended Andrew Hood’s first collection of short stories, and when I brought the book up to the counter, it turned out that not only was Hood a local dude, but he worked in the store. The author kindly inscribed the book for me with some modest apology in case it didn’t “cut the mustard.” When I read the first story, though, it was clear that the guy could ginsu his way through any condiment. Hood’s prose is funny, unflinching, and lousy with ugly colour. Hood doesn’t just slow down to rubberneck when he passes the accident. He gets out, pokes around, and gets a good whiff of everything that went wrong. In Pardon Our Monsters, he writes about small town awfulness: loyalty to a cruel older brother, an obscene classmate lionized after his death, a self-loathing “abomination” who shelters a woman from her pedophile husband. I think Andrew Hood is one of the best short story writers working, and you should probably start reading him before you’re late to the party.

*  

Truth and Bright Water, by Thomas King

Like his character Monroe Swimmer, who paints history in and out of landscapes, King pulls off a pretty good trick with this novel. It’s as funny as it is tragic, mysterious as it is blunt, and in the end, it doesn’t offer any easy answers. It’s populated with irreverent, challenging characters, most notably, the narrator’s two unpredictable companions: Lum, his volatile cousin, and Soldier, his hilarious boxer. I’m a little embarrassed to say it, but as much as I’m in awe of the way King deftly handles his weighty subject matter—child abuse, historical erasure, fractured families—it’s the way he writes about that goddamn dog that makes me love this book so much. That sweet, idiot animal is easily one of my favourite literary characters of all time.

*   

M in the Abstract, by Douglas Davey 

So, full disclosure: Douglas Davey is my friend and even sometimes my editor, but this YA novel is so original and thoughtful I wanted to include it on my list. M is for Mary, or Mariposa, who responds to upheaval in her life the way a lot of teens do, by isolating herself and disconnecting from the people who care about her. What makes Davey’s story especially interesting is that whenever M loosens the reigns on her feelings, she is haunted by living, corporeal shadows that seem to come right out her. It’s such a clear and poignant manifestation of the sadness that people—both teens and adults—are capable of feeling, that you can’t help but get caught up in M’s unusual, but all-too-familiar plight.

Fallsy Downsies, by Stephanie Domet

 I’m a bit of a slow reader, but I ploughed through Stephanie Domet’s novel Fallsy Downsies in a day. At the time, I was on a beach in Mexico (perpetrating a tan), but I felt like I was travelling across Canada with an aging, erratic folk-singer. And while I enjoyed the ride, I was glad the trip was strictly fictional. When you’re 23 and a cup of coffee cures you of a night spent on the van floor, touring has its moments. When you’re 59 and suffering from early onset dementia, I imagine the shine is a little off the hubcaps. The joy of reading this story, then, is watching Domet’s Lansing Meadows navigate his familiar stomping grounds by the sheer force of his own bluster and the rudder of his ego, in spite of his frailty.

*

Book Cover To Me You Seem Giant

About To Me You Seem Giant: It’s 1994 and Pete Curtis can’t wait to get out of Thunder Bay, Ontario. Already, he’s playing drums in a band whose songs belong on mix-tapes everywhere. Even though his new girlfriend seems underwhelmed, he knows it’s just a matter of time before he and his pals break big.

Ten years later, Pete is stuck teaching high school in the hometown he longed to escape, while his former best friend and bandmate is a bona fide rock star.

In his debut novel, with its compelling hook and realistically flawed characters, Greg Rhyno remembers the time signatures of mid-nineties. Told in two alternating decades, To Me You Seem Giant is a raucous and evocative story about the difficulties of living in the present when you can’t escape your past.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

September 28, 2017
Books mentioned in this post
The Milk Chicken Bomb

The Milk Chicken Bomb

edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
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Safety of War

Safety of War

edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
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Pardon Our Monsters

Pardon Our Monsters

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged :
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Fallsy Downsies

Fallsy Downsies

edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
tagged : urban life
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