For the fifteenth time, we present a selection of contemporary adult Canadian publishing assessed in terms of its potential appeal for strong teenage readers. We start, as usual, from the premise that the step into adult books is crucial for lifelong reading, and that this milestone needs as much support as any other stage in the development of young readers.
Because our faith in these teen readers is very powerful, we do not filter our selection for sex or violence or strong language; we assume that someone approaching adult reading can put a book down if it becomes offensive. What we do pay attention to is topics and themes. Two of us greatly enjoyed February by Lisa Moore, for example, but decided its focus was too middle-aged for this column (though for those teens who are happy to read about the issues of mid-life, we cannot recommend it too strongly!)
The books are roughly grouped under collective headings, but these were more than usually difficult to decide this year, and many books could appear under several sub-headings.
A collected edition of the previous fourteen columns can be obtained from two sources: freely online at Margaret Mackey's website, http://www.ualberta.ca/~mmackey/Adult_Canadian_Books_2010.pdf, or for the small investment of $10 (plus shipping) from http://lulu.com for a paper version. The title is Adult Canadian Books for Strong Teenage Readers 2010 - make sure you get the 2010 edition. Many, many thanks to Elizabeth DeBlois for organizing the 2010 collected edition of the list.
Thanks as usual to the reviewing team (identified by initials at the end of each review), and to Resource Links for giving us space and encouragement for this ongoing project. Enjoy reading this year's selections! MM
Galore by Michael Crummey. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2009. Hardback. 336 pages. 978-0-385-66314-4
One of Newfoundland's more famous folksongs tells the story of Jack, "every inch a sailor," who was swept into a sea and swallowed by a whale. Eventually Jack rescues himself by turning the whale inside out.
Galore starts with a modified version of this tall tale. The nineteenth-century inhabitants of Paradise Deep, Newfoundland, are attempting to butcher a whale stranded on their shore; they do not really know what they are doing but they are hungry enough to be desperate. To their surprise they discover a man in the whale's belly; to their complete astonishment, they are able to restore him to life. He does not speak, so they name him Judah and he is taken in by the Devine family. His albino complexion and strong stink of fish mark him out, but he lives for many decades in this small outport.
Those decades, eked out in hardscrabble and exploited fashion by the families of Paradise Deep, are the real subject of Galore. Crummey incorporates a few streaks of magic realism to accompany the story of a bleak, subsistence society with its few distractions, some carnal (including an entertaining subplot about a ghost, his wife/widow, and a fornicating priest) and some carnival (such as the mummers at Christmas time who disrupt all the normal rules of this religious world and occasionally establish some rough and very rare justice).
This captivating book presents a lively and convincing account of life in outport Newfoundland. Surprisingly, the magical parts make the story more persuasive. The novel peters out slightly towards the very end; the stories of the Fishermen's Protective Union and the First World War seem a bit forced compared to the splendid story-telling of most of the book. But the two main families - Devine and Sellers; Crummey clearly believes in signposting his characters - are lively, believable, and always interesting. An intriguing read. MM
The Outlander by Gil Adamson. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2007. Paperback. 387 pages. 978-0-88784-828-5
The Outlander is the story of nineteen-year-old fugitive Mary Boulton, who is 'widowed by her own hand'. The novel is set in the early 1900s in the Crowsnest Pass and, Mary, referred to as 'the widow' through most of the book, is on the run from her dead husband's two brothers. Her escape takes her from the prairie foothills to Frank, Alberta just before the infamous Frank Slide of 1903. Along the way, she encounters a variety of characters, including a Miss Havisham-esque old woman who, at first, appears to offer Mary a bizarre sanctuary, but Mary learns very quickly that she must continue her escape. Further on her journey, the teenage widow meets The Ridgerunner, who is also on the run: in his case it is from the US Forest Service. The two outlaws strike up a strange romance in the forests of the Rocky Mountains until, as with countless romances regardless of the era, commitment issues emerge as a threat. Finally, Mary heads toward the ill-fated town of Frank, still pursued by her husband's red-headed twin brothers, where out of the devastation she may have a chance at resurrection.
With Mary, the shadowy twins and the elusive Ridgerunner, Gil Adamson has created characters who remain with the reader long after the reading is done. Adamson manages to evoke the classics of Canadian literary types: a woman alone in the wilderness, a mountain man and unforgiving elements, without falling prey to the clichés lingering beneath. Adamson's style is dream-like without being vague and she trusts the reader to stay with her on her heroine's journey. JM
Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay. Toronto: Viking, 2010. Hardback. 512 pages. 978-0-6700-6809-8.
Historical fiction should always be as meticulously researched and effectively presented as it has been in this epic novel of the 8th century Tang Dynasty in China (Kitai in the novel). Shen Tai is the youngest son of a general who, in honouring his father's memory in a great battle two decades previously, spends two years of unofficial mourning alone at the battle site, laying to rest the unburied bones of the forty thousand men from both sides, and, at the same time, their ghosts. His efforts do not go unnoticed and, as the novel commences, The White Jade Princess presents him with two hundred and fifty Sardian horses, a gift that changes not only his life and that of his remaining family members but of the country itself.
Elements of fantasy are interspersed but are fully acceptable in the cultural context of this sweeping tale of a young man, his friendships and sibling rivalries. Young adult readers will appreciate Shen Tai's inner conflicts, his coming to maturity and wisdom and his recognition of the power, both positive and negative, of emotional ties. Kay is relentless in his pacing of the action but never loses sight of his characters who are well rounded, flawed, and human. This is a powerful reading experience. GdV
Beatrice & Virgil Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2010. Hardback. 197 pages. 978-0307-39877-2
This complex and allegorical book by Yann Martel, well-known for his book Life of Pi, is not for every reader; it will puzzle and annoy some and intrigue others. The book opens with a description of the protagonist, a famous author named Henry, whose early international best-selling novel featuring anthropomorphized animals had made him famous. His latest book about the holocaust, part fiction, part non-fiction, designed as a "flip-book" is rejected by the publishers, and Henry, feeling crushed, moves with his wife to a big city where he becomes involved in musical and drama activities and works in a small store, resolving to give up writing. Among the many letters that still come from readers of his early novel, Henry receives one strange letter and an excerpt from a play featuring two characters named Virgil and Beatrice who are discussing the beauty and delicacy of pears. Henry's subsequent meeting with the author of the play, a strange taxidermist whose shop features a stuffed donkey and howler monkey, sets him on a bizarre and disturbing path in which fiction and fact become strangely entangled.
We learn that the characters in the play, written by the taxidermist, are a donkey named Beatrice and a howler money named Virgil. Their odd dialogue, set on a large striped shirt, has recurring references to the "horrors" they have lived through with many oblique references to the holocaust and to other well-known texts, including Dante's Divine Comedy with its journey through hell and Beckett's enigmatic play, Waiting for Godot. These literary links add new dimensions to reading Martel's novel but the book still leaves readers with many unanswered questions as the lives of the protagonist and the taxidermist intersect in frightening ways with the story of Beatrice and Virgil.
Martel is an engaging writer, and this novel draws readers in even as it confuses them. It is not a comfortable read but it has the power to evoke strong emotions and to leave readers wondering about the many subtexts they have not quite grasped in this strange book. IJ
The Nobody The Nobody by Jeff Lemire. New York: Vertigo (DC Comics), 2009. Hardcover. Unpaged. 978-1-4012-2080-8
This evocative reworking of H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man brings the story of isolation, loneliness and identity to focus in adolescence as Lemire centers his telling around the teenage Vickie, a character not part of the original tale. The horror tale is told through her eyes and voice in a believable and heartfelt manner. While the recommended reading level on the cover suggests mature readers, it is her authentic voice that endorses this as a work for mature young adult readers.
A nameless motel in the small North American fishing town of Large Mouth is the center of the story of the strange Mr. Griffen's arrival in town. Other characters from Well's original story also play slightly off cast roles in this tale: Thomas Marvel, Mr Kemp, and Sheriff Ayde. At the same time this is another story, seamlessly fitting the rural setting that is Lemire's trademark from his previous work, The Essex County Trilogy. The illustrations are filled with strong, emphatic and haunting lines, with the colour blue rising above the black and white illustrations on almost every page indicating a sense of coldness, both in the environment and in the personalities of the characters.
Lemire's homage to the original serialized nature of Well's story is evident in the overall framework of his graphic novel which appears to be a compilation of individual issues of a comic book that has been collected for publication under one cover. The Nobody is a story that deserves several re-readings to fully appreciate the art of the writing as well. GdV
Waiting for Columbus by Thomas Trofimuk. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2009. Hardback. 397 pages. 978-0-7710-8546-8
A man claiming to be Christopher Columbus is pulled out of the Straits of Gibraltar and sent to the Institute for the Mentally Ill in Sevilla, Spain. Nurse Consuela is the only staff member Columbus will confide in and slowly he tells her his story; his plan to set sail into the vast unknown in the 15th century, the women he loves. His story is full of anachronisms - ringing phones, tonic water, and other modern conveniences at the meetings with Queen Isabella's people - but is also plausible.
An added thread is a French Interpol investigator, Emile Germain, who has his own secret past, and is on the track of a number of missing people, one of whom could be Columbus.
Waiting for Columbus, written with a poet's voice, is a unique love story in which the reader is taken on an unforgettable journey. A read well worth taking. MH
Darwin's Bastards, selected and edited by Zsuzsi Gartner. Vancouver BC: Douglas & McIntyre/D&M Publishers Inc. 2010. Paperback. 453 pages. 978-1-55365-492-6.
Editor Zsuzsi Gartner had the clever idea of asking Canadian authors to write short fiction that explores the future in their "social satire, fabulist tales, and irreverent dystopian visions of the day after tomorrow" (p.5). The result is a lengthy and eclectic compendium that should have something to delight every fan of futurist imaginings. Gartner organizes the collection into categories of survivors, lovers, outliers, and warriors, though of course the categories are porous. As with most anthologies, readers will pick and choose, finding some stories memorable and others contrived. Taken together, the collection is wildly imaginative and thought-provoking. Authors include well known stars of Canlit such as William Gibson, Douglas Coupland, Timothy Taylor, Yann Martel, and Timothy Taylor, as well as lesser known writers. JKM
Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant. Toronto: Vintage Canada 2010. Paperback. 412 pages. 978-0-307-399755-3
Audrey Flowers is often called Oddly, and it seems appropriate. This book tells an appealing, elliptical, funny story about Audrey, her father, and her Uncle Thoby. Nothing is as it seems, including the English language, which Audrey distorts in comically literal ways.
Audrey is coming home to St. John's because her father has had an accident; he was hit by a Christmas tree sticking out of the side of a pickup truck. As she comes to terms with the outcome of this mishap, we learn more about her childhood, her travel adventures, her mouse, Wedge, who was rescued from a science lab, and her tortoise, Winnifred, who spends much of the book on the other side of North America. It all sounds simply silly, but in fact the book is profoundly affecting. Readers will find themselves even sympathizing with the tortoise.
This book won the Amazon First Novel Award and it is easy to see why. Quirky, funny, sad, and always appealing, it is a captivating read. MM
The Day the Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan. Toronto: Harper Collins, 2009. Hardback. 298 pages. 978-1-55468-327-7
Cathy Marie Buchanan's novel, The Day the Falls Stood Still, is an elegant love story that begins in Niagara Falls, Ontario in 1915. Bess Heath is the seventeen-year-old daughter of an executive at the Niagara Power Company and the beginning of this novel marks the day the world changes for Bess. She has graduated from a prestigious boarding school, only to learn upon her return home that her father has lost his job. This event signals the end of a life of privilege and luxury and ushers in an era of hardship, joy and tragedy for the Heath family. On this very day, Bess also meets Tom Cole, a riverman who knows the river and the falls intimately. He performs daring rescues that cast him in the role of local hero and legend, but his reputation is not lofty enough for Bess' family, despite their own current misfortune. Bess and Tom face a variety of obstacles in their quest to find love, not the least of which is the First World War.
The Day the Falls Stood Still is Cathy Marie Buchanan's first novel and it is quite a remarkable achievement. Buchanan exhibits lovely control over her prose from beginning to end and uses this control to evoke powerful emotions in the reader, from laughter to tears. She combines history and romance without falling into the simple generic definition of 'historical romance': Buchanan exhibits a great deal of respect for her readers and the river she so lovingly evokes throughout. JM
Euphoria by Connie Gault. Regina: Coteau Books, 2009. Paperback. 348 pages. 978-1-55050-409-5
This quirky and engaging novel is a pleasure to read. The story begins in 1891 when we first meet Gladdie McConnell, a Toronto boarding house servant who makes a promise to an abandoned day-old child that she will watch over her. Undeterred by her lack of money and status in life, and an adoptive family who wants nothing to do with her, Gladdie perseveres in her determination to look after the growing child, Orillia. Fate intervenes in the summer of 1912, when twenty-year-old Orillia wakes up from surgery after being struck down in by the Regina Cyclone with no idea who she is, and Gladdie steps in to look after her.
While the plot is rather contrived, the novel nevertheless succeeds in being beguiling and pleasurable, with its quiet intelligence and wit, characters we grow to love and well researched glimpses into Canada's recent history. Gault is an award-winning short-story writer and playwright, and Euphoria is her first novel. She has certainly succeeded in offering readers a very entertaining and vivid read. IJ
The Singer's Gun by Emily St. John Mandel. Cave Creek, AZ: Unbridled Books, 2010. Hardback. 287 pages. 978-1-936071-64-7
Beautifully shaped, this thriller is in many ways told backwards. Much of the essential motivation appears in flashbacks, so that we understand why an event has occurred only after we have seen its impact. The result is a book very difficult to put down.
Anton and his cousin Aria have grown up in a deceptive world of forged documents and illegal immigrants. Aria thrives on it; Anton wants out, into a more mainstream world of ordinary life, symbolized most concretely in the form of his one-eyed cat whom he rescued as a kitten.
But Anton's own life contains a secret, a forged document of his own. Using this vehicle, Aria blackmails him into one last job, one that seems simple but feels unavoidably sinister. This novel tells the complex and spellbinding story of that last job. In doing so, it explores the fine lines between ordinary, decent, law-abiding life and the kinds of limit-stretching that can lead to evil consequences. Its elaborate structure means that readers cross back and forth over that line, again and again. It is a very absorbing reading experience. MM
The Mistress of Nothing The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger. Toronto: McArthur & Company, 2009. Paperback. 250 pages. 978-1-55278-798-4
This captivating novel won the Governor General's Award for 2009. It is based on three true historical characters - Lucie, Lady Duff Gordon; Sally, her lady's maid; and Omar, her Egyptian dragoman - a position described as a cross between an interpreter, a guide, and a factotum. Lady Duff Gordon was well known in the nineteenth century for her Letters from Egypt; this book tells a story obliquely related to that publication.
Sally works for the charming and sociable Lady Duff Gordon, whose precarious health means she must spend time in the dry, hot air of Egypt. Sally's life has been fairly restricted and she is excited to have the chance to travel. Omar is the Egyptian manservant whose efforts make the lives of the two women much more comfortable in an environment that seems completely alien to them.
Sally perceives her relationship to her Lady as something special, but when she steps over a line (the phrase "in the sand" is almost literally true here), that relationship is suddenly put at very great risk. The racial, sexual and class barriers of the 19th century suddenly reveal their terrible force.
Part historical novel, part travel book, part romance, this novel is extremely accessible and very interesting. MM
Generation A Generation A by Douglas Coupland. Toronto : Random House, 2009. Hardback. 297 pages. 9780307357724.
Coupland's latest novel is set in a quasi-dystopian near-future. The human impact on the planet is omni-present: gas shortages, a near-end to international air travel, and, most importantly, the extinction of bees, which has led to the dying-off of virtually all plants and crops that reproduce through pollination. Humans deal with the stress of planetary destruction by taking Solon, a drug that eliminates anxiety about the future. Suddenly, evidence emerges that the bees aren't extinct, when five people in far-flung parts of the world are stung. Each of the five is immediately quarantined in a secure facility where they are subjected to experiments whose objective is supposedly to find out how to restore bee populations. Yet as the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that something much more complex, and possibly sinister, is in the works. One quibble with the book: it's always irksome when an author gives a character a medical disorder that he clearly could not be bothered to research. Coupland commits this sin here with Tourette syndrome, which afflicts one of the women in the story. The upshot is that her conversations are peppered with hilarious, in-context profanity (most real Tourette's patients do not swear, and if they do it is random and not conversational). Playing this condition for laughs is tacky, and misrepresenting it is intellectually lazy. HG
Frostbitten by Kelley Armstrong. Toronto : Random House, 2009. Hardback. 339 pages. 9780679314875.
In her tenth instalment of the Women of the Otherworld series that follows the lives of several supernatural women, Kelley Armstrong returns to the story of Elena Michaels, the narrator of the first book in the series. Michaels, a female werewolf, has starred in several of the previous instalments of the series where readers have followed her exploits and the reconciliation of her afflicted werewolf condition. Happily married to Clay, the man who turned her into a werewolf, and the mother of precocious three-year old twins, she is informed of attacks of man-eating werewolves in Alaska. She and Clay make their way there, leaving the twins with their grandfather, and, along with local supernatural and mythical characters, battle for supremacy of the wilderness with rogue werewolves. There is plenty of action, romance and extreme angst as Elena confronts her memories of being raped with the immediate prospect of the violation being repeated. She also battles with the idea of becoming the alpha of the pack, something she has unknowingly been groomed for several years. Although the main characters are no longer young adults, there are several teenage characters who are vibrant as well as confused, and the book should appeal to mature teen readers who do not mind a bit of sex, human and animal, along with their urban fantasy. A secondary treat is that Elena is a proud Canadian and several of her comments and word usage reflect her heritage. GdV
Ghost Ocean by S. M. Peters. New York: ROC, 2009. Paperback. 479 pages. 978-0-451-46269-5.
Te Evangeline believes she is helping her late father's friend Babu debunk evidence of the paranormal in the town of St. Ives but soon discovers the truth behind her father's endeavours. The small town is actually a secret prison for the containment of a myriad of dark supernatural creatures. Te and her sixteen year old neighbour Jack are soon caught up in a frenzy of action filled battles and conflicted personalities. Fans of urban fantasy should revel in Peter's atmospheric St. Ives where an amalgamation of mythical gods of death, destruction, witches, old powers, and nightmares explode onto the streets of the unsuspecting town. There are no black and white characters here, all have their own flaws, agendas and, above all, wishes, helpfully granted by the trickster Kitsune.
The conclusion of the novel is the major flaw as there are unexplained holes in the narrative but the ride is fast and furious and St. Ives will remain in the reader's mind long after the book's climax has been reached. GdV
Small beneath the Sky (a prairie memoir) by Lorna Crozier. Vancouver: Greystone Books/D & M Publishers, 2009. Hardback. 197 pages. 978-1-55365-343-1
The word brilliant is over-used in book reviews but this book is genuinely brilliant. Crozier tells the story of her childhood in short, compelling vignettes, which alternate with meditations on what she calls "first causes" - light, dust, wind, rain, sky, insects, and so forth. The sense of a child coming to know her world resonates very strongly in these sections, and the shaping force of the land is beautifully acknowledged and presented. The more strictly autobiographical sections tell of a girl and her brother and their two parents, a family embattled by poverty and alcoholism. They tell of school and friendships and aspirations sometimes missed, sometimes clumsily achieved. The three-dimensional sense of a real life is very vivid throughout this book. Readers who do not start reading it in the full knowledge that Crozier is a highly respected poet will finish the book in no doubt on that topic. A magnificent achievement. MM
Fishing For Bacon Fishing For Bacon by Michael Davie. Edmonton: NeWest Press, 2009. Paperback. 234 pages. 978-1-897126-37-0.
A delightful coming-of-age novel - a kind of The Graduate for the 21st century. Bacon Sobelowski is raised in a small southern Alberta town by his man-hating mother and eccentric grandmother. He is a misfit, and sorts his problems out by going fishing with his spincaster rod which alienates him from other fly fishermen. Just before the end of his final term, Sara Mulligan arrives at the school and Bacon decides she is his "someone." When Sara suddenly leaves for Calgary, Bacon follows and in the course of the summer he discovers love, infatuation, sex, and a whole lot more. A funny, fast read with a cast of eccentric characters. MH
Fauna by Alissa York. Toronto: Random House Canada 2010. Hardback. 375 pages. 978-0-307-35789-2
Fauna is a wonderful novel that should appeal to teens for many reasons. Animal lovers will enjoy the loving depictions of everything from dogs and cats to foxes and raccoons, and the book's cast of youthful characters should be very appealing to a teen audience. Guy owns an auto-wrecking yard that becomes the hangout for a variety of strays, both human and animal. Stephen, Guy's employee, is a young veteran of the Afghan war, discharged for medical reasons. He is still haunted by war memories, and finds solace in raising a litter of orphaned raccoons. Lily, a homeless teen, is on the run from an abusive past. She camps out every night in Toronto's Don Valley with her Newfoundland dog Billy for protection, and helps Guy to rescue and rehabilitate wounded birds.
Two other animal lovers find their way to Guy's junkyard and into his unlikely circle of friends. Edal is a federal wildlife officer whose job is to catch people illegally importing exotic animals. When she comes across a shipment of mostly dead and dying baby turtles, she breaks down on the job and has to take stress leave. She is also dealing with the recent death of her mentally ill mother. Kate, the only child of an Indian immigrant father with high hopes for her career, disappoints him by becoming a lowly veterinary technician. She is also dealing with a private grief that she is unable to share with her parents.
The novel focuses on the growing trust and friendship between these lonely characters, brought together by a shared love of animals and a need for human company. Yet another, darker character stalks the urban wilderness: a young man blogging under the name of Coyote Cop, who clearly has it in for the valley's natural predators. His blog postings show increasing evidence of a violent nature, and the other characters are eventually drawn into his antagonistic relationship with the local wildlife. HG
Nice Recovery by Susan Juby. Toronto: Penguin, 2010. Hardback. 260 pages. 978-0-670-069170.
"I'd loved the feeling of being confident and unselfconscious, even for a few minutes. It was as though alcohol gave me the break from myself that I'd been craving. For years I'd felt as though I was allergic to myself: alcohol was my EpiPen. Now all I needed was to learn how to drink properly" (p. 21). In /Nice Recovery/, Canadian author Susan Juby describes her life as a teenaged alcoholic. From her first drink at a family wedding as a child to her high school and college years, Juby has written an honest and unflinching memoir about her addiction to alcohol and drugs. Both humorous and serious, Juby describes her young adulthood as a series of alcoholic binges, complete blackouts, and promises to stop drinking all together. It is not until she is in her early twenties that Juby finally is able to quit drinking, with the help of a supportive sponsor and Alcoholics Anonymous. The last third of the book intersperses Juby's personal experiences with the stories of other young adults who have struggled with addiction and recovery. The appendices at the end of the book include a helpful list of resources and organizations that readers can contact for more information about, or to seek help for, alcoholic and drug addiction.
"They say it takes seven years to change every cell in your body...perhaps I had to switch out every cell in order to flush the damage done to my imagination or perhaps I had to have a complete cellular change in order to be strong enough to face the rigours of the writing, and god save me, the publishing, life" (p. 172). Juby was able to change the cells in her body and has gone on to become a bestselling, award-winning author of young adult novels, including the popular Alice McLeod series. Nice Recovery is an interesting contrast to her young adult novels, but it is an important book that young adults (and their parents) should read and talk about. Highly recommended. JdG
The Year of Finding Memory by Judy Fong Bates. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2010. Hardback. 296 pages. 978-0-307-35652-9
This book, a memoir rather than a novel, is based on the lives of real people, and it offers a compelling mix of historical and travel writing.
Although the author changes the names of some of her family members, she is telling her own story and more particularly the story of her parents. We follow her as she visits China on two occasions, meeting many members of her extended family and learning more and more about the mystery of her own parents' lives and their unfathomable relationship to each other.
Fong Bates provides a map and a cast-list of family members at the beginning of the book and these both serve useful purposes as her story is complex. Despite the elaborate nature of her family tree, however, she succeeds in telling a clear and gripping story of the large and small decisions of people's lives that have enormous consequences. The consequences of immigrating and the consequences of staying put both become very real in this account of a family spread across the world.
Although the details of this particular story involve China and Canada, the emotional truths about the price and benefit of immigrating and the impact of family secrets will speak to many readers from a wide variety of backgrounds. Fong Bates is very gifted at presenting complicated ideas and emotions in very accessible ways. MM
Nox by Anne Carson. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 2010. Hard casing. Not paginated. 978-0-8112-1870-2
This intriguing work of art is not for everybody but for those interested in how words can be shaped and bent to express what cannot really be said, it will be a compelling read. When her brother died, poet Anne Carson created a commemorative artifact, of which this book is a replica, "as close as we could get." What she made was an accordion-pleated paper document, encased in a hardback book "box." The left-hand pages contain definitions of words in Latin, with references to Greek and Sanskrit equivalents; the right-hand pages contain fragments of the personal voices of Carson and her mother, as well as the words of her dead brother through the vehicle of the one letter he wrote to his mother during his many years of absence from home.
The original document, of which this is the facsimile, seems to have been composed on palimpsestic principles, because we often see ghosts of other words behind the scraps of paper pasted onto the page. Photographs are glued onto the page in fragments, sometimes to be completed by other pages, sometimes not. Words are printed, scribbled over, scraped out of black crayon with a pin.
The book begins and ends with a poem in Latin by Catullus, written for his dead brother. Carson provides an English translation but makes it clear that the poem is essentially untranslatable. Untranslatability, in fact, is a motif of the book, as she struggles to find ways to say the unsayable. Fascinating, frustrating, profoundly moving, this book speaks eloquently about what eloquence cannot accomplish. MM
L.M. Montgomery by Jane Urquhart. Extraordinary Canadians series. Intro. J.R. Saul. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2009. Hardback. 161 pages. 978-0-670-06675-9
2008 was the centennial year of the publication of Anne of Green Gables, which led to much celebratory publishing. This short biography of L.M. Montgomery is one of the best outcomes of that flurry. As well as creating a lively account of a much-loved author, Urquhart provides subtle and significant insights into the phenomenon of depression. In some ways, the bleakness of Montgomery's middle and later years overwhelms the sunny optimism of her stories (though this is hardly true of some novels, particularly Mistress Pat, which is practically a primer on depression). In some ways, that focus on middle age would normally disqualify a book from appearing in this column. But in this case, the discrepancies between the life and the literature are subjects of interest to all ages, and Montgomery's spell on young readers remains potent. Urquhart's profoundly sympathetic yet unsentimental account of a life walled in by the demands of others even as it reached out to millions of readers is intriguing. MM
Playing with Fire: The Highest Highs and Lowest Lows of Theo Fleury by Theo Fleury with Kirstie McLellan Day. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2009. Hardback. 322 pages.
Theo Fleury is one of the best-known hockey players in the game, having won everything from the Stanley Cup to Olympic Gold. During his career he was famous as the little fearless guy (5'6") who made it in the NHL and went toe to toe with the big goons, and infamous for the wild lifestyle and addictions that eventually ended his career. What most fans never knew was that the off-ice antics were fuelled by anger and trauma over a difficult upbringing. Raised by an alcoholic father and a mother with mental health problems, Fleury was a neglected child, though growing up in a small, tight-knit community, he had the benefit of being watched over by other hockey parents.
Unfortunately, the kindness of these parents inadvertently led to his downfall. At age 12, Fleury was injured when a skate blade sliced his arm, and spent months unable to play while the nerve in his arm grew back. To console him, the parents on his team raised enough money to send him to an elite summer hockey camp, where he met coach Graham James, a sexual predator whose chosen victims were insecure boys without a stable home life and involved parents. James would later be convicted after another player, Fleury's teammate Sheldon Kennedy, gave evidence that helped convict him. Fleury has never admitted to being abused by James until this book, which is a stark picture of how such abuse happens, and the long-term toll it takes.
This is much more than an abuse memoir, however; it's a thrilling account of Fleury's hockey career, which is an impressive one. Co-writer Kirstie McLellan Day made a wise decision to be invisible and let Fleury tell his own story, so the book doesn't have an "as told to" flavour. Fleury's language may be colourful (lots of f-words here), but he has a sense of humour, and a great way with anecdotes. Hockey fans will enjoy his behind-the-scenes perspective on famous games, players, and coaches. He also has an important message for kids and teens who are being abused: "If you are a kid who is in the situation I was in, and somebody older is using you for sex, call for help . . . . Seriously, you are not alone." HG
Gretzky's Tears: Hockey, Canada, and the Day Everything Changed by Stephen Brunt. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2009. Hardback. 255 pages. 978-0-307-39729-4
Stephen Brunt writes about sports for the Globe and Mail and is the author of several books, most notably the wonderful Searching for Bobby Orr. Gretzky's Tears is not quite as good a book but it certainly tells a story central to hockey mythology in Canada: the infamous trade of Wayne Gretzky away from the Edmonton Oilers to the expansion team of Los Angeles in 1988. Notoriously Gretzky wept at the press conference announcing this trade, but Brunt claims the story was somewhat more complicated than a simple sell-out.
This book presents many interesting perspectives on a pivotal moment in the history of the National Hockey League. It is a highly readable account of the before and after of the Gretzky trade: the rumours, the reachings-out, the response of the fans and the eventual fall-out. It also explores the business decisions that fuelled the mindset that made this trade not only possible but actually inevitable. MM
The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag by Alan Bradley. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2010 Hardback. 348 pages. .978-0-385-66584-1.
Flavia de Luce, the protagonist of Alan Bradley's first mystery, The Sweetness in the Bottom of the Pie is back in this new novel. Eleven year-old Flavia is a brilliant chemist and a keen observer of the people, and the world, around her. In The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag, Flavia befriends a famous puppeteer, Rupert Porson, and his assistant, who are stuck in the English hamlet of Bishop's Lacey while waiting for repairs to be done on their van. When Rupert has a deadly run-in with electricity during a performance he was persuaded to give for members of the community, Flavia puts her crime-solving skills to work. Solving this mystery means unravelling many of Bishop Lacey's long held secrets and Flavia discovers that this recent mystery is tied to another death in the community. Flavia must use all her skills to uncover who is "pulling the strings of this dance of death" in The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag.Young adult readers will find a lot in this novel to enjoy, from the precocious, spunky main character to the cast of memorable characters to the small English town where the action takes place. Alan Bradley does an excellent job conveying a sense of the time and place throughout the novel. The story is a little slow to start, but readers will soon find themselves caught up in the story and in Flavia's observations about the world around her. The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag can be read independent of the first book in the series, although it is recommended that libraries have both books available for readers who get caught up in Flavia de Luce's world. JdG
Vanishing and Other Stories by Deborah Willis. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2009. Paperback. 288 pages. 978-0-14-317022-8
In these 14 short stories, Willis invites readers into emotional and imaginative encounters with experiences of loss and absences. In the collection's first story "Vanishing," Nathan, a successful writer vanishes one day without warning, leaving behind his bewildered family and a number of finished and incomplete play manuscripts that are successfully produced through the successive decades. Seen through the eyes of his daughter, Tabitha, the story moves backward and forward in time, exploring her growing relationship with her father as a young child and her efforts to move forward in life while keeping his memory alive through her grief and sense of loss.
In this and the other stories, the ways that people leave and the legacies they leave behind are explored through Willis's spare writing and moments of dark humour. In one story, "Escape," a doctor mourns the death of his wife by taking up gambling; in "The Fiancë ," Penny, a young French teacher, becomes engaged to a succession of different suitors, then watches them disappear from her life; and in "Traces," a woman channels her feelings of betrayal with a cheating husband into detective work with a new girlfriend.
These stories of fractured love and loss are compelling reading, with fully-drawn characters and well-imagined settings. Willis is a talented writer and her stories should have a wide appeal. IJ
Muse and Reverie: A Newford Collection by Charles de Lint. New York: TOR, 2009.Hardback. 350 pages. 978-0-7653-2340-8
This fifth collection of short stories set in the invented city of Newford includes thirteen reprints of stories published in a myriad of other publications from 2001 to 2005 by this prolific author of urban fantasy. Here readers of de Lint can visit familiar characters from his other Newford novels and tales but will also meet new faces as well in stories that move effortlessly from humour through despair, always retaining a modicum of hope. Readers new de Lint's writing will easily be able to enter the stories and the lives of these complex and well-fleshed out characters and explore along with the characters the cause and effect of choices made, not made and remade. Several "characters" who make appearances in this collection include the comic book hero Hellboy and young adult book editor Sharyn November and author Nina Kiriki Hoffman.
In his introduction, de Lint explains that he will be taking a break from Newford stories in the foreseeable future but hopefully, for this reader at least, he returns fairly soon. GdV
Country Roads: Memoirs from Rural Canada edited by Pam Chamberlain. Halifax NS: Nimbus Publishing Ltd. 2010. Paperback. 270 pages. 978-1-55109-759-6.
Writers from across Canada reflect on their rural roots in short, highly readable anecdotes and musings. The pieces are varied, across generations and places, and provide a broad sweep of childhood memories. As Marianne Ackerman points out, "A country childhood is still often idyllic and sometimes insufferable" (p251). The writers consider a wide range of emotional attachments and dislocations that may also resonate well with readers whose roots are urban or suburban. They muse about strong ties to grandparents and parents through hardships and illnesses, sibling rivalries and spats, the pain of leaving one home to begin anew elsewhere, and their own nascent dreams. As adults, these writers are keenly aware of what was invisible to them as children, and their sense of what endures and what is lost is perhaps the unifying theme of this fine collection. The authors include some well-known Canadians, such as Pamela Wallin, Brent Sutter, Roch Carrier, Rudy Wiebe, Sharon Butala, and Wayne Johnston. This is a fine collection to dip in and out of. JKM
Too Bad: Sketches toward a Self-Portrait by Robert Kroetsch. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2010. Paperback. 96 pages. 978-0-88864-537-1
The first "sketch" of this book of poems appears on the front cover: a male inspecting the insides of his trousers with an expression that can only be described as ambivalent. In 96 short poems, the author raises questions that range from the very local to the universal.
Under the heading of local come many details of prairie life, especially in winter, and a pungent lament for the inadequacies of the windshield ice scraper: "but no, a brush at one end, a blade at the other,/something the Cro-Magnon crowd might have/made overnight, if they'd had Hondas" (81). Other poems address the limits of our own reality; for example, confronting an unknown key on the keychain, he wonders if it would open the door to his former house: "Too bad the house is gone./It's still the place where I live" (11). Or, considering a trip to Hannibal, Missouri, home of Mark Twain, he addresses the author,
A pilgrimage of sorts. We watched the river,
watched for Huck and Jim.Watched for you.
No rafts in sight. The steamboats were for tourists.
We found, in that 1960s town, a white picket fence.
A sign said, Painted by Tom Sawyer. The paint was fresh.
Tell us now, sir, if you will, Who among us is not a fiction? (44)
The language is simple but the emotional resonance and the teasing intelligence are not. MM
Pigeon: Poems by Karen Solie. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2009. Paperback, 100 pages. 978-0-88784-823-0
This latest collection of poems by Karen Solie is the 2010 Canadian winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize, the Pat Lowther Memorial Award, and the Trillium Award. It is easy why the poems have elicited such admiration and interest. They offer intriguing and skilful insights into the ecological wonders of our world alongside dystopian views of industrial wastelands. Several poems ask us to reflect on the beauty and tranquillity of Canadian lakes and rivers as in the "Moss, geode, iris green" (p.26) of the Bow river, while reminding us of the starker realities of the cities that impinge on this beauty :"Warmed by ingredients, fibrous,/ acquiring odours of its passage, it mingles/with the Oldman and the Red Deer at the feet of cities" (p. 26).
This lyrical but also gritty collection of poems brilliantly juxtaposes the elegant with the mundane. The poem "Migration" begins with a winter scene: "Snow is falling, snagging its points on frayed/surfaces" and then, as winter turns to spring "The sausage man will contrive/once more to block the sidewalk with his truck" (p. 54). Several other poems are explicitly concerned with the needless erosion of our environment as in "Parisitology" with "The endangered Banff snail on its last legs/after vandals swam in its pool. Even/ if they wanted to, it cannot be unswum." (p.85). And at the end of the poem, Solie articulates her vision of a better world as she writes: "In my dream, the far reaches/fall apart in heat shimmer, dust,/and the character of the new day emerges" (p. 86).
Solie is an eloquent writer who is able to delve into the heart of contemporary life with philosophical flair and incisiveness. This collection of poems will have a broad appeal to a wide range of readers. IJ