Was her memory meaningless? Her experience insubstantial?

seconds-bryan-lee-omalley

Seconds
by Bryan Lee O’Malley

This is a sweet, funny graphic novel from the author and artist behind Scott Pilgrim, very much in the same vein. It blends real life with fantastical elements and has a strong female lead. What’s not to love?

Katie is the head chef at a restaurant called Seconds, but her dream is to own her very own restaurant. She has started to make her dream come true but it isn’t going smoothly. Her ex-boyfriend Max keeps turning up at Seconds, she’s having an affair with the man she’s supposed to be training up to replace her, and the builders at her new restaurant keep calling with bad news. When she causes an accident through negligence Katie knows something has to change…and somehow it does.

“Katie disappeared into the pantry. It was pretty pathetic. She sat there heaving and trying to make herself cry. The saddest thing was that she couldn’t have a moment away from herself. And then, through a crack in the floorboards, she saw—something.”

This has elements of a classic folk or fairy tale, including the idea that being able to put right mistakes won’t necessarily result in everything turning out perfectly. It also has a lovely strand about female friendship, as Katie alleviates her loneliness by getting to know her waitress Hazel. In familiar Bryan Lee O’Malley fashion, there are no clear right answers and Tim and I argued about the ending, before agreeing to accept that it isn’t the ending.

“Katie’s heart wouldn’t stop racing. Was her memory meaningless? Her experience insubstantial? Was she losing her grip on reality? Was she even awake?”

The art style is simple and atmospheric, with some beautiful set pieces. For instance, one double page is given over to a top-down view of the Seconds building, like a floor plan occupied by people and furniture. It reminded me of a page from one of the Usborne Puzzle Adventure series, with subtle jokes and hidden clues to the story to come – and I mean that as a compliment; I loved my Usborne Puzzle Adventures and still have several of them in my library!

Katie is an imperfect, relatable lead character. She’s strong and confident when she needs to be, fragile and heartbroken in hidden moments. She makes mistakes and she tries to put them right. She’s a bitch on a bad day and beloved by all on a good day. She doesn’t want to be alone but she doesn’t want to give up her dreams for a boyfriend. And she talks back to the narrator, which I found hilarious.

So now the only question is: will Edgar Wright please make a film of this? It would be really really great.

Published 2014 by Ballantine Books/SelfMadeHero.

Source: Excelsior! comic shop, Bristol.

For shame you must compose yourself and stay very quiet

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
by Alice Munro

This collection of short stories was picked by my book group. The title gives a clue to its overarching themes and I had an inkling that Munro was well known for her short stories, but otherwise I didn’t know what to expect. I have an idea that she is a bit of a national treasure in Canada so apologies for my cluelessness.

The stories all deal with relationships, of all kinds – couples, siblings, extended family, friends, acquaintances; even the brief relationships established with strangers under certain circumstances. There is nothing fantastical, or showy, or even hugely eventful (though things do happen that with another writer at the helm could be dramatic, or melodramatic). Munro’s style is quiet, understated, acutely observed but not in the biting, sarcastic manner of many a younger writer. She is generous to her characters, reserving judgement even as she reveals their flaws.

All of which sounds like this could be a light, fluffy read, but it most definitely is not. There is a slightly melancholic air about the stories, a sense of disappointment and disenchantment. Lovers cheat and/or break up, people get sick, people die, people lose touch. But it’s not all downbeat. There are small pleasures, small hopes, moments of pure love:

“Her heart had been dry, and she had considered it might always be so. And now such a warm commotion, such busy love.”

Every story stands up to scrutiny; in fact they are almost certainly improved by it. At book club we all had different favourites and all enthused about each other’s choices. We did all have reservations about the first story, from which the collection takes its title. While clever and interesting, it did not have the everyday feel of the other stories. It starts with a woman arranging to ship furniture across Canada, then tells us who she is and why she is doing it, then continues her story, but it skips perspective several times, zooming in on a character for a few pages at a time. At 54 pages it is the longest story in the book and possibly the most experimental. It certainly intrigued me but also frustrated me, which was actually a reaction I had a few times.

It is almost certainly a good thing to find yourself shouting (on the inside) at a character for their actions – it shows both that you have been drawn into the story and that you find the character believable – how else could you presume to think they would act in a certain way? And Munro definitely populates her stories with believable people. She deftly, in just a few lines, tells you what you need to know and yet sometimes the whole story will be a gradual revealing of a person’s character:

“She looked both frail and hardy, like a daisy on a long stalk.”

Brilliantly, you could just as easily argue that little or nothing happens in these stories, or that too much happens. Those mundane details of everyday life that Munro picks out can seem so inconsequential, yet at the same time you realise that the characters’ concerns are often the same as your own so-called disasters. It is difficult balancing guilt at having moved away from family and the need to build your own independent life and it is galling when someone plays on your guilt.

This is one of many examples where Munro seems to take a side, only to give sympathetic ear to the other side of the debate later on, often in another story. To balance the unwanted family guest, there’s a very sick man who could really do with his family making the effort to visit. That, incidentally, comes in the final and for me most emotionally engaging story, “The bear came over the mountain”.

I am beginning to realise how very much there is to say about these stories and that I already want to re-read some of them. At first I was not impressed and even on immediately finishing the book I felt that it had all been a bit old-fashioned, too much about marriage with most of the wives staying at home and having babies. But the more I reflect the more I see how well Munro has captured the realities of a certain kind of life that is familiar to most of us in the western world. None of her characters is hugely rich or desperately poor. Those who face hardship have support. These are the most middling of ordinary lives, and that is why they ring so true and say so much:

“And yet – an excitement. The unspeakable excitement you feel when a galloping disaster promises to release you from all responsibility for your own life. Then for shame you must compose yourself and stay very quiet.”

Published 2001 by Alfred A Knopf in the US, Chatto & Windus in the UK.

Slow-burning intrigue

The Mysteries
by Robert McGill

I had just been thinking that it was a while since I last read a murder mystery, and then I randomly selected this from my TBR. It’s a debut novel that the publisher describes as being akin to David Lynch’s films, which caught my attention.

There are a lot of characters in this dissection of small-town life in Ontario and one of the novel’s strengths is that I was interested in every one, finding them believable, complex and full of contradiction. Which is exactly what you need for a good mystery.

The town of Mooney’s Dump changed its name to Sunshine shortly after attractive young mother and dentist Alice Pederson disappeared two years ago, but a new name can’t take away the dark unease of the townspeople. Alice was last seen at a party at the local wildlife park, a party most of the town attended. Now remains have been found and a man has been arrested for Alice’s murder. But is it her body and her murderer? And what’s with these sightings of a tiger prowling loose?

In addition to the usual small-town intrigues of who’s sleeping with who and who used to date who, there’s the man who’s not been quite right since his parents died in a car crash, conflicts with the local First Nations reserve and gossip bordering on prejudice about a gay couple and a mixed-race marriage.

The timeline skipped around a lot, with it not always being clear when events happened, so that most of the relevant details to unravelling the mystery had been revealed before the final chapters pulled it all together by clarifying the order of events.

I was thoroughly drawn into the story and devoured the bulk of the book in one sitting. But I did have some issues with it. I know it’s an old method for thriller writers to try to mislead the reader with red herrings, throwing in extra suspicious characters and events, but there were moments reading this when I was annoyed by how a plot thread turned out.

What I didn’t notice until after I’d finished reading was that McGill appears to have made himself a character, adding a postmodern meta aspect to his storytelling. At least I think that’s what he’s done. Anyone else who’s read this know what I’m talking about? No? Just me then.

Published 2004 by Jonathan Cape.