October 2007

Contemporary Adult Reading for Strong Teen Readers: A Canadian Sampler

Margaret Mackey and Joanne de Groot, Gail de Vos, Heather Ganshorn, Ingrid Johnston, and Jill Kedersha McClay

The 2007 list of contemporary adult Canadian books with potential reading appeal for good teenage readers is the twelfth such list to be produced, and contains many diverse and lively titles. No doubt it would have been possible to enlarge this list significantly from the pool of excellent Canadian material published in the past year or so, but even the relatively short sampler of books listed below offers much stimulating and fascinating reading.

As usual, the selection presumes that a reader strong enough to tackle the complexities of the titles on offer is a reader who does not need to be sheltered from sex, violence and/or bad language. As a result of this presumption, we do not filter for these components. Our main selection criterion is that a book should have something to say to a relatively young reader. Other lists may feature excellent books about middle and old age; this list features many younger protagonists and subjects with youth appeal.

As usual, also, the list is much strengthened by the fact that a number of readers have contributed to the overall total. My thanks to all of them, as well as to the editors of Resource Links who make this space available to us every year. Each review is initialled by its creator.

In 2006, to mark the tenth anniversary of the column, with the help of the Faculty of Education Alumni at the University of Alberta, we produced a print compilation of the decade of recommended lists. We mounted this list online and undertook to update the electronic version every spring. The new online list, incorporating titles from last year's column is now available at http://www.ualberta.ca/~mmackey/adultbooklist2007.pdf ; next spring we will integrate the titles that appear in this current list into the overall compendium. We hope that refreshing the selections in this way will maintain the complete list as a useful tool.

Family Stories

  • The Other Side of the Bridge by Mary Lawson. Toronto: Knopf, 2006. Hardback. 359 pages. 978-0676977462

    Mary Lawson's stunning second novel (the first was the award winning Crow Lake) is the story of two brothers Arthur and Jake Dunn growing up on a Northern Ontario farm in the years leading up to the Second World War. Although brothers, Arthur and Jake could not be more different: Arthur is dependable and dutiful and ready to take on the responsibilities of the family farm. Jake is charismatic, outgoing, and dangerous to know. Their fragile relationship is pulled even tauter with the arrival of Laura, the beautiful daughter of the town's new minister.

    Fast forward 20 years when Ian Christopherson, the teenage son of the town's doctor, takes a job on the Dunn farm in order to be close to Laura, the object of his obsession. Young and idealistic and sure he knows the difference between right and wrong, Ian unwittingly becomes the catalyst that forces the past and the present to collide with great force. Told in alternating chapters, The Other Side of the Bridge seamlessly weaves together the stories of Arthur and Jake Dunn, Laura, and Ian Christopherson.

    This book is a novel of jealousy, obsession, family, and friendship that will pull readers in from the first page. It is, however, a hard book to capture in a review without giving away too much information from the many sub-plots, so a strong recommendation will have to replace further details of the story. JdG

  • Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2007. Hardback. 273 pages. 098-0-7710-6872-0

    Anna, Claire and Cooper grow up as siblings but are actually not related by blood. Nevertheless, Claire always thinks of them as "athree-panelled Japanese screen, each one self-sufficient, but revealing different qualities of tones when placed beside the others" (156).

    This is a story of many such panels: one story opens onto another, which then alters the initial story in the way it reflects back onto it. The result is an intricate unfolding of contemporary and historical stories.

    It sounds like a complicated read but it is actually very accessible. The three protagonists move from youth into adulthood with their stories separating and meeting. They also move from place to place and Ondaatje is powerful yet paradoxically delicate in his evocation of different worlds and values.

    In short, an intriguing book that keeps readers turning the pages, one that begs to be re-read so that the final understandings can reflect back onto the first in something resembling a full circle - although Ondaatje is far too subtle to be quite as neat and tidy as this image would indicate. It is the kind of book where even the loose ends are satisfying. MM

  • No Crystal Stair by Mairuth Sarsfield. Toronto: Stoddart, 1997. Paperback. 247 pages. 0-77376-002-4.

    This book didn't make much of a splash when it was first published, but it got some well-deserved press in 2005, when it was one of the chosen books for CBC Radio's Canada Reads program. This is an incisive look at racial politics in Montreal in the 1940s, but it is also a lovely family story. Marion Willow is a black widow raising two of her own daughters and a foster daughter. She works two jobs as a maid, but is determined that her daughters will go to college. She is wooed by Edmond Wilson, a handsome railway porter, but she turns down his marriage proposals because she is afraid marriage to him would prevent her from raising her daughters the way she wishes. Pippa, the eldest daughter, is a particularly lovely character. Her imaginative flair for the dramatic and her sensitive nature remind one of Anne of Green Gables (Pippa is a fan of L.M. Montgomery). The loving mother-daughter relationships and close community ties make for a heartwarming story, yet it never descends into excess sentimentality.

    Montreal comes alive as a vibrant cultural centre whose black artists are influenced by the Harlem Renaissance. A youthful Oscar Peterson puts in a cameo appearance. Yet racism is also keenly felt. Educated men are forced to take work as railway porters, and one of the female characters, who is of mixed blood, passes for white in order to work in the sheet music department of the local department store. With its sympathetic characters, excellent storytelling, and nuanced Canadian portrayal of race relations, this book is an excellent alternative to that old English curriculum chestnut, To Kill a Mockingbird. HG

  • The Ladies' Lending Library by Janice Kulyk Keefer. Toronto: HarperCollins 2007. Hardback. 288 pages. 978-0-00-200743-6

    Anybody who has ever spent a summer, or even a weekend, at a cottage anywhere in Canada will find something to recognize in this book. Set in 1963 (the movie Cleopatra and the associated scandal involving Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton play a significant role in the lives of some of the characters), it tells the stories of the mothers and children who come to Kalyna Beach every year, to bake in the sun,to observe their neighbours' tribulations, and to grow up a little or a lot. Kalyna Beach is occupied by Ukrainian Canadian families - the mothers remember the Old Country; the kids are not interested.

    The family relationships, some loving and some hostile, are entirely convincing, and the author's selection of the details that intensify and/or reveal these relationships is inspired. The girls, the boys, the mothers, and one father are presented eloquently - though their own lack of eloquence is an element held in common by nearly everybody.

    Summer stability, summer changes, immigrant life, cross-generational misunderstandings, life in an ingrown community (many of these characters are related by blood or marriage), all these components of life at this particular set of cottages are conveyed so vividly that he haze and the heat of that summer sun seems to illuminate the pages. A very engaging novel. MM

  • Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? by Anita Rau Badami. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2007 (2006). Paperback. 432 pages. 978-0676976052

    Badami has followed the success of her previous two novels, Tamarind Mem and The Hero's Walk, with this fascinating new novel that tells the stories of three women in India and Canada over more than 40 years. Each woman's life is related as a separate story but linked with those of the other two. Their stories cover a time span from 1947, at the time of Partition in India, to the bombing of the Air India flight in 1985. Bibi-ji is the most colourful of the three women. She emigrates to Vancouver where she sets up a restaurant with her husband, and achieves wealth and status among the Sikh community. Her life is marred by her lack of children and the disappearance of her sister during Partition in India . Her life intersects with that of her neighbour Leela, also an immigrant from India, who struggles to create a new hybrid identity for herself in Canada. The third woman, Nimmo, is orphaned by Partition and trying to rebuild her life with her family in Delhi. Badami gradually reveals how the personal lives of the three women are linked and how their fortunes are overshadowed by political situations in India and Canada.

    The novel offers imaginative insights into immigrant experiences, revealing ties of love and family and the devastation of war and personal loss. The book creates a strong sense of place and character, and is at times humorous, other times poignant and tragic. It is a powerful and engaging read. IJ

  • The Perfect Circle by Pascale Quiviger. Translator Sheila Fischman. Toronto: Cormorant Books, 2006 (2004). Paperback. 224 pages. 978-1896951966

    This reflective novel on the nature of love won the Governor General's award for fiction in French in 1994, and was a Giller Prize finalist in 2006 in English translation. The protagonist, Marianne, meets and falls madly in love with Marco while she is vacationing in Italy. Marco lives in a small village in Tuscany and has a habit of leaving Marianne to spend her days alone, then joining her for the occasional evening of conversation and tenderness. When she returns home to Montreal, Marianne cannot get Marco out of her head and returns to Italy to pursue her passion. She discovers that Marco is very much under the control of his mother and the love she hopes for falls short of her expectations. This is an interior novel with a beautiful sense of language that will appeal to a certain type of reader. IJ

Other Worlds

  • Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctorow. New York: Tor Books, 2006 (2005). Paperback. 320 pages. 978-0765312808.

    Alan, the hero of Doctorow's latest novel, is a bit of a misfit, and no wonder. His father is a mountain, his mother is a washing machine, and his brothers consist of an island, a dead man, and three Russian nesting dolls. As bizarre as this premise sounds, Alan is a likable, remarkably human character (well, almost human -- he regrows missing limbs, salamander-like). As the novel opens, Alan is living in Toronto in peaceful middle age, fixing up an old house and planning to write a novel. However, his tranquil life is disturbed by his undead brother, who is seeking revenge on the other brothers for murdering him. While trying to rescue his missing nesting-doll brothers, Alan finds time to involve himself in a cyber-punk friend's plot to build a free wireless network that covers the city of Toronto. He also falls in love with the girl next door, a peculiar being who has wings, which she cuts back on a regular basis so she can pass for normal. Though the characters and events are bizarre, the book is really about familiar themes: family problems, alienation, trust and friendship. This and other books by Cory Doctorow are free online at http://www.craphound.com/index.php?cat=5. HG

  • Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay. Toronto: Viking Canada. Hardback. 416 pages. 978-0-670-04321-7.

    In his newest novel, Kay has inverted his recent pattern of exploring the present through the backdrop of the historical past, either real or imagined. This book presents the modern world, with all its foibles, wars and gadgets, that, through the machinations of two fifteen-year-olds, becomes embroiled with mythical characters of a very distant past. Montreal native Ned Marriner is living in Aix-en-Provence with his famous father and his father's crew of photographers. Ned's mother is in the Sudan, a member of Doctors Without Borders. While exploring his new environment, Ned meets a young exchange student from New York. Together, they meet a trio of mythical spirits who enact a cyclical love-triangle. This time, however, Ned's involvement spirals the cycle totally off course as one of his father's crew becomes the embodiment of Ysabel, the beautiful and highly desirable focus of the two male members of the centuries-old battle.

    Kay's prose is extremely accessible, the dialogue between the two teens and amongst the adults believable, and the action non-stop. The reader discovers, along with Ned, the extent of his involvement and his powers. Friendship, loyalty, and family commitment are also strong themes in the novel which explores, through its fantastical elements, the nature of individual identity and acceptance of differences.

    Highly recommended. GdV

Our Times

  • Spook Country by William Gibson. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2007. Hardback. 371 pages. 978-0-399-15430-0

    A review of William Gibson's work suggests that the Vancouver author wrote science fiction until the real world became stranger than anything he could invent. Be that as it may, this story is set in the current world; the action begins in February 2006 and Gibson refers both to contemporary political occurrences and also to ground-breaking technological events.

    The book is a complex thriller, focused on three main characters whose stories are told in alternating chapters. Hollis Henry was once a rock singer but she now hopes to make a living working as a journalist, and is currently writing a story on locative art (digital representations overlaid by means of GPS onto real landscape, visible only to those with the right VR equipment). Tito is a Chinese-Cuban whose family has a long history of working underground. Milgrim is a drug addict, kept captive by means of his dependency, so that his decoding skills can be put to work for a cause that is both mysterious and sinister. All of these characters eventually converge in the pursuit of a shipping container that is travelling the world and never landing, like a contemporary Flying Dutchman. Lurking in the background is Hubertus Bigend, a mysterious magnate who first appeared in Gibson's Pattern Recognition.

    In this complicated and absorbing story, it is never quite clear who is on whose side. What does seem clear is that the underground world of the "spooks"

is overlaid onto our own universe, if only we could see it. The book demands a very attentive reading and offers an invitation to apply the same quality of attention to our political, cultural and financial assumptions. MM

Other Times

Harsh Realities

Told in alternating sections, Unstolen tells two parallel stories. First, is a contemporary story of Bethany, now a college graduate, and her mother, who follows a man home from the grocery store and commits a terrible crime. The aftermath of this event changes Bethany and her family again and forces her to re-evaluate her past. The second storyline takes place 20 years before and tells the story of Bethany, growing up in the shadow of her brother's abduction. The two stories ultimately merge as Bethany confronts the past and moves towards the future. Unstolen is a fast paced novel with interesting and engaging characters who will appeal to young adults readers. JdeG

  • Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006. Paperback. 330 pages. 978-006-0875077

    Thirteen year old Baby knows how tough life can be on the streets. She has grown up, motherless, with a drug-addicted father, moving between derelict downtown Montreal apartments. Jules, her father, is more concerned with his heroin habit than he is with his daughter. Left mainly to her own devices growing up, Baby moves from an uneasy and difficult childhood to the often disturbing, dangerous adult world that exists all around her. It isn't until Baby gets involved with a charming and outgoing neighbourhood pimp that Jules finally takes notice of his daughter and her impending problems. But, by then, Baby discovers that she is the only one who can change her future.

    Lullabies for Little Criminals, Heather O'Neill's debut novel, is dark and gritty. Mature young adult readers will find much to relate to in this novel about growing up and not giving up in spite of the odds. The winner of CBC radio's 2007 Canada Reads program, Lullabies for Little Criminals is highly recommended. JdeG

  • Before I Wake by Robert J. Wiersema. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2006. Hardback. 384 pages. 978-0-679-31373-1

    Wiersema's novel introduces a multitude of voices to tell this story of loss, redemption and forgiveness. Sherry Barrett is only three years old when she is critically injured by a hit-and-run driver and goes into a coma from which is not expected to wake. Miraculously, she begins breathing on her own and appears to have the power to heal anyone who touches her. The story of what happens to Sherry is told in a fractured, journalistic style by the characters who surround her, including her grieving parents, her nurse, the driver who caused her injuries, and a stranger who is determined to condemn those who have faith in the miracles Sherry performs. The novel is a fast-paced and intriguing read, and Sherry's story raises many fascinating questions about the nature of faith and forgiveness. IJ

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