October 2009

Adult Reading for Strong Readers: Contemporary Canadian Titles with Teen Appeal

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

This column marks the fourteenth year that collaborators connected in various ways to the University of Alberta have collected a list of contemporary Canadian adult fiction and poetry with potential appeal for strong teenage readers. As usual, our main selection criterion has been to find books with content likely to bring pleasure to adolescent readers who are beginning to fledge out into adult reading. We never filter for sex, violence or strong language, assuming a good reader is more than capable of putting a book down if it offends.

Every spring we collate the column from the previous October with all the prior columns, re-index the whole collection, and post the complete collection online. As usual, this collated version, up to and including the column of October 2008, is now available at http://www.ualberta.ca/~mmackey/Adult_Canadian_Books_2009.pdf Hearty thanks to Elizabeth DeBlois for this year's detailed indexing work.

This year we are trying something new. In addition to the free online version of this collected booklist, you can purchase a bound copy from lulu.com at the following address: http://www.lulu.com/content/paperback-book/adult-canadian-books-for-strong-teenage-readers/7346327 - or simply go to http://www.lulu.com and search for Adult Canadian Books for Strong Teenage Readers. We have kept the price as low as we can and you may purchase this title for $10.00; shipping and postage is additional and is out of our control. We will be interested to learn if this hard copy option is useful for professionals and others who work with teen readers, and/or for those teen readers themselves. Thanks again to Elizabeth DeBlois for initiating this new venture.

Annotations below are initialled by the reviewer. Thanks, as usual, to all who participate in creating this column and to Resource Links for offering it a home. MM

Families and Friends

  • Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden. Toronto: Viking Canada, 2008. Hardback. 359 pages. 978-0-670-06363-5

    This story is told in two voices, that of Will Bird, a Cree bush pilot, and that of his niece Annie, a beautiful young woman who has lost her sister Suzanne. Their narratives alternate throughout this intriguing story, and between them supply a complete story of one family's history. Will is the son of one of the main characters in Boyden's earlier novel, Three Day Road, but this book stands successfully on its own.

    Between them, Will and Annie meet and often succumb to a very broad range of temptations, from the call of rye whisky in the wilderness to the lure of drugs in the big city. Their stories circle round the absent ones in their family: Will's wife and sons, Annie's missing sister. Such a story of loss and yearning should be depressing, but this book is very engaging, sometimes humorous, and always readable. Set for the most part in northern Ontario, with a few sections located in New York City, it describes a complex social world.

    At the time of the narration, Will is in a coma, fighting for his life. Annie visits him and talks to him, partly to attempt to bring him back to life and partly to explain her own life to herself. Will's contributions to the twin narrative may be dreams or the last memories of a dying man; it is not clear and very quickly it is not important. The story carries itself, right to the last page of the book. MM

  • Ragged Company by Richard Wagamese. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2008. Hardback. 376 pages. 978-0-385-66156-0

    It is Amelia One Sky (also known as One for the Dead) who gathers together the ragged company of the title. She befriends Double Dick, Timber and Digger because even though they are all rounders - they've proven they can survive on the street on their own - it is useful to have wingers to watch out for each other. Amelia also comes up with the idea of using the movies as a refuge during a cold snap.Although the group's intent is merely to escape the cold, soon they are hooked on the movies themselves. That's how they meet Granite, a former journalist, who finds "a life lived vicariously now far more comprehensible than a real one". Their shared love of film and need to escape becomes the foundation for friendship. Later Granite becomes a necessary bridge between the rounder and the Square John world when a particularly good day of digging brings not only some tailor-made cigarettes but a lottery ticket worth 13.5 million dollars.

    Ragged Company does a lot of things well, not the least of which is to make us really look at the street people our glances often slide across. But it isn't a book trying to say something about the homeless so much as it is a book about individuals who are trying to cope with what life has thrown at them. Individuals who have lots of occasions to wallow, but never do, because weepers don't survive. These characters tell their own stories and slowly reveal themselves to each other as they talk about the movies they see and as they grapple with their change in fortune. They reflect on things that resonate with all of us: loyalty; money; hope; the importance of stories; the baggage we carry; what home means....

    Richard Wagamese prefaces the novel by acknowledging "all the workers in all the drop-in centres, missions, shelters, and hostels I ever stayed in through the years." He honours them, and the people they work with, in this warm, funny and thoughtful story. EJ

  • The Soul of All Great Designs by Neil Bissoondath. Toronto: Cormorant Books, 2008. Hardback. 223 pages. 978-11-897151-32-7

    An intriguing and powerful book about the nature of secrets and obsession. The story revolves around two people whose relationship is enmeshed in deception. Alec, determined to overcome his working-class background, has become a successful interior decorator, pretending to be gay in the professional circles he moves in, and keeping his occupation and personal life a secret from his parents. Sumintra is a young woman living with the frustations of her Indian parents' expectations that she will marry a husband from an Indian background. Her friend, Kelly, introduces her to a cosmopolitan lifestyle and encourages her to call herself "Sue." When Alec and Sue meet, their relationship is forged through a web of secrets and lies that leads to the novel's stunning conclusion.

    Bissoondath has crafted the story through alternating narrators. Parts one and three are first person narratives in Alec's voice, and part two is Sumantra/Sue's story told through a third person narrator. In this way, the secrets and deceptions of the characters' lives are gradually revealed to the reader. This is a well-written and compelling novel that delves into the complexities of human emotions and motivations. IJ

  • Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2008. Paperback. 376 pages. 978-15-51119298

    Endicott's book, shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2008, offers well-drawn characters in a compelling plot. Clara Purdy's life is tranquil but dull until she accidentally crashes into a beat-up car with a transient family of six who are en route to Fort McMurray. The mother, Lorraine, is taken to hospital and diagnosed with late-stage cancer. Feeling responsible for the family's welfare, Clara determines to do the right thing by moving the children, husband and grandmother into her own house. The rest of the book explores the consequences of Clara's act of goodness. She grows to love and take responsibility for the children, attempts to deal with the wayward husband and soured grandmother and to help Lorraine in her battle with death. The result is an engaging and thought-provoking read, full of humour and pathos. Endicott has the gift of making her characters completely believable and sympathetic even when they behave outrageously. IJ

  • Fugitives by Suzanne Jacob. Translated by Sheila Fischman. Toronto: Thomas Allen, 2008 (French edition published 2005). Paperback. 238 pages. 978-0-88762-280-9

    This demanding but rewarding novel presents the perspectives of seven members of the same family over a total of four generations. The book begins with the youngest narrator and works backwards into the family's history; readers must attend carefully to enigmatic references that may or may not become clearer at a later stage in the story (but an earlier stage in the family's history). The catastrophe of September 11, 2001, kicks off a series of family reactions that are eventually placed in the context of earlier events.

    This is not a book for every reader. Its dreamy shifts between third and first person narration and between direct and indirect discourses are very challenging, and the obscure nature of some of the hints and glances into other family stories will appeal to some readers and annoy others. Some readers will balk at the many comparisons between the Inuit character Aanaq and various forms of animal life. For those who like a sense of moving into other people's minds with all their quirks and obscurities, however, this book has much to offer. MM

  • The Prairie Bridesmaid by Daria Salamon. Toronto: Key Porter Books, 2008. Hardback. 272 pages. 978-1554700547

    Anna, a 31-year-old teacher living in Winnipeg, is "always the bridesmaid" for her friends, despite the fact that she's on year 10 of a relationship with Adam, an artist who is emotionally abusive and unstable. As the book opens, Adam has recently departed for a six-month job in Germany, and Anna's friends stage an "intervention" in his absence to persuade her to leave him. Anna knows what she has to do, but lacks the nerve to do it. As she faces her own fears of being alone, she also deals with workplace politics in the high school where she teaches; her grandmother's declining health; her sister's inexplicable decision to move to Iran with her charismatic boyfriend; and perhaps most stressful of all, the upcoming wedding of her Bridezilla friend, Sara. While the plot sounds like classic chick-lit, there's a lot more warmth and depth, and a lot less shopping and obsessing about one's thighs, than one usually finds in this genre. The characters are quirky and original, and Salamon's wry sense of humour is tempered by her sympathy for them. HG

  • Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel. Denver, CO: Unbridled Books, 2009. Paperback. 247 pages. 978-1-932961-93-5

    Since the age of 7, Lilia Albert has been on the run with her father, and she has become acclimatized to the notion of always moving on. When, at the age of 23, she abandons her latest lover, Eli, however, he pursues her. What follows is an absorbing tale of lost and found.

    To say "what follows", however, is to simplify a very complicated book. Last Night in Montreal is told in a kind of jigsaw puzzle way, where different pieces of the story arrive at different stages of the book. Mandel is careful to label the fragments; there is never any doubt about which stage of the story is being presented. Nevertheless, readers must pay careful attention to each episode in order to accumulate a sense of the chronological plot of this absorbing book. Some readers will want to turn immediately back to the first page after they get to the ending; careful readers will already have noticed that one paragraph is repeated at the beginning and end of the novel, serving as anchor points to this fractured tale.

    The "house of mirrors" effect creates an intriguing and memorable novel. MM

  • Reading by Lightning by Joan Thomas. Fredericton: Goose Lane, 2008. Paperback. 388 pages. 978-0864925121

    Lily Piper grows up on a Manitoba farm during the Great Depression, chafing under the strictures of her parents' evangelical Christian faith. Lily feels that her true self is sinful and unclean, yet she resists the efforts of her religious community to "save" her. Salvation comes in an unexpected form - with an invitation to go live with and care for her ailing grandmother in England. Lily jumps at the opportunity, and soon she is overseas, broadening her horizons and falling in love with her adopted cousin, George. The outbreak of war threatens her new life, however, and a tragedy at home calls her back to the place she had planned to leave for good. HG

Other Times, Other Places

  • Coventry by Helen Humphreys. Toronto: Harper Collins Publishers, 2008. Hardback. 175 pages. 978-0-00-200726-9

    This lyrical and at times harrowing book revolves around the infamous bombing of Coventry Cathedral in England during the Second World War. Humphreys' novel focuses particular attention on one night of destruction in the city as she narrates the lives of two women brought together at three significant moments of British history in the 20th Century.

    In September 1914, Harriet is newly married to Owen. Both are 18 years old, madly in love and optimistic about their future. When Owen volunteers to fight in the First World War, he is confident he "will be home by Christmas." On the way home from seeing Owen off to war, Harriet meets Maeve, a young artist, and the two have a brief but memorable exchange. In 1940, Harriet is filling in for her neighbour as a firefighter at the Cathedral and is caught in the relentless bombing of the city. Her chance meeting and developing relationship with a young man as they flee the bombs lead Harriet back to a second meeting with Maeve. In May 1962, we again meet the two protagonists as Harriet visits the newly reconstructed cathedral and sends a postcard to Maeve, rekindling painful memories of the night of bombing and devastating losses.

    Humphreys writes with beautifully paced language and imagery. She invites readers to share in the painful details of a burning city and at the same time to recognize the beauty and love that is experienced by the characters in her novel. IJ

  • The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2008. Hardback. 261 pages. 978-0-307-39703-4

    A city under siege sounds like the setting for a medieval story, but Sarajevo, in Bosnia, was besieged for nearly four years in the 1990s. During that time, one particular murder left a memorable legacy: a mortar shell killed 22 people who were waiting to buy bread. A musician took his cello to the site of the slaughter for 22 days running, and each day he played Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor. This true incident serves as the heart of this fictional account of life under siege.

    Steven Galloway lives in New Westminster, BC, but he has produced a very effective and convincing account of life in intolerable wartime conditions. The novel focuses on three characters: Arrow, a young riflewoman charged with the protection of the cellist; Kenan, a father of a young family who risks his life every few days on a trek to carry water back to his apartment; and Dragan, an older man who struggles to keep his humanity in the face of constant terror. The story alternates among their three perspectives, and offers a vivid picture of life under unbearable duress. The message of the music and the courage of the musician, however, provide an optimistic core to this story and prevents it from being overwhelmed by sadness. It is, in fact, a riveting read, and many readers will feel changed and challenged by the end. MM

  • Chef by Jaspreet Singh. Montreal: Vehicule Press, 2008. Paperback. 242 pages. 978-1-55065-239-0

    Chef is the lyrical and subtle story of a dying man's journey from Delhi to Kashmir after a fourteen year absence. Chef Kishan, suffering from brain cancer, is summoned to Kashmir to prepare one last meal for his former employer on the occasion of his daughter's wedding. Set in contemporary Kashmir, the novel explores love, loss and betrayal in the war zone between India and Pakistan. Jaspreet Singh draws upon the rugged and beautiful landscape of the mountains to punctuate the complexities of love and war, particularly when both cross religious lines. Kishan undertakes this final journey to cook for the General, his former employer, out of loyalty to the General's daughter and from a desire to come to terms with the circumstances of his leaving fourteen years earlier.

    The backdrop against which this story is set, the Siachen Glacier, evokes the majestic and stark beauty of the glaciers of the Canadian Rockies. The Siachen is also known as the world's highest battlefield, where India and Pakistan have each maintained a military presence since 1984. Chef confronts the complexities of suicide bombers, torture, innocent victims of war and those implicated merely by their presence in the conflict zone.

    This novel follows Singh's collection of short stories, Seventeen Tomatoes: Tales from Kashmir, and would appeal to strong readers with a fascination with the Himalayas and an interest in an under-explored aspect of contemporary world history. JM

  • The Great Karoo by Fred Stenson. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2008. Hardback. 480 pages. 978-0-385-66405-9

    This is a vast, sprawling novel about the realities of war, friendship, and the bonds between men and their horses.

    Frank Adams, a cowboy from Pincher Creek, and other Prairie cowboys enlist with the Canadian Mounted Rifles and travel to South Africa at the beginning of the 20th century to fight in the Boer War. Well known historical figures such as Rudyard Kipling, Winston Churchill and John McCrae, as well as British, South African and Canadian officers rub shoulders with this small group of Canadian men.

    Stenson captures the realities of a brutal war showing the toll the extended marches through the harsh terrain place on man and horse, the boredom faced in camp during the long stretches of waiting, and both the excitement and terror of battles.

    Although not Canadian, Walter Dean Myers' young adult novel, Sunrise Over Fallujah, about the war in Iraq at the beginning of the 21st century, makes a good companion read. MH

  • The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2009. Hardback, 336 pages. ISBN: 978-0-7710-5890-5

    Readers familiar with Anne Michaels' stunning first novel Fugitive Pieces (1996) will have high expectations for her new novel, The Winter Vault. While I found that this book lacks some of the coherence of the earlier one, it retains Michaels' characteristic poetic attention to language and to evocative themes of memory, displacement and consolation. The book begins in Egypt in 1964, during the removal of the Abu Simbel temple to higher ground before the Aswan dam project flooded this ancient site. Avery, a British engineer and his Canadian wife, Jean are part of this project, witnessing attempts at preservation and the personal losses of local inhabitants, and subsequently suffering their own shattering loss.

    The narrative shifts to post-World War II Canada and the couple's courtship, set against the backdrop of the construction of the new St Lawrence Seaway which drowned several small towns in Ontario, a fascinating parallel with the building of the Aswan Dam. The novel sweeps forward to the couple's return to Canada from Egypt and Jean's efforts to come to terms with the tragedy in her life. Her melancholia leads to her new relationship with an eclectic painter, Lucjan, whose memories focus on his past as a Jewish orphan in Warsaw's Old Town, destroyed by the Nazis and subsequently rebuilt as an exact replica of what was lost. Lucjan's recollections again evoke the novel's main themes of loss and restitution.

    I found the first part of the novel exceptional reading as Michaels entices readers with the fascinating minutae of love and loss at both a personal and historical level. The second part of the novel is more complex but also inviting in bringing her poetic refrains into a Canadian context and offering deeper insights into the relationship between Avery and Jean. The third part of the novel, though, I found more challenging to read. The depth of tragedies suffered by Lucjan and the complicated relationship between the painter and Jean felt too obtuse, even though Michaels does draw these themes all together at the end.

    Overall, though, I did find the novel to be very worthwhile reading. It is grandly sweeping and ambitious in its range of characters, settings and style of writing and highly evocative in addressing deep issues of love, destruction, melancholia and solace. IJ

  • 1892 by Paul Butler. St. John's, NL: Pennywell Books, 2008. Paperback. 165 pages. 978-1-897317-28-0

    Paul Butler wrote a history book about the fires that ravaged St. John's, Newfoundland, during the 19th century. This novel grew from the author's sense of a story that "came upon me in whispers" as he conducted his research for that book, and is grounded in some of the known evidence about the great fire of 1892. However, the characters and most of the events are the creation of the novelist.

    In this book we meet Kathleen, a servant girl in St. John's newly arrived from London, and, before that, Ireland. We meet Tommy Fitzpatrick, a farmhand and drunk, who yearns to understand the world better and reads a book a week. We meet Dr. Glenwood, a pioneer photographer with a sinister taste for the macabre. We perceive the encounters between these characters as filtered through and poisoned by the rigid class, religious and ethnic prejudices of Victorian St. John's.

    Butler's account of the fire's genesis is dramatic, but his descriptions of how people find themselves in old St. John's are persuasive and compelling. This is not a story with a fairy tale ending, but it is a very readable book about believable and sympathetic people caught in a world of non-negotiable limits. MM

  • & after this our exile by Ward McBurney. Published by Ward McBurney,2008. Distributed by Lulu Marketplace, http://www.lulu.com/content/2343767 Paperback. 296 pages. 978-0-9684-5913-3

    During World War I, it was not uncommon for a battalion to be composed of a group of friends or co-workers who all volunteered together. The hero of this story, Stan Allward, is a member of the 108th (Toronto Typographical) Battalion, and twenty years after the start of the war he attempts to organize a reunion. The story is told through many flashbacks that create a sharp picture of life in the trenches.

    At one level, then, this book is a war story. Side-notes in the margins of the pages provide supplementary military history and other local detail, and add an interesting extra flavour to the story. But at another level entirely, this book is about storytelling and its technical aids: typesetting and printing. The book is full of typographical and authorial puns. Stan's own name, Allward, can be taken as a reference to the name of the author of this particular book, or, if pronounced casually as All-word, can perhaps be a reference to the abstract idea of the Author. The leader of the batallion is Colonel Leading, which can be taken as an acknowledgement of his role in the army or as a reference to the white space between lines of print known as leading. And so forth. As a self-publisher, McBurney has been able to assume full command of the typesetting of his own book, and some of the puns are as much visual as verbal.

    Stan's flashbacks include his life as a child growing up in the Ward, in Toronto (another play on the word), and the novel also explores some of the pre- and post-war changes in Toronto. It all sounds very complex and perhaps over-cute, but it is a compelling and surprisingly lyrical read, and the cleverness enriches the story in intriguing ways. MM

  • The Badger Riot by J.A. Ricketts. St. John's: Flanker Press, 2008. Paperback. 300 pages. 978-1-897317-32-7

    J.A. Ricketts assembles a lively and memorable cast of characters in her fictionalized account of a real event: the woodworkers' strike in Newfoundland in 1959 that ended in tragedy and defeat. Ricketts herself observed the fighting that brought the strike to a close from the sidelines as a teenager in the central Newfoundland town of Badger. This novel presents a vivid account of the escalating events that led to betrayal, rage, and a host of unintended consequences. Although the writing is awkward in places, the sense of time, place, character and action is vivid and compelling, and the story is very hard to put down.

    Ricketts follows more than a dozen characters - men, women, workers, management, scabs, police, white, Mi'kmaq - during the years leading up to the strike, and establishes a strong sense of both their individuality and also their place in the close-knit town. The first two sections of the novel are written in the third person, as Ricketts establishes her community, but in the third section, the account of the riot itself, she changes to the first-person perspectives of a variety of the people we now feel we know well. The characters have been so strongly established that this shift works well, and creates a very immediate sense of the chaos and horror.

    An afterword establishes some of the links between the historical events and the fiction, and describes the eventual outcome of the strike. The novel, though uneven in places, provides a dynamic account of a fascinating battle, and offers an irresistible, page-turning invitation to readers. MM

Contemporary Life, Revisited

  • Wake by Robert J. Sawyer. Toronto: Viking Canada, 2009. Hardback. 354 pages. 978-0-670-06741-1

    Wake is the first novel of a projected trilogy, set in the immediate future. In this book, Sawyer, who has won every major science fiction prize, explores contemporary ideas of what it means to be conscious in a wired world.

    15-year-old Toronto resident Caitlin Decter has a rare form of blindness that Tokyo scientist Massayuki Kuroda thinks he can at least partially cure. The operation involves an implant behind her eyeball connected to an external computer.

    Much of this story is told from Caitlin's perspective; she has spent her life compensating for her blindness with computerized aids. When the implant is inserted, this sensitivity to the wired world allows her to "see" more than just the visible world; she can also perceive connections on the Internet.

    Sub-plots include an outbreak of bird flu in China that leads the Chinese government to close its Internet connections to the outside world, and a scientific experiment in teaching language to a chimpanzee and an orangutan. A fourth strand in this book - more commentary than sub-plot - involves the gathering impetus towards thought of a mysterious form of consciousness.

    Altogether, this novel offers an intriguing story set in a highly recognizable world. It will be very interesting to see where the sequels take these provocative ideas. In the meantime, this first book is a fascinating read. MM

  • Shelf Monkey by Corey Redekop. Toronto: ECW Press, 2007. Paperback. 258 pages. 978-1550227666.

    Imagine that instead of Oprah's Book Club, we had Jerry Springer's Book Club. Imagine that Jerry, instead of promoting authors like Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and Toni Morrison, founded his own publishing imprint and churned out vapid, semi-literate titles like My Baby, My Love and Jesus Rides Shotgun - short, easy reads that jerk shamelessly at the heartstrings and confirm rather than challenge the reader's beliefs about the world. That's the premise of Shelf Monkey, by Corey Redekop, a librarian who, we can assume, has experienced his fair share of patrons looking for "the Star Trek section."

    The narrator is Thomas Friesen, a young lawyer who has a mental breakdown partway through his articling term, quits the law, and gets a job at READ, a Chapters-style mega bookstore. He and his literature-loving fellow employees live lives of quiet desperation, despondent over the legions of customers who snap up the latest banal bestsellers, while great literature languishes unread. To let off steam, they have a secret society, the Shelf Monkeys, that inverts the premise of Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 by burning books that they deem to be lacking in literary merit. At first, it's just a game, but then the Monkeys are given a golden opportunity to attack the embodiment of everything they detest: Munroe Purvis, the Springer-style talk show host with the awful book club. When "the Purv" visits READ on his Canadian tour, the Monkeys are ready for him, but as the book's flashback-style plot makes clear early on, things are going to get a lot uglier than mere protests or pranks. This book is uproariously funny at times, though at other times the satire hits a little close to home. It will appeal to anyone with a love of good books, but perhaps most of all to those of us who really can't bear to have one more acquaintance insist that we MUST read The Secret or the latest Dan Brown opus. HG

School stories

  • Amphibian by Carla Gunn. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2009. Paperback. 212 pages. 978-1-55245-214-1

    This is a delightful book, humorous yet serious, that evokes comparisons to Mark Haddon's bestseller The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Phineas Walsh is a nine-year-old prodigy who is bored out of his mind by the banality of his elementary classroom (unclever teachers, poorly thought-out assignments and self-esteem education receive a vicious lampooning in the book). He's also an obsessive watcher of nature documentaries, and frets constantly over the world's slide into environmental catastrophe. The more the adults in his life tell him not to worry so much, the more he worries. Phin has a special fondness for amphibians, and when his teacher purchases an endangered White's tree frog for the class pet, Phin and his best friend Bird hatch a daring plot to rescue the miserable animal. Meanwhile, Phin has numerous encounters with the class bully, Lyle; drives his mother to distraction; and writes satirical stories about a fictional planet, Reull, where a loathsome overlord species abuses every other life form, threatening the web of life.

    Phin is an endearing character, and if his voice sometimes seems a little too sophisticated for a nine-year-old, it's easy to suspend one's disbelief and accept that his high IQ and his linguistic inheritance from his two journalist parents are responsible for his precociousness. HG

  • Fall by Colin McAdam. Toronto: Hamish Hamilton Canada 2009. Hardback. 358 pages. 978-0-670-06720-6

    A boarding school story featuring a love triangle that goes awry - it is a familiar plot, but in this book Colin McAdam brings it to new life. Julius and Noel are roommates in exclusive St. Ebury, a school for the children of diplomats. Julius is in love with Fallon, one of the few girls in the school, and, as with many other elements in Julius's life, he is successful in winning her heart. But Noel also loves Fall and this book tells the story of how the relationships among these three characters work out.

    Noel has a lazy eye, which perhaps contributes to his qualities as an unreliable narrator. He tells much of this story looking back on his eighteen-year-old self from the vantage point of a dozen years later. Julius's sections of this story are related as stream-of-consciousness accounts of his last year in school, including detailed glimpses of young love and young lust. The gaps between the two narratives are eloquent, and McAdam does an excellent job in contrasting his male characters.

    The story is perhaps a bit slow to get started though the potential for things to go wrong is clear from very early on, and the suspense builds to an almost intolerable pitch. This is a book that will be enjoyed by readers who may think they know how this kind of story turns out but who find themselves surprised by the skilful ways in which McAdam plays on their expectations and turns them upside-down. MM

Other worlds

  • Mystery of Grace by Charles de Lint. New York: TOR, 2009. Hardback. 269 pages. 978-0-7653-1756-8.

    Told in alternating voices, Mystery of Grace is the story of faith, friendship and belief. Hot rod mechanic Grace, reeling from the death of her beloved grandfather, accidentally is shot in a neighbourhood robbery. She regains consciousness in an alternative universe where she and everyone there have died in the immediate vicinity of the apartment building she has considered home. While coming to terms with her death and static condition, Grace discovers that she can return to the living twice a year but not, unfortunately, to those who knew and loved her. On her first visit she meets John, the shy artist who falls for Grace although she mysteriously vanishes almost in front of his eyes.

    Aided by friends, both Grace and John discover their abilities and limitations as their relationship continues over the span of eighteen months. Grace discovers why her world is in hiatus and, along with a teenage friend, solves the mystery but not in a predictable way.

    This is a stand-alone novel for de Lint and while not as strong as previous novels, it is well written and raises pertinent questions regarding the limitations of relationships between children and (grand) parents, friends and lovers. There is much to appeal to young adult readers interested in the world of hot rods and rockabilly music, folklore and human relationships. GdV

Poetry

  • This Is a Small Northern Town by Rosanna Deerchild. Winnipeg: The Muses' Company/J. Gordon Shillingford Publishing, 2008. Paperback. 63 pages. $14.95. 978-1-897289-35-8

    This book of 45 short poems recounts a number of years in the childhood of a Cree girl who lives with her mother, sister and brothers and white Mormon stepfather in the small Northern town of the title. Deerchild is very successful in presenting the vivid sensory fragments that comprise the life of a child, while conveying the broader narrative of an unhappy marriage and its impact on the family. Mama fills her weeks with frantic housekeeping; Daddy says cleanliness is next to godliness and searches every day for "sins of omission" and "hidden transgression" (34). Friday and Saturday are for parties and heavy drinking; Sunday is for "hangover and god" (35).

    This routine life is interlaced with more distinctive moments as the child attempts to assemble a sense of who she is from the conflicting messages of her Mormon baptism at the age of 8 and her rather vaguer sense of her Cree heritage. In a terse vernacular of few words and short lines, Deerchild explores a complex social and spiritual territory. A memorable achievement. MM

  • One Crow Sorrow by Lisa Martin-DeMoor. Victoria BC: Brindle & Glass Publishing, 2008. Paperback. 86 pages. 9781897142318

    This first book-length collection of Lisa Martin DeMoor's poetry is a powerful, evocative collection. Martin-DeMoor explores the natural world and our relationships to it and to each other in haunting images. Tracing the transitions between seasons, she delineates the ravages of disease and death. The violent invasion of disease and the shock of grief are echoed in the earth's silent and implacable rituals. Martin-DeMoor crafts images that are both familiar and startlingly fresh. Her poems offer thoughtful juxtapositions of images of nature and the body, of decay and disease, that touch raw nerves and invite readers to reread, and reread again. The poems illustrate that dying is part of all living, and that life permeates all death. The poet explores the love that binds family together in shared and individual memories. Her poems celebrate both the strength and fragility of humans and the natural world. This collection, taken as a coherent whole, is powerful and touching. JKM

Short Stories

  • The Price of Love and Other Stories by Peter Robinson. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2009. Hardcover. 313 pages. 978-0-7710-7544-5

    This is a captivating collection of ten short stories and one novella amply demonstrating Robinson's mastery of the short story format. There is a wide range of genres, points of view, settings, and narrators offering narratives for all types and ages of readers. Several of the tales are historical, exploring diverse issues such as war, racism, heroism, betrayal, and, always, music, while others centre on Robinson's police detective Alan Banks. While many of the stories are set in Great Britain, the city of Toronto also plays a major role in several of the tales. There is also a treasure for readers of fantasy in Robinson's story "The Magic of Your Touch" which plays with the legend surrounding Robert Johnson's magical ability to play guitar. Both teenage male and female narrators abound as well. Highly recommended for lovers of crime stories and the short story form. GdV

Stories With a Medical Turn

  • The Country Nurse by Jeff Lemire. [Essex County Vol. 3] Marietta, GA: Top Shelf, 2008. Paperback. 125 pages. 978-1-891830-95-2.

    In this stunning sequel to Tales from the Farm and Ghost Stories, Lemire eloquently ties up all of the story threads to create an illuminating glimpse at family life. This volume follows a day in the life of the community's travelling nurse, Anne Quenneville, as she tends to the physical and emotional needs of her patients in Essex County. Ironically, Anne has issues in communicating with her own teenage son at the same time that she encourages opening communication channels with various members of the community. Anne's story includes flashbacks to 1917 as the reader discovers her close connections to the LeBeulf family whose story is the focus of the trilogy. While the other two volumes could stand alone, full appreciation of this volume depends on the reader having the background that they provide.

    Lemire's black-and-white artwork is cinematic, evoking, in the rural Ontario landscapes, a sense of time (and timelessness) as well as the emotions of his characters. The pace is slow, deliciously so, as the reader/viewer engages in this poignant story of the district, past and present.

    The three volumes have been collected as Essex County, published August 2009 in both hardcover and paper, which includes two new short stories and 50 pages of bonus material. Rated YA (13+) in the promotional material. GdV

  • The Heart Specialist by Claire Holden Rothman. Toronto: Cormorant Books, 2009. Paperback. 325 pages. 978-1-897151-21-1

    This is an engrossing piece of historical fiction, loosely based on the life of Dr. Maude Abbot, the first female physician in Montreal, who became a specialist in diseases of the heart in the late 19th and early 20th century. Agnes White, the fictionalized version of Abbott, is a tomboyish orphan girl, raised by a prim and proper grandmother who initially disapproves of her interest in science. Luckily, an understanding governess provides an opportunity for Agnes to pursue an education in biology, and Agnes becomes Montreal's first female medical student (she attends Bishop's University, after McGill refuses to admit her). Agnes eventually becomes curator of McGill's museum of medical curiosities, including a large collection of preserved hearts with congenital abnormalities. Her research into heart disease brings her fame, but one of the ironies of the novel is that Agnes develops a strong understanding of the mechanics of the human heart, while remaining oblivious to her own heart's desires. HG

  • The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2009/2008. Paperback. 496 pages. 978-0307356789

    The Gargoyle was one of the most talked about books of 2008. The buzz started with the seven-figure advance Davidson received for this, his debut novel. Then Random House (and Doubleday in the U.S.) pushed the novel heavily with big production runs and a media blitz. The cover, of a bare back tattooed with giant wings surrounding a fiery cut-out heart, appeared everywhere. With all the hype, some sensational (yet consequence laden) content and the medieval and mystical sounding title, it's not surprising that many teens have already found their way to The Gargoyle.

    The story opens with the narrator, who is never named, describing the horrific accident that has changed his life from porn star to burn victim. He tells how he was drinking and driving late at night after a coke binge when he sees what looks like a barrage of flaming arrows heading toward the car. He veers off the road, crashes into a ravine and the car catches fire, resulting in extreme burns to most of his body. He wakes up two months later "wanting to cry but [his] tear ducts had been burned shut". The narrator then matter-of-factly reels off his tragic back story - never knew his father, mother died at birth, shuffled from a bitter grandmother after her death to relatives who later die in a meth lab explosion, his escape into narcotics and sex - interspersed with fascinating yet horrible details about burn treatments. It is no wonder he fantasizes about an elaborate suicide. Then Marianne Engel appears at his bedside. The beautiful, enigmatic Marianne, a sculptress and diagnosed schizophrenic, claims to have loved the narrator for years...700 or so. Marianne nourishes the narrator with elaborate feasts and stories of their past lives together and begins his transformation.

    It is easy to see why this became one of last year's big novels. There is something for almost everyone: the romantic arch of the story; the stories-within-the story that move back in time and are set in Germany, Italy, England, Japan, and Iceland; the gritty realism of the contemporary frame; the literary references to Dante.... Although in summary it sounds more tabloid than literary, Davidson pulls it off remarkably well. EJ

Mystery

  • The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2009. Hardback. 292 pages. 978-0-385-66582-7.

    "I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn't. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life" (p. 23).

    It is the summer of 1950 and eleven year-old Flavia de Luce spends her days experimenting with poison and creating potions in the abandoned Victorian chemistry lab in her family's falling apart mansion. Flavia lives in Buckshaw with her older sisters, their widowed father, and the household help. The whole family is affected when a series of strange things occur at Buckshaw, starting with a dead bird found on the doorstep with a postage stamp attached to its beak, and continuing with a dead man in the cucumber patch. Equally disturbed and excited by these seemingly unconnected events, Flavia uses her keen sense of observation and her natural curiosity to try to uncover what is really going on at Buckshaw.

    Winner of the Crime Writers' Association Debut Dagger Award, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is the first in an anticipated series about Flavia de Luce and her unusual family. Flavia is a unique character and readers of all ages, but particularly young adults, will be won over by her sense of humour and the varied cast of eccentric characters that are part of her world. Alan Bradley's description of life in the 1950s in England will captivate readers who enjoy both historical fiction and mystery stories. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is highly recommended and will leave readers looking forward to the second book in The Buckshaw Chronicles. JdG

  • Death was the Other Woman by Linda L. Richards. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2008. Hardback. 261 pages. 978-0312377700

    Kitty Pangborn is secretary to Dexter J. Theroux, a tough, hard-drinking Private Investigator in Depression-era, Los Angeles. When Dex is hired by Rita Hepplewaite to follow her shady boyfriend for a few days, Kitty tags along because her boss has been hitting the bottle pretty hard and someone needs to have a clear head, not to mention remember the gun and drive the car.

    On their first day on the job, they find a dead man. "He's dressed well, the dying man. Sharply, one would say. He's wearing a good suit. Dark, and of a wool so fine it would feel soft to the touch. The suit has a pale pinstripe; it's barely discernible. And he's wearing the suit well - he wore it well - except for the dying part." (p. 1)

    Death was the Other Woman flirts with the stereotypes and conventions of the hard-boiled detective novel but shifts the focus to the Girl Friday's perspective. Richards walks a fine line - she neither parodies the genre nor plays it totally straight. Instead, with Kitty as the filter, we get to see a familiar story through fresh eyes. The result is a little lighter and a little more poignant, with more emphasis on the 1930's Los Angeles setting and the characters' back stories. It's hard-boiled detective chick lit and a whole lot of fun! EJ

  • Old City Hall by Robert Rotenberg. Toronto: Simon and Schuster, 2009. Hardback. 372 pages. 978-1-4165-9285-3

    Old City Hall is a fast-paced murder mystery which begins with a well known radio host confessing to his newspaper delivery man that he has murdered his wife, and then refusing to speak to anyone.

    The story is told from the points of view of the people drawn into the murder - a newspaper delivery man, a beat cop assigned to the call, a detective, a reporter, a prosecutor and a defence lawyer - all of whom are believable and interesting. As well, the city of Toronto also plays a prominent role.

    Rotenberg, a former criminal defence lawyer, has produced in his first novel a page turner with many twists and turns that keep the reader guessing until the very end. MH

  • All the Colours of Darkness by Peter Robinson. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2008. Hardcover. 368 pages. 978-0-7710-7611-4

    Robinson's engaging and gripping mystery, beginning with a group of young boys discovering a corpse, provides a strong character study of this popular series main characters, Alan Banks and Anne Cabbot. There is depth and tension in their relationship, as well as in those of other characters, that echoes the touches from Othello that pulsate through the novel. Friendship, the persuasive power of suggestion, destructive jealousy and the corrosive power of secrets are all explored as the reader is swept away with Robinson's command of prose, narrative and timing. While most of the characters are middle-aged, there is much here to engage young adult readers. GdV