October 2006

Adult Books for Strong Teenage Readers: Contemporary Canadian Publications

by Margaret Mackey with Joanne de Groot, Gail de Vos, Heather Ganshorn, Merle Harris, Ingrid Johnston, Elaine Jones, and Jill Kedersha McClay

2006 has been a busy year for the creators of this column. To celebrate our 10th anniversary, we put together a compilation booklet of all our columns, Adult Canadian Books for Strong Teenage Readers. With generous funding from the University of Alberta Faculty of Education Alumni, we were able to send out many free copies: to Alberta high schools and public libraries and to a select (though large) group of Resource Links subscribers (we made an executive decision that this publication would be of limited use to those subscribers whose address was an elementary school and did not include them in our mail-out, in order to make best use of Alumni funds). The compilation list is also mounted on the Web at http://www.ualberta.ca/~mmackey/adultbooklist.pdf), and the introduction gives details of how you can purchase a hard copy for the low, low price of $10, including postage. We hope to update the Web version every spring with the newest titles (so by spring 2007, the site should include the titles cited below). Our thanks go to the Alumni, to Victoria Pennell of Resource Links for her ready help, and to James Nahachewsky, now of the University of Winnipeg, for doing the major editorial work on this project.

Even as we worked to turn the booklist from a good idea to a reality, we didn't stop reading, and this year's column includes some excellent material. This list is published with the usual warnings: our mandate is to find adult material that has the potential to appeal to able teenage readers. We do not filter for sex, violence, strong language, or anything else; we work on the assumption that a reader interested in and able to cope with the reading demands of these books will either take the content in stride or will decide to stop reading. When we suggest that a book is for "mature readers," therefore, as two reviewers do this year, it is a flag to be taken seriously.

A strong teenage reader in Canada in 2006 is spoiled for choice when it comes to adult books that hold some kind of interest for youth. This list contains contemporary and historical stories, stories rooted in Canada and those that deal with life elsewhere, true stories and flights of fiction. As usual, we wound up wishing we could read even more, and we hope the list has the same impact on other readers.

Contemporary Life

  • Alligator by Lisa Moore. Toronto: Anansi, 2005. Hdbk. 303p. 0-88784-195-3

    Lisa Moore does a remarkable job of moving readers inside the heads of a number of characters: seventeen-year-old Colleen who struggles with how to assert herself in an ecologically endangered world; nineteen-year-old Frank who is trying to create an independent life after the death of his mother; Colleen's mother, a widow confused by her only child; Colleen's aunt, an aging film-maker; an actress in the aunt's film who is also getting older and worried about it; and the actress's mysterious and sinister Russian boyfriend. These people all live in contemporary St. John's, a small city where they are likely to encounter each other in a variety of circumstances. A small coincidence can lead to much wider, important, occasionally violent consequences.

    In this book, Moore not only captures the flavour of St. John's in 2004, she also portrays a wider view of contemporary life, often expressed in telling details. For example, her account of Colleen reading an erotic article in a new Cosmopolitan magazine while watching a video at the same time captures an instance of the small cognitive and emotional dissonances that we take for granted every day.

    In many ways this is a book about details. Moore has a stunning gift for the exact word to describe a nuance of perception or feeling. The book has been nominated for several prizes, and it is not hard to see why. Not every reader will enjoy this novel but those who do will find it breathtaking. MM

  • What We All Long For by Dionne Brand Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2005. Hdbk. 336p. 0-67697-167-9

    This book exemplifies the new, ultra-urban face of Canadian literature. Brand follows the stories of four twenty-somethings living in Toronto. Tuyen is the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants. She has moved out of her parents' home against their wishes to pursue a career as an avant-garde artist. Throughout the novel, she tries to escape the family obligations her culture imposes on her, with limited success. Her friend Carla is the daughter of a white mother and a Jamaican father. Her life is still haunted by the memory of her mother's suicide when she was five years old. She works as a bike courier, and tries to keep her younger brother Jamal out of trouble. Their friend Oku is a grad-school dropout pondering what he wants to do with his life. When he is not avoiding his immigrant father's guilt-trip lectures, he's trying to woo Jackie, the daughter of black Nova Scotians whose dreams of a better life in the big city have yet to be realized.

    What We All Long For is a hymn to Toronto's multicultural diversity that lays bare the tensions that underlie the city's cultural fabric, even as it celebrates the wonderful possibilities that arise when so many different cultures live side by side. All of the young people in the novel are trying hard either to escape their parents, or to avoid becoming their parents. Friendship and love exist alongside violence and racism. Ultimately this is a story about modern Canadian cities and all of their perils and possibilities. HG

  • jPod by Douglas Coupland. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2006. Hdbk. 517p. 0-679-31424-5

    Coupland has written a book about the gaming world, and he has omitted no opportunity to remind his readers that this is a book. All the affordances of paper have been exploited in this interesting volume, starting with an extended verbal riff that completely covers the end papers, front and back, and concluding with a pseudo-replay button on the final page.

    In between, Coupland tells the story of a group of young people who lead such a surreal life that they barely notice when regular daily life turns equally surreal. Ethan Jarlewski is one of six workers whose names all begin with J; as a working unit, they are nicknamed the jPod and they labour to create digital games. Unfortunately, their dedication to the cause of creating a magnificent game is sabotaged by the loony notions of a marketing executive, and of course, marketing wins, hands down. Ethan and his colleagues are required to insert a goofy cuddly turtle in the middle of their skateboard game.

    What meaning there was in developing the skateboard game promptly evaporates, and the JPodsters resort to a kind of aimless anarchism at work. Ethan also finds it easy to transfer this feckless attitude to his home life, where it seems to fit appropriately in any case: Mom is a murderous drug-dealer and Dad is a failed actor with a passion for competitive ballroom dancing. Douglas Coupland appears as a character from time to time, detested by Ethan but occasionally powerful in the development of the plot.

    This is a book to read now. It is utterly contemporary and very engaging. Coupland's Vancouver game company is a caricature but a compelling one. The jPodsters are appealing in their zany way, and Coupland's play with what paper can do is also interesting, if idiosyncratic and sometimes repetitive. The overall impact of the pointlessness of the jPodsters' work raises serious questions but Coupland does not belabour them, leaving them instead for readers to consider. MM

  • Blood Sports by Eden Robinson. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart. Hdbk. 280p. 0-7710-7604-5

    In her latest novel, Eden Robinson has elaborated on the short story "Contact Sports" which first appeared in her 1997 collection of short stories, Traplines. Blood Sports begins a few years later.

    This is a tough, gritty read, difficult to digest without flinching. Loyalty, choices, and family ties embrace Robinson's homage to the folktale of "Hansel and Gretel." Tom's cousin Jeremy enters his life when Tom is fifteen and the cat-and-mouse game for control between the cousins continues to escalate when, several years later, Jeremy is released from prison. By this time Tom, his girlfriend Paulie, and their one-year-old daughter Mel are attempting to live a normal life without illegal drugs and underground connections. This soon ends as Tom and his family are kidnapped and tortured, both physically and mentally right until the open-ended conclusion of the novel.

    Robinson handles the violence, the use of realistic speech patterns of her poor, white, urban characters, and the emotional roller coaster extremely well. Tom's story is told through journal entries that transverse time and place, descriptions of homemade videos as well as rapid head on confrontations. Robinson's writing is sparse and eloquent, her understanding of her characters apparent, and her graphic visualizations sure and deft. She has succeeded in making the reader extremely uncomfortable, squirming at the fast-paced action while at the same time revelling in the beauty of her prose.

    Highly recommended for mature readers. GdV

  • Family Stories

    • The Girls by Lori Lansens. Toronto: Knopf, 2005. Hdbk. 457 p. 0676977952

      I have never looked into my sister's eyes. I have never bathed alone. I have never stood in the grass at night and raised my arms to a beguiling moon. I've never used an airplane bathroom. Or worn a hat. Or been kissed like that. I've never driven a car. Or slept through the night. Never a private talk. Or solo walk. I've never climbed a tree. Or faded into a crowd. So many things I've never done, but oh, how I've been loved. And, if such things were to be, I'd live a thousands lives as me, to be loved so exponentially (p. 1).

      So begins Lori Lansens remarkable new novel The Girls. Set in small town Ontario, The Girls is the story of the world's longest living craniopagus twins. Rose and Ruby Darlen were born joined at the head in 1974 and, when their frightened teenaged mother abandoned them, they were adopted by the eccentric and loving nurse who attended their birth and her husband, an immigrant butcher.

      Known throughout their community as ิthe girls', Rose and Ruby experience every detail of their life together. Yet, they are very much individuals, with different interests and ideas and perspectives on their lives. As they approach their thirtieth birthday, Rose, an aspiring writer, begins to write her own version of life as a conjoined twin. Ruby, who admits to being bored by books and writing, interjects occasionally to add her own chapter of the story. The Girls is the story of their lives.

      Lori Lansens, well known for her first book Rush Home Road, delivers another powerfully moving book about characters you will not soon forget. The Girls is highly recommended. JdeG

    • Origin of Haloes, by Kristen den Hartog. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2005. Hdbk. 342p. 0-7710-2620-X

      Set in the town of Deep River, Ontario during the 1960s and 1970s, Origin of Haloes is the story of a lie and how it grows, often with unintended consequences. Kay Clancy is an up-and-coming gymnast with Olympic potential when, at the age of 16, she is impregnated by her gym coach, Russell Halliwell. Russell urges her to abort the baby, but instead she marries her high-school sweetheart, Joe LeBlanc. She admits to Joe that he is not the baby's father, but allows him to think that another boy from their school forced himself on her. This seemingly small lie will have tragic consequences in the years ahead. Despite an inauspicious beginning, Kay and Joe have several happy years of married life, until Joe disappears without a trace while out on a canoe trip. No sign of the canoe or a body surfaces to confirm his death. Joe's children grow up thinking he might come back at any time, and longing for his return. This longing is especially acute in Margar, the youngest daughter, born after her father's disappearance.

      While the LeBlanc family grows and flourishes, Coach Halliwell's family is imploding. His wife Marie finds out about the pregnancy, and is never able to forgive him. Their son Eddie grows from an overweight, shortsighted boy doomed to disappoint his athletic father, into a brooding, troubled artist. Though much of the book is filled with sadness, there are also moments of humour and family closeness. There are many likable characters, particularly Margar, a gangly, awkward girl with a vivid imagination and an instinct for mischief. HG

    • Joyland by Emily Schultz. Illus. Nate Powell. Toronto: ECW Press, 2006. Hdbk. 295p. 1-55022-721-1

      Emily Schultz tells a story of the summer of 1984 in the southernmost part of Ontario. Joyland, the local video arcade, shuts just as the summer holidays begin, and the local kids are left to their own devices for entertainment over the summer. Atari and computer games fill some of the void, but not all, and eventually the social vacuum created by the loss of the arcade fills with a sinister energy.

      Chris and Tammy are brother and sister, aged 14 and 11, and for the purposes of this story are referred to as Player 1 and Player 2. The story alternates between their perspectives and Schultz does a good job of recreating the off-centre enthusiasms and horrors of early adolescence. The story is presented in close-up; we are shown the detailed surfaces surrounding Tammy or Chris, and we are given access to their thoughts and feelings as they absorb the events they can control and the ones they can't. The sensation of being inside their world is very vivid, and Schultz compounds this feeling by surrounding the characters with a meticulously accurate array of 1984 artifacts - a tactic which occasionally feels like too much of a good thing, but generally succeeds in creating a convincing atmosphere. It is sometimes necessary to read very carefully in order to follow the plot, but for the most part that care is rewarded in detail.

      The climactic scene that ends the book is presented in some ways like a video game - yet, although the concluding scene plays and replays in Chris's head, real life does not offer the opportunity to undo events and play them differently.

      Every word in this interesting novel seems to have been thought about quite carefully before being put in place. Occasionally this effort results in over-writing; occasionally it is possible to wish that basic plot events could be described more simply. For the most part, however, the writing is highly evocative and the emotional tone is successfully taut. A very interesting story that makes intelligent use of its motif of video games and presents two highly credible characters. MM

    • A Perfect Night to Go to China by David Gilmour. Toronto: Thomas Allen Publishers, 2005. Hdbk. 179p. 0-88762-167-8

      This short but emotionally powerful novel won a 2005 Governor's General's literary award. Gilmour's book creates a nightmare scenario of a young father who leaves his six-year old alone in his bedroom for a short time while he goes to a nearby bar for a drink. On his return, his son is gone. Through an emotive and powerful first person narrative, Gilmour offers readers insight into a desperate father's search for his son through actions, thoughts and surreal dreams. At the same time, the novel explores the complex relationship between the protagonist and his estranged wife who blames him for their son's disappearance. Gilmour's prose is rich with metaphors of remembrance, hope, loss and regret. This is a compelling read, hard to put down and impossible to forget. IJ

    • The Island Walkers London: John Murray, 2005 (First published by MClelland & Stewart, 2003). Pbk. 431p. 0-7195-6670-3

      An absorbing novel set in the summer of 1965 in a small Southern Ontario mill town. The Walker family, Alf, Margaret, their two sons and daughter, have their lives disrupted when a union organizer comes to town and sets in motion a series of tragic events. The story follows the lives of each family member over the course of the summer as their relatively peaceful lives are gradually overtaken by frustrations, anger, conflict and family drama. The story has all the ingredients of a soap opera: a troubled marriage, family secrets, a young man in love, a child in danger, betrayal of old friends. But the lyrical power of Bemrose's writing and his insightful and incisive character portrayals lift the book to a more literary plane. In 2003 it was nominated for the Giller prize and subsequently longlisted for the Booker prize. The elegant prose and atmospheric writing may not endear the novel to everyone, but the power of storytelling will keep most readers turning the page with fascination and interest in the lives of Bermose's complex characters. IJ

    Past Times and Different Cultures

    • Certaintyby Madeleine Thien. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2006. Hdbk. 311p. 0-7710-8513-3

      Thien's first novel is a complex, multilayered story that moves back and forth in time and across countries. It is first the story of Gail Lim, a radio documentary producer, who, we learn in the first few pages, has died suddenly while working on her final project. It is also the story of Gail's partner, Ansel, a Vancouver doctor who is struggling to regain his balance after Gail's death. Finally, it is the story of Gail's father, whose past in wartorn Asia is something her parents have kept hidden from Gail.

      Gail's father, Matthew Lim, grew up in Japanese-occupied Sandakan, North Borneo, playing on the edges of the jungle with Ani, his best friend. Although the war had changed life for Matthew and Ani and their families, the two children spent many happy hours exploring the countryside and imagining better times in the future. Throughout these dark times, a strong bond forms between Matthew and Ani, a bond that remains even after Matthew moves to Australia and then Canada in search of a better future with his wife, Clara.

      As Gail works on her final radio project, her research takes her to Amsterdam and from there she travels north to the Frisian countryside where she meets Sipke Vermeulen, someone intimately familiar with her parents' history. As Gail unravels the story of her parents' tumultuous past, she discovers the harsh realities of war and what it means to lose those closest to you. Ultimately, though, she learns about hope, as Gail discovers what it means to love and be loved.

      Madeleine Thien's novel is a beautifully written story with fully formed characters that will continue to stay with readers even after the book is done. The descriptions of life in North Borneo during the war are powerful and evocative and will, no doubt, inspire many readers to pick up a map or atlas to put these places into a global context. This is not a book that every young adult reader will be drawn to, but those who are interested in travel or exploring new places through literary fiction, or those who enjoy historical fiction, will find much to appreciate in Certainty. JdG

    • Sweetness in the Belly by Camilla Gibb. Anchor Canada, 2006. Pbk. 415p. 0-385-66018-9

      For many of us, the word "Ethiopia" immediately brings to mind the much-publicized pictures of famine that galvanized the Western entertainment world into major relief efforts in the early 1980's. Sweetness in the Belly is a novel which takes a deeper look at Ethiopia in the time period from 1970 to 1991, from before Western attention was focussed on that part of Africa until most popular media interest had waned. The larger story of Ethiopia unfolds behind the very personal story at the forefront of the novel - the story of Lilly Abdal, a white woman born of British parents who was raised a devout Muslim in Africa.

      Lilly's story moves back and forth between two time-lines and locations: one is London in the 1980's and the other is Harar, Ethiopia in the 1970's. The Lilly of London is a nurse in her twenties and thirties whose "white face and white uniform" has earned her a place bridging the old world and the new for her mostly immigrant and refugee neighbours. In her off-hours she counsels her neighbours and translates and interprets the forms and bureaucracy of the British social welfare system for those too intimidated to access the services they need. She and fellow Ethiopian, Amina, have also started an organization to reunite refugees with their families in the hope that while they are helping others they will find news of people they love: for Amina it is her husband, Yusef; for Lilly it is Aziz. Although Lilly's life is filled with people who care about her she is often depressed; she is unwilling to commit fully to her new life in Britain until she can deal with the past. In the second time-line, from 1970 to 1974, the teenaged Lilly, newly arrived in Harar, needs to find a place for herself in the Muslim community. She was sent to Harar from Morocco by her spiritual guide, the Great Abdal whose tutelage she had been under since she was orphaned at eight. In Harar, Lilly's devoutness is suspect; she is distrusted as a foreigner, a farenji, and must work hard to survive. She eventually makes a place for herself as a teacher of the Qur'an and has a relationship with a handsome, young, progressive Muslim doctor, Aziz, until political upheaval sends her fleeing to England.

      Much of the power of the novel comes from the juxtaposition of the two timelines. Lilly's love for Aziz is unfolding in one as she alternately hopes and despairs of finding him in the other. This format drives the narrative forward at the same time as it allows a close look at Lilly's character as a woman and as a Muslim. The author, Camilla Gibb, was born in London, England but grew up in Toronto. She has a degree in social anthropology for which she conducted fieldwork in Ethiopia. Her familiarity with the cultures and settings she writes about is evident, but it is the grace with which she writes and her affection and understanding of the Muslim culture and the people of Ethiopia which makes this novel so gratifying to read. Sweetness in the Belly was a 2005 Giller Prize finalist. EJ

    • The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly. Toronto. Random House, 2005. 516p. 0-679-31022-3

      Most of The Lizard Cage takes place in an austere concrete-and-teak prison cell in Myanmar (also known as Burma) where Teza, a political prisoner, is in his seventh year of a twenty year sentence. He befriends an orphan - the boy - who is living in the prison and who delivers food trays to the prisoners. Teza enlists the help of Chit Naing, the senior jailer who has a conscience, to get the child out and into a monastery school.

      Connelly's writing is rich, beautiful and poetic. There is a kaleidoscopic feel to this book as she draws the reader in to the minutia of life in Teza's cell and then widens out to the many characters with whom he comes into contact, wider still to his memories of life on the outside and to the news of Aung San Suu Kyi's release from detention, and then narrows down back into the cell.

      There are black-and-white photographs throughout the text which seem to imply that while this is fiction, these people live with this brutality.

      While some of the violent prison scenes are difficult to read, this is a compelling book for mature teenage readers. In a world that appears bleak and hopeless, Connelly leaves her readers with the knowledge that hope is alive. MH

    • The Wreckage by Michael Crummy. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2005. Hdbk. 356p. 0-385-66060-X

      There is no shortage of wreckage in this complex, moving book. From the ruins of Nagasaki to the abandoned outports of Newfoundland, physical wreckage abounds. From the racism that destroyed the lives of Japanese Canadians - even those who fought in World War I - to the virulent prejudice that separated Catholics and Protestants in their Newfoundland outports, the book does not lack for ways to wreck lives also. Out of these very unlikely links, Michael Crummey has created a stunning story of love, lust, endurance, and lies - the necessary lies that get human beings through the day, and the needless, cruel lies that warp lives.

      It does not sound very appealing, but it is in fact a highly readable book that takes on some of the biggest and most devastating questions of the twentieth century and expresses them in human terms. It is a very impressive achievement, and a compelling story. Wish (Aloysious) and Sadie (Mercedes) meet as young people in Little Fogo Island before they are separated by local bigotry and by World War II. Their stories alternate with that of Nishino, a Japanese Canadian driven to fight for Japan by cruelty in Canada. The narratives move back and forth across the years between 1940 and 1994, and piecing together the causes and effects is one of the charms of reading this intelligent, powerful book. MM

    • The Wreckage by Michael Crummy. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2005. Hdbk. 356p. 0-385-66060-X

      There is no shortage of wreckage in this complex, moving book. From the ruins of Nagasaki to the abandoned outports of Newfoundland, physical wreckage abounds. From the racism that destroyed the lives of Japanese Canadians - even those who fought in World War I - to the virulent prejudice that separated Catholics and Protestants in their Newfoundland outports, the book does not lack for ways to wreck lives also. Out of these very unlikely links, Michael Crummey has created a stunning story of love, lust, endurance, and lies - the necessary lies that get human beings through the day, and the needless, cruel lies that warp lives.

      It does not sound very appealing, but it is in fact a highly readable book that takes on some of the biggest and most devastating questions of the twentieth century and expresses them in human terms. It is a very impressive achievement, and a compelling story. Wish (Aloysious) and Sadie (Mercedes) meet as young people in Little Fogo Island before they are separated by local bigotry and by World War II. Their stories alternate with that of Nishino, a Japanese Canadian driven to fight for Japan by cruelty in Canada. The narratives move back and forth across the years between 1940 and 1994, and piecing together the causes and effects is one of the charms of reading this intelligent, powerful book. MM

    • I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors by Bernice Eisenstein. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2006. Hdbk. 187p. 0-7710-3063-0

      Beatrice Eisenstein's life has been shaped by the Holocaust. Some children's parents have romantic stories about how they met. Eisenstein's parents met as prisoners in Auschwitz, and emigrated to Toronto after the war. As a 10-year-old, she remembers watching Adolf Eichmann's trial on television with her parents and their friends. That's when, in her words, she became "addicted" to the Holocaust. She has spent her life trying to understand the unspeakable horror her parents endured. Her relationship with her father was particularly conflicted, as he seemed particularly unable to relate to his children. All of her parents' friends are fellow survivors, and as a small child, Eisenstein resents the fact that they share a bond with these non-family members that they seem to lack with their own children. One senses that her Holocaust obsession (which she admits verges on the unhealthy), is an attempt to forge such a bond. However, she also admits that growing up, she was not above trading on her parents' tragic history to enhance her own social status. Don't expect a history lesson from this book. Eisenstein doesn't offer up dates and facts. Instead, this is a meditation on the long reach of history through the generations. Eisenstein's warm portrait of growing up in Toronto's close-knit Jewish community is enjoyable to read, and her lovingly drawn, cartoonish illustrations of herself and her family members add emotional impact to the story. HG

    • A Map of Glass by Jane Urquhart. Toronto: Emblem Editions, 2006 (2005). Pbk. 392p. 0-7710-8728-4

      Urquhart's latest novel has many of the ingredients readers have come to expect of her fiction: elegant and poetic writing; a complex female protagonist, and a story that addresses the human psyche, the confluence of the past and present, and the power of art to articulate the beauty of life. The three sections of the novel are framed by the character of Sylvia, a woman suffering from a form of autism, who is in mourning for Andrew, her secret lover who was a historian and geographer. Sylvia reads in a newspaper that Andrew's frozen corpse was discovered on an island where he was researching the story of his ancestors. She flees from her husband to travel secretly to Toronto to meet the photographic artist (Jerome) who found Andrew's body. In conversations with Jerome, Sylvia feels free for the first time to reflect on her own troubled life and to explore the nuances of her extra-marital relationship with Andrew.

      These two contemporary sections of the novel frame the central section, which in many ways is the most compelling of the three. Here Urquhart takes readers into the history of Andrew's ancestors, who were 19th-century shipbuilders and hotelkeepers on Timber Island in Lake Ontario. His great-grandfather's life, filtered through Andrew's family notebooks that have survived the generations, comes alive in this section of the novel. It is a story of strong passions and relationships, family feuds and reconciliations, ambition and greed. Through the story, with its powerful central image of an island hotel gradually disappearing under layers of sand, Urquhart reflects on the inevitability of change, and the erosion of historical memory.

      This is an ambitious novel, and not wholly successful. In many ways, the story tries to do too much and to go in too many directions. The historical central section is so compelling, it is a shock to be brought back to the present in the final section of the book, and I found it hard to care as much for Sylvia's fate as I did about the lives of long-dead 19th century ancestors in the central page of the novel. Yet, the book does have great fascination, and despite its shortcomings, it is a worthwhile read. It offers an engaging fictionalized narrative of a specific geographical and temporal period of Canadian history interwoven with the complex and more recognizable lives of characters in the 21st century. IJ

    • The Birth House by Ami McKay. Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2006. 387p. Hdbk. 0-676-97772-3

      Dora Rare is the first daughter in five generations of Rares and she was born in a caul. The strangeness of her birth and her habit of "thinking too much for a girl" set her apart in the isolated community of Scots Bay, Nova Scotia where old superstitions still have a hold. At seventeen, in the early years of WWI, Dora's lack of marriage prospects and hardships at home force her to apprentice to Miss Babineau, the local Acadian midwife. This does nothing to secure Dora's place in the community since some consider Miss Babineau a witch. Dora is also immediately drawn into Miss Babineau's conflict with a young doctor, Gilbert Thomas, who is selling fast, painless, "modern" births in a Farmers Assurance Maternity Home down the mountain.

      The conflict between traditional midwifery and modern medicine is set up to be central to the novel. However, Dr. Thomas's attempts to discredit the midwives never really comes to much - despite this persecution continuing over many years - long after Miss Babineau has died and Dora is left practicing on her own.

      The Birth House is much more than a historical fiction novel about "catching babies". It touches on almost every type of "woman's issue" and "woman's trouble" in the course of telling Dora's story, including: emancipation of women in the States, abortion, prostitution, the medical use of vibrators to treat hysteria, difficult births, infertility, extramarital sex, lesbianism, physical and sexual abuse, etc. Ultimately, Dora's story becomes secondary to the issues and details of social history that are included but many readers won't mind. They will be fascinated by the fight for women to control their own bodies as championed by Dora Rare. EJ

    • Incorrigible by Velma Demerson. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2004. Pbk. 172p. 0-88920-444-6

      You won't see Velma Demerson's slice of Canadian history televised in a Heritage Minute. Demerson was 18 in 1929, when she was imprisoned for the crime of being "incorrigible," a term in Ontario legislation that could be applied to any young woman whose sexual morals were suspect. The 18-year-old Demerson's "crime" was dating a Chinese man. Her parents called the police, who busted her at his apartment one morning. The pregnant girl ended up in a women's prison, along with prostitutes and other female criminals. Many aspects of her sentence were confusing to Demerson at the time, but most confusing of all was the series of painful medical treatments she had to undergo for a sexually transmitted disease that only manifested itself long after she was imprisoned.

      Years later, Demerson's research suggested that the doctors at the prison may have intentionally infected patients in order to study the human papilloma virus, which could not be transmitted to animals and thus required human subjects. Dr. Edna Guest, the head physician at the prison, was vice-president of the Canadian Social Hygiene Council, a eugenics group that published papers "proving" that people in the prison system are "moral defectives" who pose a threat to racial purity. Though she cannot prove it, Demerson suspects that Dr. Guest tried to damage her fertility or even harm her mixed-race baby. The unidentified pills she was forced to take while breast feeding were probably either sulphanilamide or Dagenan, both experimental drugs (there is independent evidence that these drugs were tested on inmates). Her baby developed severe eczema and other abnormalities, and was hospitalized for several months.

      Demerson's book is disturbing, yet essential reading. High school students learn about the Holocaust as a matter of course, and the eugenics movement was its North American cousin. This personal account from a lively, sympathetic narrator is a highly readable account of an episode in Canadian history that should not be forgotten. HG

    • Brahma's Dream by Shree Ghatage. Toronto: Anchor Canada, 2005 (2004). Pbk. 448p. 0-385-66016-2

      The setting of this coming-of-age story is Bombay, India in 1948, a time fraught with political unrest and change as India moves to Independence. The novel's protagonist is thirteen-year-old Mohini, a teenager suffering from a life-threatening wasting disease that has made her life precarious since birth. Through Mohini's perceptive and empathetic eyes, readers view significant personal, family and political events and their aftermath. Ghatage has a flair for capturing the unusual in the ordinary and for interpreting harrowing political events with irony and understanding. Her novel recreates a whole social world through the viewpoint of an unusual heroine whose special wisdom and wry humour captivate readers' attention. At times the novel is slow-moving, at others it is faster-paced as Gandhi's assassination and escalating violence in the city affect the quiet life of Mohini's family. The book creates a richly textured evocation of a world on the brink of change filtered through the viewpoint of an unusual and intriguing heroine. It is worth the read. IJ

    • Voyageurs by Margaret Elphinstone. Toronto: McArthur & Co., 2003. Trade Pbk. 470p. 1552783758

      Scottish author Margaret Elphinstone delivers a wonderful Canadian tale in this meticulously researched historical novel. Voyageurs brings the fur trade era to life in ways that social studies classes simply cannot. As the Canadian territories prepare themselves for the War of 1812, a young Quaker man named Mark Greenhow arrives in Canada to search for his sister, a missionary who has eloped with a North West Company fur trader and gone missing in the wilderness. Mark obtains assistance in his search from the North West Company. As he travels with traders (some of whom are working as government spies and recruiting agents among the Indians) Mark is exposed for the first time to people who do not share his religious and cultural background. His journey in search of his sister becomes a voyage of self-discovery as he begins to question some of the more rigid tenets of his faith, while remaining true to its core values. Because Mark is an outsider, many things about Canadian history and the fur trade must be explained to him, and thus to the reader. Elphinstone weaves this information into the story so well that it never becomes pedantic or dull. HG

    Speculative Fiction

    • Widdershins by Charles de Lint. New York: TOR, 2006. Hdbk. 560p. 0-765-31285-9

      Music is the thread that keeps the storylines and characters connected throughout this newest journey to de Lint's town of Newford and the continuing exploits of Jilly Coppercorn and Geordie Riddell, last seen in The Onion Girl.

      Lizzie Mahone, a fiddler, initiates the action when she is saved from a group of bogans by Grey, a cousin of the Raven clan and one of the animal people. Lizzie has problems believing in the encounter with the otherworld but she and the members of her band soon become further drawn into that world. When a replacement fiddler is needed, Geordie and Jilly become involved in the band's dilemma and Grey's story. Ultimately, the novel is two intertwining tales. The first is that of Grey's guilt about the murder of his wife and the repercussions and, secondly, that of Jilly's working out of her childhood sexual abuse. Both journeys involve both this world and that of the other as they face the past in order to grow emotionally in the present. Their stories also explore issues such as the rising tension between the transported faerie folk of the Old world with those native to North America and the ongoing friction between nature and technology.

      While the underlying themes are of vast importance and interest, strong characterization is the chief attraction of this novel. Main and supporting characters are all deftly painted by de Lint's evocative language and understanding of human emotions, needs and desires. Strong teen readers will appreciate the internal complications that make all of them "human" although so many of them are so much more. GdV

    Short Stories and Essays

    • Baby Khaki's Wings by Anar Ali. Toronto: Viking Canada, 2006. Hdbk. 246p. 0-670-06425-4

      The seven short stories in this volume take place in various locations from East Africa to Alberta. In this collection, Anar Ali explores the immigrant dilemma of how to make a home in a new and very foreign place, how to maintain the roots of one's identity while making a new life. Though her characters are Ismaili people of East Africa, Ali traces themes common to many immigrants in contemporary pluralist societies.

      Originating in India, the Muslim communities of East African Ismailis have a history of loss and relocation. Ali knows firsthand the pull of home and exile. Born in Tanzania, she grew up in Alberta after her family fled the persecution of Indian people in East Africa. After beginning a career in business, Ali realized that she needed to write. She completed her MFA in the Creative Writing Program of the University of British Columbia.

      A

      li's characters and narratives are memorable. Magic lives side-by-side with stark realism as people struggle to keep their lives on track. In the title story, the nanny Aisha discovers that the baby is growing wings. She frantically and futilely attempts to keep baby Khaki's wings from the notice of the baby's parents, in the certain knowledge that she will be charged with witchcraft if the discovery is made. In "A Christmas Baby," Mansoor is the proprietor of an Alberta highway gas station and convenience store during the National Energy Program; he struggles to keep his business solvent and remains steadfast in his determination to make this strange new land a home for his growing family. In "The Weight of Pearls" and "Bombshell Beauty," young men struggle to come to terms with confused feelings about the girls who are their romantic interests. Whether the stories are told in fantastic or realistic styles, the emotions of Ali's protagonists are complex and penetrating. At times dark and rueful, the stories are also occasionally playful. The well crafted collection offers a number of characters and narrative moments that linger in the mind and invite reflection. JKM

    • Me Funny compiled and edited by Drew Hayden Taylor. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre. 2005. Pbk. 191p. 1-55365-137-5

      The subtitle for this collection of eleven essays, "A far-reaching exploration of the HUMOUR, wittiness and repartee DOMINANT among the First Nations people of North America, as witnessed, experienced and CREATED DIRECTLY by themselves, and with the INCLUSION of outside but reputable sources necessarily familiar with the INDIGENOUS sense of humour as SEEN from an objective perspective," is more than adequately descriptive. Besides an essay and asides by the editor himself, this collection includes articles by Janice Acoose and Natasha Beeds, Kristina Fagan, Ian Ferguson, Karen Froman, Tomson Highway, Mirjan Hirch, Don Kelly, Thomas King, Louis Profeit-Leblanc, and Allan J. Ryan. All of the authors address the idea of humour as a First Nations survival tool but also as a distinguishing and defining archetype for the people as a whole. Many make references to the role of the trickster, the role of oral storytelling and joke telling and the type of humour itself. There is much humour to be found in the individual pieces themselves although all of them have a serious intent.

      This is a book that not only celebrates the writing and humour of the authors involved, but is a convincing argument for looking at the mainstream stereotypes of the stoic Indian perpetuated by Hollywood. Ian Ferguson, for example, states that there are three categories of Aboriginal jokes: Not Jokes, "told about Indians, usually at their expense, by people who are, shall we say, non-Native or, to be more specific, White People;" In Jokes, "told by Indians when non-Indians (and this again refers to primarily White People) are in the room;" and Our Jokes, which illuminate the truth and are less accessible than In Jokes since "some sort of translation or explanation is often required." (p. 124-129) It is the "Our Jokes" that is the main point made in most of the essays in this highly readable and accessible collection. First Nations humour has always been in evidence but it has not always been recognized by people outside of the culture. This collection of essays, conversations and jokes makes this recognition much more accessible and evident to non First Nations people and therefore, finally, much more funny.

      Highly recommended. GdV

    Memoirs

    • Of This Earth: A Mennonite Boyhood in the Boreal Forest by Rudy Wiebe. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2006. Hdbk. 391p. 0-676-97752-9

      In parts of Canada, history lies very close to the present. It is easy to think of homesteaders as part of a long-gone past, but in this book we have an account of homesteading life from someone who lived it and is still around today. Wiebe was born and spent his early life in the boreal forests of Saskatchewan, the youngest of seven siblings and a small member of a Russian Mennonite community that had found freedom in Canada. In this account of his early years, he brings that community to life. Backbreaking labour was a constant for all the adults, and the book shows how farms were beaten out of the forest through unremitting effort; it comes as a jolt, at least to this reader, to realize that this story of ongoing primal struggle against the wilderness actually takes place as recently as the 1930s.

      In this story, told from the perspective of the youngest child, Wiebe captures the tenor of daily life in vivid ways: through stories, through family photographs, through maps, and through snatches of dialogue (always unobtrusively translated) in the family's domestic language of low German and religious quotations in high German. The result is a fascinating glimpse of a very different world. MM

    • A Great Feast of Light: Growing Up Irish in the Television Age by John Doyle. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2005. Hdbk. 321p. 0-385-66042-1

      John Doyle was born in a small town in Ireland in 1957, just in time to be among the first generation of Irish to grow up with television. Although he is talking about a time less than 50 years ago, his account of life with one channel and then the richness of three sounds like a dispatch from a very different era indeed. The Ireland of his childhood was repressed, conservative and poor; the Ireland of his adolescence was dogged with anxiety and anger about the sectarian fighting in Northern Ireland, and contention over access to contraception and abortion in a deeply Catholic society. Television offered a window to different ways of living, and its impact was significant. In this lively memoir, Doyle comments on daily life, on the programs that engaged his own imagination, and on the larger societal impact of TV. Some forms of reaction to early television resemble contemporary responses to the potential and perils of the Internet.

      This book offers an intriguing mix of personal memories of a youth spent in a culture now pretty much vanished and a larger reflection on how awareness of different worlds makes it impossible to stick completely to the old ways. In the end, Doyle left Ireland for Canada; today he works as a television critic for the Globe & Mail in Toronto. Ireland has also changed beyond recognition in his absence. This fascinating book shows us a glimpse of what has vanished. MM

    Poetry

    • Inventory by Dionne Brand. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2006. Pbk. 100p. 0-7710-1662-X

      Dionne's Brand's newest poetry book is as contemporary and as tumultuous as the news from around the world over the past six years of the 21st century. Her resonant long poem is crafted as an inventory of the upheavals, wars and crises of the new century. With her characteristic richness of language and imagery, Brand offers a lamentation for the casualties of unending wars, the devastation of cities that fills our nightly television screens, and the inability of those who view these upheavals to make sense of a world in pain. Her inventory draws on news clips, military reports, international political figures, famous street names, dates of disasters and fragments of well-remembered revolutionary songs and poems to ask burning questions about our accountability for world disasters. Her poem is sobering and hard-hitting. As she concludes,

      I have nothing soothing to tell you,
      that's not my job,
      my job is to revise and revise this bristling list,
      hourly

    • Elegy by E.D. Blodgett. Photographs by Yukiko Onley. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2005. Pbk. 83p. 0-88864-450-7

      Blodgett, a poet whose earlier work has won the Governor General's award on more than one occasion, was commissioned by Yukiko Onley to write a poem in memory of her late husband, Toni Onley. Toni Onley was a landscape painter who died when his plane crashed into the Fraser River as he practised taking off and landing. What resulted from this initial commission is a whole book of linked poems, delicately illustrated with photographs.

      Blodgett takes an elegy to be a transmutation of raw grief that renders it universal rather than particular. In this book, strict formal limits are part of that transmutation process; each poem uses short three-line verses, and the collected poems draw on the same limited palette of metaphors: rain, rivers, trees. But the rawness of grief survives, as in this brief example:

      How did I dare to say that I would be the one that would forget you rather I should ask what do rivers recall when they go down to sea so I stare at the sea and know that I am not recalled or known or seen (27)

      Those readers fortunate enough to have escaped intense sorrow may find themselves tourists in this bleak landscape, but there is no age limit for those who recognize the terrain. Blodgett has taken on a formidable challenge and in this book he attempts to speak the unspeakable. Those who do not know how even to start to express their feelings may well be grateful to him. MM

    • Book of Longing by Leonard Cohen. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2006. Hdbk. 232p. 0-7710-2234-4

      Leonard Cohen is a singer, a songwriter, and a poet. Sometimes the borders between these occupations are fuzzy. Eight works from this new collection of poems appeared on Cohen's 2001 CD, Ten New Songs, and two more are performed by Anjani on her 2006 recording, Blue Alert. Being set to music may discipline a poem in a variety of ways, particularly with regard to pace and rhythm, but Cohen has always been a master of making a strictly paced quatrain of verse flow in the most limpid way and some of the memorable poems in this collection still manifest this virtue.

      This is Cohen's first collection of poems in twenty years. He is an old man now, but much of the subject-matter of this book will appeal to young readers. The collection includes many different kinds of verse on a broad range of topics, illustrated by numerous drawings done by Cohen himself. Many of these illustrations are self-portraits, and the focus on "Who am I?" appears in many of the poems as well. MM

    Mysteries

    • The Red Power Murders: A DreadfulWater Mystery by Thomas King writing as Hartley GoodWeather. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2006. Pbk. 317p. 0-00-63955-1

      In this second mystery novel featuring retired policeman and present day photographer Thumps DreadfulWater, King explores the intersection of past and present not only for the main character, but for society as well. Thumps is hired as a photographer when a renowned Indian activist arrives on a book tour in the small town of Chinook, South Dakota. At the same time, he reluctantly accepts the role of deputy to make sure that the event does not run amuck. But this is exactly what happens! Faced with people from his past and trying to be comfortable in the present, Thumps moves briskly, but not smoothly, towards the convoluted solution. His journey is accompanied by a cast of (mostly) likeable characters, including Moses Blood, a Native elder whose stories and storytelling add lucidity and humour.

      A spare, wry writing style, sparkling with humour, gentle pokes at academic life, and stereotypes of teenage computer geeks makes this novel accessible and entertaining for young adult readers. While the main character may be a mature adult, his search for his own identity will also be appreciated by teen readers. GdV

    • Piece of My Heart by Peter Robinson. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2006. Hdbk. 380p. 0-7710-7609-6

      Piece of My Heart is Peter Robinson's fifteenth book about Inspector Alan Banks and young adult mystery fans will find much to enjoy about this latest installment in the series. The book begins in 1969, at the end of an outdoor rock music festival at Brimleigh Beacon, North Yorkshire, which featured bands like Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, and a fictional band called the Mad Hatters. During the clean-up from the concert, a young girl's body is discovered. She had been stabbed in a sleeping bag, with no identification other than a flower painted on her cheek. Detective Inspector Stanley Chadwick investigates the murder, which takes him deep into the sex, drugs, and rock and roll of the time.

      Fast forward to the present day, when another murder appears to be linked in some way to the victim from 1969. The victim this time is a music reporter who is writing a story about the Mad Hatters for Mojo magazine, Inspector Banks, who is assigned to investigate this new murder, begins to see connections between his case and the events of 1969, including the concert at Brimleigh Beacon and the Mad Hatters. Working with evidence that is almost 40 years old leads Banks to many dead ends and makes talking to witnesses difficult, especially one of the original members of the Mad Hatters, a reclusive musician who might have the answers Banks needs to solve the case. Although the ending is somewhat predictable, Robinson successfully brings the two intertwined stories to satisfying conclusions.

      Told in alternating chapters, Piece of My Heart moves the reader between 1969 and the present day. Full of references to the music and lifestyle of the 1960s, Piece of My Heart has a fast moving plot and well developed, interesting characters. Young adults, both those familiar with the series and those who are new to it, will engage with the story and its cast of characters. Highly recommended. JdG

    True Crime

    • Under the Bridge: The True Story of the Murder of Reena Virk by Rebecca Godfrey. Toronto: Harper Collins, 2005. Hdbk. 346p. 0-00-200067-9

      One reviewer has compared this book to Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, and the comparison is an apt one. Like Capote, Rebecca Godfrey spent several years gaining the trust of the participants in a notorious murder case. What emerges is a complex, heartbreaking story that gives new meaning to the cliche of "a senseless act of violence." In 1997 in the working-class Victoria suburb of View Royal, an awkward, troubled 14-year-old named Reena Virk was swarmed and severely beaten by a group of her peers, and then murdered by two of the teens in the group. A media frenzy erupted, with many snap judgements being made about violent teens and "bad girls." Godfrey spent seven years on this book, getting to know the Virk family, the perpetrators of the crime, their friends, and the police and lawyers involved in the case. With extraordinary attention to detail, she depicts the events that caused a "girl fight" to escalate into murder, and the effects of these actions on the participants. The title is somewhat sensationalized and inaccurate, because what really happened under the bridge remains unclear in the end, the picture blurred by time, the faulty memories of traumatized witnesses, and the continuing denials of the main perpetrator, Kelly Ellard.

      What does emerge is a nuanced tale of how disparate toxic ingredients can combine in an explosive brew that leads to murder. The book answers the oft-asked question, "What kind of kids could do such a thing?" Many of the youths involved came from troubled homes. Reena Virk lived outside the parental home. Two of the girls involved in the beating lived in a group home. Warren Glowatski, the only boy involved, was the child of an alcoholic mother and an absent father, living precariously with a school friend. Prior to the murder, his acquaintance universally described him as sweet-natured, gentle and respectful to the adults in his life. The author excels in capturing the contradictions in his character, his remorse and the perspective he gains on his crime with the passing of years. Kelly Ellard remains an enigma, and the portrait that emerges of her is of a sociopath that normal people are probably incapable of understanding. However, the other characters emerge as complex, well-drawn individuals, rather than the furious mass that was presented in the media. Teens will find in this book people they can identify with, and perhaps some food for thought on their own peer relationships. HG