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What the Enemy Thinksby Gail PiccoiUniverse302 pages  $18.95“When Sarah Palin was preparing for her television debate, the vice-presidential candidate had asked the McCain strategists whether her brand was ‘hair up or hair down.’ Beck considered her own brand and pulled the top half of her long mane of red hair away from her face into a large clip, resulting in a diplomatic do that was half-up, half-down.”Beck Carnell, the protagonist of Gail Picco’s first novel, knows branding. The Herring Neck-born, Toronto-based CEO of Social Good, Beck has built the public relations company into a socially conscious, politically relevant, creatively cutting-edge firm. The clientele includes major unions and small charities, bringing Social Good reach and reputation.

To call Beck a multi-tasker is an understatement, as she can focus and strategize on different issues and diverse platforms, while still scheming to grab lunch with a friend and worry in a low-key but consistent way about her son and daughter.

Social Good’s staff is a cross section of modern, multi-cultural Toronto; Asmi, trying to balance her Canadian aspirations with Indian convention and expectations; Bain, who emigrated from Scotland as a boy and never lost his native lilt as “it was the most trusted accent in the world”; Kumail, Yvonne, Todd, all the others ready to construct and launch scripted and sculpted messages. (One of the many pleasures of reading this book is Picco’s insight into the work behind up-to-the-minute publicity campaigns: For example, when Beck decides to post a 30-minute film in support of the teachers’ union, “she had the interviews transcribed with the time code, so she could identity the location of the quotes she wanted.” These details give the office scenes authenticity and life.)

Social Good also faces challenges, deceptions and betrayals. Not all the staff or clients are up front about their pasts or their motives. These conflicts are also found in Beck’s personal life. Beck is recently divorced, under circumstances that left her kids very angry at her ex-husband. And she is spending an alarming amount of time careening around a bar called The Blue Door.

“What the Enemy Thinks” unfolds in three timelines. The main one is Beck’s present, with the other two from, first, her early days at Memorial University, where she meets her future husband, Anthony Murray, and, second, her childhood, peopled by her beloved parents and grandparents, who nurture her with molasses cookies and Newfoundland lore and a deep sense of belonging and home. Each is pivotal.

The primary setting has Beck on her own, her children grown and in university, and her business facing not one but two scandals, with the resulting tangly morals and did-I-do-enough questions texting through a socially networked world. The 1980s is her young adulthood, meeting the people and making the decisions that will shape her. Her childhood is what has already rooted and more than partially formed her.

Beck is an appealing figure, contemporary, strong, flawed. She doesn’t feel sorry for herself and tends to tackle her problems head-on. Subplots include her friend Sam’s health crisis, and Asmi’s marital tensions as she tries to negotiate India’s cast system; these (like Beck’s) story leave off on what-comes-next moments, but this is acceptable and even necessary as Picco plans to make this a trilogy.

Wild Pieces

by Catherine Hogan Safer

Killick Press

134 pages  $18.95

This collection of 16 stories is Catherine Hogan Safer’s debut in this format, although she has also produced a novel and a children’s book.

“Wild Pieces” showcases all the strengths of her writing, with its attention to the quotidian day-to-day infused with idiosyncratic humour and some darkling fancies. Her characters often occupy a kind of liminal space, not bordered and perhaps not safe. A so-called handyman infringes on his employer’s personal space. A mother convinces herself her environment is infested, wrecking her children’s home. A boy hitchhikes away from his dismal reality to find Jesus riding shotgun.

In “Lily,” for example, the main character desires a new address book, “and feeling affluent bought a pretty leather-bound contraption with space for web pages and email info.” But as she transfers contacts from her old book, she realizes how many of her friends are now out of touch, are for one or another reason lost:

Her heart did not break exactly, but there was a sharp tearing right through the centre of it. Audible. Well now, she said to herself, but she got another beer and carried on.

Joan Sullivan is a St. John's-based journalist, author and editor of The Newfoundland Quarterly.

To call Beck a multi-tasker is an understatement, as she can focus and strategize on different issues and diverse platforms, while still scheming to grab lunch with a friend and worry in a low-key but consistent way about her son and daughter.

Social Good’s staff is a cross section of modern, multi-cultural Toronto; Asmi, trying to balance her Canadian aspirations with Indian convention and expectations; Bain, who emigrated from Scotland as a boy and never lost his native lilt as “it was the most trusted accent in the world”; Kumail, Yvonne, Todd, all the others ready to construct and launch scripted and sculpted messages. (One of the many pleasures of reading this book is Picco’s insight into the work behind up-to-the-minute publicity campaigns: For example, when Beck decides to post a 30-minute film in support of the teachers’ union, “she had the interviews transcribed with the time code, so she could identity the location of the quotes she wanted.” These details give the office scenes authenticity and life.)

Social Good also faces challenges, deceptions and betrayals. Not all the staff or clients are up front about their pasts or their motives. These conflicts are also found in Beck’s personal life. Beck is recently divorced, under circumstances that left her kids very angry at her ex-husband. And she is spending an alarming amount of time careening around a bar called The Blue Door.

“What the Enemy Thinks” unfolds in three timelines. The main one is Beck’s present, with the other two from, first, her early days at Memorial University, where she meets her future husband, Anthony Murray, and, second, her childhood, peopled by her beloved parents and grandparents, who nurture her with molasses cookies and Newfoundland lore and a deep sense of belonging and home. Each is pivotal.

The primary setting has Beck on her own, her children grown and in university, and her business facing not one but two scandals, with the resulting tangly morals and did-I-do-enough questions texting through a socially networked world. The 1980s is her young adulthood, meeting the people and making the decisions that will shape her. Her childhood is what has already rooted and more than partially formed her.

Beck is an appealing figure, contemporary, strong, flawed. She doesn’t feel sorry for herself and tends to tackle her problems head-on. Subplots include her friend Sam’s health crisis, and Asmi’s marital tensions as she tries to negotiate India’s cast system; these (like Beck’s) story leave off on what-comes-next moments, but this is acceptable and even necessary as Picco plans to make this a trilogy.

Wild Pieces

by Catherine Hogan Safer

Killick Press

134 pages  $18.95

This collection of 16 stories is Catherine Hogan Safer’s debut in this format, although she has also produced a novel and a children’s book.

“Wild Pieces” showcases all the strengths of her writing, with its attention to the quotidian day-to-day infused with idiosyncratic humour and some darkling fancies. Her characters often occupy a kind of liminal space, not bordered and perhaps not safe. A so-called handyman infringes on his employer’s personal space. A mother convinces herself her environment is infested, wrecking her children’s home. A boy hitchhikes away from his dismal reality to find Jesus riding shotgun.

In “Lily,” for example, the main character desires a new address book, “and feeling affluent bought a pretty leather-bound contraption with space for web pages and email info.” But as she transfers contacts from her old book, she realizes how many of her friends are now out of touch, are for one or another reason lost:

Her heart did not break exactly, but there was a sharp tearing right through the centre of it. Audible. Well now, she said to herself, but she got another beer and carried on.

Joan Sullivan is a St. John's-based journalist, author and editor of The Newfoundland Quarterly.

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