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Review: the Antagonist by Lynn Coady

The Antagonist
Lynn Coady
House of Anansi Press

In Lynn Coady’s fourth novel, The Antagonist, we meet 40-year-old Gordon Rankin, or Rank as he is known. In a chance encounter with Kyle, a buddy from 20 years past, Rank learns that their mutual friend, Adam, has published a book. Upon reading it, Rank discovers a character that bears a striking resemblance to himself, and the portrayal is none too flattering. In his own defense, Rank starts a long series of emails to Adam to express his indignation. Rank’s humorous and touching epistolary journey allows him to ramble, rant and reminisce, eventually leading him to confront his own demons.

A hulking man of 6’4,” Rank has had the misfortune of being cast into the role of enforcer by his friends, hockey coaches and short angry father. However, his outward appearance is very much at odds with his sensitive, thoughtful and articulate inner self. Rank also has been subjected to verbal abuse by his father, Gord Senior. This abuse has created a discernible anger in Rank, which in certain situations makes his friends and onlookers nervous. What’s more, Gord Senior picks fights for his son to settle on his behalf. Rank is able to sidestep most of his father’s battles, except for one, and his exceptional strength lands him in a youth detention centre.

This pivotal event also coincides with an even greater tragedy, the death of his mother. In his young mind, the two events are inextricably linked, an unbearable burden for a young man still in his teens. On an alcohol-soaked evening with his friends at university, Rank finds himself embroiled in eerily similar circumstances, but instead of waiting to see the outcome, he assumes the worst and runs—for years.

Every once in a while a book comes along that challenges our own preconceived notions of the world. In my own version and that of many others, big white men are rarely considered an underprivileged group. But Coady challenges this by making us look at Rank, the individual, a person that most of us would dismiss as “having it all.” The Antagonist could have not have come at a better time. In our fast, media-saturated world, this novel gives the reader the refreshing and increasingly rare opportunity to take a closer, more compassionate look at someone wrongly judged by his outer shell.

Through the consistency of her character’s voice, Coady is overwhelmingly successful at showing us the inner Rank. He will invariably remind readers of someone they knew growing up or met at a university party, drinking a purple Jesus or two. The author appears to have spent a lot of time with male friends or brothers, as the banter about sex, rock trivia and parties is accurate and believable. It almost felt like Coady used the literary equivalent of method acting to get Rank’s thoughts and remarks just right.

Equally enjoyable was the revival of the epistolary novel in the age of instant communication, when no one reads more than a few sentences at a time. The use of email and Facebook as the communication tools of choice in Rank’s long, sometimes epic messages shows that his journey is meant to be more cathartic than informative, but it also demonstrates that genuine communication takes just as long as it did 30 years ago.

After finishing The Antagonist, I wondered about my own prejudices and whether I would have picked up this book if it had been written by a man. The answer is no. However, I would pick up a book written by a man who, as convincingly as Coady, perfects the voice of a bright, beautiful woman, or the female version of Rank, the woman whom we think has it all. Kudos to Lynn Coady for taking a risk on a male protagonist and getting the voice pitch perfect.

This review has been cross-posted at Rover: Montreal Arts Uncovered.

Other reviews:
Irma Voth by Miriam Toews
Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien
Going Down Swinging by Billie Livingston
Incendiary by Chris Cleave
Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell 
The Girl Without Anyone by Kelli Deeth
Drive-By Saviours by Chris Benjamin
Interview with Author Billie Livingston
Review: The Trouble with Marlene by Billie Livingston
Review: Greedy Little Eyes by Billie Livingston
Interview: Christy Ann Conlin Author of Dead Time
Review of Girls' History and Culture Reader: The Twentieth Century
Dead Time by Christy Ann Conlin


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Books for Children Aged 4 to 7

Louis the Tiger Who Came From the Sea
Written by Michal Kozlowski
Illustrated by Sholto Walker
Annick Press

Ali and Ollie wake up one morning to loud snoring. They look out the window to see a giant carrot in the backyard. Or was it a pumpkin? No! The kids decide that it's a wet sleeping tiger that is making all the racket. But why is he wet? Because he came from the sea, of course!

Louis soon finds his way into the house to relax by the fire and take a bath. Ali and Ollie then devise a plan to help the tiger return to the sea. The parents and kids dress up as sea creatures to coax Louis back to his home.

Louis the Tiger is obviously the product of Ollie and Ali's vivid imagination. The orange thing in the backyard may well have been a tent and the loud snoring, the rumble from a construction site. But there lies the beauty of a child's imagination, something we adults often forget. My 4-year-old really enjoyed the story, and I watched as he pointed to the different parts he found funny. It even led to a little research into narwhals, a type of whale with a single tusk, Ollie's disguise.

This is a fun bedtime story that can lead to many other "What ifs?" And what better way to further stimulate your child's imagination than with Walther Sholto's beautiful illustrations of Louis the Tiger and the captivating sea.

Better Together
Written by Sheryl and Simon Shapiro
Illustrated by Dusan Petricic
Annick Press

Authors Sheryl and Simon Shapiro are well aware of children's love of mixing things together to create something original. Remember Metchup, mixing ketchup and mustard so that you only had to add one to your hotdog, and what better way to learn that yellow and red make orange.

In Better Together, children learn about how to make several things, including fudge, cement and glue, by mixing a few key ingredients. In addition, each mixture is described with a cute little rhyme, which makes them all the more fun to read. My personal favourite was the rhyme about making music by blending the sounds of various instruments:

We've got Caitlin on the kettle drum,
Gary strums guitar.
Pia pounds the piano,
and Shelly shakes the jar.

We rock and roll together,
banging four beats to the bar,
and I'm the leader of the band,
so I will be the star!

This is a great book for kids who like to experiment with mixtures or simply those who love rhymes. An added bonus: each mixture is accompanied by humourous illustrations by award-winning illustrator and artist Dusan Petricic.

Other reviews:
50 Poisonous Questions by Tanya Lloyd Kyi
The Trouble with Marlene by Billie Livingston
The Orphan Rescue by Anne Dublin
Dead Time by Christy Ann Conlin

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Review: 50 Poisonous Questions

50 Poisonous Questions: A Book with Bite
Written by Tanya Lloyd Kyi
Illustrated by Ross Kinnard
Annick Press
110 pages

For all you science buffs who are looking for a way to introduce your kids to your favourite subject here's a book that makes science a little more kid friendly and fun. In 50 Poisonous Questions: a Book with Bite, tweens and teens can discover not only about creepy vipers with fangs, but also how their lethal venom is used to create antivenins to treat snake bites. Using a question and answer format, the book addresses poisonous reptiles, amphibians and bugs, lethal plants, murderous metals, noxious gases, vile villains, man-made chemical spills and natural disasters, and poison that if used in a particular way may be helpful to humans.

Using playful language and funny cartoons, the book introduces young readers (and their parents...) to some basic principles of the immune system and terms, such as bioaccumulation, biomagnification and biohazards, without getting into any complicated explanations. This is the perfect book for kids who love reading but find science too abstract or serious, as the book provides the reader with plenty of entertaining historical facts. This is also a great book for parents and kids to read together. In fact, some parents may find themselves sneaking off to read about the original purpose of DDT or how Agent Orange got its name.

I had a hard time selecting my personal favourites among the 50 questions, but here are my top three:

In Mean Beans, the reader is asked whether a jar of green beans can be poisonous. Well, it is if your beans have been poorly preserved and contain a bacteria that produces botulin toxin, the most powerful neurotoxin known to man. Botulism poisoning causes gradual paralysis in the face and arms until it eventually shuts down the lungs. Botulism is indeed rare, but it is also used as the main ingredient in Botox, which weakens facial muscles and makes wrinkles less noticeable.

Mercury's Rising sets up a riddle for the reader to solve. After Hydro Québec constructed a series of hydroelectric dams in central Canada in the 1960s and flooded large wilderness valleys, native groups began dying from mercury poisoning. Hydro Québec proclaimed its innocence: it had never dumped or used any mercury. It was later discovered that the mercury, a naturally occurring mineral in soil, had dissolved into the water, thus contaminating the fish and poisoning the people who ate the fish. The problem was solved once the reservoirs were flushed out.

Many adults will remember Susan Nellis who was once suspected though never convicted of being a Vile Villain. In the early 1980s, Nellis was a nurse at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children when in less than a year, 36 babies died from overdoses of digoxin, a medication derived from the foxglove plant. After a 44-day trial, it was decided that there was insufficient evidence to continue. Years later, some experts suggested that a bad batch of digoxin may have caused the deaths, while others believed that it was a chemical from the intravenous tubing used at the Hospital. Poor Nellis! This is a good example to show kids that there are many factors at play and that finding the guilty party or deadly substance is not as easy as it is made to appear on TV.

This is a great read for the budding environmentalist or the teen who loves mysteries.The book also includes a list at the back for further reading and research, and an index for those who want to read up on one specific topic at a time.

50 Poisonous Questions: A Book with Bite is a great idea to get your kids into the back-to-school spirit.

Other reviews of books for kids
The Trouble with Marlene by Billie Livingston
The Orphan Rescue by Anne Dublin
Dead Time by Christy Ann Conlin


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The Haitian Barber

One of my first discoveries on Jarry Street in Villeray was the red, white and blue barber's pole of Hans Coiffure. From the street I spotted a wall full of what I believed to be African masks, but when I later ventured in for a closer look, I discovered that they were from Haiti.

In addition to selling masks and wood carvings, Hans also has some colourful oil paintings on sale from some talented Haitian-born painters, with prices ranging from $350 to $400. But above all, this is a lively barber shop, with plenty of chit chat and Caribbean music. The people on hand were more than willing to explain some aspect of the art on display.

There was a particularly moving painting of a ship carrying a large number of passengers with many people below floating on pieces of wood and debris in shark-infested waters. Was this a depiction of the Haitian boat lift from the early to mid 80s? I can't be sure because when I called Hans to inquire, he told me that he was too busy cutting hair to answer.

Some of these paintings and masks are well worth a look. Drop by to see the art display at Hans Coiffure, 630 Jarry East just a block East of Jarry Metro.

For further reading on the Haitian boat lift between Haiti and South Florida in the Los Angeles Times click here.

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New Digs and Swedish Thrillers

Not to worry! I have not given up blogging. We are just moving to larger living quarters in Villeray, a mere three metro stops to the north of our current location. I am in the midst of changing my address, which will take me all of today, and probably a few more days when I remember all the essential organizations that I have forgotten. In addition, it seems that we are continually uncovering a new expense that we have to pay out of pocket. For instance, this morning we discovered that the person who surveyed our condo 12 years ago made a mistake in his calculations and to rectify the error we have to go through two levels of government and considerable expense.Oh the psychological and the physical joys of moving! Anyhoo!

Embellishment in Hall
Our new home is two floors in a triplex with a nice little backyard for my kids to play in and a nearly carless back alley. We've also discovered that the sidewalk in front of the house is large enough to play on, which is an added bonus. The building was constructed in 1928, and we've found plenty of remnants of previous tenants. What's more, parts of the basement and backstairs have a perfectly eerie feel to them, and I'm not the only one who has sensed this. I've seen my daughter venture halfway down the stairs only to run back up on more than one occasion. She found marks on the wall throughout the basement where someone had installed locks. Apparently, a previous tenant was afraid of being broken into and had locks installed everywhere. I had a little fun with my daughter and told her that he might have been locking someone...or something in.

On the topic of spooky, we have started a Swedish crime novel exchange this summer at work, which has been a lot of fun. Six of us have obtained copies of one or two thrillers from the Guardian's list of Sweden's best crime novels, compiled by the high priestess of crime writing herself, Camilla Lackberg. I've read four of the ten to date. A general remark: besides obviously taking place in Sweden, all four novels have at least one reference to IKEA. My favourite so far has been Sun Storm by Asa Larsson, the tax attorney-turned-crime writer. If you're looking for a page turner for the beach, pick up the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but make sure you get all three volumes because you won't have any peace until you've read them all. If you're packing light then pick up the Fifth Woman by Henning Mankell.

Here's the list:

1. The Mind's Eye by Håkan Nesser
2. Blackwater by Kerstin Ekman
3. Missing by Karin Alvtegen
4. Sun Storm by Åsa Larsson *My favourite so far. Tax attorney must return home to Sweden's far north and solve a murder among the criminally insane and religious fanatics. Apparently, the two go together....A read that will not disappoint you.
5. The Fifth Woman by Henning Mankell *Excellent but not my favourite. Would Wallander just call Baiba damn it!
6. Unseen by Mari Jungstedt
7. Shame by Karin Alvtegen *My least favourite to date, but two of my colleagues really enjoyed this one. Shame is the story of two women living with shameful pasts, but I only found one of the characters interesting.
8. Echoes from the Dead by Johan Theorin
9. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson *Excellent and well worth your entertainment dollar, but it could still stand a good edit. Far too much coffee drinking and repeated references to the heroine's small breasts.
10. Midvinterblod by Mons Kallentoft (not yet translated)

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