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The Canterbury Trail by Angie Abdou

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Full disclosure: I have known Angie since 2007 when she was my instructor at the Fernie Writers’ Conference. Because of this, I have been in the unique position of hearing bits and pieces about The Canterbury Trail as Angie wrote it. She held her cards close, but every so often she would drop hints about this pilgrimage tale she was penning. 

The Canterbury Trail is loosely based on that old, dusty, high-school tome The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. Remember how all the boys in class perked up and giggled during the Wife of Bath’s tale? If they thought the Wife of Bath was a lascivious lass, they should spend some time with The Canterbury Trail’s Alison, the gap-toothed, wine-swilling, sex-crazed reporter from out East.

If you do recall your Chaucer, you will no doubt recognize this and other references to his timeless work. I’m a bit of a lit geek, so I enjoyed the little in-jokes in The Canterbury Trail that I actually got. The ones I missed, well, I’ll never know the difference, will I? It says something about strength of narrative that you don’t need to know the original story in order to follow the travails of this group of travellers to their Camelot. Camelot in this case is a back-country cabin set in the mountains above the fictional town of Coalton.

The book opens with Heinz, the town hermit and former English teacher. He spends his time carving signs that name all the beauteous spots of nature that surround his home on the mountain. He curses the very people who he knows are already making plans to invade his tranquil world.

Then we are off! With boisterous abandon, the pilgrims from the town of Coalton begin their journey up Canterbury Trail to indulge in some back-country playtime.  Fresh snow spews from the heavens as the diverse groups make their way via various means of transportation to the coveted cabin. Along the way to paradise, the reader experiences snowmobile trips, a hilarious mushroom trip, skiing UP a mountain and, upon arrival, buckets and buckets of puke – without the buckets.

As these outdoor enthusiasts are forced together within the tight confines of Camelot, allegiances are made and broken. The stakes are raised again and again until people and relationships start to unravel and suddenly, things aren’t quite so funny anymore.

On the last morning, the pilgrims wake to perfect conditions on the mountain. But perfect for what? The tension amps up as we watch skier, snowboarder and snowmobiler race to get the face shots and highmarks they’ve come for.

Angie’s strengths as a writer shine through not only in her dialogue, but also in her descriptions. The characters are spot-on. I will only name a few: Janet, the pregnant wife; Cosmos, the hippy; F-Bomb (best name in the book and my favourite character) the First Nations skier with a heart of gold; Loco the local who knows the land better than anyone; Michael, the real estate developer who sees green in all that white. Angie purposely and purposefully takes her characters right up to the line of being stereotypes – she gives us exactly what we expect to see, always with the express intent of turning those very expectations on their heads as the story progresses.

Angie makes the outdoors and the experience of the outdoors tangible. I have never back-country skied, but after reading this book, I, Queen of the Green Run, found myself pontificating to my bored ski-mates on the type of snow beneath my ancient pair of former rental skis. “Ah yes, this would be cream cheese snow. And over there, on that difficult run beneath the Deer Chair, well, that is known as elephant snot.”

I no longer have to clench my teeth in an uncomprehending smile when someone says something about skin tracks. I now know they have nothing to do with heroin. I’m now able to properly eavesdrop on all those cool kids at the coffee shop in Fernie when they talk about “telemarking” and “transceivers” and “pot cookies.” Not that I’ve ever heard anything about pot cookies. No sir. Not ever.

As a card-carrying GORB — oh, read the book if you don’t know what that means — I may not seem like The Canterbury Trail’s ideal reader, but the trip up the C—t* was nothing short of a rocking, shocking good time.  (And if the C-word at the end of this review surprised you, that’s nothing compared to the end of the book. You’ll see.)

*Look, Ma! I wrote this whole review and only mentioned the C-word once. Which is about eighteen times less than it is spoken, mentioned and referenced in The Canterbury Trail. Stay tuned for Angie’s interview when she will discuss this very subject. 

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Memoir of a Good Death – Anne Sorbie

Memoir of a Good Death is the first novel by Calgary author Anne Sorbie. The story is narrated alternately by real estate expert Rhegan and her mother Sarah, and details their struggles to come to terms with the death of Rhegan’s father and ultimately with their own fractured relationship.

The twist? We know from the opening pages that Rhegan is dead.

Sorbie follows in the grand tradition of Robert Kroetsch and Aritha van Herk and uses landscape to full effect in her story. In this case, we are treated to the sometimes calm, sometimes restless, sometimes downright violent Bow River. The action of the novel flows at times in tandem with the movement of the water, and at other times in opposition to it. Opportunities for metaphor abound in this novel and Sorbie employs them with surgical skill. She doesn’t push you fully clothed into the raging waters of her symbolism, but lets the seeping dampness advance a little at a time until you suddenly realize that you are awash in the beauty and sadness and strength and fury that colour the lives of her characters.

Rhegan sells property along the Bow River. To be in sales is to be ever concerned with the bottom line – black or red – and this is reflected in Rhegan’s strong personality. Her territory runs from mountain to canyon, through city and over prairie.  It floods. It recedes. Not unlike profits and losses. Like any good sales rep, Rhegan knows what she sells and she’s good at it. Unfortunately, she is not as skilled in her appraisals of those she loves.

Rhegan is somewhat hard to get to know even though she is forthright about the mistakes she’s made in her life. Her death has afforded her the chance to come to terms with the errors she’s made face the fact that she has hurt those she most loved. Her vulnerablility is revealed through her inability to dispose of one particular property in Calgary’s Inglewood neighbourhood. She cannot bear to let it go, and as she explains why, we connect with her and are pulled into her tale.

Sarah, her mother, is distant. At first it seems it’s due to the untimely death of her husband, but soon it’s clear that Sarah was always a mother who held back and didn’t engage with her daughter.  Her sections are written in the second person, which is a little hard to get used to at first, but even though I’ve never really loved that POV, it actually suits her character. Sarah was unable to forge an outwardly loving connection with her daughter, so it makes sense that she would have a voice that forces you to keep a bit of distance.

Rhegan’s story is told in the first person POV. This is perfect for her character. After all, it’s really all about her, isn’t it? Her mother, her exes, her father – they are like river currents that move around the island that is Rhegan. She knows this though, and doesn’t flinch as she lets us in on her self-centredness. It would be unfair to give away the details of Rhegan’s death, but I will say I held my breath throughout the three pages that described the action. Brilliant.

There are not many books out there that feature Calgary, and very few that feature the city in such lovely and loving detail. Anne Sorbie has crafted an original book that defies expectation. It is evident in the minute details of her story that every element was chosen to highlight what goes on underneath what we usually see, whether beneath deceptive calm waters of a river, or the person sitting next to you at breakfast.